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.
Authors' Note: This story originally appeared in Combat! Journals 2006. This is the story of how Billy Nelson joined the squad. It takes place early in Season One, before "The Celebrity," and includes characters such as Braddock, Brockmeyer, and Grady Long who eventually faded from the show. And the regulars, particularly Saunders and Kirby, behave as they did in those early days, having yet to grow into their more established selves.
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"Fools of Fortune"
by White Queen and Thompson Girl
"Gosh, Littlejohn, I can't believe it!" With a smudged face that looked as eager as his voice sounded, Pvt. Billy Nelson seemed on the verge of throwing his helmet in the air and shouting 'Yippee!'
"Believe what?" answered the tall G.I. beside him. They began walking down a grassy avenue between the camp tents heading for Lieutenant Hanley's headquarters. It wasn't even seven in the morning yet. The rising sun slanted through the trees at the eastern edge of camp, casting alternating sunrise gold with the tree shadows. It would be a hot one later, but it was still early enough to be chill. Too early, Littlejohn thought, and hid a yawn, though the hour didn't seem to be dampening Billy's enthusiasm at all.
"We're together again!" Grinning up at his friend Littlejohn, the young soldier seemed even shorter than he really was. In fact, the two of them walking together seemed like the perfect set-up for some Bob Hope joke.
"Well, why can't you believe it?" Littlejohn asked. "It's obviously true."
"I know." Billy pressed his lips together and shook his head. "But I still just can't believe it!"
"I see." Littlejohn had to smile at his friend's exuberance. "So what will it take to make you believe it?"
"I don't know! It's all so perfect. At least, it is now." Billy Nelson frowned. "Remember how mad I was when they split us up?"
"Yup." Littlejohn stopped walking in front of a large tent. "This is the CP."
"So we're just supposed to wait here?"
"Yup." Littlejohn lowered his lanky frame until he was sitting on the grass to the right of Lieutenant Hanley's tent. He glanced around, but there was no sign of the rest of the squad yet, and he checked his watch.
Billy settled cross-legged next to him and continued his reminiscing. "I mean, I was so angry! How could they split us up? After all we'd been through? After Omaha Beach? After Charlie and the rest of our squad got wounded or killed? Why couldn't they put us both in the same outfit? They knew we were buddies."
"I remember. I was there too, you know."
"Yeah. Boy, was I mad."
"You sure were." Littlejohn grinned at the memory of baby-faced Billy getting so angry he almost yelled at an officer.
"And that squad I got stuck in -- let me tell you! Didn't know their right boots from their left. Completely green!"
Littlejohn nodded sympathetically.
"What about you?"
"Well, I've been in King Company for a while. They keep moving me around though."
"What do you mean?"
"Sometimes I'm in one squad, sometimes another. Sometimes I'm practically on MP duty -- it's like I'm the extra guy that gets to do whatever's left over."
"Gee, that can't be fun."
Littlejohn shook his head. "Not really. But it's been better lately. I think they're gonna leave me in this squad permanently."
"I sure hope so! If they split us up again, I don't know what I'll do." Billy sighed. "I mean, who'll help me put my rifle back together again when I can't remember how? Who'll wake me up when I sleep through reveille?"
"Who did all that when I wasn't around?"
"Well, I guess I did," Billy admitted. "But it was tricky! And I never had nearly as much fun."
"One thing, Billy," Littlejohn said solemnly, looking down the tent-lined path at an approaching group of soldiers. "You can't goof off in this squad. The sergeant's pretty tough. Strictly by-the-book."
"Oh no!" Billy looked genuinely worried. "Does he yell a lot?"
"You ever meet a sergeant that didn't?" Littlejohn stood up. "Here they come."
Billy Nelson stood too, looking at the soldiers following a grimy blond sergeant. They looked like seasoned veterans; compared to them, Billy looked about twelve. Littlejohn figured he probably felt that way too.
"Hi, Sarge," Littlejohn greeted them.
"Littlejohn." The sergeant nodded, then looked at Billy. "You one of our replacements?"
"Yeah." Billy swallowed. It was like this guy could look right through your forehead and see what you were thinking. Except Billy wasn't thinking much at all, other than remembering Littlejohn had said this sergeant was tough.
"Well, what's your name, soldier?" The sergeant smiled. He seemed friendly, sort of.
"Billy." No, no, that was wrong. "Private Billy Nelson," he added, hastily.
"Nelson? I'm Saunders." The sergeant stepped away from his squad and pointed at each of them in turn. "This is Caje." A dark man, thin, and wearing a strange black hat. "Doc." Also dark-haired, but with sympathetic eyes. "Braddock." A large guy, wearing the ugliest camo pants Billy had ever seen. "Williams." A big pale red-headed soldier, nearly as big as Littlejohn. "And Grady Long, our B.A.R. man." A friendly face, one that looked like it perpetually held a smile. "And that's Littlejohn by you."
"Yeah, I know Littlejohn."
Saunders glanced around. "Where's Kirby and the other guys?"
"Here, Sarge," a new voice said.
Billy glanced over his shoulder to see two soldiers approaching from the other direction.
"Found our other replacement," the first one said, with a smug smile, and jerked a thumb at a short younger blond man standing beside him. "This is Renz."
Saunders nodded to Renz.
Kirby looked a little older than the other squad members, and Billy thought he seemed edgy, never standing completely still. Always moving, looking around.
"You were supposed to draw our extra ammo," Saunders reminded Kirby.
"Yeah, well, Garzoni and Ames are taking care of that."
"That was your job." The edge in Saunders' voice was unmistakable.
"Well, Renz here was lost," Kirby said. "Thought I'd better get him over here."
Saunders just looked at Kirby, saying nothing. Billy glanced surreptitiously at Littlejohn, wondering if this was what Littlejohn had meant about their sergeant.
Kirby glanced around uncomfortably, then shrugged. It looked to Billy like Kirby was used to getting on the sergeant's bad side.
Saunders looked around at the rest of his squad and said, "You guys wait here while I go see what the lieutenant has for us." The sergeant pushed aside the tent flap and disappeared inside, and Littlejohn sat back down on the grass. The other soldiers stretched out nearby, most pulling out packs of cigarettes and lighting up.
Renz smiled tentatively at Billy, then sat down self-consciously nearby. Billy knew that outsider feeling all too well and couldn't help being grateful he had gotten lucky enough to join a squad where he knew someone. He looked up to see the dark soldier the sergeant had called 'Caje' looking between him and Littlejohn. "So, you two knew each other before?" Caje asked. Caje had an accent Billy couldn't quite place.
"Yup." Billy Nelson couldn't help grinning at the man. "We rode together some."
Littlejohn shook his head. "Billy, what is that supposed to mean?"
"You know, like cowboys. Went on trail rides together. Saved each other's lives now and then. Fought off Indian attacks!"
Littlejohn looked as serious as he could manage. "Billy, have we ever been cowboys?"
"Well, no, but--" Billy fidgeted.
Caje and Williams exchanged amused looks. Braddock chuckled, as did Grady. None of them had seen this solemnly teasing side of Littlejohn before.
"Have you ever even met a real Indian?" Littlejohn inquired gravely.
Billy shook his head. "Not a real Indian, but--"
"Did you get all that stuff from a movie?"
Littlejohn nodded, trying hard not to smile. "I thought so."
"But you did save my life!" the younger soldier protested.
"True." Littlejohn nodded.
Kirby rolled his eyes.
Caje asked again, "So, you two knew each other before this?"
"We hit Omaha Beach together," Billy confessed.
"That's more like it." Littlejohn finally allowed himself a small smile.
"Hey," said Grady Long, "you two oughta be on a U.S.O. tour doing comedy routines, not slogging around in the mud with us."
"Ha ha, very funny," Littlejohn retorted. "You sure you're not talking about yourself and Braddock?"
Braddock laughed, his round face lighting up at the thought. "You kill me, Littlejohn," he chortled.
