(2007) 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.
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by White Queen
"Could it get any hotter?" Kirby complained, undoing yet another shirt button.
"I bet it's hotter in Africa," Billy Nelson said. He lay spread-eagled on his back in the dirt, soaking as much coolness from the shade of the nearby barn as he could.
"The Sarge was in Africa -- you could ask him if it's hotter," Littlejohn suggested.
Kirby grunted. "If he ever gets back."
"Yeah, what's taking so long?" Braddock was busy rolling his sleeves up as far as he possibly could. "How long can it take for Hanley to tell him, 'Saunders, I want you to take your men on a very dangerous mission that will involve walking ninety miles while carrying sixty-pound loads of nitroglycerin in the hottest part of the day'?"
"Ha ha," Kirby said. "If I wasn't so hot, I'd laugh."
"Stop talking about the heat," Caje pleaded. "You're just making it worse." He lay on the ground with his shirt completely off and looked like he was considering removing his undershirt as well.
"Whatever happened to all that nice rain and those friendly clouds we had last week?" Braddock asked.
"Last week you were praying for sunshine so your boots would dry out," Kirby reminded him.
Before Braddock could retort, Saunders exited the abandoned farmhouse that housed Hanley's current CP. "All right, saddle up," he told the resting squad.
Everyone groaned, but obediently scrambled to their feet.
"We move out in five, so get your gear together PDQ." Saunders had his sleeves rolled up past the elbows and the top three buttons of his shirt unfastened.
Although the others began gathering the weapons and helmets scattered around them in the farmyard dirt, Kirby stood still and faced the sergeant. "Aren't you even gonna tell us where we're going?" he demanded, folding his arms.
" I'm glad you asked," Saunders said, his voice mock-jovial. "Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time, there was a squad that was so convinced of their own importance, they got to thinking they were the best squad in the whole army. And sure enough, their C.O. started to think so too, so he sent them on all the very most important missions. He gave them all the hardest, most dangerous jobs he could find.
"And in that crack squad was one soldier in particular who thought that he was the smartest and bravest of them all. And so his sergeant granted his wish and let that soldier carry Grady's ammo."
Behind Kirby, Caje tried to muffle a chuckle. Braddock didn't bother with muffling, he let out a loud snort as he slung his rifle over his wide shoulder.
As if on cue, Grady Long came around the corner of a nearby half-standing chicken coop, his arms laden with ammunition for his B.A.R. He was whistling a cheery tune that sounded vaguely like "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain." He said, "Hiya, Sarge. Guess who I--" He stopped dead in his tracks and stared toward the sergeant, his mouth still opened around the unfinished sentence.
"Guess who you what?" Saunders asked the gaping soldier. "What, is my helmet on backwards or something?"
The other squad members stopped their gear-gathering efforts and looked around for something that could possibly have silenced Grady Long. "Well, I'll be," Braddock said, not bothering to elucidate just what it was he would be.
"Gee," Billy breathed. "Think he's comin' with us?"
Saunders slowly turned until he faced the object of his squad's amazement. Standing in the rubble-strewn yard was quite possibly the largest soldier ever to grace the ranks of King Company. Certainly the largest this squad had ever encountered.
It wasn't that he was so terribly tall -- Littlejohn had a good two or three inches on him. But he was built like a buffalo, with massive chest and shoulders tapering down to a comparatively slender waist. Bulging muscles strained the fabric of his rolled-up shirt sleeves. He stood with one enormous foot resting on the remains of a wooden bucket. His helmet was tucked under one mighty arm, revealing a head covered with hair cut so short it looked like a three-day shadow.
"Hi," the behemoth said in a deep voice exactly like you'd expect him to have. And then he grinned, flashing straight white teeth. Teeth that could probably bite through small tree branches with one mighty chomp.
Kirby muttered, "Anyone seen any beanstalks?"
"Captain Peebles?" Saunders asked, raising his right hand to the brim of his helmet.
"That's right," the giant rumbled. "But don't bother saluting, Sergeant. We're a little too close to enemy lines for that, and with all the sniper activity lately...." The mighty shoulders shrugged. "In fact, I'd prefer it if you dropped the whole 'captain' thing completely. Like Lieutenant Hanley told you, I'm just along for the ride."
"And you can stop calling me 'sir' too -- I make a tempting enough target as it is." He grinned again.
"What ride?" Kirby broke in. "We get to ride somewhere for once?"
The captain faced Kirby. "Sorry, Private, just a figure of speech."
The squad waited for him to explain, but when no further information was forthcoming, turned to their sergeant. "Well?" Kirby asked bluntly.
Saunders glanced at the newcomer, who smiled and nodded at the sergeant, obviously expecting the noncom to explain. So Saunders said, "Like the -- uh -- like Peebles here said, he's coming with us out into that stretch of no-man's-land to the south."
"South, huh?" Littlejohn said. "Not much going on down there lately."
