ATTITUDE

by

Lois Overton, aka Foxhole Filly

2002


 


"Sarge," Littlejohn whispered as he squatted beside the sleeping figure and lifted the top edge of the olive drab blanket. "Psssst! Sarge."

"Huh?" The sergeant blinked at the shaft of light that slanted through the boards of the shack where the squad had found a measure of warmth from the chill night. He sat up, stretching the stiffness from his back, and rubbed his tired eyes. The private waited a moment, allowing Saunders a moment to get his bearings. "What is it, Littlejohn?"

The private rested his M-1 across his thighs. "Sorry to wake you up, Sarge, but the lieutenant wants to see you. Looks like something's up."

Saunders dug his fingers into his scalp, giving a quick, hard rub, and wiped a thin layer of moisture from his forehead. He watched the other soldier, waiting for him to move on or to speak. "Something wrong, Littlejohn?"

The private considered for a moment whether he should say anything about what was bothering him. In the corner, a blanketed mound shifted and coughed. He recognized Red Bennett's unruly thatch of carrot-colored hair sticking out the end. Littlejohn took a deep, noisy breath and let it out. "Listen, Sarge, I don't know. Something just doesn't feel right."

Saunders pulled off the blanket and tossed it onto the pack nearby; then he lit a cigarette, draping his arms across his knees wearily. "What doesn't feel right?" He hadn't seen Littlejohn's forehead that furrowed since they'd been ordered to take the pillboxes on that lousy hill.

"It's the lieutenant." Littlejohn shook his head; then he looked away under the sergeant's steady gaze. "I can't put my finger on it, but like I said...something."

"You have to be more specific. What's your complaint?"

"Guess it's his attitude. I've seen guys that are angry before; it's usually for some reason. But Lt. Mallory? I don't get him. He's got nothing to be that mad about. Take yesterday...when he met the platoon for the first time. He shouldn't have jumped you for us not saluting. It was like he was looking for a reason to... there just wasn't any call for him to act like that."

"I guess some officers are more by the book. With Hanley, it isn't an issue. With Lt. Mallory, it is. That's all."

"Well, I still say he shouldn't have jumped you like that."

Saunders tightened his bootlaces. "I survived. Next time just do me a favor and salute. OK?" The sergeant grinned at the private.

"OK." Littlejohn nodded unsmilingly. "But I'd feel better if Hanley was here."

"Well, he isn't. And he won't be for a couple weeks. Now don't you think you'd better get back on guard duty?"

"Sure wish I was going out with you guys. I'd rather be anywhere but here."

"Next time you'll remember to take care of your feet. You know better. You're not some green recruit."

"That's what Lt. Mallory said. Only not that way." The private hesitated a moment, as if he wanted to say more. Finally, he left, shutting the door quietly so as not to awaken the others.

Saunders shook his head and took a long drag from the cigarette, inhaling deeply. Although he couldn't say it, he had to agree with Littlejohn on this one. The lieutenant they brought in while Hanley was in the rear recovering from a tangle with a Kraut machine gun nest was edgy. But it was more than that. Saunders wasn't quite sure what bothered him either. Maybe it was the officer's youth. Or maybe it was the fact that he seemed to have a burr under his saddle. Whether he wasn't the friendly type or just didn't like the men wasn't clear, but Saunders knew that Lt. Mallory's attitude rubbed the men the wrong way, making them nervous. And that made him nervous.

Saunders squashed the end of the cigarette into the hard dirt floor beside him. As he started to push himself up, a sudden wave of pain and nausea overtook him, bringing him back to his knees. Wrapping his arm across his belly, he held it there a moment, trying to quell the cramping.

"You better report to sick call," the quiet voice with the trace of Arkansas twang said matter of factly.

The sergeant looked over his shoulder. "Mind your own business, Doc. I'm fine."

The medic watched the sergeant without moving from the mound of hay that he called a bed. "Fine, my foot. I know when someone's hurting. The way you're sweating, I'd say you probably got a fever." Hearing no response from the sergeant, he took it as permission to continue. "Look, you think I wanna go out on patrol with you not being 100%? Or any of them?" He tipped his head toward the sleeping men. "You need to find out what's ailin' you and get it taken care of."

"There's nothing wrong with me. Just ate something that disagreed with me."

"I may not be a doctor," the medic said quietly, "but I'm a pretty good observer. I can see that you haven't been yourself in a couple days. And it looks to me like you're getting worse."

"You worry too much." He swallowed hard and let the lurching in his stomach calm. Then he rose. "See?" he gestured. "Better already."

"Sarge, if it was one of the guys, what would you tell 'em? What'd you just tell Littlejohn? Take care of your feet. You know better. You're not a green recruit. You need to take your own advice."

The sergeant slid his jacket zipper up to the neck and shoved his hands into a pair of gloves. "Nothing wrong with my feet, Doc."

Saunders turned and headed out into the street, pulling up his collar against the misty morning cold.

Flyers that had been dropped from American planes the day before tumbled down the street, carried by the stiff breeze. He hurried along the main street, stopping in front of the door bearing a crude, hand-lettered sign announcing "3rd Platoon." As he reached for the doorknob, another bout of cramping seized him, doubling him up. The pain knifed through his body as waves of nausea overtook him, and he swung his body into an alcove, becoming ill on the papers that swirled between the buildings. At last, the heaving past, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and leaned heavily against the stone wall. Beads of sweat dotted his face in spite of the cold, and for a moment, Saunders thought the weakness in his legs might send him sliding to the ground. Holding onto the window frame beside him, he waited until he could right himself again. Taking a deep breath, he rapped on the door.

"Enter," the brusque voice on the other side called.

Saunders strode into the room. To the right, Pvt. Danny Henderson yawned at a small table. He gave Saunders a quick, friendly smile and returned to his work. Lt. Mallory sat behind a larger table, the phone receiver to his ear. Grunting a few final words to someone on the other end, he put the handset back on its cradle. Saunders whipped his fingertips up to the edge of his helmet and waited for the young lieutenant to return the salute. The officer looked the sergeant up and down for a moment, and then he gave a weak return salute.

"Saunders, Sir... first squad?"

"I know who you are." He checked his watch with a movement designed to show his obvious irritation. "I sent for you ten minutes ago."

"I was asleep, Sir. We've only been back from patrol a couple hours."

The metal folding chair creaked as the lieutenant rose and moved over to the coffee pot that steamed on the small stove next to Henderson. He poured himself a cup of the thick liquid and looked back at Saunders. For a moment, the sergeant thought the lieutenant might offer him a cup. Just the thought of putting coffee into his stomach left him feeling nauseous. Instead, the lieutenant returned to his desk and dropped onto to the chair. "I'm not looking for excuses, Sergeant. When I send for you, I expect you to be here in an expedient manner." Mallory blew across the surface of the coffee and looked up at him. "Expedient. That means as quickly as possible."

"Yes, Sir. I know what it means."

"I have a mission for your squad, Saunders." The lieutenant shoved a map toward the sergeant and leaned forward. Pulling a pencil from his pocket, he drew a circle around a location. "You know this town?"

Saunders scanned the map and looked up at Mallory. "Yes, Sir. It's St. Jérôme."

"Very good. So you can read a map. The ville overlooks the valley. I want you to set up an OP there. Pick a site on the outskirts of town where you can keep an eye on the eastern sector. We think the Germans may try moving in reinforcements right...through... there." He pointed to a road that snaked along the valley floor. Keep us apprised of any troop movements. Be sure you take binoculars, Sergeant. We may also have you spot artillery if anything comes of it." He hesitated a moment. "You know how to spot artillery?"

"Yes, Sir," Saunders said quietly. His stomach burned.

"And don't forget a field radio. Report when you get there and every two hours after that. Take ammunition and supplies for...say two, three days. I understand that Hanley's call sign was King Two. Mine will be Queen's Bishop. Any questions?"

"No, Sir."

"This is important, Saunders. I don't want you messing it up. You are dismissed." Without further word, Mallory began writing.

Saunders hesitated a moment. "Sir, I respectfully request that you send another squad."

The pencil snapped. Henderson looked over at the officer. Mallory shot the private a quick look, and the clerk continued working. The lieutenant dropped the two pieces of pencil onto the desk and placed his hands over his eyes a moment. With a grand flourish, he pulled his hands from his face and placed them on the desk in front of him, thumbs tented together. "Excuse me? You what?"

"I respectfully request that you send another squad, Sir."

\"And pray tell, why would I want to do that? If you are afraid, I suggest that you get over it quickly and do your job."

"I don't think I'm fit for duty. I need to report to sick call."

"You do, do you? Well, you look fine to me. Do you and your ladies balk at all the dangerous missions?" Mallory moved in close to Saunders. He sat back on the front of the desk and folded his arms across his chest. Considering the sergeant a moment, he rubbed a forefinger across his thin lips. "Look, Saunders, let me be honest. I know all about your kind. Hanley's man. You've gotten away with murder for a long time around here. Well, I'm not Hanley. And I won't have prima donnas in my organization. Do I make myself clear? Nor will I have any chickenshit noncoms working under me."

Saunders looked to the floor, a hint of a smile creasing his lips, and shook his head.

"Something is funny, Sergeant?"