"Aaannh, you're all crazy, if you ask me," said Kirby.
Grady Long shook his head. "Kirby, when're you gonna surprise us all by turning into a nice guy?" He reached over and playfully slapped the glowering Kirby on his helmet. "Lighten up, pal."
Two other soldiers came up suddenly, each carrying the extra ammo. "Hey, what'd we miss?" one asked, looking around the still-smiling squad. He was as dark as Caje, but rounder in the shoulders, with an unshaven face, bushy black eyebrows and a wide-lipped smile. His companion was a thin older man, his face serious and unsmiling. He began immediately passing out the ammunition and grenades he was carrying.
Littlejohn introduced them to Billy. "That's Garzoni and Ames."
Garzoni was the darker one. He looked over at Kirby expectantly. "So, did the Sarge notice?"
Kirby just scowled.
Garzoni laughed cheerfully. "That's ten you owe me, and that's U.S. dollars, buddy. Pay up."
"Kirby," Grady said patiently. "When're you going to learn you can't get anything past Saunders?"
"Aw, shut up, Grady."
Grady rolled his eyes and glanced back at the CP tent. "Wonder what's taking Saunders so long?"
Lieutenant Hanley stood beside Saunders as they bent over a wrinkled map spread across his field desk. "The only real obstacle standing in the way of the advance the brass is planning is this river." Hanley pointed a long, clean forefinger at the map. "It's too deep and too wide to ford easily, and too fast for a pontoon bridge. Our best bet is to use one of the three existing bridges. The one to the south is too small -- it's basically just a footbridge. And the one to the north is really too far out of our way. But this one here in the center could be ideal." He tapped a small marking crossing a couple of spidery lines on the map.
Saunders nodded. "So you want us to check it out."
"See if it's wide enough for trucks. And sound enough for a whole convoy to cross. S2 says the area's clear -- you shouldn't run into any trouble." Hanley straightened up and looked across the tent. "Brockmeyer! Get a radio for Sergeant Saunders."
The stocky blond corporal nodded. "Yes, sir." He turned around and started rummaging through the pile of equipment stored in the corner of the tent.
Hanley turned back to Saunders. "The bridge is on the north side of an abandoned quarry. The reports say the banks are steep and the river runs fast and deep there, so it's not going to be easy to get a good look at. Better bring some rope."
"Yes, sir," Saunders said.
"You're supposed to be getting a couple of replacements before you head out." Hanley ripped open a fresh cigarette pack and shook one out for himself, then offered the pack to Saunders.
"Thanks." Saunders took a cigarette and pulled his lighter from his pocket. "Yeah, Nelson and Renz. They're outside."
As they both lit up, Brockmeyer approached carrying a portable backpack-style radio.
"Give that to Braddock, will you?" Saunders said.
"Sure, Sarge," Brockmeyer said and headed out.
Saunders stuck his cigarette in one corner of his mouth. "I'll check in when we get there."
"Oh, and Saunders?" Hanley added as Saunders followed Brockmeyer for the tent exit.
"Yes, sir?" Saunders paused and turned around.
"Leave Doc here -- you shouldn't need him on a scouting party like this, and I'd like to send him with third squad when they go check out some enemy positions to the south."
"I'll tell him." Saunders nodded and left.
Outside, Brockmeyer was trying to hand the radio to Braddock.
"Why me?" Braddock complained, not taking it.
"Because the Sarge said so. Here."
Braddock grimaced and grabbed the radio by its straps.
Grady smiled and shook his head at him. "And here you thought you'd get out of carrying it."
"That'll be the day," Kirby smirked.
Braddock stared at the radio, then looked up and raised his eyebrows hopefully. "Hey, Brockmeyer, I'll trade you. How'd you like to go on a nice long patrol?"
Brockmeyer grinned at him. "Sorry, Braddock, the lieutenant needs me."
Braddock's hopeful expression didn't change. "I can help the lieutenant. I was helping him before you were."
"Maybe when you earn your own stripes."
"You didn't earn those stripes, you--"
Before Braddock could finish, Saunders ducked out of the tent and interrupted, "All right, that's enough. Now, listen up. Doc -- inside. Lieutenant's sending you with third squad."
Kirby grinned. "Now that's more like it. Where we going?"
"We're checking out the usability of a bridge due east of here. Littlejohn -- go requisition two coils of rope."
"Okay, Sarge," Littlejohn said, getting to his feet.
"The rest of you relax. We leave in fifteen."
Ames came over and handed Saunders the extra ammo and a couple of grenades he had been holding for him. As Saunders attached the grenades to his jacket, Grady sauntered over and leaned close. "Braddock carried the radio last time. Don't you think it's someone else's turn?"
Braddock heard him and looked over hopefully.
Saunders glanced at Grady, then followed the B.A.R. man's gaze. He had to hide a smile at Grady's obvious proposal. Why not? he thought. "Braddock," he called.
"Give the radio to Kirby."
Kirby whirled around.
Braddock grinned cheerfully. "Hey, thanks, Grady."
"Yeah, thanks, Grady," Kirby echoed, but with an entirely different tone of voice.
Grady grinned at them both. "No problem. Just keeping things fair around here."
"Braddock," Saunders said, almost as an afterthought.
"You can carry Grady's extra ammo."
Braddock's smile vanished, and he glanced wistfully after the radio Kirby had just taken from him. "Thanks a lot, Grady," he groaned.
After marching along a dusty, tree-lined road for over an hour, Saunders called a halt. "All right, let's take five."
The soldiers sprawled in the grass and weeds on either side of the road, seeking out the shade of the few trees growing between them and the deserted fields beyond. Braddock plopped down beside Billy and Littlejohn. Littlejohn had two coils of rope, carried crosswise over his body, like the bandoleers of a Mexican bandito.
"Man, am I tired of carrying this ammo," Braddock groused. "I think it's getting heavier somehow. Hey, Grady," he called across the road, "sure you don't want to fire off a few rounds? Maybe even a couple mags?"
Grady just laughed and shook his head, then sat down in the grass next to Saunders.
Braddock smiled sarcastically. "Yeah, thanks, Grady! You're a pal!" To Billy and Littlejohn, he added, "You'd think after he got me into this predicament, the least he'd do is help lighten my load a little."
Kirby walked past them toward a tree a little farther back from the road. "Well then, why don't you keep your mouth shut next time?" he snapped. He slipped out of the radio's harness and rolled his shoulders, rubbing at the muscles.
Caje came back toward them from his forward position where he had been scouting the road ahead. "Kirby, why don't you follow your own advice once in awhile?" He crossed the road to where Saunders and Grady sat. "All clear ahead, Sarge."
"Good. Go ahead and take five too," Saunders told him.
Caje re-crossed the road and sat down cross-legged in the warm grass near Kirby. "Got a smoke?" he asked.
"Yeah, yeah." Kirby fumbled in his coat pockets. "Here, last one." He tossed over the crumpled pack.
"Down to your last one already?" Caje asked as he caught the pack deftly.
"Last one in that pack." Kirby winked.
Across the road, Grady said something the other soldiers didn't catch. Saunders began to chuckle, then let loose with a full-out laugh.
Braddock shook his head. "You know, no matter how long this war lasts, I'm never getting used to that."
"Used to what?" Littlejohn asked between swigs of water from his canteen.
"The Sarge being such good buddies with Grady Long, that's what," Braddock answered.
"Yeah? Why's that?" asked Billy from where he lay stretched full-length in the grass. The shade felt good after all that marching. Maybe he should've joined the Navy instead, and had boats to take him everywhere.
Braddock explained, "I spent week after week with Saunders in England before the invasion. Not once did I hear him laugh like that."
"Aaannh." Kirby rolled his eyes. "You're just sore 'cause the Sarge never laughs at your jokes like he does Grady's."
"Shut up, Kirby," Braddock said, his tone still amiable. "You didn't know him before like I did. I'm telling you, he's a different guy with Grady around. Hey, Caje, am I right?"
