THE VALENTINE

By

Lois Overton, aka Foxhole Filly

"Hey, Sarge," the young soldier said, his mouth working furiously on a stick of gum, "want me to stick a grenade down his throat?"

Saunders turned to the private.  "Yeah, be my guest."  The sergeant motioned toward the building where a machine gun chattered.  With a slap on the soldier's back, he slipped into the adjoining doorway.

The kid loaded the grenade launcher, determined the trajectory with a series of finger-in-the-air calculations, and braced the butt of the weapon against the wall behind him.  The grenade shot off with a loud crack and crashed through the window.  A split-second later, the storefront blew out.  One German staggered from the ruins and collapsed.  He struggled for a moment, scrabbling at the ground and fell silent.  A second Kraut jumped from a second story window, and two more bolted from the building next door to the one that the American had taken out.  Saunders stepped out into the street and cut down the rear two; the third fell to Caje's sure aim just as the German started round a corner.

Saunders wiped his hand on his pant leg.  "I don't know how you do it, Sobieski. You haven't missed with that thing since you got here.  Never seen anyone shoot like that."

"All them years of huntin' with my daddy musta counted for something," the private beamed.  "Ya know?there's a lot to be said 'bout comin' from a little berg.  Heck, us country boys was born with rifles in our hands." Sobieski hitched the grenade launcher over his shoulder and picked up his M-1.  He pulled out a fresh clip and shoved it into place.

"Come on."  Saunders tapped the private's helmet with the flat of his hand and began making his way down a row of gutted shops, Sobieski crossing the street and moving parallel to the sergeant. Many of the buildings in the town were little more than shells, having fallen victim to an earlier artillery barrage.  But there were still an immeasurable number of places where the enemy could hide, and every second floor, every roof, every window, every cellar had to be checked out.

"Sarge!" Caje signaled, upper level of the hotel directly above the Cajun's head.  Saunders pulled up and ducked in a doorway, and Sobieski took a position in an alcove next to Caje.

A shot rang out, and a bullet ricocheted off the brick barely a foot above Saunders' head.  The sergeant lunged to the other side of the entryway and crept forward inch by inch, hugging the wall.  In the shadows of the window cater-cornered from his position, there was movement. Raising his Thompson, Saunders stepped into the doorway and sprayed the opening.  A shower of wood framing and glass rained down on the street below, followed by a Kar 43 that clattered noisily on the smooth paving stones.  The body of the dead soldier hung limply in the opening.

Saunders signaled to move out again, and they proceeded down the street cautiously.  Though the enemy was on the run and not putting up much resistance at the moment, this was no time to get lax. Something in an alleyway between two buildings caught Caje's attention. Moving into the narrow space, the soldiers discovered a pile of uniforms? jackets, pants, boots all hastily discarded. And beneath the pile, German weapons.  Several Mausers, a Schmeisser, a Walther, a pair of Lugars.  All in perfect working order and yet abandoned.  Sensing the futility of the fight now that it had moved onto German soil, small numbers of Krauts were beginning to desert, shucking uniforms and trying to melt into the peasantry.  It was obvious that as the Americans moved farther into Kraut territory, there were going to be a lot of German men who had never had anything to do with the Nazis.

The soldiers slipped back into the street, continuing west. A group of men, women, and children carrying all their belongings were headed the other direction, as they fled the battleground. A tall man in an ill-fitting tweed jacket and pants that were too short for his long legs hurried along, straining under the weight of a blanket gathered up into a bundle jammed with irregularly shaped objects.  At his side, a woman carried a pair of large market baskets overflowing with more belongings.  They were a strange pair.  He in the apparel of a common peasant, and she dressed in a well-cut suit and high heels.

As they neared the Americans, the German man kept his head down, avoiding eye contact with anyone. A boy on a rickety bicycle pedaled between the couple, and the man stumbled, his bundle falling to the ground with a metallic clatter.  Out tumbled silver candlesticks and a collection of silverware. A silver goblet rolled down the sidewalk.  The woman scolded the man, angrily hissing under her breath as he knelt and began shoveling items back into the blanket. Saunders bent over and retrieved the cup from the gutter, turning it in his hand to admire the workmanship.  The man glanced up nervously, and for a second, their eyes locked; Saunders read the fear there, and then the man quickly looked away.

