(2000) No infringement upon the rightful owners of "Combat!" and the characters thereof is intended. This piece of fan fiction is for enjoyment only, and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from its existence.
by White Queen
The rain-purified air felt cool against the sleepy faces of the soldiers as they left the barn that had sheltered them during the previous night's storm. Unlike the night before, the sky was devoid of clouds, and the trees cluttering the countryside were full of gleeful birds.
Out in the barnyard, Kirby found a barrel brimming with rainwater, and soon all six scruffy men were boisterously shaving and scrubbing with the cool water. In that pastoral setting, it was hard to remember that all around them were people killing each other, that they themselves carried the instruments of death. The men reverted to their inner boyishness, splashing each other and snapping wet undershirts at anything that moved. Even the usually noncommittal sergeant caught the mood and set aside his sternness. He pushed away the memory of the previous night's dreams and immersed himself in the moment.
All too soon the men stashed away their soap and razors. Weapons were picked up, bits of clothing pulled back on, and helmets clapped onto soggy heads.
"All right, Caje, take the point," Saunders ordered mildly. "And let's make some time, Hanley's waiting for us."
The men grumbled good-naturedly as they dropped into a scraggly line behind their sergeant. They knew they weren't in enemy territory and made only token efforts to be quiet as they set off through the French farmland.
Doc fell into place beside Littlejohn and listened amiably as the farm-boy held forth on the best way to irrigate land of that particular type of terrain. Meanwhile, Kirby regaled Billy with a story of a knife fight he'd miraculously survived back in the states before the war. Caje cheerily sauntered along ahead of the group, keeping his eyes open for potential trouble while letting his mind do a little aimless wandering. Saunders kept to himself like he usually did, but the open beauty around him didn't go unnoticed.
As they approached the town where Hanley had told Saunders he would meet them, Saunders' realized that this was not the peaceful, untouched hamlet he had been told to expect. The town was literally crawling with soldiers, a grimy cloud seemed to hang over the ruined buildings. It was clear that the town had sustained heavy bombing earlier that day.
"Hey, uh, where's Lieutenant Hanley?" Saunders asked a dogface filling a canteen from the small river that flowed past town.
"Hanley, with King Company."
"Don't know him, Sergeant. I'm with Fox Company, sorry."
Saunders scratched the unusually smooth side of his face. "Okay."
"Hey, Sarge, now what?" Kirby wanted to know.
"We keep looking. The lieutenant shouldn't be that hard to find." Saunders adjusted the weight of his Thompson and started toward a cluster of soldiers lustily congratulating each other on their good luck in arriving after the bombardment.
To Saunders' question they joyously replied that Hanley hadn't been seen anywhere in the vicinity. The sergeant checked his map again to make sure they were in the right town. It was the right town, so where was Hanley?
After tramping through the rubble and questioning more soldiers who were also ignorant of Hanley's whereabouts, Saunders decided it was time for a break.
"Take five, guys," he ordered, choosing a partially intact slice of sidewalk for his perch.
"Great timin' there, Sarge," Doc commented, settling beside Saunders. "Feels like I'm carryin' all of Omaha Beach around with me." He pried off a battered boot and poured the accumulated dirt and pebbles out into the street.
Saunders watched wide-eyed. He removed his helmet and ran a hand through his mussed-up hair, wondering if he was dreaming again, one of those recurring nightmares that changed just a little each time.
"I wonder where the lieutenant could be, anyway," Billy pondered aloud.
"Well, while we're sittin' here, we might as well eat." Littlejohn pulled an apple from his jacket pocket and held it out toward his buddy.
"Hey, where'd you get that, Littlejohn?" Billy squeaked in delight. He reached for the fruit, but Littlejohn held it just out of reach tantalizingly.
"It took me a long time to get this apple, Billy. I'm not sure I want to share it after all," Littlejohn intoned seriously.
"But...!" Billy protested.
"Yessir, it sure is a nice apple you got there," Caje chimed in, winking slyly at Littlejohn, who maintained his poker face.
