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.
"Fools of Fortune"
by White Queen and Thompson Girl
Grady was still losing blood. Littlejohn had gotten him partly out of the water at least, enough that he had been able to rest his own exhausted muscles for a moment. His fingers fumbled with the bandages again, nearly dropping them in the river before he was able to rearrange and press them more firmly against Grady's shoulder.
Grady moaned, and Littlejohn shushed him, looking up at the thick stone arching above them. He was pretty sure the noise of the river would cover most of their sounds, but he couldn't be sure. It had been quiet overhead the past hour, though he was sure there were German soldiers patrolling up there. No rumble of trucks yet, and Littlejohn smiled grimly. Garzoni's grenades had bought them some time, at least. The Krauts would have to repair the switchback road before the trucks could get down to the bridge.
He wished he could see what was going on, but he knew he didn't dare risk leaving cover. Besides, he was tired enough that if he lost his precarious hold on the debris now, he wasn't sure he had the strength left to prevent himself from being swept downriver. If that happened, he and Grady were both dead men. And he needed to save his strength. As soon as it was dark enough, he would have to try floating them out of there somehow.
Billy debated the issue with himself as he stood in line to get whatever Army-issued slop they felt like plopping on his mess kit that day. Could he tell Saunders the truth, that Grady Long and Littlejohn weren't really dead? That it was all his fault they were stuck under that bridge? And his fault Grady had gotten wounded? The more time that passed since their return to camp, the harder the idea of speaking up seemed. He felt like even if he did tell Saunders now, the sergeant would kill him for waiting so long. He'd demand to know why Billy hadn't just spoken up right away, even though Billy had tried.... Billy didn't know how to reconcile his desperate need to tell what he knew with his equally desperate fear of both the sergeant's reaction and the admission of his own failure.
He must have been more preoccupied than he thought, because as he walked away from the line, with what was supposed to be beef stew steaming on his plate, he nearly ran straight into Braddock.
"Hey, watch out, kid!" Braddock said, mock-angrily. "I don't wanna wear your stew -- this is my last pair of clean fatigues!"
Billy looked the muddy Braddock up and down and probably would have laughed if he hadn't been so worried.
"What's wrong?" Braddock asked, losing his loud, blustering tone in an instant. "You look like you just got word your dog died or something." He stuffed a piece of bread in his mouth and chewed. "Wanna talk about it?" he asked, still chewing.
Billy shook his head. "No, thanks."
Braddock swallowed. "You sure? Might help." He gestured to a vacant patch of grass under a spreading elm tree near where the rest of First Squad was eating. "At least sit down over there with us, so I don't have to worry about you spilling your lunch on me."
"Okay." Billy followed the pudgy soldier to the appointed spot and sat down cross-legged beside him.
Caje, sitting nearby, asked Billy, "How's the arm?"
"Not too bad. The medic said it's, um...." Billy tried to remember the word. "It's superfissious."
"Superficial?" Braddock supplied. He seemed to possess the rare talent of talking intelligibly even when he had his mouth full of food.
"Yeah," Billy said.
Nearby, Kirby rolled his eyes. "Well, lucky you." He shoved his spoon into his stew unenthusiastically.
"Hey, lay off the kid," Braddock said, giving Kirby a threatening glare.
"You gonna make me?" Kirby growled back.
"Everybody settle down," Caje broke in. "Don't waste your energy on each other. You'll need it soon enough."
"What, you got info on what we're doing next or something?" Kirby asked. "The lieutenant been confiding in you?"
Before Caje could retort, Brockmeyer appeared behind Billy. "All right, listen up," he said. "Saunders says you've been ordered out again--"
"Aw, not again!" Kirby threw his spoon down in his stew and glared up at the brawny corporal.
"Yeah, we just got back! Don't the lieutenant know we need our beauty sleep?" added Braddock.
"I told you not to waste all your energy arguing," Caje reminded them.
Billy listened to the complaints, but felt a surge of hope. They were going back out again! He listened eagerly as Brockmeyer, hands held up to forestall any more comments, said, "Look, I didn't make the orders, I'm just relaying them, so cut it out. Finish your chow, get your gear, and meet at the north end of camp at 1500."
"Hey, how come the Sarge didn't come tell us this himself?" Kirby asked.
Brockmeyer shook his head. "If you don't know, I'm not the one to tell you." He walked away, over to get in line for his own chow.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Kirby wondered aloud, and Billy, too, found himself looking from man to man.
It was Caje who finally answered. "Grady Long."
Everyone got really quiet and started shoveling food into their mouths a little faster. But Caje's answer gave Billy strength. It was the confirmation he was looking for. The Sarge was going back after Grady Long and Littlejohn. It had to be why they were going out again so soon. Saunders must have figured out that Littlejohn and Long were still alive and persuaded the lieutenant to send the squad back on a rescue mission.
Finally, Braddock asked, "Wonder where we're going this time?"
When no one else spoke, Billy ventured, "Back to that bridge, don't you think?"
"The bridge? Are you kidding? It's covered in Krauts!" Kirby protested. He shook his head emphatically. "I ain't going back there!"
"But Grady Long and Littlejohn..." Billy said, trying to keep the anticipation out of his voice. "Don't you think we'll be going back to rescue them?"
Kirby looked over in disbelief at him. "Kid, you were there. They probably both got it from that grenade or whatever."
"You didn't see their bodies anywhere, did you?" Caje countered, and Billy looked at him in surprise, not expecting support from any of the other squad members. Had Caje seen what he had, seen Littlejohn pull Grady to safety beneath the bridge?
"I didn't look back," Kirby said. He shoveled some stew into his mouth and glared at Caje. "All I know is we're out a B.A.R. man, and I don't like it."
"Yeah," Caje nodded. "We're out another B.A.R. man."
Billy thought Caje looked bitter and wistful, all at once. "Another B.A.R. man?" he echoed.
"Grady was our third," Braddock explained, his loud voice suddenly quiet, matching Caje's sad expression somehow. "First we had Theo." Braddock looked over at Caje. "He and Caje were buddies until he got it at Omaha. Then we had some guy named, uh -- hey, Caje, what was that second guy's name?"
"Fergus," Caje said.
"Oh yeah. He was a real winner," Braddock said. "Shot one of our own guys by accident, and got himself killed on a mission right after. And then we got Grady."
"And then we lost Grady," Kirby added.
"Maybe not," Billy blurted. "Like Caje said, maybe he and Littlejohn are still alive."
"Don't kid yourself, boy," Kirby said, standing up. His expression was bleak. "They're dead. Forget 'em."
Billy opened his mouth, wanting to explain that Kirby was wrong, that he knew they were still alive, but the words died in his throat. He was afraid of the way Kirby was glaring around at everyone. The last thing he wanted was to have Kirby pounce on him; the man might look scrawny, but he would probably never quit whaling on you once he started. He reminded Billy somehow of a bull terrier, the single-minded kind that wouldn't open their jaws until they were sure their prey was dead. Billy didn't want to be prey, that he was sure of. Slowly, he closed his mouth again.
Kirby shook his head, then walked off.
Billy stared after him, his brow furrowed.
"Don't mind him," Williams said, with a wry smile. "He's a sorehead."
"You think we're going back to the bridge?" Billy persisted. "I mean, Grady Long and Littlejohn... they might be okay. We have to go back to find out, don't we?"Caje shrugged. "Who knows, Billy. This is the army." He stood up too and followed Kirby off down the avenue between the rows of tents.
"Well, why don't we just ask? Hey, Brockmeyer," Williams called as the corporal returned with a full mess kit. "Where are we going?"
"Some bridge up north," Brockmeyer replied, sitting down in the space Kirby and Caje had vacated.
"You mean east?" Billy asked. "The one we were at this morning?"
"No, north. Different bridge," Brockmeyer said around a mouthful of stew.
Billy stopped breathing. He thought his heart might have stopped beating too, because it startled him by starting up, loud and strong, when he began to breathe again. Brockmeyer must have heard wrong, gotten the directions mixed up or something.
But then the truth hit him. They weren't going back for Grady Long and Littlejohn. They weren't going back because nobody knew they were alive except him, and he didn't have the guts to tell anyone. He'd been expecting a miracle answer, but he should have known better than that.
"Not another bridge," Braddock complained. "I've had it with these bridges. Why can't we go liberate a nice winery for once?"
Billy was barely aware of Braddock and Williams bantering, Brockmeyer eating wordlessly. They were going north. Far away from Littlejohn, the bridge, Grady Long, everything that mattered. If only Saunders knew that the two soldiers were still alive and hiding under that bridge. He'd never abandon them, Billy felt sure of it. If only Saunders knew.
