MILES TO GO

By Lois Overton
aka Foxhole Filly
 
 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

     From Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
     By Robert Frost
 
 

Lt. Hanley surveyed the field as the gray light of morning began to replace the shadowy darkness. Clouds of acrid smoke hung low to the ground, giving the scene an eerie quality. Blackened stumps and trees blown apart by the forces of war stood in mute testimony to the carnage that had taken place in what should have been a lush, peaceful pasture in the French countryside. Where cows and sheep had once drunk from the stream that wound through the landscape, the blood of young men now flowed. Men who lay in the grasses with their mouths open in unuttered screams and their eyes bulged in terror and surprise.

As the four sergeants approached for briefing, Hanley's eyes were fixed on the distant woods, watching for any sign of the enemy. Everything was quiet and still. Too quiet. He knew the Germans were there somewhere. How many, he didn't know, but they were there. And he knew that soon his men might have to fight again for this field. Twice already the strung-out American line had been hit and twice the Americans had maintained their tenuous hold. The Allies were desperate to keep the hard-won territory, and the Germans were just as determined to push them back. One stinking field. Not much worth owning, yet neither side was willing to hand it over easily.

Hanley knelt and removed a map from the front of his jacket, and his squad leaders squatted around him. "You all know Sgt. Colson from Second Platoon? His squad has been temporarily assigned to us." Hanley's three sergeants nodded and mumbled quick greetings to the NCO they knew only in passing.

"Item Company has been on the line since yesterday morning. This morning, were relieving them." Hanley unfolded the map, displaying it on his knee. " This," he pointed to a red slash across the map, "is our line. Yesterday and last night the Krauts hit us all along the line, but the big push was here," he stabbed at a spot along the line, "at Point Zebra and here at Point Tango. They almost broke through each time, so we're expecting it to get real dirty there. We've held so far, but we think there's a big Kraut buildup in the area. We've been quietly siphoning off troops to reinforce them, but our big stuff isnt being committed until we see for sure whether they make their move for Tango or Zebra, or maybe somewhere in between. Our best guess is here...Tango. They've been softening up that position for several days now.

"We're luckier on the right flank. We've had it a lot easier." Hanley hastily folded the map and returned it to the pocket inside his jacket, at the same time, pulling out a second large map.

"Here's the situation. This is the territory were defending, and were not giving up an inch of it." The sergeants moved in closer, intent on memorizing the layout. "We are right here at the edge of the woods. Along the right flank theres a ravine...about thirty-five to forty feet deep...that cuts through the edge of the field. There's a footbridge that crosses it here. The ravine is rugged enough that the Krauts probably cant use it much, but it wouldn't be impossible for the Krauts to use the bridge to move in behind us. Saunders, we'd like to see that footbridge intact, but if worse comes to worse, take it out. There's a line of larch running parallel to the far woods, about seventy-five yards out. The owner sometimes used that strip for dumping rocks, dead trees, and old farm equipment he didn't need any more... broken down wagons, plows, and such. It might offer us pretty good cover. Here on the left, there's a small stream that angles into a good-sized pond. With the rain we've had lately, it's a swamp all along the stream and up to the pond. That just might funnel any attacking forces into a smaller area between the pond and the ravine. The land is low rolling hills. Not much cover. Any trees that used to be here are pretty well gone now. But there are two higher points here and here.

"Evans and Saunders, take your squads and cover from this side of the ravine to about 200 yards north. Set up your machine gun on the rise to the right. Valdez, you and Colson take the left all the way up to Third Platoon. Colson, set up your machine gun on the rise to the left. These two machine guns'll give us a good base where we can sweep the whole line in a crossfire.

"Like I said, we aren't expecting to get hit too hard, but the Krauts might try an end run to take the pressure off the main target. We've got to be ready. I know I don't have to tell you how important this is. We're thin along our part of the line, but we still have to hold at all cost. If there is a breakthrough here, the whole line goes down like a house of cards. We don't retreat. Now, any questions?"

Sgt. Valdez eyed the other NCO's, trying to read their thoughts. He shifted his Thompson on his shoulder and stuck a fresh piece of chewing gum into his mouth. "What kinda support can we expect?"

"Not much. We're pretty much on our own."

The Sergeants glanced at one another. It wasnt what theyd been hoping to hear. "Like I said," Hanley explained, "the big shows expected a long way from here. We should have an easy day."

Hanley smiled to himself in satisfaction. At that particular moment, they might not be much to look at, their unshaven, tired faces covered with grime and sweat, but Hanley took great pride in having what was considered by many to be the three finest platoon NCO's in the 361st in Saunders, Valdez and Evans. They were seasoned vets and knew what to do without being told; they could be counted on in a tough situation. Hanley trusted them implicitly, and in the war business, trust was everything.

"Keep your eyes open and your tails down. Things could go sour fast. Any questions?"

"Is it too late to ask for a leave?" Colson asked. Ordinarily, the men would have had a good laugh, but today it just didn't seem that funny.

"Move out as soon as you get back to your squads. And good luck."

The sergeants turned almost as one, and hastened off toward their squads.

"Oh, Saunders..."

Sgt. Saunders turned back. "Yes, Lieutenant?"

"I sent you up a couple of replacements. They're green as sin."

The sergeant pulled off his helmet, ran a hand through his thick, blond hair. "Yeah. I noticed."

"Heck of a time to come on board."

"When's a good time?" Saunders gaze was direct and intense.

"You know what I mean. They're getting their baptism under fire. Keep an eye on 'em."

Saunders gave just a hint of an amused smile and nodded, then turned to go.

"And Saunders, take care of yourself."

"You know it." He trotted off to rejoin his squad.

Hanley found himself wishing he had just sent his men to get a keg of beer for a night of cards instead of ordering them out onto that stinking field. As the American army closed in on German soil, the Krauts were sure to fight like hell. But at least K Company probably wasn't going to be in the thick of things for once. Good luck for his men, bad luck for someone else.

He looked at his watch. Almost time to move. The final few moments before going into battle were always the hardest for him. He remembered his own words from just a few minutes before. " If there is a breakthrough here, the whole line goes down like a house of cards." There it was. The lives of hundreds of GI's depended on what he did. Wrong decisions...men died. He didn't want that kind of responsibility. Didn't want to decide who would live and who would die. But he had taken the rank, and with the rank came the responsibility; there was no time for feeling sorry for himself now. He had a job to do.

With a movement of Hanley's hand, the platoon moved forward, bodies crouched low, weapons at the ready. Thunder rumbled to the east. More rain coming? No, not thunder. The sound of artillery and other arms firing. Someone's luck was running out.

Hanley's fingers tightened around the stock of the carbine he carried. He was able to make out Saunders in his familiar camo helmet, gripping the Thompson, ever vigilant, evaluating everything he saw. Beyond him, he spotted Caje's familiar crouch and his animal-like movement. Kirby's shoulders sagged visibly with the weight of the BAR...a good man to have in a firefight. And who could miss the towering bulk of Littlejohn, whose carriage was as graceless as Caje's was graceful. Ahead of them, the enemy was probably watching, waiting for them. He strained his eyes, trying to see anything in the shadows that would tell him what he needed to know. How many Krauts? Where? How many of his men would be dead by morning?

Hanley was so busy watching the woods ahead that he almost tripped over a man, one of the green replacements. The new kid had stopped suddenly and stood frozen, staring at the body of a German soldier. The dead man's hands were clutching at his stomach, or where his stomach should have been. "Move along, son," the Lieutenant said quietly, putting a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Lieutenant, he....he...he..." His face was ashen and fixed on the dead body. Without warning, his gut wrenched in a spasm that sent a spray of breakfast over one of the German soldiers shiny boots. The kid looked at Hanley apologetically. "I'm sorry, sir."

"This your first dead Kraut?"

He nodded. Ive never seen a dead person before.

"Well, now you've done the hard part. What's your name, son?"

"T-T-Tommy," the kid stuttered. "Tommy Metzer."

"Well, Metzer, it's over. Move on." Shouldering his M-1, the kid moved away, looking back only once, then stumbled forward.

The platoon finally reached the relative safety of the hastily dug foxholes where Item Company awaited them. Saunders slid into a shallow foxhole beside a broad, dark-haired Sergeant.

"Mac," Saunders greeted the fellow sergeant.

"Welcome to the Ritz. Hot and cold running dirt. Soft bed. All the comforts of home. And now it's yours." He was bleary eyed.

"Thanks. So how do things look?"

McDonald flicked the remains of a cigarette into the field behind his head where a pile of butts had collected. "We got hit pretty hard early last night. D Company the night before. I hope this real estate is worth it."

"Must be to somebody." Saunders shook his head. "Anything moving today?"

"Nah. Quiet. Too quiet if you ask me." He slipped onto his knees and rolled out of the foxhole that had been his home for too many hours. "Maybe they all went home to Germany."

"Yeah, let's hope so."

Sergeant McDonald signaled to his men and called quietly, "Saddle up." He slapped the other sergeant on the shoulder. "It's all yours, Saunders. Good luck."

As Item Company disappeared into the gloomy morning, Saunders became aware of the rivulet of sweat making its way down his back in spite of the chill. The foxhole was a lonely place when waiting for the enemy. Sometimes waiting for the enemy was harder than fighting him. Too much time to think about whether he had his men ready. Was there something he should have done? Which of his men would not be going home after that day? He wiped the moisture from his face.

The new man, Metzer, came up and knelt on the ground. He looked around, not knowing what to do. Saunders shook his head. "Metzer, get in here."

Huh?

In one quick movement, Saunders grabbed the kid by his jacket lapel and pulled him into the shallow foxhole. Metzer's helmet flew off and careened to the other side. Saunders retrieved it and popped it back on the buck private's head, giving it a rap with his hand.

"Thanks, Sarge. I wasn't sure what to do."

"You're doin' fine, Metzer. Just keep cool and follow my directions. You'll be OK."

"You really think so?" His voice quivered

"Sure. After today you'll be a vet."

"Yeah, a vet." Sweat dripped from the younger man's face. "Think we'll see any Krauts?" The word "Kraut" sounded strange coming from this shivering young man barely out of high school. Clearly Metzer wasn't used to saying the word.

"Probably. But don't worry. Like I said, you'll be fine." Saunders lifted the field glasses and checked the territory in front of him. "Look, Metzer, I want you to crawl right up there." He pointed to a dark shadow on a rise about fifty yards to the left front of their present position.

Metzer peered hard at the spot, barely able to make out a netted helmet at the crest of the hole.

"That is machine gunner Cpl. Allen and his belt man, Williams. I want you up there to help cover their position. Can you do that?"

"I think so, Sarge."

"Good. Now stay low...and keep cool."

Metzer stood and prepared to leave, but Saunders grabbed him by the jacket and pulled him off his feet again.

"I said stay low. You stand up like that around here, and some Kraut'll take your head off."

Metzer nodded, his eyes wide, and bellied out of the hole, slipping his way along the ground on

elbows and knees. The Sergeant watched him until the youngster's head disappeared into the safety of the deep foxhole on the rise.

"Replacements," Saunders snorted, as he crawled out and made his way down the line to inspect the rest of the men where they were dug in. He checked their ammo supplies, went back over their orders, and took reports of their observations. Mostly, though, he bucked up the new guys. In situations like this, even some of the older guys could get a little wobbly, so there was no telling what green soldiers were going to do.

The last position to be checked was Littlejohn, parked behind a clump of rocks that had once been a stone fence. Several small bushes had grown up around the front face of it, giving him about the best cover in the squad. Beside him, the ravine with a wide, shallow stream cutting through the bottom. The cattails and overgrown weeds along the river would offer good cover for the enemy if they wanted to try sneaking up. But the steepness of the ravines sides would be difficult as best. The timber bridge crossing it was a more likely candidate. Saunders slipped a canvas bag off his shoulder and handed it to Littlejohn.

Just in case.

Littlejohn looked inside and saw the explosives. Right.

Saunders made his way back to his foxhole. Removing his helmet, he swiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. He took a swig from his canteen and conserved the rest for later when the sun would be beating down and sapping his strength. He looked at his watch. More than an hour had passed since full sunrise, and he started to relax a little at the thought that perhaps they were to be spared an assault.

"Sgt. Saunders," a familiar voice called quietly. Hanley's runner hunkered down at the edge of the foxhole. Saunders moved over beside him.

"Smitty. How are things looking? Anything?"

"Yeah, the Lieutenant says that Love Company is sustaining heavy fire right now. Reinforcements are moving in. Looks like the party's on. Now we just gotta see who's invited. Word is that we're getting hit all up and down the line. Lieutenant says to keep your eyes open. Were probably pretty far from the fun, but ya never know."

"Will do." Again the sergeant made the rounds of his squad's positions, filling them in on the situation. Even though it was looking as if they were going to luck out on this one, it was critical for everyone to stay sharp.

As the minutes ticked by, a sense of relief made its way through the squad. Sarge sat with his left forearm resting on the rim of the foxhole as he watched the distant edges of the field. Still nothing. It began to look as if this was going to be just another day of guard duty. Hot, boring work, but nerve-wracking because of the tension of the unknown.

Removing a wrinkled pack of Luckies from his breast pocket, Saunders tapped it on the side of his hand until one cigarette slid out, and he lit it. On the silver lighters surface, he could feel crude etching, the letter "S" surrounded by a series of curly Q's in a border. He smiled, recalling how his kid sister had taken the lighter from his room as he slept the night before he shipped out for Africa. Louise had worked late into the night with a nail, carving its face. Then she had presented it to him, making sure not to do it in front of Mom, who didn't abide with smoking. He looked over the lighter and then clenched it tightly in his fist before returning it to his shirt pocket with the cigarettes. Taking a deep drag, he felt almost calm inside. As he blew a long draft of smoke, the first shell arced in.

A Kraut 88 mm whined shrilly through the quiet and crashed down in front of the American position. Another followed it. And then another. Saunders slammed the cigarette into the floor of the foxhole and yelled for his men to take cover. He dropped low and tried to make his body as compact as possible as the German artillery honed in on the Americans' position. There was nothing to be done against such a barrage except hug the walls of the foxholes and try to ride it out.

The shelling, which had seemed like it would go on forever, stopped as quickly as it had begun. Saunders stuck his head out of the foxhole and scanned the distant treeline. Two of the new men started yelling and laughing, slapping each other on the back at having survived their first big battle. But the veteran soldiers were not so quick to celebrate. Experience told them that it was only the beginning.

Spotting movement in the distant trees, Kirby yelled to the sarge. Saunders looked where Kirby pointed and saw the enemy, too. "Heads up! Infantry! Fix bayonets!" Saunders yelled to his left, and then to his right. The celebration ground to an immediate halt.

"What do you think, Sarge?" Caje called over from his position.

Saunders' eyes moved swiftly from one end of the far woods where the Germans were moving up to the other. "Looks like about a platoon. Nothing we cant handle."

The American soldiers waited patiently for the Germans to move into range. Just as Hanley had hoped, the bulk of the German soldiers was forced to enter the field at the narrow neck between the pond and the ravine, giving Hanley's platoon an excellent chance of stopping them there.

A group of a dozen or so Germans broke across the field heading toward the ravine. The machine gun on Saunders' left chattered, and it dropped three instantly, as firing broke out up and down the line. Saunders fired off several rounds and stopped, his attention drawn to movement directly in front of them. German soldiers made their way onto the field in greater numbers. Germans had circled the pond on the left flank and were coming at them near Valdez's position. It was becoming obvious that this was more than just a platoon coming against them.