"No, Sir." Saunders studied the lieutenant's pinched face. His stomach lurched again, and he swallowed hard, determined that he'd not allow himself to be sick in front of Mallory.

"That will be all, Sergeant." Mallory rose and returned to the dented green metal chair behind the desk. Flicking the pencil pieces onto the floor; he pulled a fresh one from a small zippered bag beside the stack of papers. "Report in as soon as you set up your observation post. Dismissed," he said without looking up.

"Yes, Sir." Saunders saluted. Then he turned and left quickly.

Swallowing down the last mouthful of coffee, he ran a finger along the inside of his collar. "I'll have him whipped into shape in no time."

Whipped into shape? Henderson mouthed to himself as he swiveled on his seat. "Sir, if you don't mind my saying, I think you got Saunders all wrong. If he says...."

"I do mind your saying, private. When you become an officer then you will understand how things work around here. Until then, you will reserve your comments. I need that casualty data ASAP."

"Yes, Sir." Discretion being the better part of valor, Henderson returned to his figures.

* * * * * *

"All right, everyone, saddle up," Saunders called as he pushed open the door of the dilapidated shack. Groans and grunts from sleepy-eyed soldiers greeted the announcement. "Ammo and field rations for three days."

"For cryin' out loud, Sarge, doesn't this man's army know what a day of rest looks like?" Kirby grumbled as he threw off his blanket.

Saunders started gathering his few possessions, stowing them in his backpack. "All the griping in the world isn't going to make a bit of difference, Kirby. We have a mission, and you're on it."

"Yeah, yeah. I hear ya. Hey, Jimbo, you got any foot powder?"

"Forget it, Kirby. What'd you do with yours?" Pvt. James McKittrick shook his head and continued packing his gear.

"Hey, Kirby the kid's only been here a couple days, and he already has you pegged," Caje chuckled.

Kirby reached up and pulled a pair of socks off a nail. "Still wet." He slammed them down and sat dejectedly in the middle of his bedding.

"Here." Caje tossed over a pair of clean, cotton socks.

Kirby rammed his hand into one, waggling a finger stuck out a small hole in the toe. "Hey, Caje. You gave me damaged merchandise."

"Then wear your own." The Cajun reached over and started to grab them.

"No, no. These'll be just fine." He worked one over his foot. Pulling the end of the sock out a good two inches, he twisted it and folded the end under his toes. Then he quickly jammed the boot on before the sock had a chance to unwind.

Billy gaped. "That was amazing. How did you do that? Doesn't your toe go through the hole? I'd sure hate to walk a coupla miles with my big toe sticking out a hole."

"That, my dear boy, is nothing short of sheer genius. If you're fast, the sock never knows what hit it." Kirby laced and buckled the other boot.

Two young soldiers looked at each other. Having only arrived the night before, they found it reassuring to see the men in the squad so easy and relaxed about the mission that would be their first. A tall, thin one ran a finger gingerly over his upper arm where a tattoo was healing. He and his buddy, Samms, had spent their last free days in England getting them. Samms had gotten crossed rifles on his forearm. He'd chosen a Texas flag.

"Hey, Beatty, they sure know how to have fun, don't they?" Samms said.

"Yeah," Beatty drawled. "How bad can it be if they're joking around?"

McKittrick overheard them and merely shook his head. They got a lot to learn, he thought, remembering how green he'd been just days ago. Kids become men fast around here.

Saunders listened to the banter, smiling gently as he stuffed the last items into his pack. Doc had been observing him. He squatted next to the sergeant. Picking up a magazine, Doc handed it to him. "Kinda figured you were gonna bow out on this one...get yourself checked out."

"Didn't work out that way." Saunders eyed the medic then stuffed the magazine into his jacket. "You better get ready to go."

Doc took note of the sergeant's pallor, the sweat that beaded his face, his slower than usual movements. No matter how he'd tried to make light of it that morning, Sarge had looked like he was in real pain. If it had been Kirby, he'd have been running around complaining to everyone that he was at death's door. Sarge, on the other hand, always held his cards close to his chest. Doc had a feeling he'd been hiding a lot over the last few days. That's all it was, really. Just a feeling. He thought about Littlejohn saying the same thing about the lieutenant a short while before. There were times when instinct was all a soldier had to go on, knowing when something didn't feel right. Sometimes it was the difference between life and death.

Saunders knew Doc was watching him. "Look, I just got some kind of intestinal thing. Sick to my stomach. Probably ate something that didn't agree with me. No big deal. When we come back, if I still feel bad, I'll go. I promise." He punctuated his words with a tip of his head.

The medic nodded. "Look, if we're gonna be out two to three days, I gotta run over to the dispensary and pick up a fresh supply of morphine, a few dressings, and some halizone tablets. Don't go without me," he said, patting the medical bag that he'd slipped over his shoulder.

"Sure, Doc. Just don't take long. I wanna be on the road in five."

"What?" Kirby sputtered, "No time for breakfast? How's this army expect a guy to travel on an empty stomach?"

Saunders picked up Kirby's blanket and tossed it into his arms. "Yeah, Kirby. You get breakfast. You ever hear of C rations? We move out as soon as Doc gets back."

Outside, the medic's breath trailed behind him as he made his way down the street. He jammed his hands into his pockets and ducked his head to avoid the wind. At the dispensary, he refilled his supplies quickly, pulled his collar up around his neck. Hurrying out the door, he ran headlong into Pvt. Henderson, the lieutenant's temporary clerk. A collection of papers tumbled from the private's arms and landed at his feet.

"Sorry, Henderson," Doc apologized. He pressed his boot on a typed sheet that threatened to blow away.

"Easy," the clerk called out. "Man, if these get dirty...even one little bit, the lieutenant's gonna have my head. He's a bit of a stickler."

Doc bent down and pulled the paper out from under his foot. It was a list of names and dates. A casualty report. Doc handed it back. "Say, Henderson, Saunders met with Lt. Mallory this morning."

"Yeah, so what?" He flicked a spot of dirt from the paper and tried to flatten the bent edge.

The medic's eyes narrowed. "He say anything about bein' sick?"

"Yep. Asked the lieutenant to send another squad on the mission."

"And?"

"Well, let's see if I can remember the words Mallory used...prima donna...chickenshit noncom...."

"Are you sure he said that? Hard to believe any officer would say something like that."

"Yeah, well, you're used to dealing with a reasonable person...like Hanley. This looey's got something to prove, and he don't care who gets in his way. For some reason, he seems to have taken a particular dislike to your sergeant. Said he's gonna straighten him out."

"He's gonna straighten Saunders out? Well, what'd you say?"

Henderson looked at him incredulously. "What did I say? I didn't say nuthin'. Look. I got a wife and three kids back home. Hell, I ain't no hero. When Platoon Sergeant got killed and Mallory gave me the chance to do some clerking for him---I jumped at it. Maybe it only gives me a week or two outa some Kraut's sight, but if I see an opportunity to carry a pencil for a while instead of a rifle and maybe have a better chance to get back home to my family? Shoot. I'm not doin' nuthin' to foul that up."

"Thanks for filling me in, Henderson."

Henderson leaned in close. "Look. You ain't gonna tell him what I told you, are you? He's one officer I don't want to mess with. See what I mean?"

Doc gave the private a reassuring pat on the back, and then he hurried on down the street. At Mallory's headquarters, he rapped on the door. Hearing the voice on the other side tell him to enter, he opened it and slipped in. He strode over to the desk and saluted.

The lieutenant looked up from his report. "Yes?"

"Sir, I'm the medic with first squad."

"Saunders's squad," the officer stated flatly. "What do you want?"

"Permission to speak, Sir?"

Mallory nodded.

"Well, Sir, I don't think that Saunders should be going out on any mission. I'm recommending that he report to the aid station and get checked out."

"Are you his mother?"

"What, Sir?"

"I think I was quite plain. Are you his mother? Or more to the point, are you a doctor? Are you making diagnoses now?"

"No, Sir. I'm just a medic. But I know when someone's sick. And Saunders is sick."

The lieutenant began writing furiously. "Look, private, lots of men are sick up here. The weather is cold. It isn't a pleasant place to be. Every runny nose turns into pneumonia. I know how that works." Mallory looked up and smiled. "Did Saunders put you up to this?"

"No, Sir, I...." Doc sputtered.

"Tell him it didn't work. He's not getting out of this one. Runny nose or no runny nose. Clear?"

"Clear." Doc shot the lieutenant a final salute and turned on his heel. Reaching the door, he looked back over his shoulder. "You know...if you're wrong and anything happens because of it...you'll be answering for it."

Mallory's face flushed brightly. "Are you threatening me, medic?"

"Not at all, Sir. Promising. If I tell you that a soldier under your command is too sick to go on patrol and you disregard that, you have to take responsibility."

"Well, that's why I wear the bars, and you wear one stripe. I have the responsibility. Dismissed," the Lieutenant hissed.

Doc hurried into the street, his mind made up. He might only be a medic, but he knew where to find someone who carried a lot more weight in matters like this than he did. He had gone only a few steps when he heard a familiar whistle.

"Hey, Doc! You're going the wrong way!" Kirby shouted.

The whole squad stood in a clump, ready to go. Doc started to yell over that he would be right back, but Saunders appeared and waved the medic toward him. The sergeant turned, and the squad followed him. Doc looked off in the direction of the field hospital and considered for a moment what he should do; then he hurried after the squad.

