My Brother’s Keeper

By Lois Overton aka Foxhole Filly

 

The corporal approached the mud-spattered jeep trailer and broke into the front of the chow line. The soldier who had been pushed back started to grumble, but seeing that it was Spellmeyer, he stifled his protest. Cook’s assistant, Pvt. Charles Malchow, lifted out a large garbage can and placed it a few paces to the left by the jeep, and then he took the lid off the large pot of beef stew that sat in the corner of the trailer, dropping it on the sheet metal floor. He reached into the trailer and began rummaging, noisily tossing aside mess kits, utensils, pans, and other accumulated debris. The knot of men waiting in line grew restless. Spellmeyer raised his spoon and banged loudly on the side of the vehicle. "Hubba hubba, Chuckie. We ain’t got all day. Some of us gotta go do a man’s job, Chuck-ie."

The young private became more and more flustered as laughter broke out, the soldiers in line agitating the situation. Malchow ran a forearm up his sweaty face and over his forehead, leaving his red hair sticking up like wet spikes. He continued his search. "Where is it? What the heck is it?" He muttered.

"Hey, Chuckie," one man called, "It’s chow time. We’re waiting. You gonna serve us or not?"

"Yeah, get that food out here. We’re hungry," another chimed in. "Hey, Spellmeyer, what you gonna do to get this little punk to serve us?"

Finally, Malchow breathed an audible sigh of relief as he located the large metal ladle. He blew off a thin layer of dust and turned to begin serving the hungry soldiers. The corporal leaned over the side panel of the trailer and placed his face directly in front of the private’s. "Move it! Move it! Move it!" the corporal screamed in a voice that would be the envy of a drill sergeant. The boy jumped, his arms swinging wildly. The bowl of the ladle he held clipped the lip of the pot and sailed from his hand, rose in an arc that evaded his futile attempts to retrieve it, and plopped handle-down in the hot stew.

Charles Malchow stared into the pot where the spoon had disappeared. "I dropped it," he said, his voice barely audible. He searched for help among the soldiers standing behind Spellmeyer. "It went in there." He pointed toward the pot and looked around for Cpl. Zwiller, the cook who was in charge of the operation in Ouray where second platoon was bivouacked.

Spellmeyer grabbed the private’s collar and spat out a wad of tobacco that landed in the dirt next to the trailer’s wheel. "Well, what you gonna do about it, dummy?" He shook the private roughly. "I’m hungry, Chuck-ie."

Malchow’s lips quivered. The spoon still lay in the bottom of the pot, and the men clamored for chow. What was he to do? For a moment, he considered sticking his hand down into the stew to retrieve the ladle, but the rising steam convinced him otherwise. Without warning, he grabbed the corporal’s mess kit and rammed it into the pot, shoveling out a serving of stew. Gravy streamed onto the floor of the jeep trailer. Malchow caught a chunk of potato as it started to slide off and dropped it back into the middle. "Here." He held it out to Spellmeyer, smiling at his success.

The corporal looked at the mess kit in disgust. "Hey, Chuckie. You don’t expect me to eat this crap now? How stupid are you?" Spellmeyer slapped the bottom of the mess kit with his hand, knocking it against Malchow, splattering his face with gravy. Chunks of beef and vegetables slid down the boy’s apron. Stunned, he scooped stew from his chest and stood holding it, unsure what to do next.

A second corporal moved up to the vehicle and uncovered a large pan of overly browned biscuits. Spellmeyer gruffly pulled the mess kit from the boy’s hand "Barnhill, this assistant you’ve got is an idiot. You’re a re-tard, Chuckie." He drew back his hand, preparing to dump the food on the confused soldier.

"That’s enough," the voice behind him spat.

A hand grabbed the corporal’s, and the mess kit tumbled to the ground. Balling his hand into a fist, Spellmeyer turned to fight, but stopped when he looked into the angry face of Sgt. Saunders. Saunders shoved the soldier’s hand down, releasing it.

"Hey, Sarge, we was only…."

"I saw exactly what you were doing. Now apologize."

The corporal shot an angry look at the young soldier and then back at the sergeant. You gotta be kidding. Me apologize to the idiot?"

Saunders stepped closer, his body mere inches from the corporal’s. "We fight Krauts, not each other," Sarge spat. "Now apologize!"

Considering his options for a split second, the corporal sneered at the young man. "Sorry. Now gimme some chow."

The sergeant glared. "You’re through. Saddle up. You’re going out with me. We leave in five minutes, so pick up rations. Maybe 24 hours in the field with me will give you time to cool off."

The corporal glared back, knowing that protest was futile. Retrieving his mess kit, he banged it on the edge of the garbage can, sending gravy and bits of vegetables flying, and stomped away, fuming.

The cook’s assistant sank down on the trailer hitch, head hanging on his chest. "I’m sorry, Sarge. I’m so stupid…."

"Don’t worry about it, Malchow," Saunders tried to reassure the young soldier. "He doesn’t really mean anything by it."

"Yes he does. He doesn’t like me because I’m not smart. And when the rest of the company gets here, they’ll all be doing it just like him."

Saunders was about to say something further, but Zwiller moved up and poked his bony fingers into his assistant’s back. "Hey, flea brain…get a move on it. While I feed these here fighting men, I want you to throw out that turkey we have. It’s bad. They sent up a fresh supply, so we’ll use that. Put it in the pot and get it cooking." Malchow shot the cook an angry look. Zwiller tongued a short cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. "If you don’t hurry your butt, we ain’t getting it on the plate by dinner. We got starving men here." The young private slunk away silently. Zwiller wiped his hands on his grimy apron and looked around in the trailer, "Now where the hell did the dummy put that ladle?"

"Hey," Saunders said to the cook. "How ‘bout you ease up on the kid."

"Wha….?" Zwiller sputtered.

"He’s a soldier in the United States Army." The sergeant removed his helmet and wiped his fingertips along the inside band. "Treat him like it." He pushed the helmet back on his head and strode away, leaving the cook standing with his mouth open.

* * * * * *

The five weary soldiers shuffled their way down the road, their boots scraping on the hard-packed dirt. Their shoulders sagged with weariness. Maintaining radio silence, they’d set up an OP in a small stone cottage at the edge of a field heavily pitted with shell holes from an artillery barrage the afternoon before. The long night and most of the day had been spent standing at the windows, watching and waiting…and waiting. Unable to make a fire and heat a cup of coffee, they’d been limited to C-rations and water. All without seeing a single Kraut. That was always good news, but at the same time, the mission had left them bone-weary and bleary-eyed. Saunders windmilled his arms in an attempt to loosen tight muscles.