The American machine guns sprayed the field from both directions and were having a field day, but the enemy numbers had grown considerably in a matter of minutes. It seemed to the sergeant that as fast as the machine gun mowed down one, two replaced him. Hanley's men were skillful soldiers, but the sheer numbers were tipping the scales toward the Germans. The deep growl of Kirbys BAR was almost constant. Saunders raised up to fire a short burst from his Tommy gun as a line bullets bit into the dirt in front of him.

Caje measured off shots in his careful, accurate way, making sure that each bullet took out a Kraut. Littlejohn shouted a warning to Caje as a Kraut brought his bayonet to bear Cajuns blind side. Bringing his rifle to bear quickly, Littlejohn fired, but the shot went wide. Caje swung the barrel of his M1, deflecting the bayonet's path, and the rifle butt crashed into the German's face. Caje finished him off with a rapid stroke of his own bayonet; then he turned back to the battle. Kirby called over to him, wanting to know if he was all right, and Caje responded in the affirmative.

"Nelson!" Saunders yelled as he replaced the magazine in his Thompson and instinctively rapped the end of it with his palm to seat it. He located Billy nearby and bounded out of his foxhole. Firing several bursts on the run, he dove behind the pile of brush and logs where Nelson was firing. "Nelson, get to Hanley. Tell him that this isn't shaping up like a probing action. Tell him it looks like the whole German Army is attacking. We need help here or I'm not sure we can hold." Billy nodded and darted toward the rear as Saunders covered him.

Kirby stopped firing only long enough to reload and to wipe the sweat from his eyes so that he could see. He fired off a round and turned his head just in time to see an enemy soldier lob a grenade into Anderson's foxhole. Kirby reacted instinctively and turned the BAR on the German, cutting him down. Anderson saw the grenade land in the dirt next to him. He grabbed the rim of the foxhole and hoisted himself out, but it wasnt fast enough. The grenade exploded and Anderson fell back into the hole.

"Damn you!" Kirby screamed at the enemy in general. In his anger, he rose and charged forward toward the enemy. He took out three Germans as he ran; then he fell onto his belly and continued firing with the BAR resting on its bipod. Bullets pinged the ground around him, so he retreated to an empty shell hole.

Metzer reloaded as fast as he could. Eyes wide with fear, his hands trembled as he pushed in a clip. With fresh ammo, he looked up to spot a target. Saunders turned Metzer's way just when the kid raised his M1 and pointed it directly at the sergeant. As Metzer fired, Saunders' breath caught in his throat for a split second, and he jumped to the side instinctively. A Kraut corporal fell forward on the spot where Saunders had just crouched. The top part of the German's head had been laid open by Metzer's bullet. The sergeant waved his thanks to Metzer, who shot him a quick nod and returned to the job of killing, a hint of a smile on his face. He had saved Saunderss life; he was earning the right to be called a GI.

A pair of Krauts working in tandem skirted both sides of Kirby's position. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of one of them and swung the BAR around, firing a burst. Timmons, one of the new men, crouched low in his foxhole. His hands shook violently, and he was unable to make himself move. He spotted the second man moving in on Kirby's backside and watched the German raise his Mauser to fire. Timmons hid his face in his hands, but Lassiter, hugging the wall beside Timmons, raised his M1 and fired off two shots at the Kraut. Kirby turned just in time to see the German fall dead a few feet from him.

Without warning, the German advance halted and pulled back toward the distant woods. Caje rose to his knees and continued firing at the retreating soldiers, adding a few more bodies to the count. He looked across the field in front of them and whistled. "Man, I haven't seen this many bodies since we came ashore at Omaha. Not even at St. Lo," he shouted to Littlejohn.

"Hey, look, Timmons! We got 'em on the run. We done it. We done it!" Lassiter celebrated without mentioning what had just taken place.

Timmons looked up. His eyes were red and his hands still shook.

The rest of the squad looked blankly at one another. There was no reason for the Krauts to have pulled back. They had plenty of firepower and seemed to have more men. That could only mean that they had decided they could take what they wanted another way, an easier way. Saunders made up his mind and ordered the men back into the shelter of their foxholes. Before that order could be carried out, an artillery shell scored a hit near the machine gun on the rise. Saunders whirled in time to see Metzer, blown out of his foxhole, tumbling down the gentle incline. The sergeant ran to him quickly, but there wasnt much left of the boy. The smoke rising from the spot where the machine gun had been told him they had lost that team also.

The Kraut artillery returned with a vengeance. The squad dove for any shelter available. Saunders darted toward his foxhole, but before he got there, it took a direct hit. Dirt and rock blew into the air like a geyser. He hit the ground and buried his face in the grass. Spitting dirt, he jumped up and ran for the cover.

* * * *

"Yes, sir. Out!" Lieutenant Hanley shouted into the radio receiver. "Nelson! Smitty!"

Billy scurried over to the officer. He had brought Sarge's message, and Hanley had ordered him to wait. The situation had changed again when the artillery turned up the heat. This shelling was like nothing Hanley had seen. Billy knelt down beside Hanley and turned his ear toward the Lieutenant so that he could hear with all the noise in the background.

"Tell Saunders to move up and take the birch stand, but leave the machine gun where it is. We need the cover. Smitty, tell Colson to cover Saunders' move from his position, and then have him bring his squad up to the far side of the pond. We've got reinforcements moving up, but we've gotta hold till they can get in position."

Smitty and Nelson nodded and raced away, zigzagging across the open field.

* * * *

Saunders urged his men forward toward the German forces, trying to reach the relative safety of the clump of birch trees that Hanley had ordered him to take. He knew that they had to get off that damn field and close enough to the Krauts to force the artillery into silence. He felt that they had a chance against infantry. He could see Caje, Kirby, and Billy moving steadily toward the objective. Every few feet they ended up sprawled flat on the ground as the force of shell concussions shook them.

Littlejohn stepped cautiously alongside the ravine, watching for any motion that would signal a flanking movement. Saunders saw him grab his head and pitch to the side, disappearing. Spotting a helmet with a painted red cross, he yelled for a young medic to help the private. The medic made his way to the edge of the gorge and stared into it. The sides and bottom were covered with a dense growth of trees, shrubs, and weeds. Directly below him, the foliage cleared a bit, and he could see the clear water of a stream, about ten feet wide. Alongside its banks, reeds and cattails grew in abundance. But he could see nothing of the soldier, so he moved on.

The sergeant came across two soldiers. One was trying to get the other to move out of the foxhole. "Get moving!" Saunders screamed, as he took hold of the one who cowered, sniveling in the bottom.

"But, Sarge, they're cutting us to ribbons," the man cried with a shaky voice.

A line of bullets from a Schmeisser exploded beside them. "Look, Timmons, you move or you die. You can't stay here."

Saunders fairly slung Timmons out of the hole; Lassiter hauled himself out, grabbed Timmons by the sleeve, took off at a gallop. Saunders followed a few feet behind, trying to keep as low a profile as possible. The shells burst around them. Several times they ended up on their bellies, knocked off their feet from nearby explosions.

Saunders stopped a moment to check on a soldier who had fallen in front of him. Dead. Continuing on, he had taken but a single step when a shell from an .88 burst directly in front of Timmons and Lassiter. In a horrifying flash, the shrapnel ripped into the bodies of the two soldiers. Saunders, a few yards behind, had no time to react. All he could see was the instantaneous brilliance of the light. His ears rang with the roar of the exploding shell. The impact of the shock wave slammed into his chest, and a burst of pain tore into him. Catapulted into the air, his body became part of the conflagration of dirt, rocks, metal, smoke, and body parts. He crashed down into the bottom of a large shell impact crater. Landing on his left hip, devastating pain tore through his leg and side. With his arms and legs flailing, he bounced like a rag doll and bounced into the far side of the hole.

He lay stunned for a moment. He lifted his head just enough to look at his own body, and it was as if he did not recognize it. The left leg was splayed at a strange angle. Waves of pain shot from his hip and down his leg. Looking down at his chest, he saw that the cloth of his field jacket and shirt were ripped open, revealing a ragged hole where something, probably shrapnel, had penetrated.

He watched his own blood flow and run down his side. Trying to staunch the bleeding with his hand, it seeped between his fingers. His head fell back, and he fought to maintain consciousness. The veteran soldier had seen enough of war to know that he was in serious trouble if help weren't immediate, and maybe even then it was too late.

As if from a great distance, he heard someone screaming, "Medic!" It sounded like a familiar voice. He tried desperately to recall whose voice it was, but he couldn't quite remember. Then he realized that it was his own, crying for help

Kowalski, a medic usually assigned to Valdez's squad, saw the shell hit among the soldiers and heard Saunders's cry for help. He came running at a full gallop, his canvas first aid bag banging against his leg. As a shell exploded nearby, he bounded into the depression, landing beside the injured man

Body parts, pieces of clothing, and broken weapons littered the hole. Nothing in his experience had prepared him for the gore. Kowalski's stomach churned, but he quickly gained control again. A soldier needed the medic and he didnt have time to be sick.

Kowalski tore Saunders's jacket open and ripped several buttons on the blood-darkened green shirt. The wound itself did not seem to be life threatening, but the bleeding was. He rummaged in his bag and found a packet of sulfa, sprinkling the powder over the gash. Then he opened a dressing and slapped it on the man's chest, applying pressure with the flat of his hand. Reaching underneath the sergeant as best he could, he felt the non-coms back. Not sticky...no bleeding...no exit wound. The sergeant would need surgery to remove the shrapnel.

A young corporal who was unknown to Kowalski jumped into the hole as bullets burst around him. He plastered himself against the forward wall and responded with fire of his own. The soldier's cheeks were blackened with smoke and oil. A spent clip leapt from the carbine, and as the soldier pushed in a fresh one, he glanced behind him, observing the medic treating Saunders.

Kowalski looked up, and as the corporal turned back toward the enemy, a bullet caught the soldier in the forehead. It made a small, perfectly round hole that leaked a thin stream of blood down his face. He flopped onto his back, his eyes fixed blankly on the sky above. Kowalski hurried over to the soldier, but he knew without checking for a pulse that he could not help. Reaching up, he gently shut the soldier's eyes and then returned to the sergeant.

Saunders opened his eyes. His breathing was strained, and he groaned with pain. "It's OK, Sarge. You're gonna be OK. I'll get you back to the aid station," the medic promised loud enough to be heard above the din. Saunders nodded appreciatively. "Soon as I get this bleeding under control, I'll give you some morphine and you'll be feelin' a whole lot better." An explosion nearby sent Kowalski diving onto Saunders to cover him, and they were peppered with dirt and small pebbles.

"Hey, that was a close one," Kowalski said nervously. "Let's see how that shoulder is."

The bleeding appeared to have slowed. He applied a second dressing on top of the first and wound the long ends around the man's chest. Several extra strips of gauze were pulled around his shoulder to secure them.

As he tied the knot, another shell screamed overhead. Once more Kowalski threw himself over the Sergeant just as the shell exploded behind them. The ground beneath the two soldiers convulsed with the impact. Saunders felt the vibration of the blast and Kowalski's body leapt slightly. Then the medic was silent. Still lying across Saunders' chest and head, the man made no attempt to move.

"Kowalski," Saunders rasped. He reached up and shook the man, but there was no response. "Kowalski!" he cried hoarsely, but still nothing. He put his hand to Kowalski's neck and confirmed what he feared.

Breathing was becoming difficult. Whether it was because of the chest wound or the weight of the medic sprawled across him, he didn't know. He tried to cry out for help, but his voice was too weak to carry. Finding it impossible to move the dead man, he could only hope that help came along.

He lay there for what seemed an eternity, though he suspected it was not over a few minutes. From the bottom of the crater, the tops of burnt trees were all he could see of the battle. The lowering sky of morning had given way to breaking clouds, but acrid smoke kept the battlefield shrouded in gray. Billy appeared near the edge of the crater, calling for the sarge. Saunders tried desperately to call back, but it was useless. Billy could not see him where lay beneath the large medic. The private fired several rounds from a kneeling position. He called for Saunders again, and hearing no response, ran forward, firing at an enemy that Saunders could not see.

The next thing Saunders knew, Doc scrambled down the side of the shell hole, kicking up a small avalanche of debris. "How are ya doin', Sarge?" His voice remained calm and reassuring against the uproar of exploding shells. The medic felt Kowalski's neck for a pulse, and finding none, he rolled the body aside. It occurred to him that he should do something more for the dead medic, say a prayer perhaps. But there just wasn't time. Kowalski would understand.

Doc found a full vial of morphine underneath the dead man. Obviously the medic had not had a chance to inject Saunders. "Doc, the squad? What about the squad?" Saunders croaked. "We're getting chopped to pieces. I gotta do something."

"Now, you don't have to worry about anything. Lt. Hanley's still in charge, and he can take care of everything," Doc reminded him as he examined the bandages Kowalski had applied.

"You hurt anywhere else, Sarge?" Doc asked.

"Hip," Saunders groaned.

Doc moved his hands down to the man's right leg, running them gingerly from the femur to the foot. Finding nothing wrong, he examined the left leg, but merely touching it sent it into waves of involuntary spasms. Saunders gritted his teeth in an effort to subdue his body's reactions.

"Sorry, Sarge. I'm gonna go ahead and give you a shot of morphine for the pain. It should help some."

"Just do it, Doc."

He sucked in his breath and his eyes brimmed with tears. It was hard to remember anything that hurt that much. He felt the warmth of the morphine moving through his veins, and soon the spasms in the leg had settled down a bit. "What's wrong, Doc?"

"I'm no expert, but my best guess is your hip is probably dislocated, judging by the way your leg is layin'. Either way, I gotta get you out of here."

"Can't you just set it?" He grimaced.

"Huh uh. I could do serious damage tryin' to set it. That's for surgeons. Best thing I can do is try to immobilize it."

Looking around the hole, Doc searched for anything he might use. He spotted the carbine the corporal had been loading. He took the rifle and laid it aside. Then he gently removed the boys field jacket and shirt. Returning to Saunders with the rifle, he laid the clothing beside him.

He popped the ammunition out of the rifle chamber. Then he removed his own jacket and shirt. He pushed the butt of the rifle between the sergeant's legs, rolling up the dead man's jacket and using it as padding between the rifle and the injured left leg. He pulled scissors from his bag and cut both shirts into half lengthwise, using the shirt strips to bind Saunderss legs to the rigid rifle. The whole time Doc made the splint, the muscles in Saunders leg were twitching in spasms again. The sarge involuntarily grasped for anything to hold onto as the pain intensified, but found no purchase. His fingers knotted and helplessly dug into the dirt.

As the medic worked, the artillery fire lessened and the staccato of small arms fire could be heard. Both soldiers knew what that meant, though neither of them voiced their thoughts. Doc was running out of time and had to do something about getting Sarge out of there before the Krauts overran their position.

Doc! a voice called from somewhere nearby.

Any other soldier might have missed the sound, but the medic's ear was accustomed to hearing cries for help. Slipping into his jacket, Doc moved to the edge of the hole. He hugged the side and peeked cautiously over the rim. He could see Caje about twenty yards away on his back behind a dead log. The Cajun's face contorted in pain and he held his knee. Doc looked back at Saunders, whose pain seemed to be subsiding a bit, and decided that at the moment there was nothing he could do; he was needed elsewhere.