Caje shrugged. "Probably."
Billy asked, "So what was the sergeant like before? Really mean or something?"
"No, he wasn't mean. He was just, I don't know, a little cold." Braddock shifted around so that he lay on his side, one arm propping up his head. "He'd talk to you easy enough, but you always felt like he was keeping his distance. Maybe the lieutenant got through to him now and then, but not like Grady does."
Kirby flicked away the end of his cigarette. "What're you now, a philosopher?"
"Drop dead, Kirby," said Braddock. "Do us all a favor."
To Billy Nelson, it seemed like several more hours of marching passed before Caje dropped back from his lead position to announce, "Not much farther. Just over this hill you can see the river."
"Wait here," Saunders said and went forward with Caje.
They bellied up to the top of the rise, and Saunders looked down into the valley beyond. The ground swept gently downhill until it neared the river, then the bank dropped a steep thirty feet into the water. The river itself was twenty-five or thirty feet across, fast-moving and deep. The narrowing gorge banks funneled the river downstream toward the bridge, where the water frothed against the arches of the quarry bridge and made visible wakes around the stone base. On the opposite side of the river, a rocky cliff rose fifty or sixty feet up from the height of the bridge. The road crossed the bridge and switchbacked all the way up the cliff to the top, where a promontory overlook jutted out.
Saunders let his gaze sweep downriver, past the bridge and the cliff face, to the giant scooped-out hill of the abandoned quarry itself -- the broad flat area by the river, the carved-out steps of the stone walls, a couple of wooden outbuildings just visible in the lee of some boulders -- all of it unapproachable from this side of the river without swimming or crossing the bridge.
He returned his scrutiny to the bridge in question. It was an old stone masonry structure, almost as broad across as it was long; two trucks could pass side-by-side on it without trouble. He lifted his field-glasses to his eyes and began a slow scan. It was old, all right, and in pretty poor repair. The two spans were fissured and missing stones, and the main support in the center of the river looked like it had been battered by one too many storms. The river swirled around rubble that had been knocked loose. The bridge roadway appeared to have at least two gaping holes on the far side that, despite the bridge's width, looked big enough to prevent even a jeep from crossing. Those could be patched easily enough, as long as the arches were structurally sound and able to bear weight. They would need to take a closer look.
And that posed a problem, he thought, just as Hanley had predicted from the reports. The bridge was wide enough that no one could see the underside clearly from the shore, and the steepness of the banks would prevent anyone from being able to get beneath it without the aid of ropes or by flat-out swimming. And that stiff current would make any water reconnaissance difficult.
Saunders studied the area again with the binoculars, making sure nothing moved out there. The road split just before the bridge. One half spilled onto the bridge roadway; the other continued south along the riverbank. He ordered, "Caje, scout up along the road on this side of the river. See where it goes."
"Right," Caje said and took off.
Saunders signaled to the rest of squad, and they followed the road over the rise and down to where it forked at the bridge. The thick trees and underbrush that had lined the road suddenly petered out in the rocky soil, and the bridge and surrounding riverbanks were completely in the open. He didn't like that exposure, but there was nothing to do about it.
"Grady," Saunders said, gesturing to the vegetation to the right of the road. "Cover us from here. Kirby, leave the radio with him. Grady -- call Hanley and let him know we arrived."
Kirby hurriedly handed his rifle to Garzoni and shrugged out of the radio's shoulder straps. Braddock dropped Grady's extra ammo down beside the B.A.R. man.
Saunders went on, "Ames, Garzoni -- check out the condition of that cliff road. It's got to be able to handle armor." He pointed up at the top of the cliff on the opposite bank. "That overlook should give you a good view in all directions. One of you take up position there, the other -- see what else is up there. Here, you might need these." He handed his binoculars to Ames.
Ames slipped the binocular strap over his head, and the two men headed off, trotting onto the bridge.
"The rest of you -- let's check out this bridge."
There remained a certain majesty to the old stone structure that defied the harsh passage of time. Its lines were basic and functional and, yet, the crumbling balustrade displayed more ornate curves than the simple bridge warranted, as did the squat columned decorations rising from the abutments at each end of the bridge.
Ames and Garzoni crossed carefully, veering wide on the far end to avoid the collapses in the roadway. On the other side of the bridge, beneath the cliff walls, was a circular flat area, large enough to give vehicles a place to pull off or turn around before ascending the switchback road. A stone hut still stood off to one side, and Ames checked it out and signaled all clear to Saunders before he and Garzoni started up the road.
Littlejohn and Billy headed immediately toward the center of the bridge.
Saunders walked to the right side of the bridge, but the bank was as steep there as it was on the left. He slipped on the sandy ground before he caught himself against the abutment and pulled himself back up on the road. Any attempt to get down to the base of the bridge that way would result in an unpleasant bath, with no way to get out of the water until the banks leveled out further downriver into the quarry.
Braddock was standing nearby, eyeing the bridge as if it might collapse at any moment. "You know, Sarge, I've built houses out of cards that looked more stable than this."
"It's stone, Braddock, it's not going to fall apart."
"You never know."
Saunders shook his head and walked past him onto the bridge.
Braddock followed, saying, "I don't know anything about bridges. What good am I going to do?"
"You don't need to know anything about bridges."
"I don't?" Braddock asked, raising both eyebrows in doubt.
Saunders stopped walking and turned back toward the heavy private, his face a mask of innocence. "You know how to tie a knot, don't you?"
Braddock perked up. "Sure, I can tie a pretty decent knot."
"Good. Then get out there and help Littlejohn with the ropes."
Braddock's smile fell.
"Go on," Saunders ordered, sharply. He turned and called, "Kirby, you and Nelson are going over the side. We need to know what condition those two spans are in underneath. Williams, Renz! Give Littlejohn and Braddock a hand."
Kirby grimaced, but made his way out to the middle of the bridge. He moved to the right-hand side and peered over the railing. Fifteen, twenty feet down, the water rushed out from under the bridge in mesmerizing patterns.
"Hey, dummy," Braddock called. "Wrong side, unless you like swimming upstream."
"I know that," Kirby snapped. "I'm just taking a look." He turned and unslung his rifle as he crossed to the left side of the bridge where Littlejohn was pulling the two coils of rope off over his head.
Saunders glanced up to check on Ames and Garzoni's progress. They were toiling up the long switchbacks, already halfway up. He looked back at Grady's position, but the B.A.R. man had faded into the underbrush already. Off in the distance, Caje was a tiny figure weaving among the trees along the south river road.
Kirby looked doubtfully over the side again as Littlejohn and Braddock secured the ropes to the stone railings about twelve feet apart, one on either side of the center support. Littlejohn asked Braddock, "You know how to tie a double bowline?"
"A what?" Braddock asked, his hands working with the rope.
"That's it." Kirby shoved Billy toward Braddock and took his place by Littlejohn.
"Hey!" Billy said. He moved back in front of Littlejohn. Kirby made a face and crossed his arms as he watched Braddock work.
Braddock held up his neatly-knotted rope. Littlejohn smiled.
"You guys trying to be funny?" Kirby muttered. He tugged suspiciously with both hands at the looped and knotted rope Braddock handed him, as if expecting the knots to unravel. "How do I know you tied this right?"
"Kirby, I am full of talents you couldn't even begin to guess at."
"Like always cutting in first on the chow line, weaseling out of patrols...."
"Don't you know it's not polite to brag about yourself?" Braddock said.
"Hurry up out there," Saunders called.
"Yeah, hurry up out there," Braddock said to Kirby, mimicking Saunders' tone of voice. "You think we got all day?"
Saunders slowly crossed the bridge. The first half of the roadway appeared in good shape; only the last bit had not fared so well. He dropped on one knee beside one of the ragged collapses in the roadway, bending forward cautiously to see if he could determine how undermined it was. The river rushed by below and, through the hole, he could see Billy being lowered down on the east side of the center support. He thought most of the damage looked worse than it really was, and he stood again, glancing behind him, to check on the men's progress.