* * * * * *

As the day wore on, the cold wind of the morning died down, and the sun warmed the air. All the soldiers except for Saunders stowed their gloves and caps. The sergeant remained zipped up, chilled to the bone. By the time they had reached the valley just below the west side of St. Jérôme, the pain in his gut had become almost continuous, and he constantly fought nausea. He figured that this was the worst of it, and once it had passed he'd feel fine again. After a quick break to check the map, Saunders signaled Caje to lead out.

The town sat atop a densely wooded hill. It would have been considerably easier going on the road, but if the Krauts had already taken the town and set up an OP there, Saunders reasoned, the Americans would be sitting ducks. So the squad climbed the incline, picking their way through brush and heavily rooted ground.

Samms stumbled and fell into Kirby, almost knocking him off his feet. Kirby stuck out a hand and righted the boy. "Easy there. You gotta learn how to watch what's at eye level and what's under your feet at the same time."

"My first day," the boy mumbled.

The BAR man shifted his weapon and snickered. "You don't learn fast, it could be your last. No do-overs here."

Cresting the hill on the western edge of town, Caje stopped and surveyed the street. At the end, a church spire towered over the roofs. "What you think, Sarge? The church?"

Saunders wiped his upper lip and squinted up at the tower, shaking his head. "It's got a good view of the west, but we know what's west. The Krauts'll be coming from the east...if they come. We need to take a look." Saunders looked around at the men. Beatty tried to gain the sergeant's attention, but Samms kept his eyes on the ground as he pushed a small rock back and forth with his toe. "Red... McKittrick," Saunders ordered. "Check out the church."

As the two soldiers moved up the street, Beatty elbowed Samms. "Dang, I thought he was gonna call on us. Sometimes I think we ain't never gonna get in this war."

"Yeah," Samms laughed nervously, sliding a forearm across his face. "We may never get in."

A short while later, the two scouts returned.

"All clear, Sarge," Red reported. "We went all the way up in the steeple. The back is caved in. Can't see nothin' to the east. From the other side, you can see all the way down the valley. Won't do us much good."

"All right. Let's try the other end of town. Caje." Saunders signaled, and the scout moved out. The squad fell in behind him.

They made their way up to the place where a second street T'd off to the left. The Cajun clenched his rifle tightly and swung around the corner. He caught sight of someone in the street and instinctively brought his weapon to bear. "Jeeze!" he cried. Kirby peeked around the corner. The body of a woman lay in the street. No, not a woman. A mannequin, fully dressed, hat still perched on its head and pocketbook in its hand.

"Hey, Caje," Kirby grinned, "You almost shot a dummy."

Saunders bent over and fought down the nausea.

"Sarge, you OK?" Samms watched expectantly.

The sergeant waved him on. "Keep moving. Don't bunch up."

The squad turned the corner and spread out on both sides of the one lane street. The shelling of the day before had done a job on it. Hardly a building remained untouched. Doorway to doorway, they worked their way down to the end of the street, climbing over piles of debris. Saunders motioned for the squad to stop, and he made his way to the last building. Across from it, a low fieldstone wall curved with the road as it moved down the other side of the hill and headed east. It was steeper here than on the church end, and it would make it harder for Krauts to get up to the village from that direction.

The sergeant sidled up to the end of the building and looked around the corner. The land sloped off drastically there, the house being perched on the very edge of a steep ravine. Looking up, he noted the stones of a large chimney running up the wall. Just one window farther down overlooked the valley below. It would be a good OP. Hard to get to, only the front door giving easy access.

Starting back, his stomach lurched, leaving him left feeling weak and wrung out. He steadied himself with a hand on the side of the building.

"Sarge!" Caje poked his head around the side of the house. "You OK?"

"Yeah." Saunders cleared his throat. "Yeah, Caje. Everything's fine." He moved back around to the front and stepped up beside the front door. Caje slipped in behind him, and Kirby positioned himself alongside the window, his BAR lowered to fire.

Saunders leaned his shoulder against the doorframe, signaling the others to hold their positions. In one quick motion, he kicked in the door and propelled his body through the opening. Crouching low, he swung the Thompson from side to side, but the room appeared empty. Little remained of the house's previous occupants. An overturned table, a broken chair, the remnants of a lamp, a row of blue ceramic cups hanging in perfect order on hooks beneath a demolished wooden cabinet. Keeping his eyes glued on the half-open door on the far side, he over and pushed it open. Nothing. The house was clean. He pushed aside the delicate lace curtains and motioned for the squad to come.

The new men immediately rummaged the place for stray souvenirs, while the older men, having been through this routine many times, merely sought a place to rest. Private McKittrick stepped on a small pile of rags on the floor as he examined a tilted painting of a country scene that hung on the wall.

"No back door, Sarge." Billy said as he entered through the front door. He spotted McKittrick. "Hey, you better hope that's not a nutcracker you're standing on under there,"

McKittrick stared at his boots, sweat suddenly forming on his lip. He jumped aside, landing heavily on the wood floor. "Damn! I coulda been blowed to bits! I didn't think."

"Not thinking can get you killed." Caje said as he pushed the curtain back with the barrel of his rifle, inspecting the street on the other side. Doc walked by the window, and Caje snagged his arm. "What's with Sarge? He OK?"

Both men looked to Saunders. The squad leader stood against the wall near the fireplace, mopping his face and breathing heavily. Neither man could remember him looking so weary before. Doc turned to Caje and spoke softly. "Your guess is good as mine. I don't think he's feelin' good. Sarge says it's just something he ate, but my feeling is he shouldn't even be out here. I even talked to Lt. Mallory about it. No dice."

"Like he says, maybe just something he ate...like food poisoning."

"Hmm. If it is, it'll pass, and he'll be himself soon."

"And if not?"

Doc didn't answer.

Beatty picked up one of the cups, holding it daintily with his little finger tipped up and pretended to sip. "Hey," he said in his Texas twang, "any you gents wanna have tea time? What you say, Samms? Ain't it tea time? Hey, Samms, what was that stuff they had back in England. Uh...scones. Yeah. Tea and scones."

Saunders righted the table. "Stow it, Beatty. Get me King Two. I mean Queen's Bishop."

Tossing the cup into the fireplace, the kid swung the field radio from his back and deposited it on the table. "Sure, Sarge." A moment later, he called the sergeant over.

Saunders took the handset. "This is White Rook. Over. Yes, Sir. We've set up at Sector George. Over. Wait one." Resting his hands on the table, he bowed his head and swallowed hard several times. Doc and Caje watched him. Finally, the sergeant straightened again. "Sorry, Sir...No, Sir. Roger that. Out." He dropped the handset on the table.

"Settle in, men, we're gonna be here a while. Caje... anything coming down that street, I want to know. Nelson, the other room. Keep your eyes peeled. We don't want any surprises."

"Right, Sarge." Billy slung his rifle and headed off. "I don't suppose we could start a small fire and make coffee? I'll even donate the helmet." He pulled the pot off his head and held it toward the sarge.

"Put it back on, Billy. No fire. No coffee. As far as the Krauts know, this village has to look totally deserted. Try to look like a wall."

"I was afraid you were gonna say that."

As exhaustion overcame him, Saunders could only wonder how a little case of upset stomach could leave him feeling so drained. Hauling off his pack, he dropped it on the floor. Then leaning his Thompson against the wall, he flopped down beside it.

Kirby settled in on the opposite wall and began digging around in his pack. "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse. Well, well, well. Wonder what we have here." Ripping open the box, he pulled out his rations. "Cheese. Hey...anyone want to trade me some good American cheese for anything?" Silence greeted the request. "Well, for cryin' out loud."

"Kirby!" the sergeant called out and threw him a can.

Kirby snagged it with one hand and tossed the cheese tin to Saunders.

Saunders reached into his pocket and pulled out his P-38. The cutting blade bit into the top of the tin. As he tried to advance it, the tool slipped. He tried again, but no luck. Frustrated, he tossed down the opener and slapped the container on the floorboards.

Wordlessly, Doc squatted in front of the sergeant. He picked up the opener, examining it. "You know, I bet I could use this baby on my carburetor back home. Wonder how many other things it's good for."

"Doesn't seem to be good for anything today."

Doc took the container from him, punctured the lid, and began rocking the blade back and forth. A moment later he handed the tin and opener back to the sergeant.

"Thanks, Doc." The sergeant slipped the P-38 back into his pocket. Digging a finger into the tin, he troweled out a scoop of cheese and licked it off. Looking at the container, he grimaced and placed it on the floor beside him.

"You better eat that. Keep up your strength."

"Don't worry, Doc. I'm fine. I'll eat." He reached to his belt for his canteen, unscrewed the cap and took a long drink. He knew all about water discipline, but somehow he felt that keeping himself hydrated was more important at the moment. Besides, as long as it stayed quiet, he could refill it from the well right outside as soon as it was dark.

Doc sat down next to Saunders to eat his own rations. "Sure would be nice if we could crank up a big fire in here and have some hot chow."

Red flung his empty tin across the room where it caromed off the wall and clanged to the floor. "And people in hell want ice water."