Hastily gathering his supplies and zipping up his jacket, Doc touched him reassuringly on the arm. "Someone is down. I gotta check on him. I'll be right back. Count on it."

Saunders was too tired to respond, but he blinked his understanding.

Doc sprinted out of the hole and across the short distance to where Caje crouched. He slid in behind the small log next to the Cajun and went to work even before the wounded soldier could tell him what was wrong.

"Boy, am I glad to see you," Caje groaned.

Ripping away Caje's right pants leg, Doc saw a large exit wound. Looking to the other side, he found the entry wound. The bullet had gone clean through. Removing Caje's belt, he wrapped it tightly around the leg above the wound. Doc ducked a moment as a bullet ripped a chunk of bark from the log near his head. Caje handed him an opened packet of sulfa, which Doc poured onto the rear bullet hole. Pulling a second packet from his bag, the medic sprinkled it over the larger front wound. Then Caje handed him a dressing, and Doc laid it over the wound. He wrapped the long ends around the leg, crossed them, and then tied them snugly in front.

"Easy, Doc," Caje groaned.

"Sorry, but I don't have time to be gentle. We gotta get out of here." The sounds of the battle were drawing nearer.

"Yeah, well, I can walk out with your help. I'm glad you're here, Doc," the Cajun said grimly."

"With your help..." the words echoed inside his head and brought him back to the realization of his predicament. Caje probably could not make it back without Doc's help. But neither could Saunders. It was obvious he could bring out only one of the two. For a moment, Doc tried to convince himself that he could save both men, but he knew it was impossible. One must be left behind. The way Doc saw it, only one course of action made any sense. But he wasn't sure he could do it.

"Wait here, Caje. I gotta go check on something I forgot over there." He hesitated to tell him it was the sarge. He couldn't even begin to guess what his reaction might be if he told him what he had to do.

"OK, Doc, but hurry." Caje nervously fingered his M1.

* * * *

Hanley fought to gain control of the situation, but it was beyond his control. Orders had been to hold the line, but how could he do that against the superior numbers that were facing his platoon? From his position, he could see Valdez's and Colson's squads. The shelling on that side of the battlefield had almost come to a standstill. The two squads had moved forward to several large piles of field debris and were fending off a strong ground attack. He turned his attention to the right flank, where the smoke of the artillery attack almost totally obscured his view. The hits were still coming about as fast as he could count them. And then suddenly the artillery was silent, replaced by the growing din of small arms fire. At the forward edge, he could barely make out Saunder's and Evans's squads now engaged in ferocious close-in fighting against the streaming German troops. The voices of BAR's, machine guns, Schmeissers, Mausers, and grenades joined with the occasional scream of an artillery shell. The noises blended into one long, low roar that raced across the battlefield as the German army hit 3rd Platoon head on.

Hanley and Smitty joined Blanchard, Hanley's aide, in a large foxhole on a small knoll. Blanchard handed the lieutenant a dusty pair of field glasses, and the lieutenant rested his long arms on the sandbags that rimmed the deep depression. He wiped the lenses on his sleeve, then raised the glasses and surveyed the far edge of the battleground. In the distant woods where the German attack was centered, there still was a lot of movement. His platoon was being engulfed by the sheer numbers of the enemy.

A few minutes later, he reported to headquarters. "Yes, sir!" Hanley screamed into the phone, trying to make himself heard above the noise. "We are under heavy attack...I repeat, heavy attack... from artillery and ground troops. Over." He clicked on the phone and listened intently. "Yes, sir, I would say at least a company. Probably more. Over" A shell whined, and he dropped flat, ducking the incoming round. "No, sir, I do not think we can hold much longer. I only have whats left of a platoon. We need reinforcements. Over." He clicked the phone again.

Before he could get a response, a shell exploded nearby. Though they were crouching low, the impact blew the three men off their feet. With the phone still firmly in his hand, Hanley touched his nose and discovered that blood was gushing from it. "Damn!" he shouted. "No, Sir. I'm still here. Just a close call. Please repeat last message. Over." He nodded his head several times, listening while he held his nose with a handkerchief. "Roger. Out."

He jammed the phone back onto its cradle in the unit, and called to Smitty and Blanchard. "Smitty, find Saunders and Evans. Blanchard...Valdez and Colson. Tell them we are pulling back to Phase Line Green. I repeat, Phase Line Green. Have Colson and Saunders cover the retreat from their machine gun emplacements. And I want Saunders to turn that bridge into firewood. Now get outa here fast cause pretty soon we're gonna have a whole lot of Krauts in our laps."

Smitty raced off, headed for the last known location of Saunders' squad. When he got to the foxhole where the sergeant had been, there was nothing but a crater where a direct hit had landed. On the rise where the machine gun had been planted, a smoky column was evidence that there was no machine gun any more, leastwise no one alive up there to operate it.

He looked for someone, anyone, from Saunders' squad, and finally saw Kirby. Kirby had his BAR in full action, firing short bursts. Bullets caromed around him, kicking up dust and debris where they hit. His face was black from smoke and dirt and sweat. "Kirby!" Smitty called, diving into the shallow hole beside him. "Have you seen Saunders?"

Kirby rolled onto his back a moment as he reloaded. "I ain't seen no one but Krauts. Man, they're thick. Tell the Lieutenant we need help fast!"

"We're pulling back to Phase Line Green. If you see Saunders, tell him. Hanley wants his squad to cover the retreat with the machine gun, but I don't think that's possible now."

"Nah. They got hit a while ago." A bullet whizzed by Kirby's ear. He rolled back onto his stomach, and the BAR barked again.

"Pass the word to your squad. I'm gonna try to get to Evans. Oh, Hanley says be sure to take out the bridge." With that, he bolted toward the left flank. Kirby covered him until he disappeared into the smoke.

* * * *

Doc returned to the sergeant's side at the bottom of the hole. At first he thought Sarge might be dead, but when he got close, he saw that his chest was gently rising and falling. Saunders turned his head toward the medic.

"Who?" he whispered hoarsely.

"Caje. He's hit in the leg."

"Bad?" Saunders coughed.

"Bad enough. Bullet went right through. Soon as I get him to an aid station, he'll be all right." As he spoke, Doc fiddled with the flap of his medical bag; then he pulled off his helmet and wiped flecks of mud off the faded red and white cross. His eyes were restless. These acts did not go unnoticed.

Doc reached underneath Saunders' hip as gently as possible and pulled out the canteen. Holding it up, he noticed a large hole, so he threw it aside. Removing one of his own canteens, he uncapped it and held it to the sergeant's lips. Sarge drank greedily, the water trickling down his chin.

"Doc, can Caje get back if you help him?"

"Well, sure, but..."

"Then you have to get him outa here."

"But, Sarge, I can't..."

"Doc, any minute now we're going to be covered over with Krauts. There's no way you're gonna get me out of here anyway. I can't walk. I don't even know if I could take being moved. You can't help me. We both know that. But you can help Caje."

Saunders wasn't saying anything the medic hadn't already dealt with in his own mind. He just hated to hear it.

The sound of gunfire closed in. Doc heard someone hollering for Saunders. Doc crawled to the edge of the crater and called to Kirby in a futile attempt to get help, but Kirby was already gone, headed toward the wooden footbridge across the ravine. Doc slid back down to Saunders.

"Look. It may take me a while to get Caje out and then come back here. In case I can't get back quickly, I'm leaving an extra ampoule of morphine. You probably won't need it, but..." He started to put it in what was left of Sarge's shirt pocket, but Saunders stayed the medic's hand.

"I won't need it."

"Well, you might...if I take...if the Krauts show up before I get back, they might not have..." He averted his eyes, unable to look at Saunders. In that instant he realized what the sarge had known all along. Being left behind was a death sentence. The Krauts probably wouldn't be taking prisoners in his condition.

Both men heard Hanley's voice screaming behind them. "Fall back!" The order echoed down the line.

"Doc!" Caje yelled. "We're pulling back!"

Caje fired repeatedly at the enemy. The machine gun on the rise began to chatter as Billy put it back into action. Time had run out. Doc clambered to the rim of the crater and looked hopelessly for someone else who could help him avoid what he was about to do, but there was no one. Returning to the sarge he slipped the ampoule into the wounded man's pocket anyway. "Take it... you might need it before I get back. I'm gonna send a stretcher team for you, but like I said, it might take a while."

"It's OK, Doc. Really."

Doc nodded. He would have to deal with his feelings eventually, but later. Not now. There was no time.

After giving Saunders another drink, he placed the canteen at his side where he could easily reach it. Saunders grabbed the lapel of Doc's coat. Doc leaned in to hear better.

"You gotta get Caje back. D'ya hear? Get Caje back. Promise," he said insistently. "Promise me!"

"I'll get him back. Promise." As he turned to go, he spotted Sarge's .45 lying in the dirt where it had been blown out of the holster on Saunders' web belt. He picked it up and tucked it into Saunders' right hand. Not much, as weapons go, but Doc figured the sergeant might be able to defend himself with it. Or, if the time came, Sarge could.... He shook his head. He didn't even want to think that way.

A private ran by and Doc screamed for him to come help, just as a bullet hit the man in the back and his chest blew out in a bloody spray. The body fell out of sight.

Although Saunders could not see the battle, he heard it. The din grew louder and moved closer. "There's nothing more you can do. Now get outa here," Saunders growled, nodding toward the American lines. Distant voices picked up the call to fall back. A Schmeisser sounded nearby. The ground shook with an explosion near the ravine, and Doc covered the sergeant as wood debris rained down on them. Chaos ruled the battle now.

"Doc! Where are you? We gotta go!" Caje yelled. The sharp report of his rifle sounded over and over. "Doc! We're pulling back!"

Doc pushed himself off Saunders, grabbed his medical bag, and scrambled out of the hole. He pulled Caje to his feet, threw the injured man's arm around his neck, and moved toward the American lines.

Saunders listened to the sound of the American fire coming from all directions. But it was moving and soon he would really be alone. Tucking the Colt into the waistband of his pants, he tried to push himself upright with his good right arm, thinking that maybe he could crawl out on his own. Perhaps he could take his body's full weight on his good arm and slide his bottom back enough to move a bit. But at the first pressure on his hip, he collapsed in spasms of pain and slipped into blessed unconsciousness.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Saunders heard voices from somewhere in the darkness. They were far away and he could not make out what they said. He tried focusing on the words as they swirled around in his brain. The morphine that Doc had injected no longer dulled the pain that knifed through his hip...when was it? Today? Yesterday? No, hours ago. So long ago. His lips were dry, and the sun beat down mercilessly. No mercy, only pain. And the voices. It must be the litter bearers Doc had promised.

"Help me!" he tried to yell, but it came out barely a whisper. "...somebody..."

The voices, he thought through the haze, didn't sound right. What wasn't right? He couldn't think. Couldn't reason. Then finally his mind clicked on and it came to him. They were speaking German. Reflexively, he reached for the Colt he had shoved into his trousers before he passed out. A hand ripped it from his grasp.

Saunders opened his eyes, blinking at the brightness. He squinted to focus as he saw that someone was there, someone silhouetted by the sun behind him. The sergeant looked down to shield his eyes, and he was able to make out mud-caked German boots standing beside him.

"Well, well, what have we here?" the Kraut said in thickly accented English.

He looked to his comrades who stood at the edge of the crater, weapons ready. "Ein Vogel ist aus seinem Nest gefallen," one of the Germans watching said. They all laughed.

The German corporal beside Saunders stuck out his foot and nudged Saunders hip. Pain exploded, and he screamed in agony while the Germans enjoyed the show.

"Has the baby bird injured its leg?" he asked mockingly. Saunders struggled to control the pain, not wanting to give the enemy the satisfaction of seeing how much they were hurting him.

The German squatted and lifted Saunders' wounded arm, causing him to groan in spite of his resolve. After examining the watch on the sergeant's wrist, he roughly pulled it off and put it on his own arm. "What does this baby bird have in its pockets?" he intoned with no feeling of remorse or pity.

He opened the sergeant's pockets and began pulling out their contents. A small pocketknife went into the corporal's pocket, and he stuffed a map inside the front of his tunic. At the discovery of a rumpled pack of cigarettes, he called to one of the soldiers at the rim, "Aussehen, Hans. Zigaretten" He tossed them to a short, slightly stodgy looking man who thanked him.

When the corporal held up a silver lighter, a young soldier with nervous, darting eyes brightened, "Das ist sehr nett. Kann hab ich es? "

The corporal looked over the lighter, shrugged, and tossed it to the young man, who examined it and then put it into his jacket pocket. Returning to his pillaging, the rummaging Kraut pulled out a St. Christopher's medal on a chain, a rumpled handkerchief, a letter on pink stationary, a picture of a pretty teenage girl, and an odd assortment of money. Finally he pulled out the ampoule of morphine.

"Morphium," he held the ampoule above his head, displaying it to his comrades. Then he bent over Saunders and asked in English, "You want this?"

Saunders reached for it, but the Kraut laughed and threw it to the other side of the shell hole.

"Der Brief!" one of them called. "Was is das rosefarbenen Papier, Muehlhaeuser?"

The corporal, called Muehlhaeuser by his cohorts, picked up the pink parchment and picture. He cleared his voice and read to his friends with mock dramatics, 'Liebe Goon.' Goon! Sie sagt, daB er ein goon ist. Are you a goon?" he guffawed, turning back to Saunders.

"Meulhaeuser! Es ist Zeit zu verlassen."

"My comrades are correct. Enough playing." He tore the letter and the picture into tiny bits and sprinkled them over the sergeant like confetti. Then he placed the confiscated Colt against Saunders' forehead. "Goodbye, Sergeant."

Saunders hand rose to his chest, where he fingered the pieces of his sister's picture. He knew that in a moment it would be all over, but with the torment of the pain that still surged through his hip and with no chance of rescue, it was not a bad option. He was ready, and that translated into defiance. He met the German eye to eye, refusing to let the Kraut see any fear.

Then Muehlhaeuser pulled away. "Nein, I do not think so." His voice was dark and menacing.

"Muehlhaeuser, was machen sie?"

The German looked up to his comrades and grinned. "Ich werde irgendeinen SpaB haven. " They laughed again.

Muehlhaeuser uncapped the canteen that lay at Saunders' side and offered him a drink. But instead of putting the canteen to the sarge's lips, he poured it into his face. Saunders sputtered while the Germans enjoyed the spectacle. Then Muehlhaeuser tossed the empty canteen aside near where he had tossed the morphine.

The German knelt very close to the injured Sergeant. Saunders could see sweat beads on the man's forehead and smell the stink of his perspiration and hot breath. "And now, American, we have work to do. We go to kill your friends."

Summoning all the reserves that remained, Saunders' right arm flew out. The back of his hand made a hard, slapping sound on the Kraut's face, knocking him onto his back. A hint of a smile crossed Saunders' lips. The German was furious. He came at Saunders with the Colt in his hand, poised to shoot. Instead, he switched the pistol to his left and grabbed the sergeant's neck with his huge right hand. He squeezed with such great pressure that he lifted Saunders' upper body off the ground and brought it within inches of his own face. Saunders' breath wheezed in his throat as the German continued to close off the American's windpipe.

"Sterben Sie langsam! Die slowly!" Muehlhaeuser intoned menacingly. Then it was the German's turn to smile as he viciously released Saunders' head, slamming it down in the dirt. Saunders clutched his throat with his good right hand, gasping and coughing. The German rose and stalked off, the others following in single file.