Saunders nodded. "Our job is to sneak in as quietly as possible and meet up with an associate of his."
"Why?" Kirby asked.
Peebles stepped forward. "I know you all have a lot of questions -- you probably don't usually have to go out on strange missions like this."
"You'd be surprised," Braddock said.
"Maybe I would be. I'll tell you as much as I can, whatever isn't strictly classified by the OSS."
Billy Nelson, eyes wide, whispered, "Spies?"
Peebles obviously heard the whisper, because he glanced at Billy and smiled. "Something like that. We handle a lot of intelligence work for the government. My colleague, Colonel McGuffin, has been undercover in Germany for over a year, sending us information that helped us plan the Normandy invasion. But his cover was compromised last week, and he had to disappear. He made contact with the French Resistance and they've gotten him this far. Our job is to retrieve Colonel McGuffin from the French."
The men looked at each other. It sounded a lot better than some of the missions they got sent out on.
Grady Long shrugged. "Sounds easy enough. You say you're just along for the ride -- why bother coming at all?"
Peebles smiled. "Good question. I'm coming with you because, well, let's just say Colonel McGuffin has had a rough year. He's a little jumpy -- paranoid, even. He requested that someone he knows come with the Americans so he'll know it's not a bunch of Germans dressed like us trying to capture him. They've been pretty hot on his trail."
"Makes sense to me," Grady said.
Saunders pulled his Thompson off his shoulder and ordered, "Caje, take the point. Head due south."
The men fell in, forming a straggling line with Caje at the head, then Kirby, Braddock, Littlejohn, Billy, Captain Peebles, Grady Long, and Saunders. Away they marched, the sun rising higher and brighter above them.
At first, the squad didn't bother being stealthy. They were in no-man's-land, a stretch of ground roughly five miles wide that separated the Allied and Axis armies. Very little cover remained in the first mile out from the American lines. The two armies had fought over that area so much that it no longer even resembled the farmland it had once been. Artillery fire had destroyed most of the vegetation, and any buildings had long since been ruined beyond repair, either by artillery or by protracted firefights and a multitude of skirmishes. Shells craters filled the barren landscape, harsh gashes in the defeated earth. Right now, no one claimed the area, not the Americans or the Germans or even the French. The merciless sun beat down on a shattered land, the shimmering waves of heat sometimes the only movement to be seen. Once in a while, the squad passed a lonely tree still raising its branches in a defiant salute. And they occasionally encountered the carcass of an abandoned military vehicle.
Since they weren't too far from their own lines yet, Saunders let the men talk, as long as they didn't get too noisy. At the rear of the line, he and Grady traded occasional remarks. Up front, Kirby and Braddock got into another one of their grumbling contests, trying to see who could come up with the most creative complaints.
And in the center of the squad, Billy Nelson practically marched backward in his eagerness to stare at the captain. "You're really in the OSS?" he asked, still visibly awestruck.
"That's right," Peebles said.
Ahead of Billy, Littlejohn said, "I thought the OSS was more about cracking codes and tapping phones."
Peebles loosed another of his easy grins. "Oh, we do that too. If you're thinking I don't look like the type of guy that would be content to sit behind a desk, you'd be right. I won't say I'm enjoying going on a potentially dangerous patrol like this, but I did volunteer to be the guy retrieving the colonel."
Up ahead, Kirby had caught the captain's words. "Gee," he said, "this guy's in Intelligence, and he volunteered for this? No wonder we ain't won this war yet."
Grady Long shifted his B.A.R. from one shoulder to the other without breaking stride. "Just ignore Kirby, Cap -- Peebles. His mouth's a little swifter than his brain."
"I'll do that."
Kirby turned and glared at Grady. But behind the B.A.R. man, Saunders returned Kirby's glare, and the infuriated private faced forward again, mumbling something not even Braddock could catch.
Grady said, "Afraid it's a little tough remembering not to call you by your rank."
Saunders frowned at Grady, but said nothing.
Captain Peebles shrugged. "Well, you could call me by my old nickname."
"What's that?" Billy asked, turning to look at the captain and nearly whacking into Littlejohn, who had slowed down so he could hear better."Pebbles."
"Pebbles?" Billy echoed.
"That's what they called me back home. On account of my small size and all."
Littlejohn grinned. "Makes sense to me." He began walking faster again before Saunders could yell at them for bunching up.
Billy asked, "Isn't it against Army regulations to call a superior officer by a nickname?"
Peebles shrugged. "Well, I'm not exactly regular Army."
"All right, quiet down," Saunders ordered. "We're getting pretty far from our lines. Doesn't pay to advertise that we're here."
Peebles nodded. "You're right, Sergeant."
Braddock snickered. "Hey, Kirby, seems like we've got a tag-along that knows what's good for him for once."
"He's smarter'n you, then," Kirby retorted.
Braddock just rolled his eyes, not deigning to reply.