"Yeah, well, apples are nice and everything, but I'm cravin' something a little more... uh... invigorating," Kirby stated characteristically, licking his lips at the thought.
Billy's eyes remained fixed on the shiny red bauble his friend's fingers were tenderly caressing. "Littlejohn--" he began piteously.
"I don't think I should let you have this apple, Billy. You know what trouble they can get men into." Littlejohn solemnly took a Littlejohn-sized bite and enjoyed the pathetic expression on Billy's round face. Then he reached into his other pocket, pulled out another apple, and tossed it to the salivating soldier.
"Gee, thanks, Littlejohn," Billy chirped as he caught the hard fruit. He took a bite, and sticky juice oozed down his chin. "Wow! This is really good!" he mumbled while chewing diligently.
Sgt. Saunders paid no attention to his munching men. "Doc, you hear that?" He cocked his head to one side and analyzed the sounds around him.
"Hear what, Sarge?" Doc asked, squinting quizzically at the squad leader.
"Yeah, it does kinda sound like somebody whistling," Doc agreed, nodding slightly. "Wonder what the tune is."
"What tune?" Caje inquired, joining the conversation.
"The one somebody's whistling," explained the medic.
"It's one of Chopin's nocturnes," Caje stated confidently.
"Are you sure?" Saunders opened his eyes and gazed steadily at the Cajun.
"Sure I'm sure. The girl next door practiced it every day when I was a kid. Drove us nuts."
The tune came closer and closer, and finally Private Puling stepped into view and paused, looking rather startled.
"Private!" Saunders called out toward the thin soldier at the end of the street.
"Sergeant. Saunders?" Puling called back somewhat incredulously.
Puling advanced until he stood a few feet from the resting group. "I'm lookin' for Lieutenant. Hanley," he stated, crossing his arms.
"So are we. He was supposed to meet us here, but no one seems to have seen him." Saunders noticed that Puling had acquired a new rifle somewhere along the line, and that he now carried it with as much practiced indifference as most veterans. Something about the annoying little kid had changed. He seemed less hostile, more eager to be accepted.
"Yeah, I was with him, gathering intelligence info. He had some other men with him..."
"They were replacements for me, I know. Where are they now?"
"I don't know. There was all that bombing this morning and we got separated."
Saunders turned to his squad. "Saddle up. We're gonna search this town from one edge to the other until we find Hanley or he finds us. Puling, fall in behind me. We'll start looking right here."
"Yeah, but Sarge, wouldn't those other soldiers have found him already?" Kirby argued, not liking the idea of doing an intensive search.
"Not if they didn't know he was here. They didn't get here until this morning, remember?" Littlejohn countered.
"Enough chatter, let's go," Saunders barked, anxious to begin.
They started hunting in what remained of a stately old Catholic church. Billy headed to the choir loft, Puling and Kirby to the basement, while the rest fanned out and began rummaging through the main floor and all its little side rooms. They peered under splintered pews, moved chunks of fallen walls, and looked into every place a human body could possibly be hidden. Each soldier had his own ideas of what they expected to find.
When they were all satisfied that Hanley was not in the church, Saunders led the men through the vacant house next door, but they found nothing amid the tangled ruins. They moved on to a library, where scattered books lay forlornly amid the fallen plaster and rain puddles. No Hanley there either. As they left the library, they caught sight of a line of GIs leaving the town, followed by some trucks and a couple jeeps.
"Huh. Looks like they're pullin' out, Sarge," Doc commented.
"Yeah, it does. Wonder why?" The sergeant didn't give his own question much thought, but instead focused his attention on the investigation of a hulking old mansion.
"You know, I don't think we're ever gonna find Lieutenant Hanley," Puling declared as they entered the musty gloom of the ancient house. A bomb had shorn away nearly one quarter of the edifice, but the main entrance hall was still intact, albeit dusty and cobwebby.
"Yeah, Sarge," Kirby chimed in, "Do we hafta keep doing this? The lieutenant's probably nowhere near here. For all we know, it's not even the right town."