They disappeared, and then it grew very still. The only thing he could hear was the sound of his own labored breathing. He was alone, and for the first time in his life, he was completely, totally helpless. He could not defend himself. He could not drag himself to shelter or safety. He couldn't quell his burning throat with a sip of water. He couldn't relieve the growing pain. The German had sentenced him to a slow, painful death. All he could do was lie in the God-forsaken shell hole, praying that it would come quickly. He shivered with the terror of the situation. Then, mercifully, he passed out again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When Littlejohn came to, it took a few moments to realize where he was. He lay in the underbrush along the bank of a narrow stream. On either side of the stream, the walls of the ravine rose steeply a good thirty-five feet above him. If anyone had looked for him where he had fallen, they probably would have seen nothing because of the denseness of the vegetation.

His head hurt, and putting put a hand to it, he found blood. He remembered advancing with his squad and then...then... he shook his head. Then a bullet had grazed him and sent him spiraling down into the depths. Sure that he was dying, he remembered calling out his ma's name. He couldn't ever remember being so scared.

He pulled first aid supplies from his pouch and applied sulfa and a bandage to the gash. Every muscle rebelled against the pummeling his body had taken when he tumbled down the rocky face of the ravine. His jacket and pants were torn and bloody scrapes lined his arms and legs. His head pounded, and thinking about anything but the discomfort he felt was almost impossible.

Realizing that he no longer had his rifle, he crawled through the brush and grasses, feeling around for it, but found nothing. He widened the search to the sides of the ravine. Still nothing. He was alone without a weapon. Littlejohn sat in the weeds with his head slumped forward, unable to force himself to move.

There was silence all around him. Not total silence because he could hear cicadas and birds. He knew he should have heard the sounds of battle. When he had been shot, it had been deafening. Now there were no shells exploding. No men screaming. Nothing human. For all he knew, he was the last man on earth.

No, he reasoned. There are bound to be others up there. Two whole armies don't just disappear.

He debated with himself for awhile, finally deciding that he had no choice but to get out of that ravine. For good or for ill, he had to know what had happened to his squad. Examining the wall in front of him, he selected a portion that was heavily tangled with roots. They would give him handholds that he could latch onto for support. It would be tough going, but he thought he could make it.

Littlejohn inched his way up the incline, slipping and sliding, gaining ground and losing it. By the time he reached the top, he dripped with sweat, and the throbbing in his head had doubled. He fell on his knees at the edge of the ravine behind a large bush. Putting his hand into the shrub to separate the branches, a long thorn lodged in his thumb. He cursed quietly to himself as he removed the barb and sucked the blood from his finger.

He had just started to move again when he heard voices. He dropped flat on his belly and peered through the lower branches, being more careful of the thorns this time. A cluster of Krauts was standing at the edge of a shell crater. They were posed with their rifles at their sides or propped on their shoulders. Their casual attitude and the lack of GIs told Littlejohn that the outcome of the battle had not been good for the Americans. What seemed obvious to him was that he was now behind enemy lines.

The Germans were watching something in the hole, something that must be funny because they kept laughing and pointing down. Littlejohn started to reach for his knife but remembered that it was attached to his missing M1. He reasoned that a knife wasn't going to be much protection against a squad of Krauts anyway. He needed a rifle. There were bound to be many weapons on the field, but with the enemy so close, there was no chance to search safely.

Uncle Rufus had always told him "discretion is the better part of valor." He never quite understood that saying, not being one to back down too often. But this time, he fully grasped its meaning, so he backed up quietly and slipped over the side, using the roots to lower himself back down, further skinning his knees through the torn cloth of his pants. Safely at the bottom, he studied the terrain. When he finally had his bearings, he headed west where he hoped the American lines would be.

A few yards downstream the area was littered with shards of wood. Walking farther, the debris became larger. The bridge was to be blown only if all was lost. Littlejohn found a good-sized piece that was sturdy enough to use as a weapon and had a jagged tip that might come in handy if he met up with Krauts down there.

He stumbled along, his tall body hunched over. The terrain beside the stream was rocky and uneven, and his large feet constantly slipped. He tried walking closer to the water where it would be more level, but then he slogging in the mud along the bank or sploshing into the creek. Littlejohn hated wet boots about more than anything.

Then quite without warning, the stream disappeared under an outcropping of rock. Assuming that it would reappear shortly, he continued on, content that he would have drier ground to travel.

Some time later, the stream was still gone, evidently flowing underground, and Littlejohn was not feeling as happy about it as he had been. As he drained the last of his canteen, he found himself wishing that he had filled it back when water had been plentiful.

Down in the ravine, the air was not stirring and had turned uncomfortably warm and sticky. Littlejohn stripped off his field jacket, folding it over the back of his web belt just like he had been taught in basic, and he plopped in the grass. How long had it been? He peered at his watch, but the crystal was broken and the hands were still. He tapped it with his index finger, but it was useless. Squinting through the branches of the trees far above his head, he noted that the sun had not yet appeared over the edge of the ravine's walls. When it did, it was going to get really hot. Littlejohn unplugged his canteen and stared into it as if he could magically find water just by looking, but here wasn't a drop left.

The only good thing about the ravine was that the number of trees that grew in it formed a canopy overhead that that kept him somewhat hidden. If he stayed close in to the side, in the shadow of the trees, he might not be spotted by any Krauts looking down. He shook his head a laughed. Who was he kidding. He didnt have a snowballs chance in hell of coming out of that ravine alive. Sooner or later, a German patrol was bound to spot him. Then the puny stick he carried would be about as useful as Uncle Rufuss aged bull. He was getting nowhere, so he rose reluctantly and lumbered downstream again.

By the time the sun shone directly overhead, Littlejohn's head was thundering. Putting a finger to the bandage on his forehead, he found that he had started bleeding again. He huffed and puffed as he stumbled forward over the rough, rocky terrain. His knees and hands were scraped bloody from tripping on the sharp stones that covered the streambed. A wave of dizziness overtook him, and his vision blurred.

When his foot caught on a large outcropped root, he pitched forward, landing hard on his face and stomach. For a moment he had the wind knocked out of him. Dusting off his knees as he sat up, he rubbed the raw spots that had been gouged when he had landed. There was a burning sensation on his cheek, and he guessed that he had scraped that also. All in all, he felt pretty sorry for himself. He held his knees against his chest and locked his arms around them. A feeling of wretchedness overtook him as he remembered how his ma used to hold him in her gentle arms and rock him when he hurt himself, telling him that it was going to be all right. But that was a long time ago, and he wasn't little any more.

Littlejohn smiled as he remembered the sarge telling him that he had two left feet. Well, it was true enough. Everyone knew. It was the curse of being a big man. Sometimes he watched the guys doing things with such ease, their compact bodies just naturally made for doing soldier stuff. With him those things were always difficult. Sarge understood that and never made fun of him. Nor did the sarge let him off the hook just because things might be more difficult for him than the others. Littlejohn liked that about him. In Saunders' eyes, Littlejohn was never less a soldier than the rest of the squad, though other guys might make him feel he was at times.

Was he the only American left alive? He had never felt more alone. What he wouldn't give for the sound of a friendly voice. Any voice. "Sarge, where are you? Why don't you come down here and help me. I can't make it. I just can't make it by myself," he said in a whisper. There was no one. Saunders would tell him he had to help himself or die right there.

He had just risen when he became aware of the sound of voices and of water splashing. It seemed to be coming from around a hard bend ahead. Creeping quietly to a thicket near the streambed, he saw that the stream had reappeared and once more flowed freely, clear and inviting. He was more acutely aware than ever that his mouth was dry. He desperately needed a drink.

The stream was close and yet impossibly far. A group of Krauts had taken up residence along its bank. Several of them were lying prone with their faces immersed in the sparkling water. A few were splashing themselves and each other. One brave Kraut was standing to his knees in the cool stream, his boots and socks thrown carelessly on the rocky shore. Littlejohn's eyes traveled to the top of the ravine where he spied a uniformed soldier standing guard with his Mauser in firing position.

Littlejohn sucked in his breath as he realized that if he hadn't stumbled, he might have walked directly into this hornet's nest. Maybe there were benefits to being clumsy. He used the sleeve of his shirt to wipe away the perspiration that beaded his upper lip. He ran his tongue over his dry lips. The water looked cool and refreshing, and he was thirsty. But it was not for him. Not today. As quietly as he could, he backed out of the cattails and slipped noiselessly back the way he had come. "I seem to be doing a lot of backing up today," he thought.

Traveling for what seemed like hours, Littlejohn found himself again at the spot where the stream had disappeared. He dropped to his belly and plunged his head into the coolness of the water. He splashed it on his head and shoulders. Filling his hands, he slurped it noisily. It felt good to be wet and full. He pushed his canteen into the current and listened happily as it filled with a gurgle. At least something had gone right for him that day. It occurred to him that he didnt have a halizone tablet, and that he was taking a chance drinking the water in the stream. He shrugged. Any port in the storm.

Slipping the canteen back on his belt, he started upstream again. He followed the rocky bed without real purpose. He hadn't yet formulated any kind of a plan. He just walked.

It was oppressive in the tunnel created by the high walls on both sides. Gradually the heat sapped his already-depleted strength. He knew he had to concentrate, to be alert, but it was getting harder and harder as the day wore on. Frequent stops to splash himself with water did little to help him in the long run. It also became harder to remain positive. Once he tried climbing out, but the terrain was too steep, and he only succeeded in skinning his shins and hands further.

Stumbling along he had all but given up hope when something caught his eye, something that did not belong there in the ravine. At first, it did not sink in as to what it was. Moving closer to it, he saw that it was a helmet. A plain old olive drab GI helmet without netting or cover of any kind. As soon as he picked it up, he knew that it was his. It had fallen when he had been wounded. He was back where he had started. Damn! All that time lost and he had gotten nowhere. At least he knew that he would be able to climb out at that spot

Littlejohn moved under a huge, spreading tree and crouched there. His whole body ached. Examining his sore knees, shins, and hands, he tried to pick out the small pieces of dirt and rock. It only made them bleed more.

Think. It was so hard to do with his head pounding. Placing his hands on his temples, he rubbed them and the throbbing eased. Hunger gnawed at his belly. Water did little to relieve the emptiness. He scoured his pockets for something that might ease his hunger, but there wasnt even a remnant of the hardtack he hated so much. Not even a stick of gum or a remnant of chocolate. He peered up and could barely make out the outline of the sun; it had been at least seven hours since the squad had moved out on the field. Judging by his body, that had been a lifetime ago.

Hauling himself to his feet, he began the arduous trip up the side of the ravine for the second time that day. His raw knees ached as they scraped along. Reaching for a root, the stick slipped from his hand and tumbled noisily to the bottom. He looked regretfully at it lying there, but he wasnt about to climb back down and retrieve it. And so he climbed on.

Near the top, he paused to catch his breath. Earlier in the morning the field had been full of Krauts. There was no way of knowing if they were still there, let alone how many. But there was no place else to go. He was out of options. His hands shook with the strain of the climb and with the fear that had been his companion all day; his muscles screamed for respite.

This time he listened carefully before lifting himself out onto flat ground. Nothing. He crawled on his belly and hid behind the same bush, avoiding the thorns this time. Slowly he lifted his head and peered through the branches. The field was empty now. The Krauts had probably been gone a long time. Crouching low, he looked to his left and right, surveying the landscape for the best possible avenue of escape.

The woods seemed his best bet, but entering that dark expanse without a weapon did not seem particularly prudent. His attention was drawn back to the field in front of him. There were weapons on the field. All he had to do was go get one. It was easier said than done. Walking out on that field, even crawling out there, would leave him totally exposed, an easy target for any Kraut. His hands shook. That field was the last place he wanted to go, and yet it was the only place he could go. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, he crept forward, his stomach hugging the ground.

He had barely gone ten yards when he came across the body of a dead German. Lying on his side with his elbows bent and his legs tucked up, the man looked like he was running. Littlejohn pushed on the body, turning it over, and its entrails cascaded out of its stomach. Already insects were moving about the mess. Littlejohn wanted to vomit, but he swallowed down the bile and searched for a weapon. Nothing. Maybe the Krauts had picked all the bodies clean. He continued his search.

The farther he went, the more he noticed the smell. It was something he knew he would never forget. The smell of smoke and explosives and rotting flesh. Everywhere he looked there were bodies. He had never been on a battlefield so many hours after the battle. Frontline infantry moved on and left cleanup to someone else. Even in retreat he had never been this close, this familiar with death on so large a scale.

He spotted the tip of an M-1 just on the other side of a pair of dead soldiers directly in front of him. He moved forward stealthily and grabbed hold of the soldier's jacket and moved the body out of the way. It rolled over, facing him. The charred face had no features left that would distinguish it as a human being

"Oh, God!" he cried aloud, "Help me. I can't do this. It's too much."

Feeling flushed and woozy, he pulled back and rolled his face to the sky. I want to be home. Out of this. Just let me die here and now, Lord, he prayed. The world spun and he fought just to breathe, wondering if perhaps he might actually be dying.

As he lay there baking in the sun, he thought he heard a sound. It was not a sound that came from nature, but a voice. His mind screamed "Krauts!" Without thinking, he hurled himself over the burned body, sandwiching himself between the two corpses, sending up a swarm of flies. He grabbed the M-1 and checked for ammunition, finding a full clip in the chamber. Opening the mans ammo pouch, he retrieved several more clips and stuffed them into his shirt.

Littlejohn started to work his way toward the woods and away from the sound, but something compelled him to stop a moment and listen again. The noise sounded distinctly like music, like singing. His brow furrowed as he listened, realizing that someone was singing a melody that he recognized. It was very faint, but real nonetheless. And the words were in English, too.

"Don't sit ... the apple ...tree... with anyone else...me." The faint voice sang.

Who could possibly be on a blackened, scarred battleground covered with corpses rotting in the hot sun and singing a song from the hit parade? Although his knees and elbows ached as they scraped along, he turned and advanced toward the singing. Several times he had to veer around the stiffening bodies of American and German soldiers. All the while, the broken strains grew closer. Now whoever it was sang, "Roll...over ...in...clover... roll me...over.... Then it stopped. He heard a groan, and the song began again, but more labored than before.

Following the sound, Littlejohn came to the edge of the same crater he had seen the Krauts clustered around. He held his rifle firmly, ready to fire at the first sign of trouble. Noiselessly, he poked his head over the edge to look in the hole.

Flies were thick and the stench gagged him. Pieces of bodies lined the crater. Directly below him, a partially clad soldier lay sprawled, and Littlejohn noted a dark spot on his forehead where a bullet had entered. On the far side, there was a man in what appeared to be the tattered remains of GI issue. He was covered in blood and unrecognizable. He was alive...and he was singing.

Littlejohn vaulted into the hole. "Hey, buddy. It's gonna be OK," he spoke softly as he approached.

The injured man sang on, oblivious to the presence of the new arrival. He stopped and coughed, then continued singing, struggling to get the words out. Littlejohn stared at the man's legs, bound together with strips of olive drab and what appeared to be a carbine wedged between them.

"Hey," Littlejohn started again, shaking him slightly on his side. The movement caused the soldier to groan in pain.

