(2001) 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
"O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." --Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.
Littlejohn could not move one step further. His arms felt numb from the almost-dead weight he carried; already his fingers had lost all feeling. His legs seemed too weak to stay straight, and in his saturated boots his feet throbbed. Nearly exhausted, he sank to the wet ground.
The limp body Littlejohn carried stirred. "Caje? Where are we?" Kirby's eyes opened ever-so-slightly.
"No, Kirby, it's Littlejohn. Don't worry, I'll get you back," Littlejohn promised. But inside he remained unconvinced he would ever find a way out of the grey maze once known as a forest. As he rested on the rain-soaked French soil, his thoughts wandered back over the events of the afternoon.
It started out as a normal patrol on an average day in World War II, if there was such a thing. Just skulk through a sector, don't contact the enemy, and report what you find. Then rain began a stealthy attack against the soldiers. Visibility degenerated, nose-diving from lousy to terrible as the squad finished up their patrol and started back to HQ. The next thing they knew, enemy fire had them pinned down behind some sodden trees. The Kraut patrol that came from nowhere seemed to have twice as many soldiers as Sgt. Saunders' squad. As if that wasn't bad enough, fog started swirling around them, obscuring enemies and friends indiscriminately.
Littlejohn remembered Sarge calling for his men to pull out and follow him as he headed for company HQ. They ran for a while, finally escaping the mist. It was then that Sarge discovered Billy Nelson was missing. He said he thought he'd heard Nelson's voice not too long before, and since they'd lost their pursuers quite a while ago, Sarge decided to take Caje and go back to find the kid. Littlejohn had volunteered for the job, since he and Billy were good buddies, but Saunders seemed hesitant about taking him. Oh well, Littlejohn was sure Billy had just gotten a little lost, and they'd see each other in a couple hours. Sarge'd been pretty sure he knew his way back, so he gave the map to Kirby and Littlejohn and sent them back to Hanley at HQ.
But they hadn't found their way back to HQ. Instead they found the remaining members of the Kraut patrol they'd encountered earlier. Once again the Germans simply appeared out of the eddying vapors. Kirby cut the four Germans down with his B.A.R., but one of them managed to get off a shot before he died. And Kirby had caught that bullet in the side. It passed clean through, for that Littlejohn felt grateful. But it appeared to be a bad wound, and Kirby started losing a lot of blood fast.
So now here they sat. Kirby was too weak to walk, and even strong farm-grown Littlejohn found it growing harder and harder to carry him. Blood saturated the bandages, and Littlejohn knew all this jostling couldn't be doing Kirby any good. They should have found their way back to HQ long ago. Slumped on the ground, Littlejohn realized he'd gone and gotten lost. All the fog must have mixed him up. Pulling out the map, he tried to determine their position, but couldn't remember exactly where they'd been when Saunders gave him the map. It would be getting dark soon, and the returning rain seemed to whisper promises of doom. Littlejohn looked around them, searching for any form of shelter.
Through the increasing rain, he detected a dark object looming up among the trees. Maybe a small cave or shack of some sort? Littlejohn gathered Kirby in his arms and stood up once more, praying that the shape would be even the slightest haven from the wearying rain. His aching body traveled the few hundred feet between his resting place and the dark object.
The shape turned out to be a gigantic oak tree, fallen to the ground, its glory squelched and its majesty deflated. Yet even lying on its side, it was impressive. The tree's girth stood nearly half as thick as Littlejohn was tall. Moss and lichen mottled the dark bark.
The reason such a leviathan had fallen soon became evident to Littlejohn: it was hollow. Inwardly thanking God for this hiding spot, Littlejohn set Kirby down as carefully as possible, hunched his tall frame over, and entered the tree. It felt like entering a cave, a soft carpet of rotting leaves covering the floor. Littlejohn gently pulled Kirby into the damp log. At least it was somewhat drier than outside.
Removing the makeshift bandage he'd hastily applied earlier, Littlejohn shuddered at what he saw. The bullet's entry and exit points were already inflamed, seeping blood and other unidentifiable fluids. Aided by the waning light filtering through cracks in the log, he tore open a package of sulfa powder and poured it on both wounds. It took strips torn from his own undershirt and his last two bandages to bind Kirby up to Littlejohn's satisfaction.
Scared about Billy, unsure if he could get Kirby and himself out of their situation alive, Littlejohn finally fell asleep with his legs drawn up to his chest, arms and head resting on his knees. When he awoke from his fitful night's rest, he glanced down at Kirby, and to his surprise found him gazing around in the dim morning light entering through the open end of the log and the many cracks and holes in the oak itself.