A young private moved up next to the sergeant. "Man, Sarge, I sure am lookin’ forward to a hot meal."

Someone coughed behind them, and Saunders looked over his shoulder. "You OK Spellmeyer?"

Spellmeyer hacked a moment. "I just swallowed my chew’s all."

"I’m so hungry I could eat a horse," the private continued without noticing.

"Hey, Belcher, how can you even think about food after the smell comin’ out of that field." Billy Nelson joined the conversation, his M-1 resting casually on his shoulder. "There musta been a thousand dead cows on that field."

"If only the wind had been blowing the other way," Finch added. "Wasn’t so bad during the night when it was cool, but when it got hot during the day…I thought I was gonna puke."

"You didn’t look so sick when you were wolfing down potted ham and cheese," Billy suggested.

"Hey. A boy’s gotta eat."

Nelson shifted the radio on his back. "You know…time sure would’ve passed a whole lot faster if Sarge had let us tune in to Armed Forces Radio…something nice…like maybe Glenn Miller or the Andrews Sisters. With a burst of energy, Billy grabbed Belcher’s hand and Lindy Hopped a few steps.

"Save it Nelson," Saunders advised.

The dirt road curved around a tree and opened up into the main street of the village. The sun had passed its zenith and was on the verge of sinking into the tree line to the west. The warm rays reflected fiery red in the windows of what was left of the homes of the French who had fled the onslaught. Reaching the first stone building, Saunders halted his tiny band. Squinting, he scanned the street and slipped the Thompson off his shoulder.

"Something wrong, Sarge?" Belcher inquired.

The sergeant shushed him. There was an eerie quiet about the place. When they had left, Ouray had been noisy with the soldiers of second platoon. Yet now, not a single soldier could be seen, let alone heard. The sergeant motioned with his hand and the squad stopped. Their weapons were at the ready; their bodies tense and prepared to move at the slightest hint of a problem. Ten eyes moved quickly from window to door to window, searching, seeking. With a second signal, the men split in half. Saunders and Finch moved down the right hand side while Nelson, Spellmeyer, and Belcher took the left.

Building by empty building they made their way down the street. Signs of the platoon were everywhere. Bedrolls, mess kits, personal items. But no men, and no weapons. At the corner where the main road crossed a secondary road, creating the only intersection in the village, Saunders drew up beside the haberdashery the lieutenant had made his headquarters.

The door was slightly ajar, and the hinges creaked as a soft breeze caught it. Saunders heard a pained groan inside, followed by coughing. He drew his Thompson up against his chest. In one quick motion, he pushed the door open with the side of his foot, dropped the weapon into firing position, and swung his body around the doorframe into the room.

At first, Saunders couldn’t see anyone. Then a cough drew his attention farther to the back. A lone figure sat slumped against the brick wall. It was Hanley. For a moment, he was so pale and quiet Saunders the man might be dead. The Lieutenant leaned forward and retched violently into a bucket at his side. Saunders held his ground until Hanley was done, then squatted next to him on the floor.

"Lieutenant…what’s going on here?" The sergeant’s voice was soft and concerned. "Where is everybody?"

Unable to support himself, Hanley leaned back against the wall. He licked his lips and swiped his face with his sleeve; then his arm dropped limply onto his thigh. "Sick. Everyone sick."

Saunders looked at him in disbelief. "Everyone’s sick? How, Lieutenant?"

The lieutenant shook his head. "Some kind of food poisoning. Men started dropping like flies this afternoon. Might have been some bad turkey Zwiller says it was supposed to have been thrown out. Somebody messed up. You’re lucky you weren’t here for dinner last night. Doc set up a temporary hospital in the school…then he got sick too. I came down here to call for help. Couldn’t get back." Hanley halted his explanation long enough to use the paint can again. When the heaving was over, Hanley sagged back against the wall.

"C’mon, Lieutenant. Let me get you over to the school with the others."

Hanley pushed his hand away. "I’m staying here near the radio. Look, Saunders…we’re in trouble," he panted. "Headquarters told us to expect an attack sometime tonight or early tomorrow. Says the enemy is testing us all along the line. Looking for a weak spot. Right now…we’re that weak spot. They can just walk right in here. We couldn’t fight if we wanted."

"Does HQ know what is going on here? Are they sending reinforcements?"

"Right now, the left flank is taking a heavy beating. They’ve been pouring everything in there. They can get help to us by morning. We have to hold out on our own till then." Hanley snorted. "Yeah, hold out…with what? How many men you have, Saunders?"

"Five counting me."

"Well, maybe we can get enough men together who can still fire a rifle." The lieutenant tried lifting himself from the ground, but he was overcome once again with nausea. He fell back and pulled the bucket nearer.

"Look, Lieutenant. I’ll take the men I have. We’ll set up a line east of town in the field. It was shelled, and there’s pretty good cover there."

"That’s crazy," Hanley croaked. "You wouldn’t stand a chance. Maybe you should pull back."

"Hey, maybe we get lucky."

Hanley considered the sergeant’s words. "OK. Do what you can."

"You gonna be OK, Lieutenant? Is there anything I can do?"

Hanley shook his head, then pointed toward the desk, "Hand me my carbine. If they break through, at least I can go out fighting…and not with my head in a bucket."

Saunders retrieved the weapon and leaned it against the wall at Hanley’s side. Then he brought the lieutenant as many clips for it as he could find. The officer reached for the weapon, but he was so weak he merely knocked it over, and the carbine clattered to the floor. The sergeant laid the carbine across Hanley’s legs, then moved toward the door.

"Good luck, Saunders."

"You too, Lieutenant." He made a half-hearted wave at the officer. "See you in the morning."

Saunders strode into the waning light of the street, glad to be out of the close quarters of the office that smelled of the sickness. Billy and Spellmeyer joined him.

"Sarge, this place isn’t deserted. All our men are in the school. They’re sick. I mean sick."

"Caje and Kirby?"

"I think Kirby may be the sickest of all of ‘em. Looks like we’re the only ones who ain’t sick," Spellmeyer added.

"Looks it. Nelson, go find Finch and Belcher. And find ‘em fast. We’ve got a big problem."

The private scurried off and within moments, he’d rounded up what was moving of second platoon. Saunders could read the concern in their faces, and what he had to tell them wasn’t going to make them feel any better. After explaining the situation, he waited for the information to sink in. Each of the men realized that their only chance of survival was to get the hell out of there. But that would leave the village unprotected. The men in the platoon were too sick and too weak to withdraw or to fight. Saunders and his men would live, but at what cost?