"Or the right war," cracked Caje.
"We keep looking," Saunders ordered. "Caje, Littlejohn, check upstairs. Puling, Kirby, see if there's a cellar or basement. If there is, look around down there. Billy, see if you can find anything out back. Doc, you and I'll go through this floor."
The men began moving in their respective directions. "Why do I always hafta go down to the basement?" Puling grumbled loud enough for the sergeant to hear him. "What if I don't want to?"
"You do as you're told, Puling, just like everybody else," Saunders replied sternly.
When the others went on their way, Saunders led Doc to a still-intact door. Once opened, it revealed a spacious dining room. A silver tea service occupied the lace-covered table, and more silver gleamed from the glass-fronted cabinets around the room. Except for the dust and disintegrated plaster that covered everything, it looked as if the servants had just been readying the room for high tea.
"Boy, look at this stuff," Doc said quietly. As he spoke, an all-too-familiar loud whine sounded overhead. The two Americans threw themselves down and shielded their faces from the crystalline shower of glass that descended upon them as the silver crashed out of its cabinets.
The earth threw a tantrum for less than five minutes, but to the cowering soldiers it seemed five hours. When at last the shelling ceased, the lovely dining room was war-ravaged like the rest of the house.
"You okay, Sarge?" Doc inquired, slowly rising and carefully brushing the glass from his clothing.
"Yeah. We'd better check on the others." As he stood up, Saunders wondered if what they had just experienced was a result of some misdirected artillery or a renewed bombardment.
The two picked their way through the fallen dishes and scattered chairs, glass still dripping from their bodies. When they reached the doorway, it became clear that half the house now lay scattered around them.
"Caje! Littlejohn!" Saunders shouted upward.
"We're okay, Sergeant." Littlejohn's voice floated down from almost directly overhead.
"Can you get down?"
"I think so. Looks like the stairs are still here. Where's Billy? I don't see him outside," Littlejohn replied.
Just as Doc and Saunders started toward the back yard, a cry came up from below.
"Doc! Sarge! Doc!" There was no mistaking the helpless urgency of Kirby's words.
Doc quickly found the entrance to the cellar and started down through the dust cloud that was wafting up from the depths.
Knowing Doc would handle whatever Kirby needed, at least for now, Saunders headed outside and began scanning the mangled yard. Billy emerged from behind what appeared to be a tool shed for the garden.
"Sarge, are they bombing us?" Billy asked, clutching his rifle in both hands as he rushed to his squad leader.
"I'm not sure. You okay?"
"Yeah, yeah. How 'bout the other guys?"
"Don't know yet." Saunders took Billy's arm to steady the young soldier as he led him back through the doorway. They met up with Caje and Littlejohn, who were just descending what remained of the staircase.
Saunders pulled ahead of the other three as they worked their way toward the cellar. "Doc? What's going on?" he asked as he descended and his eyes began adjusting to the gloom.
Before Saunders could even locate Doc, Kirby emerged from the shadows. "Puling found Lieutenant. Hanley, and then the shelling started. Guess the lieutenant was hurt from before, and now Puling's hurt too. They're over there." He pointed to a jumble of furniture and dislocated timbers spotlighted by the huge gap where the cellar's ceiling once existed.
Detecting the soft voice of his medic, Saunders moved toward the pile of junk. Behind the heap, Doc knelt between Puling and Hanley. Hanley lay on his back, his eyes closed either in sleep or oblivion.
Private Puling lay on his stomach, and Doc was gently cleaning a jagged laceration in the boy's back. Puling made no attempt to stop the tears of pain that muddied the dirt floor beneath his face. He clenched his fists spasmodically and groaned noisily whenever Doc swabbed the wound. No matter how desperately Doc tried to be gentle while bandaging him, Puling yelped and whimpered almost unceasingly until the job was done.
Next, Doc turned his attention to Lieutenant Hanley, checked him over, and diagnosed him with a broken leg and a severe knock on the head. Rummaging about in the pile of rubbish, Doc found two boards and began to splint Hanley's leg, thankful the man was unconscious and unable to feel Doc's jerking and jostling of the injured limb.