After the first couple miles, they began seeing more signs of life. Trees became more plentiful and straggly grass covered the ground, only occasionally interrupted by a shell crater.
When Caje loped back from his point position, Saunders said, "Okay, everyone, take five." As the overheated squad gratefully dropped to the ground, he and Captain Peebles remained standing. "Report?" Saunders took off his helmet and ran a hand through his damp.
"We're almost to the river," Caje said. "Just beyond that line of trees. There's a bridge that still seems useable. Looks clear so far."
Saunders said, "Good. Not much farther to the meeting point. Go ahead and take five too, Caje."
Caje dropped down near Kirby while Peebles took a seat next to Billy and Littlejohn. Saunders leaned against a handy tree and slid his back down it until he rested on the ground by Grady Long. "Shouldn't be much longer," he commented, reaching behind him and pulling out his canteen.
"Nicest thing you've said all day." Grady lay full-length on the grass in the shade of the tree, eyes closed.
"So how come you're really called Pebbles?" Kirby asked, a cigarette waggling between his lips.
The captain took a swig from his canteen before answering. "I told you -- because I've always been so puny." He took another drink, then added, "Of course, it could also be because somebody spelled my name wrong on my football jersey in high school."
"I knew it!" Braddock chortled with glee. "I knew you played football!" He nudged Kirby with the toe of his boot. "Didn't I say it? Football!" He turned back to the captain again. "What position? No, no, let me guess." Braddock put his hand to his forehead and squinched his eyes closed. "Tackle?"
"You guessed it."
Braddock's eyes popped open. "I knew it! Me too!"
Peebles laughed, quiet yet hearty. "You played football?"
Braddock grinned. "I wasn't bad, either. They'd just point me in the right direction, tell me there was a deli on the corner and the other guy was trying to keep me away from the salami, and turn me loose."
Everyone chuckled at that, Kirby included. If it wasn't for the rifles and helmets by their sides, for a moment they could have been just a group of regular joes cooling off after a hard day's work at the stockyards or a construction site.
Saunders was the first to sober up. "Okay, guys, on your feet," he said, standing up himself. "And from here on out, keep it quiet. No more talking. Kraut lines are less than a mile off." He slung his Thompson submachine gun over his shoulder and settled the camo-covered helmet back on his sweaty head with a grimace.
With a chorus of subdued groans, the men scrambled to their feet and resumed marching. In minutes they left the trees behind and stood on a bank of soft grass bordering a river. Forty or fifty feet wide, the river was swift and appeared fairly deep.
Caje walked back from the opposite bank across the narrow wooden bridge that spanned the river. Hovering two or three feet above the water and only wide enough for two people to walk abreast, the bridge creaked as Caje crossed. "Looks clear on the other side," he reported.
Saunders said, "Good. How's the bridge?"
"It's missing some boards, and a few are loose, but I think it'll hold."
"We'll cross one at a time," Saunders said.
Caje set off at once, running lightly across the bridge with nary a stumble. Kirby went next, carefully placing his feet on only the boards that looked truly solid. Braddock took even longer; the bridge swayed and groaned while he crossed, and the whole squad breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped safely onto the opposite bank. Littlejohn went cautiously as well, trying to keep his weight distributed but centered so the whole structure wouldn't wobble with his every step. Billy Nelson tried to act nonchalant, but he kept glancing at the swirling water only a couple feet below and biting his lower lip. Grady Long acted like he wanted to stick his thumbs in his pockets and whistle as he crossed, but didn't since they were supposed to keep quiet.
Finally, only the two officers remained on their side of the bridge. Saunders had been scanning the area to their sides and rear, checking for Krauts. When he turned around again, he raised his eyebrows and blinked several times. "Uh," he said. "What's going on?"
Peebles had stripped off his shirt and wrapped it around his Garand. He then stepped into the river a few feet downstream from the bridge and walked steadily forward, his swaddled rifle raised high above his head.
"I don't like bridges," Peebles said over his shoulder as he continued wading farther and farther into the water.
Saunders stepped onto the bridge and said, over the cheerful burbling of the river, "What do you mean, you don't like bridges?"
Peebles was waist deep already, his head on a level with Saunders' feet. "I just don't like them, Sergeant."
"All bridges." The water was up to his armpits now, and they weren't even half-way across.
"Why did you take this assignment if you knew there'd be a river to cross? You had to have seen the maps, seen the river."
The water swirled above the massive shoulders, not quite reaching the captain's chin. "This isn't the first river I've waded through."
For a few moments, neither of them said anything because Peebles needed to concentrate on keeping his face and rifle above the water while not losing his footing. For a second or two, Saunders seemed to be considering jumping in the river and dragging the captain to the shore, but then Peebles was through the deepest part and the water was back to chin-level, then down around his shoulders.
"You really hate bridges." Saunders didn't say it as a question.
"I do. All my life. Don't like to walk on them, don't like to drive over them."
"Well, it can't be because you're afraid of water."