Billy looked around, but Saunders hadn't shown up for chow. Billy swallowed. He just had to tell him the truth.
Suddenly, Billy noticed Braddock staring at him. "What?" Billy asked, trying to act nonchalant. He took another bite of stew and realized it had already gotten cold and slimy.
"You okay, kid?" Braddock asked.
"You mean my arm? Yeah, sure." Billy almost managed a carefree smile.
"That's not what I meant."
Before Braddock could say more, Brockmeyer stood up. "I'd better go draw ammo for the patrol," he said.
"I'll help," Williams offered, his lanky frame towering over Billy and Braddock when he stood.
As soon as Brockmeyer and Williams were out of earshot, Braddock asked, "What's on your mind, Billy-boy?"
"What do you mean?" Billy asked, trying to sound innocent.
"Don't give me that -- I didn't come in with the last load of bayonets, you know. Something's eating at you. Spill."
Billy squirmed, not wanting to confess even to the jovial, friendly Braddock. "Well, back at the bridge, did you see what happened?"
"Which part? I saw a whole lot of Krauts coming at us with a whole lotta hurt on their minds. Saw Ames and Garzoni get it. Saw Renz catch it."
"What about when I got shot, did you see that?"
Braddock shook his head. "Williams and I were high-tailing it out with Renz."
"And what happened to Littlejohn and Grady Long?"
"Nope." He swallowed and looked at Billy, his face turning sympathetic. "Oh, kid. Littlejohn was your buddy -- did you see him get it?"
"That's the thing -- Littlejohn didn't get it! I saw him and Grady through the dust and smoke and everything. They hit the water, but he grabbed Grady and got him under the bridge. I think Grady was hit. And...." Billy paused unhappily. "And it's all my fault."
"Wait -- Littlejohn and Grady are alive?" Braddock asked.
"Sure as shootin'."
"Does the Sarge know this?"
Billy shook his head, so miserable he couldn't stand it anymore. "No. I tried to tell him when we were back there, right after Renz died, but, well, you know how he's been ever since the bridge. I've been too scared to try telling him again."
"He needs to know! If he knows they're alive, nothing'll keep him from taking us back to rescue 'em. Why haven't you told him, kid?"
"Because I'm the one that wounded Grady." The admission tore a hole in Billy's gut, and his gaze dropped to the dirt. Everyone would hate him, the whole squad. They might even kick him out. Make him transfer to a different unit, where he'd have to start all over again. He could tell how much everyone, not just Sergeant Saunders, had liked Grady Long. And once they knew this was all Billy's fault....
Braddock raised his eyebrows. "I don't follow." He didn't sound angry, just confused.
"I'd pulled out a grenade. Before I could throw it, I got shot, and I dropped it. It rolled down toward Littlejohn and Grady and went off."
Braddock shrugged. "You got shot. Coulda happened to anyone."
"You think so?" Billy looked up, not daring to hope.
"Sure." Braddock patted Billy's good shoulder. "Listen, you need to find the Sarge and tell him. If nothing else, it'll make you feel better."
"You feel better just after telling me, don't'cha?"
Billy nodded. "I guess I do." He handed Braddock his half-empty plate of stew. "Here, hang on to this for me, will ya?" He stood up. "I'll be right back." He ran after Brockmeyer and Williams, who were just disappearing around the corner of a tent. "Corporal! Corporal Brockmeyer!" Billy shouted. "Could you tell me where to find Sergeant Saunders?"
Saunders was so full of rage he could barely see.
The anger burned inside him, warm and intoxicating. He knew the feel of it all too well -- how many years had he worked on learning to quell that flame of fury? To dump cold, wet sanity and logic on it until the flames sputtered and fizzled and died? Well, he didn't want to douse this anger. He wanted it burning fierce and strong inside him. As long as it did, he could ignore the empty ache left by a guy named Grady Long who had become such a good friend so quickly, the bonds of their friendship forged swiftly in the furnace of war.
He knew if he hadn't left when he did, he wouldn't have been able to stop himself from doing something stupid. Like smashing every stick of furniture over Lieutenant Hanley's stubborn head.
Thinking of Hanley sent the flames dancing higher. They had been friends too, back before Hanley had traded his sergeant's stripes for bars on his collar. Saunders hadn't thought much had changed between them when Hanley got promoted. They could still let their guards down around each other, relax a little inside in a way they couldn't around the other soldiers above and below them in the Army pecking order. And Saunders had thought they still understood each other. Well, it seemed he had been wrong. All that must have changed sometime, he just hadn't noticed until now. Hanley had turned into simply another cold, calculating officer, more concerned about his maps and his orders than about the lives of the people he commanded.
Saunders kicked a loose rock down the grassy avenue and let out a string of curses that would have made his Uncle Pete proud and his mother so mad she would have slapped him with her wet dishtowel. He was about to kick another stone when someone called his name.
"Sarge? Sergeant Saunders?"
It was that kid, the new one in his squad. Littlejohn's buddy. What was his name again? Saunders couldn't remember -- he had known it an hour ago, but not now. So he just turned and snapped, "What?"
The kid blanched visibly, and Saunders let out a deep breath. The kid had just lost his friend too, he reminded himself. Saunders dragged his anger inside and tried to temper his voice into something more resembling normal. Just make it quick, kid, he thought. "What is it?" he asked again.
The kid swallowed, then said, "Braddock said to come talk to you."
Saunders started to lose his patience again. He didn't have time for this. What, did Braddock think he was now, the squad chaplain?
"It's about what happened at the bridge, to Littlejohn and Long."
Saunders froze, then raised his eyes to meet the kid's. Nelson, that was his name. "What about what happened at the bridge?"
Nelson hesitated, then blurted, "Littlejohn and Long -- they're still alive."
For a second the words didn't register, then Saunders took two steps forward and grabbed Nelson hard by both shoulders. "Are you sure? I mean are you really sure? Did you see them?"
The kid's head bobbed up and down.
"Yes, alive," Nelson managed to squeak.
"How come you didn't tell me this before?" Saunders demanded.
The color drained from the kid's face again. "Well, I, uh--" he stammered.
"Never mind. Come on." Saunders grabbed Nelson by the arm and started hauling him toward Hanley's CP.
Someone barged into Hanley's tent, making him lose his place in the important communiqué he had just received. When he saw that it was Saunders again, this time with that new man in tow -- Pvt. Nelson -- Hanley let his impatience show clearly. "Now what, Sergeant?" he snapped.
"Go on," Saunders said to Nelson. "Tell him."
Hanley leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. "Tell me what?"
Billy Nelson saluted, looking as though he would rather be attacked by rabid porcupines than retell his story to an officer.
Hanley's expression relaxed a little. "At ease, soldier," he said, returning the salute. Poor kid.
"Thank you, sir." It seemed his voice hadn't even finished changing; it cracked and broke under the pressure of being forced to talk to an officer.
"What is it you're supposed to tell me?" Hanley asked, looking directly at Nelson and ignoring Saunders.
"Well, sir, it's about what happened at the bridge," Nelson began.
"Yes, we all know about the bridge," Hanley said, tiredly. The glance he shot toward Saunders said, You had better not be wasting more of my time.
"No, sir, you don't. That is, I saw something no one else could. Because I was closer, you see. To the edge, I mean, sir. I saw them fall in the river, but I also saw them get safely onto the rubble under the bridge."
"Littlejohn and Grady Long, sir."
Hanley took a deep breath. "Are you saying you think they're still alive?"
"Yes, sir. I know they are. Long was hurt, but Littlejohn got him to safety under the bridge. I saw it."
"No, sir," Nelson said, then blurted, "But you see, sir, don't you? That we have to go back and help them?"
"Thank you, Private, that will be all."
"We'll be going back, right, sir?"
"Dismissed, Private!" Hanley snapped. Nelson hurried for the exit, his shoulders sagging with relief. The kid looked like he had suddenly been released from a terrible burden, a burden that was now settling on Hanley's shoulders instead.
"Well?" Saunders demanded as soon as Nelson had gone.
"Well what?" Hanley asked, although he knew the answer.
"Doesn't this change anything?"
"No." It was just one tiny little word, why was it so hard to spit out?
Saunders' voice was abrupt, angry, like his gesture toward the tent flap where Nelson had exited. "Didn't you hear what he said, Lieutenant? Littlejohn and Grady are alive. Send us back there to get them."
"Not too long ago you said your men were too tired to go anywhere." Hanley didn't mean it to sound sarcastic, he meant it to be a matter-of-fact statement; as Saunders clenched his jaw, he knew he hadn't tried hard enough.
