(2004) 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.

Author's Note: This story is a response to the 12-7-04 fanfic board challenge to write a Christmas story about the squad.

For my mom, who loves Kirby because he seems sad.

  

"Shepherd's Watch"

 by White Queen

 

 

Private Billy Nelson entered the small shed with a joyous shout.  "It's here!"  In his arms he carried a very large box wrapped in brown paper and what had probably once been an entire roll of packing tape.  He could barely get his arms around the box, and it obscured his entire midsection from sight.

"Whoa, you send off for a baby elephant?" Caje asked, glancing up briefly from his poker hand.

"Nope."  Billy grinned.  "It's a Christmas package from my mom."  He carefully set the box down in the middle of the dirt floor and knelt beside it.  "She said she'd send me everything we always have at home."

Kirby glanced over his shoulder, unknowingly tipping his poker cards to where Caje could see them as he did so.  "Geez, kid, don't open that in here!  It's as big as the whole dang building!"

The shed was small -- it had probably been a gardener's shed originally, and in recent years had housed some local Frenchman's truck.  Now it provided almost enough room to shelter six American G.I.s from the winter outside.  With a door on one end and a tiny portable stove at the other, not much room remained for giant boxes, or bedrolls and drying socks, for that matter.

Billy stuck his tongue out as Kirby turned back to his poker game with Caje.  "Hey, you'd better watch out or I won't share any cookies with you."

Kirby's head whipped around again.  "Cookies?"  He dropped his cards on the floor and scooted over to watch Billy open the package.

Caje shook his head, picked up Kirby's cards, and started shuffling the deck.

"What kind of cookies?" Kirby asked eagerly, watching as Billy sliced slowly through layer after layer of tape and brown paper.

"Sugar cookies."  Billy focused on his box, not looking up as he talked.  "She cuts them into stars an' frosts 'em white and yellow.  I guess she makes a couple hundred of 'em every year, an' gives 'em to just everybody."

Littlejohn watched from his seat on a wooden crate near the door.  "Why only white and yellow?" he asked.

Billy shrugged as he peeled away the last layer of paper and revealed the actual box inside.  "She saved the other colors for the rest of the year.  Green for St. Patrick's Day, red for Valentine's, blue for Easter."  He opened the box slowly and pulled out a crumpled page of newsprint.  "Great!  She used the town paper to pack this!"  He started to smooth out the sheet.

Kirby, impatient as usual, peered inside the box, trying to tell where the cookies were.  When Billy didn't get the hint, Kirby actually stuck his hand inside the box.

"Hey!" Billy yelped.  "Whose Christmas box is this, anyway?"

"Sorry," Kirby said contritely, lest Billy again threaten to cut him off from the promised cookies.

As Billy pulled various bundles out of his box, the shed door opened again.  In came Doc, stomping snow off his boots in the doorway.  "Look what I found."  He held up a battered metal coffeepot.  "Got grounds to go with it too."  He carried them over to the small portable stove near where Caje sat still shuffling cards.

"Where'd you get that?" Kirby asked, momentarily distracted from Billy's box.

Doc shook his head.  "Santa never reveals his secrets."  He grinned.  "But I'll tell you this much: they've got a radio rigged up in the mess tent, and they've got a special pre-Christmas Command Performance comin' in."  He poured water from his canteen into the coffeepot.  "They got Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra…probably the Andrews Sisters."

Kirby sighed.  "I wouldn't mind the Andrews Sisters giving a command performance right here.  Sure would heat this shack up better'n that scrap heap."  He glared at the tiny stove and turned back to Billy.  "Find those cookies yet?"

"Must be the shoe box at the way bottom."  Billy leaned over the edge of his package, his head and shoulders starting to disappear.  Emerging with the last bundle, he frowned.  "Hope they aren't all squashed."

"That's quite a package you've got there," Doc said, coming over to stand near Billy and Kirby.

Sgt. Saunders pushed open the door to the shed.  Before fully entering, he stamped the snow from his boots, just as Doc had.  Removing his battered helmet, he shook a little snow from it too, and ran a hand through his free hair.  "Lieutenant Hanley says we should stay put here for the night.  He'll need us for sentry duty tomorrow, so rest up while you can."  He sniffed twice.  "Coffee?"

Doc nodded.  "Be ready in a minute."

Saunders leaned against a wall and slid slowly down it until he reached the floor.  "Hope I'm still awake in that minute, Doc."  He stretched his legs out in front of him and nodded at the enormous box.  "Having Christmas a few days early, Nelson?"

Billy nodded and grinned.  "Yup.  My mom sent me everything we always have at Christmas.  Well, almost everything."