"I thought we were in hell," Kirby muttered. "I'm surprised Mallory even let us bring chow. If he had his way...hey! Where'd they get this fruit bar? It's nasty."

McKittrick extended his legs in front of his body and stretched. "Probably left over from World War I."

The sergeant tried another taste of cheese, but even the smell almost gagged him. "Just eat and cut out the complaining. It's not doing anybody any good."

"Sarge," Doc said quietly.

Saunders waited a moment for the medic to continue. "What's on your mind, Doc?"

Doc pondered a moment. "What's your take on this new lieutenant?"

"Wha'd'ya mean, my take on the lieutenant?"

"I don't know. Can't say I can put my finger on it, but something ain't right with him. Know what I mean?"

"What isn't right?"

"It's his attitude. Just seems angry all the time. Like he's mad at the world."

"Can't say I've noticed." Saunders averted his eyes and inspected the remaining cheese.

"I don't trust him. He's a know-it-all shave tail."

"I'm with Doc," Kirby interjected. "If you ask me, Lt. Mallory's dangerous."

"No one asked you, Kirby. Or you, Doc. He's got the bars. He tells us what to do, and we do it. The army runs on discipline. It doesn't care if he's got an attitude...good or bad. Just about getting the job done." With a hand on Doc's shoulder, Saunders pushed himself up and looked around at his squad. "I suggest you men try to get some rest while you can." He examined the partially eaten cheese tin still in his hand; then he set it down on the ground, removing a rumpled pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. "Caje?"

Caje turned from the window and shook his head. "Nothing, Sarge."

"Hey, Sarge, you gonna eat that cheese?" Kirby asked. Wordlessly, Saunders slid the ration tin over to him and lumbered off to the other room. Kirby snatched it up and began scooping it out with his finger.

"Thought you didn't want the cheese," Red snickered.

"Yeah, well, I'm hungry. Gotta keep up my strength for luggin' this baby around." He patted the BAR beside him. You know, I'm with you, Doc," he announced loudly as he sucked the last remnants of food off his finger. "That lieutenant's got a bad attitude."

The medic stared at the door to the back room. "Shut up, Kirby."

*

"Anything?" Saunders strode into the room and stood beside the window where Billy Nelson watched.

Billy shook his head. "Not a peep. I think we're holding a party and nobody's coming."

The sergeant scanned the field in the valley and the scrubby pine forest beyond. "I wouldn't count on it. Look, you go get some chow while you can. I'll take over."

"Thanks." Billy got to the door and turned back. "You all right, Sarge? You don't look so good."

"I'm fine, Nelson."

"You don't look fine. You got a fever?" He took a step toward the sergeant, but Saunders stopped him with a gesture.

"Well, you look like you got a fever."

"Just a touch of indigestion or something. Go eat."

Saunders pulled back the edge of the coarse curtain and looked out across the valley. So far their luck had held. He listened to the men in the other room complaining, teasing, griping. Always the griping. The only thing that wasn't the usual today was how he felt. His head throbbed and his gut burned. Without warning, he stomach began to churn. He scanned the room for a pan or a bucket or something...anything. Finding nothing, he bent over to the side and became sick. When his stomach finally settled, he pulled the curtain from the window and tossed it on the floor to cover the mess. He closed his eyes and leaned his head heavily against the window frame, jamming his fist into his side against the pain. If he could just get through this mission, he'd be all right. He just needed time to shake this...whatever it was. When he looked up again, Doc was watching him from the doorway.

"You know, when it comes to a mission, there's no one I trust more'n you, Sarge. But when it comes to medicine, you don't know diddly." The medic strode across the room and retrieved a wooden stool from the corner. "Here. Sit before you fall down."

Being in no mood to argue, Saunders sank down on the seat.

Doc unzipped Sarge's jacket. "How bad you hurtin'?"

"You think you're a doctor now?"

Doc ignored him and pushed his fingers into the sergeant's midsection. It was distended badly. When he pressed, Saunders groaned. He pressed again. Saunders groaned again.

"You about done, Doc?"

"Yeah. I'm done." The medic squatted in front of him. "My training's pretty limited at best. But I saw something similar in my cousin. His belly wasn't all swollen and rigid like yours, but the rest fits."

"Get to the point."

"The point is that I think you could have a hot appendix. You got fever. Pain. Sick to your stomach. All the symptoms."

"Let's suppose you're right. How bad?"

"Well, if it's treated in time, it's not too bad."

"And if not?"

"My cousin died."

Saunders slumped back against the wall.

"We gotta get you back. It can't wait. I'm calling in."

"Forget it, Doc." Saunders started to rise, but dropped back weakly.

Doc strode out, leaving the sergeant. He pulled the field radio over to him.

*

"Sir." Cpl. Henderson held the handset up toward Lieutenant Mallory. "White Rook."

Mallory finished reading the OPORD in front of him before strolling over to the table and taking the radio. "This is Queen's Bishop. Over."

"Who is this? Let me speak to White Rook. Over."

"What do you mean he can't? Put Saunders on! Over." The lieutenant's face reddened as he listened.

"Negative!" he sputtered. "Under no conditions are you to abandon your position. Over!"

"It wouldn't matter if Eisenhower were sick. You will not...do you read me?...not withdraw. Over.

"What exactly does it take to get through to you? I need that squad where it is. The whole squad. No one will return under any circumstances. Out!" Mallory slammed down the receiver and shot the private an angry look. "What kind of idiots have they given me to work with?"

"Sir?" Henderson looked up from his work.

"No son-of-a-bitch...coward...is going to blow this for me. He couldn't get out of this patrol, so now he tries to get the medic to help him out. Appendicitis my ass. He's a medic, not a physician."

"Doc has appendicitis?"

"No one has appendicitis. Believe me. That sergeant isn't going to pull the wool over my eyes. I see what he's up to."

Henderson stood and stepped toward the officer. "Sir, I've been around a long time, and I've never...."

Mallory whirled and stuck his finger into the private's chest. "You...you will keep your opinion to yourself unless you are asked. Do I make myself clear?"

Henderson mutely studied a crack in the wall.

"I'm talking to you. Don't you ignore me!" Mallory barked, a line of spittle forming at the corner of his lips. "Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Sir," Henderson mumbled. "I understand, sir." He sank onto the green metal chair and resumed his work in silence.

* * * * * *

Billy walked to the door and glanced in. Then he returned to where Doc stood, still holding the handset. "Sarge has appendicitis?" he whispered. "Are you sure?"

Doc shook his head. "No, I'm not sure! I'm no doctor. But I'm pretty sure that's what it is." The rest of the squad joined them, everyone talking at once.

"Well, we gotta get him back then," Kirby announced loudly. "You don't play around with a thing like that."

"I'll help you take him back, Doc." Caje offered.

"Forget it. No one`s going anywhere. Not me, not Caje. No one." Saunders stood in the doorway, leaning against it for support. "I`m fine. Just got a bug."

"Maybe you`d feel better if you lay down."

Doc moved toward Saunders and reached out to take his arm, but the sergeant brushed the hand away. "I don`t need to lay down. It`s my watch." Pushing off against the frame with an elbow, he turned and started back into the other room. "Kirby," he called over his shoulder. "Take... uh... someone with you and have a look around. It`ll be dark soon. "

Billy shot to his feet and pushed past the sergeant. "Tell you what, Sarge, let me take the next watch." When Saunders tried to move past him, Billy held a hand to the man`s chest, gently stopping him. "Hey, it`ll give me something to do. I`m bored spitless here." Saunders considered; then he turned and shuffled back into the main room.

Kirby rose and pulled his jacket close around him, zipping it up all the way. With the sun going down, the temperature in the room had started to drop, so sure as shooting it would be even colder outside. He attached the BAR to the straps, shrugging his shoulders to seat the weapon more comfortably.

"Kirby," Saunders said quietly, "keep your eyes peeled. We don`t want any surprises. But don`t take any chances. Stay low and be careful. Got it?"

"Houh! That`s the only way I know how to do it. Keep the target small." He hefted the weapon and held it up in front of him. "But if anyone gets in my way...POW! I`m carrying real fire power here."

"Stow it, Kirby." The sergeant slid his back down a wall and landed heavily on the floor. "I want you back in ten. We`re invisible. That means no contact."

"Right." Kirby pulled a wool cap on his head and twisted the bill to the back. Then he slipped on his helmet. "C`mon, Red, don`t get too comfy on that floor. We`re goin' for a little walk."

`Dang it, I was just `bout to take me a nap. How come you pickin` on me?"

Maybe `cause I like your sparkling personality."

"Do you think you could maybe like it a little less? You know I just may not be too gol-danged crazy `bout your company. You ever think of that?"

"Hey, Kirby," Beatty called as he almost ran over to the BAR man. The boy's eyes shone. "Let me go. I can do it. I know I can. What'ya say?"

Kirby clapped him on the back. "OK, kid. You just named your poison. Your first day, first mission, first reconnoitering. Call it your baptism under fire."

The gangly private gathered his things and scurried back to Kirby. He jammed a wool scarf into the neck of his jacket, and after giving a thumbs up to Samms, he followed Kirby, slamming the door behind him.

Samms looked back at the rest of the men from his observation spot at the front window. "Ya know...I think that kid has a great attitude."