Blood matted the mans light hair and crusted his puffy, sunburned face, especially in the area above the left ear. His left eye had swollen shut. A mass of oozing gashes covered his body, and a blood-soaked bandage was fixed to the left side of his chest.

"Sorry, buddy, I didn't mean...." He stopped in mid sentence when his eyes fell on the sleeve of the torn jacket. Three stripes. A sergeant. His brow furrowed. "My God! Sarge is that you?" Dropping to his knees, he placed himself so that his face would be directly in front of the man's face. "Sarge, it's me. It's Littlejohn."

Saunders sang a few more lines. From somewhere he thought he heard a familiar voice, but knew it couldn't be. The Kraut! He was back! Maybe just to finish him off. Saunders' arm lashed out and caught Littlejohn squarely in the jaw, knocking him over.

Littlejohn grabbed his jaw and rubbed it. It was hard to believe that as bad as the sarge looked he could still pack a wallop like that. The private crawled back to Saunders, this time holding the sergeant's good arm. "Sarge, it's me. Littlejohn."

"Littlejohn?" Saunders moaned. "Littlejohn is dead. He died. My fault." Saunders' one good eye was open, but clearly he wasnt focusing.

"No, Sarge, it's me. I'm alive." Dropping the M-1 by his side, Littlejohn placed his fingers at the bottom of Saunders' chin and turned the sergeant's face toward him.

"Littlejohn," he croaked in recognition. "Littlejohn," he repeated, closing his eye as if keeping it open required too much strength.

"I'm gonna help you, Sarge. I'm gonna get you out of here."

Littlejohn pulled out the canteen and poured a little water into his hand, dribbling it into the sergeant's mouth. Saunders' swollen tongue snaked out and licked the moisture from his cracked lips. Littlejohn applied the liquid a second time; then he gently lifted Saunders' head and tipped the canteen to trickle a bit down his throat. Using his hand again, he applied water to the injured man's forehead, dabbing at it with the handkerchief that he found beside the sergeant's body.

"Let me see if I can move you, Sarge," Littlejohn said reassuringly, trying to be helpful. He grasped Saunders shoulders and began to lift him into a sitting position, but Saunders' cry stopped him. Lowering the sergeant back down, Littlejohn looked at him, stricken. "I'm sorry, Sarge, but the only way I can get you back is to move you. Is it your leg that hurts?"

Saunders panted, "Hip. Morphine."

Littlejohn shook his head. "I don't have any morphine, Sarge."

Saunders pointed to the end of the crater. "Morphine."

The private looked around trying to make out what the Sarge was saying. On hands and knees Littlejohn crawled in the direction Saunders had indicated. Finally, he saw it. A morphine ampoule. It lay in the mangled remains of what appeared to be a human leg with the boot still on its foot. He reached over the body and extracted the morphine and returned to Saunders. Wiping it off as best he could, he pulled off the cap and administered the dose.

We gotta get out of here, Sarge. The Krautsre sure to come back eventually. I need to get you to a hospital.

"I can't make it. Saunders whispered. You go. Get...back to our lines."

"I'm taking you with me, Sarge. Or I'm not going at all."

"Leave me, Littlejohn. That's an order."

Littlejohn shook his head, "I guess you'll just have to put me up on charges when we get back. I'm getting you home. I promise you that."

Now, how the hell'm I going to do it? he thought to himself. When he had been back on the farm, a heifer had been injured badly on barbed wire while in the farthest pasture and couldn't walk. Hed carried the animal all the way back to the barn. He was certainly strong enough to carry the sarge if he werent so depleted. But tired, hungry, and beaten up, he knew he didnt have that kind of strength. Besides, he wasn't sure if Saunders could even survive just the pain of being moved like that. No, he would have to think of something else.

Sarge needed a stretcher, but even if he had one, how could one man, no matter how big or strong, carry both ends? No, not a stretcher, but a travois. When he was a little boy, his Uncle Ned had shown him pictures of Indians carrying their possessions on a travois with one end roped to a horse and the other dragging the ground. If he could find something to make one, he could drag the sergeant back on it.

When they had first arrived at the field, before the enemy attack, he had noticed a collection of discarded items that had been dumped in the field. Farmers often did that...it was how they disposed of things they didnt need any more. Maybe there was something he could use.

"Look, Sarge, I'm gonna leave you a minute. I have to check something out. I'll be right back. I promise."

Saunders nodded, not really expecting the private to return.

Littlejohn picked up the M-1 and lumbered out of the hole. Running as low as a man his size could, he made for the debris pile. His heart raced as he skittered across the open terrain.

The area was a treasure trove of antique farm machinery, logs, stumps, and a decaying wagon. Moving in closer, he eyed the wagon. Each side, roughly two feet by six, was made of boards side by side with smaller bracing pieces. They were attached to the wagon with a few rusting nails. One side had been completely devastated by artillery shells, but the other looked as if it might still be sturdy enough to use. He grabbed the side with both hands and rocked it gently, loosening the nails until the wood pulled away from the wagon. Laying it down, he pushed the nail tips flat with his boot and tested it for strength. It was old and rickety, but it just might hold up.

As he headed back to Saunders with his find, his foot slipped on a rock and twisted. He fell on his backside, and his hand landed something hard and metallic. Beneath his fingers, he found a sturdy chain. The farmer may have used it for towing things or for pulling stumps. Littlejohn's mind celebrated as he realized what luck had led him to. Half-buried in the ground, the chain resisted, but a firm tug pulled it free. Hanging it around his neck, he trotted back.

He placed the wagon side flat beside Saunders and wrapped the chain around one of the boards where it met the first brace. Then he wrapped the other end of the chain around the second board in a like manner. Knotting the ends as well as he could, he tested to see if the chains would hold. Not bad, he thought.

"OK, Sarge. We're gonna try this now. I have to move you to get you onto it. I know it'll hurt, but there's nothing I can do."

Saunders barely nodded his understanding.

Grabbing the dead medic's jacket, he opened it and worked it underneath the boards, leaving the zippered edges open on both sides. Then straddling the makeshift travois, he grasped the sergeant's jacket firmly and began to pull him onto the wooden platform. With the first movement, Saunders cried out a word Littlejohn had never heard him utter before. Littlejohn's instinct was to stop, but he knew he might as well get the job done as fast as possible. Inch by inch he pulled the wounded soldier onto the boards until he was in place. He brought together the two sides of the jacket and zipped them, securing Saunders to the travois. For good measure, he brought the sleeves up and tied them around the chains.

Littlejohn knelt beside the sergeant and used the handkerchief to wipe the moisture from Saunderss face. "Sarge, I know it hurts a lot, but hang in there. I'll be as gentle as I can, but it's gonna be bumpy. You have to be quiet as you can. Understand?"

"I'm...I'm OK. Let's go."

Hanging the rifle over his shoulder, Littlejohn grasped the chain and hauled the travois up the sides of he crater. He removed his jacket from where it still hung on the back of his web belt, folded it several times, and stuck one end of it in the front of his pants and the other end up under his shirt. He patted the lump several times in order to rearrange the padding. Then he stepped into the semi-circle of the chain and hoisted the end of the travois. Even with the bulk of he jacket, the chain cut into his middle as he took the full weight of the sergeant.

The boards bounced over the uneven ground, and with each bump the sergeant groaned. Littlejohn listened to the creaking and expected that at any moment the travois would fall apart. But amazingly it held. Step by step he made his way toward the woods, beyond which he hoped to find the American lines.

If the field had been bad, the woods were agony for both men. The weeds and brush dragged at the travois. In places where the ground was soft, it wanted to dig in. Roots and limbs caused Littlejohn to strain to pull it over, and then it jarred the sarge when it thumped off the backside. He tried to pick the clearest path, but no matter which way he chose, something always impeded their progress. Littlejohn had to stop frequently to rest, but he dare not put down the travois for fear he'd never have the strength to get it back up.

The sun's rays were slanting through the branches of the trees. Littlejohn's stomach rumbled mightily, but he saw no edibles as he trudged along. He knew that without food, what little strength he had wouldnt last long. He had to get back to the American lines before his body gave out.

As the travois bounced its way over an uneven rocky outcropping, Saunders moaned, "Littlejohn, if I don't make it..."

In all the time Littlejohn had known Saunders, he had never heard him speak of not making it. Sarge was the one who was always telling them they could make it. Always giving them one of his little pep talks. It worried him that Sarge might be giving up. Usually, in combat giving up meant dying.

"Hey, what you talking about? Take moren a few little injuries to do you in."

"I'm so tired... so tired. I just wanna sleep," Saunders groaned.

"Oh, no you don't," the private thought. "You sleep, you die. You gotta stay awake."

"Hey, Sarge, Im gettin' pretty tired myself. I could fall asleep any second now. You think you could talk with me and help keep me awake?"

"Mmm" he mumbled.

"Hey, Sarge, you didn't ever live on a farm did you? Well, I grew up on one. You think we work hard in the Army? You should live on a farm. Work, work, work. That's all there was to do. Sunup to sundown. Know what I mean?"

Saunders mumbled something incoherent.

"Don't be goin' to sleep on me, Sarge. I'm counting on you to help me."

"... listening."

"Well, on our farm we raised cows. Milk cows, Littlejohn continued, his voice as hushed as he could make it and still be heard. He knew that he should be moving silently, but at that moment, keeping the sarge from going to sleep seemed more important.

"Herefords?" Saunders grunted.

"No, Sarge. Herefords are beef cows. My uncle Murray used to raise Herefords. I'm talking about milk cows. You know...like Holsteins and Guernseys. Beef cows are fatter... obviously, 'cause that is the whole idea...to fatten them up for sale. Milk cows are leaner. You can see the outline of the bones on the back hip and rump area. And of course they have a big udder all year, not just in calving season. Do you know the difference between a Holstein and a Guernsey?"

Saunders groaned.

"Well, I didn't think you did. Let me tell you. A Guernsey is all one color. Most of them are ...oh...somewhere around a tan to light brown color. Now a Holstein is what you see on the milk advertisements in the papers or on labels and things. They are black and white...big patterns of black and white all over.

"We had Holsteins," Littlejohn continued. "They are great animals. Real good natured. Big eyes. When I was a little kid, I had a little calf that I raised. I'd hold out my hand and it would come up and sniff me a little and grab hold of one of my fingers like I was its ma and suck away. I used to put the grass in my mouth so the calf would eat it and lick my face. Dumb thing to do, huh? Talk about dumb. My little brother Vernon used to put spit on his tongue and let the dog lick it off. Now I never did that. No, sir. I drew the line at that. Now wasn't that dumb, Sarge?"

No response.

"Sarge?"

"Dumb."

"Anyway, my ma used to tell me that one day one of those cows was gonna up and eat my face off if I didn't be careful. I never did really believe her, but I always wondered just a little."

Sarge had slipped a bit, so Littlejohn turned and grasped the sides of the jacket that held him to the travois and hitched him up again. Saunders groaned loudly in spite of attempts to control it.

"Shhh. Sarge, ya gotta be quiet." He put a grimy hand over the sergeant's mouth and held it there, shushing him. He stayed that way for several minutes while he watched the trees and listened for anything that signaled that they'd been heard. All was quiet except for the sound of the two soldiers, each breathing hard.

Finally, he removed his hand. "We're still in Kraut territory. As a matter of fact, I'm surprised we haven't seen any. I would've thought the woods'd be crawling with them, but not a one in sight."

As if his statement were prophetic, they were startled to hear voices speaking German a short distance away. Saunders shuddered, remembering the last time he had heard Krauts talking. He had been helpless then, and he was still helpless. Littlejohn dropped the travois and fell to the ground, his hand automatically going to Saunders' mouth to suppress the cry of pain. Peering into the dense woods, he spotted a line of twelve to fifteen Germans moving single file about a hundred yards away. Unless the Germans' route changed, their line of march would bring them right to the spot where the two Americans lay.

Littlejohn had only the bayonet and the rifle. Not much firepower if they were spotted. The Krauts might not even give them the opportunity to surrender. For sure Sarge would be a goner. Stepping out of the harness, he pulled the travois into the underbrush, as Saunders bit his lip to keep from crying out. Littlejohn took a small branch, and retracing their own route a few paces, brushed away the drag marks left in the dirt.

The line of soldiers drew closer. The private whispered, "Krauts about ten yards. I think we'll have to fight them."

Both men held their breath, and miraculously the patrol passed by without seeing them. Littlejohn maintained his position until the Germans were well out of sight. Then he struggled to lift the travois, and at last he moved out quickly, not stopping to rest again until he had put some distance between themselves and the Krauts.

"Littlejohn," Saunders forced his mouth to work when they finally stopped for a rest. "You're not gonna make it hauling me like this. You have to leave me."

"I remember when my pa first taught me to milk. My hands are real big, so I'm pretty good at it. You grab a teat and squeeze and pull, squeeze and pull. Ma was pretty good at milking, but she had a strange way of doing it with hands turned upside down and squeezing with her thumbs."

In spite of being winded, Littlejohn continued on. "Anyway, when Pa taught me, I was pretty scared, but once I learned, it wasn't bad. Actually, kind of restful. When we were milking, the cats would all come around, and if they cried enough, I'd give them each a squirt. That is whenever Ole Ed would let them. Ole Ed was our hound dog. He only had one good eye. The other one got put out when he tangled with a coon one night."

Saunders had to keep reminding himself that this was Littlejohn who was talking. Littlejohn, who seldom uttered more than 10 words strung together at a time. He was a friendly man, he just didn't jabber away like some of the others...say, Kirby, for instance.

The whole time Littlejohn droned on, his eyes searched the woods for trouble. His deep voice was just loud enough for Sarge to hear. "Every summer Pa had us working in the fields. 'Bout three times a year, we'd cut the clover and stack up the hay for winter feed. Always something to do. Then in August, we'd all pack up and go to the 4-H Fair. Guess what I showed at the fair?"

"Cows?" Sarge puffed.

"Nah, Sarge. Can't show cows. You show..." he put his back to the chain and started moving again with a loud grunt "... heifers. Heifers become cows after theyve calved for first time. For 4-H you show heifers. I had runner-up to the grand champion one year. I guess I was about fifteen at the time. Her name was Bernice. I named her after the Methodist minister's wife. I always thought that woman looked like a cow. Bernice was one calf that we had to help into the world. Pa tied ropes to her legs and the two of us pulled her out. She almost died. She was the calf I told you about that followed me around. Maybe she remembered me holding her head while her ma cleaned her up with her tongue. I don't know. Bernice sure gave us a lot of good calves in her day."

On and on through the afternoon Littlejohn talked about life on the farm. Sarge had given up trying to respond. He grunted or groaned occasionally, wishing that the big man would just be quiet and let him sleep.

Littlejohn moved along unsteadily, puffing with exertion. His arms were leaden and his neck and back screamed for relief. His legs quivered wildly as he struggled to keep his balance over the uneven terrain and not drop the travois. Saunders had long since ceased moaning from the painful jostling, and with the blood loss he had lapsed into unconsciousness. The private needed to stop and rest, to put the sarge down for a moment, but he was unsure how he would ever be able to lift him back up in his own depleted condition.

Directly in front of them, a good sized tree had recently fallen over and lodged in the "Y" of a smaller tree, leaving its trunk rising from the ground at a gentle angle. Littlejohn pulled up next to it and rolled his body over to the other side, the high end of the travois resting on the fallen tree. He could stop safely, and at that height it should be easy to get Saunders back up. And the foliage that remained on the downed tree offered at least some measure of protection in case another group of Germans went by.