Williams, while not as tall as Littlejohn, still made most of the squad members feel short. He and Braddock had Kirby's rope; Littlejohn and Renz had Billy's. Both teams were carefully paying out their lines, lowering their charges over the side.
Braddock glanced over at Littlejohn. "Betcha ours hits the water first."
"That's no bet," Littlejohn said.
Saunders shook his head and walked around the second hole to reach the far side of the bridge. The cliff top promontory jutted out above him. The eastern bank offered nearly vertical drops into the river, and he didn't bother getting too close to the edge. Even though he had seen Ames check out the stone hut built there, he checked it out himself and found only an empty stone-walled room.
"Stop!" Kirby shouted, but he went waist-deep into the river before the rope jerked taut. The current sucked him immediately beneath the bridge, where he hung awkwardly, with not enough play to maneuver. Kirby cursed Braddock under his breath. But the water wasn't that cold, and it actually felt rather good. Except he would be hiking back in wet boots. As if he didn't have enough blisters already.
He grabbed the rope and over-handed himself back upriver until he could be heard over the loud noise of the rushing water. "Give me some more slack!"
They did, but this time he was ready, and he grabbed hold of the jumbled debris knocked out of the center support. He drew himself up until he was standing on top of the rubble. The rushing water broke knee-deep around his legs. He started inspecting the wall.
He heard Billy's voice echoing and saw the kid peeking at him from the other side through a deep crack in the thick stone. "I can scrape the mortar out with my knife," Billy said. "Is that bad?"
"Aaannh," Kirby said. "Who knows." He slapped the stone with his palm and looked downstream, eyeing the wall.
"What's this writing?" Billy asked, calling through the crack again.
"Looks German. Like little notations on the wall. It's in chalk or something." Billy added, "It rubs off."
"Aaannh," Kirby said again. "Probably nothing." The kid was seeing things, he thought. It was probably just mineral deposits leeching out of the stones from the constant moisture. He had some of that on his side too, white squiggly lines and rings he could rub off. He studied the right-hand abutment wall where another section had crumbled loose. It was too dark beneath the wide bridge to see it properly from his position and, with a grimace, he decided he had better get wetter and check it out up close. Saunders would kill him if he didn't do this inspection right.
"Give me some more slack!"
Braddock heard Kirby's shout and nodded to Williams. They let some more rope out. Braddock wiped his brow one-handed. "Why don't we get Grady's job? Stretch out in some bushes and count the clouds." He sighed longingly, then made a face at Williams. "This is more work than digging a foxhole."
Williams chuckled. "Don't let Saunders hear you, or I'm sure he'll find something else for you to do. You know what he always says."
"Yeah, I know. I need the exercise." Braddock grimaced. "If I get any more exercise, I might lose my manly figure. The only exercise I want is--"
Gunfire cut through the morning air -- sharp, menacing, and far too close. On the bridge, the men's gazes snapped upward, up the cliff face in the direction the noise had come.
Down by the stone hut, Saunders craned his head back to look skyward, realizing in a heartbeat that if something had gone wrong, if there were Germans up there, the squad were sitting ducks down here. Distance and cover were their only option and the bridge had neither. He started back across the bridge, shouting to Littlejohn and Braddock, "Get 'em back up, now!"
He looked downriver and located Caje; alerted by the gunfire, he was already jogging back from his downstream recon. Good.
More gunfire came from up above -- this time, the clear whiplash crack of rifles. Littlejohn and Renz, Braddock and Williams were heaving on the ropes. Then Kirby was up, and Braddock grabbed his arm to help pull him over the railing. Williams joined the other two men in hauling Billy the last feet up onto the bridge. Kirby quickly freed his legs from the looped rope and grabbed up his rifle.
"Get those ropes off there!" Saunders said, as he ran up.
Braddock tugged frantically at the knots around the railing.
One of the squad ran up to the rim of the cliff overlook. Saunders thought it was Ames. The man waved and shouted, "Krauts!"
Then Garzoni appeared a second later, sprinting immediately down the switchback road. Ames turned to follow but the sharp staccato of a German machine pistol opened up. Ames stumbled and fell soundlessly off the overlook, rolling down the last thirty feet of slanted bank to hit the water with a splash. The current sucked his body downriver.
Saunders yelled, "Get off the bridge! Get back, get back!"
Renz and Williams took off immediately. Braddock finally got his rope untied and simply flung the end out over the railing, into the river, before snatching up his rifle from where it leaned against the bridge railing. Saunders watched Littlejohn gathering the last of the rope he had been using and slip the coil back around his body. Billy tugged at the tall man's arm urgently.
Then up on the overlook, the first couple of Germans looked down over the cliff rim, their dark helmets silhouetted against the sky.
Almost instantly, Grady opened up from his position, and one of the Germans collapsed, dropping his rifle. It rebounded off the side of the cliff a few times before splashing into the river. The other Kraut yanked back out of sight. Spurts of dust and rock kicked up where Grady's bullets raked the top of the cliff.
Then more Germans appeared: peeking and retreating, then apparently lying down, barely visible to the men below. The muzzles of their rifles eased out over the cliff edge, and they opened up on the Americans.
The squad returned fire, but the Germans made almost impossible targets. Grady was clearly trying to cover Garzoni's pell-mell run down the switchbacks, and Saunders tensed, watching the figure sprinting downhill. There was no way Garzoni could make it; he had too far to go, with no cover. That overlook Saunders had thought would make such a good observation spot for Ames was now working for the Germans, exposing not only the whole bridge, but the entire switchback road to their gun sights. The Germans would shoot Garzoni down, and there was nothing Saunders or any of the other squad members could do about it. Grimly, Saunders fired at the cliff top again, hoping he would get lucky, hoping he could buy Garzoni a miracle.
Then the snout of not one but two heavy machine guns appeared over the edge on their tripods. One targeted the bridge; the other aimed for Grady's position. Grady's B.A.R. fell silent as he took cover. Saunders dove for the left-hand abutment, nearly sliding down the steep slope into the river. Renz and Williams took cover behind the other. Kirby and Braddock kept going, zigzagging, heading for the underbrush and trees on the other side of the road near Grady. Littlejohn and Billy -- still on the bridge -- dropped to the ground and rolled up against the bridge railing, pressing themselves flat against the stone.
The German machine guns fired mercilessly, pinning them all down, bullets whining in murderous ricochets off the stone bridge.
When Saunders fired upward, trying to hit the guns, Renz and Williams followed suit, their rifle shots cracking out across the quarry. What they needed was a bazooka, or a grenade launcher, something that would let them hit the top of the cliff out of their own visual sight. And they had nothing like that. Their bullets passed harmlessly over the prone Germans' heads or peppered the edge of the cliff face. They might as well have been firing peashooters at the Krauts for all the good they were doing.
Then one German machine gun fell silent -- Caje, realizing the danger, had cut away from the river, going for higher ground and a better angle from where he had been able to hit either the gun itself or the operator. Saunders couldn't tell which. The stammer of the other machine gun stopped as well and, in the momentary lull, Saunders shouted at Littlejohn and Nelson to get off the bridge. He ran himself, crouched, sprinting toward the trees, followed by Renz and Williams. Grady opened up again as soon as the German machine guns stopped, Kirby and Braddock joining in.
Rifle fire started again from the cliff top, and Littlejohn and Nelson dove behind the right-hand abutment that Williams and Renz had just vacated, unable to get farther.
"Get out of there!" Saunders shouted at them.
"What about Garzoni?" Littlejohn shouted back.