Brusquely, Saunders said, "They've rested."
Hanley stood up, unconsciously falling back on his height advantage to stand against the sergeant's rage. "I can't send you back to an occupied bridge just because you think two of your men might not be dead."
"You sent us in fast enough after Black Rook."
"That dye plant wasn't swarming with Germans!"
"But it might have been for all we knew. That didn't stop you then."
"This situation is totally different, Saunders." Hanley shook his head. "I'm not sending your squad back there just because one kid thinks he saw something." Why did Saunders always have to do this, always think he knew better than anyone else? What made him so special, anyway? Why couldn't he just follow orders like the rest of the platoon's sergeants? "You said it yourself: you've lost too many men at that bridge already."
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" Saunders tossed his head back a little, somehow managing to look down his nose at the taller officer.
"Just that we can't afford any more casualties." Hanley sighed. Sometimes he wished he had never been promoted. A lot of times, lately.
"We could get two of my men back if--" Saunders began.
Hanley cut him off. "You have your orders, Sergeant."
Saunders persisted, "Split the squad. I'll take Kirby. Send Brockmeyer with the others to recon the bridge--"
Hanley didn't let him finish. "Secure the bridge to the north and determine if we can use it to get around the Germans." He waved the communiqué at Saunders. "The brass are sending Fox Company in here to lead the attack, and they need that bridge." He paused a moment, not wanting to say the rest, but knowing he had to. "We're sending in an artillery barrage against the quarry bridge at dawn."
Saunders stared at him. "Are you insane?" he said, furiously. "Send in artillery right on top of two of my own men, your own men? That's a death sentence!"
"That's enough!" Hanley had already cut Saunders more than enough slack, and it was time to remind the sergeant just who was the officer here. "If Littlejohn and Long are alive, maybe they can escape in the confusion. Do you read me?"
Saunders just glared at him.
"Do you read me?" Hanley demanded again.
"Oh, I read you all right," Saunders said. "I read you loud and clear, Sir." He emphasized the last word, practically sneering when he said it.
Hanley closed his eyes and silently cursed Grady Long for not joining the Navy instead.
Saunders started to turn to go, but paused and asked acidly, "Do we warrant a medic this time?"
"Doc's not back yet. Take that medic who worked on Nelson earlier. Daly."
"Yes, sir," Saunders said, then he turned on his heel and stomped out.
As the afternoon waned, so did Littlejohn's spirits. The longer they stayed under that bridge, the closer they came to being discovered. The Germans had worked all day on repairing the holes Garzoni had blown in the switchback road. He had been able to hear them even over the river's noise.
As for Garzoni, the Krauts had dumped his body into the river soon after they had reached the bridge. Littlejohn had watched it float downstream, knowing it could have been him or Grady instead.
At least he had finally managed to secure Grady Long to some of the rubble that sheltered them. He had looped the rope around Grady's torso, anchoring him to the biggest chunk of broken stone so that even when Grady lost consciousness, he wouldn't slip back into the river. And that had let Littlejohn move around a little. He hadn't gone farther than a few feet either direction, just enough to stretch his legs. He wasn't about to jeopardize their position just to satisfy curiosity. With a full platoon, the Germans had the manpower to have sentries everywhere. It would be just his luck to have one peering over the bridge railing right when Littlejohn risked a peek.
The long stretches of time when Grady Long was unconscious left Littlejohn with little to do except stare at his surroundings. The underside of the bridge was now as familiar as the east forty back home. The sunlight never touched these old stones, and they were damp and slick, the lowest stones layered with dull green moss above the waterline. As the sun sank for the horizon, the air along the surface of the river grew chilly. His extremities were already numb, his reflexes slowed, his muscles aching from fighting the current, fighting to keep his grip on the rubble near Grady. How long could he hang on once night's cold hit? How long could Grady? Although he didn't complain much, Littlejohn knew Grady was losing strength.
Littlejohn gazed downstream. Maybe under the cover of darkness they would be able to float away. The problem would be keeping Grady's head above water. Maybe if Grady was conscious, or if some friendly branch floated by to help him buoy Grady up and hide them from any sentry's curious gaze. Maybe....
The squad walked through the warm summer woods in uneasy silence. The sun was nearly set, the woods full of lengthy shadows and the pall of coming twilight. Saunders had informed them of both the fact that Long and Littlejohn were possibly still alive and the additional fact that they were being sent north to scout and secure a different bridge. They didn't need to be told how he felt about it. Even Kirby kept his mouth shut for once, not making even one snide comment about the mental capabilities of officers.
Superficial or not, Billy's wounded arm hurt. A lot. The blond medic who had joined them, Daly, had given him more aspirin to take, but it didn't seem like the medication was doing any good. The pain made it hard to concentrate on figuring out why they weren't going back to rescue Littlejohn and Grady Long. He had done the right thing, like Braddock said, told the truth to Saunders and even Lieutenant Hanley. And still they headed north, just as if Billy hadn't said one word to anyone.
That wasn't quite true, Billy realized. Not everything was the same. Sergeant Saunders certainly wasn't. He had stopped looking kind of defeated and hollow. Unfortunately, he had filled the empty space with anger, probably at the lieutenant for not letting them go back for Grady and Littlejohn. But Billy had a feeling that anger could very easily be directed at the first person that displeased the sergeant, that stepped out of line just a little, or did something stupid. Like dropping a grenade.
The farther they marched, the more depressed Billy got. He had thought for sure Saunders would convince the lieutenant to let them return. He'd counted on it. But what was the point of telling the truth when it hadn't made any difference after all? Littlejohn was as good as dead now -- the Germans were sure to find him, if he didn't drown first. That river had been awful fast when Billy had dangled in it only a few hours earlier. Had it really been just that morning that Littlejohn had lowered him over the side, like a really big piece of bait attached to a fishing line?
It wasn't fair. He and Littlejohn were finally in the same outfit again, only to have the Army separate them once more.
Caje trotted back. "Bridge is just up ahead. Looks quiet. If there are any Krauts there, they're dug in good."
"If there are any Krauts there...?" Braddock echoed incredulously. "Buddy, with our luck today, there's at least another whole platoon of Germans waiting. I think they got special road maps marked: 'here's where K Company Second Platoon First Squad's gonna be today.' They know more about where we are than we do."
"All right, knock it off. Spread out," Saunders said. "Brockmeyer, take the left--"
Machine gun fire stabbed out of the shadows ahead, and Billy saw Caje go down in front of him. Saunders was shouting, "Hit it!" but the squad had already scattered. At least it was much more wooded here than at the quarry -- plenty of cover for them, but also for the Germans. Billy landed behind a fat, solid tree trunk, sucked in his breath as the fall jarred his bad arm.
Gunfire came from all around him, deafening him, as the squad returned fire.
Saunders was issuing quick orders, "Braddock, Brockmeyer -- work around to the left, see if you can flank them and use your grenades. Kirby -- you're on me. We'll try to draw their fire for you. Williams, you and Nelson keep those Krauts busy from here."
"Right," Brockmeyer said and tapped Braddock on the arm. The two took off at a crouching run. Saunders and Kirby slunk off to the right.
Billy peeked around the tree he was using for shelter to figure out where he would have to aim, then pulled back quickly as a burst of bullets ripped up the bark. The Germans had dug in just south of the bridge, behind a tree trunk fallen across the riverbank. Williams fired a couple of shots, and when the machine gun shifted toward him, Billy popped out and opened fire on the nest. Three shots -- duck back -- two more -- duck -- fire again while Williams reloaded, reload himself while Williams shot. Then Billy heard the Sarge's Thompson and Kirby's rifle open up from off to the right and the machine gun swung away from them, trying to locate and stop the new threat.
A grenade went off barely thirty seconds later, and the German gun fell silent. There was no more gunfire, from either side. Billy glanced at Williams, who grinned at him. Billy felt the same brief moment of exhilaration -- any victory after the quarry bridge felt good. Even so, they stayed under cover until they heard Braddock and Brockmeyer's voices calling to Saunders.
Williams turned and hollered, "Daly, get up here! Caje is hit!" He scrambled toward where Caje lay in the road as the young medic hurried up. Billy followed Williams, rifle still ready.
Saunders sent Kirby, Braddock, Billy, and Williams to make sure the other side of the bridge was clear, then came over to where Brockmeyer crouched near Caje, watching as Daly tied a bandage around Caje's wounded leg. "How is he, Doc?" Saunders asked.
"I've seen worse." Daly grinned, white teeth flashing in contrast to his tanned face.
Caje forced a shrug. "It's not too bad."