"Guess Christmas must be pretty special for your family," Doc said, "if your Mom sends you all this."

"You bet it is.  Every year we get a tree the day after Thanksgiving.  We go out into the woods to cut it an' everything!  Then Mom decorates it while me an' my kid brother set up our train set around it."

Kirby nudged him.  "Tell Doc about the cookies."

"Yeah, my mom makes all these sugar cookies shaped like stars and she frosts 'em white an' yellow."

"And he's gonna share," added Kirby.  "How 'bout it, Billy?"

"I'm workin' on it, I'm workin' on it."  Billy struggled with a large knot in the length of twine that encircled the shoe box.

Finally in exasperation, Kirby leaned over and slit the twine with his knife.

Billy pulled the lid off and removed a layer of tissue paper.  Suddenly his expression changed from expectant delight to something close to horror.

Kirby didn't notice Billy's face change, and let out a whoop.  "Cookies!"

Billy slowly pulled a cookie from the box: a green-frosted Christmas tree.  "It's not a star," he said in confusion.

Kirby rummaged in the tissue paper Billy had pulled from the shoe box.  "Here's a note."  He handed a yellow piece of paper to Billy and took the green cookie.  Stuffing the whole cookie into his mouth, he asked, "Whash i' shay?"

Billy read quietly:

Dear Billy,

I know you were expecting these to be yellow and white stars like every other Christmas.  But I see too many of those hanging on banners in the windows around town now, and I couldn't bring myself to make more.  Hope you can enjoy these instead.  And share them with your friends!

Merry Christmas!

Love,

         Mom

For a moment the only sound inside the shed was Kirby munching.

Finally, Doc spoke.  "Coffee should be ready."  He moved back over to the stove, glanced back at Billy, and saw that the young private still gazed sadly into his cookie box.  "So what else does your family do at Christmas, Billy?"

With a sigh, Billy set the cookie box aside, then remembered his mother's note.  "Does anyone want some?"  He held out the box to Doc, who took one cookie and passed the box to Caje.  Caje took two cookies, then passed them to Littlejohn, who took three.  Littlejohn looked at their sergeant, who lay partially propped up against the wall less than a foot away.  Deciding Saunders was asleep, he handed the box to Kirby, who eagerly grabbed another cookie.

Meanwhile, Billy rummaged among his other gifts, finally pulling out a small canister.  "Mom's secret hot chocolate mix!" he announced triumphantly.  "And candy canes!"  He looked over at the stove.  "Doc, when the coffee's gone, can I use your pot to make some of this?"

Doc grinned.  "Only if I can have some."

Billy nodded.  "Sure, I've got enough for everybody.  And we can put candy canes in our canteen mugs an' everything."

"Candy canes?  In hot chocolate?" Caje asked.

"Yeah, me an' my brother always hook one over the edge of our mugs.  Then while they melt, we'd all take turns readin' the Christmas story out of Grandpa Nelson's old Bible.  When we finished reading, the canes were mostly melted and we could open presents."

Doc smiled and sat down by Caje.  "You sure have a lot of good Christmas memories."  He sipped his coffee and reached for another cookie.

"Well, what about you?  Don't you have lots of memories from Christmas?" Billy asked him.

"You know what I remember best?  From back when I was a kid and all."  Doc smiled.  "Carolers.  All these carolers would come waaay out to our house on Christmas Eve.  My mama always had something good for them to munch on, and we'd all sing along with them."  He looked over at Caje.  "How 'bout you?"

The Cajun grinned.  "Well, speaking of mamas cooking good things…you'd never believe Christmas dinner at my house.  All my relatives came from all over Louisiana, and my mother and her sisters would spend forever in that kitchen."  He closed his eyes.  "If I try hard enough, I can almost smell their fresh bread and sweet rolls."

Kirby leaned over and dropped a red-frosted stocking on Caje's knee.  "For now you'll have to settle for one of Billy's mom's cookies."  He looked at Billy and added,   "Which are very good, of course."

Billy ignored him.  "Hey, Littlejohn, you got any special Christmas memories?"

Littlejohn nodded solemnly, but didn't speak.

"Well, what?" Billy persisted.

Littlejohn leaned forward on his crate until his elbows rested on his knees.  He clasped his hands, licked his lips, and looked slowly around the tiny room.  "Mulled cider," he intoned.  "Every Christmas Eve, Mom would start the cider simmering on the back of the stove when she got up that morning.  All day long, she'd add things, like cinnamon sticks and lemon slices and cloves—"

Kirby interrupted with, "And booze?"