Garzoni was a dead man. Saunders knew it, but his gaze traveled across the bridge, up the road. The private had passed the last switchback and was racing down the final section, twisting, darting left and right to make himself a harder target. Somehow, he had made it that far without being hit, and Saunders held his breath as Garzoni flung himself the last feet and drew up behind the small stone hut on the other side of the bridge. It was the last spot of good cover until he could join them here, in the vegetation. Sixty feet of exposure: forty feet on a deathtrap bridge, twenty across the open road. The words echoed bitterly in his brain: Garzoni was a dead man.
Then in between the spurts of small arms fire, with no warning, an explosion behind them showered them with dirt and debris.
Everyone flung themselves for better cover.
"Sarge, we gotta get outta here," Braddock called, urgently.
The first shells were all long, blowing great smoking craters in the ground thirty feet behind them, splintering trees. It wouldn't take the Germans much time to adjust the range, though the fact they were aiming long indicated they didn't want to risk damaging the bridge. They must want it intact too, Saunders thought. And that meant this lousy dilapidated bridge had just attained an importance its old stones hadn't had since this was an active quarry. S2's intel hadn't mentioned anything about a German push, and certainly not here.
It was Garzoni, shouting from the other side of the bridge.
"There's a whole platoon up there, Sarge!" Garzoni shouted. He yelled something else, but a burst of machine gun fire drowned him out.
A whole platoon... Saunders swore.
Another mortar blast hit behind them, closer this time.
And at the same time, a covered truck rumbled down from the top of the road, its heavy tires kicking up dust. There was movement on the far side of the vehicle, just visible through the dust -- soldiers, using the truck as cover, were coming down where they could get a better shot at the Americans.
Garzoni was peeking around the corner of the hut, staring upward. He turned abruptly, shouldered his rifle, and pulled two grenades off his jacket. He held them up, gestured urgently up the road while looking across the distance at Saunders as if for confirmation.
"Geez," Kirby said. "He gonna try for that truck from his position?"
For a second, Saunders thought that's exactly what Garzoni was going to do, but then the man was shouting again, and Saunders made out the word "road" and understood. Garzoni meant to try to damage the switchback road, blow a couple of craters in it that just might undercut the cliff edge enough to prevent the Germans from bringing their trucks down.
"Do it!" Saunders yelled, hoping Garzoni could hear him.
He thought he saw Garzoni nod, but the German heavy machine gun opened up again, and Saunders ducked flat, covering his head. The Krauts were trying to pin them down, keep them from retreating or trying to hit the truck while it downshifted and kept on coming.
Grady's rate of fire had slowed, and Saunders knew he was running low on ammo, despite the extra they had brought. The B.A.R. man would be conserving his last mags to cover the squad's retreat. In fact, they were all running low on ammo. They hadn't come equipped for a protracted firefight. S2 had reported the area clear. Sure, it was clear all right, Saunders thought, angrily. Clear as a mud puddle.
They had to get out of there. Saunders quickly checked on the positions of the squad. Caje held the high ground off to their right, where he was sniping at the soldiers hiding behind the truck. Garzoni was still on the wrong side of the bridge. Littlejohn and Nelson crouched side by side behind the right-hand bridge abutment twenty feet away. Grady was off to his left, joined now by Renz and Williams, and Kirby and Braddock lay next to Saunders.
Saunders checked on Garzoni again, just in time to see the man step back and heave one, then the other of his grenades high up. It was a risky throw -- if they didn't clear the edge of the road, they would bounce off the cliff and come right back down on top of him -- but his throw was carefully aimed; almost too carefully, because when the grenades had exploded -- one, two -- and the geysers of dirt and rock settled back down, Saunders could see that most of the damage was close against the inner side of the road, not the outer. One good explosion against the outer edge would have undercut the road, leaving the Germans no way to fill it in again. Still, the craters looked wide and deep enough that there was no way their truck could get down without some repair work.
The twin explosions had startled the Germans, and their remaining machine gun on the cliff had fallen silent. In the abrupt quiet, the voices of the German soldiers carried clearly across the gorge.
Garzoni immediately turned and sprinted across the bridge.
"Give him cover!" Saunders shouted. It was useless, he knew it in his gut, but they had to try anyway.
The Americans began firing. Saunders targeted the truck, as the soldiers it hid had a better field of vision than any up on top of the cliff. But it didn't make any difference. The Germans opened fire, and Garzoni caught it just as he ran out onto the bridge. His sheer momentum carried him staggering another ten feet before he pitched forward to skid and half-roll onto his back.
Saunders closed his eyes for a second, the fury churning in his gut -- two men dead on a routine recon patrol. This shouldn't have happened.
He opened his eyes again and tersely ordered Kirby and Braddock to join Grady, adding, "Braddock! Get Hanley on the radio." Braddock nodded, and both men scuttled off toward Grady under cover of the vegetation and tree line. Saunders rolled over and shouted back at the bridge, "Nelson, Littlejohn! Fall back! Fall back!"
Brockmeyer entered Lieutenant Hanley's large tent, a cup of coffee in each hand. "Lieutenant, I've got your--" He stopped speaking when he saw that Hanley had fallen asleep at his desk. Head pillowed on his arms, the lieutenant sprawled across the little portable table, snatching a few precious minutes of rest. If there was one thing the Army taught you, it was to sleep whenever you could, wherever you could.
Brockmeyer set one cup of coffee down on the radio table, then sipped from the other. The coffee had cooled already, which should have been nice on a hot June afternoon, but it irritated him. If there was one thing he hated, it was lukewarm coffee.
The radio crackled beside him, and he turned quickly to it, grateful for the distraction. It was Braddock's voice asking for King Two, and the urgency in his tone worried Brockmeyer. "Hang on White Rook. Over," he said, then turned and called quickly, "Lieutenant -- Saunders is calling in."
Hanley lifted his head, yawned, and rubbed his eyes. "Who?" he asked.
"Right." Hanley stood and crossed to Brockmeyer, took the proffered phone. "White Rook, this is King Two. Over."
He jerked the phone away from his ear as the ripping noise of gunfire came over the radio loud enough that Brockmeyer could hear it too. "Say again, White Rook. Over," Hanley said grimly.
Brockmeyer couldn't make out what Saunders was saying between the obvious sounds of a firefight, but just watching Hanley's face was enough to tell him something had gone terribly wrong with the bridge recon.
Hanley said, "Hold on, White Rook. Over." He turned to Brockmeyer and snapped, "Get me Captain Jampel, immediately."
Saunders flung his arm over his head as two more mortar blasts came, one after another, pelting them with debris. He wiped blood off his cheek where a flying rock had gashed it. What was taking Hanley so long? he thought furiously.
And while they lay there returning fire sporadically, he could hear the steady rumble of the German truck coming down the road. It braked suddenly, and Saunders looked up to see it had finally reached the section damaged by Garzoni's grenades. The soldiers who had been hiding behind it broke from cover, running past the grenade craters, down the dirt road, stopping occasionally to fire across the river at the squad. They were almost superfluous, Saunders thought, as long as that heavy machine gun on the overlook had the ammo to keep the Americans pinned down, and the mortars continued to zero in on their position.
He switched on the radio again and said, "King Two, this is White Rook. I need your orders. We can't stay here much longer. Over."
"What's keeping them?" Braddock muttered.
Another mortar blast knocked them all flat, and Saunders lost his grip on both the radio and his Thompson. Ears ringing, dazed, he watched a great gout of earth and obliterated tree bits blow upward, almost in slow motion. His hand slapped the ground around him, searching for his Thompson.
They couldn't afford to stay there a minute longer. He coughed and spat blood, found he'd had bitten his lip. He shouted, "Retreat! We're getting out of here. Let's go." He shoved at Braddock and got to his knees, the Thompson back in his hands.
A scream came from off to his left, and he turned to see Renz buckling forward, clutching at his stomach.
Williams and Braddock were closest. They got Renz up between them, hauled him off. Kirby followed, shooting at the soldiers on the switchbacks as he went. Saunders looked around and swore again. Littlejohn and Billy were still pinned down at the bridge. They had managed to cross to the left-hand abutment, which afforded them more protection, but they hadn't been able to cross the road to reach the others.