Peebles grinned. "You can't be born in Hawaii and be afraid of water, Sergeant."
At last they neared the far bank, where the squad clustered in open-mouthed wonder at the sight of the captain walking through the river when there was a perfectly usable bridge right beside him. Peebles reached the bank safely and climbed out, water streaming down from his sodden undershirt. But he had kept his rifle dry
The squad members glanced at each other, at Peebles, at Saunders, and then back at each other. None of them said a word. Finally, Grady Long shrugged. "So maybe he wanted a bath."
Every smiled and relaxed a little. Peebles unwrapped his rifle and donned the dry shirt. "Maybe I did want a bath."
"I can bet you one thing, Pebbles," Grady said. "I bet you're a lot cooler than the rest of us right now."
Kirby said, "Hey, good point. Maybe we all shoulda gone for a dip."
Saunders frowned. "Shut up, Kirby. How often to I have to tell you to keep quiet?" He looked from one squad member to the next, making eye contact with each man. "The Krauts held this side of the river bank two days ago, and they're probably not far away now. So the next man that--"
Distant gunfire interrupted his warning, proving the sergeant's point with a burst of shots.
Peebles and Saunders eyed each other. "That sounded like it came from the direction of the--" the captain began.
"Yeah." Saunders unslung his Thompson and cradled it at his side, fingers resting on the trigger guard. "Okay, everyone, move out. Stay low, keep your eyes peeled." He ran off into the straggling stand of trees that bordered the riverbank, everyone else fanning out and following him.
It wasn't long before they could see the outline of a building ahead through the trees. Saunders slowed, motioning for everyone to drop to the ground. In a clearing up ahead, a small German squad surrounded a wooden shack. Three of the Krauts huddled behind an overturned vehicle, taking turns peeking out and shooting at the building. The other two crept toward a side of the building that only had one high window, taking advantage of the cover fire of their companions.
Saunders gestured for his men to spread out into a big arc and attack the Germans from the rear. They crawled away to fan out, then stood up on his signal and rushed the Krauts. The five German soldiers didn't stand a chance -- the Americans cut them down from behind without sustaining a single casualty.
When the firing ended, Saunders and Peebles approached the building cautiously. "McGuffin? It's Pebbles," the captain called quietly when they reached the door without seeing any sign of life from within the building. "Can we come in?"
A voice replied in French. Peebles frowned. Saunders offered, "Caje speaks French. You want him to--"
Saunders turned, made eye contact with Caje, and motioned for him to come forward. When Caje arrived, Saunders told him, "Ask him if the colonel is okay."
Caje and the man inside traded a few French words, then Caje said, "He says the colonel is there all right, but he's wounded and unconscious. He wants to know how we can prove we are who we say we are.
Saunders frowned. "We just killed the Krauts that were attacking them. What more proof could they want?"
Peebles said, "I know. Tell him that the colonel has a long scar running down the inside of his left arm. About eight inches long."
Caje relayed the message. There was silence inside for a moment, then came the scraping noise of something heavy being dragged away from the doorway, and the door opened a crack. An elderly Frenchman peeked out, scrutinized Peebles, Saunders, and Caje, then nodded and opened the door wider. Saunders signaled the rest of the squad to stay put as the three of them entered the building.
If the shack looked tiny from outside, its low ceiling making the interior feel even more cramped. On a narrow bed near the door lay a man about Saunders' size, with grey-streaked brown hair and a short neat beard. He wore a nondescript grey suit and white shirt. And not only was he unconscious, but a large strip of cloth bound his left thigh. The cloth had probably once been white or grey, but was now various shades of pink and red, dyed by the colonel's own blood.
Kneeling beside the wounded man was a teenage girl, probably sixteen or seventeen. She had been wiping his face with a wet cloth, but when the three Americans entered, she gazed up at them, her eyes wide and her face pale. She spoke rapidly in French, and Caje answered her soothingly. While Peebles crouched next to her and felt for Colonel McGuffin's pulse, Caje said, "She says he was wounded over an hour ago, when the Germans first got here. He's been unconscious for almost twenty minutes."
Saunders glanced at Peebles. "Captain?"
Peebles ignored the forbidden use of his rank. "It looks like just a flesh wound. His pulse is fairly steady, but it's weak. I don't know if we should risk moving him, though. But I'm not a doctor, I'm just a--" He shrugged and left his self-description incomplete.
"We have to move him," Saunders said. "When that squad out there doesn't report back in, this place'll be swarming with Krauts."
"What if we sent a couple of your men back and they brought a doctor out here?" Peebles suggested. "It's only five or six miles."
Saunders shook his head. "It'd be at least three hours before a doctor got back here, maybe four. And if they got here only to find us surrounded by a whole platoon of Krauts?" He shook his head again. "Our only hope is to try to get him back to our lines."
Kirby appeared at the doorway. "Krauts headin' our way, maybe ten minutes off, maybe less," he reported.
