THE BEST LITTLE JOB IN THE WHOLE DANGED ARMY

By Lois Overton, aka Foxhole Filly

Copyright 2000 by Lois Overton

Part One

Sgt. Saunders lay atop the ancient stone wall, head pillowed on his pack. His distinctive camouflage helmet hung on the tip of the Tommy gun, which was parked against the wall within easy reach should it be needed.  Running his fingers through his hair, he thought how shaggy and filthy it had gotten.  His own mother probably wouldn't recognize him, days unshaven and covered with a thick layer of grime.  As was usual among soldiers who had been on the front for long periods of time, his uniform was barely recognizable.  The cuffs and lapels of his field jacket were fringed with wear, and the three stripes denoting his rank hung from his tattered left sleeve.  The left knee of his trousers was worn through, leaving a threadbare mesh where olive drab wool should have been.

This was a moment of blessed respite after days of slogging through cold rain, fighting an enemy that was as elusive as it was deadly.  Saunders raised one foot and turned it this way and that, noting the thick caking of mud that clumped on the well-worn leather.  Then he let the foot drop heavily on top of the other leg, too tired to give the mud a second thought.  With a loud, satisfied groan, he stretched his arms; then tucked them under his head in anticipation of a long-awaited nap in the crisp autumn afternoon.   

"Man, I could sleep for a week," Littlejohn sighed from his spot in the grass at the edge of the road.  

"Hmm," Saunders responded half-heartedly in agreement, eyes heavy.

With backpacks jammed between the wall and their shoulders, Kirby and Caje lay sprawled side-by-side, fingers interlaced behind their heads, legs outstretched.  Doc sat astride the wall chomping loudly on an overly ripe yellow-green apple.

"Doc," Kirby implored, "you got any more of them apples?"

"Nope.  But there's a whole orchard full of 'em just on the other side of the road.  Go get one."

"Nah.  I'm too tired.  Littlejohn, how 'bout you get yourself one of those nice, ripe apples.  Can't tell me you ain't hungry."

"Get off it Kirby," Littlejohn scolded.  "You know you don't give a hoot about whether I'm hungry or not.  You just want me t'get you an apple."

Saunders opened one lid and eyed the men with mild amusement.  The squad knew each other well after all this time.  Why wouldn't they after living together twenty-four hours a day for four months.  That was more time than any of them had ever spent with anyone. He was surprised there wasn't more bickering than there was.  Saunders closed his eye again.  It had been days since they'd had such precious down time.  Or had it been weeks?  It was hard to remember.  Hard to keep the days straight.  They just seemed to meld into one monotonous, wet span of misery.  Finally, as the sun did its work, his body began to relax.  

At that particular moment, the war seemed far away.  But all he had to do was look to the scene around him to be reminded that the war was just over the ridge.  It was constantly around them.  There was never any let-up.

When the squad first came through LeChien, it had been an unspoiled village with an old-world feel like a picture postcard.  Nothing much that anyone would notice in other times.  It was hardly more than a cluster of stone and wood houses surrounding a small grassy plaza of ancient trees and a central fountain.  Though old, the town had been well kept and was immaculate.

 

The men had stopped for a few minutes to rest and fill their canteens.  In spite of the cold drizzle, the villagers had hurried from their homes to get a glimpse of les Américains.  Fascinated children had surrounded them, drawn especially by lure of the chocolate bars the soldiers distributed.

Now, two days later, the soldiers were back and the place had been laid waste by artillery.  The women and children were gone.  All that remained of the buildings was burned-out shells.  The fountain was a pile of rubble, and the trees had been reduced to blackened stumps.  It was hard to look upon the damage that an artillery barrage could inflict and not be moved.  Sarge was tired of destruction.  Tired of killing.  He was just plain tired.  

"Come on, Littlejohn, go get me an apple."  Kirby's voice brought the sergeant back to the squad.

"I said get it yourself, Kirby.  You got no servants around here."

You big dumb ox...I oughta...."

"That's enough, Kirby," Saunders spat without moving, trying to stave off an approaching storm between the two.  As tired as they were, things could quickly get out of hand.  "You want an apple, go get one."

 

Kirby responded with a disgusted hiss.

Billy hauled himself up from where he had lain on the ground with his face buried on his arms, seemingly dead to the world.  "I'll get you an apple.  Anyone else want one?"  Seven hands shot up.

"Billy," Lewis said without moving, his voice echoing inside the helmet he had pulled down over his face, "if they got any Granny Smiths, my name's on one of  'em."

"Delicious for me," Simmons called.

"Do I look like a grocery, for cryin' out loud?" Billy called over his shoulder as he headed across the road.

"Wait up, Billy," Doc said.  "I'll help you."

The two walked into the orchard and started gathering and sorting apples.  Their voices could be heard discussing the qualities of the fruit as they selected the choicest ones available and stuffed them in the fronts of their jackets.  Crossing back to the squad, Billy tossed an apple to Caje, who moaned in appreciation as he savored the first bite.

"Heads up, Sarge," Doc called.  Saunders looked over and without moving anything but his arm, caught the apple one handed; then he shined it on the front of his field jacket and joined in the feast.

"Here, Littlejohn."  Billy handed the soldier a firm looking one.  Littlejohn mumbled his thanks and immediately attacked the apple with gusto.  Billy stood in awe as the soldier ate the entire fruit without looking up.  "Man!  I never saw anyone eat an apple like that... seeds, core, and all.  That was incredible!"

Littlejohn belched and pounded his chest with his fist.  "My ma told me never to waste food."  Then he examined a second apple.  Looking to the BAR man, he had a wicked notion.  Holding the apple in his large hands, he kneaded and squeezed it until it turned to mush.  Then he tossed it to Kirby.  "Here, Kirby.  Have one on me."  

"Thanks, Littlejohn."  Kirby grabbed it like he was catching a baseball, its condition becoming immediately obvious.  "Not funny, ya big ape," he called as he threw it back at Littlejohn.  It smacked the big man's sleeve with a "thwack," depositing a gooey spot on his PFC stripe.

Littlejohn jumped to his feet and came at Kirby ready for a fight.  "OK, little man.  You wanna throw something?"  He held his fists aloft in fighting stance.  

Kirby was instantly ready to return a blow if attacked.  "Yeah?  I can take you.  Come on, you...you...."

Saunders threw down his apple and was between the pugilists before either of them had a chance to throw a punch.  "You two wanna fight, you fight Krauts!"  He pushed Littlejohn one direction and Kirby the other.  "I know you're tired.  We all are.  But that's no excuse to start in on each other.  You got it, Littlejohn?"

Littlejohn glared at Kirby.  "Sarge, he...."

"I said, you got it?" he spat.

"Yeah.  I got it."

"Houh!"  Kirby grunted as if in victory.  

"And you.  You keep your mouth shut, wise guy.  I'm not putting up with any more from either of you.  Kirby, go over there."  He pointed to a vee in the wall.  "Littlejohn, you go that way."  Littlejohn was directed to the other side of a log where Merle Johns sat massaging his tired feet.

Saunders watched the combatants to be sure they were through; then he returned to his spot on the wall, where he had left his backpack pillow.  Giving his head a firm scratch and rubbing a hand on his pant leg, he lay down once more.  

Billy came over and sat with his back to the wall near Saunders.  "They didn't mean anything by it, Sarge.  You know how it gets."  He handed Sarge a fresh apple.  "All the men need is a little time to rest.  Week after week of being under pressure.  It gets to a man.  I bet you know real good how that feels, huh?"

Saunders shot Billy a sideways glance.  Then he reached out and knuckled the top of Billy's head.  "How'd you get so smart?"  

Sometimes it was easier to think of Billy as that fresh young kid he'd been before they came ashore at Omaha than to think of him as a man, a seasoned and blooded vet.  And yet there was still an innocent sincerity in him that would lead him to gawk at Littlejohn's eating techniques one moment and to analyze the squad's reaction to pressure the next.

"Not a one."  Billy's voice brought Saunders back to the patch of ground where the squad rested.

"Now how could Ritz crackers taste like apples?"  Littlejohn joined the discussion.  

Saunders tossed the apple core into the bushes nearby and folded his arms on his chest again.  Every once in a while he cocked his head slightly as he listened to the conversation, grateful for the peace of the moment.

"My granny used to serve it every Sunday when she couldn't get apples.  And it did taste like apple pie."  

"I think you're making the whole thing up," Lewis said derisively.

"No, I'm telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Rita Hayworth."

Kirby leaned in toward Caje.  "Now that's a woman I could cook with."

Caje smiled at Billy's earnestness, ignoring Kirby.  

"Hey, Sarge," Littlejohn interrupted, "jeep coming.  Looks like it might be Hanley."

Saunders lifted his head just enough to see.  In the distance, he spotted a green army vehicle speeding down the lane, enveloped in a cloud of dust.  The sunlight flashed off the windshield, obscuring the driver's face.  

The jeep pulled up in front of them, brakes squealing.

"Yup, that's the lieutenant, all right," Littlejohn added.

Lewis pulled the helmet off his face where it rested, but made no attempt to stand.  Two new men rose and saluted briskly.

"As you were, men."

Saunders sat.  "What gives, Lieutenant?"

Hanley tipped his helmet back so that it no longer shaded his eyes.  "I have a little job that needs doing.  There's a special mission; it's important.  Critical to the war effort."

The squad immediately started to grumble, and the reaction was not unexpected.  Hanley knew they were all tired.  Saunders tilted his head and scanned the men.  "I can't order you to go.  I need three volunteers."

A moment passed, and no one moved.  Then Saunders stood.  Putting on his helmet and slinging the Thompson on his shoulder.  He waited, but the men were silent.   

Finally, Caje rose, Garand in hand.  "I'll go with you, Sarge."

The sergeant and the lieutenant continued watching the men.  "OK," Hanley said finally, disappointment clearly sounding in his voice, "I guess you two will just have to go it alone."  

Caje knelt to gather his equipment while Saunders checked his ammo supply.  Hanley sat in the jeep without moving.

"Well, what the hell," Kirby griped.  "I guess you're stuck with me, Sarge."  Saunders gave a quick nod of acknowledgement.

"I'm driving you back to Lille.  Just leave your packs in the jeep.  You won't need anything except your weapons.  Take a shower and get fresh uniforms.  Then report to Major Edwards.  He'll meet you in the Officers' Mess."

Billy whistled.  "In the Officers' Mess?"

Saunders picked up his musette bag.  "Major Edwards, sir?  I don't believe I know Major Edwards."  

"Of course you don't.  He's from Special Services.  You'll be assigned to him for four or five days."

Saunders approached Hanley.  "Special Services, sir?  We're gonna be gone five days?  What happens to my squad?"

"Oh, they'll be on R and R."    

Laconic and argumentative only moments before, the men were now all smiles.  It sounded too good to be true, a double victory for them.  They'd avoided a special mission and gotten R and R.  

"My ole man was right, "Lewis cheered.  "Never volunteer for nuthin."

The men congratulated each other, dancing around like it was Christmas morning, slapping each other on the back and crowing loudly.

Caje was silent in disbelief at what he had heard, but Kirby could not contain himself.  His eyes darkened with anger.  "Lieutenant, I ain't never been much on gripin', but that's just not fair."

"You backing out, Kirby?" The lieutenant's gaze was intense.

"Well...no, but it ain't right!"

Saunders straightened his helmet.  "Do you know what the mission is, Lieutenant?"

Hanley leaned back in his seat as Caje stuffed himself into the rear seat behind the lieutenant, and Saunders slumped into the front passenger seat.  "I know some of it.  It seems that there is a USO troupe coming to this area to do a show for the men.  One of the acts is afraid to fly.  So they're coming in to Le Havre.  You're to meet them at the harbor and escort them here safely."  