Meanwhile, Saunders and the others began to move the debris around in an attempt to give Doc more light, as well as to protect the wounded should more bombs fall their way. Once the men had the room cleared a little and Doc had the wounded patched up, Saunders called everyone together. "How bad are they, Doc?" the sergeant asked.
"The lieutenant's leg is broken, and I think he's got a concussion, but he'll pull through. But Puling..." Doc hesitated. "Sarge, his spine's awful messed up. There's not much I can do for him except try to ease his pain, and I'm runnin' out of morphine pretty fast here. I don't think he has any feeling from the waist down, but the rest of him's still hurtin' from the wound itself." He spoke quietly so Puling wouldn't hear his diagnosis.
"What if we get him to a field hospital?" Saunders rubbed his eyes in weary anxiety.
"I don't know. Not much anybody can do for a broken back."
"Hmm." Saunders sized up the situation, figuring out what his options were.
"How'd it happen, Doc?" Billy inquired quietly.
"He was tryin' to protect Lieutenant Hanley when the ceiling started caving in. Some of the beams landed smack on top of him."
A faint drone interrupted the sergeant's thoughts. Although the sound resembled the summer noise of a large bumblebee, the men knew it to be something carrying a greater sting than that striped insect.
"Krauts musta seen all those troops here earlier an' decided we made a nice target," Caje said as they moved toward the wounded to protect them should the bombers drop their cargo.
"No," Puling disagreed, teeth clenched against his pain, "the Germans are making a big push in this direction. That's what I was here with Hanley to scout out. They're sending out bombers to soften up our lines first."
"Those troops must have found out, and that's why they left," Doc reasoned.
"Why the devil didn't you tell us this before, Puling?" screeched Kirby as the first bombs struck the town around them.
For several minutes it was too loud for any normally-voiced person to make himself heard. Eventually the Luftwaffe's bombers passed over the village, leaving behind them more of the pulverized French architecture that was becoming a common sight.
"We're just bottles on the fence here," Kirby complained as he and the others brushed plaster and dirt from their uniforms. "We need to get out of here, and get out fast."
"Sarge, if we move Puling, he hasn't got a chance," Doc protested.
"And he has one if we stay?"
Doc refrained from replying, but instead gave Saunders a look that clearly meant, "It's up to you."
Saunders nodded. "Littlejohn, Caje, find something we can use as stretchers. We're pulling back."
"But, Sarge, are you just gonna leave the town to the Krauts?" Kirby questioned.
Never one for lengthy explanations, Saunders merely said, "Kirby, give Doc a hand."
"Will these do, Doc?" Littlejohn asked a few minutes later as he led Caje in carrying two sturdy wooden doors down the cellar stairs.
"They'll have to. Billy, you and I'll carry Puling. Littlejohn, you and..." Doc paused and looked around the group.
"Littlejohn and I'll take Hanley. Caje, take the point." As the sergeant looked around the ruined basement, he wondered what had happened to the other men Hanley had been leading. Would the same fate befall this little band?
It took a surprising amount of time to load up the two injured soldiers. Doc and Billy gingerly slid Puling onto the makeshift stretcher as slowly as they could. The morphine had barely taken effect, and the boy punctuated the operation with noisy squawks. Saunders and Littlejohn didn't have to be quite so painstakingly careful since Hanley was unconscious, and they managed to transfer him to his door with minimal jolting of his splinted leg.
Once they cautiously carried them up the narrow stairs, the men had to pick their way tentatively through the mansion's debris until they reached the semi-clear street. Then they started out of town, crossing the inevitable stone bridge. The little band headed back the way they had come only a few hours earlier. This time no one paid much attention to the scenery.
It soon became clear that while the narrow wooden doors were solid support for the broken bodies of the soldiers lying on them, they were murdering the hands and arms of the soldiers doing the carrying.