"It's clean," Daly added. "Went right through and missed the bone. I've stopped the bleeding, but the bullet cut up the muscle pretty bad. He needs to see a surgeon."
"Okay. Caje, think you can make it back with Doc's help?"
"Good. Head out as soon as you can."
Saunders stood and walked over to inspect the wooden bridge. It was newly built, of heavy rough boards that showed little sign of wear. It looked broad and strong enough to suit the Army's needs. Hanley should be happy about that, he thought. So should he, with the mission accomplished and no casualties this time, but his gaze moved instead to the river. The river banks were gentle here, thick reeds growing close in to shore, the current moving swift and sure out in the middle. Trees drooped and overhung the water nearby. The sunset glow gave it all a deceptively pastoral tint. He almost expected to see some boys fishing with their wood poles. But instead there was a crater and the four dead Germans in their destroyed machine gun nest.
And downriver... downriver....
He jerked his mind back to the needs at hand. "Brockmeyer," he ordered, "get me Hanley on the radio."
"Right," the corporal acknowledged. He walked over to where Kirby had ditched the radio and pulled out the antenna. "White Rook to King Two, over. This is White Rook, do you read me, King Two? Over."
"This is King Two, come in, White Rook. Over," Hanley responded almost immediately.
Brockmeyer lowered the phone and called, "Sergeant? I got him."
Saunders came over and took the phone from Brockmeyer. "This is White Rook. Dorothy and Toto have reached the Emerald City," he said, so accustomed to the ludicrous code words the Army kept handing him that he didn't even smirk. "Repeat, Dorothy and Toto have reached the Emerald City. Over."
"Did they meet any munchkins? Over." Hanley asked.
"A few, but they've been taken care of. Over."
"What kind of condition is the Emerald City in? Over."
"It's useable. Over."
"Good work, White Rook. Dorothy and Toto can stay in the Emerald City until the wizard arrives. Over."
"Copy that. White Rook out." Saunders switched off the radio, angrily, and pushed himself to his feet. He didn't want to talk to Hanley, didn't want to hear that calm reasonable voice, even over the radio. He didn't want to think about the fact that nothing had obligated Hanley to hear him out earlier. Another officer might have thrown him in the stockade for getting out of line like that, even demoted him, but not Hanley. Hanley let him have his say, then stubbornly trusted that logic and orders would convince Saunders of where his priorities should lie. But logic and orders and priorities didn't change the fact that Grady Long had been abandoned and left for dead. Logic and orders wouldn't bring him home again.
The sun dropped suddenly behind the horizon and the last of the gold sunlight filtering between the trees vanished. Saunders walked toward the river again, staring downstream, where the dark waters roiled and churned. That current was swift, maybe too swift, but did it matter? He checked his watch, then made his decision.
Footsteps thudded across the wooden bridge, and Saunders turned and watched the rest of the men returning. He strode back to where Daly was helping Caje to his feet. He did a quick headcount -- everyone was there.
"All clear over there, Sarge," Williams said.
"Brockmeyer, I'm putting you in charge of this bridge," Saunders said. "Have the men dig in and hold this bridge until the morning. Fox company will be arriving sometime around midnight."
"Why?" Brockmeyer asked. "Where will you be?"
"Kirby and I are going for a swim."
"Aw, Sarge," Kirby protested. "Why me?"
"Because I said so."
For a moment, Billy didn't believe he'd heard right. He looked around the circle of faces, grim and unsmiling in the twilight.
"What makes you think that even if they're still alive, they haven't floated clear of that bridge already on their own?" Brockmeyer asked, his soft voice calm and rational. "Littlejohn's not stupid. If he could get them out, he would. You could get there and find nothing."
"That's a chance we'll have to take."
"I hate to bring this up," Braddock said, "but you know how the Army's likely to view this little excursion."
The term AWOL popped into Billy's head. He frowned. Littlejohn had said this sergeant was a by-the-book guy. Did he really intend to break practically every rule in that book to rescue Grady Long and Littlejohn? And if he was willing to do that for a friend, shouldn't Billy too?
Before he had time to think it over, Billy blurted, "Let me go too, Sarge."
Everyone stared at him. Billy tried not to squirm under their scrutiny. He had probably just done the stupidest thing ever, volunteering to go AWOL. But doggone it, this was Littlejohn's life they were talking about. Billy had a feeling Littlejohn would do the same for him if their roles were reversed.
Saunders eyed Nelson, his eyebrows puckering as he assessed the young injured soldier and his request.
"Don't take him," Kirby said. "Why ruin our chances of getting out alive by taking along some green kid?" He looked over at Billy. "Forget it, boy."
"I'm not green!" Billy declared, clenching his fists. "I might be younger than the rest of you and, sure, I've made a few mistakes now and then. But I'm not green. I hit the beaches at Normandy with Littlejohn. You don't call him green, do you?"
Kirby said, "No, I've got better things to call Littlejohn."
"Enough," Saunders broke in.
"Please?" Billy asked desperately, certain the sergeant would forbid him to go.
Saunders fixed Billy with a steady gaze. "Can you swim?" he asked.
"I mean really swim. That current is fast; the river's deep. Can you take care of yourself and maybe keep one of the others afloat too?"
Billy nodded. "I was almost a lifeguard last summer. Only the guy who runs the town pool has three nephews...." He smiled nervously, realizing that the sergeant could probably care less about small-town politics at the moment.
"Okay. You can come."
Kirby exploded. "What? Are you kidding? I was in that water under the bridge, Sarge. It was moving fast and there were precious few handholds. You want to tell me how Junior here with a wounded arm is gonna handle that? He'll just get all three of us killed!"
"You're not coming along, so you can quit worrying about it," Saunders told him. "It'll just be Nelson and me. Brockmeyer needs every man I can leave here."
"This is crazy." Kirby threw his hands up in the air in exasperation. "I give up! Take the boy, fine. Got anything you want the lieutenant to say in his letters to your mothers?"
Saunders turned his back on Kirby and addressed Brockmeyer. "You hold this bridge no matter what until Fox Company gets here."
"What about you?" Brockmeyer asked.
"After we reach the quarry bridge, we'll float downriver, then try to make it back to the CP. With any luck, we'll be out of the river before that barrage hits at dawn."
Brockmeyer pursed his lips. "I think Kirby's right," he said. "This is crazy."
"I didn't ask what you thought. You have your orders."
Brockmeyer shook his head. For a moment, he looked like he wanted to add something else, then he just said simply, "Good luck."
Everyone looked so solemn that Billy began to think he had made a very big mistake. None of the others really expected them to make it out of that river alive.
Braddock clapped Billy on the shoulder. "You're a good egg, Nelson. Here's hoping we see you in a day or so."
"Yeah, in the stockade," Kirby scoffed.
Billy was glad he didn't say something like 'morgue' instead.
Caje, his arm over Daly's shoulders, hobbled over to the group. "You sure you want to do this?" he asked Saunders.
Saunders didn't answer him, just said, "You just get back to the CP in one piece; don't waste time worrying about us. Doc -- give me some morphine and any extra bandages you have. Caje, I'll need your knife."
The young medic dug out some supplies and passed them over. Saunders pocketed them and accepted Caje's sheathed knife. Then he shouldered his Thompson. "Let's go, Nelson." He headed toward the riverbank, leaving Billy no choice but to follow.
Shortly after Saunders and Billy had floated out of sight, clinging to a couple tree branches, the radio buzzed to life beside Brockmeyer where he lay in some weeds near the wooden bridge. Hanley's voice came over the airwaves again. "White Rook, this is King Two. Come in, White Rook. Over."
Brockmeyer picked up the receiver. "King Two, this is White Rook. Over." He kept his voice low, just in case there were any Krauts sneaking up on them in the dusk.
"This doesn't sound like White Rook. Over."
"This is White Rook's second-in-command. Over."
"Well, where's White Rook? Over." There was no mistaking the irritation in Hanley's voice.
Brockmeyer lied, "He's out scouting the area. Over." He heard a snort come from the other side of the bridge, where Kirby had dug in.
Hanley said, "Scouting? For what? Over."
Kirby hissed, "Just tell him the truth! He'll find out anyway."
Brockmeyer ignored Kirby and thought fast. "He thought there might be more munchkins nearby. Over."
There was a pause while Brockmeyer held his breath, hoping the lieutenant would buy it. Then Hanley asked, "I need to know if the Emerald City can handle Tin Men or Scarecrows. Over."
Tin Men and Scarecrows -- those would be tanks and half-tracks. Well, that he could answer at least. Brockmeyer squinted at the bridge beside him in what remained of the twilight. "It seems sound, and it's wide enough for Scarecrows. Not sure about Tin Men. Over."