"A USO act?"  Kirby grumbled.  "Hey, lieutenant, we ain't no nursemaids!  Remember those other USO guys, Sarge?  Those jazz guys.  They almost got us killed.  What is it this time, a magician and his trained monkey?"

Hanley listened as Kirby continued to gripe.  Having let the tirade continue long enough, the lieutenant placed both hands on the battered green steering wheel and cleared his throat, prepared to deliver the coup de gras.  "Actually, Kirby, you'll be escorting the Bentley Sisters."

At the mention of the name Bentley Sisters, it grew deathly quiet.  The men stood with their mouths hanging open.  Littlejohn looked at Billy, then jumped to his feet and sprinted to the jeep.

"Wait, Lieutenant.  Did you say The Bentley Sisters?  The Bentley sisters?"  

Hanley nodded.

Billy joined the group.  "Bentley...as in Dorothy, Marta, and Letitia?  Those Bentley sisters?"

"That's right, Billy.  Those Bentley sisters." The lieutenant smiled behind his hand.

Kirby strutted over to the jeep like a peacock in full array and catapulted himself into the back seat beside Caje.

Those who had not volunteered, crowded around the jeep, tossing questions like hand grenades. Saunders slipped his helmet down to mask his amusement, while Caje and Kirby made no pretense of hiding their glee, hooting and slapping each other on the shoulder.

"I'm only sorry the rest of you gentlemen will be unable to meet them.  I understand they are quite charming young ladies."  Hanley was enjoying himself.

"Cheee, I never thought of them as charming."  Kirby goaded his fellow squad members.  "Awesome... breathtaking..."

"Young," Billy added.

"Long legged," Littlejohn sighed.    

"Letitia...I love you!"  Billy wailed dreamily.  

Lewis pulled a bent picture from his helmet liner and held it in front of Billy.  "Nah...Dorothy.  You ever see a pair of.... pair... you ever see anything like that before in your whole entire life?"  

Billy threw himself onto his knees in front of the jeep and begged.  "You only need three?  Why not four?  I bet you're gonnna need four.  I was just about to volunteer when Kirby did.  Really I was, Lieutenant.  Please, Lieutenant...I gotta have that job."  He pounded on the hood with his fists

"Sorry, Billy, I only need three.  Maybe next time."

"A whole five days with the Bentley Sister," Caje crowed.

Kirby reached up and put the tip of his finger on Lewis's lower jaw, closing his mouth.  "You'll catch flies that way," he said smartly, patting him on the cheek.  "And you are absolutely right listenin' to your old man.  Never volunteer for nuthin'.  Hooo!"

Saunders looked to the lieutenant and shook his head.  "I think we'd better get out of here fast before we have to fight our way out."

"You may be right," Hanley agreed.  

Caje and Kirby propped their feet on the side panels and slouched back in their seats. "Home, James," Kirby announced.  Hanley turned and eyed the private seriously.  "Home, James...er...sir."  Kirby corrected.

Then the jeep pulled away at typical Hanley speed, leaving the rest of the squad standing forlornly in the dust.

"Son of a bitch!"  Lewis yelled, throwing down his helmet in frustration.

"You can say that again," Billy added.

*    *    *    *    *    *

Two hours later, the three soldiers were in Lille, standing in the showers, luxuriating in the sting of the hot water.  It had been weeks since they had felt that refreshed.  Kirby rubbed the soap between his hands until a mound of bubbles appeared.  He slathered it onto his head and in moments the foam was gray with the grime that was released.  

"The Bentley sisters!  Man, I never in my life dreamed that I would be meetin' up with the Bentley sisters.  

They're gonna love me!"  Kirby announced loudly.

Caje scrubbed his lean chest.  "This is so perfect, Sarge.  Three Bentleys.  Three of us. Which one do you want?"

"Now look, you two, we're on a mission."  He stopped scouring his toes and stood with his hands on his hips, the water pelting his shoulders.  "We're representing the United States Army."  He pointed to Caje and then to Kirby with the small bar of soap, "I don't want any trouble out of you two.  Especially you, Kirby.  You don't breathe without my permission.  You got it?"

Kirby and Caje looked at each other, sputtering.

"I asked you if you got it!" he barked.  

Caje and Kirby grudgingly nodded.

Saunders grabbed a towel.  "I know it's been a long time since you've been around real women...ladies.  We're all in the same boat.  But a lot of eyes'll be on us.  Kirby, you think you've been in trouble before.  You blow this one, and what they'll do to you, you'll be begging for the stockade."

"Sarge, how could you think I would do anything to make my unit look bad?"  Kirby shut off the water.  "I'll be my usual, charming self.  Y'know what I mean?"

"That's what scares me."  Saunders flipped him with his towel, and for a few moments, the three soldiers were teenage boys in the shower room at school, with only their laughter and the snap of the cloth to be heard.  

When their energies were spent, they gathered up their fresh clothes.  Each sank his nose into the soft folds of the laundered uniforms.  It had been so long since any of them even had clean underwear.  There had been precious little time on the front for washing clothes lately.  What spare time they did have, they used for sleeping.

"I can almost see our apartment in Chi-town with a clothesline strung out to the apartment across the way," Kirby reminisced aloud.  "And up and down every floor, sheets and towels and shirts flapping between the buildings."

"I know what you mean."

"You lived in an apartment building, Caje?"  Kirby questioned as he pulled on clean socks.

"No, not that.  I mean we had a line in the back yard.  If it was Monday, the line would be full of underwear.  Tuesday, kid stuff, Friday my father's work clothes.  Saturday sheets.  I loved Saturday night 'cause that was when we got to sleep on fresh sheets.  There's nothing like that smell."

Saunders smiled gently, lost in his own thoughts.  He didn't offer to share with the other men, preferring instead to keep his memories private.

The men finished dressing in silence, punctuated occasionally with an "Oh, man, this is nice" or an "I'd forgotten how this felt."

When the last buckle had been buckled and the last tie knotted, Saunders reached into a small brown paper sack that Hanley had shoved into his hand before departing back to the front.  Inside was a small, half-empty bottle of cologne.  The sergeant had seen it before.  Hanley had used it in England when he was going out on the town with Hazel.  At the time, Saunders had been convinced that then-Sergeant Hanley only put it on to rankle the younger sergeant, who was seeing the coy Hazel at the same time too.  Hanley must have brought it with him on D-Day.  That was all that was left of those carefree days before Omaha.  A few ounces of cheap cologne.  He poured a small puddle into his hand and applied it.

"Caje," Saunders called out, tossing the bottle to the private.

Caje grabbed it out of the air with his quick left hand and read the label.  His eyes glowed and a smile creased his face.  "Where did you get this, Sarge?"  He poured a portion into his hand and spread it over his face and neck.

"Don't ask," Saunders replied.

"Hey, what you two got?"  Kirby bounced over and grabbed the bottle.  "Is this stuff real?" he asked as he dumped the last of the liquid into his hand and liberally splattered it all over.

"Smelllin' this good, them dames don't stand a chance."  Kirby dried his hands on his pants.  Noticing Saunders's stern look, he added, "I know, I know.  I'm gonna behave.  But you can't blame me if the girls find me ... irresistible, can you?"  

Caje adjusted his helmet.  Then he picked up Kirby's helmet and slapped it into his hands.  "Down, Kirby.  You're here to escort them just like the Sarge said.  Not to be the one we need to guard them against."

"They got nothin' to fear 'cause William G's here."  He gave the knot in his tie an extra tug and examined his freshly brushed teeth in the mirror.

"Saddle up.  We have to meet a Capt. Edwards over at the officer's mess," Saunders announced and walked out.

"Officer's Mess?  Kirby, I think this is going to be a mission to remember," Caje grinned, punching Kirby in the ribs.

*    *    *    *    *    *

"Saunders!  Over here." the major with the greying handlebar mustache waved his hand.

The non-com and two privates slipped their helmets under their arms and moved toward the smiling officer.  The three scanned the room.  It was wall-to-wall hardware.  Majors, captains, colonels.  The brass that made the big decisions in the war.  Several officers looked up curiously as they passed, leaving the GI's feeling slightly uncomfortable.

Kirby dug his finger into the neck of his shirt, which now seemed to have tightened considerably.  "Man, there's enough brass here to start a plumbing shop," Kirby whispered to Caje.  

"My name is Major Edwards."

The three soldiers saluted and after returning their salute rather limply, the major offered his hand to the sergeant.  Kirby noted that the officer wore what appeared to be an expensive looking gold ring on his pinkie and his nails were clean and manicured.  After a quick look at the line of dirt remaining under his nails, Kirby buried his hands in his pockets.

"Saunders, sir."  Then the sergeant nodded at the men beside him.  "This is Kirby and Caje"

The privates shook hands with the officer and mumbled a greeting.  Major Edwards signaled for them to sit at the table and called to a private with a tray of coffee mugs.  While the three soldiers stowed their weapons under their seats, the major removed three cups and put them on the table between them.

"Thank you for agreeing to meet me here.  I have a busy schedule, and I need to make hay while the sun shines, you know.  So I'm having a working dinner.  You gentlemen hungry?

The three looked at each other, for a moment unsure what to say.  "Well, sir..." Saunders started.    

"Of course you are.  Private, bring us dinner."

They each took a mug.  The major opened a container on the table and generously spooned out sugar.  When he offered it to GI's, they shook their heads.  They had learned to drink their coffee black and strong.  That was the only way you could get it at the front.  They had forgotten how sugar in coffee tasted.

 

The major blew on the hot, dark liquid for a moment then took a long sip.  "I do love a good cup of java," the major stated, wiping the moisture from his moustache with manicured fingertips.

The slang sounded strange coming from him.  It was as if he were playing the role of knowing, line officer.  Saunders concluded immediately that the officer had probably never referred to coffee as "java" in his life.

"I never could understand the Brits and their love of tea.  Just never developed a taste for it."

"Yeah, I know whatcha mean," Kirby snorted, then stopped without finishing, realizing where he was.  He hid his embarrassment by taking a quick gulp from the mug.  "Whoa!  

That's hot!"  Kirby grabbed his mouth, as conversation in the room skidded to a sudden halt, and every eye turned toward him.

Fortunately for Kirby, the private who was serving them returned at that moment with four plates.  Each was heaped with roast beef, mashed potatoes, carrots, and fresh bread.  The three enlisted men sat silently, staring at the plates.  

"I'm sorry.  I didn't ask you what you wanted.  Would you rather have something else?" the major asked as he spread a napkin on his lap.

Saunders spoke up immediately.  "No, sir.  This is fine."  He glanced at Kirby and then at Caje.  "It's been a long time since we ate like this.  Anything but C-rations, I mean."

"Well, dig in," the major suggested, paying no attention to their discomfort.  "Down the hatch."  He pushed a chunk of beef through the gravy and into his mouth.

Caje started with a buttered carrot, while Kirby forked up a heap of mashed potatoes.

"Damn!  These things are real!"  Kirby shouted with the first bite.  For the second time, conversation halted throughout the room.  The soldier's face reddened.  

Tell me...Kirby... was it?  Do they still serve SOS?"

"Boy, do they," he said, returning his attention to his plate.  "That is, when we get hot food.  Usually we just get canned food in our C-rations.  Lots of cheese and canned meat."  Kirby snorted.  "You'd think the Army headquartered in Wisconsin, not in Washington.  And condoms.  We got condoms coming out our ears."

Saunders turned his head in disgust.  "I'm sorry, sir," he apologized, but the major jumped in to ease Kirby's discomfort.  

"Yes, life must be difficult for you men in the trenches.  But Uncle Sam has to keep his boys happy, yes?"  The major laughed.  The three young men appreciated his nonchalant, friendly manner.  Soon they were totally at ease, enjoying the food and the light conversation about orange drink packets, coffee, and hardtack.