Littlejohn's cheeks puffed as he struggled to regain his breath. Flopping to the ground, he laid his head on the soft grass.

"Grady, I wanna talk to you," Saunders moaned suddenly.

Littlejohn turned to the sarge. "Grady is dead, Sarge. Remember? We buried him in the rain. A long time ago."

"Grady, take your BAR and cover me."

Littlejohn rose to his knees and put a hand on Sarge's forehead. "You got a fever, Sarge. You gotta be quiet."

"Grady!" Sarge yelled.

Littlejohn leaned close and held his grimy hand over the sergeant's mouth, continuously shushing him. "You're not thinking right. Grady's dead."

"Grady dead?" Saunders' voice trembled. He shook his head as if trying to unscramble everything. Then his eyes cleared as he fought his way back to the present. His chest heaved.

"Littlejohn?" he said more quietly.

"Yeah, Sarge. I'm here. I'm gonna get you back. I promise. We should be close. Won't be long now."

Littlejohn had begun to shiver slightly in spite of being hot from the exertion. He pulled the jacket out of his pants and slipped it on, zipping it up.
 
 

"It's time to go, Sarge. We can't hang around too long here." Saunders groaned through gritted teeth. He swallowed down the pain and grabbed the front of the Pfc.'s jacket lapel, looking at him squarely with his one good eye.

"No more," Saunders shook his head. "Please. No more."

Littlejohn struggled to comprehend the message that the sarge had just given him. Saunders never gave up no matter what. Yet for the second time that day, he was saying that he wanted to be left behind to die rather than go on. "Sarge...you don't mean that. I know you don't."

His face creased with pain. "Please...I can't take any more. Promise me..."

"Sarge..." Littlejohn's eyes pleaded with Saunders.

"If you don't promise me, I'm not leaving this spot. I wanna hear you promise." The sergeant's voice was barely audible. "No more cow stories."

"Huh?"

"If I hear so much as a mention of the word cow...I'm checkin' out right here and now on the spot."

Littlejohn stared at the Sergeant incredulously, and for a moment time was suspended as the words penetrated and rolled around in his head. Then a laugh erupted from the gentle giant, literally exploding, the very sound of it surprising them both. Saunders put his fingers against his own lips this time to shush Littlejohn, and for a second, there was no pain. Only the PFC stifling the laughter by clasping both hands over his mouth. Tears rolled down his cheeks.

"Now get me out of here, Littlejohn. I don't know how much longer I can make it."

"Sure, Sarge," Littlejohn cried, grunting with the exertion of the emotion, trying to be serious. "I'm gonna get you back." He positioned himself and leaned into the chain again, moving toward home. "Hey, Sarge," he chuckled, "Did I ever tell you about chickens?"

Saunders moaned.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Hanley stood at the wall, scanning the area across the field. Where the hell were his men? In the beginning, there had been a steady flow of stragglers. But in the last hours, none. With nightfall approaching, it looked less and less likely that there would be any more.

"Lieutenant?"

"Conner, how bad is it?" he asked without taking his eyes off the horizon.

"Not good, sir. Losses were heavy. Looks like about fifty percent. First squad seems to have been hit bad. They took the brunt of it."

"How bad, Conner?" Hanley said tensely. He lit a cigarette and took a deep drag, still without taking his eyes from the field in front of him.

"Two back. Kirby is OK and Nelson has a flesh wound. That's all we know of. Five confirmed dead. The rest MIA."

Hanley spun around. "MIA? Which ones?"

"Well, sir, Caje, the medic, Littlejohn..." He hesitated.

"Saunders?"

"Sorry, sir. No word."

"There was a kid...uh, Metzer. What about him?"

Conner quickly scanned a paper. "KIA."

Hanley's head dropped to his chest. "Damn."

Smitty hastily added, "Sir, maybe the rest are all OK. Maybe they're working their way back here right now."

"Lieutenant," Kirby piped up, "let me go look for the guys."

"Sorry, Kirby, we need everyone we've got." Hanley let out a stream of smoke and walked over to the wall, his back to the men.

"But, sir, if any of 'em is alive, we can't just leave..."

Hanley spun around. "That's enough, soldier. You think I don't want to go back and look for Saunders and the rest?" He spat out the words, his face mere inches from Kirbys. "This thing isn't about you or me or even Saunders. I couldn't send someone out there if my own brother was lost. My back's against the wall, so just keep your lip to yourself. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir. I understand, sir." Kirby punched each "sir" punched for angry effect. Kicking the ground with the toe of his boot, he stormed off.

Hanley didn't blame him. It was what he wanted to do, too. Only he couldn't. He didn't have the luxury. He was an officer, and officers don't throw tantrums. He looked up at the sky, which had started to darken. 'Hell of a day to die,' he thought.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Littlejohn trudged slowly across a field, forcing each step by sheer will. Without warning, the air was rent with the sound of shells whizzing over their heads and landing in a seek and find pattern. A short distance away, he spotted a stone wall where he might find protection from the terrible danger...if he could just reach it. It seemed so far away.

One shell exploded nearby, the impact knocking him off his feet and pitching him sideways. The travois tipped, then flipped back over as Littlejohn rolled. Saunders screamed as fire shot down from his hip. Littlejohn scrambled out of the harness of the shattered travois and threw himself on top of the sergeant, shielding him as a second shell exploded deafeningly close. Littlejohn's back and legs were sliced painfully by tiny shards of shrapnel.

"We can't stay here, Sarge." The concussions drowned out his voice. A thin red stream from his forehead flowed into his eyes, blurring his vision. A new wound had opened on the side of his neck and it bled heavily.

As if on autopilot, Littlejohn rose to his knees and unzipped the jacket that held Saunders to the shattered boards, releasing him. Blood streamed from a cut that had opened on the sergeant's forehead when the travois upended. The bandage on his chest had torn loose, the wound had begun to hemorrhage. Littlejohn pulled the sergeant to a seated position in spite of his protests. He put his shoulder into Saunders' middle and tried to rise.

Littlejohn groaned with the effort, but he was totally done in. In vain he tried a second time, then collapsed beside the sergeant. "I'm sorry, Sarge. I promised, but I can't do it. I can't get you home." All the long way, all the struggle, and for what? To die on that wretched field.

Saunders grasped Littlejohn's arm with a hand that trickled red fluid and smiled a knowing smile, nodding his head in acceptance. "You did ... OK, Little..." he didn't finish. Another shell burst.

No! Littlejohn thought. I'm not done yet. I made a promise and I'm gonna keep it! Adrenalin surged. Summoning every reserve he had left, he put his beefy hands under Saunders' armpits. With a loud grunt, he hefted the sergeant, then scooped him into his arms, cradling him like a baby, and tore off across the field...all in one continuous motion.

* * * *

The Krauts were dropping in rounds, but they were short of Hanley's position. All eyes scanned the distance for enemy troops. After the horrors of the morning, the platoon dreaded what might come.

"Lieutenant! Lieutenant! I see something!" Kirby yelled as he ran up and pointed to the edge of the forest. The soldiers' bodies tensed and weapons swung into firing position. At first it was hard to tell exactly what it was, but it was moving slowly out of the smoke and fire. "It's Littlejohn!" Kirby yelled, jumping up and down. "I'd know that big lug anywheres."

"What's he got with him? He's carryin' something?" Smitty gaped. "What is that he's carrying? Some kind of a bag?"

"I don't know. I can't make it out. Maybe it...." Lt. Hanley squinted; then he raised his field glasses. The soldier stumbling across the field almost fell as a shell exploded too close. "It's Saunders! Littlejohn's got Saunders!" Hanley yelled.

"He looks about done in. We gotta help 'em!" Kirby vaulted over the stone wall before Hanley could tell him to stay or go. Two others followed, and the three soldiers sprinted across the few hundred yards.

* * * *

Littlejohn saw the three men running toward him. "Medic!" he screamed. "Medic! Dammit, get a medic!"

He huffed loudly. His arms, struggling to maintain their hold under the sergeant's back and knees, trembled with the weight they bore. His back muscles begged for relief.

As he expended the last of his newfound energy, fresh arms pulled Saunders from him. Valdez and another sergeant laced their hands behind the injured man's back and under his legs then sprinted the last fifty yards. Kirby threw his arms around the exhausted Littlejohn and helped him stumble along behind.

Valdez and the private handed Saunders over the stone wall and the men laid him on the grass. A few seconds later, Littlejohn collapsed beside him.

"We made it, Sarge. We made it," Littlejohn panted. Over and over, he kept repeating the words, "We made it, Sarge," but Saunders did not reply.

A couple of medics were already working over him. They gingerly moved him onto a stretcher and headed for the aid station. "He's gonna need blood," one of the medics called back over his shoulder. "Lots of it. Our supplies are low. O positive."

"I'm O positive, Lieutenant," Littlejohn volunteered, glassy-eyed.

"Just stay where you are. You're gonna need a medic yourself. Kirby! Find some donors. O positive."

"Yes, Sir!" Kirby hurried off.

A medic approached Littlejohn to examine him, but the private pushed the man away.

"Littlejohn, the medic is here to help you. Are you OK? You need help?" Hanley questioned.

The private looked down at himself, and it was the first time he realized that he was covered...face, hands, jacket, pants... with blood. Great drops of sweat popped out and mingled with both the Sergeant's blood and his own. At first Littlejohn tried to wipe off the blood with his hand. When it wouldn't come off, he tried to remove his jacket, but the zipper stuck. He tugged at it in a frenzy, as if it were burning him. Hanley bent over and calmly unzipped the jacket. Littlejohn tore it off, flinging it over the wall and back onto the field behind him. The shirt followed, its buttons flying off with the tearing.

Littlejohn was crazed, trying to remove the blood-soaked pants. He pulled his pants down to remove them, but his boots were still on, and they stopped him. A moan formed at the back of his throat, and it burst forth as he furiously tugged and pulled.

The soldiers around him averted their eyes, not quite knowing what to do. Hanley knelt in front of Littlejohn without saying a word. He calmly unbuckled the boots and pulled them off. Hanley knew that the soldier could not be reasoned with in this state, so he tried to help however he could.

At last Littlejohn sat on the grass in his undershirt, boxers, and socks, arms hanging limply. He shoved his hands under his armpits, pressing them hard to stop the shaking. And he rocked. His head hung on his chest, and his shoulders heaved. At first Hanley thought that the private was out of breath, but when Littlejohn looked up, tears were coursing down his cheeks, and he sobbed. He cried for the sarge he had carried in his arms and whose blood had covered him. But he also cried for himself. He cried because the full weight of the war had come over him all at once. He cried for those he had killed, and he cried for those around him who had been killed. Some he had counted as friends and some he had never known well. Others were enemies. He cried for the faceless soldier in the field. He cried for all the times he hadn't been able to cry, all the times he'd had to cover up the terror and exhaustion. He tried to speak, but the words would not come. He just cried.

At first Hanley was unsure what to do. It wasn't often that one saw seasoned soldiers lose it like that. He felt uncomfortable watching the giant of a man wracked with tears and blubbering incoherently. It was easy for the lieutenant to understand how Littlejohn felt. There were times when he himself wanted to break down and cry out all the misery and tension. But he couldn't. Being an officer, too many people depended on his being strong.

What would Saunders do? "Hell," he thought, "Saunders wouldn't hesitate to throw his arms around the soldier and comfort him." But he wasn't Saunders, and it wasn't his style. He was more reserved than the sergeant. It wasn't that he cared any less. He just had trouble showing it. But Saunders wasn't there. And Littlejohn needed something...someone. The book said that an officer had to maintain a certain amount of distance from his men or he lost his ability to lead, to keep his men's respect. Respect? What would Saunders say? Somehow all of that officer stuff just didn't matter in the field when a man was suffering. Hanley had known Littlejohn for a long time and right at that moment the private didn't need an officer, he needed a Saunders. Screw the book. Hanley flopped on the ground next to the young man sitting beside a wall in France wearing only his underwear, and he put his arm around the man's heaving shoulders. Finally, he wrapped both arms around the private and just let him weep out his pain.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

For a moment Saunders thought he was back at the old gristmill where his squad had last slept. He could hear the sounds that were so familiar. The sounds of sleep...snoring, snorting, smacking lips...the restless sounds of sleep interrupted or hard to come by. But there were other sounds. Somewhere nearby, someone moaned. Someone else whimpered unabashedly. Wood and canvas creaked. Then there were the muffled sounds of places farther off. The sounds of screams and cries. Sounds of motors...squealing brakes... engines...the whine of a generator... crickets...all the sounds all mixed together in one chorus.

And there was the pain. The terrible pain.

Forcing his good eye open, he couldnt see much. He was in a dark place. He wondered if perhaps he were dead. Gradually, his vision adjusted and he became aware that it was not actually black where he was, but gray. Walls surrounded him, but walls weren't walls; he could see light shadows through them, and small pinpoints of light dancing about.

"Is anybody there?" he tried to call out, but his voice came out a bare whisper. A little louder. "Is anybody there?"

He heard shuffling feet and whispering. Then one of the walls slid back and someone came near. A voice, a woman's voice, spoke gently and quietly, "Welcome back, Sergeant." She held a small flashlight, shining it toward the floor so as not to blind him. In the reflected light he could see a slender woman dressed in army fatigues. Not much else could be seen clearly in the dimness.

"Where... where am I?"

"You are at a field hospital. You had surgery. They took a piece of shrapnel out of your chest and your hip was dislocated." She swung the light around, moving it up and down to show him his left leg suspended from a cloth sling. "Your leg is in traction." She moved the light to the end of the bed. "The sandbags are to put pressure on the leg to keep your hip in place while it heals." She moved up beside him. "You'll be out of action a while, but you're gonna be fine."

He felt the touch of cool fingers. "Would you like a drink of water?" she asked.

"Please," Saunders croaked. The woman reached across him.

"Here you go, Sergeant," he felt smooth glass against his dry lips. Water cascaded down his throat, and he gulped as fast as he could. He had not realized how thirsty he was. "Not too fast. I don't think your stomach can take very much. We don't want you getting sick on us, do we?" She pulled the glass from his mouth and set it beside him, perhaps on a table he couldn't see. "Just let me get your temperature and pulse. Then I'll let you sleep."

" Mmm." He was too tired to protest anything at that moment.

"Well, Sergeant, it would seem that your temperature is almost back to normal," she said as she shook down the thermometer and put it in her pocket. "That is very good news."

"More water?" he asked quietly.

"Sure, but easy does it." She reached across him once more and retrieved the glass, but by the time she had it to his lips, he was already out again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
 
 

"Lieutenant," his voice was barely audible.

The familiar figure of Hanley stood with his back turned, talking to someone on the other side of a stained cloth and metal screen. The sergeant's voice startled Hanley, and he glanced behind. He turned back momentarily to speak with someone on the other side of the screen. "He's awake." He heard muffled voices, and then Hanley turned toward him.

"Hey, soldier, how do you feel?" Hanley shot him a reassuring, relieved grin.

"Like I got hit by a Kraut .88. I may have felt worse, but I dont know when."

"If it's any consolation," he noted with a twinkle in his eyes, "you look as bad as you feel." Hanley reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lighting one.

"That bad, huh?"