"Good enough. Tell White Rook to report in when he returns. Over."
"Roger that. Over."
"King Two out."
Brockmeyer lowered the receiver and frowned. He would probably be in trouble too, now, covering for Saunders. Great. He'd been getting quite fond of those corporal's stripes too.
Kirby started up again. "Why didn't you just tell him? Now you probably made him all suspicious. I bet he doesn't believe for a minute the Sarge is just out looking for Krauts. I bet he knows exactly what's going on."
"Shut up, Kirby. You want the whole German army to know where we are?" Brockmeyer snapped. The last thing he needed was the mouthy private giving voice to his own worries.
Billy Nelson was grateful for the two large dead tree branches Saunders had dragged into the river. That let them save their energy for when they reached the bridge and also gave them something to prop their weapons on and give them a chance to stay dry.
The river was colder than Billy had expected. When he had been dangling in it near the bridge that afternoon, it had seemed pleasantly cool on his hot feet and legs. He'd even considered splashing some on his face and head to help combat the June heat. But now, he had begun shivering almost immediately, and he hoped his whole body wouldn't go numb before they traveled the long distance downriver to Littlejohn and Long.
The waning moon peeked out from behind a cloud now and then, but for the most part they floated in the increasing darkness. He could just make out the black shape that was Saunders drifting slightly ahead of him. After a while, Billy lost all sense of time, and it seemed to him as if he had been clinging to a tree branch in the middle of the river forever.
As the night deepened, Littlejohn forced himself to stay alert. He positioned himself so he could watch upstream for any debris floating his direction. He had to be ready to grab anything that came his way, anything that might bear Grady's weight, or even just camouflage them enough to hazard an escape.
Time was running out. The water had not seemed that cold when they had first gone in, but immersion in it all this time had left him wracked with shivers.
"Littlejohn," Grady murmured.
"I'm here," Littlejohn said.
"It's dark now," the B.A.R. man said, his voice husky with pain, "Get out of here, Littlejohn."
"We both go, or we don't go at all," Littlejohn said.
Grady shook his head. "Don't be stupid. If you go now, you have a chance."
"Quiet," Littlejohn hissed suddenly. He had seen a shape in the water, bobbing toward them. He raised himself out of the water for a better look.
It was some sort of snapped-off log, coming fast toward them. But it was angling the wrong way.... Littlejohn watched in dismay as the current swept it out of sight down the eastern side of the center arch. He'd had a fifty-fifty chance of it coming down their side, and he had lost. His shoulders slumped, and he spun around in the water to watch the log come out the other side of the bridge. Just a few seconds and it appeared again, a low, dark shape riding the waves.
Two rifle shots banged out of nowhere, and Littlejohn jumped, startled, looking for the source. Another shot, then another, and he saw the white spray kicked up by a bullet striking the water. Then he understood, and he glared up at the stone above him, as if he could see straight through it to the one or two guards bored enough with their sentry duty to try a little target practice off the bridge.
That could have been us, he thought bleakly.
He heard a voice yelling angrily, distantly, and hoped the guards were getting dressed down by their officer for shooting. But he had no way of knowing. Maybe they were getting yelled at for their bad aim, or the lousy coffee they had made. It could have been anything, anything at all, and it was definitely no guarantee that the next object to pass out from beneath the bridge wouldn't be shot full of holes.
Now what? he asked himself. What was worse, waiting to be discovered or getting shot attempting to escape? At least the latter offered them some hope.
But they would have to wait until it was much darker. They had to hold on a bit longer.
Lieutenant Hanley stepped out of his tent and discovered that twilight had come and gone while he wasn't looking. He had been so wrapped up in paperwork, he hadn't noticed the time. Now, he frowned, checked his watch, and frowned again. Sergeant Saunders should have radioed in an hour ago, let him know if there were any more Krauts around the bridge. His earlier absence, the fact that he hadn't called in yet himself... surely Saunders wouldn't have disobeyed a direct order, wouldn't have tried going back to the quarry bridge after Long and Littlejohn instead. Would he?
Hanley's frown deepened. He had to admit it was a possibility. He ducked back into his tent and crossed to his radio, adjusted a couple knobs, and picked up the receiver. "King Two to White Rook. This is King Two to White Rook. Over."
When he got no response, he tried again. "King Two to White Rook. Come in, White Rook. Over."
"Uh, this is White Rook," came a voice that belonged to neither Saunders nor Brockmeyer.
"Who is this?" Hanley demanded. "Over."
"This is Toto. Over."
That must be Kirby, the wise guy Saunders was always butting heads with. "Well, Toto, where's White Rook now? Over." Hanley asked.
"Uh, he's following the yellow brick road."
Hanley rolled his eyes. If he ever got his hands on the wisenheimer that thought up their code words.... "Why is he following the yellow brick road? Over."
"He's hunting munchkins. Over."
Again? Hanley thought. "Will there be a problem when the wizard arrives? Over."
"Where's his second-in-command? Over."
"Uh, he's watering the poppies, if you know what I mean."
Hanley sighed. "Fine. Listen, Toto, when White Rook gets back, have him report in immediately. Do you read me? Over."
"Loud and clear, sir. Over."
"Good. King Two out." Hanley glared at the radio. He had a feeling all was not well in the land of Oz.
At the wooden bridge, Kirby sighed and crawled back to his position on the other side. Why did Brockmeyer have to leave the radio just when Hanley decided to call? And why had he, Kirby, decided to keep covering for Saunders? He should've just spilled the whole story while he had the chance. Then again, Braddock and Williams weren't that far away, and they'd probably have heard and ratted him out when Brockmeyer got back from his little personal trip into the woods.
"Aaannh," he muttered.
Grady Long was unconscious again. His wound had gradually stopped bleeding, after Littlejohn had pressed all their bandages and part of his own shirt against it for what had felt like hours. Littlejohn wasn't sure if that was a good sign or a bad one -- Grady's skin felt cold and clammy.
Kraut sentries paced the bridge, exchanging noisy pleasantries when they met in its middle, right above the center support arch that sheltered the two Americans. They also tossed a remarkable number of cigarette butts into the river, which Littlejohn watched arc toward the water like dying fireflies.
Littlejohn didn't dare try to get some sleep. He knew if he did, he would probably relax his tenuous hold on the rubble and go floating down the river, away from Grady. So he did multiplication tables in his head, imagined building a tractor piece by tiny piece, tried anything to keep himself awake. Once in a while he would start to nod off, but ducking his head under the river would revive him for a few minutes.
Finally his mind grew as numb as his fingers and toes, and Littlejohn simply stared upriver, watching leaves and bits of junk float toward, then past him.
And just when he had decided that sleep was worth the risk, two larger shapes came floating down the boisterous river, two substantial tree branches headed straight for him. Maybe he could grab them without the Germans noticing, tie Grady to them, and they could ride the river to safety.
As the tree branches came closer, clouds covered the moon again, blotting out even its dim light. Littlejohn could barely see the branches, and he worried he might not be able to reach one of them, or that they would float past on the opposite side of the central arch, like the other log had.
But then one of the branches, the one a little ahead of the other, began to behave very strangely. It changed direction as it neared the bridge, heading straight for the side that harbored Littlejohn and Long. When the second branch did the same, Littlejohn began to worry. What if the Krauts had spotted them after all and were now playing some kind of strange, sick joke on him? What if they were floating down under the bridge to capture or kill him and Grady? Maybe they didn't want to shoot down here because they would risk damaging the stonework even more. Or maybe he was actually out of his mind, and the tree branch bearing down on him was just an illusion.
And then a twig poked Littlejohn in the arm. Wet leaves flapped in his face and he tried to fend off the invading tree limb. Something touched his arm, something firm, yet soft. Like a hand. And then Littlejohn heard a voice whisper, "Quiet, Littlejohn, it's me."
Littlejohn blinked. He must be dreaming. "Sarge?" he whispered back.
Saunders swam around from the other side of the tree branch. He got a handhold on the loose rubble piled up against the stone support and pulled his Thompson from its perch on the tree branch. "Let go of the branch," he whispered. "The sentries probably saw it float under here, and they might wonder why it isn't floating out the other side."
Littlejohn loosened his grip on the wood. The branch floated away downstream, bobbing merrily along in the rushing water. Immediately, the other large tree limb floated up beside Littlejohn. But it continued past, and from behind it appeared Billy Nelson. "Hello, Littlejohn," he said, grinning like a five-year-old on Christmas morning.
Saunders moved around Littlejohn to where Grady Long was moored to the rubble. He slipped on the slick rocks and Littlejohn grabbed his arm, kept him from falling further, but the effort of hanging on to the sergeant was almost too much for him. He knew he had been in the water too long, been fighting the current too long. He had no reserves left.