Finally, when they had all eaten to the point of having their bellies hanging over their belts, the mess attendant cleared the table.  Major Edwards pulled out a pack of thin cigars and offered them around.  Saunders lit each one with his lighter, and the conversation turned to their mission at last.

"As I said, I'm with Special Services.  My job is to act as a liaison between USO troupes and the Army.  I arrange shows and see that everything goes according to plan.  Most of the time we're able to bring in the entertainers by air.  The problem is that the Bentley Sisters refuse to travel by plane.  Seems their father was a barnstormer and died when he put his plane into the side of a tree.  For that reason, we're bringing them in by boat."

The coffee cups were refilled; the major pushed the cigar to the side of his mouth with his tongue and continued.  "That is where you come in.  You're to meet the girls in Le Havre and escort them back to Lille.  After the performance, you will see that they get to Paris safely.

Kirby laughed, rubbing his hands together, "I think we can handle that.  I'm good at handling ladies."

The major looked over at him, his expression unexpectedly cold.

"Sir," Kirby added quickly, aware that he may have crossed the boundary with the major.  Perhaps he had no sense of humor where the Bentley sisters were concerned.

Major Edwards sniffed and turned back to Saunders, ignoring the privates.

"They will be arriving at 10:00 tomorrow morning, oh ten hundred or something like that, I believe it is to you."  He picked up an expensive looking leather case and began sorting through a stack of papers.  Pulling out a large envelope, he handed it to the sergeant.  "Here's all the information you'll need...maps and all.  Get a good night's sleep and be there on time.  The girls are not to be kept waiting.  That would make them very unhappy.  And under no circumstances are the Bentley sisters to be made unhappy.  I can't state that emphatically enough.  It seems they are personal friends of General Patton and Ike himself, and...  well, you know how it is.  They get what they want.  Think you can handle all that?"

"Yes, sir.  No problem."  He shot a quick glance at Caje and Kirby.  "But, Sir, we were wondering why we were selected for this detail.  This isn't an assignment usually given to enlisted men, is it?"

Kirby tried to signal Sarge subtly that he was going to blow the whole deal, but Saunders's full attention was on the major.  "I mean, isn't this a job usually handled by officers?" Sarge asked as Kirby rolled his eyes.

All at once, the major seemed flummoxed.  "Yes, ordinarily we would give this job to ...ahem...officers, but...uh...the Bentley Sisters insisted that they wanted to get to see the real war up close, and that meant getting to meet real dog faces, uh... common soldiers."  He nodded toward Kirby and Caje.  "No put-down intended."

"Huh?"  Kirby looked confused.

Then the major added, "I'm sure General Eisenhower will get a "full" report on the experience, if you catch my drift."  

Kirby leaned in toward Caje and cynically whispered too loudly, "Yeah, like Eisenhower's got nuthin' better to do than..."  He felt Major Edwards' eyes boring in on him and stopped mid-sentence.  His eyes flickered between the sergeant and the major, trying to determine the depth of the trouble he was in.  

The major stood up and shoved his hand toward Saunders.  "Evening, gentlemen.  I suggest you get a good night's sleep.  I want you on the road by 6:00.  Let's see in military time that would be..."  He tapped his watch.  

"0600, sir," Caje jumped in.

"Yes.  Remember.  Keep the girls happy and I'm sure there won't be any problem.  Gentlemen?"  

He motioned toward the door.  It was obvious that their meeting was over.  Then without looking back, he called out to someone at another table and hurried off, leaving the three GI's standing alone in the officer's mess and feeling completely out of place.

Bidding adieu to the privileged life, they walked down the ancient cobbled street, past silent shops and boarded windows as they puffed on their cigars.  The air was cold, and their breaths were clearly visible.

"Man, it must be nice to be an officer and live like that," Caje said zipping up his jacket.  "I can tell you that a few meals like that and I'd never want to go out on patrol."

Kirby swallowed down the last of the berry pie he'd lifted from a tray on the way out.  "Maybe that's why they don't give GI's good food'r nuthin'.  We'd all get fat and lazy."  

Saunders was silent, his hands hooked in his pockets as they walked.  He seemed a million miles away.  Caje and Kirby both noted his silence.  Caje, as was his habit, was content to let Sarge have his time of solitude in the group.  Kirby, on the other hand, was never one to let anything observed go unstated.

"Hey, Sarge, you sure are quiet.  Everything OK?"

Saunders started at the mention of his name.  He didn't speak right away, but took a final puff on the cigar before dropping it and grinding it out with his boot.  "I was just thinking about my sister," Saunders shared after another moment of silence.  "What wouldn't she give to be here right now, about to meet the Bentley sisters?  She thinks they're wonderful... has pictures from movie magazines all over the walls of her bedroom."

"Hey, Sarge," Caje spoke up, "maybe you can get their autographs."

"Yeah, maybe."

They turned down a narrow street that led them to the stone building that had been selected to house the GI's sent to the rear for temporary assignment or who were moving out shortly on furlough.  Three empty cots with frayed, but freshly laundered sheets were found.  A fire crackled warmly in the wood-burning stove, and from every corner they heard the sounds of snoring and restless turnings on creaky cots.

Ordinarily they would have slept in their clothing, but they couldn't stand the thought of going to bed in their still-sweet-smelling uniforms.  Hauling off their clothes, they folded everything neatly and placed them beneath the cots with their weapons.  Finally, they dropped into bed, the exhaustion of the day and the weeks quickly overtaking them.  Caje and Saunders pulled heavy wool blankets over themselves and fell asleep almost immediately.  

Kirby lay quietly in the dark a while.  He lit another cigarette and watched, mesmerized, as the tip burned brightly with each deep pull.  He found himself considering the luck that had led him to the greatest day in his life.  He'd had a hot shower with soap, a sumptuous roast beef dinner surrounded by the officers who made things happen in the war, eaten berry pie, drunk real coffee, and now clean sheets to sleep on.  His friends were with him.  And tomorrow...tomorrow he was going to meet the Bentley sisters.  He smiled broadly to himself in the dark.  How much better could life get in this man's army?  

*    *    *    *    *    *

Long before the first shaft of sunlight had pierced the thin, tattered curtains, Saunders had risen.  Stretching and shaking off sleep, he awakened the other two.  Within minutes, they were all three in the showers; not because they had become so dirty since the previous evening, but simply because they could.  It was a luxury they couldn't resist.  Then

clean-shaven again, they donned their uniforms.  Saunders smiled to himself.  It was good to see his men so rested.  And anticipating the time of their lives.

They made their way through the cold morning dampness to the motor pool, finding that they were too early.  Kirby had his hands buried deep in his pockets.  

"Man, I could use some java," Kirby said mimicking the way the major has spoken the night before.  "You know, Sarge, maybe we should wander over to the officer's mess and get a good breakfast.  So we'll have enough energy to take care of them dames."

"Kirby, you mess with those girls and you just might end up in Leavenworth," Saunders warned.

"But, Sarge, what if they find me irresistible?" the private yawned.

"Fat chance of that," Caje slipped in quietly.

Kirby was just about to respond when a large man bundled in a heavy green jacket strode up without a word, unlocked the double doors, and disappeared inside.  The three GI's followed him.

The building was heavy with the odor of motor oil, gasoline, paint, and other chemicals.  They stood before a line of vehicles...an ambulance, a truck, several jeeps, and at the far end, a Cadillac staff car.  The heavyset man had shucked his coat and thrown it on a chair.  His head was already buried in the innards of a jeep engine.

Saunders cleared his throat and approached the man.  "You Bastin?"  

"Who wants to know?" the man said without looking up.

"I'm Saunders.  Major Edwards sent me to pick up a vehicle."

The man straightened and wiped his hands on a dirty rag.  "I'm all ready for ya."  

The mechanic signaled for Saunders to follow him, leaving Caje and Kirby standing in the middle of the garage.  Caje loosened his tie.  "Man, this is uncomfortable.  I'm not used to wearing one."   

Kirby ignored him.  He walked down the aisle of vehicles, his eye caught by the Caddy.  Though it was a dull green color, not his favorite, he was in awe of its sturdy look.  He put his hand on the rounded fender and felt its smoothness and ran it along the side to the door.  He opened it and sat down in the well-broken-in driver's seat, laying his BAR beside him.  Wiggling until he had settled himself comfortably, he wrapped his fingers around the smooth, polished wood steering wheel.  Caje heard him making engine and screeching tire sounds as he worked the wheel back and forth.

"Kirby, you shouldn't be in there," Caje warned.

"Heck, I'm not doin' nuthin."

Caje leaned over and rested his forearms in the open side window, whistling low with amazement.  "Hey, man, you could fit the whole squad in the back seat!"  

"You know," Kirby said, "if I had a car like this, I could start a real nice little taxi service after the war, hauling fat cats along Michigan Avenue.  With one car, I could make enough to buy a fleet of these beauties.  Bet they would hold up real good, too, with all that steel plate.  Just think how easy driving in Chicago traffic would be in a beauty like this.  No worries about fender benders."

His dream was interrupted by the voice of the mechanic, who had returned with Saunders.  "Like that car?"

"Yeah, sure.  Which one is ours?"  Kirby jumped out and motioned toward the jeeps.

"You gonna drive it or you want me to?"  Saunders asked.

"The jeep?"  Kirby questioned.

Saunders nodded back toward the staff car, grinning.  Kirby looked at him incredulously, eyes shining.  "You mean... you mean we're gonna take the staff car?"

Saunders nodded.

"Sarge, are you sure?  I mean, I never drove one ... never even saw one be..."

"Hey, Kirby, you better just stop all the talk and take advantage of the situation before they change their minds," Caje warned.

Kirby glanced from Caje to the sarge to the mechanic and back to Caje.  "Yeah, I mean sure.  I'm ready."  He jumped into the car.  "Well, you gonna go or just stand there jawin' all day?"  

Caje moved to the far side and stepped into the rear, stowing his M1 beside him.  He stretched out his legs, and they didn't even touch the seat in front of him.  The mechanic dropped the keys into Saunders's hand.

"Now remember...we borrowed this car from General Patton just for the Bentley sisters.  It's his personal staff car, so we want this baby back in the same condition you got her in.  I don't want no bullet holes in her or nothin'.  Drive carefully so you don't ruin the alignment I just gave her.  And don't forget..."

Saunders stopped him with a wave of his hand and a nod of understanding.  "Yeah, I got it all.  Kirby?"

At the sound of the call, Kirby turned in time to see Saunders toss the keys in his direction.  He speared them in mid-air, and the Sarge slid in the back beside Caje.  While the mechanic opened one side of the double doors, Kirby inserted the key and listened as the engine roared to life, then settled into a purr.

"Did ya ever hear an engine like that?"

"More'n 400 cubic inches," the mechanic beamed as he pushed open the other side of the garage door.  

Kirby turned around and frowned at Sarge in the back seat, "Man, I need field glasses to see you two back there.  Hope I don't get too lonely up here."

"Somehow I think you'll make it, Kirby."  Caje pulled out the ashtray and dumped the butts on the floor of the motor pool.

"Kirby," Saunders instructed, "we have to pick up the girls on time.  You'd better get going or we'll never get there."

Kirby jammed his left foot on the clutch, shot the stick into first gear, applied the gas with his right foot, and guided the car smoothly out of the motor pool.  Giving it gas, he eased the lumbering leviathan down the narrow street, turned at the corner near the canal, popped it into second, and sped off down the dusty road.

Saunders plopped his helmet and Thompson on the seat between him and Caje.  He locked his hands behind his head and leaned deeply into the cushions, enjoying the luxury of riding instead of walking for once.

"Bentley Sisters, here we come!" Caje yelled.