"Hi, Littlejohn." Kirby smiled feebly.
"How're you feeling?" Littlejohn straightened out and touched Kirby's shoulder. The two soldiers had their differences, and plenty of them. But those seemed unimportant right now.
"Just swell. What're we doing underground?"
"We're in a hollow oak. I'd better look at that bandage." Littlejohn knelt beside Kirby and lifted the bloodstained shirt away from the bandages. Blood soaked the bandage completely, and red streaks spread out from the wounds like an octopus' greedy tentacles.
Kirby saw Littlejohn wince. "How bad is it?" he asked, afraid to look at the wound himself. His voice trembled as he spoke, betraying his fear.
Probably best to level with him. "It's not good. I think it's getting infected. Got any sulfa powder? I used my last when I bandaged you up."
Kirby shook his head. "No, I gave mine to Doc yesterday so he could fix up that Jolson fellow."
Littlejohn scratched his stubble-covered chin. If he wound itself didn't kill Kirby, the infection might. But out in the middle of a soggy forest, with no sulfa powder, what could they do?
"Littlejohn," Kirby interrupted, "we got any water?"
"Uh," Littlejohn shook his canteen, "no. I'll go see if I can find some. You got your canteen?"
"Do I ever?"
Littlejohn smiled briefly. "I'll be back." He braced himself to encounter the cold rain outside.
Kirby heard a rustling sound in the wet leaves outside the log. He weakly tried to grasp his heavy B.A.R. and point it toward the opening, but only managed to find the trigger.
"Kirby, it's Littlejohn. I'm comin' in."
Kirby eased his hold on the weapon as Littlejohn ducked in through the open end of the tree trunk. His rifle tucked under one arm, Littlejohn's hands overflowed with something wet and green.
"Whatcha got there?"
Littlejohn was glad to see Kirby was still awake. At least the pain and infection weren't overpowering him yet. "It's sphagnum moss," he answered, kneeling at Kirby's side once more. "I found it by a stream."
"Moss?" Kirby screeched. He tried to move away from Littlejohn, but failed to do more than raise his head.
Nodding, Littlejohn tried to reassure the wild-eyed soldier, "Sphagnum moss has a kind of power to stop infections or something."
"Yeah, well what if that's the wrong kind of moss? What if it kills me? No way, you ain't stickin' any of that stuff on me." His adrenaline pumping, Kirby started to become a bit frantic, forgetting the pain in light of this new danger.
"Look, this is all we have. There's no sulfa left, I can't just run to the store and get more. You're gonna die without this, Kirby. We have to at least try it." Littlejohn tried to keep his voice calm, but nobody had ever tried his patience like this guy.
Kirby closed his eyes. "Fine. Great. Go ahead an' poison me."
Littlejohn tried to sleep, but nothing he did could make his worries leave him alone. He told himself Billy would be fine, but something in his brain kept whispering the idea that his buddy was more than just lost. What if Sarge and Caje couldn't find him? Billy was still just a kid, and if he got himself lost and the Krauts found him... better not to think about it. Just try to sleep. At least Kirby had drifted off again, even though his sleep seemed to be troubled. He tossed and moaned intermittently, occasionally throwing off the coat Littlejohn draped over him. The dark-haired soldier checked Kirby's forehead. Hot enough to boil water. Big surprise.
At the touch of Littlejohn's hand, Kirby stirred. "Margie?" he whispered, "Where are you, Margie?" Then he opened his unseeing, fever-glazed eyes.
"It's just me, Kirby." Better replace the dried-out moss under the bandages with fresh, wet green stuff.
Kirby's eyes focused on the soldier, and he seemed to mentally return from dreamland. "Oh. Uh, yeah. Uh, how's your moss working?" His voice was weakening, like the rest of him.
"The infection isn't spreading any more." The red streaks weren't subsiding either, but no need to tell him that just now.
"You're worried, aren't'cha."
Littlejohn sat back and stared at the scrappy little soldier whose face glistened with sweat from the fever.
"Littlejohn, it's not your fault I got shot. It's not your fault we got lost. Coulda happened to anybody. I know, I know, I don't usually talk like this, at least not to you. But when you're layin' here, knowin' you might die, all of a sudden you wanta talk. I mean, I know I usually talk a lot, but not about serious stuff."
"Okay." Littlejohn could think of nothing else to say.
"I ever tell you I had a kid?" Kirby took a swig from the canteen. "She was the prettiest little girl I ever saw, blond hair and blue eyes just like her mama. We called her Sandy."
"Where is she now?" Littlejohn lit a cigarette and handed it over.