Saunders got himself braced again. "How bad is it?" Saunders asked Littlejohn, fingering the mound of blood-soaked bandages on Grady's shoulder.
They all jumped at the sudden sound of rifle fire.
"The sentries," Littlejohn said. "They've been shooting at anything floating down the river. Until their sergeant yells at them, that is."
Saunders stared downriver, his jaw clenched tight a long moment, before he turned back to look at Grady and asked again, "How bad?"
"Bad enough. I got the bleeding stopped, but he won't stay conscious. The sooner we get him to a doctor...." Littlejohn realized his words were useless, that Saunders already knew what needed to be done. Softly, Littlejohn said, "You shouldn't have come. You're just going to get yourselves killed too."
Saunders said nothing, just kept watching Grady.
"Sarge, if you were planning on the four of us just floating out of here, it won't work. Don't you think I'd have gotten Grady out of here the minute it got dark enough?"
"Only two of us are floating out of here."
Billy looked at Littlejohn, then back to Saunders, not liking the sound of that at all. "What do you mean, Sarge?"
"With that fast current, you two ought to be able to hold your breath and stay underwater far enough to be out of the sentries' immediate sight before you surface."
"We're not leaving you behind--" Littlejohn started to say.
"It's not up for debate, Littlejohn," Saunders interrupted. "Besides, I need you to do something for me."
Billy and Littlejohn exchanged a worried look.
"When you get ashore, circle around upriver again. Cut some more branches loose and send them downriver at regular intervals. I'll use those to float out of here with Grady."
Littlejohn shook his head. "Sarge, it won't work. Those guards--"
"Don't worry. I won't move out until they're distracted."
"This bridge is going to be targeted by artillery at dawn. I'll get Grady out of here then."
"That's crazy!" Littlejohn objected. "You'll be blown sky high with the bridge."
"No, we won't. We know what's coming. Just send down some good covering branches, and keep sending them."
Littlejohn heard the obstinate patience in Saunders' voice. He pursed his lips but made no more objections. It would do no good; Saunders had made up his mind. Finally, he warned, "It could take a few hours for us to work our way around the quarry upriver."
"The river's gonna get awfully cold on you. And fighting the current's gonna wear you out."
"Just get me those branches," Saunders said. "Then the current can carry us out of here, just like it will you."
Littlejohn nodded, then looked at Billy. "You ready?"
Billy's eyes widened. After coming all this way, was he really going to have to leave Saunders and Grady behind, just like that? They all should leave, now, while there was still darkness. But they couldn't take Grady underwater, not while he was unconscious. He finally nodded.
"Here." Saunders held out his Thompson toward Littlejohn. "There's bound to be Kraut patrols on our side of the river already."
Littlejohn shook his head. "Won't you need it?"
"I'll have that artillery. And my sidearm. Take it."
Littlejohn reluctantly accepted the submachine gun. He looked at Billy, who had slung his rifle over his back, the strap over one shoulder and under the opposite arm. Littlejohn did the same with the Thompson.
Billy started taking in deep breaths, trying to prepare himself. Littlejohn told him, "Hang on to me. We'll stay under as long as we can, then surface just long enough to grab a breath and go down again, okay? Let the current do the work."
Billy nodded. He thought he should say something to Saunders, thanks for listening, thanks for bringing him, good-luck, something... but no words came to him. Then Littlejohn was counting to three. Billy sucked in a giant breath and ducked his head under the water when Littlejohn did.
Saunders watched the river swallow them up, and then there was nothing but the incessant sound of it, battering against the rocks and the bridge itself. He watched downriver, but if they surfaced again within his view, the darkness hid them. No shots rang out from above, no voices shouted, and he exhaled in relief.
Suddenly, Grady moaned and rolled his head.
Saunders quickly put his hand over Grady's mouth, though he doubted the sound would carry over the noise of the river. "Shh," he said, softly. "You're still in Kraut territory."
"Saunders, that you?"
Grady made another noise, and it took Saunders a long moment to figure out Grady was laughing. "You stupid, stubborn fool, Saunders. Only you would come back. Where's Littlejohn? Big lug saved my life."
"I sent him out of here to save it again."
Grady was silent awhile, and Saunders thought he had fallen unconscious, when the B.A.R. man asked, "Hanley know you're here?"
Saunders didn't even bother answering that one.
Grady laughed silently again, body shaking until he moaned and stifled a cry of pain as he tried to shift against the rocks. Saunders pulled out the morphine ampoule and syringe Doc had given him. Wedging himself in closer to the wall, he readied the shot.
"I won't be any good to you if you give me that," Grady murmured.
"You're no good to me right now anyway. You need the shot."
"Not saying I don't." He watched Saunders a moment, then asked, "So when do we skedaddle?"
Saunders glanced at him in surprise. "Good?"
"That gives you plenty of time."
"To decide what you're going to tell Hanley."
Saunders said nothing.
Grady said suddenly, "Too bad our situations aren't reversed."
"Yeah," Grady said, smiling. "I'm a much better storyteller than you. You got no sense of timing."
"And you're talking too much. Save your strength."
Grady laughed again. "Yeah, that's right, shut me up just 'cause I'm right. You like dishing the truth, but you sure can't take it yourself, you know that?"
Saunders looked away a moment, then said softly, "The truth is neither of us stands much chance of getting out of here. Our artillery's gonna hit this bridge at dawn."
"Oh, swell, you tell me that now? Couldn't let it sneak up on me, all sudden-like?" He groaned, reaching for his shoulder, and Saunders leaned forward anxiously.
"How about that morphine now?" Grady gasped out. "Some medic you are... not dispensing the goods."
Saunders quickly administered the shot.
Grady let out a slow sigh. "Saunders?"
"I'm glad you're here," Grady said, his voice trailing off. "But you're still a stupid, stubborn...."
Saunders checked his pulse and breathing, made sure both were still steady. He pulled the extra bandages Daly had given him out of his pocket -- they were mostly dry -- and set about replacing some of the blood-saturated bandages on Grady's shoulder.
Hanley stomped back to his tent after a tongue-blistering post-midnight meal of what they'd told him was franks-and-beans, but seemed more like something they would have fed his dog Buster when he was a boy. He knew he should have just been grateful the cooks had been willing to scrounge up something hot for him at that late hour, but he was too troubled by that afternoon's altercation with Sergeant Saunders to be thankful for scalded slop.
He ducked back into his tent, startling the private who was filling in for Brockmeyer, minding Hanley's radio and running errands for the busy lieutenant. "Gah!" exclaimed Pvt. Lewis, his pale blue eyes wide. He had been lounging in the chair behind Hanley's desk, and when the lieutenant appeared, he hopped up and away from the chair so quickly, he backed into the table that held the bulky radio. The table swayed, and Lewis flung his arms around the radio to keep it from falling to the floor, hugging it like a giant teddy bear.
Hanley glared at his temporary aide. "Any word from White Rook yet?" he growled.
"No, sir!" Lewis managed to steady the radio again and stepped back, snapping to a smart salute.
Hanley turned on his heel and left the tent. He needed to walk some more, that's what he needed. He needed to be outside in the cool night air, not cooped up in that musty tent. That would clear his head, let him figure out what to do about the Saunders situation. He headed for the edge of the canvas village, looking for room where he could pace without having to constantly stop and exchange salutes with other soldiers.
As he reached the last row of tents, Hanley heard voices coming from the sentry line. On the off chance that it might be one of his squads returning from reinforcing Item company to the south, he walked toward the commotion. Two men moved his way, one supporting the other. Some walking wounded, no doubt.
They were part of his platoon, all right, but not from the squad he'd expected. The two G.I.'s coming toward him turned out to be Caje and the young medic, Daly.
"Hiya, Lieutenant," Daly said, saluting with his left hand since his right was around Caje's waist, holding the wounded soldier upright.
Caje didn't bother saluting, just nodded.
Hanley returned the salute and asked, "What happened?"
Daly smiled. "Seems some Germans decided to use Caje for target practice."
"All right, cut out the cute stuff," Hanley said, glowering. "Why hasn't Saunders called in?"
Caje and Daly exchanged a look. "Would it be okay if I sat down?" Caje asked, indicating the bandage around his leg.
"Fine." Hanley led them to a stack of crates piled near the supply tents.
Daly eased Caje down onto one of the crates, and Caje grimaced as he straightened his wounded leg in front of him.
"Now, tell me what happened," Hanley demanded, crossing his arms across his chest.
"Didn't Brockmeyer tell you?" Caje asked.