*    *    *    *    *    *

As they walked along, the three soldiers watched the huge ships being unloaded.  Tanks, halftracks, jeeps, deuce and a halfs, artillery pieces.  If it moved, it rolled off the ship.  The wharf was alive with uniformed clipboard-carrying men directing the constant flow of crates, boxes, and vehicles.  Stevedores and soldiers mixed amid the cranes, and squawking gulls wheeled overhead.  Ship horns sounded.  All of it blended in a riot of noise and movement.

The staff car had been safely tucked into a quiet spot within easy walking distance to the pier area thanks to the assistance of a properly impressed MP.  Driving a general's car certainly had its perks.  The GI's had left their heavy helmets on the seats of the car and locked their weapons safely in the trunk...all except for the Colt Saunders wore at his side.  

A clean-shaven MP in white gloves was directing traffic at an intersection where vehicles, newly unloaded from ships, converged with vehicles picking up supplies and those of civilians still trying to maintain businesses in spite of the war.

Kirby watched the MP for a moment.  "You know, I c'd handle having a job like that.  Can you imagine being in a war zone and wearing white gloves?  Being clean all the time?"

"That guy probably never dug a foxhole in his life, let alone lived in one," Caje added.

"Think about some day in the future.  His kid'll climb up on his lap and ask, 'What did you do in the war, Daddy?' and he'll tell him how he directed traffic in white gloves."

"Knock it off, Kirby," Saunders ordered.  "The guy has a job to do.  And so do we.  We have to find Pier 5."

They scanned the line of ships and docks, and finally Caje pointed out a sign with a large five.  The three soldiers turned down the row and made their way toward the ship.  A broken-down, unmarked truck sped by, a strong odor wafting from it.  When the truck hit a bump, one silvery fish bounced off and flopped in front of them, its mouth gaping.

"Fish must be the stupidest animals ever made," Kirby announced.  

"What?" both of his companions stopped and spoke in unison.

"Listen...a fish sees a worm and it bites.  He don't even think what is holding that good-looking worm on the line.  Nope.  He just grabs it and POW!  He's hooked.  Bye bye fishie.  Now that is dumb if you ask me."

"I never thought of that...did you, Sarge?"  

"Uh...no.  Never," Saunders agreed.

Kirby gave the fish a kick, sending it into an alley, where a dog pounced on it and sped off.  "Man, ain't nothin' worse than the smell of fish.  It's wrecking the scent of my co-log-ne," he said, pronouncing the word in three distinct syllables.  

"I been meaning to ask you about that, Kirby," Caje said in his thick Cajun accent.  "Did you bathe in it or wash your clothes in it?"

"Well, sure."

"Sure what?"

"Both.  You don't think I'm gonna meet real ladies like the Bentley Sisters without making myself smell sweet, do ya?"

"And where'd you get cologne?  We used up that bottle that Sarge had."

Kirby smiled as he walked between the two soldiers, hands jammed in his pockets.  He hesitated a moment before answering, building the suspense.  "Well, last night I was too pumped up to sleep.  So I took a little walk.  Found a dice game and got lucky."

"But that doesn't explain the cologne."

"I'm getting' there.  Hold your horses.  So this one guy, Rafferty, a sergeant with artillery, ran out of money.  I'd sorta cleaned him out.  All he had left was a bottle of cologne.  He bet that, and ...well...I ended up smellin' good."

Saunders rolled his eyes and motioned for the guys to follow along.  They headed down a narrow walkway, side-stepping several times to let wide loads pass.  All of the scurrying about reminded Saunders of ants on an anthill.  Everyone was doing his job with a goal in mind.  It was how the army operated, and he liked that.  It meant you could count on things.

A short, thin soldier with thick black glasses appeared in front of them.  He was lugging a large, black typewriter that was almost as big as he was.  "Coming through.  Coming through!" he called.  Turning just in time to collide with the soldier, Kirby exploded in a loud "Oof!" as the edge of the platen whacked him in the ribs.  The soldier fought to regain his balance as the heavy machine tipped dangerously.  Saunders and Caje reached over to steady him and the load.  

"Thanks," the soldier said, then hurried off.  "Coming through."

Caje and Saunders watched the little man disappear.  It had not occurred to either of them that Kirby might have been injured in the encounter.  They found him doubled over, head up, mouth open, eyes wide.  It reminded Caje of the fish Kirby had just kicked over to the dog.  He started to comment on that but Saunders silenced him.

"Kirby?"  The sergeant put a hand on the BAR man's back and moved around in front of him, his face inches from Kirby's as he looked for any sign of injury.  "You OK?  You hurt?"

The only words coming from Kirby were unintelligible.  Saunders glanced at Caje, his concern growing.  Caje moved close in an attempt to get through to his friend.  "Tell me what's wrong, Kirby."

"Buh...buh...buh..."  

"Kirby..."  The sergeant shook him.  

Kirby looked at Saunders and then at Caje.  Finally back to Saunders.  "Bentley," he cried, pointing toward the ship directly in front of them, his eyes still glazed.

Saunders and Caje turned toward the area Kirby indicated.  

"Sacre bleu," the Cajun whispered.

"Mama mia," Kirby added softly in appreciation.

Three young women stood at the railing of the ship.  They were dressed alike in pink sweaters and full pink skirts that accentuated their tiny waists.  The sweaters had rhinestones set into them, and they flashed in the sun like semaphores.  Kirby had no problem reading their message - "Come to me."

The first woman was a redhead, her hair pulled back into a heavy braid that hung down her back.  The second was a blonde who wore her hair loose, and the wind sent it flying about her head like a golden halo.  The last was a brunette.  Her short hair was a mass of curls that surrounded her face.  The effect of those curls was amazing.  Caje was speechless, but he gave a low whistle.  Sarge stood in mute appreciation.

Kirby lifted his hand in a wave.  The girls saw him and waved back amid a flurry of giggles from the redhead and the blonde.  Then the girls blew kisses.  Kirby caught them in mid-air, applying them to his lips, and the two giggled again.  The brunette was more reserved.  She waved, but with considerably less enthusiasm than the other two.  When the redhead moved sideways, he was sure that it was Dorothy.  There was no mistaking that profile.  

"That one is mine.  Dorothy," Kirby dreamed.  "That hair.  That smile."

"Those..."  Caje intoned.

"Yeah.  Which girl you want, Sarge?  How about Letitia, the brunette.  She's a looker all right."

"Forget it Kirby.  This is a serious mission and you'd better remind yourself of that fact," the sergeant warned them sternly, though in point of fact, he too had been considering which was the most beautiful.  "Let's go."

Caje and Sarge started toward the ramp down to the ship, grabbing hold of Kirby on the way.  Kirby's step was light and he rubbed his palms in anticipation.  Caje pulled off his garrison cap and smoothed his hair with a bit of spit on his fingertips.  Even Saunders felt the necessity to make a good impression and straightened his uniform.  

At the bottom of the ramp, they stopped and showed their papers to the MP stationed there.  When Kirby looked up, he noted that the three girls had followed their progress and were watching them from just above the ship's gangplank.  He also noticed that every time the breeze picked up just slightly, it lifted their skirts and rustled the petticoats underneath.  Now if it would just blow a tiny bit harder...he leaned to get a better view.  Saunders gave him a sharp pull back into place.

"Right over there."  The sailor pointed toward an officer who was writing on a clipboard and directing sailors.  "That's Ensign Schreyer.  He'll take care of you."

"Thanks," Saunders replied and stepped to the side in order to let a trio of sailors exit down the gangplank.

Kirby and Caje did not see them and made no attempt to move.  When the sailors saw their way was blocked, they pushed the two soldiers aside, with an "Out of the way, Dogface" in the passing.  

Never one to let an incident drop, Kirby whirled and grabbed the speaker's arm, pulling him back.  "Excuse me.  I don't think I heard you right," he said with unaccustomed friendliness, and glanced up to make sure the women were still watching.

"You heard me," the sailor hissed, pulling his arm roughly from Kirby's grasp.  "Now don't touch me unless you plan to back it up with this."  He shoved a beefy fist in front of the private's face.

Kirby's body language signaled that he was ready for a fight.  All he needed was one more word.  Caje saw where it was headed and quickly sought to defuse the situation.  He placed a hand on the sailor's shoulder in a friendly gesture.  "Gentlemen, there's no need to get mad.  We're all fighting on the same side.  We didn't get out of the way because we didn't see you.  Now that we do, we're stepping aside.  Right, Kirby?"

Kirby grunted, and grudgingly made room for the sailors to pass.

One of the sailors poked his buddy in the ribs as he laughed, "Listen to him will ya?  A Frenchie in American uniform.  Go back to your pond, Froggie."  He slapped Caje's arm away.

"You son of..."

Before the Cajun could finish, the hostile sailor struck out with his fist.  He caught the GI with a glancing blow to the cheek.  

Caje cocked his fist and cracked the sailor dead center in the nose.  The man gave a wounded cry and dropped to his knees, cradling his face in his hands.  The other two sailors were more than ready for a fight as they jumped into the fracas, and one of them went for Kirby.  Caje called out a warning and Kirby ducked in time to avoid contact.  The attacker spun in the air and lost his balance, sending him sprawling on his back.

"Break it up!"  Saunders barked as he pushed his way into the group.  His eyes were dark with anger.  "Why don't you save it for the Germans!  All of you."  

"But Sarge, he called me..."

"Enough, Caje.  You're not a third grader.  Stop acting like it.  And you," he directed toward the sailor, who smiled at the dressing down Caje was getting, "aren't acting any better.  Maybe we'd better go have a talk with your superior officer right now."

"That won't be necessary," a voice broke in from behind.  An ensign in smartly pressed tan trousers and shirt strode down the gangplank.  Beside him, a seaman in blue dungarees held a rifle in an alert position.  The men on the dock saluted briskly.  Returning the salute, the officer turned toward the GI's.  

"I am the Officer of the Deck.  Would someone like to explain what is going on here?"

"Well...maybe you better ask these creeps who..." Kirby began.

"Shut up, Kirby," Saunders hissed, his patience all but gone.

Kirby's eyes strayed up to the railing.  The women were laughing.  At them, he assumed, and his face reddened.  He could tell that Caje, too, was aware of the girls.  Saunders went on to explain what had happened.  The ensign listened without comment, and as soon as the sergeant was done, he turned to the sailors.  

"You men are on report; your leave is cancelled.  Do I make myself clear?"

The sailors grunted a quick reply and retreated up the gangplank.  

"I suggest, Sergeant, that you take your men out of here and chastise them for their unseeming behavior.  If you are unable to control your men, I suggest that perhaps the army needs to find someone more capable who can.  And what exactly are you doing in Navy territory besides causing trouble with my men?"

Saunders apologized for his men's behavior, and he made no attempt to defend himself.  Although he could not see their faces, the sergeant knew his men were fuming over the arrogant young naval officer's attitude.  Saunders showed his papers to the ensign and stated that they were there to pick up the Bentley Sisters, noting that they would be leaving as soon as they had accomplished that task.

After receiving assurances that there would be no further trouble, the officer departed up the gangplank.  At the top, he turned to the right and made his way along the railing to the spot where the three singers waited, watching.  After speaking with them a few moments, they all laughed.

Finally, the officer called down to the soldiers, telling them to wait where they were and admonishing them to stay out of trouble.  Then he and the girls disappeared.  

Saunders walked over to the side of the pier, and the two recalcitrant privates followed.  

"Sarge, they started..."  

"I'm not a bit interested in who started it.  It's pretty obvious how it ended.  If you two ever put yourselves or me in a position like that again, I'll let them throw the book at you.  Do you understand?"

"But, Sarge," Kirby began again.