"Sarge," Caje said softly and nodded toward the man's feet. He was wearing leather boots.  Kraut boots.

The woman sucked in her breath and mumbled something to the man. He hastily finished and rose, head still lowered.

"Caje," Saunders said, "search him."

 Saunders and Sobieski held their guns on the couple as Caje patted the German down. Opening the man's coat, he found an overstuffed wallet and handed it to the sergeant. It was filled with German marks, all of a large denomination.

"He's clean, Sarge."

Saunders slipped the wallet back into the man's coat pocket. "The blanket," the sergeant motioned.

Caje laid it out on the sidewalk and went through everything.  Nothing but fine silver. The private shook his head and drew the ends of the blanket together. Saunders handed the goblet to the man and motioned with his Thompson that they were free to go.  The man took the blanket from the American. Heaving the bundle over his shoulder, he ducked his head, and uttering a quick "Danke," he and the woman hurried off.

Caje was ready to follow if Sarge gave the word, but Saunders said nothing.  His eyes were closed as he tried to push away the memory of another German?another pair of boots? "Danke, Mister." He hadn't thought about it in a long time. Memories that painful weren't meant to be dredged up. They needed to be fought back down where they couldn't hurt any more.

"Sarge?" Caje put a hand on Saunders' shoulder. He knew instinctively where Saunders was.

"Huh?"  Saunders wiped his face with his sleeve. "Forget it, Caje.  The war's over for him. No point in beating a dead horse.  Besides, he could've found those boots anywhere?just like we found that pile back there."

They followed the street until it dead-ended and angled north along a small canal. More shops and houses facing the water had to be searched one by nerve-wracking one.  There seemed to be no end to it.  Leapfrogging and covering each other, they worked their way to another east-west street that crossed a narrow bridge leading to several small factories and a train depot. A group of GI's was sitting on a low wall having a smoke. It was third squad.

"Hey, Saunders," the redheaded corporal called out.  The three soldiers joined Sgt. Devlin's squad. "Looks like this is the end of the hard work. Second squad is up ahead.  They're supposed to have cleared all the way to the edge of town.  This joint is all ours now.  Think we might get some time off?"

"Wouldn't count on it." The sergeant dropped down beside him. Tapping out a cigarette from a pack and lighting it, Saunders looked around. "Where's Sgt. Devlin?"

The corporal nodded in the direction they had come. "He got it. Run into a Schmeisser."
 
"He was a good man." Saunders scratched his head and put his helmet back on. "His wife just had a baby."

The corporal nodded.

Caje and Sobieski joined the other soldiers in passing around a bottle that one of the men with the corporal had liberated from a wine cellar.  They handed the bottle to Saunders, who took a swig and passed it on to the corporal. It continued from man to man until the last drop had been drained.

 "So where's the rest of your squad, Sarge?  Kirby's feet on sick call again?"

Saunders shook his head. "He and Littlejohn are escorting Doc back to battalion.  Pickering and Arnold took that new kid we got yesterday to the aid station.  First day out and he's going home."

"Some guys have all the luck," a wiry private rubbing his back against a doorjamb snorted.

Sobieski was about to comment when they heard the whine of an engine in the distance. Raising their weapons, they tensed until they had identified it as an American jeep approaching.  It bumped over the heavily rutted bridge and skidded to a stop in front of them.

"What's up, Lieutenant?" Saunders said as he rose and joined Hanley.

"Any problems?" the lieutenant asked.

"Everything south and east of here is clean," Saunders said.

Cpl. Meyers ground out the cigarette butt with his heel. "We flushed out everything up to the little froamidge factory next to the church."

The lieutenant looked confused.  Caje thought a moment, and then spoke up.  "Fromage. That's cheese."

"Yeah.  Ain't that what I said?"  Meyers turned to the private sitting beside him. "Ain't that what the sign said?"

Hanley covered his mouth with his hand and nodded. "Meyers, where's Sgt. Devlin?"

"He didn't make it."

