(1999) 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.
"The Return of Private Puling"
by White Queen
It was a nice, sunny afternoon in that part of France known as Normandy. The air was warm, birds sang harmoniously above the streets of the little village, and the trees by the houses (or what remained of them) flaunted lush green foliage. Yup, it was a beautiful, relaxing day. Well, there were all those noisy planes flying around overhead, and those grimy tanks and jeeps rumbling about, not to mention the boisterous soldiers all testing their lungs at once as they milled around the village. But other than that, it was a quiet afternoon--just the kind to make a person start spouting Shakespeare with no apparent provocation.
In the middle of all the sun and dust, Sgt. Saunders and his squad trudged on their way to find Lt. Hanley. Again. It seemed they were always going to Hanley, getting orders for some dangerous mission, going out on the mission, losing some soldiers to the danger, then coming back for more orders and more soldiers.
For some reason, the men seemed to be having a singularly hard time locating the lieutenant on this particular day. Every time they stopped and asked someone where they might find him, they got directed to a different place. In fact, no one seemed to actually know where he was, which was quite discouraging to Saunders and his men. They weren't accustomed to having that much trouble finding Hanley. Usually he just set up his command post in the most obvious spot possible, they found him and got their orders, and then off they went. Sometimes he even went with them.
Finally Saunders decided they needed a little rest. Turning to his men, he announced, "Okay, men, take five. If we're having this much trouble finding Hanley, a few more minutes won't hurt." This said, he perched on top of a few tires someone had kindly piled up on a street corner.
The men sat on the ground around him, each acting like he thought it was mighty strange that their leader was taking a break. It just wasn't like him, really. Oh well, they weren't going to buck it--if he wanted them to take it easy, far be it from them to argue.
In truth, Saunders wanted to take a break because he had a stone in his boot, and it had been bothering him for quite some time. Like his men, he lit up the inevitable cigarette. Then Saunders took one of his boots off, turned it upside down, and watched gratefully as a medium-sized rock and a bunch of dirt fell out. Ahh, the day looked better already!
While the men relaxed in the sun, a dusty breeze brought them the faint sound of a whistled tune. It sounded mildly familiar to Saunders, but he dismissed it as being something he'd probably heard on the radio back home. It wasn't until Caje announced that he thought the tune was by Chopin that Saunders remembered where he'd heard that song before. It was in a dark barn, and a soldier had been humming it--a private named Puling. Saunders' back stiffened unconsciously at the memory.
As if on cue, Private Puling rounded the corner of an old warehouse nearby. When he saw Saunders and his bunch, he paused, then approached. "Hey, Soldier," he called to Saunders, "can you tell me where to find Lieutenant Hanley?"
Saunders ignored Puling. He casually took a drag from his cigarette and looked off into the distance. Why couldn't the earth just miraculously open and swallow up Puling? Or maybe one of those planes could suddenly circle around and take a pot-shot at the twit.
But no, Puling continued unscathed toward Saunders and his squad. When he was practically in their midst, he demanded, "I asked you a question, Sergeant!"
Saunders had to smile grudgingly. Having his own words thrown back at him wasn't pleasant, but he had to admit it was clever. He had barely even remembered what he'd said during his first encounter with this sulky private, but Puling obviously did.
When the sergeant still didn't answer his question, Puling halted, appearing a little nonplussed.
Finally Saunders spoke. "Sorry, Private, but I don't know where Hanley is any more than you evidently do." He hoped this would send Puling on his way. Really, he was in no mood to deal with this right now. He was tired, and it was far too hot to do any decent arguing.
"Oh." Puling looked down at the hardened dirt, apparently trying to decide what his next move should be. After a few seconds passed, he looked back up at the sergeant on his throne of tires. "You don't have any idea?" he pleaded.
"Nope. I'm lookin' for him myself." The instant the words were spoken, Saunders regretted them.
Hope gleamed in Puling's eyes. "Well, maybe we could team up. I mean, since we're all looking for Lieutenant Hanley."
"No dice, kid." Saunders tossed away the butt of his cigarette.