"Shut up, Kirby.  I don't want to hear a word.  Do you understand what I am saying?  Kirby?" he said again with increased emphasis.

"Yeah, I hear you."

"Good.  And you, Caje?"

"I'm sorry, Sarge.  I lost my head when he called..."  He stopped mid-sentence.  

"I don't wanna hear it.  Am I clear?"

The privates nodded.  Kirby pulled out a cigarette, puffing on it furiously.  It was bad enough that they got dressed down, but the fact that it was done in front of the girls was too much.  Caje said nothing, but he still fumed, his body tense.  Stupid people with big mouths were nothing new to Cajuns.  It was a way of life.  But understanding did not make it easier to accept.  He still wanted to see that ignorant sailor taken down a notch or two.

Saunders knew that if Caje had fought the sailors, it was a sure thing it was they who had started it.  Even if he couldn't say it to his men, he understood their anger.  Somehow things were not turning out as any of them had planned, and Sarge was beginning to feel a sense of dread that this job was out of his control.  

*   *   *   *   *   *

Word had been sent down that the girls were packing their things and would be just a minute.  An hour later, Caje, Kirby, and Saunders were still waiting.  

"Just a minute, my foot."  Kirby slammed down the last cigarette in his pack and paced up and down a small section of pier.  He picked up a handful of pebbles and hurling them into the water one at a time, "Dames!"

Saunders sat on a large crate, puffing one of the cigars Major Edwards had stuffed into his pocket.  "Easy, Kirby.  You can't hurry them one bit by griping,"

Caje had been quiet since he'd almost gotten into it with the sailors.  He leaned against a small wooden storage building alongside the pier, arms folded and legs crossed.  It was his closed-up position.  Sarge knew that the private didn't want to talk right then.  Maybe later, but not at that moment.  It was how Caje dealt with anger.  Kirby would talk and talk until his anger was gone, but with Caje, it was different.  It had to burn its way out.  

Finally, without warning, the three singers were on their way down the gangplank.  They were all talking at once.  The irritation of the last hour dissipated with the sunny female laughter as the sisters glided toward them.  And then the three most gorgeous women on the European continent stood before them.

It had been a long time since the soldiers had laid eyes on a woman who wasn't somehow a part of the war--nurses who dressed in utilitarian fatigues and village girls whose appearance reflected their daily struggle just to survive.  The sisters, on the other hand, exuded an aura of total femininity.  They wore make-up that accentuated their eyes, cheeks, and lips.  Their hair was shiny clean, and they smelled of scented soap and delicate perfume.  The fine wool skirts and fluffy angora sweaters clung to their curves in just the right places.  And they were dressed in pink.  All three.  Lots and lots of pink.   

Kirby swallowed hard.

"You can say that again," Caje whispered.

The ensign they had met previously and a second officer joined them. "I'm Captain Smith."  The captain offered his hand to Saunders.

"Saunders.  We're here to escort the Bentley sisters to their show."

 

"Well, you take good care of these little ladies.  They are special to all of us."  He nodded toward the girls.  "We're going to miss them, aren't we, Murdock?"

The ensign agreed enthusiastically.  Saunders thought perhaps a bit overly enthusiastically, but chalked it up to being in the presence of the captain.  

Smith turned back to the girls.  "Have you introduced yourselves?"  The girls nodded shyly.  "Let me do the honors while your luggage is being brought down."  

The Captain motioned to the deck, and a procession of nine sailors started down the gangplank, each one loaded with pink bags of various shapes and kinds.  One carried a large pink teddy bear, and the last two struggled with a large steamer trunk

"This, gentlemen, is Miss Letitia Bentley."  He nodded at the brunette, and she curtsied slightly.

"Please call me Tisha," she smiled with a show of straight, pearly teeth.

"This," he indicated the redhead, "is Miss Dorothy Bentley."

She, too, curtsied.  "Please call me Dot," she said making eye contact with each man.

"And last, but not least," he indicted the blonde, "this is Miss Marta Bentley."

"You can call me Marta," she said, sticking out her hand demurely.

"Well, I see the last of the luggage is all here.  Now you girls have a fine show.  We...uh... enjoyed having you on board," Captain Smith said, clearing his throat and absently fingering the row of braid at the bottom of his sleeve.  In spite of the chill, the captain was perspiring.  None of it was lost on Saunders.  For a man who captained a naval ship, he seemed the nervous type.  

The girls took turns giving the captain and the ensign hugs and kisses on the cheek until the two naval officers waved them off and retreated up the gangplank.  

Kirby considered what kind of a sendoff he might be able to conjure up when their stint with the girls was over at the end of the week.  Caje's thoughts were not very different.  Saunders, on the other hand, couldn't shake the feeling that something was amiss.  But he put it out of his mind.  How could anything be wrong when all they had to do was spend the next two days with three beautiful women?  It wasn't exactly tough duty.

"What is all this?" the sergeant motioned toward the pile of bags.

"This?"  the brunette answered.

"This."

"Well, this is our luggage.  Exactly what does it look like?"  Her voice had taken on an imperious, mocking tone.

"Sure looks like luggage to me," Kirby snorted.

"Look, Miss..."

"Tisha."

"Look...Tisha...do the three of you need all of this...luggage?"  Saunders shook his head as he surveyed the trunk, the valises, the bags, the garment bags, the teddy bear.

"Mais oui.  We are stars.  You can't expect us to travel in rags for goodness sake."

"Well, of course you can't," Kirby smiled.

Above their heads, the whole ship's complement appeared to be lining the rails.  Saunders scanned the row of sailors and knew that none of them were going to volunteer to help with the luggage.  They were enjoying the show too much.  The captain poked his head over the rail one last time, but when the sergeant called out to him, he disappeared quickly.  

The girls waited, purses in hand, smiling.

"Where is our transportation, Sergeant?"  Letitia looked around.  "Is it a limousine?"

"Better than a limousine," Kirby bragged.  "It's parked a couple blocks over."

"Surely you do not expect us to walk all that way, do you?" she asked, aghast.

"You see, ladies, the car is over there and we are over here.  That means we have to walk over to it.  It isn't that far," Sarge tried to explain as succinctly as possible.

"Maybe not for a soldier in combat boots, but it is for a woman in high heels," she noted, displaying her curvaceous leg as she hiked her hem.  She wore a pair of very tall high heels.  They were delicate looking with lots of skinny straps and bows.  

"Oh, my," Kirby moaned.

The sailors on the ship responded with a symphony of whistles and laughter.

"Now hear this.  Now hear this," a voice announced to the ship.  "All naval personnel will report to their quarters...immediately."  

In a heartbeat the three GI's and the three sisters were the only ones anywhere in sight.

"Well," Saunders continued, "I don't see any other way to get there except to walk."

"And what about our luggage?" Dot asked, hands on hips.

Caje looked over the pile.  "Maybe you could leave some of it behind...take only the important things and have the rest sent to Paris."

"We most certainly will not.  We need every bit of it."

Kirby held up the teddy bear that dwarfed him.  "You telling me you gotta have this?  Houh."

Dot grabbed the bear and held it to her chest.  "Where we go, he goes.  He was a gift to us from Georgie.  Said he got him in Rome on his Italian campaign."

"Italian campaign...Georgie...uh, I mean...General Patton gave you this bear?"  Caje swallowed, deeply impressed.

"Shhh.  But you mustn't tell anyone," Tish warned.

"Something tells me we ain't gonna win this one," Kirby said quietly.

"If each of you could pick up a bag and carry it," Saunders suggested to the women, "it would help a lot."

Before he could protest, Dot pushed the bear into Caje's arms.  "Come, sisters.  Grab a bag.  Each of the women picked up a hatbox and stood waiting for the men to bring the rest.  The soldiers picked up as many suitcases and bags as they could carry.

"So where is this vehicle?" Dot asked.

Saunders tipped his head in the direction of the car, his arms full of suitcases and bags.  Marta, Letitia, and Dorothy turned and started down the pier toward the large green Cadillac.  Saunders, Caje, and Kirby struggled behind, loaded like pack mules.  

As the procession moved down the street, the sight of the girls brought cheers and whistles from the men who stopped their work to watch.  Knowing they were on display, the girls' smiles brightened.  As their admirers waved and called to them, the sisters' walk took on a decidedly more fluid rhythm.  They clearly enjoyed the attention, and they waved back with delicate wrist movements.

The three GI's, on the other hand, hated every minute of the trek.  The watchers' appreciative calls to the girls turned to derisive jeers at the sight of the three soldiers loaded with pink bags.  Caje, carrying the pink teddy bear, was obviously the butt of their unkind humor.

Arriving at the automobile, they piled everything beside it.  Letitia stood with her hands on her hips as she surveyed their transportation.  "That is the ugliest color I've ever seen."  She turned to face Saunders.  "You're kidding aren't you?  Can it be painted?"

"Hey, lady, this ain't Hollywood.  It's a army vehicle, and army vehicles're green."  Kirby couldn't help feeling defensive about the Caddy, as if he owned it himself.  

Marta sat on a stack of sandbags nearby and massaged her toes, complaining loudly about how much her feet were killing her.  Caje commented that she sounded like someone else they knew, but Kirby couldn't imagine whom he meant.  Saunders ordered the girls to remain with the car while they went back to get the rest of the luggage, and the sisters were only too glad to oblige.  

After several trips, the whole pile of luggage had been moved to the car.  Saunders directed Caje and Kirby to put the steamer in the trunk first.  Kirby unlocked the compartment and Caje pulled out the three weapons, web gear, and cartridge belts, placing them on the back seat beside their helmets.  Kirby offered the girls a sip of water from one of the canteens, but they declined with a look of disdain.  He figured they were probably used to champagne.

"Sergeant," Marta asked, holding several square cases, "where can I put these?  They are our cosmetic bags and need to be handled very carefully."

Saunders looked around at everything that remained to be put into the vehicle.  "Just put them on the seat of the car."

Marta went around to the back seat.  "Sergeant, what should I do with the stuff that's already on the seats?"

"Take the things off the seat.  Put them on the floor or wherever.  I don't care what you do with them,"

When Marta's lower lip began to tremble and her eyes misted, Dot came over to give her comfort.  "Don't worry, sweetie.  He didn't mean anything by it.  He's just a man."  Dot dabbed a tear from her sister's eye.  "Need any help?"

"No, I can handle it," she sniffed, as Dot went back to supervise the loading.

Marta picked up the Thompson and the M1 and gingerly carried them over to the pile of sandbags.  She set them on top and returned to the car.  She placed the BAR alongside the other two weapons.  Then she stacked the helmets and lugged them to the pile.  Sweat beads popped out on her forehead and wisps of blonde hair plastered themselves to her moist cheeks.  She spotted the canteens.  Looking around to be sure no one was watching, she unscrewed one and drained it.  Refreshed, she tossed it aside and returned to the car for the cartridge belts.  They were heavier than they looked, and she dropped them on the pile with the other things.  The added weight of the ammunition caused the pile of weapons, helmets, and belts to slide down the far side of the sandbags, where they lodged out of sight.

The trunk was finally as full as it was likely to get, so the remaining cases were placed on the floor in the back.  Caje eyed the pink bear and placed it up front in the passenger seat.

"Oh no you don't," Kirby protested.  I ain't drivin' around with no pink bear beside me.  No way!"

"Look, Kirby," Saunders explained.  "We'll be out in the country most of the time.  No one's gonna see you.  Besides, there isn't room for all of us in the back.  I'll ride up front with you...and the bear.  I'll protect you."  He patted Kirby on the shoulder.

"Oh, no, Sergeant.  I want to ride up front with Mr. Kermit," Letitia announced.

"That's Kirby."

"Whatever."  Letitia turned toward Saunders.  "As a matter of fact, I want to drive."

"You drive?  A dame?  No way," Kirby responded.