"I'm tired of getting the run-around from you people!" Hanley exploded. "First Brockmeyer, then Kirby, now you! What is going on? Where is Sergeant Saunders?"
Caje looked away, back the direction he and Daly had come from. "He and Nelson went back to the quarry bridge," he said, then looked quickly at the lieutenant's face, as if wanting to see the officer's reaction, but apprehensive about it too.
Hanley closed his eyes. All that time Saunders had spent arguing with him, and for what? He'd planned to disobey orders all along, to do what he wanted regardless. "I see," he said, reopening his eyes. He forced his voice to soften, reminding himself that it wasn't Caje's fault Saunders had decided to go AWOL.
That's what it amounted to, of course. He had expressly told Saunders not to return to that lousy quarry, not to throw effort after foolishness, and what had the sergeant done? Defied orders, defied Hanley, defied the entire American Army. For what?
For Grady Long, that's what. For one man. Well, two, since that young replacement Nelson had said Littlejohn was still alive as well. But it really all boiled down to Grady Long, to Saunders' friendship with that silly, wise-cracking B.A.R. man.
"Okay," Hanley said. "Thank you, Caje. Better go get that leg taken care of. And if you're lucky, there might be some hot chow left."
"Right." Caje struggled to stand up with a little assistance from Daly, who'd been standing off to the side, knowing he wasn't really involved in First Squad's business and wisely staying out of the mess.
After Caje and Daly left, Hanley took a seat on the up-ended crate himself, suddenly too tired to continue his walk. He rested his elbows on his knees, rubbed both hands over his face, and groaned aloud. He knew why Saunders had spent all that time arguing with him. Saunders hadn't wanted to go AWOL, of course. He wasn't the type to disobey orders. He had wanted to change Hanley's mind, get official orders to go back to that quarry bridge.
But Hanley couldn't have changed his orders, even if he had wanted to. Defeating the Germans in this sector, taking that bridge to the north and keeping them from penetrating the American lines, was much more important than two men who might or might not still be alive and hiding under some occupied bridge. Wasn't it?
In the big picture, it was. Obviously. But to Saunders, sacrificing Grady Long and Littlejohn was too high a price to pay. So he'd wanted Hanley to somehow magically be able to do both. Take the all-important northern bridge and rescue Long and Littlejohn. With one squad left in his whole outfit. Didn't Saunders know Hanley would have done so if he'd had the resources? If there hadn't been a whole platoon of Germans swarming in that quarry?
Hanley lit up a cigarette, sucked the smoke deep inside, then exhaled slowly. He couldn't send men into a death trap like that quarry had become, lose more men trying to rescue a couple soldiers who were probably already dead anyway. But in the end, it didn't matter what Hanley could or couldn't do, did it? Because Saunders had just gone ahead and decided to mount a rescue with only one green kid to help him, and now Hanley had to face the fact that he would lose them too.
Because that's what it all really amounted to, he admitted reluctantly: he hadn't wanted to lose Saunders. That's why he had been so adamant in his refusal to send First Squad back to the quarry. He was afraid it would be his friend lost in that river, stuck under that bridge, wounded. Dead.
In the end, it all boiled down to friendship, the fear of losing someone you'd let yourself start caring about somewhere in this morass of killing and death and loss. Saunders was unwilling to lose Grady Long. And Hanley was unwilling to lose Saunders. Well, thanks to Saunders' insistence on doing what Hanley had ordered him not to, they might just both end up short a friend.
He took another long drag on the cigarette.
You're not the first man to lose a friend in this war. He'd said those words just hours ago to Saunders, trying to persuade the sergeant to accept what Hanley couldn't accept himself.
He could have let Saunders take Kirby and sneak back to that quarry, orders from Captain Jampel or no orders. Brockmeyer could have led the rest of the squad to the bridge up north and held it. He'd sent Saunders on stranger, stupider missions before. But he hadn't wanted to, and that's all there was to it. He simply hadn't wanted to. His friendship for Saunders had somehow blinded him to the fact that Saunders would do anything to protect Grady Long. Just like Hanley would do anything to protect Saunders, even if it was just from the sergeant's own foolishness.
Maybe he hadn't been blinded. Maybe somewhere inside, he'd known that Saunders would put his own life on the line for Grady Long, the way he'd done so many times before for Hanley. Maybe he'd been a little jealous of Saunders' friendship, unwilling to share it with anyone else.
Or maybe he'd been tired and irritable for so long, he'd forgotten how to be anything else. Hanley took one last pull on his cigarette, stubbed it out on the ground, and stood up. There was absolutely nothing he could do about any of it now. He could neither send Saunders aid nor call off the artillery barrage. All he could do was wait and pray. And hope. It was out of his hands.
The night wore on toward dawn, and tiredness and aching muscles began to undermine Saunders' strength. He shivered constantly against the river's chill, now understanding all too well Littlejohn's warning about it. And he couldn't rest, couldn't even release the grip he had on the damp stones for a minute without the insidious current trying to pull him away. And as every hour passed, he lost energy and strength he knew he was going to need badly to get Grady safely away from the bridge.
The B.A.R. man was unconscious, feverish, and Saunders worried. The wound itself wasn't bad. If they could have gotten him back to the aid station immediately, it probably wouldn't have kept him out more than a week or two. But the exposure, the length of time spent in the river -- those were what was bad. And he could do nothing but wait and watch for the branches Littlejohn and Nelson would send downstream.
Slowly, night's darkness gave way to pale grey sky, and the stone walls curving over Saunders' head took shape. The night had dragged endlessly, yet now that daylight approached, it seemed like it had passed too quickly. Over the river's noise came the rumble of trucks, downshifting and growing louder. An edgy alertness replaced his exhaustion, as adrenalin kicked in.
The Germans must have gotten the switchback road repaired enough to risk passage, and they were coming down. And Nelson had seen those chalk notations under here somewhere, what had Brockmeyer translated the words to? To shore up.... The Krauts would start preparing to repair the bridge. Saunders wondered if he hadn't postponed their departure for just a little too long. He should have risked the bullets of the bored guards. Maybe if he had stuck close to the bank, they wouldn't have been spotted. But it was too late now. It was light enough that he and Grady would be noticed instantly.
He turned his gaze north once more, upriver, still waiting and watching. Plenty of vegetation had floated by... all of it natural and unsuited for his purposes. Over four hours had passed since Littlejohn and Nelson had made their escape. That should have been enough time to circle around. Unless something had happened. Unless Nelson and Littlejohn hadn't made it.
Fiercely, he shoved those thoughts aside. It didn't matter. When the barrage started, he would take Grady and go regardless.
Then his eyes picked out a dark shape drifting down the river. Easing himself away from the stone support, he readied himself. The branch bobbed close, and he grabbed hold of it, grinning as he saw the marks where it had been hacked from a tree. Littlejohn and Nelson had made it after all. He quickly checked his watch again, and his grin faded. There were still ten minutes left... If he kept this first branch and the sentries were still keeping a close eye above, if it didn't float through and they noticed... but if it was the only branch coming and he let it go?
If... if... if....
He gritted his teeth and forced his fingers to open and let the branch go. It whipped immediately out of his hands, spinning as it passed out from beneath the bridge. Ten minutes was too long; he couldn't afford to raise suspicions now, not this close to dawn. There'd be more branches coming. There had to be. Littlejohn and Nelson wouldn't let him down.
The minutes dragged by.
The bridge trembled as one of the German trucks pulled out on it, and Saunders looked up. A fine dust sifted down. Boot steps trod the roadbed above and crisp authoritative voices began calling orders. They were getting ready to get down to work, he thought grimly, and checked his watch again. Another couple minutes and the artillery barrage would hit. And for once, he hoped their first shots weren't accurate.
He scanned the river upstream, desperately hunting for any sign of more branches. But the water, silvery in the dawn, held no hint of more help. Too late, he thought. He should have held onto the first one. But there was no time for recriminations, and he looked away from the cursed river. Unsheathing Caje's knife, he severed the swollen rope that bound Grady to the rubble. As soon as the rope broke, Grady's body slid slowly down into the water. Saunders maneuvered Grady Long around until the unconscious soldier floated on his back, then hooked an arm across Grady's chest and under his arm, ready to shove off and float down the river while still holding the wounded man's head above water.
Something smacked him from behind, and he turned, startled. It was a small tree limb, broken off at one end, leafy smaller branches forming a thick barrier. Swiftly, he let go of Grady with one hand and snatched at the branch before it could get away. For a moment, he clung to it, fighting the current for possession, then he had it steady and he maneuvered it in front of himself and Grady.