Hanley inspected his sergeant. Wide bandages swathed his head, covering the left ear and most of the left eye. His face was puffy with deep black and blue patches, a stark contrast to his pallor. His chest, where not crisscrossed with bandages, was etched with swollen shrapnel cuts and superficial wounds. Each arm had an IV line, one feeding him dextrose and antibiotics, and the other providing plasma. His left leg was held in traction.

"We got hit pretty bad, didn't we?" Saunders whispered.

Hanley's put the cigarette to Saunders' swollen lips so he could take a drag.

"Yeah, they pretty much threw everything at us but the kitchen sink." He shook his head resignedly, returning the cigarette to his own lips.

"Sorry we...I ... let you down, Lieutenant..."

Hanley's eyebrows raised incredulously. "Let me down? How do you get that?"

"At briefing, you told us to hold at all cost. We caved in...we didn't...I didn't..."

Hanley returned the cigarette to Saunders' mouth for a second drag, but the Sergeant was in no mood to enjoy creature comforts.

"There are a few things I don't think you have been in any position to know. Let me set the record straight. We expected the brunt of the counter-offensive to hit farther to the south. They fooled us and came at the weakened line down on our end. Saunders, they threw a reinforced company directly at us. Your squad just happened to be smack dab in the center of a major offensive. You didn't fail. K Company held long enough for our side to regroup and get ahold of the situation. We broke their offensive and have scored a major victory out of this. Last night, we pushed the Krauts back all the way to the river. Your squad may not have been with us, but you sure as hell made it possible. There's a certain general who thinks each of you deserves a medal for what you did. You're all being recommended for a unit citation."

"Medal? For what? I got my squad wiped out." He strangled a cry in his throat.

Hanley was silent for a time.

"What about my men, Sir?" the sergeant whispered in a pained voice.

Hanley put his hand on the non-com's shoulder. "Kirby came through without a scratch. And, of course, Littlejohn. He just needs some rest for his mind and his body. He has a crease on his forehead that's left him with a pretty good headache and a laceration on his neck. He took a few shrapnel wounds to his backside, but he'll be OK. He's two cots down, sleeping."

"Lieutenant...." Saunders grasped Hanley's arm and held tightly, "Littlejohn carried me all the way back here. I don't think Idve made it if it hadn't been for him. He kept talking to me, making me listen to these stupid stories about cows. I never in my life heard him talk that much. Littlejohn did that just to keep me alive." His voice was thick and slurred like a drunken man, but his words were intense.

"I'm putting him in for a Bronze Star. I know how you feel about medals, but I think he earned this one."

Saunders nodded his head gingerly.

"Who else made it?" the sergeant's' voice trembled in anticipation of hearing what he dreaded.

"Billy's OK. He got winged, but he's fine."

"Who else?"

Hanley swallowed hard and lowered his eyes to the floor. Taking the cigarette from his mouth, he offered Saunders a last drag from it, but the sarge pushed it away, the tubes of the IV's swaying wildly.

"Who else, Lieutenant?" His eyes were fixed squarely on the officer.

"That's it." He dropped the cigarette to the floor and smashed it with the toe of his boot.

"But...Doc...Caje...they were there. Doc was helping...Doc promised he...Metzer...Anderson...." His eyes misted with the pain of the words.

"MIA, presumed dead. Sorry." Hanley turned his head to let the soldier grieve, not wanting to embarrass him. The Lieutenant closed his eyes and shook his head at the sadness of the words he had just spoken. He himself had some grieving to do in private for a lot of soldiers today.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Doc! Where are you? We gotta go!" Caje's called.

Doc wasn't sure until that very moment that he could do what he knew was necessary. He gathered his first aid bag and scrabble out of the hole. He didn't look back and Saunders didn't call out for him to return, either. Sarge had meant it when he told Doc to leave. Saunders knew that the odds of a man in his condition getting out alive were about nil. He had made it easy for the medic. But it wasn't easy. Few things in combat ever really were.

Doc headed for the wounded Cajun. Without saying a word, he pulled Caje to his feet, threw the injured man's arm around his neck, and sprinted in the direction of the retreating Americans as quickly as Caje could limp along. Kraut bullets hit with sharp choos at their feet.

They slowed their pace only when they were well into the dense forest. The smoke from the artillery hung low, giving the woods an eerie quality, but it also provided cover for them... and for the Krauts as well. The deep shadows created havens for imagined foes. The two Americans felt as if enemy soldiers were behind each tree and in every darkened spot.

Caje and Doc stumbled along through stands of conifers and hardwoods. Brush and scrub grabbed at their unsteady feet and threatened to send them sprawling. The sounds of conflict had grown fainter, but every now and then, they thought they heard the sounds of voices. They had no idea where they were or where they were going. Having lost sight of the retreating platoon long before, they were just traveling in a direction they hoped would get them back to the American lines.

Finally, Caje could go no farther without rest. He sucked air and Doc's chest was heaving. They drew up against a rotting tree that had fallen long ago, and Doc lowered Caje to the ground, dropping down beside him. Sunlight streamed through the canopy of leaves high above them, dappling the ground with its glow. The only sounds to be heard were those of the forest. The quiet rustlings of a small unseen animal in the underbrush, squirrels chittering angrily at being disturbed by the humans, the faint crackle of leaves as insects made their way along the forest floor. Overhead, the cry of a hawk could be heard above the rustle of leaves driven by a light breeze.

Caje leaned back on the log and shut his eyes, content to lie there and let Doc do the thinking. The coolness of the forest felt refreshing after the heat of the battlefield, and the tension eased a bit as his breathing became less labored. It was almost restful in that spot. A place where one could forget war and death.

"I'd better look at that leg again." Doc's whisper brought Caje back to the present.

Blood had soaked through the bandage, so Doc pulled the last fresh one from his bag and placed the new dressing atop the old one. Caje kept his eyes closed as if he could seal out the pain of the medic's ministrations that way.

"Not too bad. Seems to be a good bit of swelling. Bled a lot, but I think it will stop completely if we can rest here a bit.. You know, you're pretty lucky. Not like..." Doc started absently, then hastily quieted as he realized what he had almost said. He kept his eyes lowered. "Be sure to tell me if this gets too tight."

"Like what, Doc?" Caje glanced at him, his curiosity piqued.

"Nothing. I wasn't gonna say nothing. I'll just finish tying this off..." His eyes met with the Cajun's, but Doc quickly looked away as he wound the ends of the gauze around Caje's leg.

"Doc, what aren't you telling me?" He stared intently at the medic.

"Nothing at all. Nothing." He smiled halfheartedly.

Caje read something in the medics voice, and he didn't like the way it felt. He continued, "You said I was lucky, Doc... not like...who, Doc?" Doc attended to putting away his bag and kept his head lowered. "When you disappeared...who, Doc?" His voice was a tense whisper.

"Look, you're imagining things." The medic was afraid if he told Caje what he had done, Caje would want to go back, and that wasn't going to do anybody any good. Doc had made the only decision he could, and he wasn't going to have anyone second-guessing him now. Besides, anything that was going to happen to Saunders had probably already happened. It was just too late.

"OK, then. I'll just go back and find out for myself," he grunted as he pushed on the log, trying to rise.

Doc grabbed his arm and pulled him back. "Don't be stupid. You can't help him now."

"Who, Doc?" Caje's voice was more insistent.

"He was hurt too bad. I couldn't get him out. There just wasn't any way. His hip...I couldn't carry him by myself...I had to leave him. I had no choice," he whispered.

Caje put his hands on both sides of the medic's shoulders and shook him firmly. "Who?"

Doc looked up, the pain of the words showing in his eyes. "Sarge."

Caje stared at him incredulously. "You left Sarge back there? Alone?"

"I did everything I could. He was all busted up. He needed a stretcher team not one medic. I just did my best. I never wouldve left him otherwise."

Caje slumped, defeated. Doc was right. Going back would do no good now. He put his hand on Doc's shoulder, reassuringly this time. "I know." Caje was about to ask Doc if leaving Saunders behind had anything to do with him when they heard voices a short way behind them to the right. And they weren't speaking English.

"Caje...Krauts! What do we do? We can't outrun them."

Caje looked around and spotted a place where they might hide. "There, Doc." He pointed to a trio of larch growing close together with their intertwined branches low to the ground. Below their branches the underbrush grew heavily, forming a natural barrier within the triangle. Caje bellied over to it and wriggled underneath the tangled mass. It was just big enough for two men to hide in for a while if the Krauts weren't looking hard. It wasn't perfect, but they had to go with the best they had.

Caje signaled for Doc to join him, and Doc slithered under the brush alongside Caje. Doc lay on the damp layer of decaying leaves and needles, his cheek to the ground. The rich, earthy smell sent Doc's mind back to the Arkansas of his youth where he spent countless summer days lying on the floor of the woods having discussions with his best friend, Ritchie. They had talked about important things like the Brooklyn Dodgers, how best to pick up a dung beetle without getting pinched, and what they wanted to do when they grew up. Ritchie grew up and became a soldier. He was gone now, at Anzio. Doc shook his head silently. So many young men dead, and Sarge was probably one of them by now.

Doc's mind returned to the present when he heard the sound of enemy soldiers thrashing around in the brush. They were talking loudly among themselves and laughing. The bushes rustled nearby and twigs cracked under German boots. The Krauts were making no attempt to be quiet. Doc figured they must be far behind German lines for them to be so nonchalant about the noise they were making.

"Don't move," Caje mouthed noiselessly, placing the tips of two fingers to his lips. Both men were frozen, prone on the ground. Caje held the Garand close to his body and fingered the trigger. This was no time for a fight. If he had to fire, the rest of the German army would be all over them like maggots on a carcass. "Walk on by," he prayed. "Just walk on by."

Doc's eyes scanned the edges of their low shelter. The enemy seemed to be right on top of them. Surely they would check the mound of brush, and then the Americans would be discovered. He thought his heart might pound a hole in his chest. Now the Germans could be heard in the brush nearby. The sounds were coming closer. Then, with his cheek hugging the dirt floor of their hideout, Doc could clearly see the toe of a German boot less than a foot away from where he cringed. The Kraut stood right beside the medic's face. Surely he must see the Americans. The bushes around them moved as the soldier probed and searched.

Caje looked at Doc and noticed an unusual expression on his face. Doc's eyes were wide and his eyebrows raised. Then he screwed up his face as if he were...what? Bullets of sweat broke out on his forehead and upper lip. Doc looked at Caje strangely and then squeezed his eyes closed and clenched his teeth together tightly, but he made no sound.

Before Caje could react, a bloody bayonet blade attached to the tip of a rifle thrust into the narrow space between the two men. It pierced the ground in front of Cajes face, and when it came out, the sandy soil had scoured it clean. The bayonet retreated from the brush and the sound of the soldiers rustling around them moved off to the side, and then slowly began to fade.

"Man, were we lucky," Caje intoned. Doc must have been relieved too. His eyes were closed. "Hey, Doc, we gotta get out of here. No time to sleep." When Caje touched the medic's shoulder to rouse him, his hand came away sticky.

Caje leaned in and peeled off Doc's field jacket, momentarily surprised to find that Doc had no shirt on. He examined Doc's back as well as he could in the low, filtered light. The bayonet had pierced the left shoulder. It didn't look too deep to him, but what did he know?

The medic's bag still hung around Doc's neck, so Caje removed it gently and searched it until he found a sulfa packet. After pouring the sulfa on the wound, he rummaged again for a dressing, but there was none. It had been a very busy morning for Doc. Without hesitation, Caje pulled off his own jacket and removed his shirt. He folded the shirt lengthwise several times, forming a thick, padded area, and he put this over Doc's wounded back. Then he wrapped one sleeve under Doc's armpit and the other over his shoulder. He tied the sleeves together in a knot, tightening them with an extra tug. Not pretty,' he thought, but it might keep enough pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding.

"Doc," Caje whispered again and gently shook him.

Doc moaned slightly, but stopped when he felt Caje's hand covering his mouth.

"Krauts might still be nearby. We gotta wait a while, and then we're getting back."

Doc nodded his understanding. Caje helped Doc into his jacket then slipped his own back on. He rolled up the first aid bag and placed it under Doc's head. "Sorry there isn't any morphine. Your bag is empty." Doc thought about the extra ampoule he had left with Saunders and wondered if it had done him any good. Then he was silent.

When Doc awoke from a fitful sleep, Caje still lay on his belly under the leafy tangle that sheltered them, his Garand ready for the first sign of trouble. It was so like the Cajun...always ready, always there. There was a simplicity about Caje. He was just what he was. No pretense. Nothing spare or wasted. Day after day, he efficiently performed without question or complaint. He could kill without batting an eye. And yet he could put his arms around an orphaned child and cry over her loss.

Caje breathed deeply, and Doc's movement drew his attention. Sliding over to the medic, Caje moved his face in close to see in the growing dimness.

"How you feeling, Doc?"

"I'm OK. Just a little tuckered out," he answered weakly.

Caje put his hand on the medic's forehead and it felt cool. He examined the makeshift bandage, and found the wound was still bleeding. He realized that Doc was in worse shape than he had thought. And Doc probably wouldn't tell him how bad it was. Complaining just wasn't the way the medic was. Caje began to worry about how they would get back to their lines. It had been tough enough before, but now...with both of them wounded... it was another story.

"It'll be getting dark in a couple hours. We should be heading for home now while we still have light. Think you can make it?"

"I think I can make it. But Caje...if the time ever comes that I do become a burden... well, ...I want you to leave me."

"Don't worry, Doc. I'm gonna get you home. I promise you that."

Doc winced. The words stung sharply. He had made that same promise earlier, but he had not been able to keep it.

Caje cautiously slid out from under the covering and looked around for any sign of trouble. Then he helped Doc out. It was hard for Doc to maneuver with his shoulder, but Caje managed to pull him through.

"Can you stand?" Caje asked.

"I think I can if you help me."

Caje struggled to his feet. His leg still throbbed. Trying to bear most of the pressure on his good leg, he offered his hand to Doc, who was as weak as a kitten. The medic shinnied up the Cajun's body, holding onto his arm, jacket pockets, anything else he could grasp. By the time they were both upright, they were hanging onto each other to keep from falling.

"This ain't gonna be as easy as I thought," Doc announced with a half smile.

"We're going to be just fine." Caje tried to sound positive, but his confidence was really about as shaky as his leg.

He put Doc's arm over his own shoulder, holding onto his hand to keep him from slipping. He put the other arm around Doc's waist. They took several steps forward and Caje knew that he was not going to be able to walk, let alone carry Doc. But he had made a promise to get Doc back to their lines, and he was going to keep it if he had to crawl all the way back, dragging Doc along.

Caje needed a crutch or a cane. He scanned the debris of the forest floor. A good-sized stick of wood looked most promising. Leaning Doc against a tree, the Cajun stumbled over to the wood and placed it under his armpit. It was a little short for a crutch, but it might do. He tried walking with it. It was uncomfortable, but worked. That was all that mattered.

"Bring it over," Doc said flatly.

Doc pulled out the only thing remaining in his first aid bag , a small pair of scissors, and folded the bag several times. He draped it over the top of the crutch, padding it a little, and then cutting the straps with the scissors, wound the straps around the wood to secure the bag.

"Try that now," he said, putting the scissors in his jacket pocket.

Caje tried the crutch again, and it felt much better. "Hey, Doc. This is all right."

With his M1 hanging on his shoulder, Caje once more put his free arm around Doc's waist. Doc, slung his arm over the private's shoulder, and they started their slow journey west.