Kirby took a long drag and exhaled gratefully, the wavering white stick showing how his hands trembled. "She's, uh, she's dead, along with Margie and our baby that wasn't born yet."
"I'm sorry, Kirby," Littlejohn responded simply.
"It was a long time ago -- five years or so. I was at work when our apartment building caught fire. Before the fire trucks got there, the top four stories were destroyed. Our apartment included." Kirby's voice broke and he brushed away the moisture gathering in his eyes. "No one ever found out what started that fire. Might've been easier if they had. Then I could at least blame someone."
He stopped bothering to wipe away the tears trickling from his eyes and down to the dead leaves on which he lay. "I loved her so much, Littlejohn. We got married right after I finished high school 'cause she was gonna have a baby. Dad set us up in a swell little apartment, I had me a good job, and pretty soon we had Sandy. Then a couple years later we found out we were gonna have another kid. Me an' Margie were both so sure it'd be a boy. She wanted to name him after me.
"I just wanted to die too when the police told me she was dead. My poor innocent little Margie. The only wild thing she ever did was hook up with me. I was the first guy she'd ever even kissed, much less... you ever really fall in love, Littlejohn?"
"You know how much it can hurt? When I found out she was dead, I thought my soul'd be ripped right out of me and go flyin' up to Heaven with hers. I wished it would. Then I wouldn't've had to live with the pain. There was nowhere I could go, nowhere to run to get away from it. I was all cut up inside, like someone had carved Margie's name on my heart with a jackknife and every breath I took made the cuts a little deeper.
"I tried everything I could to forget; I started fightin', boozin', chasin' women. I tried to forget all about Margie, push her out like she'd never existed. Didn't work though. I dream about her almost every night, Littlejohn. Almost every night. Oh, the ache's not as bad anymore, but I'll never felt that way about any girl again." Kirby's voice trailed off and he looked away, his meager energy ebbing from his emotional and physical pain.
Littlejohn wrinkled his forehead, digesting what he'd just heard. What could you say to something like that? His heart ached sympathetically, and in his commiseration he momentarily forget to worry about Billy. He'd never suspected Kirby'd been married, never had any idea. Thinking over the past few months, he realized Kirby never talked much about his past of more than a year or two back, or else when he was just a kid.
The infection started slowly withdrawing its red fingers of doom. But Kirby kept losing strength. Littlejohn had given him all their rations, little bit by little bit, until they ran out completely. The rain continued relentlessly barraging the earth, blending night into day and day into night, one endless grey ribbon of monotony. From his watch, Littlejohn knew it'd been less than three days since they'd found the log, but the rain and gloom made it seem three times that long. How much longer could Kirby hold on?
Littlejohn refilled the canteen, applied fresh moss to the bullet holes, and did everything he could to make Kirby comfortable. "I'm going out to try to find help. You gonna be okay?"
"Be straight with me, Littlejohn. I'm not gonna make it, am I?"
Littlejohn averted his gaze. "I don't know, Kirby, I just don't know."
"Look, would you do me a favor?"
Kirby unsnapped the gold bracelet he always wore around his right wrist. With unsteady fingers he held the bracelet out to Littlejohn. "If I don't make it outta here, send this to Mr. and Mrs. James Kirby, Chicago. It was Margie's wedding present to me."
"You got it." Littlejohn closed his hand around the gold chain, then slipped it inside the breast pocket of his shirt.
When Littlejohn re-discovered the oak that had housed him and Kirby, the rain had retreated and the sun was busying itself drying the forest and its inhabitants. "Sarge, this is where I left him." Littlejohn pushed ahead of Saunders and the other men, anxious about what he might find inside that log. Kirby lay still, his eyes closed and his face peaceful. He didn't move when Littlejohn dropped to his knees by him.
"I'm sorry, Kirby, I tried. It's all my fault. I'm so sorry, Kirby." Billy still hadn't been found, Kirby had died, and Littlejohn felt utterly empty, no strength left to fight the tears as they blurred his vision before spilling out to wet the dark stubble on his face.
Littlejohn gathered up Kirby's body and carried him out into the sunlight. "He's dead," he announced dully to the waiting soldiers.
"Then why is his head moving?" Sgt. Saunders inquired, mouth curving upward into one of his rare smiles.
In unbelieving hope, Littlejohn watched Kirby's eyelids slowly open.
"Hi." Littlejohn smiled. As he helped Saunders carry Kirby's stretcher through the trees back to headquarters, Littlejohn felt the little gold chain in his pocket tapping against his chest with each step he took. He knew he wouldn't need to carry it very much longer. Maybe when they got back, Billy would be there too....