Belcher, a green recruit, was the first to speak up. "Sarge, we can’t hold off a German attack. We’re only five men. They’ll go through us like a knife through butter, and then they’ll take the village anyway. We’d be sacrificing ourselves for nothing. Nothing." His lips trembled. He’d been prepared to fight, but now, faced with the prospect of sacrificing his life for a cause he knew he couldn’t win was just too much. He turned to Saunders. "It just don’t seem right that you order us to throw our lives away."

"Admit it. Yer yella," Spellmeyer growled, taking a bite from a plug of tobacco and shoving the rest back into his pocket

Belcher whirled toward Spellmeyer, hands balled into fists. "I ain’t yella. I just don’t think it’s right to be ordered to commit suicide."

"Like I said," the corporal grunted, "yella. As yella as the rest of us right now."

"Shut up, Spellmeyer." Saunders considered Belchers words, then turned to the private. "You’re right, Belcher. The decision has to be made by each man. I can’t make it for you. I’m staying…even if I stay alone. Any man that wants to leave…I’ll understand."

"Admit it, Saunders." Spellmeyer growled. "You’re the only one here who wants to stay and die. None of us is gonna stay with you."

Nelson shook his head. "We don’t walk out on buddies. We’re all they’ve got. I’m staying."

Finch raised his hand.

Belcher rubbed his smooth chin that had barely begun to sprout whiskers. His breathing was heavy as he struggled with himself. Finally, he exhaled loudly. "You know, Sarge…maybe you’d understand… but…" he hesitated as if to convince himself that the words he was saying were true, "I know that eventually, I couldn’t understand. I’m staying."

"Oh, shit!" Spellmeyer rumbled.

"OK." Saunders gave them a tense grin. "We stay."

"Saunders, do you even got any notion of a plan?" the corporal asked resignedly.

"The way I figure it, the Germans are going to assume that we are full strength here. They have no way of knowing how much trouble we’re in. What we have to do is convince them that there’s a whole lot of us. Find as many different weapons as you can. If the Krauts hear a lot of ordnance, they just might buy it…might hesitate long enough for reinforcements to get here."

"That’s your plan?"

"Spellmeyer, do you ever give up?" Nelson rolled his eyes.

The sergeant continued without so much as a glance toward Spellmeyer. "So scrounge around. Bring what you can. And load up on ammo. All you can carry."

The men separated and began gathering up anything that might be useful. Saunders slung two carbines over one shoulder and a pair of Garands over the other, and he stuffed his jacket with clips for the rifles and magazines for the Thompson. He filled his pack full of grenades, and then he headed back to the hotel to meet up with the others.

"Sure glad I don’t have to carry this too far," Billy wheezed from the exertion of lugging a machine gun. He staggered up to the sergeant and dropped it in the street, several belts of ammo sliding off his neck. "I gotta go get the tripod. Back in a minute." Spellmeyer joined them with a pair of M-1’s and Kirby’s BAR and ammo.

Billy looked over the weapon. That’s Kirby’s BAR! He let you have it?"

Spellmeyer spat in the dirt. "He wasn’t exactly in any condition to argue."

"Man, he must be sick. He never lets anybody use his BAR."

The corporal looked over the machine gun and belts. "Nelson, what you doin’ with that? You think you can operate it by yourself? That things gonna be jammed up all the time."

"Hey, maybe seeing it’ll scare the Krauts into going back to Berlin." Billy turned on his heels and disappeared around the corner.

Finch came down the street dragging a bazooka and a bag full of ammunition for it.

"Sorry, Finch. We can’t use it. There’s no way we can spare anyone to be your loader. Here." He took one of the rifles from Spellmeyer and handed it to the private.

"Sarge!" Belcher called, "Can we use this?" He held up a grenade launcher. He shrugged off his backpack and laid it on the ground. "Grenades," he said proudly. "It’s full."

Spellmeyer’s forehead wrinkled. "Where the hell did you find that?"

"It was lying around. You just had to know where to look." His mouth stretched into a wide smile.

Billy returned moments later with the rest of the machine gun. Finch and Billy loaded up the machine gun, belts, and tripod, and the band of five headed silently down the street.

As they passed a small alcove where the walls of two buildings met, Saunders heard a scraping noise. Swinging his Thompson from his shoulder, he moved stealthily around the corner. Huddled between the two buildings, he found a soldier, tears coursing down his cheeks. The sergeant knelt beside him. Taking hold of the private’s arm, he tried to get him to his feet. "Come on, Malchow."

The boy drew his legs up to his chest and pounded his thigh with his fist. He looked up at Saunders, but quickly averted his eyes.

"Come on. Pull yourself together."

"I did it, Sarge," the private whimpered.

Saunders maintained a steady gaze and nodded.

"No, I mean that I did it. I made them sick. I got mad because they were mean…and Sgt. Zwiller told me to dump a load of bad turkey…I just got mad...I…I didn’t think." He gasped for breath as the words came pouring out. He dropped his head into his hands and sobbed.

"I figured as much." He put a hand on the private’s shoulder and squatted in front of him. "Look, Malchow, the Krauts are counter attacking all along the line. If they make a push through here, we got no one to fight with. Hanley and the rest of the platoon are too sick to fight. And reinforcements can’t get here till morning. Right now, Nelson, Finch, Spellmeyer, Belcher, me, and you are all that I have. Just the six of us. We need your help. This is your chance to make things right again."

Malchow wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Sarge, I can’t help. I serve chow. I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout being a soldier."

Saunders picked up the M-1 that lay at the boy’s side and shoved it at him. "Well, you took training the same as everybody else. You better know something about being a soldier. Now pick it up and follow me. A lot of good men are gonna die, and you’re not going to sit here and let it happen." Saunders voice was no longer gentle and comforting. The boy looked at him and started to make further excuses. "I said pick it up," the sergeant spat, "or I’ll shoot you myself."

The private stared at the angry sergeant. He snuffled again, then wrapped his fingers around the barrel of the weapon and rose shakily. "I’ll try."

"Not try, Malchow. Do." Saunders reached out and placed a hand on the private’s shoulder, directing him out onto the street where the rest of the small band waited nervously. The sergeant was suddenly tired. Exhausted after the 24-hour stint, he faced the long night without benefit of sleep. He rubbed his burning eyes and considered what he could say to these men that would make them feel any more hopeful about what awaited them. What could he say to himself? It was a suicide mission at best, and every instinct in him said that he should beat it out of there. But how could he desert the helpless men left in the town? What chance did they have?