"Please?"

The sergeant shook his head.  "Sorry, but that wouldn't be a good idea.  Kirby here is familiar with the roads.  It could be dangerous...don't know what we'll run into.

She stuck out her lower lip, and she looked up at him from behind a thick curtain of eyelashes.  She was obviously used to getting what she wanted.  But not here.  Not about driving.

"Look, Sergeant, are we near the front?" Letitia asked.

Saunders shook his head.  "Not now we aren't, but eventually we'll be close enough that..."

"Well, then why don't I drive just for a little while.  By the time we get anywhere that might be dangerous, I'll let Korwin drive."  

"Kirby."

"Please, Sergeant?"  She had hold of his tie and was twisting the end of it around a perfectly manicured finger, the shiny, red nail making a track up his chest.  Seeing that Saunders was not going to be moved, she decided to pull out the big guns.  "Now Sergeant, have you read your orders?"

Dot and Marta watched with familiar boredom.  Dot turned toward Caje.  "Five to one on Tisha."

Caje shook his head.  "No way lady.  You don't know the sarge."

Marta laughed brightly.  "You don't know Tisha."

Thirty minutes later, the tightly packed vehicle was speeding down the road that skirted the ocean leaving Le Havre.  Kirby sat glumly next to the bear as Letitia guided the car down the narrow road.  In the back seat, the two remaining sisters sprawled out on the seats, their makeup cases and various bags at their sides.  Saunders and Caje sat on stacks of suitcases piled up on the floor.  Their backs were to Kirby, but they could read his mood without seeing his face.  They knew that to Kirby, driving was a point of honor.

With him, it was what men do.  Men drive.  Women ride.  

But it was more.  It was about the dream of a lifetime to him.  He had taken such pride in the fact that he was driving the General's staff car.  And now there he was, relegated to sitting beside a pink bear while some woman with connections took over.  Saunders was well aware of Kirby's mood, but he had not been given a lot of choice.  Letitia knew the orders by heart.  The Bentley sisters were to be given every courtesy and their needs met.  And Letitia had a need to drive.  So he'd agreed to let her for a while, and then he'd have her move over and give the wheel to Kirby.  That should satisfy both of them...if Kirby didn't kill her first.

He had tried to get Kirby to go over the map with Letitia, but the private really hadn't been in any mood to be cooperative.  So he'd gone over it himself.  As he pointed out the route, she had nodded her understanding at each stage.  Then he had folded it up and given it to her to keep up front where it would be handy.   

As the car rolled along through the bright French countryside, Letitia sniffed loudly.  She turned her head from side to side inhaling great whiffs of air.  "What in the world is that smell?"

Kirby's face brightened.  He leaned in a bit to make it easier for her to catch his scent.

Letitia sniffed again.  "Is it coming from the back?"

"Huh uh," Marta shook her head.

Kirby waited, grinning from ear to ear.  It took some of the edge off his pouting.

"It's coming from up here?" she asked, glancing toward Kirby.

"Smells good, huh?" Kirby crowed.

"Good?  Oh my word!  It smells like someone took a bath in cheap cologne.  Or a skunk got in here with us."

The women in the back giggled, and Kirby shrank back into his seat morosely.  In a blacker mood than ever, he jabbed the tip of a finger in his mouth and chewed furiously at a hangnail.

"How you doing, cutie?"  Dot said, lighting a cigarette.

Caje raised his eyebrows in a "who me?" expression as he turned toward her.

Dot looked him straight in the eye and nodded.  Then she leaned forward, one elbow resting on her crossed legs and blew smoke at him.  "I said," she pulled her skirt up to reveal a trim knee, "how are you doing?"

"Me?  I'm just great," he grinned, breaking out in a fine sweat.  "Just great."

Dot scraped the three make-up cases onto the floor, spilling their contents.  Make-up, brushes, ribbons, tooth powder, combs, earrings...everything...tumbling out in a mess.  But Dot didn't seem to mind a bit.  She patted the seat beside her.  

"Why are you sitting all the way over there," she pointed with her cigarette, "when you could be sitting here beside me?"  She pointed to where her hand rested on the heavy leather cushions.  

"Well...ahem...you see..." Caje stuffed his tie back into his shirt placket.

Without waiting for him to finish, she reached over and grabbed his tie, pulling him onto the seat beside her.  Her hand rested on his knee as she smiled into his dark eyes.

"Anyone want a bon bon?" Letitia called from the front as she popped a chocolate into her mouth.

"No, thanks, honey, I've got my sweet back here already."  Dot batted her lacquered lashes at Caje.

Marta shook a finger at the front seat.  "You keep eating those chocolates you're going to get fat.  You aren't going to fit in your costume...again."  

"What do you mean get fat?"  Red-faced, Letitia turned to address her sister.  Kirby grabbed the wheel as the car swerved toward the berm.

"Hey, lady, keep your eyes on the road!  You trying to get us killed?"  Kirby held the wheel steady from his seat.

"Excuse me?"  Dot cried, wresting the wheel from him.  "What do you think you are doing with my wheel?"    

Saunders looked to the side and caught his reflection in the window, his face all clean-shaven.  He hardly recognized himself without the usual layer of grime and stubble.  He shut the arguing out of his mind as he watched the scenery roll by.  Wedging his back between the seat and the door, his head rested against the glass.  What a day it had been.  They had been so excited at the prospect of escorting these women.  Now Saunders had decided the best thing that could happen to the three soldiers was to get this mission done with a minimum of discomfort to anyone.  He wasn't quite sure what it was, but he sensed that these ladies were trouble all the way.  Gradually his eyes drifted shut.  

He'd just started to nod off when he was brought back to reality by the sounds of bickering in the front seat.  

"I do too," Letitia whined.

"Lady, you couldn't navigate your way out of a paper bag.  We were not supposed to turn back there.  The road we wanted was straight."

"I know exactly where we are going and how to get there, buster."  Her voice rose with anger.  

Kirby rolled his eyes and reached down on the seat, pulling up a wrinkled map as the woman turned the wheel again, sending the car speeding down another road.  "Look, let me show you how to read one of these, lady."

"I certainly don't need anyone of your ilk telling me how to read a map, PRIVATE!"  Letitia screamed.

Listen, lady, I don't know nuthin' about no ilk, but I do know that you couldn't...What the heck is this brown stuff all over the map?"

Letitia glanced over and took the map from him, scratching at it with a fingernail.  The car swerved hard to the right, but Kirby reached over and grabbed the steering wheel just before the car would have left the road on a detour through a field dotted with stacks of hay.

"It's chocolate," she said absently.  "I got hungry."

"Well, you also got it all over the map.  It's a little hard to read through the chocolate."

"Oooo," Dot called from the back seat.  "Got any more?  I'm really hungry."

"Sorry, honey," Letitia said.  I just ate the last one."

"We asked you if you were hungry all the way back at Le Havre and you said no," Caje said with disbelief.

"Well, silly," Dot cooed, "That was half an hour ago.  Now we're hungry."

"Yeah, starved," Marta added.

"I can't read this thing.  It's got chocolate all over it," Letitia announced as she threw the map out the window.  

"What was that?"  Saunders asked, craning his neck.

"Oh, nothing.  Your chauffeur just threw our map out the window."  Kirby sank back into the seat.  

"She what?" Saunders yelled.

Before anyone could answer, Marta wailed.  The suddenness of it caused Tish to jerk the wheel again just as the car sped up to a three way split in the road.  The car veered onto the far right track.

"Where the hell are you goin'?" Kirby cried out.

Marta's crying reached fever pitch.  "Please don't yell at Tish," she sobbed.  "Tish is very sensitive."

"In a pig's eye," Kirby snorted.

Letitia swung the car down another road so abruptlyly that Kirby slid off the seat and landed in a heap on the floor with a loud cry.

Extricating himself from Dot's arms, Caje sat forward on the seat.  "Maybe we should go back and get the map."

Letitia swung the wheel hard again, and the car sped down a narrow path as she pressed harder and harder on the gas pedal.  Kirby, still on the floor, slid back against the door, hitting his head on the handle.

"Stop the car," Saunders ordered.

"Don't worry, I know what I'm doing," Tisha said confidently.  "We're taking a shortcut so we can make up the time you all lost when you parked the car so far from the ship.  Unlike some people in this car, I read the map before we left.  I know exactly where we are."

"That's right," Marta agreed.  "Mama always said Tish had a sixth sense when it came to direction."

"I don't care how good you think you are.  Stop the car."  Saunders's patience was waning.  

"Just hang on," Letitia chided.  " Marta, where are my glasses?"  The car swerved again.

"I don't know, hon.  Where did you leave them?"

"STOP THIS CAR!" the sergeant yelled, finally driven to anger.

Letitia slammed her foot heavily on the brake.  Everyone in the back flew forward, landing in a mix on the floor with the luggage.  Marta never missed a beat of her wailing.  Caje reached over and turned her head so that her voice was not going directly in his ear.  The car slid on the dirt and finally stopped sideways on the road.  

Caje picked himself up from the floor and helped Dot back onto the seat.  She sat stunned, blood gushing down her face.  

"OH, Gosh!  Oh, Gosh!  I'm wounded.  I've been wounded."  Dot flapped her hands hysterically, slapping the sarge in the face as he pulled himself off the floor nearby.  "I'm bleeding to death!" she cried, her hysteria rising.  

"You hit your nose.  It's bleeding," Caje announced, pinching her nostrils with his left hand and pinning her arm safely at her side with the other.

"It's broke!" she cried.

"It's broken," Letitia called flatly from the front.

Kirby stared at her, rubbing the top of his head as he crawled up from the floor.  "What are you talking about?"

"She said broke.  Should be broken.  Mama would die if she heard her grammar," Letitia explained.

Saunders pulled Marta back up onto the seat and turned to examine Dot's face.  He gently probed around her nose with a finger.  "No, It's not broken.  You just hit it.  Sit back and be still, and the bleeding should stop."  He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her.

"Oh, Dot, honey, let me see," Marta called, crawling over Saunders in order to get to her sister.  

Saunders put both hands around Marta's waist and lifted her over his lap before she put a hole in his leg with her high heels.  In response, the girl whirled.  "Watch where you put your hands, buster.  I'm not some cheap broad that you can manhandle like that!"  Her face was all pinched with anger.

Discretion being the better part of valor, Saunders held his tongue.  When he looked toward Caje, his comrade could only roll his eyes in sympathy.  Everyone began talking at once; their voices rose to a frenzy, arguing back and forth.  After a few moments, Saunders had had enough.

 

"Everyone shut up.  Just shut up!"  The brouhaha ended instantly.

The women in the rear seat sat back and folded their arms across their chests.  In the front seat, Letitia's fingers wrapped tightly around the steering wheel, her knuckles white with the tension.  Kirby had shrunk down in the front seat, his face clouded with anger.  Caje ran his hands over his hair to smooth it and ignored everyone by keeping his attention on the rabbit sitting at the side of the road watching him.  .  

"Look, you girls seem to forget that we're in combat zone.  This is not just a playground.  One mistake out here can be your life." Saunders explained.

The girls turned away from him, their intention being to show their disdain for the lowly sergeant.

Kirby got out of the car and walked around it, inspecting for any damage.  He knocked on the car window.  Sarge rolled it down and Kirby gave him a report.  "Sarge, we got a flat tire.  Hope the spare is in good shape."

"Caje, help Kirby with the tire, and I'll have a look around.  Let's make sure nothing sneaks up on us, huh?"

The Cajun shook his head disgustedly.  "The tire's in the trunk...under all that...necessary stuff."

"I guess you'll just have to unload it."

"But, Sarge," Kirby protested.  One look at Saunders's face convinced him that further protests would be useless.  He slapped his hand on the door of the car, mumbled an oath, and stormed to the back of the car.  

