JOURNEY
(Part I)


 

The room was austere.  Its walls were sturdy enough to have survived centuries and the hardships of countless wars, but there was nothing spare. The only adornment was a simple wooden cross that hung on the wall above the narrow bed. Its very simplicity helped account for the overpowering feeling of peacefulness.  Generations of nuns had prayed, slept, and perhaps died there. But now the bed in the small cubicle was occupied by a soldier.

The soldier's eyes were open but unseeing. He was lost in a hidden world that was silent except for the occasional moan that signaled his body's reaction to the damage that a single bullet could do.  Caje reached over with a folded square of gauze and wiped a small trickle of saliva from the corner of the man's mouth. Each breath the soldier took was pulled from deep within him where the pain was. Like the room he was in, the soldier could afford to waste nothing.

"Easy, Sarge," Caje said gently as he tossed the used gauze onto a utilitarian metal table that flanked the bed. He touched the heavy bandage that covered the sergeant's chest and sighed. The Cajun's jaw was tense as he contemplated.  It could have been him. He could be lying in the bed, struggling just to breathe. The difference between life and death was inches, and it was seconds.

 "How is he?" a man asked, watching the sergeant intently from the doorway.

"You're the doctor.  You tell." Caje stopped mid-sentence as he looked up and realized that this man was not a doctor.

The man was average looking.  Average height. Average build. Average medium blond hair. He might have been in his late forties or early fifties.  Just an average Joe.  Except. something that Caje couldn't quite put his finger on. Then he realized what it was. Caje was used to seeing men dressed in olive drab. Or in the earth-toned rough and homespun clothing of the men who inhabited the villages and farms they passed through. Nondescript.

But this man's manner of dress was anything but nondescript. Tan low-cut shoes instead of buckled boots. Light blue single-breasted jacket and pants of quality material instead of fatigues. His white dress shirt was open at the collar, and a red tie hung from a loose knot at the neck. A crimson stain surrounded a ragged hole in the jacket just above the left elbow, and there was another bloody bullet hole in the fabric of his left trouser leg. But as the man moved toward the foot of the bed, he showed no sign of a limp or of being in pain. Perhaps the wounds were old.

Any questions Caje had were put on the back burner as a moan from thesergeant drew Caje's attention back to the bed. He rested a hand on the sergeant's moist forehead and smoothed the matted blond hair that still bore the blood of another man. Caje shushed him gently, and the sergeant's eyes fluttered momentarily as pain creased his face.

"What happened?" the man said from his position at the foot of the bed. "How did he get it?"

Caje looked questioningly at the stranger.  Though he owed the man nothing, he felt no desire to remain silent.

"We were guarding King Company's tail. Everything was OK until the Krauts brought in reinforcements. Then all hell broke loose.  There were Germans all over the place."
 
*** 

"Get out of here! We can't hold.  I'll cover you."

"But, Sarge. what about.?" Kirby questioned.

"Don't worry.  I'll be right behind you." Saunders eyed the terrain around them as he fired off a short burst, dropping an enemy soldier moving in toward them.   "Now go!"

Caje and Kirby exchanged quick glances, then moved in tandem toward the safety of a line of fallen timber 50 yards behind them.  A schmeisser kicked up a line of dust behind them as their legs churned. They catapulted themselves behind a large tree which had been uprooted by recent artillery fire.  In one motion they hit the ground and pulled their weapons into firing position.  Saunders was still firing off rounds from his.

"Earvin!" Saunders screamed above the din, "Get out of here!"

Earvin lay beside Saunders, his body knotted into a tight ball.  "I can't, Sarge.  I'm scared. I.I can't move."  His eyes were wild with fear.

The sergeant grabbed him by the front of his jacket.  "You stay here, you're gonna die.  Now go or I'll kill you myself," he spat, eyes dark with anger.