Saunders started to move their direction, but Grady grabbed his arm. The B.A.R. man said, "I'll cover them. You go."
The sudden concussion from one of the mortar shells struck nearby, and they dropped flat again, covering their heads protectively.
"Kirby's down," Grady said, urgently.
Saunders rolled to get a look.
Kirby was sprawled in the road, trying to push himself to his knees. He shook his head, looking dazed and only half-conscious, but uninjured. But when the dust and smoke cleared, he would make an easy target as soon as one of the Germans spotted him.
Almost irritated, Grady shoved at Saunders and said, "Go!"
Grady used up his next-to-last mag, but Littlejohn and Billy were still pinned down at the edge of the bridge. He grimaced, then made a decision, reloaded, picked up the B.A.R., and headed back their way to get as close as he could.
At the bridge, Billy said desperately, "Littlejohn, I'm out of ammo!" He ducked down again as a spray of machine gun fire kicked chips of stone off the abutment.
Littlejohn said nothing. He was nearly out himself. A glance over his shoulder showed the trees looking no closer; that open bare ground seemed to stretch forever, even if it was only twenty feet. They would have to try for it anyway. It was either that or stay there and die, or get captured. Then he saw Grady coming back, darting tree to tree, bush to bush to get closer. Suddenly, Caje pushed through the bushes from the other direction and joined the B.A.R. man. Littlejohn smiled grimly. This would be the only chance he and Billy would get. If Grady and Caje couldn't give them enough cover, no one could.
"Get ready to run," Littlejohn said to Billy. "Next time a mortar hits, use the dust and smoke for cover."
"What about you?"
"I'll be right behind you."
An explosion rained dirt and pebbles on them.
"Now!" Littlejohn shouted. Billy took off, Caje and Grady opened fire, then a second mortar shell hit, the concussion sweeping them all off their feet. Billy lost his rifle. Grady scuttled out and checked on Billy as the kid started to sit up. He shoved Billy toward cover, shouting, "Get moving, kid!" then hurried to Littlejohn. Bullets whined around them, and Grady dropped flat, but he was too close to the edge of the embankment and he started to slide. Littlejohn dove forward and caught hold of Grady's left arm, but the top of the embankment crumpled under his feet as he scrabbled furiously against the inexorable pull of Grady's weight.
It was the Krauts across the way firing as they came down the last switchback. Billy unhooked his two grenades. He had a good throwing arm and it wasn't more than ninety feet or so across the river gorge up onto that last switchback before the bridge, like throwing from third base to home plate. He could do that easily, without even trying hard. He was out of ammo, out of other options. And he needed to buy Littlejohn time to get Grady back up before they slid any further toward the river or the Germans picked them off.
Caje kept up steady fire from his position, dropping German soldiers across the way.
Billy pulled the pin from the first grenade and threw it hard, watched it arc over the gorge. It exploded as it hit the cliff wall above the road, kicking a great gout of rock and dirt out of the wall and taking out three of the soldiers standing beneath. Their gunfire ceased, and Billy shouted to Littlejohn, "Come on!"
Littlejohn hauled at Grady.
Billy armed the second grenade, had just drawn his arm back to send it after the first, when agonizing pain ripped through his left bicep. He cried out and, without thinking, grabbed at the wound with his right hand, dropping the armed grenade in the process. It rolled a few feet toward Grady and Littlejohn. Littlejohn, facing the river and still trying to pull Grady away from the edge, didn't see it, but Grady did. His free hand shot forward and closed around it. He turned and heaved it away from them, but the frantic action overbalanced him and he started to slide again, despite Littlejohn's grip on him. "Kid!" Grady started to shout, to get Billy moving, unfrozen, then he yelled in pain as a Kraut bullet hit his right shoulder.
A second later, the grenade blew on the near side of the river, almost directly below them. A geyser of white water shot thirty feet into the air. The concussion was close enough to send Littlejohn and Grady both tumbling down the steep bank into the river. They hit with a terrific splash and were swept immediately downstream toward the bridge. Billy saw Littlejohn grab Grady's jacket collar with one hand and a jutting piece of broken masonry with the other. The current broke around them, but Littlejohn fought it, hauling Grady closer to him so he could get a better grip on the wounded B.A.R. man.
Billy stared, frozen, in pain, knowing it was his fault; then Caje was grabbing him, shouting at him, yanking him firmly away, until suddenly they were under cover and Billy had no memory of getting there.
"Come on!" Caje snarled, frustrated with him. "Let's go!"
Billy felt Caje's iron grip dragging him away through the trees and bushes. The German gunfire stopped behind them, and a strange desolate silence fell over everything. There was just the sound of their crashing through the bushes. The constant gunfire, the explosions all seemed to belong to another reality, and Billy let Caje pull him along, too numb to object.
Then they were out of the vegetation, on the road again, moving freely.
Up ahead, the rest of the squad had stopped just off the road and were gathered around someone who was lying on their back: Renz -- moaning and crying. Billy could hear the voices buzzing around the wounded man, talking over each other. He heard the anger, the frustration, the urgency -- but the words themselves didn't penetrate his mind. He felt Caje sit him down nearby and start removing his jacket. Billy cried out, startled, as the sharp pain in his arm cut through his thoughts. He had almost forgotten about getting shot. How did one do that? How was it possible to put something that painful out of your head? Caje got the jacket off him, and Billy stared at the blood-soaked shirt sleeve in astonishment. That's my blood... It didn't panic him like he had thought it would. But there were Littlejohn and Grady Long in his mind, tumbling down into the river where no one could help them. They were there because of him. Because he had dropped the grenade. He hadn't even been shot in that arm; he had no excuse. Why couldn't he have hung onto the grenade long enough to throw it away? Why had he just dropped it like that, without thinking? He had failed them, and that knowledge hurt worse than any bullet wound ever would.
Abruptly, Billy realized Renz had fallen silent, the squad's voices had trailed away, and there was just the midday sun, the whisper of wind through the trees, and the trilling call of some bird nearby.
Caje ripped open a sulfa packet and shook the contents into Billy's wound.
Saunders straightened suddenly, pushing himself away from Renz's body. His gaze swept over the gathered men, taking a rapid headcount. His face was scraped on one side, just superficial cuts from flying dirt and rocks, the bleeding already stopped. "Where's Grady?" he asked sharply, looking around.
The question hit Billy like a straight right to the jaw, and the panic he thought he had managed to escape rose through him, froze him there with his heart pounding. His mouth opened, but no words came out.
It was Caje who answered Saunders, with a slow headshake.
Saunders' jaw worked a moment, clenching and unclenching, before he said, "What happened?"
"I'm not sure," Caje said. "There was an explosion -- grenade, I think-- right near them. Grady and Littlejohn went in the river."
"Alive?" Saunders' voice was even sharper.
"I don't know, Sarge," Caje said, wearily. "I couldn't see from where I was. Maybe, but I doubt it."
Kirby said, bitterly, "What does it matter? Even if they did survive the blast, they're dead men. That place'll be crawling with Krauts. They wouldn't stand a chance." He broke off under the glare Saunders turned on him, looked away.
Caje unwrapped a bandage, stretched it out, and began tying it around Billy's arm.
Into the uncomfortable hush, Saunders said, "Give me the radio."
Billy stared at him, wide-eyed and more than a little scared at the way the sergeant bit out the deceptively simple command. Billy would rather have heard Saunders start yelling, but this quiet fury, barely held back and clearly looking for an outlet, was something else. Billy had a feeling whoever Saunders meant to call on the radio was going to be in for it. But wouldn't that be their lieutenant? Saunders wouldn't yell at him, would he?
Braddock cleared his throat. "We don't have the radio."
Saunders turned on him, and Braddock shrugged. Billy wondered how he could be so nonchalant under that wrathful gaze. Maybe Braddock was just a good actor. "It's still sitting back by Grady's position," Braddock explained. "Renz got hit and none of us had time to grab it."