To Billy, it felt as if the wood would tear his fingers off. He was walking in front, his arms behind him as he grasped the door. After a little while, he was so worn out that every step was a task requiring great concentration. The only thought running through his head was, "If Sarge can do it, so can I." He chanted it to himself as if it was a magic charm safeguarding his journey.
Saunders knew Billy and Doc were tiring fast. He wasn't getting any more energized himself. He watched Billy stumble along, watched Doc struggle to keep Puling relatively steady, and knew he'd have to switch Caje and Kirby with the exhausted soldiers soon.
Littlejohn began to wonder if carrying Hanley and Puling like this wasn't the worst idea ever. His strength waned, and his fingers kept losing their grip, scaring him every time they slipped.
Caje came trotting back from his position up ahead. "Sergeant, I found a cart!" he reported.
"Okay, guys, put 'em down nice and easy," Saunders instructed. "Kirby! Go with Caje and get the cart."
Private Puling and his board safely on the ground, Billy flopped onto his back on the soft grass beside the road. He was too tired to rejoice at their good luck.
Doc was equally drained, but he forced himself to check over his patients. "Sarge," he said quietly as he examined Hanley's leg and checked his pulse, "I'm worried about the lieutenant. Somethin' musta hit his head pretty hard to keep him unconscious all this time. If he's got a concussion that's bad enough to keep him out this long..."
"Anything you can do?"
"Then let's be glad he's not awake and in pain."
"Puling's sedatives are gonna wear off soon. I don't have much more to give him."
Doc moved back to Puling's side and checked his bandages again.
"How'm I doing, Doc?" Puling queried softly.
"You're doin' great, kid," Doc lied. He'd become frighteningly good at that lately.
"It doesn't hurt so much anymore... that means I'm getting better, right?"
"Right." Doc tried to inject the word with some conviction, but he wasn't sure how successful he'd been.
Kirby and Caje came back, a small cart trundling behind them. "Look, it's even got hay in it!" Kirby announced.
"That's not hay, Kirby, it's straw." Littlejohn corrected him.
"So what's the difference?" Kirby shrugged.
"There's a lot of difference--" Littlejohn began.
"Save it, Littlejohn. Load them up." Saunders motioned with his head toward the prostrate men. A hot wind had stealthily crept upon them, scattering leaves and clouds before it.
The men carefully transferred Hanley and Puling to the comparative comfort of the cart and discarded the doors in a ditch.
With Billy taking the point, Saunders and his squad again moved through the open country. Caje and Kirby pulled the little farm cart, since they were the least tired of the bunch.
Thick clouds skittered across the sky, piling up against one another and shadowing the land. The wind was stronger now, pushing at the men's backs.
When thunder muttered in the distance, Saunders ordered, "Let's head for the barn. Littlejohn, go tell Billy to stop there. We'll catch up."
"Sure thing, Sarge." The tall soldier nodded and headed out, grateful his leader wasn't going to make them walk on through the storm.
"C'mon, you guys. Pick it up!" Saunders urged as the wind swept the clouds nearer and nearer. Rain began to fall rather slowly. One drop here, one there, nothing major really. Then it settled down to a steady build-up of bigger puddles on the ground.
Puling had been quiet, apparently drowsy from the morphine. The falling rain revived him, however, and he began to complain loudly. "Hey, I'm gettin' wet here! This can't be good for me! I'm wounded, ya know..."
Littlejohn and Billy were waiting for them at the same barn that they had vacated earlier that day.
"Gee, this looks familiar," Kirby quipped as they entered the structure that had also sheltered them from the last storm.
"Yeah, anybody else getting déjà vu?" Caje returned as he relaxed his grip on the cart.
They moved Hanley and Puling to some blankets Billy and Littlejohn had spread over straw in one of the spacious stalls. Doc knelt between his patients. As he examined Private Puling's back, his blue eyes narrowed. He looked up at the wet sergeant standing beside him. "We can't move him any more, Sarge. Not without proper equipment. All this bouncin' around -- it's just makin' it worse."