The private looked deeply into the blue eyes, and knew that Sarge meant it. Or maybe he didn't.  The kid didn't want to find out.  Saunders voice softened as the enemy fire intensified. "Look, Earvin, if you don't move now, neither one of us is getting out of here. I'll cover you.  Now go!" He turned and fired off another burst, then looked back toward the kid, who was still trying to will his body into movement. "Go!"

Something in Earvin's mind clicked off, and as Saunders began firing again, the private suddenly tore out from behind cover and sped toward the spot where Caje and Kirby were also firing. He had only gone a dozen steps when a spray of bullets cut him down, sending him flipping sideways, cradling his knee.

"Sarge!" Earvin cried in agony and fear.  "Sarge. Help me!"

Saunders stopped long enough to see the boy's predicament.  He was out in the open. He wouldn't last five seconds under the blistering fire.   The sergeant slung the Thompson over his arm and bolted for Earvin. Kneeling, he rammed his shoulder into the boy's middle and lifted him.  "Sarge.I hurt. My.my leg," the boy groaned, his head flopping down against the sergeant's back.

A German sharpshooter raised his rifle.  He licked his fingertips, and then ran them over the sight.  Looking down the barrel of the gun, he drew a bead on his target.

"Don't worry, Earvin," Saunders grunted as he moved forward, trying to get used to the added weight. "You're gonna be fine."

Caje saw the German hiding in the brush raising his rifle, and he could follow its trajectory to its intended target.  Without hesitation, the Cajun brought his Garand to bear on the enemy.

"OK," the private sobbed.  "OK, Sarge."

The German watched the soldier's bobbing head through the site on his rifle. He had heard of studies being done by his countrymen to find out how far a bullet could travel after piercing the human skull. Could he get two with the same bullet?  He felt like a scientist as he squinted slightly, lining up on the center of the American soldier's brown head.

"Sarge!  Look out!" Caje yelled, his voice lost in the din. He fired off a flurry of desperate shots.

Saunders had gone only a few steps when the German fired.  He felt Earvin's body stiffen at the same moment that he felt a searing pain coursing from his back through his chest. Pitching forward, the dead weight of his load sprawled in front of him. Earvin's lifeless body lay a few feet away, his face an indistinguishable mass of blood and tissue and bone. Saunders grasped his own chest in agony. He lifted his bloody hands, staring at them a moment before he looked down at the stain that grew on his shirt.  Then he saw no more.
 
 ***

"The doctor says he has a chance.  That's all.  Just a chance."  Caje turned back toward the man, who had moved to stand next to the bed.

"He'll be all right with time. It's going to be a long war," the man said.

"Too long," Caje said absently.

The man turned to leave, and then hesitated. "He's lucky to have you as a friend. A man only gets so many true friends in this life."

Caje nodded his understanding. He looked into the man's blue eyes. They seemed so familiar.  "Who are you?" he asked.

"Just a friend.  I . knew him once."

Saunders pale hand was resting on the edge of the bed.  The man reached out with the tips of his long fingers, and touched it gently.  Caje could almost feel the electricity between them.  Whatever their relationship, the man wasn't going to speak of it, and Caje wasn't going to ask. It was as if he knew nothing, and he knew everything.

"I have to go now. I have to be somewhere," the man said, holding his left arm somewhat gingerly.  He placed his right hand on Caje's shoulder comfortingly and smiled sadly.  Caje looked down at the hand. Even though it was now covered with blood, he could clearly see one shortened finger. And then the man was limping out the door.

"Hey.  Come back when Sarge is better.  I know he'll want to see you," Caje added, though he didn't know why.

The man stopped and looked back, shaking his head.  Then he left and Caje was alone with Saunders again.  The private had just about decided to go after the man, but there was a sharp cough from the bed.  Caje returned his attention to the sergeant.

"Caje." Saunders struggled to get out the words.  His head rolled from side to side as he fought his way through the pain and fog. "Caje.I.."

"It's gonna be OK, Sarge. You're gonna be OK."
 


Vic Morrow died July 23, 1982, while filming Twilight Zone, the Movie.
 