For a long moment, Saunders didn't move, then his shoulders slumped ever so slightly and, when he spoke again, the dangerous anger seemed to have receded a little. "All right, on your feet. Let's get out of here." He turned toward Caje and Billy. "Nelson?"
"He's okay, Sarge," Caje said. "Wound's clean. Bullet passed right through."
Saunders nodded, almost absently.
Everyone else climbed to their feet, picked up their weapons and packs.
Saunders said, "Williams, take the point."
The squad took off in a ragged single-file line. Billy started after Caje, but stopped, his eyes straying back to Saunders, who was taking up the rear. Saunders hadn't moved yet, was staring back in the direction of the bridge. Billy couldn't see his face, and he thought that was a good thing. Cold, distant, Braddock had said, describing him. Tough, Littlejohn had said. But neither man had mentioned this side of their squad leader. It scared him. How was he supposed to tell this man that it was his fault Grady had been wounded? Saunders was liable to kill him. But he had to tell him. If he didn't, then nobody would help Littlejohn, and Littlejohn and Grady were still alive, he was sure of that. He had seen Littlejohn pulling Grady to safety beneath the bridge. But if he didn't say anything to Saunders, they wouldn't be for long.
"Sarge," he began.
Saunders turned then, and Billy felt those blue eyes boring into his. "Move out, Nelson."
Billy swallowed, and said again, "Sarge, I--"
"I said move out!" Saunders lashed out, angrily.
Billy jumped and quickly turned, stumbling after Caje, clutching his wounded arm tightly to his side. He wasn't sure which would overwhelm him first, the physical pain, or the guilt inside him. And every step he took away from the bridge only increased his misery.
The water dragged mercilessly at Littlejohn, trying to pry loose his grip on the wet stone. He shifted position again, treading water slowly, trying to swing Grady's weight in closer to the center stone wall where he would be more protected from the fast current. Ironically, it was the decrepit state of the bridge that had saved them. He had been able to grab onto the jumbled pile of collapsed masonry, and that was the only thing that had prevented him and Grady from being swept downstream and out into the open.
The gunfire had stopped. He fervently hoped Billy had made it to cover safely. Caje had been back there... Caje would have gotten him away if he had been able to. Littlejohn had been so busy trying to keep Grady from falling that he hadn't been able to see where the kid had gone. Then that explosion had gone off right below them, and there was nothing to do but grab on to Grady and pray.
The wounded B.A.R. man was gasping, sputtering as water slapped him in the face whenever Littlejohn's grip sagged. Littlejohn had maneuvered them just downriver from the largest collapse, where the rubble diverted the worst of the current away from them. There was enough fallen stone that Littlejohn thought he could at least get Grady partly out of the water. If he didn't, he thought bleakly, his grip wasn't going to hold much longer, and they both were going to get swept downriver.
At least the same steep riverbanks that had kept them from inspecting the bridge easily would keep the Germans from it too. And they were fortunate, Littlejohn thought, that the near side of the bridge was intact. If the river had carried them beneath the eastern arch, they would have been exposed to the Germans by those two great holes overhead.
A whole platoon....
Garzoni's shouted words echoed in his brain. Why'd the Krauts have to show up now, and in such force? The squad hadn't stood a chance.
Wait a minute, Littlejohn thought and, for the first time, felt a surge of hope. The Germans wouldn't have sent a whole platoon just to recon the bridge. No, he realized. They would have done that already, yesterday, maybe. Hours before the squad got there. Two teams sent to recon the same objective, and the Krauts had beaten them to it. They were back in force today because they had already checked out the bridge and found it would bear the weight of their trucks; they wouldn't need to inspect it again. And that meant as long as he and Grady stayed beneath, they would be safe from observation, at least for a while. Then, when it got dark, maybe....
"Littlejohn..." Grady gasped. "I'm hit... right shoulder."
"I know," Littlejohn said. "I'm going to try to get you more out of the water so I can take a look." Grady's B.A.R. and his own rifle were long gone, but the coil of rope was still around his body, dragging at him and hampering his arm movements. He wondered if he couldn't use it somehow to help secure Grady. He would need both hands free if he was going to try to bandage the man. All their med supplies were soaking wet, though.
Had anyone in the squad seen what had happened to them? Billy and Caje had been the only two close enough, but who knew which way they had actually been looking when that explosion had gone off, or if they were even still alive now. If Saunders knew Grady was alive, he would be back; Saunders wouldn't leave him behind.
But then Littlejohn shook his head to himself. No, it didn't matter what Saunders knew or wanted: the bridge was now in the hands of the Germans, a full platoon of Germans that had clobbered them with their cliff-top advantage. And now they held both banks. The Americans wouldn't be able to get close enough to see the bridge again, let alone attempt a rescue. No, he and Grady were on their own.
"Littlejohn...." Grady said.
Littlejohn thrust aside his fears and gave his full attention to Grady.
Mixed feelings overwhelmed Billy as they returned to the tent encampment. Relief that for the moment, at least, the walking was over and he could rest; despair that he was here, and not back at the bridge.
"You okay, kid?" Braddock asked, gesturing at Billy's arm as he came up alongside the younger man.
"Oh this? Caje says it's just a scratch."
Braddock raised an eyebrow, then shook his head. "You're braver than me, kid. You and Littlejohn. I remember when he--" Braddock broke off at the look on Billy's face. "Something wrong?"
But Billy couldn't find the words, and he shook his head. "Nothing."
He knew Braddock was still watching him, puzzled.
Saunders marched them straight to Hanley's CP, and Billy keenly felt Littlejohn's absence as the familiar tent hove into view. It was only early afternoon now, and just this morning... joking, laughing, reunited. How did things change so quickly? War seemed to compact events that should have taken days and years into mere hours. Billy glanced around at the remnants of the recon patrol. Just Saunders, Braddock, Kirby, Williams, himself, and Caje remained. Little more than half the patrol.
"Caje," Saunders said, at the tent entrance. "Get a medic over here."
"Right." Caje took off at a fast jog.
Saunders watched him go, then shoved aside the tent flap and gestured the squad inside.
Billy went in tentatively. Even though it was shaded inside, it seemed hotter than being outside in the afternoon sun, the air too warm and still. Lieutenant Hanley stood when they entered. "I've been trying to contact you on the radio for over an hour." He looked over the five men who entered, then asked tightly, "Where's the rest of the squad?"
Saunders said nothing, his lips pursed together as he grimly met the lieutenant's gaze. Hanley looked away first. Quietly, he said, "Give me the report on the bridge's usability."
Curtly, Saunders answered, "Roadway needs repairs before you can get a vehicle across it, but otherwise looked sound. Kirby?"
Kirby crossed his arms uncomfortably and said, "The stone support arches have quite a bit of damage, but I don't think it'll affect its load-bearing capacity. It looked sound from what I could see. Get the surface bed filled in, and it should hold armor."
"You sure?" Hanley asked.
"Yes, sir," Kirby said. "That stone was three feet thick."
Caje came in suddenly, accompanied by a different medic than the small, dark-haired man Billy had met earlier. This one had pale blond hair and a rich tan, and looked as if he'd be more at home carrying hay bales than a medic's kit.
Saunders turned and gestured the medic toward Billy, then turned back to Hanley. "What does it matter? The Germans hold that bridge now, Lieutenant, and they hold it in force."
Hanley tensed, knowing Saunders wasn't saying half the things he wanted to. Not yet anyway. Hanley ignored the tension for the moment and asked, "How long do you estimate it will take them to get it repaired for their own use?"
The medic was trying to steer Billy toward a chair, but Billy swallowed and stepped forward instead, remembering something he had seen under the bridge. Something that might be important. "Sir?" he interrupted, tentatively.
Hanley's gaze settled on him. "What is it, Private...?"