* * * * * *

The soldiers came out of the woods and stood at the edge of the field for the second time that day. In the waning light of dusk, they could barely make out the outline of the cottage to the southeast. It would provide good cover, but Saunders didn’t want to get trapped in there. The building was bounded on two sides by a stone wall that had fallen into disrepair. Not much cover for Krauts. Just in front of them, at the near edge of the field, a dried creek bed cut through, running north and south. It would be easy for one of his men to move up and down in the ditch firing from a lot of different positions. In the chaos of battle, it just might look like a line of soldiers was dug in there. Saunders signaled Nelson to the large shell hole about 20 yards from the wall and just beyond a large pile of fallen trees and stumps. Nelson wrinkled his nose when he spotted the pair of cow carcasses that lay, one on top of the other, a few yards in front of the location the sergeant had selected for him, but he took off for it without comment. Then Saunders sent Belcher to a position a few yards in front of the streambed and Spellmeyer well beyond them on the left flank.

"Wait a minute, Saunders. How come you put me way out front and the runt way back here?"

"Because Belcher has the grenade launcher. Here’s the best spot for the grenade launcher…if we want it to be effective. Is that all right with you?"

"Hey, you don’t have to get huffy. I was just asking," Spellmeyer snorted as he moved off.

"Where do you want me, Sarge?" Malchow asked nervously.

Saunders pointed to the dried streambed in front of them. "I want you right there. Malchow, if we get in a fight, I want you to move up and down the ditch. You’re gonna look like a platoon all by yourself. Here." He handed the private a carbine and a second M-1; then he reached into the front of his jacket and pulled out a handful of clips. "Put one of your rifles and some clips down there about 5 yards. And put the other rifle and clips 5 yards up the other direction. Keep the carbine with you and stow that ammo in your pocket. That way as you move around back here you always know where the ammo for each weapon is. You got that?"

"I think so" Malchow stepped down into the dry bed and looked up at Saunders nervously. Then he moved to his right and placed a rifle with a pile of clips.

Saunders moved around to each of the men, checking that they were settled in, and he stopped at several smaller holes gouged out of the earth, depositing a weapon and ammo at each. Finally, he slipped in next to Billy. The shadows deepened and blackness settled in with the night sounds.

Billy sat behind the machine gun, hands resting on the barrel and glanced over at Saunders. "You know, Sarge, we’ve been together since D-Day, and you’d think that would entitle me to a certain measure of privilege."

"What’s your point, Billy?"

"Well, how come I get the spot next to the dead animals?"

Saunders smiled. "I’ll remember that next time."

"Good. I’ll hold you to that."

"Sarge, what’ll they do to Chuckie…er…Malchow?"

"Don’t know; it’s not up to me."

"Do you think helpin’ out here like he is will make a difference?"

"Anything’s possible. Now quiet down and keep your eyes open."

The moon crested the trees, and the soldiers gradually began to recognize shapes…trees, the farmhouse, the wall. Saunders held his watch close to his eyes and squinted to see the time. Almost 0300. Maybe the Germans had attacked somewhere else. Maybe they weren’t coming at all.

Saunders looked over to Belcher’s hole. He could barely make out the curved form of the soldier’s helmet. He’d only been with the squad for two days. "Some welcome," the sergeant thought. He turned to Billy. "Keep your eyes peeled. I’m gonna check on Belcher and Malchow."

"OK, Sarge," Billy whispered. "Don’t forget to come back."

Saunders tapped Nelson’s helmet; then he bellied out of the hole and worked his way to his left, where he checked Finch. The soldier was scared, but holding his own. The sergeant moved north and slid into the ditch beside Malchow. The private swung around his M-1, coming close to knocking the sergeant’s head off. "Easy." Saunders reassured as he moved the tip of the young man’s weapon to the side. "You OK?"

Malchow buried his head in his arm. "Sarge…I can’t do this. I can’t." He hugged his rifle to his body. "Can’t we just surrender? I don’t want to die!"

Saunders grabbed the boy’s shoulders and shook him hard. "Look, Malchow, you have to get control of yourself. The only chance you’ve got is to fight. You fight or you die. Do you hear me?"

"Sarge…I…" he pleaded.

"Fight or die!" Saunders spat.

"Fight or die." The boy nodded. Swallowing hard and gulping for air, he reached down and picked up his weapon. "Fight or die," he repeated, trying to reassure himself.

The private nodded, but the sweat streaming from his face and the wild look in his eyes told a different story. He appeared close to passing out. Saunders checked the kid’s web belt. "Where’s your canteen, Malchow?"

"I don’t know I lost it."

Saunders pulled out his own canteen and offered it to the kid. "Here. Take this."

"Thanks, Sarge." Malchow swallowed hard, nearly draining the canteen. His hand shook so violently that try as he might, the cap wouldn’t go back on. "Hey, Sarge, maybe they won’t come. D’ya think so? Maybe the information we got was wrong."

"Maybe. But stay alert." The sergeant watched the twitchy kid a moment. He took the canteen and screwed the cap on, placing it by Malchow’s side.

"Sorry, Sergeant. You know, Bob wouldn’t be like this."

Saunders looked at him in confusion. "Bob?"

"My older brother. He’s a lieutenant. We call him Sir Bob. You know…like in knights…cause he’s an officer. Sir Bob."

Saunders nodded and smiled.

"Sir Bob wouldn’t be afraid. He’s not like me. I mean he’s smart. I’m not very smart. That’s why I’m a cook’s assistant, and he’s an officer. He went to college. And I guess I’m not very brave either."

The sergeant reached out and touched the private’s shoulder reassuringly. "You’re doing fine, Malchow. Just take a deep breath when you start feeling scared and try to remember that a lot of men are counting on us. By morning, help will be here. We just need to make it through the night."

Malchow nodded jerkily. "If I was mad I could fight good. My mom always said that people with red hair have tempers. I don’t have a temper. Will I get a medal, Sarge? I’d like a medal."

"Sure. We’ll see you get a medal."

"Sir Bob’ll be proud of me, won’t he?"

"You bet." Saunders looked to his left at the rounded top of a helmet just in front of them. "Look, I gotta go check up on Belcher. You gonna be OK?"

Malchow nodded again and wiped his lips.

Saunders squeezed the kid’s shoulder and moved out of the ditch, scooting into Belcher’s hole. The private huddled against the forward wall, hugging his rifle. He looked up at the sergeant, thankful for the company.

"You OK?"