Red shot Caje a quick grin. "Kid? You calling Beatty a kid? Why you ain`t even seen the back side of 18 yet yourself. Who you callin` a kid?"

The boy turned his reddened face back toward the window. Red continued to guffaw loudly until a stern look from Caje stopped him. Doc moved over to the window and leaned against the other side of the frame. Holding a pack of cigarettes toward the private, he pulled one out.

The boy shook his head. "I don`t smoke." Glancing back into the approaching darkness beyond the pane, he added quietly, "Guess I ain`t much of a man, huh?"

Doc smiled gently. "I wouldn't worry about it too much. Guess some people just don`t know how to keep their mouths shut. It`s not smoking or saying so that makes a man. You're gonna be just fine." He smiled at the boy and then sat down next to the sergeant.

As daylight gave way, the men settled in for a long, hopefully uneventful night, each keeping his thoughts to himself. Saunders leaned against the wall, appearing to be asleep. Yet from time to time, he groaned softly, wincing, and holding his abdomen. The medic dragged the sergeant`s pack over to him and pulled out the blanket, draping it over the man. Caje smoked quietly a few feet further down. Red had pulled a small rickety barrel up to the table and shuffled a worn deck of cards. He dealt himself a hand of solitaire, straining hard to see the numbers in the gloom.

Caje rose, rifle nested in his arms, and moved toward the table, kicking the kinks from his legs as he went. He leaned in and squinted at the game. After studying the cards a moment, he reached over and lifted a red nine, dropping it onto a black ten.

"Whatcha think you`re doing?" the soldier barked.

"Just trying to help you out, Red. You`da never seen that move. McKittrick, relieve Nelson." The Cajun disappeared into the other room. McKittrick rose with a groan and followed.

A few moments later, Billy entered. He wandered over to where Red sat and leaned his elbows on the table, his chin resting on his hands. Finally, he stabbed a jack. "You can put these cards on the queen over there." He waggled his finger toward a stack.

Red slammed the cards on the table. "Fer cryin` out loud! Who`s playin` this game here?" He kicked the table leg and flopped on the floor by himself.

Billy shrugged and sat down on the other side of Doc. "Hey, what did I do?"

Doc unwrapped a stick of Wrigley's and stuck it in his mouth; then he offered one to Billy.

"Gee, thanks." The private's face brightened as he rolled the gum into a small cylinder and popped it into his mouth. "How long`s Kirby and Beatty been gone?"

The medic looked toward the door. "Been a while, huh?" He pulled his watch to his face to read the numbers. "Looks like twenty minutes. They shoulda been back by now."

Caje had just entered the room when the door flew opened, and the two soldiers rushed in. Beatty staggered over to the wall and collapsed against it with a heavy sigh. Kirby dropped his helmet on the table and laid the BAR beside it. "Put the coffee on!" He shoved his gloves in his pocket and rubbed his hands together, blowing on them. "It's colder'n a well digger's butt outside."

Caje joined him at the table. "You were gone a long time, Kirby. What happened?"

"We got company out there."

The squad sprang into action, reaching for their weapons. Billy checked his cartridge belt. "How many? Where?"

"Easy. They're down at the other end of the town. I'd say a reinforced squad." He pulled a rumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, shielding the flame with his hand. A plume of smoke wafted through the sparse moonlight that lit the room through the window. "They set up an OP at the other end of town."

"You mean we've got OP's set up at opposite ends of the sa me town watching for each other?" Billy whistled.

"You got it. Only we know they're here. I don't think they know about us...at least not yet."

Beatty pulled the last cigarette from his pocket. He lit the end of it from the glowing tip of Red's cigarette butt, and crumpled the pack, tossing the ball across the room. "We went clear to the far edge of town. Kirby thought he heard something, so we started down the hill to check out the woods. The Krauts came by us and we dove into the bushes just in time. We watched 'em move into the church tower. They can see the whole village and valley west of there."

Caje slipped to the back and called softly to McKittrick to keep an extra close watch for Kraut movements. Then he returned to Kirby. "How'd you get back?"

Kirby rubbed his tired eyes. "We waited till dark, and then we circled around through the woods. Figured with just moonlight, we could get up the hill without being spotted. Man, I'm starved. Anybody got anything to eat besides cheese?" Someone near the fireplace rummaged around, and a moment later, he heard a tin rapping on the floor. Kirby worked his way over to the sound. He could just make out the face of the good-natured Texan. "Thanks." He dropped onto the floor beside the boy. "Hey, you got an opener?" Beatty rolled his eyes, but he took the tin and cut open the lid, returning it to the BAR man.

"The way I see it," Caje's voice said in the darkness, "as long as we keep quiet tonight, we should be OK till morning. First light, they're bound to check out the place. If the whole town is clean, they just might skip the last house. We get lucky, we might get by with it. I wish Sarge could tell us what to do."

Kirby peered into the darkness. "Hey, where is Sarge?"

"Over here," Doc called out.

Laying aside the potted meat, Kirby moved over to where Doc's voice had come and squatted in front of the sergeant. "How's he doing?"

"Not so good. His fever seems awfully high for appendicitis. I don't know what's going on. He needs a hospital."

"Stop talking about me like I'm not here." The sergeant was a pale shadow. "Fill me in, Kirby."

The private repeated the story, keeping to the bare details. When done, he waited for Saunders to comment. The sergeant called to Caje, and the soldier knelt on one knee in front of the noncom.

"Caje, Kirby tells me the Krauts probably don't know we're here. As long as they don't send out patrols, you should be OK. Tell the sentries to keep their eyes peeled for anything. Even if they come this way, they might not be making a serious search." He groaned loudly as he tried to shift positions. "You just might make it through."

"You mean we."

"And keep Hanley...I mean Lt. Mallory informed. Every couple hours. Call sign...Call sign...."

"Call sign Queen's Bishop."

"Looks like everything's covered. I...." A sudden wave of nausea and pain swept over him. He grabbed his chest.

Doc leaned in close. "What's going on, Sarge? Where you hurtin'?"

"Stomach. Chest. My chest really hurts," Saunders gasped through gritted teeth as another round of pain washed over him.

"What's going on, Doc? Is he having a heart attack?" Kirby's grabbed Doc's shoulder and pulled on it.

"How the hell should I know?" When the sergeant groaned again, Doc opened his medical bag and rummaged in it. "The only thing I can do is give him something for the pain. Here we are." He pulled out the morphine and injected Saunders. "That should have him feeling better soon."

Saunders rolled his head back against the wall and fought the pain moved up his belly and settled in around his chest like it was being pierced by a Kraut bayonet. Kirby helped Doc lay him on the floor, shoving Doc's pack under his head and replacing the blankets over him. Finally, the sarge breathed heavily and fell into a fitful stupor.

"He's still shivering," Doc stated.

McKittrick whistled through his teeth and tossed his own blanket over to him. Doc placed it over Saunders. "Caje, I'm serious. He needs a hospital, and he needs it now! He can't wait. He's talking about his chest hurting. Maybe it is his heart. This thing isn't reading like appendicitis. It is, but it isn't. I don't know what's going on."

Caje fingered the stock of his rifle, weighing the situation. He looked toward Saunders and noticed the dim outline of the sarge's weapon resting against the wall. Slinging his M-1, he lifted the Thompson. "Don't think this is gonna do him much good." Squatting, he unlatched the man's web belt with its full magazine pouches and slung it over his shoulder; then he patted the sergeant's jacket and pulled out several more magazines, shoving them into the front of his own jacket. Caje glanced at his watch. Twenty minutes till time to check in with the lieutenant. Saunders groaned, and Caje made up his mind. "Queen's Bishop, this is White Rook. Over," he called on the radio.

*

"Sir, it's White Rook." Henderson handed the phone receiver to Lt. Mallory.

"Again?" The lieutenant took a deep drag from his cigarette and dropped the butt into a stale cup of coffee. "This is Queen's Bishop." He inspected his watch. "You aren't due to call for twenty-two minutes. This'd better be important. Over."

For a moment the officer's face wrinkled as he strained to hear. "I want to talk with White Rook. Over... What do you mean he can't? Over.... I can't understand a word you are saying. Let me talk with someone who speaks English. Put an American on. Over! Look, I said put someone else on. That's an order, private. Over!"

The lieutenant turned to Henderson. "That's what happens when you let foreigners into the Army.

"Yes, uh, Kirby is it? What's the situation? Over." Listening to the private's report, Mallory rapped his knuckles on the table. "Well, if they don't even know you are there, then I don't see what the problem is. They're a squad and you're a squad. Looks even to me. You girls will have to take care of it. Over."

He slammed his fist on the table. "I'm sick of your bullshit! This war isn't being run for your convenience. Over... I don't care how that sergeant is. You will conclude your mission as directed. Do you understand me? You weren't sent out there to run from the Germans. We fight them. You get me? Out!"

Mallory shoved the receiver back on the base and turned to the private, who pretended to be engaged in a report. "Damn! Such a simple thing. Set up an OP. I hate it that they can't give me men who know how to follow orders."

Henderson stopped writing. He knew he should speak up, and yet, that twitchy officer could cause a lot of trouble for him if he wasn't careful. With that attitude of his, Mallory could send him back up to a rifle squad. He didn't want to even think about the consequences. Better to keep your mouth shut around here. Protect your butt.