"Sorry to hear that.  Looks like you're in charge of third squad for now.  You checked the place out?"

"Yeah, ain't no Krauts anywhere near here," Meyers said.

"Good.  Looks like we're clear all the way up to the river. You men did a good job. Item Company'll mop up around the train station.  We've set up headquarters there.  Find a place around here to get some sleep while you can. We move out in the morning.  Once we cross the river, we may not get much rest for a while.  Squad leaders' at?" he checked his watch, "say 1800.  Just keep your eyes peeled.  We could still have a sniper or two hanging around.  I'll see if I can get you some hot food."

"Sounds good, Lieutenant."

"Oh, Saunders.  I almost forgot.  This is for you."  He reached behind his seat and pulled out a large, battered envelope.  "Looks like it got lost somewhere."  The officer held it up.  A series of small red hearts pierced by arrows had been crayoned across the bottom.  "Guess it's a few weeks late arriving."

"Yeah.  Looks like it."  The sergeant took the envelope, and the jeep disappeared down the street in a cloud of dust.

Saunders slung his Thompson on his shoulder and carried the letter over to what remained of a building.  The envelope had been badly damaged.  The corners were bent and it had been folded in half. It was scuffed with dirt, and a dark stain almost obliterated the sergeant's name and serial numbers.  Small wonder it had taken so long to deliver it. He squinted, trying to make out the smudged return address.  "Miss Louise Anna Saunders." The "i" in her name was dotted with a heart.  Leaning a shoulder against the bricks, he tapped the envelope against his palm to settle the contents into the bottom, then ripped open the other end and pulled out a large heart made of heavy red paper with a shirred lace edging.  A white doily was glued in the center, and a smaller red heart cut with pinking sheers and anchored with a wide red ribbon bow was glued to that.  Silver glitter spelled out the words "Be my Valantine." He smiled.  That was his Louise?all heart and terrible spelling.  Inside, a white heart was glued to the red paper.  On it, she'd written a message in a line of red glitter.  "Chip, I sent you my heart. Bring it home soon.  Love you. Louise."  It was followed with a line of x's and o's and the imprint of a pink lipstick kiss.

"Hey, Sarge." Caje strode up and leaned against the wall beside the sergeant. "What'd you get?"

"A valentine. It's from my kid sister.  Guess I was supposed to get it on the 14th."

"Well, better late than never. Sure is pretty."

Saunders handed the valentine to Caje.  While the private read it, the sergeant pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. Private Sobieski joined them.

Caje whistled at the picture of the pretty young girl whose picture was glued to the back of the cover. She was all pink cheeked and smiling, dressed in a red sweater with a round lace collar and her shining blonde hair tied with a red ribbon. "She's gonna break some hearts," he said, handing it to Sobieski.

"You know, when I left for North Africa, Louise was a kid.  She was running around barefoot and had braids. I'm not sure I'd even recognize her if I saw her. Look at her. She's almost a woman." He scratched his ear.  "By the time we get this thing over, she'll be married with children of her own."

"Let's hope it doesn't go that long," Caje laughed.

Sobieski handed the card back to Saunders.  "She's a looker all right, Sarge."

"Hey-o!" a voice called. A tall soldier with a twig tucked rakishly in the netting of his helmet strode up to the three men.

Caje shook his head. "So, Harrington, what're you doing in our neck of the woods? Isn't this a little close to the enemy lines for you to be putting in an appearance?"

"Yeah, well, I ain't stayin'long.  I just gotta give a message to Saunders, and then I'm outa here."

"What's the message?" Saunders asked.

"Change of plans. Lieutenant wants you at the squad leaders' meeting a little earlier than he told you. Be there by 1600. And he said to bring Cpl. Whatsisface from third squad. Let's see?there was something else." He rolled his eyes toward heaven. "Oh, yeah.  He rounded you up some hot chow. There. I've delivered my messages, and with that, I say adios, ciao, or maybe now that we are in the fatherland?oh veederzane.  I gotta go find a Captain Berkeley. You know the man, Caje?  Oh, how silly of me.  Of course you lower echelon types wouldn't know an officer, let alone a gentleman. Right?"  With a wave, the private moved off down the road.