Littlejohn glared at him.  "Not everyone is as liquor-happy as you are."  He turned back to Billy.  "We'd spend all evening sipping cider and listening to Great Uncle Milton telling us about life back when they had real winters."  He chuckled softly.

Billy looked over at Kirby just in time to see him bite into yet another cookie.  "What about you?"

Kirby shrugged, swallowed the cookie, and said, "Aw, we didn't do much for Christmas."

"You didn't?"  Eyes wide, Billy looked as if Kirby had just announced there was no Santa Claus.

"Nah.  Well, when we were really little they'd give us a present at breakfast, but we never had a tree or nothin'."

"No tree?"  Billy blinked, trying to image no Christmas trees.

"Just wasn't a big deal."  Kirby stood up, walked to the coffeepot, and poured his canteen cup full.

Billy picked up a bell-shaped cookie and took a bite.  "No tree," he said again.

"Hey, there was just more important things."  Kirby scowled over his coffee.  "Like heat and food.  Don't go thinkin' I had lousy parents or somethin'."  He shook a finger at Billy.  "'Cuz I didn't."  He leaned against the wall near Caje and brooded into his coffee.

A quiet voice from the far corner broke the ensuing silence.  "Candles."

Everyone looked at Saunders in surprise.  They'd thought he was long asleep!

"We went to the candlelight service every Christmas Eve," he continued, not bothering to open his eyes.  "During every hymn, they'd turn off more and more lights, until all that was left was the candles we all held.  I don't know what kind of candles our church uses, but they smell—" he paused, "holy."  Finally he opened his eyes, and slowly rose to his feet.  "Any coffee left, Doc?"  He stepped over Billy's scattered packages, until he stood between Kirby and the stove.

Billy persisted.  "Well, what about when you'd grown up, Kirby?  Didn't you ever do anything special with your buddies?"

Kirby finished his coffee in one long gulp and tossed the empty mug to Caje.  "No," he answered shortly.

"Not even with your girlfriends?"

"I said NO!" Kirby erupted, slamming his empty hand against the wooden wall.  Then a little embarrassed, he folded his arms, hugging them to himself as he picked his way over Billy's mess and pushed out the door.

Caje glared at Billy.  "You had to keep pushing him, didn't you?"  He started to stand up, but Saunders made a small hand movement that seemed to signal him to stay put.

Stooping over Billy, Saunders took two cookies from the rapidly-emptying box and stuffed them into the pocket of his field jacket.  He handed his coffee mug to Doc and made his way to the door.  As he opened it, Doc sat down next to Billy and quietly began to sing:

What Child is this,

Who laid to rest

On Mary's lap

Is sleeping.

Whom angels greet

With anthems sweet

While shepherds

Watch are keeping.

He stopped, and sheepishly reached for a cookie.

"Who needs Frank and Bing?"  Caje smiled.  "We've got Doc."

Billy looked at the door, which had closed softly behind Saunders.  "Gee, I didn't know Kirby'd get so mad."

"Not everyone has happy memories," Littlejohn said quietly.

Outside, Saunders lit up a cigarette and leaned against the shed's outer wall next to Kirby, who still hugged his arms to his body, shoulders hunched.  Saunders offered him a cigarette, but Kirby shook his head.  They stood in silence for several minutes, the shed sheltering them from the gusts of wind.  They could feel faint heat coming through the wooden wall, seeping through all their layers of clothing.

Finally, Kirby spoke.  "You wanna know what I remember about Christmas?"

Saunders didn't reply, so Kirby kept talking.  "My daughter, that's what.  I remember her opening her presents, 'helping' Margie bake cookies, playing under the tree for hours…" he stopped.  "Did you know I had a wife and kids once?"

Saunders nodded.  "I knew."

"Littlejohn told?  That no-good—"

Saunders turned his head and just looked at Kirby, silencing him immediately.  "Littlejohn didn't tell me.  You did."

"What?!"

Saunders looked away again, into the dim grey night.  "When we picked you up in that forest a couple months back.  I helped Littlejohn carry your stretcher."  He took a final drag on his cigarette, then flicked it out into the darkness.  "All the way back, you talked.  Nonsense, some of it.  Guess it was the fever."  He reached into the pocket of his field jacket and pulled out a cookie.  After taking a bite, he continued, "You talked a lot about your wife and kid.  Littlejohn seemed to know what you were talking about, but he didn't say anything."  Saunders finished his cookie and reached back into his pocket.  Pulling out the other cookie, he reached over to Kirby and touched his arm with the blue-frosted snowman.

Kirby took the cookie slowly.  He bit off its head and looked sideways at Saunders.

"It's okay to miss them, Kirby," the sergeant said, then turned away and walked back inside the shed.

 

end

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