  

By Foxhole Filly
Copyright April 2000 


   

MEETINGS
(Part II)


Caje looked up at the hand that rested on his shoulder. He had stayed by this bedside so long that he barely had the strength to acknowledge the white-haired old man who had just entered. "Je vois que j'arrive juste à temps," said the stranger, placing his worn leather bag next to Saunders.

"Docteur. Est-ce qu'il a une chance?" Caje's question came out sounding more like a whisper. He dreaded the reply but didn't quite know what else to say to him. The doctor had had enough experience to simply say nothing. The work of saving a man by repairing torn tissues, sewing up vessels and removing offending lead from his body would consume his time for the next hour or so. But he looked up at Caje reassuringly.

"Votre sergent va dormir. Vous ne pouvez rien faire pour l'instant. Alors, allez-donc vous reposer."

"Go and rest!" Caje thought. "How can I do that? What if Sarge... while I'm gone...?"

"J'ai trouvé ceci." The doctor fetched a small object from his coat pocket and handed it to Caje. It shone in the faint light. "Prenez-le."

It was a small Zippo lighter, oddly similar to the one that Saunders used. Had Sarge somehow dropped it on the way over there? Caje didn't think so, but he'd been too busy to notice anything else going on while he had struggled so desperately to rush his wounded non-com to help as fast as possible.

"C'est l'autre homme qui l'a oublié. Je l'ai vu descendre dans le couloir là-bas." The old doctor pointed towards the door, indicating the way that the other man had left. Caje felt the metal and listened to the fluid moving inside it. The doc must be right. Nuns probably didn't smoke around these places, and so the strange visitor must have dropped it on his way out.

"D'accord. J'y vais, docteur."

Caje stood, briefly placing his hand on Saunders' forehead; it felt hot with fever and sweat. The wounded man shivered, but otherwise stayed silent.

"Yes. I guess now's as good a time to do what I have to do as any," Caje decided. The thought of leaving the room after all those hours came hard to him. But he had to do it. For his sake as well as for Saunders's. Caje pocketed the lighter and grabbed his M-1. "Je reviens tout de suite," he told the doctor. Then, he left by the only door out of the small, dark room.

A hallway stretched on for a few yards of twinkling torchlight. Caje followed its length to the end where he found the same dark portal that he'd used when he had arrived with Saunders hours before. Strange how different it looked now. Two doors stood facing each other on either side of the chapel entrance. One of them, made of solid-looking golden oak, was closed tightly. Caje noticed that this door had no handle at all. On it, he could make out a large inlay in the form of a cross. The other door was made of dark metal and had an inlay representing an elaborate rose. It had been badly shut and just kept swinging back and forth on its hinge. Caje figured this must be the way to find the mysterious stranger and give him his lighter back before he had to go on with his other business. He placed a hand on the metal door's handle. A strange feeling stopped him, and he removed it. "Glad I brought my rifle," he thought, bringing it down off his shoulder. He shivered and brought his collar up. Caje looked at the beautiful oak door across the room. Damn it! Where do I find this man and give him this thing?

The doors to the chapel stood open. Caje had passed through there too fast before, bringing in his wounded non-com, and hadn't really taken the time to visit it. He knew that he had to enter there, now. He had an urgent meeting to go to in that chapel. No use putting it off any longer than he had to. He strode over to the door and looked around the dark, quiet room. Most pews had been removed. The nave had only the barest stone pillar for use as an altar. Most windows of stained glass had long ago been bombed out and now only stone frames remained, offering clear views of a war-torn valley beyond. The mysterious stranger sat in the front pew, staring forward.

Caje put his fingertips into what remained of the dried up holy water font, crossed himself and walked over to the blond-haired older man. For the second time that day, Caje's eyes met the blue stare from the stranger. "Hey, buddy," he said. "The old doc told me he found this. Here, take it, I think it belongs to you." He reached into his jacket pocket and handed over the lighter.