The rest of the squad listened in uneasy silence. The animosity their sarge felt for Puling again became evident. "Listen," Kirby broke in, "tell ya what, Puling. When we find the Lieutenant, we'll tell him you're lookin' for him. Then... then maybe he'll find you -- whaddaya think?"
Saunders looked at Kirby in a mixture of amazement and amusement. Since when had he taken on the role of peacemaker? His quizzical expression was mirrored in the faces of the other men.
"No," Puling replied stubbornly, "I want to go with you."
Raising his eyebrows, Saunders attempted to understand Puling's new attitude. A mixture of confidence and bravado seemed evident in the private's words. This was all rather unsettling to the sergeant, who shifted uneasily on the pile of tires. "Well," he said at last. "what do you guys think, huh?" He looked at his men, silently begging for some backup.
The men silently gazed back at him. Finally Caje said, "I don't think it really makes a difference to us one way or the other."
Saunders had never felt so alone. "Okay," he finally sighed, "you can come with us. Saddle up." He slid off his pile of tires, too tired to put up a fight.
"Good. I think we should start searching down by the bridge." Puling started leading the way down the dusty street.
Saunders stared as his men scrambled to their feet and followed Private Puling, who jauntily walked along, whistling that annoying tune. Chip rolled his eyes heavenward, begging for an answer to the questions Puling raised in his mind. Then he followed his men. They seemed happy enough following Puling--they were laughing and joking, smiling as if they were off to see the latest John Wayne movie. Saunders shook his head. Curiouser and curiouser!
Hanley wasn't down by the bridge. All they found there was a dead Kraut and the remains of a small rowboat. Hanley wasn't in the once-ornate Catholic church either. All they found there were a crumbling organ and a few scattered hymnals.
As the group, still led by Puling, stopped to rest outside the church, Billy voiced their fears. "Maybe the Lieutenant is...is...dead."
"Naw," Kirby argued, "if he was dead, somebody'd know. Everybody we talk to either doesn't know where he is or doesn't know who he is."
"That's true," agreed Littlejohn, ever optimistic.
"Maybe we're just in the wrong town," Doc offered.
"Or maybe the wrong war," joked Caje.
"Nope. He's gotta be here somewhere," Puling insisted.
"What makes you so sure?" Saunders demanded. He was getting sick of having Puling be such a know-it-all, sick of Puling giving orders, sick of his men buddying up to such a poor excuse for a soldier.
"I'm just sure, that's all. Listen, Saunders, if you don't want to keep looking for him, you can stay here. The rest of the guys can either come with me or stay with you."
Before Saunders could speak, Puling jumped up and started off around the church, whistling again. To his horror, all of Saunders' men jumped up and followed Puling.
"We'll tell Hanley you're lookin' for him," Kirby tossed over his shoulder as they moved out of Saunders' sight.
Saunders had never been so stunned in his life. He sat helplessly, gazing around the corner of the church where the men he'd considered so faithful to him had just disappeared. They'd deserted him! Chosen Puling over him! It was as though with his whistled tune, Puling piped a spell over Saunders' squad, enchanting them into following him. The bond of trust Saunders had built up was gone. Always he had had that trust—trust in himself to do what was needed, trust in his men to do what he told them, and trust in God to take care of the rest. Saunders felt betrayed, and worse yet, indecisive. Should he go after them? Stay where he was? As he considered his options, he heard a familiar whine overhead. Glancing up, he saw a huge bomb drop from a German plane and head straight for him.
Saunders woke up with a jolt. Thunder roared around the barn where he and his men had taken shelter from a sudden storm. His men were safe around him, and Private Puling was nowhere in sight. Saunders sighed quietly in relief. It had been a nightmare, nothing more. He noticed his shirt was drenched with sweat. His greatest fear--other than dying, of course--was losing the trust of the men he led. And to have them choose Puling instead! But it had just been a dream. Saunders glanced over his sleeping flock, then at the man who was standing first watch. Caje looked over at him and gave him the thumbs up. No Krauts in sight for now. It was safe to get some more shut-eye. But Chip wasn't sure if he wanted to. Sometimes his dreams were worse than reality. And what dreams would come this time?