Saunders said, "We need to leave now. Caje, find something we can use as a stretcher for the colonel. Kirby, send Littlejohn in here."
"Right." Kirby headed back outside.
"How about this?" Caje pulled a big quilt out of a battered wooden chest in the opposite corner of the room.
"Good enough." Saunders grabbed the other end of the quilt and they spread it on the floor next to the bed where Colonel McGuffin lay. Littlejohn arrived just in time to help Peebles pick up the colonel and lower him gently onto the middle of the quilt. The two of them grabbed the quilt's corners, hoisted the wounded colonel off the floor, and headed out the door.
Once outside, Saunders motioned for the rest of the squad to leave their defensive perimeter and join him. "There are Krauts five minutes away," he told them, just in case Kirby hadn't spread the good news already. "Caje, you're on point."
Caje looked over from where he'd been quietly thanking the French Resistance people. "Right."
"Grady and I'll cover our retreat. Okay, move out!"
Peebles and Littlejohn picked up the quilt, Littlejohn at the head and Peebles at the feet. Caje was already ahead, running through the scattered trees. Billy Nelson trotted off after him, Kirby close behind. Braddock almost managed to keep up with them. The stretcher-bearers tried to move as quickly as they could while not jostling the wounded colonel too much. Grady followed, B.A.R. held at the ready. Saunders came last, walking almost backwards as he watched the area behind them, watching for the Krauts Kirby had spotted. As the squad departed, the old Frenchman and the girl melted off into the woods to the east.
After a couple of minutes, Littlejohn and Peebles adjusted to each others' walking rhythms and were able to half-jog as they dodged trees and brush and tried not to jostle the unconscious colonel too much. There was still no sign of their German pursuers when they reached the river.
"We'll go across two at a time," Saunders instructed. "Caje, Nelson, you go first. Then Littlejohn and Peebles with the colonel, Kirby and Braddock, Grady and me. Stay a few feet apart and don't waste time." He didn't have to remind them about the unknown number of Krauts in hot pursuit.
Caje and Billy hurried over the bridge, which swayed ominously. But they made it safely to the other side. Littlejohn bent to pick up Colonel McGuffin, whom they'd set down on the river bank. But Captain Peebles remained upright, staring at the bridge.
Littlejohn straightened up and looked at Saunders, waiting for instructions. Saunders watched as Peebles glanced down at the colonel, then stared unblinkingly at the bridge again.
"Ready to go?" Saunders' voice was just deferential enough that he wouldn't get court-martialed for insubordination.
Peebles shook his head. "I can't."
"You can't or you won't?"
Kirby rolled his eyes. "Come on, Braddock, let's go." He pushed past the captain none-too-respectfully and headed for the bridge. "Don't stay too close to me," he warned Braddock. "Hot as it is, I ain't in the mood to take a bath with a bunch of Krauts on my tail." He started across the bridge, Braddock keeping a good five feet behind him.
Saunders eyed Peebles. "And I thought the colonel was your friend," he said, his voice flat, carefully emotionless.
"He is." Peebles licked his lips, took several deep breaths, then shook his head again, eyes still focused on the bridge. "But I can't do it. You'll have to get him across without me." He pulled off his shirt and wrapped it around his rifle once more, readying himself for a walk through the river.
"So that's it, huh?" Before Saunders could say more, the bridge emitted a loud groan as Kirby neared the shore and Braddock hit the middle of the bridge. With a series of sharp cracks, the old wooden structure simply collapsed, chunks and splinters flying every which way. Kirby and Braddock both accompanied the bridge on its trip down into the river, the whole mess landing with an enormous splash.
Grady Long looked like he was trying hard not to laugh, although he kept one eye on the woods behind them while enjoying the spectacle.
As Kirby and Braddock splashed their way to shore, Saunders studied Peebles and shook his head. He turned to Grady and Littlejohn. "If those Krauts didn't know our position before, they do now. Get across as quick as you can, both of you. I'll cross last. Grady, as soon as you two are across, tell everyone to take up positions just inside the tree line and cover us."
"Right." Grady followed Littlejohn down to the river and they waded in, holding their weapons high above their heads.
Saunders watched the woods behind them, searching for any sign of their pursuers. So far, all was quiet. Eyes still on the trees, he asked, "Any idea how we'll get the colonel across?"
"I can carry him."
"Right." Saunders took the captain's rifle, unwrapped it, and slung both it and the Thompson over his shoulder. Then he helped hoist Colonel McGuffin onto Peebles' back. Peebles held onto the colonel's forearms, which were around Peebles' neck, keeping the unconscious man's head resting on the captain's broad right shoulder.
Peebles walked down the gentle bank to the water's edge, watching his feet to make sure he didn't step on a rock or fallen branch and risk falling and dropping the colonel. Littlejohn and Grady made it across, and the squad fell back and took cover behind the trees. As soon as Saunders saw the squad safely take cover, he waded into the river behind Peebles, Thompson held high over his head.