"Yeah. It's mine. But I won't be needing it anymore. You can keep it." The stranger pushed it back towards Caje with a final gesture of refusal. "Why did you come here? To pray?"

"Yeah. I guess so," Caje replied. "Know of any good prayers for a man to say when he's got something real important to ask God and, well, probably he won't get it?"

The older man rubbed his forehead and looked smilingly at Caje. The question seemed to amuse him. "Yeah. I've said a couple myself in my day. "What do you mean? What is it you've gotta ask God?"

"I just..." But Caje couldn't finish the sentence. The usual "why him?" came to his mind, and then instantly went out. Anyway, God didn't seem willing to answer that question lately, what with all of the dying of soldiers going on in this great conflict.

The stranger nodded. "Look at it this way," he said. "If you were to run into a ghost or a spirit somewhere, what would you say to it?"

Puzzled, Caje looked at the older man. "Ghost? You kidding? There's no such thing as ghosts. Besides," Caje gestured around the empty stone chapel "this is a house of God. There aren't any ghosts around here, Buddy. Only saints. And not too many of those, either. No, not too many left of those..."

***

Caje refused to admit that the Sarge he'd devoutly served for so long was dead. "No!!! Absolutely not!! You are going to breaaathe! You hear me!!" Caje wiped the blood trickling down the corner of Saunders' mouth, knowing what a bullet in the chest could do. "Sulfa. Sulfa. Where the hell is it?" He found his thoughts scrambling to find the proper alignment of things to do in case of bullet wounds. But his brain was elsewhere. His hands were working by themselves in reflex motions. Fumble through his belt pockets for a bandage. Rip it open. Apply gauze. Press, press, press!

Caje put his own mouth onto his friend's and breathed for him. "Don't scream! Please, God, don't scream!" he thought in those panicked moments.

But Caje kept on hearing the sound of a man's voice, and only slowly did he realize that it wasn't coming from him but from a nearby bomb crater. A man lay in its bottom, moaning painfully. Someone was out there. "I'll get help! Stay right there," he cried, knowing that Saunders would certainly stay very put. He left Sarge's side and crawled over to the earthen rim of the bomb crater to find out who lay there. The sounds he'd heard coming from this spot meant that he could very probably get help in bringing his sergeant back to an aid station.

"Hilfen Sie mir, Bitte!" cried a soft young voice. Caje looked into the crater and saw a German barely eighteen or nineteen. Still a boy, really. He lay in a bloody stupor and held his forehead with his hands. A Kraut! God, Caje hated Krauts, right then!

"Yeah, I'll hilf you, you lousy son-of-a-bitch! Get up right now before I kick your ass out to Berlin!"

The German soldier looked up at Caje, obviously understanding nothing. "You hear me?" Caje repeated, "get outta there! Hande Hoch. Right now!" The young German finally realized what Caje meant and attempted to get up. Caje, impatient, grabbed the kaki sleeve and dragged the semi-conscious boy out of the crater. Roughly, he shoved the German towards Sarge.

The German boy fell to the ground between Saunders and Earvin's body. "Nein! nein!" he cried. "Lass mich allein! Sie sind tot!" His look of horror at seeing the half-destroyed features of the American soldier showed how young and inexperienced he was. This just irritated Caje all the more. "Get up, you!" he raged, dragging the young German closer to Saunders. He didn't care who this man was, he was going to help carry Saunders back, and that was all.

Panic gained momentum in the young German. His eyes wild with fear, he tried to scramble away from the two bodies before him. Caje tightened his grip on the German's arm and shoved him back towards Saunders.

"Nein! Geh weg von mir! Geh weg!" The frightened German soldier fought to get away from Caje's grip. He kept swinging his fists in Caje's face and twisting wildly to gain his freedom. Caje was too strong and too desperate. Once, the boy managed to throw Caje off and bolt away, but Caje tackled him to the ground. Both men fell in a confused tangle of arms and fists. Before he knew it, Caje felt his bayonet in his left hand. With a mind of its own, the blade lodged itself against the terrified German boy's neck. Blood swelled underneath the shiny metal.