"What a creep," Caje sneered.

The Sergeant shoved the card inside his jacket and glanced at his watch.  Sliding his back down the wall, he rested his hands on his knees and closed his eyes as weariness overtook him.

Sobieski squatted in front of Saunders, wrapping his long arms around his rifle.  "What you gonna do when you get back home, Sarge?"

"I don't know. Sleep, I guess."

"Me? I'm gonna eat.  Eat good.  Cornbread and green beans. Quartered tomatoes covered with salt. Fresh corn on the cob with butter. And mom's rhubarb pie."

"Stop, Sobieski, you're making my mouth water," Caje groaned.

"And squirrel.  You ever had squirrel?"

Saunders shook his head.

"We got the fattest squirrels you ever seen in Lynn."

"Where is Lynn?" Caje asked, joining them on the ground.

"It's half-way between Richmond and Winchester.  Bet you never heard of them neither, huh?"

"Nope."  Saunders said, pulling out a cigarette and sticking it between his lips.

"Well, most of my family come from Gary.  My old man couldn't stand the thought of spending all day in the steel mills.  He preferred the wide, open spaces, so he bought a farm and moved to the country to grow corn.  You know, in Indiana you can pick corn right off the stalk and eat it there in the field. Sweet?  Like candy. I remember when I was ?."

A shot rang out and Sobieski pitched forward into Saunders arms, bits of bone, blood, and tissue spraying the Sergeant. Caje instinctively rolled to the right and got off a shot before Saunders could work his way out from under the private.  Cpl. Meyers and two of his men were on their feet and stormed into a building down the street.  A minute later, a volley of shots were heard, and the corporal came out with an OK sign.

Saunders rolled Sobieski onto the ground. The front of the private's skull was gone. He hadn't had a chance.

"All right," Saunders barked, "I want every building flushed out again.  If there's a Kraut anywhere near here, I want to know about it!" As the rest of the men scattered, Saunders pulled off one of Sobieski's dog tags.  Then he removed the kid's stained jacket and covered the top half of his body. Then he lingered a moment before leaving the boy alone by the wall.

The sergeant entered a building with a battered red and white pole dangling upside down beside the door.  Leading with the Thompson, he examined every nook and cranny in the place until he was satisfied that it was empty. On the way out, he caught his reflection in the jagged remains of a mirror. The soldier that stared back at him was hard to recognize.  Dark circles under his tired eyes, several days' growth of beard, wild tufts of blond hair sticking out from under his helmet, and smears of blood and tissue clinging to his face.  He pulled out his canteen and handkerchief and wiped his face as best he could, dropping the bloody cloth among the litter on the floor when he finished.

Outside, the men returned to report that there was no sign of any more stragglers. One of the men announced that he had found a house several doors down that had all the comforts of home - four walls as well as a roof - and to sweeten the prospect, it also had three beds, each with double feather mattresses. That bit of good news brought smiles to the men's faces as they moved toward their sanctuary for the night, jostling each other to be first to claim a soft mattress.

Within the hour, Sobieski's body had been picked up, and true to his word, the lieutenant sent hot food.  The men ate voraciously, but Saunders had no appetite. He was in a black mood. He found himself thinking about the Kraut he'd let go earlier that day. Now he was wishing he'd blown the man's brains out. Tit for tat. He moved down the street, entering building after building, looking and listening for anything that was out of line. There was no way he was going to let any more of his men get it, even if that meant he had to check every building in the village personally.  At the end of the block, there was a long section where most of the buildings were little more than rubble. It was quiet there away from the men. Most of the time he enjoyed their company, but at that particular moment, he appreciated the solitude.

Saunders dropped down onto a stone stoop.  He checked his watch and tried to rub the tiredness from his eyes. Leaning his Thompson back between his legs, he drank from his canteen. Then he unlatched one of his boots and shook out a rock before retying it. With a heavy sigh, he pulled the valentine from his jacket. The glitter danced in the light of the slanting sun. Its gaiety was incongruous here in the midst of all the death and destruction. He thought of Louise back home and the hours she spent on her little projects. He looked at her picture, face smiling back at him, and he was glad that she wasn't in such a terrible place, glad that she couldn't see the reflection he'd seen in the mirror a short while ago. The card was the only reminder Saunders had that there was still a place that was clean and unspoiled, waiting for him if he could just survive this.  His sister couldn't possibly know what that valentine had meant to her war-weary brother.