"My mouth is so dry, I couldn’t even spit if I wanted to. Sarge, do you ever get scared?"

"Sure. All the time."

Belcher laughed quietly. "Well, you never look like it."

"It’s easier if you have someone other than just yourself to worry about. You forget about being scared. Right now, you have a whole platoon depending on you. Just keep that in mind." Saunders placed his hand on the grenade launcher. "You know how to use this?"

"We’ll find out."

"Good enough." The sergeant patted Belcher’s back and hauled himself out of the crater. He moved over to the spot where Spellmeyer watched the woods 10 yards in front of him.

"Anything?" Saunders asked quietly, lying flattened on the ground beside the small shell hole.

"Not yet, Sarge. Maybe headquarters was wrong and they aren’t headed this way." Spellmeyer spat a stream of tobacco juice into the darkness.

"Maybe."

Holding his M-1, Spellmeyer pulled the BAR closer to him and began pulling grenades from the front of his jacket, piling them up nearby. "Sarge, you ever get a bad feeling ‘bout something? Like you ain’t gonna make it?"

"Just take it easy. If we keep our heads, we’ve got a chance. Remember, alternate weapons. We have to make the Krauts think there’s more than just six of us. If you need to move back, head for the stream bed and spread out."

"With the id…with Malchow?"

Saunders slapped Spellmeyer on the back. "You’re learning."

Keeping low, the sergeant turned and headed back to Nelson’s position. After checking in, he slithered to the farthest shell hole and quietly dropped in. He swung the Thompson off his back, slapped the magazine to seat it, and settled against the rough dirt wall.

The silence was as comforting as the dark was foreboding. When the moon passed from behind a cloud, he checked his watch again. 0330. In another couple of hours it would be getting light and maybe help would be coming. He was beginning to think that they just might have dodged the bullet.

"Sarge," A voice to his right hissed.

"What we got, Billy?" Saunders whispered.

"Company, I think. Coming around the farmhouse."

Saunders peered into the darkness to his right. He caught a quick flash, like maybe the reflection of the moon on a helmet. Swinging his head around, he squinted at the area of the woods in front of him. When a twig snapped, he cocked his head and tried to determine the exact direction it came from. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a flare and shot it off above the woods, illuminating the landscape. Seven or eight figures were moving through the underbrush. Before they could dive for cover, Saunders raised his Thompson and raked the area. A Kraut grabbed his stomach and pitched forward and a second fell backward. At the same time, Belcher opened up with his M-1, and Billy opened up with the machine gun, spraying the area on the right flank. The deep voice of the BAR joined in, and Saunders thought he heard a carbine firing off rounds at a steady pace.

In the dying moments of the flare, Finch spotted a pair of soldiers moving around the debris pile. He pulled the pin on a grenade and sent it arcing toward the fallen timber. Screams rent the air. Saunders fired off another burst and the light died. With the Thompson clutched to his chest, he bounded from the crater and ran hunched over to another depression and rolled into it. In one motion, he scooped up the carbine he had left there earlier, and he fired off a clip, followed by another flare. At least a squad of Germans was making its way between the house and the rocks that had been the wall. Billy tossed up a grenade, but it landed short, so he followed it with another that was more successful, and the majority of the enemy soldiers retreated back to the house.

Spellmeyer switched from the BAR to the M-1 until he saw the enemy swarming out of the woods. He put the rifle aside and opened up with the Browning. Belcher fired off the grenade launcher. The first shot exploded short of the woods, but the next one took out two advancing Germans. Having found the range, Belcher continued to fire again and again. Billy concentrated on the area to the right, laying down grazing fire. The sound of a Schmeisser to the left drew his attention, and he swung the machine gun in that direction, and the Schmeisser went silent. Finch was shooting and loading fresh clips as fast as he could. One German fell and then another. Suddenly, Finch grabbed his head and fell backward as a group of enemy soldiers charged. Billy hefted the machine gun and dropped it onto the rear edge of the hole, and he immediately opened fire, cutting down the intruders. Belcher fired the grenade launcher again, and the corner of the house erupted in fire. Saunders shot off another flare.

Malchow fired a shot or two from the carbine and headed toward the M-1 that was leaning against the wall of the ditch. He had just reached it when Finch screamed and fell. As the light of the flare dimmed, Malchow watched wide-eyed as Finch collapsed. He cried for Saunders, but his voice was lost in the noise. Dropping to his knees, he covered his ears and screamed again.

Saunders placed the carbine against the side of the crater and returned to his Thompson. In the midst of the din, he heard a voice. "Sarge! Sarge, help me! Sergeant Saunders!" The sergeant knew immediately that it was Malchow. He looked in the private’s direction. Charles Malchow bolted from the streambed, dropping his rifle as he ran. His arms and legs churned as he streaked toward the safety of the trees and disappeared. Hearing Malchow’s yelling, Belcher rose a bit, and a Schmeisser on the left flank cut him down. Spellmeyer spotted the Schmeisser behind a tree and opened fire with the BAR. The withering fire fairly cut the tree in half, and the German fell.

As the flare sputtered to the ground, Saunders emptied another clip from the carbine, tossed it aside, and crawled out of the hole. A line of fire missed him by inches. He fell onto the ground and rolled over and over, his helmet left behind somewhere in the dark. Saunders wasn’t about to go back and look for it. He dropped into a shell hole just as a grenade exploded. Pulling his legs up tight to his body, he hugged the wall, bracing himself against the impact.

Again, a flare lit the sky. Germans were moving forward from the woods as well as the house again. Billy opened up on the right flank, and Saunders pelted the soldiers moving out of the woods with a succession of grenades that fell one after the other. Then he turned the Thompson on the Krauts. He pulled out the spent magazine, tossing it aside and whipped a full one from his jacket. In moments, the weapon was spraying the woods again.

Saunders tossed a grenade and followed it with another burst from the Thompson. On his right, he heard Billy shouting something. He swiveled his head to see Nelson desperately pounding on the machine gun. A Kraut worked his way over from the area at the point where the wall turned south, Charging in before Billy could get his rifle up to defend himself. Saunders dropped the man and watched him tumbled into the shell hole at Billy’s feet. Billy shot a glance at the sergeant, then heaved the jammed machine gun out of the way and grabbed up his M-1. He took aim at a German and nailed him with a well-aimed shot. Another pair of Krauts passed the place where Finch had been. One of them tossed in a grenade to make sure the American was out of the way, and then they continued on toward Billy’s position. A couple bursts from Saunders’s weapon and they fell. Billy was exchanging fire with a German hunkered down in the woodpile. Rising to fire, Billy picked him off. The BAR barked on the left flank again and again. Saunders sent up another flare and immediately began to fire on targets. A moment of silence from Spellmeyer as he reloaded, and the BAR was back in the action.