"Hand me my Thompson," Saunders said.  

"I don't understand."  Caje looked at the sarge in puzzlement.

Saunders looked out the window a moment to control his frustration, then back to Caje.  "My Thompson?"  Caje still had a confused look on his face, so Saunders continued, "You know, my .45 caliber fully automatic weapon loaded with thirty round magazines?"

"I know what it is, Sarge, I'm just not sure why you're asking me.  I haven't seen it.  Don't you have it?"

"Would I ask you if I had it?"  He hesitated a moment to collect his thoughts, then turned to Caje again.  "We put all the weapons on the seat."  

"Right."

"And then someone asked about the things on the seat, and...."   Caje and Saunders turned toward Marta.

Marta bit on a nail.  "You told me to put them on the floor..."

Saunders bent to rummage among the debris at their feet.

"Or wherever," she added quietly.

Saunders stopped and pulled himself upright.  He tried to keep calm.  "And you...?"

"I put them wherever."

"You what?"  

"Hey, if it's not too much trouble, would someone like to help me?"  Kirby pounded on the trunk lid a couple of times.  "Tell the dingbat to bring the keys if she can get them here without losing them," he added under his breath.

"What is wherever?"  Caje cried.

"I meant to put them back in," Marta wailed.

A palpable silence fell over the group.  Saunders face was barely inches from Marta's.  "Put what back in?" he asked, enunciating each word slowly and clearly.

"You said to take the things on the seat and put them wherever.  I thought we'd load them later."  Saunders started to speak, but Marta jumped in, effectively shushing him.  "That's what you said.  You said to take the things..."

"I know what I said!" he shouted.  When Marta began to cry again, he dropped his voice to a calmer level.  "Miss Bentley..." he started.

"Marta," she corrected.

"Marta.  What things did you take from the seat?"

"I don't know.  Some guns."

Caje handed her a handkerchief, and she dabbed at her eyes.  

"And bullet thingies.  And those big flask things...you know...."  Marta drew a circle in the air.

"Canteens?"  Saunders asked.  

"Yeah.  Canteens."

"And where did you put the guns, the...bullet thingies, and the canteens?"  His voice was intentionally soft.

"I don't know," she sobbed.

"Marta, honey," Dot said, "think.  Now tell the sergeant."

"I remember I picked them up and..."  Everyone listened intently.  "I put them on a stack of bags."

"You put them on the suitcases?" Caje asked.

"Do I look stupid or something?  I wouldn't put those greasy old things on our luggage!  I put them on some sandbaggy things.  On the grass.  Near the car.  Then I arranged our cosmetic bags on the seat."

"Why didn't you put them on the floor of the car?"  Caje continued the interrogation, while the sarge rubbed his temples, trying to assuage the pain that was throbbing there.

"Our cosmetic bags?" Letitia asked incredulously.  "I'd never put our cosmetic bags on the floor!"

"Our weapons!"  Caje's patience was wearing thin.

"Because," she sobbed, "he told me to put them wherever.  Not inside the car or on the floor.  Wherever."

"I never said to put our weapons outside the car!"  Saunders hollered.

"Please don't shout at me!"  The boohooing reached a fever pitch.  "You should have specified which wherever you meant!"

"For cryin' out loud, is anyone gonna help me?"  Kirby stomped to the door on Sarge's side and pulled it open.  "I hope I'm not disturbing anyone, but I really could use some help around here."

"Butt out!" the three girls shouted in unison.

"Sheesh!"  Kirby shoved his hands deep into his pockets and strode over to a tree where he leaned against it, lit a cigarette, and pouted.

"So why," Saunders asked hopefully, "didn't you put our weapons back in the car?"

"That wasn't my job," she sniffed.  "You never said a word that I should put your guns back in.  You're the soldiers.  Not me."

"I," Dot corrected.  

"I. Thank you Dot."  She turned back to Saunders.  "What were you doing?  If you didn't want me to put them outside, you shouldn't have told me to put them wherever!"

"Damn!"  Saunders smacked the back of the front seat, making Letitia jump.  

"Sarge, what're we gonna do?" Caje asked.   

Saunders slid out of the car and tried to keep from blowing his stack, all the while scanning the terrain... a habit learned in months of combat.  It didn't seem like anything was under his control any more, and he despised not being in control.  

"OK.  Kirby and Caje.  Fix the tire."  He drew his Colt from its holster and checked the ammunition then turned back to his men.  "At least we still have this.  I'll scout around.  Keep the noise down.  We should be a long way from enemy lines, but who knows where we are after that drive.  We could be in Germany by now for all I know," he said sarcastically.

"We're in Germany?" Marta cried.  "We'll get captured.  Those Germans do terrible things to women when they capture them!"

"We're not in Germany!"  Saunders cried, his voice rising.  "No one is doing terrible things to anyone!  I want you...ladies... to stay in the car."  Letitia started to speak, but Saunders wagged a finger at her.  "In the car.  Don't any of you move.  Not one muscle until we're out of here.  And keep her quiet," he stared directly at Marta.  

"Can't we at least go....uh...use the trees?" Dot whispered.

"No."

"But..."

"No!"  His voice rose.  "Stay in the car until I get back."

He hesitated a moment, eyeing each of them to make sure that they understood implicitly.  Then he walked over to Caje and Kirby.

"If I'm not back in..." he looked at his watch, "twenty minutes, get the girls out of here.  And I mean that.  Understood?"

Caje and Kirby looked at one another.  "Yeah.  Understood," Caje nodded.  

"Hey, Sarge."

"Yeah, Kirby?"

"Be careful."

"You know it."  With that, he turned and disappeared into the thick forest nearby.  

As soon as the sergeant was gone from view, the girls began hauling themselves out of the car.  

"I don't care what the sergeant says, I'm going to the bathroom," Letitia announced as she pulled her jacket around her shoulders.

Kirby whirled around.  "Hey!  You dames get back in the car."  

They stood rooted in place at the sound of his voice.  Dot folded her arms.

"We have to go to the bathroom, if you don't mind."

"We do mind.  You heard the sarge.  Now get back in the car," Caje ordered.

The sisters weighed their chances of getting their way, but Kirby took hold of the situation.  "Git!" he hissed as he took a menacing step toward them.  

The girls scurried back into the vehicle.

Caje retrieved the keys from the ignition and unlocked the trunk.  It was hard to believe that three tiny little women like the Bentley sisters had such heavy luggage.  Caje and Kirby grumbled with each heave, but eventually every piece of luggage was sitting on the grass.

Kirby pulled out the spare tire and eyeballed it.  It seemed to be all right.  Caje removed the tire iron and jack from the special compartment where they lay in the well and then loosened the lug nuts, sticking them in his pocket, while Kirby adjusted the jack under the car.

"How long will Saunders be?  He's been gone an awful long time, don't you think?"  Dot called out.

"Don't worry," Caje grunted as he forced a rusty nut, "he'll be back soon."

"Don't forget where you put the round things," Letitia said.

"Did you get that thingy tightened enough?"  Marta suggested as she hung out the window, snapping her fingers and pointing toward the tire.  "I don't think you got the thingy tight."

Kirby jumped up and brandished the tire iron in front of her.  "I'll show you a tight thingy, you..."

"Kirby!"

Kirby looked to Caje and squatted beside him again.  "Those dames're more trouble than they're worth.  Trouble, pure trouble."

"Kinda makes you wonder why they picked three GI's to escort them.  I think we've been had."

"Yeah, like they couldn't get anyone else stupid enough to do it.  GI's are expendable.  Officers ain't."  Kirby said.  "I thought this was gonna be the best.  Boy, was I dumb."

"Let's just get this tire changed and get rid of them as soon as possible," Caje suggested

"Guarding them is like giving yourself an SIW."

"SIW.  Definitely," Caje repeated.

Finally they had changed the tire and tightened the last lug nut.  They rolled the blown-out tire to the back of the car and put all the equipment in place.  Then they heaved the bloated steamer back into the trunk and were replacing all of the suitcases when Saunders returned.  

"How does it look, Sarge?"  Caje wiped the sweat from his forehead with an already damp sleeve.  

The sergeant jammed the pistol back into the holster.  "Looks clear.  Not a soul in sight.  It's almost like we're the last people on the earth."

"Please don't even think that," Caje said.

Without breaking stride, Saunders continued.  "I have no idea where we are.  That Bentley woman was turning faster than anyone could keep track of.  Maybe if we just keep moving toward the north, we will hit something that looks familiar."

"We're not goin' back for the map?"  Kirby wanted to know.  

Saunders shook his head.  "It probably wouldn't do us any good.  Do you remember exactly where it was?  Even if you remembered, it might have blown off into the woods by now.  We'd probably never find it.  We just have to go on."

"Sergeant!" Dot called impatiently.  "I have got to go to the bathroom or I'll just die."

"No such luck," Kirby muttered.

"Me too," her sisters piped up.

Saunders pulled the pistol out again and offered it to his fellow squad members.  "Volunteers?"  

Both of the privates examined the treetops.

"OK, girls.  Let's go," Saunders sighed.

The Bentley sisters filed out of the car and started into the woods one behind the other, Saunders at the rear.  Letitia turned and stopped him with a raised hand on his chest.  "Excuse me, Sergeant.  This is girl stuff.  Men not invited."

"Sorry, Miss, but where you go...I go."

"I don't believe I heard you right.  Surely you do not plan to go with us.  We are..."

"You don't understand.  This is not Central Park.  It's a war zone.  You aren't going anywhere without me.  And this."  He held the Colt in front of him.  "This is all we have if anything happens.  Now let's get going, so we can get out of here."

The Bentley sisters grudgingly trudged into the woods, where they located a group of semi-private bushes.  Saunders, meanwhile, kept watch on the woods, his face flushed as he tried not to pay attention to the personal female chatter.

By the time they were back to the car, Caje and Kirby had everything ready to go, and Kirby was planted in the driver's seat.  Letitia opened the door and motioned for him to scoot over.  Kirby sat silent and unmoving, so she cleared her throat imperiously.  Still he sat unmoving.

"Ahem... soldier...please move over.  You are in my seat."

"Ahem, Lady," he replied, "I'm driving from now on."

"Sergeant.  Tell Mr. Karby to move over.  He is in my seat."

"Karby's driving," the sergeant said simply.

"I would certainly hate having to tell Georgie about being treated badly."

Her trump card played, she draped herself on the edge of the door and waited for Saunders to capitulate.   

Saunders strode over and stood inches from her.  "Give my regards to General Patton.  Now get in the car.  You can sit on the passenger side up front, or you can sit in back and I'll sit up front."

Letitia considered her options, then flounced to the far side where she threw herself onto the front seat, shoving the pink teddy bear closer to Kirby.  She fumed while the others piled in and settled down in their previous seats.  The engine started with a roar, and Kirby throttled it out onto the narrow dirt track.  The car bumped and bounced down the rutted road.  Letitia complained constantly that she was black and blue from the jarring, but Kirby silenced her whining by reminding her that it was her driving that had landed them on that particular road.  He wasn't about to admit that he was driving by the seat of his pants.

In the back seat, Dot and Marta chattered away about inane things for a while.  Then Dot settled back and pretended not to know that her head was resting on Caje's shoulder.  "Oh, excuse me, Cagey, is it?"

"My name is Paul, but they call me Caje."

"I hope you don't mind my borrowing your shoulder."  She looked up at him with large, blue eyes.  "You French men have such strong shoulders."

"I'm not French.  I'm Cajun."

She settled herself against him.  "I forgive you for not being French.  But Canada is nice too."

"Cajuns aren't from Canada.  Louisiana.  My family is from New Orleans."