"Nelson, sir," the young man said, then added, "When I was under the bridge with Kirby, I saw some chalk writing on the middle support. Looked like German." He screwed his eyes shut, trying to recall the letters he had seen. He tried to sound out the word: "Abstewer or absuszen or something like that."
From his corner, Brockmeyer said, "Abstützen?"
Billy turned to look at the blond corporal, then asked sheepishly, "Uh, how do you spell that?"
While Brockmeyer grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil, Hanley looked over at Saunders and said, "You know what this means if it is German?"
Saunders said darkly, "That the Krauts already scouted that bridge before we got there."
Behind them, they heard Billy say, "Yeah, that's about what it looked like."
Hanley asked Brockmeyer, "What's it mean?"
"Basically, to shore up."
Hanley nodded. That was that. The Germans had been planning to use the bridge all along. He looked back at Saunders. "Do you have a report on the exact German strength at the bridge?"
Saunders glanced meaningfully at the rest of the squad, then back at Hanley.
Hanley exhaled sharply, then said, "There's a chow line set up over on the east side of camp. Grab yourself some hot food. Dismissed."
The men filed out the tent entrance.
"You too, Brockmeyer," Saunders added, not moving, not looking up.
Brockmeyer looked from Saunders to Hanley. Hanley nodded at the exit, and Brockmeyer quickly left, but not before Hanley saw the mute sympathy on his face. Anger flared in Hanley because he, too, could guess what Saunders wanted privacy to say. And he didn't have time to deal with the irate sergeant right now. Whether his grievances were valid or not simply didn't matter. Hanley couldn't change what had happened at the bridge. He had bigger worries, if they were guessing right and the incursion at the bridge signaled a German advance.
And then, slowly, he realized the one thing he'd been unconsciously avoiding, the one important fact he hadn't truly let sink in yet: Grady Long was one of the men who had not returned. Silently, he cursed fate for saddling him with that particular B.A.R. man, cursed himself for assigning him to Saunders' squad and not one of the others. He closed his eyes, rubbing at his forehead a moment, as he steeled himself. Then he opened his eyes and said, "All right, Saunders. Let's have it."
Billy Nelson paced outside Hanley's CP tent. The blond medic had bandaged up his arm and assured him it wasn't a serious wound. Not enough to get him sent back home. Not even enough to keep him off the front lines for a day or two. But it wasn't his arm that bothered him. No, it was guilt that kept him restless, kept him walking back and forth in the avenue near Hanley's tent. If only he hadn't dropped that second grenade -- what had he been thinking anyway? He had panicked when he had gotten hit, that's what he had done. Panicked, and then what? Dropped it, like some stupid green recruit. And now Littlejohn and Grady Long were stuck back at the bridge, wounded, maybe even dead by now. Littlejohn was his best buddy in the whole war, and he had as good as killed him.
And worse than that... Saunders hadn't answered Hanley when the lieutenant had asked about the rest of the squad. His face had been set and grim, with anger hiding grief. And that meant only one thing: Saunders thought Grady and Littlejohn were dead.
Billy had to tell him what he had seen.
Williams and Brockmeyer spoke quietly together nearby, glancing every now and then at the tent. Then Williams shook his head and came toward Billy. "Come on, Nelson. What are you waiting for? Hot chow."
"I'm not hungry," Billy told the big red-head, and that was the truth.
"Billy, this is the Army. You don't get a second chance. Now, come on, before Braddock eats it all."
Billy hesitated, looking back at the tent.
Williams followed his look, then shook his head knowingly. He caught Billy's good arm firmly and pulled him away. "Billy, whatever you want to say to them can wait. Trust me. Neither's going to be in a receptive mood for some time to come. So come on and let's grab some food, okay?"
Reluctantly, Billy let himself be tugged away.
"Where're we getting our intelligence -- the Marx brothers?" Saunders said, his voice almost a snarl. "That quarry was swarming with Krauts! I lost five men and got one wounded. On a so-called scouting mission." He glared at Lieutenant Hanley.
"So S2 made a mistake -- they're only human." Hanley shot back. He stood, arms folded, near the field desk that held his rumpled maps.
"Well, maybe this war would be over a lot sooner if you didn't send squads out on faulty intelligence," Saunders responded, angrily.
"That's enough, Sergeant!" Hanley snapped. As if he was supposed to have known the intelligence was bad? What was he, an all-seeing oracle or something?
"Is it?" Saunders took off his helmet and held it down at his side, his Thompson in his other hand. "Tell that to Grady Long and Littlejohn. Tell that to Ames and Garzoni and Renz."
"I would if I could," Hanley said.
"And if someone hadn't sent Doc with third squad," Saunders growled, "Renz might still be alive."
Hanley raised an eyebrow. "All right, Saunders, I realize you're upset about losing five men, especially Grady. But you've lost men before."
"Yeah, well, Grady's different."
"You're not the first man to lose a friend in this war," Hanley said, roughly.
Saunders nodded, his expression suddenly cold, remote. "You're right, Lieutenant. And I won't be the last."
Hanley held his temper in with difficulty. Sometimes it seemed Saunders thought he was the only person Hanley had to deal with. Sometimes Hanley wished that was true -- he had spent all morning on the radio with his superiors, reporting in on the unexpected resistance the squad had met at the quarry, the estimated size and strength of the platoon that now had control of the bridge.
"Look, Saunders, we don't have time for this. Your running into those Krauts was a lucky break--"
Hanley cut him off, coldly, harshly, refusing to let Saunders turn the conversation back to his losses. "We've been unable to determine where the Germans were going to make their advance. I don't think they expected you any more than you expected them, and Captain Jampel and the brass feel the Germans have tipped their hand by showing their force at that quarry bridge. It's a good spot, which is why we wanted it. If they can repair and hold that bridge open, they have a straight line of attack against our right flank."
Hanley paused a moment, but Saunders waited in stony silence.
"Captain Jampel's radioed me half a dozen times already, asking if I've found a suitable river crossing. Your orders are to take a patrol out this afternoon and scout that other bridge up north." Hanley watched Saunders tense in reaction, slowly shaking his head, his mouth locked down in a grim line. Almost unconsciously, Hanley raised his own voice as he went on, as if that could prevent the outburst he knew was coming. "It's out of our way, but it's our only choice. If it's good, we can swing down from there and cut off the Krauts from behind. We can't do that without the river crossing. We've got to know if it's usable by 2100 tonight, earlier if possible. Your orders are to leave within the hour."
Hanley watched Saunders walk a few steps away, stand there with his back to Hanley. Hanley knew what he was asking him to do wasn't fair, but that was just too bad. This was war and they all had unpleasant orders to follow. This ruckus was all because of Grady Long, Hanley thought angrily. Because of one man. Why, he wondered, why did this sergeant who had taught him not to get too close to people have to break his own rule? If Long had lived, Saunders still would have raised the same objections -- he had a right to, the intelligence had been lousy -- but he would have done it impersonally. He wouldn't have acted as if S2's failure was some sort of personal betrayal.
Softly, dangerously, Saunders said, "I went out with eleven men this morning. I came back with six, one of those wounded." He turned back around slowly, keeping his motions tightly controlled. "Are we suddenly the only squad in this platoon?"
"Take Brockmeyer with you."
"That's not the point, Lieutenant. We just got clobbered out there." He used his helmet to gesture at Hanley as he declared his dissatisfaction with the orders he had just been handed. "Send someone else out for once!"
Hanley closed his eyes for a minute, consciously forcing his fists to unclench. Letting Saunders rile him wasn't going to help anyone. When he reopened his eyes, he said calmly, "You might as well be my only squad. I had to send the rest of them down south to reinforce Item Company this morning while you were gone." He tried to keep his voice quiet, reasonable, but that stubborn closed-off look of Saunders' never failed to aggravate him. Harshly, he said, "Your men have time to grab some hot chow, but I want you on the road again within the hour."
Saunders shoved his helmet back on his head and left without another word.