"Listen, you lousy Kraut!" he exclaimed. "This is gonna be for Earvin, for blowin' his face out of his head, and for Saunders, and for all my dead buddies like Theo and for, for..." Caje's fury bounded out of his control. "Lousy, lousy Krauts! Coming out of trees and out of rocks, coming to shoot at us and bomb us and kill us, and... and..." Caje's grip tightened and he felt his bayonet pressing harder onto the German's throat. Sarge lay dead behind him, and Caje knew that in the next few instants, this stupid little bug was going to join him in the beyond.

"Caje...don't do it..." Saunders' raspy voice rang out behind him. Startled, the Cajun whirled around and stared, wide-eyed, at Saunders. He saw Sarge struggling for breath but still alive and looking at him beseechingly.

"Don't. ...Jus' help me, Caje." Saunders' head fell back, and his eyes closed again. But Caje could see now that Saunders's breathing had shortened. More blood had appeared at the corner of his mouth and trickled down his cheek. "I thought you were dead," Caje told him. "Come on, Sarge. We're gonna get you back. There's a place. It's only half a mile. Hold on, Sarge."

Cage pulled his young prisoner up and yanked him towards Saunders once again. "You're staying here and helping me or you die. You got it?" The boy's face registered only submission. "Got it?" Caje repeated. "You're gonna hilf me carry him." Caje's furious expression conveyed the urgency of the situation. The boy, completely beaten now, obeyed quietly.

"Here,"Caje explained. "Take his arm like this. Now lift." The German complied and placed his right hand beneath Saunders's shoulder. Momentarily, Caje saw the German wince at the effort. The boy's left arm hung limply at his side. It must have snapped sometime during their fight, and the pain would hinder him in carrying Saunders. "Let's go, let's go, come on!" Caje urged the young man on, ignoring his grimaces of pain.

One American and one German soldier took hold of a badly wounded man and began to drag him down the forest slope towards the shelter of an old Dominican Monastery.

***

"You know," said the older man, shifting his position to meet Caje's gaze. "I came here today to see an old friend." A thin smile came across his face. "Guess I picked a bad time to do it didn't I?"

"You knew the Sarge? When? And what's that blood you got on your clothes, mister? You hurt?" After a few seconds' silence from the stranger, Caje figured that no answer would come. He shrugged, dropping the subject.

"That prayer you wanted to say when you came in here," said the man. "You're asking if God's gonna forgive you for saving your sergeant, is that it?"

Caje wondered how come that stranger always seemed to know his every thought! His piercing eyes could bore a path right into his very soul, but yet, he still felt oddly comfortable in that blue stare.

The stranger fidgeted with his jacket buttons. "Figured out what you want to say, yet?"

Caje wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead. "I guess so. Sergeant Saunders is a good man. I'd never give up on him. Never." Caje repositioned his M1 near him. "I don't care what it costs," he added thoughtfully. "Or, at least, I didn't. I just think that, maybe, this time the price was too high, that's all. I... I killed a kid. A scared young kid, so that I could bring Sarge over here. It's my fault that boy's laying out there, dead." Caje heaved a deep sigh. "I know I killed him. It's like I murdered him".

The stranger smiled at the Cajun and placed his hand on the American's shoulder. Without thinking, Caje placed his over it and squeezed for a second. The gesture seemed too familiar, too genuine and sincere. He had received the same comfort and help from Saunders so many times before... He found that he did need it now.

"It's so sad. So sad," mused the blond man. "Where is that German, now? You left him out there, didn't you?"