The fusillade continued. The Americans seemed to be holding their own. Just as another flare lit the sky, a grenade burst in Spellmeyer’s shell hole, followed by a massive fireball as the corporal’s supply of grenades exploded.

Saunders heard a cry and turned in time to see Billy crumple nearby. The sergeant swung around his Thompson and took out the two soldiers who were moving in on them.

"Sarge… Sarge," Billy cried.

Without answering, Saunders hitched his Thompson over his arm and clambered out of the shell hole, bolting toward Billy’s position. With Schmeisser fire at his heels, he flung himself headlong into the shell hole beside Nelson. Billy held his side and groaned. Blood stained his field jacket and seeped between his fingers. Saunders ripped out one of his own bandages and hastily stuffed it under the soldier’s jacket. "It’s just the two of us now, Billy. I gotta get you out of here."

As the light died, Saunders threw Billy’s rifle and his own Thompson out of the hole and climbed out. Lying at the edge, he grabbed Billy under the arms and dragged him out. Hooking the straps of the weapons over his neck, the sergeant latched onto Nelson’s jacket and began to drag him across the furrowed dirt and stubble of the field. A grenade hit the ground nearby, and Saunders threw himself on top of Billy, protecting him from the dirt and stones and bits of metal rained down. The sergeant was panting with the strain of hauling the private, but he kept moving, the whole time shushing Billy not to give away their location. At that moment, the darkness was all that protected them. He looked toward the pile of logs that he knew to be at the edge of the field and made up his mind instantaneously. He needed to find someplace safe for Billy…and the debris would be the best cover for him. That made it the first place the Germans would look. Instead, he veered off to his left and pulled Billy to the pair of dead cows that had so bothered Nelson. One of the rotting carcasses lay atop the other, leaving a small space underneath. He pulled Billy close, then used his shoulder under the stiff legs to raise the animal’s hindquarters, working the private underneath, with Billy’s body nested in against the lower animal’s gutted abdomen. The smell gagged Saunders, and he fought not to give into his lurching stomach.

Billy groaned quietly. Saunders put a dirt-caked hand over the boy’s mouth. "Shhh. Billy, you gotta be quiet."

"Sarge?"

"I’m here, Billy," he whispered. "You’re gonna be all right. Look, I can’t move you any farther. And there’s Germans all around. You can’t make any noise. I’m gonna hide you here and try to lead them away. If we’re lucky, they won’t find you." Saunders removed several of Billy’s ammo clips and stuffed them into his own pocket.

"No, Sarge…leave me. Just get out of here. Save yourself."

"I’m not goin’ anywhere, Billy. I’ll be nearby. Now you gotta be quiet. Do you hear?"

Billy reached up and grabbed the sergeant’s sleeve, holding it firmly. "Sarge…."

Saunders peeled the fingers from his jacket and pulled the weapons from around his neck. He pushed his arm through the strap of the Garand and seated the magazine in the Thompson. "See you back in Ouray," he whispered and scooted off into the dark.

To the right, Saunders heard German voices in the woods. It didn’t sound as if they were on the move at the moment, and he considered that might be just the break he needed. He worked his way over to Spellmeyer’s position and quietly slipped into the hole. There wasn’t much left of the acid-tongued corporal.

Saunders caught a sound to the right, and he whirled and fired. He heard a groan followed by a soft thud. There were other noises around him, but instead of shooting off a flare, he fired blindly in the direction he thought the sounds came from. His efforts were met with a scream. He fired several more short bursts and heaved up a pair of grenades, then rolled out of the shell hole. He crawled toward the crater where he had left the other M-1. Halfway to safety, the sergeant caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. He rolled onto his back and fired as an enemy soldier rushed at him. The soldier fell forward and tumbled into the hole ahead of the sergeant. Saunders dropped in beside the Kraut and delivered a hard blow to the soldier’s head with the butt of his Thompson. Pushing the body out of the way, the sergeant opened fire on a group of shadows that could be seen in the first lighting of the morning sky. In the east, a narrow band of light blue was beginning to form. He fired again and again. Then he stopped and replaced the magazine.

A grenade thumped into the crater at the sergeant’s feet. His body instantly tensed, and he sprang from the hole. The grenade exploded and the sergeant winced as he felt the hot sting of shrapnel piercing his buttocks and thighs. He tumbled forward and rolled out of the way as a line of Schmeisser fire raked the ground beside him. Scrabbling on his hands and knees, he made his way toward the streambed, barely keeping ahead of the Germans that were already swarming over the area he had just defended. He continued firing short bursts, and another German fell.

Pain throbbed in his hips and legs, but the Sergeant crawled on, leading the Germans farther away from the spot where he had left Billy. All he could do was hope that the private would remain quiet, and that the Germans would be more interested in a moving target than they would a nauseating pile of decaying flesh. He pulled himself along on his belly until he came to a pair of low rocks. Rolling in behind them, he hitched his knees up and felt the back of his thighs. His fingers came away sticky and wet. Still, he counted himself lucky that he was able to emerge from the encounter with so little damage. A bullet ricocheted off the rock, and he drew himself up and fired in time to bring down one Kraut, and then another. Rising again, he spotted a group of four or five Germans moving in. He opened up and emptied the magazine into them. Then he ducked back down and pulled back farther, tumbling into the shell hole closest to the streambed. If he made the streambed, he might be able to slip into the woods.

The sergeant unsnapped his holster and pulled out his pistol and checked it. Then he laid Billy’s M-1 beside himself and swung the Thompson off his shoulder, put in a fresh magazine, and brought the weapon up into firing position. He lifted his head above the rocks just enough to see the field beyond. The lightening sky of morning left the landscape hidden in murky shadows. It was hard to make out anything. Everything seemed to blend into one smeary mass.