Captain Peebles crossed the river slowly this time, and at one point it seemed like he was about to go under -- his foot must have slipped on a loose rock, because he lurched sideways and, for a moment, both he and Colonel McGuffin slipped entirely under the water. But then Peebles was through the deep part and able to walk steadily again. He hoisted the colonel a little higher on his shoulders and headed toward shore.
While Saunders passed the deepest part and was close to finding his footing, Peebles had reached the shore. Littlejohn came out from behind cover to help haul the colonel up the riverbank and carry him to the trees.
And that's when seven Krauts burst out of the trees onto the far bank, firing as they came.
"Go!" Saunders yelled as loudly as he could considering he was holding his Thompson over his head with one hand and treading water with his other arm and feet. "Get back to our lines!" Then he disappeared under the water.
The men returned fire on the Germans, cutting two of them down before the Krauts had time to head back into the trees for cover.
It was Littlejohn who spotted Saunders bobbing to the surface again downstream to their right, his helmet gone and his blond hair streaming water into his eyes. The sergeant looked back toward the squad and hollered something they couldn't understand. Then, just as he was about to slip beneath the surface a second time, he suddenly lurched to one side and went under.
"I think they got the Sarge!" Littlejohn hollered.
"Where?" Grady yelled back, pausing his firing long enough to look downstream where Littlejohn was pointing.
"He came up for air and they hit him," Littlejohn repeated.
Grady rose to his knees behind the large tree sheltering him. "We gotta go get him," he cried, starting to stand up.
Caje grabbed Grady's shoulder and pulled him back down to the ground. "He said to go back to the farmhouse," he reminded them all.
"But he's hit!" Grady wrenched away from Caje's grasp and started to rise again. This time, an even firmer grip persuaded him to stay down, one he couldn't just shrug off.
"The colonel's bleeding again," Peebles said, his voice low but clear even through the noise of Billy, Braddock, Littlejohn and Kirby returning the Kraut fire. "And we can't stay here forever -- how long do you think it'll be before those Germans call in reinforcements or an artillery barrage?"
"But we can't abandon Saunders." Grady seemed about ready to take on Captain Peebles barehanded for the suggestion, disregarding the fact that he was outranked and outmatched.
"We won't. Give me a few minutes, then pull out. Get the Colonel back to Battalion Aid."
Grady started to protest, but Peebles shouted, "Cover me!" so the rest of the men could hear him, then bolted out of the trees and toward the river before anyone could argue. He dove in cleanly and shallowly, slicing the water near where Saunders had disappeared the first time.
Grady crawled forward a little and fired his B.A.R. with renewed intensity. "Come on, guys!" he hollered. "Let's give 'em a chance!"
Caje scrutinized the trees around them, chose one with several sturdy branches, and shinnied up until he was perched a good ten or eleven feet off the ground. From there, he had a better angle on the Krauts across the river, and plugged two who were using a fallen log for cover.
"See anything?" Kirby called up to Caje.
"No," Caje yelled back. "He hasn't come up for air yet."
"I meant can you see where the other Krauts are."
"Two behind the big oak for sure."
Kirby set his rifle to one side, reached inside his jacket, and risked rising to his knees to throw a grenade across the river. He ducked back down again, a bullet thudding into the tree beside him, the same tree that harbored Caje. The grenade landed close enough to the two Krauts to kill one of them and wound the other.
The one remaining unhurt Kraut fired a couple more shots, and then his rifle fell silent too.
"Well?" Braddock called up. "They gone, Caje?"
"Can't tell." Caje slid down from his perch. "Should only be one guy left anyway. We'll worry about him later. Nelson, Long, go find Sarge and the captain -- if the Sarge is hit, they might need help. The rest of us can take the colonel back."
The two men hurried off through the trees. The river made a curve to the south downstream, and it was around that bend where they found Peebles and Saunders back in the cover of the trees, the captain bandaging the sergeant's wounded right shoulder. Peebles raised his eyebrows when they arrived, but said nothing about their disobeying his order to return with the others.
"You okay, Sarge?" Billy asked as they halted and stood panting above the two officers.
"I've been happier." Saunders grimaced as Peebles wound another bandage tightly around his shoulders and chest. "Lost my helmet and Peebles' rifle. Almost lost this too." He patted the Thompson resting in the dirt beside him.
"Think you can make it back?" Grady Long asked. "Or you want us to carry you too?"
"I can walk." Saunders waited for Peebles to finish knotting the bandage, then reached up his good left arm to Grady, who grabbed it and hauled his friend to his feet. Saunders glanced over at Peebles, who was washing his hands in the river. "Thanks," he said.
"You're welcome." Peebles straightened and dried his hands on his pants. They were wet too, so it didn't really do him any good. "Ready?"
Saunders nodded. "Let's go."