Caje looked back at the stranger's oddly familiar features. Again, he wondered where he had seen him before. "Yeah. He collapsed just a few yards from the door in front there. I had to stop myself from kicking him because I was so mad he died on me and... and I'd have to finish dragging Sarge alone. I was so scared I'd lose him..." Caje never finished his explanation. Tears flooded into his eyes, sobs racked him and he hid his face in his arms on the back of the pew in front of the two men. The strange man sat quietly with the Cajun and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"All right. Look up at the front," said the older man to Caje, when he had quieted. "What do you see beside those two old statues near that wall over there?" Cage stared intently at the altar and at the nave wall behind it. He read a short Latin inscription and this dedication:

L'Église de la Communauté de Sainte Thérèse et de Saint Ulric.

"I don't get it," said Caje. "So this church is consecrated to two saints. So what? It happens lots of times, what about it?"

"Well..." replied the older man. "Look at the two of them together. One of them is a French saint, and the other is a German saint. Both patrons of this church."

Caje raised his head and looked at the two statues beside the altar. "A Kraut saint?" That seemed incredulous. "There's such a thing as Kraut saints? They're not all dirty bug-eyed monsters?" In what seemed like his first coherent flash, Caje realized the depths of the desperate mental ordeal he had just endured.

"You didn't really believe that either, did you?" asked the stranger. "Sure. You got a rotten detail this time. All right. You got the job done to the best of your ability. You hear me? You got it done." The blond-haired man looked at his watch and smiled thinly, nodding towards the church entrance. "I'll have to leave soon, but I'll tell you this. What you feel is your own business and no one else's. Try to let it go, will you? You'll get over it."

"How do I do that?" Caje asked him.

The other man looked at him sadly but sternly. "Go out there and tell the kid you're sorry."

"But he's dead!" Caje exclaimed. "He won't hear me. It won't make any difference."

The older man shook his head. "Bury him. Arrange to send his tags to whoever needs 'em. He'll hear what you say to him, trust me," he insisted.

The man stood up, making clear his intention to leave. Caje allowed him more room to pass, and then watched him walk all the way to the chapel door. As he stood by the font, he turned to Caje once more, the ragged blood stains clearly visible in his upper left arm and on his leg. Caje felt that he would never again set eyes on anyone like him. No one ever would. The stranger said, "Forget it, Caje. Just forget it. You did right. ...And one more thing. When you go back to your sergeant, make sure you eat something. You hear me? Eat."

God, but Caje enjoyed hearing that tone of command.

He rose to do as the stranger had suggested, as he himself had already known must be done. He'd waited much too long to go outside, find the body of the young German lad, and do this one civilized thing for him. Caje knew the boy deserved it. Saunders lay in the cubicle in the back of the Abbey, tended to by the French doctor. Caje thought that the stranger had been right about Saunders making it o.k. He could wait a little while longer before he went back. For now, he had to go outside and apologize to his dead prisoner. He grabbed his rifle and swung it over his shoulder. The sound of voices speaking in low tones stopped him in his tracks. Two men were speaking together in the abbey entrance, out of Caje's view. He recognized the first voice; it belonged to his strange friend. The other one resonated lower, and Caje had trouble hearing it clearly. But it, too, sounded familiar.

Caje saw two human shadows stretching across the chapel's stones. One seemed much longer than the other. Yes. Two men now stood together in the small entrance. Anxiously, Caje stepped up his pace to try and see whom this new arrival might be. He could see from the shadow movements that the two men standing beyond the chapel doors were shaking hands and embracing. Their tone as they spoke suggested that they knew each other well, but Caje could barely make out their words.

"Waited... long time... happy... see you...."

Caje arrived in the small area at the front of the abbey, but he saw no one there. It now stood empty. His older companion had left with someone that he had just missed seeing. Perhaps this new arrival had been that old friend that the blond haired stranger had told him about. The one he had come here to meet. Again, an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness came over Caje, and he stepped resolutely towards the portals, his purpose firmly established. The Cajun knew what he had to do; he'd known it all the time. He strode towards the portals, wondering where the two mysterious doors that he'd seen in here the last time had disappeared to.

In December 1999, Dick Peabody died of cancer, and two old buddies were reunited after a long separation. They will forever live on in our memory and in our heart.



By PFC (Lyne Tremblay)

April 2000