Saunders heard a noise behind him and whirled to fire. He grabbed his left arm as a bullet pierced him high on the shoulder. Grimacing with pain, he raised the M-1 and forced his hand to support it as he sighted down the barrel at the shadow that was moving in on him. Blinking back the sweat that stung his eyes, he drew a bead on the form and pulled the trigger with a deliberation that he wouldn’t have thought possible under the circumstances. In the darkness, he heard a loud "Oompf," followed by the sound of a body collapsing to the ground. The rifle recoiled into his good shoulder, sending a wave of pain through the injured one. Before he had time to bemoan his injury, he heard footsteps pounding the earth to the right of his position, and he swung the rifle around to fire again. A guttural scream pierced the dark. The clip ejected noisily, and Saunders reached into the front of his jacket pocket for another one, but all of the clips were gone. In his peripheral vision, he saw a flash of movement as a figure bolted out of the shadows and crashed over the top of the shell hole. Saunders grabbed the hot barrel of the rifle and swung it behind his head. He brought it around where it landed with a sickening thud on the skull of a German soldier that collapsed on top of him. Two bullets bit the dirt beside the sergeant. Throwing away the empty Garand, he grabbed the strap of the Thompson and catapulted himself out of the hole. Rolling across the ground to the right this time, he stopped his movement and pulled out the 45. Firing off three rounds, he crawled toward a log that lay ahead of him, dragging the Thompson in his injured arm. If he could get the log between him and the Germans, then past a large shell hole to the streambed...there was still a ray of hope.

Saunders crouched behind the log and took a moment to collect his wits. He grasped his limp arm and pulled it toward him, removing the strap of the weapon from his locked fingers. Pain was surging through his shoulder and down his arm. He knew that he needed to put a dressing on the wound, but there was no time. The Germans were moving in. They were following him cautiously. His zigzag pattern and variations of weapons must have convinced the enemy that it was up against more than a single man. But if the ruse was to continue, he had to keep on the move, pulling the enemy father and farther away from the spot where Nelson lay.

A faint noise brought him back to action. He propped the Thompson against the log and fired a short burst. He could see the return fire of the Germans. They were all over the hole where he had practically decapitated the soldier. Firing a burst, he heard several screams. In the growing morning light, he could see Germans were moving in on all sides. He raked a small group of three or four Krauts and watched them fall. Then he switched weapons and fired two more rounds from the forty-five. Before the Germans could return fire, he was up and moving again. With the enemy breathing down his neck, he clutched his bad arm and bolted unsteadily toward the ditch, struggling to breathe as exhaustion set in. He could see the shell hole in front of him, and beyond that the streambed, and beyond that the woods.

Suddenly, pain stung his thigh just above the knee, knocking his feet out from under him. The pistol flew out of his grasp and disappeared into a fringe of long grass. He groaned loudly as he landed heavily on his shoulder. Dragging his leg behind him, he crawled the rest of the way and dropped into the shell crater in front of the dry bed. Waves of dizziness and nausea threatened to overtake him. He struggled to maintain consciousness as the sounds of Krauts grew nearer. Summoning the last of his strength, he swiped his eyes with the front of his sleeve and brought up the Thompson, strafing the area around him. Shooting off another burst, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the last magazine. Jamming it into the weapon, he quickly returned fire. There was nowhere to go now. He could hardly make his way out of the hole let alone move to a new spot. It would have to be here that he made his stand. "Custer’s Last Stand," he thought wryly. The small bit of France that he now occupied was alive with the sounds of Germans. He listened with resignation. Then summoning himself out of his trance, he opened up on the approaching Krauts. He fired repeatedly on both sides and down the middle. Then the Thompson went silent.

Though he knew that his pockets were empty, Saunders made the futile effort of patting them down. It occurred to him that he could surrender, finish out the war in a POW camp. But before he could make up his mind, he saw the bright burst of light from a Kraut rifle being fired on the left. The impact of the bullet slammed him against the rear wall of the hole, and his body sank limply into the bottom of the depression. Putting a hand to his chest, he felt the torn cloth and sticky liquid that told him the only thing he needed to know.

It was quiet. What had Saunders expected? The only sound was his own ragged breathing. Overhead, the last few remaining stars disappeared into the pink-streaked sky. A few stray shafts of light were beginning to make their appearance. Morning. He’d told the men they had to hold out till morning. He shut his eyes, trying to blot out the pain that gripped his body. He heard hurried footsteps approaching, and when he looked up, a German was hovering on the edge of the depression. The German raised a Mauser and looked down at the sergeant through the notches of the sight. The soldier intended to end it. There was nothing Saunders could do to defend himself. A shot rang out and the German pitched backwards, disappearing from sight. Saunders heard Schmeisser fire and the sound of an M-1.

"Sarge!" the familiar voice cried. Saunders looked up into Malchow’s grinning face. He was on his hands and knees at the edge of the depression. "Sarge, I’m gonna help you. Give me your hand." The private shoved a hand down toward the sergeant. More firing and the private collapsed at the edge. "Sarge…" he gurgled, a red bubble forming at the corner of his mouth, "give me your hand…give me…." A single shot rang and Malchow’s body convulsed and then was still. Saunders wanted to help the boy, but he wasn’t even sure he could help himself. He stretched out his legs and tried to push his body up. Pain gripped him, and his head began to spiral. Like a freight train, the darkness rushed at him as he collapsed lifelessly into the bottom of the hole, the empty Thompson still in his hand.

* * * * *

The corporal stood at the edge of the clearing and surveyed the carnage. "Man. What the hell went on here?" The field was awash in bodies and fly-covered animal carcasses. Smoke curled lazily from the scorched earth. First platoon spread out and made their way onto the field. At the dry bed, they found a carbine leaning against the side wall and 20 feet farther down, an M-1 also leaning into the dirt, clips stacked neatly at its side. Checking a shell hole further on, they found the body of a soldier with a grenade launcher. The corporal lowered himself down in and checked for life. Shaking his head, he stepped back up and continued.

On the far right, lying in a depression near a mass of fallen trees, a private called out that he had located a body, and he removed the tags. The corporal and another soldier moved over to a large shell hole on the left flank. Around it, the bodies in German uniforms lay as if arranged around the hole like rays of the sun. As they drew closer, they discovered a body dressed in olive drab uniform lying on the edge. They rolled it over. The pale young man with bright red hair appeared to be sleeping serenely. But a line of bullet holes across his back and a pool of blood under his head told them otherwise. The corporal knelt, pulled off a dog tag, and stuck it in his pocket with the other.

Below them, another dead GI. The corporal slid into the crater and squatted beside the still soldier. From the waist down, the body was covered with blood, and a large exit wound bloodied the shoulder. He turned the soldier over gently. The man’s fingers were locked on a Thompson that had been jammed under him when he fell on it. The corporal loosened his grip and threw the weapon aside, folding the hand back over the sergeant’s bloodied chest. Then he pulled off one of the tags and dropped it into his pocket. Finally, he placed his hand over the sergeant’s eyes, closing them. He closed his own eyes and offered up a brief, silent prayer. As he started to rise, the dead man groaned. The corporal fell back against the far wall with a surprised cry. Again, the dead man groaned, and the corporal scrambled back to the soldier.