The two groups joined up in the vast tree-less stretch of no-man's-land near dusk. A few minutes later, the all-too-familiar whine of a bullet shrieked past Kirby and thudded harmlessly into the dirt ahead of him. "Sarge! Behind us!" Kirby yelled as he jumped into a crater to his right. The squad dove for what little cover they could find, most of them following Kirby's lead and taking advantage of the three shell holes nearby.
Peebles, who'd been carrying the colonel on his back again, headed for the remains of an American truck lying on its side not too far away, somehow making it safely despite the increasing fire from the dim figures advancing in the distance. He gently deposited Colonel McGuffin on the ground and made sure the unconscious officer was well protected behind the truck's metal frame.
"Kirby!" Saunders yelled as the Americans sporadically returned fire. "How many are there?"
Kirby, who had been at the rear of the squad and thus now lay closest to the advancing enemy, paused his firing long enough to call back, "Maybe two squads -- maybe more."
The Americans would make beautiful targets if they left the craters and headed north to the farmhouse, the setting sun turning them into gilt-edged silhouettes like the cut-out ducks in a county fair shooting gallery. But the Krauts were advancing fast and the men couldn't just sit and wait for them either.
"Saunders!" Peebles called from behind the truck. "Give me a couple men -- if we can make it to that ditch over there, we can try to flank them, maybe draw them off enough for you to get the colonel out of here."
Sure enough, what had once been an irrigation ditch lay to the squad's left beyond the mangled truck. It led mostly south, toward the advancing Germans. Saunders stopped firing and answered, "Might work. Caje, Nelson, when we open up, head for the truck, then the ditch."
"Right!" Caje yelled back from the crater nearest the truck where he, Billy, and Littlejohn sheltered. He told Billy, "Follow me, and stay low."
Billy swallowed, eyeing the distance between their hole and the truck with an expression of mixed apprehension and determination.
Littlejohn stopped his intermittent firing. "See you back at the barn." He smacked Billy's helmet lightly, making it tilt down over the young soldier's eyes.
"Okay." Billy pushed the helmet back a little and shifted his weight, preparing to lunge up out of the hole as soon as Caje was out.
Saunders opened up, the familiar burst of noise and bullets from his Thompson signaling the others to really pour it on as well. The Krauts finally stopped advancing and dropped to the ground.
Caje slipped up out of the crater and crawled forward on his stomach, keeping as low as he could while making all possible speed toward the truck. Billy tried to match Caje's movements as he crept along behind, praying he was flat enough against the earth to escape the flurry of Kraut bullets.
After a few seconds that lasted at least two eternities, Billy and Caje were behind the truck, crouching next to Peebles and waiting for him to lead the way to the ditch.
"Ready?" Peebles asked.
"Whenever you are," Caje said.
"Okay, here we go." The three men slithered off toward the irrigation ditch. The bare ground was easy to crawl over, no tangled weeds or fallen branches to get in their way, and they reached the shallow ditch intact. Once there, the ditch provided enough cover that they were able to rise to their hands and knees and crawl much faster.
The sounds of many German Mausers and at least one Schmeisser came closer and closer until the Americans were roughly parallel to them. Peebles led them a little farther, so that they were slightly behind the Krauts, then risked peeking up out of the ditch to assess the situation. He ducked down again and whispered, "I only count about a dozen right now. Let's take them out before any reinforcements arrive." He detached a grenade from his belt and pulled the pin. "Once this hits, open up." With one fluid motion, he rose up on his knees, launched the grenade toward the Germans, and dropped back down behind cover.
The Krauts never stopped firing toward the others, evidently unaware that death had landed among them until the grenade exploded. Amid the ensuing cries of pain and confusion, Caje and Billy alternated popping up and firing, then ducking down again. Most of the German soldiers turned their attention, and their weapons, toward this new threat, but three or four of them kept firing toward Saunders and the others.
So Peebles crawled a little farther down the ditch and lobbed another grenade toward the Krauts. It hit a little to their rear, close enough to wound or kill several more Germans. That seemed to persuade that last handful of soldiers still firing toward their old targets that this new attack should not be ignored.
The three Americans in the ditch had a hot time of it then, trying to keep the Krauts from rushing their position and discovering just how few of them there really were. But Caje managed to sneak a glance to the north while reloading, and reported, "They're pulling out okay!"
"We've done it!" Billy crowed. But his exultation was short-lived; he reached for another clip, only to discover he'd used every one. "Uh, Caje, you have any spare ammo?" he asked, voice changed from joyful to tremulous in an instant.
"One more clip." Caje tossed it over. Then he called, "Peebles! We're down to our last few rounds!"
"Right!" Peebles yelled back. "I'll toss in a couple grenades. After the second one goes, you two make a run for it."
"What about you?" Billy hollered.
"I'll have one grenade left. I'll throw it once you're clear and follow you."