Mallory pulled his web belt off the back of the chair and slung it over his shoulder. Carbine under his arm, he headed toward the small storage room that held his cot. "I don't want to be disturbed. Good night, Private." He closed the door behind him.

* * * * * *

In the windowless room, he watched a face emerge from the darkness. Gradually, the features became clearer. Then, as if a light switched on, the room filled with almost blinding light. The form leaned over him, its face mere inches from his. "Johnny Mallory," the man hissed, "I'm ashamed to have you as my son."

"I'm sorry," the lieutenant whimpered, looking away. He gagged at the stench of whiskey and cigarettes.

"You look at me when I'm talkin' to you." The man grabbed the boy's cheeks and squeezed hard, forcing him to look up. His father's closely cropped blond hair in the glaring shadows of the too-bright light gave the man's face a hardness that filled the boy with fear. "You understand me?"

"Yes," he whispered.

"Yes, what?"

"Yes, father...er, Sir." The boy's attention fell on the sleeve of his father's uniform. Three stripes with a rocker.

"What you looking at?"

The boy remained mute, but stared into his father's deep blue eyes.

"Your're looking at these." The man tapped his stripes. "I'm a sergeant in the United States Army. I train men to be good soldiers. So why can't I train you and Buddy, here? Why are you two always letting me down?" He looked toward the corner where the small blonde boy crouched, shivering. "I earned every damned stripe the hard way. I didn't let anybody push me around."

"But, Dad...."

The man took the boy by the lapels of his pajamas, pulling him upright in the bed, and shook him. "No butts allowed. You got a problem, you deal with it. You two," he shot both sons a hard look, "you girls let those boys cower you and make you cry."

"But there were three of them...and they were all bigger than me."

"We don't have sissies in the Army! Not in my house anyway. If you ladies want to be whiney-assed cowards, you just go live somewhere else."

The man grabbed the boy by the arm and jerked him out of bed. His father pulled him to the corner by the door where Buddy tried to melt into the woodwork. The man took hold of the child and jerked him to his feet. His mother tried to calm the burly sergeant, but ignoring her protests, he staggered to the front door and swung it open. The boy shivered as an icy blast bit through the thin cotton cloth of his pajamas. The man shoved the boys out onto the porch and slammed the door behind him. The boy heard the lock turning.

"Dad!" Johnny Mallory cried, jumping from foot to foot on the frozen cement. "It's cold. Please let us in."

"John," a female voice on the other side of the door tried to soothe. "They're just little boys. It's snowing out there. Please let them in."

"Those ladies will stay outside until they rot or learn what I expect of them. You don't tell me what to do in my own home."

The boy heard the sound of slaps, a table crashing, and his mother's gentle sobs. He fell against the door and slid to his knees, banging his fist against it over and over. "I hate you, I hate you...."

"I hate you!" Lt. Mallory sat bolt upright in bed in the dark, drenched in sweat. "I hate you," he muttered softly to himself. He smoothed the covers across his legs and lay back down on the narrow cot, bringing the blanket up to his neck. "I'll show you. I'll show you...Sir."

* * * * * *

The sun broke over the tree line across the valley. It had been a long, cold night full of sounds and shadows. A scary place for a green recruit. But now that it was over, it somehow seemed better. Samms shook his tired legs to keep the circulation going after standing watch at the window for such a long time.

Beatty joined him, handing him a K-Ration box. "Breakfast. Go eat. I'll take over here."

"Thanks," he yawned loudly. "Hey, Beatty, what was it like? Seeing Krauts, I mean. I never saw one. What did they look like?"

"You know," he said in that slow Texas way, "they just looked like regular men to me. They weren't supermen."

"Were you scared?"

"No, I don't think so. Well, maybe a little. But Kirby was there and that helped. He knew exactly what to do." Sun lit Beatty's face, and his eyes flashed happily. "Look over there, Samms."

The boy squinted into the distance, unsure of what he was supposed to be seeing.

"Look...down there." He pointed toward the river that disappeared into the thick forest. "Reminds me of mornings on the Brazos," he drawled. "God, I love Texas. When the war's over, I'm goin' back, marry my gal, make babies from morning to night; and when I'm not makin' babies, I'll be fishin'. That would be the life." He smiled at his buddy. "You must think I'm crazy."

Samms leaned his shoulder against the wall and shook his head. "Maybe I can come visit. Go fishing with you on the ....uh..."

"Brazos."

"Brazos. Sounds great. You know, Saunders is right. Make it through the first day and it gets easier. Well, today's the second day. It must be easier." Samms tossed the K-Rations in the air and caught them in the other hand. "See you later."

The private moved quietly back into the main room. Billy stood at the window keeping watch, and the others stirred in their blankets. He dropped heavily onto the barrel and absently flipped over several of the cards Red had left on the table. He looked over to the corner where Doc tended to Saunders.

"How's he doing, Doc?"

"I think we should move him into the back room in case we run into trouble. He'll be safer there."

Caje nodded and started toward the medic.

"Cheese it!" Billy hissed. "Krauts!" He stared through the torn curtain and the others moved into position around the room.

Red slid up to the side of the window opposite Billy. McKittrick and Samms stationed themselves against the wall beside the door. Caje whispered into the back room to let Beatty know about the Krauts. Doc stayed alongside Saunders, and Kirby positioned himself in the corner, his BAR trained on the door. Billy licked his lips and signaled "two."

The squad heard the guttural sounds of German coming from the street. The voices didn't seem to be moving on or advancing. Nor did they sound excited or suspicious. As a matter of fact, they seemed lighthearted.

Beatty appeared in the opening to the back room and got Caje's attention. Caje signaled for him to return to the window overlooking the valley.

If the Krauts had been sent to flush out the place, they weren't doing such a good job. And that was fine with the Americans. Billy signaled that the Germans had stopped for a smoke. It appeared that the quiet of the village had convinced the Krauts they were alone, and they didn't intend to put themselves out performing a useless search of each building.

Then Saunders groaned. Doc clamped his hand tightly over the sergeant's mouth. The talking outside ceased. Caje's heart seemed to stop beating. Finally, they heard the voices moving away.

Doc pressed harder to stifle the noise as Sarge's body shook, wracked with violent, dry heaves. The rest of the squad shot the medic a look of panic. Billy watched the Krauts freeze and turn back toward the house, cautiously moving toward the sound they'd heard. One of the Germans whispered something to the other one. Billy strained to see what was happening as the angle became too great, and he lost sight of them nearing the door. Caje swallowed hard.

McKittrick saw the flash of a dirty black leather boot as it kicked in the door. The building reverberated with the impact of the heavy wooden door crashing into the wall behind it. Samms bit hard on his lip, tasting a salty liquid on his tongue. "Pass by. Pass by," the young soldier mouthed, trying to will the Germans away. Wide-eyed, he plastered himself against the wall as the tip of a weapon poked into the doorway next to him. He ignored the sweat that streamed down his face. Finally, the weapon retreated. The Germans moved back into Billy's line of site, glancing back at the open door, but definitely moving away. He gave the others a thumbs up. Samms mouth twitched a quick smile of relief at McKittrick.

Saunders's groaned loudly as his stomach heaved violently. A German shouted something. The squad heard the sound of boots on the hard, packed earth. Then three grenades in quick succession shot in the open door. They clattered noisily across the room as if in slow motion, two of them rolling through the door into the back, and the other coming to a stop just inside the opening between the two rooms.

"Oh, God!" the good-natured Texan cried from the rear. A split second later, the building shook as grenades exploded in concert. Beatty screamed and the roof collapsed.

The explosion propelled a large chunk of wood through the window next to Billy's face. He grabbed his pot and averted his head to avoid the shattering glass. A Kraut lurched through the door. Falling to his knees, he sprayed the room with Schmeisser fire. Doc threw himself over the sergeant's body. Bullets riddled Red's chest, and he slid down the wall, leaving a bloody smear across the pitted plaster. His rifle clattered to the floor. Just as McKittrick squeezed off a shot into the German's back, Kirby and Caje fired in tandem. The German toppled over. His legs, still in the open doorway, twitched a few times, and then he lay still.

Billy swung around his M-1 and fired off a shot at a German running for cover. The soldier hit the ground and remained in a crumpled heap.

"There's a third one!" McKittrick screamed, firing out the door.

Grabbing his shoulder, the retreating German catapulted over the low fieldstone wall. Kirby had moved up to the door and laid down heavy fire. Despite the stone chips and dust that showered him from above, the German crawled the length of the wall and disappeared behind an apothecary.

Nelson fired a final shot after the retreating soldier. "He got away."

"Beatty! Are you OK, Beatty?" Samms cried as he ran toward the back room. Heavy beams, plaster, and roofing tile almost completely blocked the doorway. He dropped onto all fours and picked his way through the debris.

One by one, the squad pulled back from their places. Kirby moved to the window next to the McKittrick and scanned the street. "They're gonna be all over us in no time at all."

Caje grabbed the radio and called for Mallory. As soon as the lieutenant answered, the Cajun knew he was wasting his time. Mallory ordered them to hold, no matter what. "But Sir," the private argued, "the Krauts know we're here. We've lost two men and Saunders is getting sicker. He could be dying. Over."