"Wentz! What’s going on?" the corporal’s buddy called, looking down at him. The corporal was bent over the dead GI with his face near the man’s mouth. "What the hell are you doin’ Wentz? Is there something you wanna tell me?"

The corporal looked up. "Quick! Get a corpsman. This one’s still alive!"

The private stood up and yelled for a medic. At the same time, a soldier across the field near a stack of what appeared to be dead cattle cried, "Medic! Medic! You ain’t never gonna believe this one!"

* * * * *

"Sergeant…Sergeant Saunders?"

The soldier’s eyes fluttered open. For a moment, his vision was blurred, but gradually it came into focus. He rolled his head on the pillow and looked at the young officer standing at his bedside. He blinked and cleared his throat. "I’m Saunders." He wiped the sleep from his eyes with his fingertips.

The lieutenant pulled off his helmet and ran his hand through a shock of wild strawberry hair. Although Saunders had never seen the man before, there was something familiar about him.

"I’m sorry to bother you, Sergeant, but I’ve been trying to track you down for weeks now. I started to go see you once, but when I got there, they told me you’d been sent to the rear. It’s taken me all this time to get away. I’m Robert Malchow. Chuck’s brother." He shifted from one leg to the other as he stuck the helmet under his arm.

Saunders nodded. "Sir Bob."

The lieutenant smiled, and his discomfort seemed to fade. "He told you that, huh? Chuck started calling me that when I was first commissioned."

"I didn’t know your brother very long, but I know how proud he was, sir."

Lt. Malchow looked at his feet and fought to maintain his composure. "How are you, Sergeant?"

The sergeant shifted in his bed and settled his body back more comfortably into the mattress. "I’m OK. Doctor says I’ll live. I guess I wasn’t all that sure a couple weeks ago. I want you to know how sorry I am about your brother. It was a bad situation we were in."

The lieutenant inhaled deeply. "I hesitated to come here. I’ve been putting it off. I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about seeing me." He cleared his throat and seemed to be considering something for a moment, but then he made up his mind. "Chuck was the one that made all those men sick, wasn’t he? They never said so, but it’s what I figure." Saunders closed his eyes and nodded.

"I talked to the other man who survived."

"Billy Nelson."

"Yes." Lieutenant Malchow spoke slowly. "He said he’ll be returning to his squad soon. That’s good news. Anyway, I spoke with him. He told me how you saved his life and tried to save the others. I can’t imagine how terrible it was for you all. Is it true that they found Nelson in a cow? Whatever led you to think of it? "

"Well, it just seemed like a good idea at the time."

"I understand that he had a ringside seat to watch everything that happened… how Chuck died. I thought maybe you might be able to add something...anything to what Nelson told me. I mean, he was some distance away. You were the last one to really see him, maybe talk to him. Can you tell me anything about it, Sergeant?"

Saunders thought a moment. "Well, sir, I can tell you that the last thing he was thinking about was helping me. He wasn’t thinking about himself. And he didn’t look scared. I don’t think he knew what hit him."

Lt. Malchow nodded. "I’m glad of that. I couldn’t stand the thought of him suffering. In spite of what he did to those men…making them sick…he was a decent kid. He never wanted to hurt anyone. Chuck got scared and ran. I don’t begrudge him that. Any child would be afraid…and that’s what Chuck was…a child. But he came back. Why?"

"I guess he didn’t want to be afraid any more. You know, the other four were decorated for what they did that night. I hope you understand why I couldn’t recommend your brother for a medal even if I’d wanted to?"

Robert Malchow nodded.

Grimacing with the stretching motion, Saunders reached over to the chipped porcelain table beside the bed. He picked up a small, narrow box and handed it to the Lieutenant. "I want your brother to have this."

Laying his helmet on the blankets at the sergeant’s feet, the lieutenant lifted the lid, revealing the red, white and blue striped ribbon with the bronze cross attached. "Sergeant, I can’t take this. My brother wasn’t a hero. This is yours. I heard what you did. You’re the one who deserves it." He held the box toward Saunders.

"Your brother saved my life. Sure, he was scared and ran, but he came back. So, what’s a hero? The man who never makes a mistake, or the one who makes a mistake then does something about making it right. Somewhere along the line, he made a decision to stand up and not be afraid. In the end, he faced down his enemy. That’s what bravery’s all about in my book, sir."

"Thank you for that." Closing the medal box and wedging it under his arm, Lt. Malchow reached into his jacket and removed a rumpled piece of folded paper, opening it and smoothing it with his fingertips. "I have something I want to share with you, Sergeant. Chuck wrote me. They found it in his pocket. I don’t know exactly what happened that made him want to hurt all those men, but he made one thing abundantly clear in his letter." The lieutenant put on his eyeglasses and began to read aloud.

"Dear Sir Bob,

Things are going really good here. All of the guys are really nice." The lieutenant stopped reading and crumpled the letter in his fist as he wiped moisture from his eyes with the back of his hand. "This is a bunch of crap, isn’t it, Sergeant? Really going good. All the guys are nice? I know better than that." Saunders said nothing. "I know Chuck was having a hard time. People giving him trouble… that’s nothing new. But there’s something I want you to hear. Something he wrote. The part that I think is the truth." He swallowed and took a deep breath. Opening the letter again, he continued to read. "I wish you could meet Sgt. Saunders. He reminds me of you. Only shorter. And his hair is not red. I think you’d like him. He is a really great guy. But tough. I think he is the toughest guy I know…except for you, of course." The lieutenant glanced down at Saunders and grinned. Then he read on. "He is always nice to me. He calls me Malchow, not Chuckie. I like the way he calls me by my last name just like he calls the others by their last names. I wish I could go out and fight with him and his squad. Maybe I could be a hero like the Sarge is. I bet he’s got a lot of medals. I wish I had a medal so you’d," his eyes misted over, and he drew a deep breath, "be proud of me. I’d like that."

The officer folded up the letter and handed it to Saunders. "I think my brother would like you to have this. There is no doubt in my mind why Chuck went back. It’s been an honor to meet you." The lieutenant’s hand rose to his forehead in a smart salute, and Saunders saluted back. Lt. Malchow closed the box and ran his hand over the top. "Thank you for this. He turned and walked away, but stopped and looked back over his shoulder. "You know, Sergeant, I was always proud of Chuck." Saunders nodded his understanding as the soldier disappeared down the row of beds.