The shells started falling a moment later.
Billy Nelson still felt cold inside. Despite completely dry clothes, three cups of hot coffee, and the increasing heat of a mid-June afternoon, he still felt the river's chill inside him. He sat on the ground outside the tent he and Littlejohn had been assigned, trying to absorb as much warm sunlight as he could. He glanced over at Littlejohn, who sprawled on the grass to his right, and realized that no matter how cold he still felt, Littlejohn must be colder still. How many hours had he spent in that numbing water? Too many, that's for sure.
They had sent seven large branches floating down the river, hoping at least one of them would reach the bridge before the artillery opened up. It had taken them longer than they had anticipated to circle back upstream, then find branches big enough to support part of Grady's weight, yet small enough they could hack through them with their bayonets. Littlejohn gave up on that eventually and just ripped likely-looking limbs down with his bare hands. Then they'd begun the long trek to camp.
Despite the fact that Littlejohn had to be six times as tired as Billy was, it was Littlejohn who had led them back, walking as steadily as if he weren't exhausted and falling asleep on his feet. The artillery had shaken the ground under them as they made their weary way back toward camp. Every time Billy faltered, he thought of the Sarge back there with Grady, and he pushed himself onward again, until they reached the camp and headed to Lieutenant Hanley's tent to report in.
Billy had been too tired, his arm too sore and throbbing, to worry any longer about the consequences of going AWOL with Saunders. The lieutenant had looked as tired as Littlejohn, Billy thought, with his five o'clock shadow and dark circles spreading beneath his eyes. Hanley had taken Littlejohn's report silently, then sent them to eat and rest. The term AWOL had never been mentioned. They found out from Hanley's temporary aide, Pvt. Lewis, that the rest of the squad was still at the northern bridge. And that there'd been no word from Saunders, no word from Fox Company, who had gone in after the barrage to take back the quarry bridge, no word at all from anybody to let them know if the sergeant and Grady Long had made it out from under that bridge in time. Nothing.
And now they'd spent hours back at camp. Dry. Fed. Fretting so badly sleep was out of the question.
Well, Billy couldn't sit there, silent and worried, for an instant longer. Littlejohn had barely spoken since reporting in to Hanley. It wasn't as if he was shutting Billy out, exactly. It was more like he was holding his breath, waiting. Well, Billy was waiting too, and the longer the silence between them stretched, the antsier he got. "Hey, Littlejohn?" Billy said softly. "You asleep?"
"Yes," Littlejohn answered, not opening his eyes.
"Can I ask you something anyway?"
"Shouldn't the Sarge and Grady Long be back by now?"
"Well, do you think they made it out before that barrage hit?"
"They might have."
"Maybe we shouldn't have left them," Billy continued. "Maybe we should all have waited. How could the Sarge get Long and himself both outta there?" It was a relief to voice the things gnawing at his conscience. He had a feeling Littlejohn was troubled by them too, despite the infuriatingly calm tone he was using.
"What if none of our branches got to him in time?"
"Then he'd figure something else out."
"Well, aren't you even worried about them?" Billy asked, exasperated. Talking with Littlejohn usually helped ease his mind, but it didn't seem to be working this time
Littlejohn opened one eye. "Sure I am. I'm just not being so noisy about it." He re-closed his eye. A moment later, he opened them both and sat up. "You hear that?" he asked.
"Hear what?" Billy looked around them, at the noisy camp full of jabbering soldiers.
"Sounds like a jeep."
"Probably somebody to pick up the captain that's visiting the lieutenant."
"This jeep sounds like it's got a belt loose. His didn't." Littlejohn stood up, suddenly towering over Billy. He picked up Saunders' Thompson from its spot in the grass next to where he'd been lying.
Billy scrambled to his feet too, careful not to use his wounded arm. "So it's a jeep, so what?"
"It's coming from the south." Littlejohn began walking toward the edge of camp.
South. The river flowed south. Billy scurried to catch up with Littlejohn and fell in beside him. "You think--?" he asked, a little out of breath.
"I don't know." They rounded the last of the tents and watched as a jeep bucked and jounced over the muddy field, heading straight toward them. There was a stretcher on the jeep, and beside the stretcher was a very blond, very muddy sergeant. Their sergeant.
"Medic!" Saunders hollered as the jeep slowed.
Their approach had been noted by more people than just Billy and Littlejohn. No sooner had the jeep jolted to a halt than Doc Daly ran up, followed by two other medics. Billy and Littlejohn pushed their way through the crowd up to the side of the jeep and Billy swallowed. Grady's unconscious face was too pale beneath the dirt and fever's sweat.
"Looks like he's lost a lot of blood," Daly said, examining Grady's wound. "We'll get some plasma into him right away." He looked up at Saunders, Littlejohn, and Nelson, who all hovered above Grady Long's still body. "His pulse is weak; it'll be a while before they can operate and take out the bullet."
"Will he make it?" Billy asked, when no one else did.
Daly's young face was grave as he answered, "I don't know." He and the other two medics lifted Grady's stretcher off the back of the jeep and carried the wounded man away before anyone could ask any more unanswerable questions.
Saunders watched them leave in silence, then climbed wearily out of the jeep. "Thanks," he murmured to the Fox Company driver, and the man nodded and drove off.
Billy watched the sergeant anxiously, for the first time wondering what would happen now. He had spent all his time wondering if they would make it back in one piece, not what would happen afterwards.
The jubilation he thought he would feel if Saunders and Grady Long made it back safely did not materialize, and he did not know why. This should have been a happy moment, a moment for celebration, but it wasn't. It wasn't sad, either, Billy reflected, merely matter-of-fact.
He watched Saunders, and he saw a different person than the squad leader he'd finally been able to tell the truth to yesterday. The fierce rage was long gone, the anger washed out of Saunders during those lonely hours in the river, and the sheer exhaustion etched in the lines of his face and the heavily furrowed brow as he stared after Grady, left him looking vulnerable and human. Billy watched him and thought he wouldn't be afraid to tell this man something in the future. It was a strangely satisfactory thought, and he let his gaze follow Saunders' after Grady and the medics.
Grady would make it, he thought strongly and believed it.
Into the silence, Littlejohn said, "Caje is fine. He's probably over near the mess tent, waiting for lunch." He waited until Saunders turned to look at him, then held out the Thompson, his tone almost reverent as he said, "Thanks for the loan."
Saunders accepted the weapon with a nod.
Littlejohn avoided Saunders' gaze as he added, "I think the lieutenant's been wondering where you are."
Saunders nodded again. "I figured."
Littlejohn said, "Glad you made it, Sarge."
"Thanks." Saunders began walking toward the aid tent, with Littlejohn and Billy trailing behind him, but when they neared Hanley's CP tent, Saunders paused. Billy thought he looked like he was trying to make up his mind about whether to go turn himself in for going AWOL, or follow Grady to the aid station and face the consequences later.
The door flap to Hanley's CP opened suddenly, making Saunders' decision for him. Lieutenant Hanley stepped out, closely followed by an older, dark-haired man with captain's bars on his collar. "Saunders!" Hanley called out and started walking toward the muddy sergeant.
Saunders, Littlejohn, and Billy all saluted. The captain walking beside Hanley returned their salutes. "At ease, men," he told them, then turned to Hanley. "Well?" he asked. "This is the one you sent to take those bridges?"
Hanley nodded. "Yes, sir." He looked at Saunders and raised one eyebrow. "Tell me, Saunders," he said, "did you encounter any resistance on the way back from the river?"
Billy thought Saunders looked as surprised as if Hanley had just asked him if he would rather have a pony or a new bicycle for his birthday.
Hanley reiterated, "Do the Germans have any patrols on our side of the river?"
Saunders recovered his composure quickly and answered, "No. The artillery barrage appears to have driven them back, sir. There were none between the river and where we ran into Fox Company's lines."
Hanley nodded. "Thank you. Oh, and I'm glad to see you made it back. All of you."
The captain added, "Thank you, Sergeant." He turned to Hanley and said, "We'll be heading north now, to that other bridge you've secured. Strike your camp and be ready to move out by 1400." He exchanged salutes with Lieutenant Hanley and walked toward his waiting jeep.
Hanley looked at Saunders, both eyebrows raised, as if he was very curious to hear what Saunders had to say for himself.
Saunders looked him directly in the eye and said, "I'm not going to apologize."
Hanley nodded. "I'm not asking you to."
Exchanging a quick glance with each other, Billy and Littlejohn backed away from Saunders and Hanley, moving out of earshot as hastily and unobtrusively as they could.
Littlejohn looked down at Billy and shrugged. "Welcome to the squad, Billy," he said.