"I've about had it with that lieutenant's attitude," Kirby sniffed. "Maybe he should be here fighting alongside us. See how his attitude changes then."

Caje looked at the squad in disbelief. "Sir we don't have time for this. I'm next in command. You'll have to talk to me. If we're not pulled out or get help immediately, we're as good as dead. Over... Sure I'm scared. I'd be crazy not to be! We don't stand a chance. Over... Well, wait about a minute and a half, and I'll let you speak to one of them...Sir." He whistled into the radio. "Hello? Queen's Bishop? He hung up on me!" Caje dropped the receiver.

Samms tumbled out of the wrecked room and scrambled across the floor on his hands, collapsing in the corner between the fireplace and the front door. Pulling his knees into his chest, he locked his arms around his legs and sat shivering.

Billy knelt beside him. "Samms...what's wrong?" He looked back toward the destroyed room. "Where's Beatty? Samms...where's...."

"He's dead!" the boy screamed. "They killed him. There's blood and..." He buried his head in his arms and sobbed. We came over together...on the boat. I got crossed rifles and he got...his parents live near some place called Needville, Texas. He has a brother named Tom and a sister named...."

"Put it behind you, Samms," Caje warned. "Now you know. It's better you don't get too close. Friends die."

"What's going on? Mom? Louise? What're you doing?" Saunders muttered, his mind churning wildly. Doc pressed the sergeant's shoulders back down as he struggled to get up. Sweat sheeted the man's face as his head rolled from side to side in his delirium. He opened his eyes and could barely make out Doc's face hovering over him. "Where's my mother? I gotta find her."

Doc didn't argue back, no point. He wouldn't comprehend anyway. He was in a different place. Maybe he was lucky in that regard. Better than here, the medic considered. As soon as the Krauts found out only five soldiers opposed them, they'd be all over them like maggots on a carcass.

Doc moved to Red's body. "Sorry, buddy, but the war's not over for you yet." He took the dead man's arms and dragged him to the open doorway. He pushed and shoved until he had him prone behind the dead Kraut.

Kirby shot the medic a quick glance. "What're you doing?"

"Replacements," Doc called, grunting as he made the final arrangements of the two bodies. "Maybe I can't carry a gun, but I can still help.

"Doc!" Billy shoveled the dead man's helmet and rifle toward the medic.

Doc placed the pot on Red's head and gave it a gentle pat. He arranged Red's hands on the weapon and propped it across the dead Kraut's legs.

"They're back!" Billy hollered, breaking out the last of the glass in the window and pulling down the remains of the curtain.

Kirby knelt beside him and scoped out the scene. Germans moved down the street and took positions in the street across from them. He saw faces in each of the two windows above the apothecary and a couple in the doorway. A line of Krauts moved into position behind the wall. "I count eleven."

"Sounds about even," Caje called as he made his way to the other side of the window plastering himself against the wall. "Doc, see if you can get Saunders back into the corner over there."

The medic shoved until he had the sergeant tucked as close to the corner wall as possible. He glanced at the shambled opening to the back room, then he crawled over and disappeared into the debris. A few moments later, he returned with what was left of Beatty's rifle. The wooden stock had been shattered; it was hardly more than a barrel. He ducked down and hurried over to the window.

Caje scanned what he could see of the street. "Anyone see any heavy equipment?"

"Nothing," McKittrick called. "Hey, Doc!"

Doc looked up and McKittrick nodded toward Samms, who still huddled in the corner beside him. Handing the ruined rifle to Kirby, the medic moved over to the shivering boy.

"What're they waiting for?" Billy ran his tongue across his dry lips.

The BAR man slipped over and crouched across from Billy. "Probably want to see how many of us there are. Let's give them something to look at." He crawled to the wooden barrel that Red had sat on earlier and shoved it over to the window.

"No thanks, I'll stand," Billy said

"Very funny." Kirby placed the piece of Beatty's rifle on the wooden barrel so that the end was sticking through the window. Securing it with a stray brick, he stepped back and admired his handiwork. "We just got a new recruit."

"Samms?" Doc said gently, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Samms, you OK?"

Tears coursing down his cheeks, the young soldier looked up into Doc's face. "He's all blown up."

The medic nodded. "He's dead. But you're alive, and right now, we need you. We're in a bad spot. We need every man."

"I don't know if I can."

"Samms!" Caje called from the window.

Doc looked him in the eye. "You can, and you better make up your mind to get over it right now. Sure you might die today...we all might...but you gotta decide if you want to go out fighting or hiding here. Either way, you can't control what the end will be...only how you get there." He shoved the boy's rifle in his face. "What you gonna do?"

"Houh!" Kirby snorted, let's see how they feel about the number five."

Samms wiped his nose on his sleeve and took the rifle. He turned and poked it out the doorway. "Six," he muttered quietly. Doc returned to Saunders.

As if in response to Kirby, the Krauts opened up. Bullets bit into the dead German sprawled in the doorway, spraying the place with bits of flesh, bone, and blood. Caje fired a short burst and a German fell out of the window, landing with a thud on the street below.

The row of soldiers behind the wall opened up. Every time one of them popped his head up to fire, Kirby sprayed them. Two Schmeissers firing together sent the Americans ducking for cover.

"How many of them things they got?" Kirby looked to the far end of the street. "Caje! More company!"

Caje squinted and spotted three more figures joining the Germans. "I make it 14!" The private fell down on his belly and crawled over to the table, pulling the radio down to the floor. "King two, this...Queen's Bishop...this is White Rook. Queen's Bishop come in! Over!"

A moment later the lieutenant was on the other end again.

"We're being overrun. Over... How're we supposed to get out now? There's Germans all over the place. Over... No, Sir, we can't wait till after the platoon has chow! Over"

"What's with that guy?" Doc ducked over Saunders as bullets chewed out the wall behind them.

"Ok, Sir, but make it fast. We don't have much time! Out!"

Caje scrambled back to the window and fired at the apothecary. Kirby shot him a glance. "Well, they comin'?"

"Yeah, but something tells me we can't count on it being fast."

Kirby fired a short burst, and the BAR went silent. He pulled out the spent magazine and tossed it on the floor.

"Easy on the ammo, Kirby!" Caje shouted. "Make every shot count!"

Kirby seated a fresh magazine. "I got plenty here. At least that's one thing that lieutenant did right, making us take supplies for three day. Wonder how well supplied the Krauts are?"

Nelson fired off a couple rounds. "They've probably radioed for reinforcements. It's just a matter of time." A spent clip ejected with a ping. Pulling out a new one, he thumbed it in, but before he could fire again, pain exploded in his arm. He spun around and fell back against the wall, his face twisted in pain. Blood seeped between his fingers. "I'm hit, Caje!"

The Cajun kept firing; one of the Krauts in the doorway across the street grabbed his forehead and fell, his helmet clattering into the middle of the street. The other German who'd been beside him, leaned out to fire, and Samms nailed him. "That's for Beatty!"

Doc hurried over to Nelson. He pulled sulfa from his medic bag. Ripping open the hole in Billy's jacket sleeve, he dumped the powder on it and wrapped it in a large dressing.

Lying along the far wall of the room, Saunders listened to the sounds of battle, and fear wormed its way into his feverish brain. The squad was in trouble. He shoved off the blankets that covered him and struggled to a sitting position, heedless of the bullet hits that exploded around him. He drew his feet underneath him, and holding onto the wall, he tried to pull himself up. The pain gnawed at his belly, and his legs shook as he tried to stand. Finally, he dropped back to his knees. "Grady!" he screamed. "Don't do it!"

"Sarge!" Caje yelled. "Get down!"

Samms leapt to his feet and dashed across the room, tackling the sergeant as machine gun fire tattooed a line across the wall behind where the sergeant had just been rising. The two men hit the ground with a thud and Samms rolled over onto his stomach, a line of red holes torn through the back of his jacket. Doc scrabbled across the floor to examine the men. Putting his fingers against Samms's neck, he shook his head at Caje. He left the dead man and attended to Saunders. "Sarge!" he called loudly over the din. "Sarge, you hit?" The sergeant groaned and lapsed into unconsciousness.

Billy picked up his rifle and skittered over to the door beside McKittrick. "You OK?" the boy asked, eyeing the heavy bandage.

"Yeah. How're you?"

McKittrick bit his lower lip. "I've been better."

Billy nodded and squeezed off a shot, hitting one of the Krauts that crouched behind the fence.

Kirby emptied another magazine. When he stopped firing, two German heads popped up to fire, and Caje mowed them down with a spray of bullets from Sarge's Thompson.

"How many does that make? I think four."

"Six," McKittrick shouted.

"The kid's counting." Kirby shoved in another magazine and squeezed the trigger.

Without warning, the Germans firing ceased. McKittrick shot off several rounds; then he, too, stopped. The boy listened and watched. Other than a large black bird squawking overhead, the village was silent.

"What's going on, Billy? They left? We won?"

McKittrick started to move, but Nelson gently restrained him. "Easy."

Kirby's eyes darted up and down the street. "I know they're there. I can smell 'em. What're they waitin' for?"

Caje nodded toward the radio. "Maybe they're waiting for help to arrive."

"So whadda we do? Just wait here to get slaughtered?" McKittrick's voice rose.