Saunders understood the sorrow and desperation in the medic's words. "Okay, Doc. Do what you can." He turned to the four men clustered a small distance away. "Caje, get to battalion as fast as possible. Have Doc tell you what he needs. Kirby, Billy, take the windows upstairs. Littlejohn, take the door here. The Krauts could make a move any time now." Saunders turned back toward Doc and Caje. "You ready to go, Caje?"
"Okay, head out." Saunders slapped Caje's wet back in farewell.
Private Puling moaned and shifted around, then let out an abrupt shriek.
"The morphine's wearing off, Sarge. I've only got enough for a few more hours." Doc rummaged in his pack and drew out his last ampoule of the painkiller. He quickly thrust the syringe into Puling's arm.
It didn't take long before Puling again relaxed under the drug. His clenched fists uncurled and the pain faded from his face.
"We'll just have to hope..." Saunders let the sentence die uncompleted. He knew, as did Doc, that even if help arrived before the morphine ran out, the chances of Puling surviving were zero to none. It was incredible that he had hung on this long.
The rain did not slacken. It sounded like a legion of angry elves dancing on the roof above. The monotonous sound and the rather familiar surroundings lulled the edgy wariness of the men inside the darkening structure. It was their second night in that barn, and it was beginning to feel like home.
"Sarge?" The fear and worry Doc so often suppressed was becoming impossible to ignore, lending a frantic edge to his voice.
Saunders rushed to the stall where Doc sat keeping watch over his patients. Even in the dim light, the sergeant could tell Private Puling was awake and restless.
"The morphine's gone, Sarge. I gave him aspirin, but it ain't touchin' the pain," Doc explained.
Saunders looked from Puling to the medic. "Doc, go get some sleep," he ordered quietly.
"I'm not tired." The crack in Doc's voice contradicted his assertion.
"Doc, can you do anything more for those men?"
"Not really," Doc reluctantly admitted.
"Then go get some sleep."
Doc nodded. "Try to keep him talking," he instructed as he vacated his position between the two prone figures. He stumbled a little on his way out of the dark stall, then moved off to find a quiet corner to curl up in.
Saunders settled down on the straw, propping his Thompson against the wooden wall he leaned against, keeping it within easy reach. "Hello, Puling," he said, moving around slightly to find a comfortable position. "How's it going?"
The private groaned softly.
"Why?" Puling whispered, his teeth clenched. The rain outside almost obliterated his words.
"Why what?" Saunders was glad it had stopped thundering for a while, or he'd never be able to hear the soft tones of the injured soldier.
"Why do you care?"
"Why do you?" the sergeant asked back.
"I don't. I've never cared about any of this."
"You cared enough to save the lieutenant's life," Saunders pointed out.
"You didn't answer my question, Sergeant. Why care for all these guys who're just gonna die on you anyway?"
"Well," Saunders paused. "who says I care?"
"You do care. About all your men. What's the point?"
"If I don't care, then what's left to keep me human? I've seen men stop caring. They're just shells, nothin' inside."
"Why do you care what happens to me? I've never pretended to like you." The pain caused him to cry out involuntarily.
Why indeed? "Maybe because I think underneath you've got the beginning of what it takes to be a man. Maybe because someone once gave me a second chance."
"I'm not gonna make it, am I." It wasn't a question, it was a cold statement of a fact.
"I don't know, Puling."
"You know any prayers, sergeant?"
"Could you say them?"
It had been a long time since he'd prayed more than a quick plea of desperation. The words came easily though, long years of repetition helping him out. "Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is--" Saunders paused. Through the gloom he saw Puling's body twitch, then relax. "--in Heaven," he finished, then felt for Puling's pulse. Saunders sighed, found the boy's dog tags, and broke the chain with a quick twist.
Saunders fingered the warm metal discs, rubbing his thumb over the raised lettering. Then he held them up close to his eyes, straining to read the tiny words in the dim light provided by distant lightening flashes. "Private Stanley Puling," he whispered to the sympathetic gloom, "one more kid that doesn't get to grow up."