"Okay!" Caje acknowledged. He and Billy kept firing, spacing their shots to conserve ammo, until the first explosion. The second blast came two seconds later, and then they were on their feet and running down the ditch, crouching over to keep as low as they could. A few shots whistled over them, but they made it to the overturned truck safely, passed it, and kept to the ditch until it ended in a bomb crater. By then they were far enough from the skirmish that the shots sounded more like firecrackers than deadly rifle reports.
"I haven't heard a third grenade," Billy panted as they climbed out of the hole and headed out over open ground. "Think we should go back?"
"But maybe they got reinforced -- maybe one grenade's not going to give him enough time." Billy headed back toward the ditch.
Caje grabbed Billy's arm and held him back. "He stayed behind to make sure we got out, Billy. You want to get us killed too?"
Silenced by the phrase 'killed too' and all it implied, Billy allowed Caje to turn him back toward their lines.
By the time they reached their lines, it was night. They never heard a third grenade.
"Maybe he just waited for dark and now he'll crawl away." It was the latest in a long line of scenarios Billy had dreamed up on their way back.
Caje hadn't even bothered responding to the last five or six of Billy's escape ideas. Now he just said, "Maybe."
"I sure wish the lieutenant had let us go back," Billy said for the umpteenth time as the squad bedded down for the night in what was left of the barn near Hanley's farmhouse CP.
"So those Krauts could turn us into sieves?" Kirby scowled as he tried to make the straw under his blanket stop bunching up in all the wrong places. "No thanks."
Braddock's eye-rolling was visible even in the dim light cast by the one lantern hanging on a post by the door. "Look, Pebbles seemed like a pretty sharp guy. If he could've made it out, he would've."
Littlejohn added, "He knew what his odds were when he sent you and Caje out. It was his choice, Billy. Not yours."
Billy shook his head. "I still think we should've gone back."
Caje, who'd already lain down in the corner nearest the door, now sat up. "Come on, Billy, give it a rest," he pleaded. "There was nothing we could do."
"But we didn't even try!" Billy sat down on his bedroll and crossed his arms. "We should've tried."
Grady Long stretched out on his blanket-covered pile of straw and put his hands behind his head. "Why's this bother you so much, kid?" he asked, no accusation in his tone, just a friendly inquiry. "You've seen other people get killed when you didn't. How's this different?"
"I dunno -- it's just, I guess it kinda scares me," Billy admitted. "I mean, if a guy as big and tough as Captain Peebles can get killed... what chance do I stand? I mean really."
Littlejohn settled down on his own bedroll between Billy and Braddock. "Don't worry too much, Billy. You've made it this far, haven't you?"
Kirby added, "Anyway, how tough can a guy with a nickname like Pebbles really be?"
"Plenty tough," said a deep, rich voice from the doorway.
Five heads swiveled around to stare at the bloodied, bandaged, but very much alive figure of Captain Peebles stepping into the circle of lantern light. He was covered with dirt and grime, and dried blood traced a line from a ragged bandage around his right bicep all the way down to his fingertips, but his smile shone as brightly as ever. He looked down at Billy and said, "I appreciate your concern, Nelson. But be glad you came back here like I told you to -- you don't want to know what we do to people in the OSS when they disobey an order."
"I don't?" Billy's eyes widened even farther.
"Yes sir." Billy didn't salute, just stared up at Peebles as if he wasn't sure this was a real person and not just a manifestation of his hopeful imagination.
Peebles returned his attention to the whole squad. "Just dropped in to say hello on my way to the aid station," he said. "Got to look in on the colonel and your sergeant, make sure they're getting treated okay." He motioned for someone outside the barn to approach. Then he told the squad, "Saunders should be back in a day or two, but until then, Corporal Brockmeyer here will lead you."
Braddock groaned. "Just what we need."
Grady kicked him. "Maybe Brockmeyer can whip you into shape before Saunders gets back and lets you go soft again."
Peebles laughed. "See you around," he said with one last grin, then disappeared into the darkness before the squad could ask him how he'd escaped, if he'd killed all those Germans by himself, and all the other questions racing through their tired minds.
Brockmeyer leaned against the doorway in the spot Peebles had just vacated. He crossed his arms and advised, "Better get some sleep. I'll wake you at oh-five-hundred for a quick run around camp and a few hundred push-ups." Then he too disappeared into the night.
"He'd better be joking," Braddock grumbled.
"Don't bet on it," Caje said.
"At least it won't be so hot outside at five in the morning," Billy offered, curling up on his bedroll at last.
"Don't bet on that either," Kirby said. "Now shut up so I can go to sleep, just in case he's serious."
Caje stood up and blew out the lantern, plunging the barn into soft, warm darkness.
Into the quiet gloom, Billy said, "I wonder what he meant by 'see you around'."
Kirby hissed, "He meant if you don't shut up, I'll get him to come back and make you."
They couldn't be sure, but Caje and Billy, who were nearest the door, both thought they heard a quiet, hearty laugh somewhere outside in the darkness.