Billy touched the kid's shoulder. "We wait. Nothing else we can do."

Minutes wore on, and the soldiers stood in their places. Caje lit up a cigarette, and Kirby fished a K-Ration from his pack--more cheese. Billy whistled softly to himself as he scanned the village. Caje checked the time. Almost an hour had passed without so much as a peep from the Germans. He crouched down and moved over to Doc and Saunders. The sergeant's breathing was shallow and irregular, punctuated now and again with groans and small grunts. Although covered with blankets, he shook with fever.

Doc looked up. "Caje, if he doesn't get help soon...I don't think he's gonna make it."

"Isn't there anything you can do for him?"

The medic shook his head. "I've given him all the morphine I can. I don't know what to do any more than that. I feel so...so helpless."

"You're doin' fine." He patted Doc's back and handed him a ration box. "Here. You're not gonna be any good to anyone if you don't keep up your strength."

Doc smiled at him and took the meal. "You better eat, too. You can't live on cigarettes."

McKittrick wiped a layer of moisture from his forehead. "Caje. I don't think they're out there. We could be standing here sweating it out for nothing."

"Just hold your position, kid," Kirby warned.

"This is stupid. I gotta go to the bathroom."

Caje's patience waned. "Go in place. You're not going anywhere."

"You gotta be kiddin'. Hey. You're only a private just like me. Did Saunders put you in charge?"

Nelson shook his head. "After a couple days, you're an expert! You need to learn when to shut up and listen to your betters...or you're not gonna last long out here."

McKittrick fumed another five minutes. He couldn't shake the niggling suspicion that the Krauts had gone. "I gotta go to the bathroom, and it ain't gonna be here." He moved across the doorway and stepped over the dead German. A shot rang out, and the boy's legs folded beneath him. He fell into the room, a gaping exit wound showing between his eyes.

"Kid!" Kirby cried.

Doc crawled over to take the boy's pulse, but it was a wasted motion.

"Stupid kid. He just wouldn't listen. What was wrong with him?"

A spray of bullets slammed into the floor next to Doc, ripping up chunks of wood. A second volley stitched the doorframe. Billy hunkered down and wrapped his arms around his helmet as small holes of light began to appear in the wall. "That's a machine gun. We musta made somebody really mad."

Caje and Kirby opened up. A German in the lower level of the apothecary collapsed and the last remnant of glass shattered as he tumbled out. "We got trouble." Kirby pointed to the uppermost window where a heavy machine gun fired again. He opened up with the BAR at the shadowy figure just moving into position. The German fell across the weapon, and its barrel whipped around crazily. "Gotcha!" Kirby shouted.

The machine gun swung back around and a moment later, it opened up on the house again. The squad ducked down as wood, plaster and stone exploded around them. Kirby grabbed his thigh where a patch of blood blossomed on his pants. He grimaced with pain as he bellied over to Doc. Caje traded the Thompson for Kirby's BAR and tossed the Thompson to Billy. Perceiving the silence of the American weapons, the Germans moved out from behind the wall and charged at the house. Caje and Billy fired; the Krauts went down like tenpins. Another German ducked back down before the Americans had a chance to fire.

The heavy machine gun fired again, but Caje held his ground. In spite of the bullets thudding into the walls around him, he fired off short, controlled bursts.

For the second time, the Germans stopped firing.

"Listen...you hear that?" Doc called out as he sprinkled sulfa on Kirby's thigh.

Caje and Billy listened intently. "That's mechanized!" Billy called. "No wonder they aren't firing. They got heavy stuff comin' in!"

The sound grew louder and louder. Then the squad heard small arms fire coming from the West. The Krauts behind the wall bolted into the open as they ran for the road leading down into the valley. The machine gun in the apothecary swung over to the other direction and opened up.

"Look!" Billy pointed to a line of GI's moving toward them. A tank rolled down the middle of the street, swiveling its turret and lifting its cannon. A moment later, it fired and the second floor of the apothecary exploded.

Caje put his leg over he windowsill and hopped into the street, firing a final volley at the retreating enemy.

Billy came out the door and ran to the GI's, slapping them on the back and shaking hands with as many of them as he could reach. "Hey, are we glad to see you guys!"

Caje ran up to a soldier with sergeant's stripes on his sleeve. "We need a doctor."

The sergeant turned and whistled. The soldiers separated and a pair of jeeps, one mounted with stretcher brackets, sped through, screeching to a stop in front of the house where Saunders, Kirby, and Doc waited.

In no time at all, they had Saunders loaded onto one jeep, Doc sitting beside him. Kirby sat in the front seat of the second, and Caje and Billy took up the rear. Billy looked back at the building that had sheltered them. It looked as if crazed beavers had attacked it. Most of the front façade was gone, bare down to the lath. He turned to Caje. "You think Saunders has a chance?"

The Cajun shook his head. "I don't know. Looking at that," he nodded toward the building, "I wouldn't have said that any of us should be alive. I guess it's not up to us, huh?"

The medics finished securing Saunders to the stretcher, and the first jeep sped off to the west; the second jeep followed.

* * * * * *

The heavy wooden door to the boutique swung open wildly. Lt. Mallory dropped his canteen cup, slopping coffee all over his boots.

"What the...." The officer stared into the angry face of the medic. Beside him, the angrier face of a private the lieutenant didn't recognize. If the private would have had the Thompson in his hands instead of slung on his back, Mallory might have even thought him a danger. "Who the hell do you think you are, bursting in here like this?"

Caje strode over to the desk, his boots sounding on the floorboards in the silence. He tossed a handful of dog tags onto the desk in front of the officer. "Mission accomplished, Sir," he spat.

Mallory lifted the metal plates and fingered them. He held them up one at a time. "McKittrick. Samms. Beatty. Bennett. Is this supposed to mean something to me?"

"It should," Caje hissed as Doc waited wordlessly. "It's first squad...the ones that aren't coming back."

"Record these, Private." Tossing them over onto Henderson's desk, Mallory turned and started to walk around the desk, folding his arms. "I don't think I like your attitude, Private."

Caje slammed his fist on the desk, instantly getting the officer's attention. "Those dog tags you just threw aside were men. They were my friends, or might have been if they'd lived long enough."

"You'll be disappointed to know," Doc added, "that Sgt. Saunders is in surgery right now. You were right. It wasn't appendicitis. He had an intestinal blockage. The doctors said it was totally constricted. But he's probably going to live...no thanks to you. And it's a good thing that he is. He should've been on sick call. The squad shouldn't've been sent out with Sarge sick like that. He told you. And I told you."

Mallory's eyes dropped to the floor and then rose again. When he finally spoke, his voice was flat and without emotion. "You are a liar. You told me nothing of the kind. I can't be responsible for what I don't know. What exactly did you expect?"

Caje pointed to the dog tags Henderson held. "When I radioed that the Germans knew we were there, you could have pulled us out. How many men were you willing to sacrifice?"

The officer's face was hard as if chiseled from stone. He swallowed, the corner of his thin lips twitching. "You radioed your concern? Actually, I don't remember any reports indicating a problem. Do you remember any, Henderson?" The private stopped working but remained with his head down. "There, you see? Henderson recalls none either. As I recall, all of the conversations I had with you indicated no problem. It you had trouble, you should have contacted me with that information."

"We called in repeatedly and told you what was going on...told you the situation was hopeless. You didn't have to leave us there. Those men didn't have to die. I hope you can live with their deaths."

The lieutenant swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down, clenched jaws twitching. "Are you implying...?" Mallory sat down behind the desk and sneered at the soldiers. "It wasn't hopeless, was it? You came back, didn't you?

The Cajun reached across the desk and grabbed the lieutenant's shirt, pulling him out of his chair. "I oughta..."

"Caje!" Doc yelled, trying to insert himself between the officer and the private. "Let go, Caje. He ain't worth it!"

Caje released Mallory, shoving him back in his chair.

"Get out of here before I slap so many charges on you your head'll spin!"

Doc pulled Caje's arm. "Let's go. C'mon. Like I said...he ain't worth it." Resting a hand on the Cajun's back, he directed him toward the door, pulling it open and starting through.

At the last moment Caje turned toward the lieutenant, pointing his finger at the officer. "I don't know what you've got in your craw, and I don't care. If I have anything to say about it, this'll be the last time you treat men under you with no thought of their safety. Count on it." He held the officer in his burning gaze a moment, then turned and left, slamming the door behind him.

"Well, that was interesting." Mallory shrugged his shoulders to straighten his clothing. "That soldier certainly has a bad attitude."

The only sound in the room was Henderson's pencil scratching.

"How dare he! He thinks he can blame me for what happened?" Mallory reached down and retrieved his cup from the floor, toeing the wet spot with his boot. He moved over to the blackened pot and refilled the cup; glancing at the private who wrote furiously. Henderson put a final dot on the report and straightened a stack of papers. Putting them under his arm, he headed toward the door. "You know, Private," Mallory took a swallow and continued, "I don't remember anything. I didn't know Saunders was sick. No one supplied me with that information. And I certainly don't remember any radio messages about a problem. No. Not a one. It's just his word against mine." He sat down and rapped his pencil on the desk. "That's right. His word against mine."

Henderson stopped. "Wanna bet?" he said without looking back and headed out the door.