As the two men struggled over the rough terrain, everything became a menace. Outcroppings of roots and depressions hidden by deep coverings of leaves caused them to lose their balance. Overhanging branches grabbed and pulled at their hair or raked their faces. Doc's arm hung limply at his side and at times he seemed barely conscious. He leaned heavily on Caje, who fought to keep himself from toppling.

Then the trees thinned and they came to a wide, verdant pasture where a small group of sheep grazed; it seemed like heaven to be out of the woods. Crossing the field mean an end to the tangle of roots, tall weeds, branches, fallen logs...all the things that had made their journey so difficult. But freedom from impediments came with a price of its own, for crossing the field would leave them exposed to any passing Kraut patrols. There would be no cover.

After a quick discussion, they decided to follow the field north and try to find a narrower, safer place to cross. A stone wall constructed of large, rough stones skirted the entire length of the field. In spite of the passage of time and the destruction of war, most of it was still intact. If they stayed close to the wall, it would offer them a degree of safety.

It didn't take long for Caje to begin wondering if they might not have been better off crossing in the open. Stones from previous repairs or maybe even left from the original construction turned their path into an obstacle course. In several places, the wall had collapsed and left piles of stones. Some kind of burrowing animals, perhaps moles, had left their tunnels behind. As they steeped down on what appeared to be solid ground, their feet would sink. They would be lucky if one or the other didn't twist or break an ankle.

Finally, they reached a spot where the wall T'ed with one that ran perpendicular to it. Caje decided that in spite of the hindrance the stones created, it would be safer to cross where there was some degree of protection. So they turned west once more and moved across the pasture, keeping as far from the wall as they dared. The sheep sidled up, examined the soldiers, and began to follow, the bells around their necks tinkling pleasantly. It might have even been enjoyable had it not been for the pain both soldiers were suffering, as well as the constant threat of discovery by the enemy.

Safely on the other side without incident, Caje and Doc stumbled into the edge of the woods. After moving in about 10 yards, they came to a small, clear area and collapsed. Catching his breath, Caje moved over to Doc and examined the medic's shoulder. The shirt bandage was soaked.

"No need. I can tell you. It's still bleeding. Caje, if I don't make it..."

"Quiet, Doc. We're both gonna make it. Both of us, you hear? I promise."

Doc winced. "You got any water left?" he inquired, remembering the full canteen he had left with Saunders.

Caje pulled out his canteen and shook it. "Sorry, Doc. Not much more than a swallow. Here, take it. I just had some," the Cajun lied, handing the canteen to the medic, who gratefully took it. "We rest five then move on."

Doc leaned his back against a tree and shut his eyes, trying to block out the burning in his shoulder. He wanted to sleep, but it eluded him. When he closed his eyes, he could see Saunders' face as the sergeant told him that everything was OK. But it wasn't OK. It would never be OK again. Thoughts of what he had done churned and churned in his head. He knew that he had done what he must. But if that were true, why did he feel so awful? Why was the sarge haunting him? Doc finally fell into a fitful sleep.

When Caje shook Doc awake, darkness has settled on them. "You OK, Doc? You were dreaming or something."

Caje felt the medic's forehead and found it warm. Doc stared at him in confusion. Then as the Cajun continued to speak with him he gradually became aware of where he was and with whom.

"Can you hear me, Doc?" Caje questioned.

Doc nodded and wiped his feverish forehead with his sleeve. "I guess I was dreamin'. Sorry." He looked up and could see the bright patch of the sun low in the trees. "You have any idea how much farther it is?"

"I don't know. I don't even know where our lines are. They could be just over the hill or miles. Think you can make it?"

Doc grunted.

"Good thing there's a full moon tonight. We'll be able to see our way. Let's hope the cloud cover doesn't get any heavier.

"Maybe I should take a look at your leg," the medic suggested without moving.

"Dont worry, I hardly notice it any more. I can make it, no sweat."

It was a lie. Caje's leg throbbed constantly now, but he hid that from Doc. There was no need for the medic to know how dangerously close they both were to collapsing. Doc nodded again and grunted as Caje hauled him into a standing position. Grabbing hold of each other for support, they moved unsteadily into the woods.

They had not hobbled far when the terrain changed. Moving through a tight strip of trees, the vegetation thinned out considerably until the land fell away in a steep embankment. They scooted down on their behinds and landed in soft river grasses at the bottom. Both men sat a moment staring with wonder at the pale water splashing blithely over shallow rocks no more than fifteen feet from where they sat.

Caje pulled himself along the narrow band of grass that fringed the river. His dark eyes shone at the prospect of the relief that awaited his parched throat. Setting his rifle on the grass by his side, he hauled himself out over the water and dipped his face it. In the sheer joy of the moment, all thoughts of the injured man who was with him had been pushed far back in his brain. He cupped his hands to drink and then splashed handfuls of water all over himself.

Beside the river, under the sparse cover of the trees, the watery reflection of the moon as it made its appearance in the warm night sky provided the only light. Doc listened to the sounds of the private splashing quietly. The medic licked his dry lips, staring into the eddying river that beckoned for him to come into its coolness. It was enticing, but he was too tired to move. The depleted body won out over the mind.

Then the moon skipped behind a heavy layer of clouds, and murky blackness moved in.

"Man, it's great!" Caje lifted his head; water streamed from his face and hair.

Remembering Doc a few yards away, the Cajun had just started to turn when a voice behind him spoke in battered English, "Gets hand up."

Caje turned slowly to face a German soldier who had come out of the black well to the right and ow stood between Caje and Doc. Doc lay unmoving, hidden in the darkness. Obviously, that the Kraut didn't know anyone else was there.

The moon peeked out again, bathing the scene in its rich, yellow light. Caje could see the German clearly. He guessed that the kid might have been in his early twenties, but he could even still be in his teens. He had a Mauser pointed at the American's belly.

"Up," the German motioned with a pitch of his rifle barrel.

Caje struggled to his feet, leaning heavily on the crutch, his leg wobblier than ever.

"Gets hand up," he repeated nervously.

Caje eyed the rifle on the ground and for a moment considered making a try for it. The kid sensed his thinking and shouted a warning in German. Shoving one hand into the air, Caje kept the other on the crutch.

"Hand up!" the kid fairly shouted, his voice quavering with tension and fear. He had a wild look that Caje read as dangerous. You never knew what a kid that scared would do.

The German soldier grabbed the crutch from Caje's grasp and tossed it back behind him, where it landed with a thud inches from Doc. Caje raised his other hand, struggling to maintain his balance.

The Kraut ran a sweaty palm over his face. "Zigaretten?" he asked.

Caje pulled a pack of cigarettes from his field jacket, careful not to move his hands too quickly or look as if he were going for a weapon. "Here," he said tossing them over. As the German shook a cigarette from the pack and put it to his lips, he demanded, "Vatch?" Caje didn't move. "Got vatch?" The German signaled toward Caje's right arm.

Caje removed his watch and tossed it over. The kid stuffed the watch into his pocket and pulled out a silver lighter. His hands were shaking so hard he could hardly light the cigarette. His eyes darted nervously. In the moonlight, Caje read on his face that he had made up his mind about something. Then for no reason that Caje or Doc could understand, the German raised his rifle to shoot.

It all happened so fast. The rifle rose and Doc put his hand on the crutch beside him. Caje instinctively dove for his Garand. With a burst of energy, Doc swung the crutch hard, hitting the enemy soldier in the knees with such force that the crutch shattered. The Kraut crashed to the ground. Caje lay on the ground with his rifle ready to fire, hesitating a moment to see if the German were going to do anything more. When he didnt move, Caje slid over to the youth.

"He's dead," Caje pronounced.

"That can't be. I hit him on the leg. He can't be dead."

"Looks like maybe he hit his head on a rock when he fell. It wasn't your fault, Doc. Besides, I

think he was gonna shoot me. If you hadn't done what you did, he would have killed me for sure."

Doc joined Caje beside the body. While the medic sat dazed, Caje retrieved his watch from the kid's pocket. "Will you look at this!" Caje whistled in disbelief. He pulled out two more watches. Both GI issue.

Doc took the young soldier's arms and folded them on his lifeless form. As he did so, something shiny fell from the Kraut's hand and landed in front of the medic. He picked it up and held it close to his eyes. "Caje?" Doc said quietly.

Doc handed him the silver lighter the Kraut had used to light the cigarette. Caje took it and held it up in the moonlight. There was no mistaking the letter "S" on the front of the lid. Running his forefinger across the etching, he recognized the lighter. He looked at Doc. "Saunders."

"How could a Kraut get...?" Doc didn't finish.

"Come on, Doc. This isn't doing anybody any good. Lets get a drink and get out of here. The kid may have friends nearby." Caje put the lighter in his pocket. He would make sure Saunders' family got it. He got his watch and left the others there with the Kraut who had given his life for them.

Both men pulled themselves wearily to the edge of the river. Exhaustion brought on by everything that had happened that day began to weigh heavily. They drank until they could drink no more, then Caje dipped his canteen. Neither spoke as they listened to the gurgle of the water rushing into the metal container.

"Can you make it?" Caje inquired.

"Yeah, I can make it." He struggled to gain his feet, pressing his hand on Caje's shoulder for support. "I think," he added, wincing with pain.

"Can you help me up now, Doc? Without the crutch I may need more help." His leg began to throb again, and a trickle of blood had reappeared. Doc held Caje firmly with his good arm and tried to help him rise. The soldiers laced their arms around one another and moved forward one tentative step.

A light clicked on from the top of the embankment above them, catching the two in its glare like deer in a headlight. A muzzle flashed and Caje pitched backwards into the river with a groan, pulling Doc in with him as a second muzzle flash lit the darkness. The men landed with a heavy splash. The flashlight swept the surface again and again, but the two American soldiers had disappeared beneath the water.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Hanley lit another cigarette and placed it between Saunders' lips. He took several deep drags before Hanley removed it. Neither of them was in a mood to talk.

"You in the mood for company?" a familiar voice asked. Littlejohn poked his head around the side of the screen.

"Littlejohn," Saunders brightened, forcing his swollen face to smile.

Littlejohn drew himself into the room and stood towering over the bed where the sarge lay.

"You look good," he announced.

"Funny," Sarge said, "that's not what everybody else keeps saying."

"Good to me."

"Are you OK, Littlejohn?" Saunders queried.

"Yeah. I guess I went a little crazy." He glanced ashamedly at Hanley, but the lieutenant's look signaled that it never needed to be mentioned again. "But I'm OK now. Ive been talking to someone. It helps."

"Well, thanks for being there." Saunders whispered.

"About time I could help you."

Saunders grinned at the Lieutenant. "Littlejohn and I are going into the dairy cow business after the war. Herefords."

"Holsteins," Hanley and Littlejohn said simultaneously.

"Sir," a nurse peeked around the screen. She wagged her forefinger for him to come. He nodded and slipped outside the screen wall. When he returned a few minutes later, Saunders tried to read his expression.

"Trouble, sir?" Littlejohn asked.

Hanley grinned. "Good news. Somebody here wants to see you two. About an hour ago, one of our patrols fished two soldiers out of the river."

Littlejohn and Saunders shot each other puzzled looks. Then Hanley moved the screen out of the way, and there stood Caje on crutches, his thigh heavily bandaged. Littlejohn rushed the Cajun and threw a bear hug around his chest, laughing the whole time. Immobilized in the traction, Saunders watched quietly.

"Hey, hey," Caje said. "Go easy."

Littlejohn ducked his head in apology. "Sorry. Just got carried away."

Caje moved haltingly into the cubicle and grasped Saunders' hand firmly. Hanley brought over an old wooden chair, and Caje gratefully settled into it, gingerly lifting his leg to rest it on the end of the bed. He wiggled a moment to get himself more comfortable. After taking his time settling down, he locked his hands behind his head and looked to each one of the three incredulous soldiers, a grin on his lips.

Finally, Hanley could stand it no more and voiced the question that they all wanted to ask. "Where the hell have you been?" Hanley questioned.

"Lieutenant, you wouldn't believe."

Caje recounted the story, leaving out no details, ending at the point when the Kraut with the light had shot. Then he stopped and sat, looking at them as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

"Hey, don't leave us hanging. What happened?" Littlejohn insisted.

"When we fell into the river, we swam underwater to the other side. We came up where the bank was really steep and cut away. Some bushes hung out over the water, and we hid under them. We waited till the Germans quit searching and left. By that time, Doc was pretty weak and just barely conscious. I wasn't feeling too good myself, and I didn't have the strength to get him out of the river. The current caught us and carried us downstream. We grabbed hold of a limb that floated by and just hung on for dear life. I don't know whether I held him on or he held me on. Then this morning, a patrol from Item Company found us and took us to the aid station. Doc is still in surgery, but the doctors there say he's gonna be OK."

"So he got knifed and then shot?" Littlejohn asked.

"No," Caje said simply. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and distributed them.

"Then you were shot twice?" Saunders rasped.

"No."

"Well, then who did get shot at the river?" Hanley asked.

"Nobody. Here, Sarge. Let me help you," Caje said with a twinkle in his eye. He pulled a silver lighter from his shirt pocket and handed it to Saunders who tried to light his cigarette. Several times his thumb spun the metal wheel, but it didnt spark. He was about to mention to Caje that his lighter wasn't working when he noticed that the lighter had a large" S" and curly Q's etched on the front

Saunders looked puzzled. "My lighter! But a Kraut took...." He turned it around in his hand. There on the back he fingered a perfectly round dent in the metal. He cocked his head and stared at Caje.

"Yeah, Sarge, that lighter took a licking. But it saved my life. All I got was a bruise where the bullet impacted." He rubbed his chest.

Hanley stepped in and lit cigarettes all around. Littlejohn hooked his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels, smiling his big, friendly smile. He looked to Hanley and then to Saunders and finally to Caje, nodding his head and thoroughly enjoying the moment.

Saunders took a drag from the cigarette and ran his finger over the initial and then over the bullet hole. "I never thought I'd see this again," he said in quiet contemplation. "Funny how things work out." Saunders had suddenly grown very tired.

"Come on, soldiers. I think the sergeant needs to rest. And Caje, you'd better go lie down. You look like you could do with a little rest yourself."

"A soft bed sounds real good right now."

"No soft beds, just cots. But sheets and a pillow. Cant beat that combination," Littlejohn said as he helped Caje limp away.

Hanley nodded to Saunders. "The doctors are gonna try and tell you that you need a good a couple of months off that hip, but I want you back on the line by next week." He grinned, pulling the cigarette from Saunders' lips and snubbing it out on the ground. "You have a squad to take care of, and we can't run the war without you. Understand?".

"Yessir. Give me a day or two to rest. I just need a little sleep and I'll be fine," Saunders replied. His eyes had already begun to close, his fingers wrapped around the lighter.

Hanley stood outside the field hospital, leaning against the weathered boards and enjoying the warmth of the sun on his face. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. Somehow it seemed all right. He glanced back into the building. There, in one small corner, one small soldier was sleeping peacefully for one small moment in one big war, a few more of his chicks back home in the nest. And Hanley? Well, he would be just fine for another day with a little sleep of his own. A thoughtful smile flashed across his face and he nodded to himself. He could rest well...his chicks were home, too.

Characters Are Based on the ABC Television Series: Combat!

Lois Overton, 1999

Do Not Reprint or Distribute without Author's Permission. All Rights Reserved.