The leather creaked slightly as Kirby shifted his position on the leather seat.  "Houh.  Talking to these broads is like talking to a brick wall.  Only a brick wall is smarter."  

Letitia slapped Kirby on the arm nearest her.  In the back seat, Dot played with Caje's tie.  

Caje snatched a look at the sergeant, silently begging for help, but Saunders raised his eyebrows and shrugged slightly.  Still sitting on the pile of suitcases, the sergeant stretched his back to get the kinks out.

Marta, seizing the opportunity, grabbed his arm and pulled him toward her on the seat.

"Ooo, honey, your back must be so tired sitting there all scrunched up.  Why don't you come over and sit on this nice, soft seat?"

Then it was Caje's turn to ignore looks of helplessness.

Marta scooted over to make room for him.  The moment he was beside her, she started cozying up.  She wiggled her shoulders and burrowed into the hollow of his arm, her hand on his chest.  "Sergeant, have you ever thought about a job in show business after the war?  You know, I think you could make it in the movies.  You're so big and strong."  She smiled a toothy grin as she wedged him against the door with her body.

Without answering, he lit a cigarette as the scenery outside the window seemed to take his full attention.  He just wanted this whole assignment to be over, and he wanted away from these three self-indulgent, whining children  

"Hey, Tish," Dot announced brightly after they had bumped their way onto a smoother dirt road.  "Do you remember that song that Mama taught us when we were little."   

"You mean 'I'll Be By Your Side'?  Oh, my.  I haven't thought about that in years."

Marta slid off the front edge of the seat, and knelt on a pile of suitcases with her head right behind Kirby's.  "How did that song go?

Dot moved forward to sit beside Letitia, and Caje breathed easier.  

"Wait a minute...wait a minute," Dot said.  "I've almost got it!"

Dot hummed softly, then a little louder.  Finally, she broke loose in a rich, deep voice.  No words just oo's and ah's sliding and rolling over the notes, caressing them.  The other two joined in, Letitia in the middle and Marta adding a voice that seemed to soar into the heavens.  Finally, they added the words.  

"When the night has come and the sun has gone to rest

Sleep my little baby, for your life is surely blessed.

Just close your sleepy eyes and let the night winds glide,

Then remember always, I'll be right by your side.

"By your side, by your side

My love it will abide.

Heaven's angel, rest in peace;

I'll stay hereby your side."

Their full voices blended in harmony, lost in memories and each other.  No longer the haughty problem children that had plagued the three soldiers all day, the women were almost spiritual, their faces soft and eyes closed as they found within themselves something that the men could not share.  Even Kirby smiled and relaxed in his seat.  With the blending of the voices, he almost forgot what the girls had done.  Caje's head bobbed to the rhythm, and Saunders kept the beat by tapping his fingers on his leg.

 

When the song finished, everyone was silent.  No one wanted to speak and spoil the moment.  Finally, Letitia looked at the men and smiled sheepishly over the seat.  "Sorry.  I guess we just got carried away."

"Hey, that was real pretty," Kirby said.

"Yeah," Caje agreed, "sing another one."

"Sorry," Dot announced, "but we gotta save our voices.  Can't strain them, don'tcha know.  You can hear us sing at the concert, though."

"If we ever get there." Marta added absently.

The spell was broken.  The girls began chattering and griping again.  It was too hot.  It was too dusty.  They were hungry.  They were tired.  Saunders tried to shut out their voices.

Caje grew morose as Dot's hand snaked back up to his shoulder.  Wouldn't the men in the squad get a laugh out of this one?  Caje thought.  Dorothy Bentley, beautiful, redheaded, and totally stacked practically throwing herself at me, and all I want is to get back to the war.  He wondered what the sarge was thinking.

"Sergeant Saunders?"  Marta asked gently.

"Hmmm?" he shot her a glance.

"If something happened to you three, how would we defend ourselves?"

"What?"  Caje asked.

Marta turned her head to address Caje.  "If something happened to you fellas, we three girls would be at the mercy of the Krauts.  I mean...they could have their way with us, and without guns we'd have no way of stopping them."

Kirby griped, "Well, if you hadn't left our...guns back at the pier, you wouldn't have to worry."

"We'll ignore that," Letitia said, popping him hard in the shoulder; then she moved closer to him.

"Ow!" Kirby bellowed.  "Keep your distance, you maniac."

"So what are you suggesting?"  Saunders inquired.

"Well, I think you should show us how to use our only weapon," Marta instructed.

"You already know how to use your mouth," Kirby muttered under his breath, and Letitia pounded his arm again.

"Our weapon?"

"Yes, Sergeant.  The pistol."  She tapped the holster holding the Colt at his side.

"I don't think that's a good idea."

"Me neither," Kirby intoned.

"You'd rather see us spoiled by nasty Germans?"

"You're already spoiled.  Rotten."

"That's enough Kirby.  The ladies have a point."  

Saunders's mind was racing, trying to weigh all the possibilities.  Trusting the women with a gun was asking for trouble.  But the thought that they might be put in a situation where they couldn't defend themselves...well, they probably didn't even know how to take the safety off.  At least he could do that much.  It would keep them happy.  But he wasn't about to let them touch the pistol.

"All right.  I'll show you how to operate it."

"Thank you, Sergeant.  You are a true knight in shining armor,"  Dot announced admiringly.

"A real knight.  Sir Saunders,"  Caje added.

Saunders pulled the Colt from the holster and demonstrated its basic operation.  The sisters watched intently.  Marta's brow furrowed seriously as she nodded her understanding.  Even Letitia turned and hung over the back of the seat to watch.

When he was done, he started to put it back in the holster, but Marta stayed his hand.  "Don't I get a chance to try it?"

"In the car?"  Kirby yelled.  "Are you crazy?"

Marta's lower lip quivered.

"Kirby, don't yell!  Miss Bentley," Saunders said, "I don't think that would be a good idea.  We aren't exactly set up for target practice."

"I just want to get the feel of the gun," she whined.

"Sorry.  This is a weapon," he said as he shoved it back into the holster.  "It's not a toy.  I've shown you how to use it.  If the need ever arises, at least you know how to operate it.  I think that's as far as we need to go."

The sullen woman flopped back next to the sergeant.  Saunders shook his head and leaned back into the seat, amazed that for once he had won an argument with the one of the girls.  He watched the trees fly by for a moment, then called to Kirby.  "Any idea how much farther it is to the road we need?"

"Like I said, Sarge, I'm just driving hoping to hit something that feels right...or familiar.  We may be driving in circles."

"Maybe if you had a map," Letitia groused, "you'd know where we are."

"Maybe if you had a map, you'd know where we are," Kirby mimicked until he felt the sting of the woman's fist on his arm.  At this rate, he surely would be black and blue long before they got rid to Lille.

As the afternoon wore on, the endless chatter died and everyone retreated into private thoughts.  Although it was fall, the day was uncommonly warm, and the temperature rose within the car, bringing drowsiness.  Even Kirby yawned.  Saunders was the first to nod off.  His head rolled to the side, his forehead resting against the window.  One by one the others joined him.  Kirby continued to guide the car down the path as fast as he could without breaking an axle.  He was glad for the peace as his passengers slept soundly.  Or so he thought.  

*   *   *   *   *   *

Marta was close against Saunders side.  His mouth hung open slightly, and as his breathing became more regular and his sleep deepened, he started to snore.  On the other side of the car, Caje was likewise sawing logs.  Every once in a while short snorts interrupted his snores as he smacked his lips contentedly.  Dot curled up against him.  Her alto voice joined the others in a concert of snores.

A lot of nerve, Marta thought, looking at Saunders.  Typical man.  He'll protect us!  Her ire grew.  He'll protect us! Maybe I want to protect myself.

She tried sleeping, but she was wide-awake.  Kirby began to sing some sort of song so softly that it sounded more like a hum.  He was lost to the world, bobbing his head and tapping the steering wheel with his thumbs.

Marta tried not thinking about the sergeant's holster and what was inside it.  In her mind's eye, she could see once again the bright, metallic shine of the pistol.  The sergeant had held the Colt, so why shouldn't she?  Finally, unable to contain herself any longer, she made up her mind.

After checking Kirby's attention in the rear view mirror, she carefully unsnapped the leather flap of the holster and lifted it.  When the sergeant didn't stir, she continued.  Holding her breath, she inched the gun out.

And then, she held the cold metal weapon in her hand.  It was heavier than Marta had anticipated, but she thought it fit well in her hand.  She switched it from hand to hand, getting used to the feel of it.  She flipped the safety on and off several times for practice.

When Saunders stirred and shifted, she decided not to push her luck.  She was certain that she would be able to return it as slickly as she had gotten it out, no harm done.  No one would ever have to know.  But vanity got the best of her.  She couldn't dream of putting it back without seeing herself with it.  Sitting up a bit, she could just barely see her reflection in the rearview mirror.

She slipped the barrel of the pistol alongside her face and pretended to shove up the brim of an invisible ten-gallon hat.  Then she put the barrel to her lips and pretended to blow the smoke away as she had seen in the cowboy movies.

Kirby glanced into the mirror and spotted Marta holding the gun to her lips and panicked.

"What the hell are you doing?" he screamed at the top of his lungs.  

Without thinking, his foot came down on the accelerator just as the car dropped into a rut, jarring the sleeping passengers.  Marta, startled by the sudden onset of noise and car motion, felt the pistol slip from her fingers, and it flew sideways across the car.  She threw herself across Caje and Dot, desperately grabbing for the Colt.  Her fingers missed the handle and brushed the trigger.  With an ear-shattering explosion, the weapon fired.  Time seemed to move in slow motion.  The discharged bullet sped on a downward trajectory, piercing the seat between Letitia and Kirby.  A cloud of fluffy white stuffing and pink fuzzy material filled the air as it penetrated the teddy bear sitting peacefully.  The bullet continued down, where it passed through Kirby's boot and the break pedal, finally lodging in the floorboard.  

Letitia screamed.  Kirby screamed.  Marta screamed and continued screaming.  Marta lay across Dot and Caje.  Saunders, coming out of a sound sleep had no time in which to react.  The course of the six passengers was written before anyone could do anything to alter or stop it.

The speeding car careened wildly from one side of the road to the other, jouncing in and out of ruts and pot holes.  Kirby held onto his leg and screamed his head off.  With no one controlling it, the steering wheel spun.  Caje shoved Marta off him and hurled himself forward trying to get to the steering wheel.  Just as he prepared to climb into the front, the car swung out with a squeal of tires, and he was thrown backward on top of Dot.  Both of them bounced off the back of the seat and were sent sprawling onto the floor, Caje's face buried in her ample bosom.  For a moment he could not breathe and thought perhaps he might die right there on the floor of General Patton's staff car.

Saunders, too, tried to get to the wheel, but everyone and everything in the back of the car was in motion as it flew from side to side.  Marta held onto his neck, desperately shrieking, "We're gonna die!  I know it!  We're gonna die."

"Let go!"  Saunders demanded, but she held all the tighter, and her long nails dug into his skin.  He tried to pry her delicate fingers from around his neck before he was asphyxiated by her death grip.  "You've got to let go," he wheezed, his face growing redder by the minute.

Just as the sarge worked the last of Marta's fingers loose, the car bumped over a hill and sped down, down a long, steep incline, barely missing trees and stumps.  Kirby didn't notice the fallen log ahead because he was too busy trying to deal with the hot pain he felt in his foot.  The car hit the log and blew out the right front tire as the vehicle went airborne.  The inside was in chaos with everything shooting toward the ceiling...make-up, sheet music, luggage, jackets, soldiers, singers, and a fluffy pink bear with a bullet hole through its bellybutton.  The car fell back to earth and continued sideways a few feet more, grinding to a sudden stop against a tree with a bone-jarring impact that crushed the right side.

Then everything was silent.