Suddenly, the sergeant felt someone's presence.  Lowering the card, he found a small child by his side. She looked at him from behind a wild tangle of hair that hung in front of her dirt-smudged face. Her faded red dress was torn and ragged, and in spite of the chill, her feet were bare. In her arms, she held what appeared to be a sleeping puppy.

"What you got there," Saunders smiled, reaching out to pet the animal.  The little girl pulled back and cried out in German.  The puppy's eyes were shut. It's head lolled to the side with its tiny pink tongue hanging out, and its legs swung limply from her arms. "You don't have to be afraid of me. I won't hurt you." Placing the card in his lap, he fumbled in his jacket pocket for a moment, but there was no chocolate to give her.

She stared at him, unblinking, her face too solemn for a child her age. He smiled and tried to coax her toward him. Finally, she moved a few steps closer until she was back by his side. She didn't seem afraid, just cautious.  And perhaps curious. Her hand rested on his knee, and Saunders saw that her fingertips were raw and dirty? probably from digging in the rubble.  Life was hard when you were on the losing side.

She said something again in German, her voice tiny and thin.  When the soldier failed to respond, she repeated the words.  She dropped her eyes to the man's lap.  One small hand reached out and touched the card; a fingertip traced the sparkling letters, and Saunders thought he caught a hint of a smile.

"Es ist hübsch," she said.

Saunders shook his head.  "I don't speak German.  I don't understand."

The child ran her hand over the ruffle of the lacy doily, her fingers looking all the dirtier next to the creamy paper.  The sergeant held up the card and opened it.  She moved close beside him and cocked her head to look at it. Saunders read the words to her, and she listened as if she understood.  She looked up at him.  He pushed her hair out of her face and hooked it behind her ear.  Her attention returned to the card and she touched the picture.  "Wer ist das Mädchen?"

Saunders sensed her meaning.  "My sister. In America."

She shifted the animal in her arms, and its head flopped over to the side with the movement, revealing a line of dried blood behind its ear and another from its nose. The girl grasped the silk ribbons and ran them across her cheek. " Weich. Es ist weich." Giggling ever so softly, she held up the card and wiggled it back and forth to make the writing flash in the sun. While her attention was on the card, Saunders reached over to touch the puppy, but the child pulled back again protectively.

"Would you like it?" he asked, holding out the valentine. Tell you what. I'll trade you the card for the dog."  She looked at him questioningly, so he repeated the offer, motioning from the valentine to the animal.  The child considered the proposition.  Finally, she handed the puppy to the sergeant, and he placed the lifeless animal gently on his knee. Running her hand over the soft fur one last time, she took the bright red valentine.

"Katharina! Mein Gott!    Verletzt mein Kindchen nicht!" a high-pitched voice screamed. A bedraggled woman stood in the street across from them.  Her hands were clasped to her breast. Saunders didn't know what she was saying, but he could guess.  He figured the Krauts had probably done a job on the civilians, warning them of what the American army would do to the women and children.  "Bitte, nimm mich, aber verletzt sie nicht!  Verletzt sie nicht!"  she cried.

The child at his side stiffened, looking up at him in fear.  Wide-eyed, the child gave the card back to him and started to pull away, but Saunders held her arm and placed the card in her hand.  He smoothed her hair and pushed her toward her grief-stricken mother.  The woman knelt and pulled the girl to her.  Seeing the red heart in her child's hands, she tore it from her and threw to the ground.  Rising with the child wrapped tightly in her arms, her feet ground the valentine into the dirt as she turned and  hurried off toward the rubble of a bombed out building. Saunders' last view of the girl was her dark, serious eyes watching him over her mother's shoulder.

Saunders shook his head sadly.  He retrieved the valentine from the road.  The ribbon had become untied and hung as lifelessly from the card as the dead puppy that hung from his arm.  He retied the bow, and pressing the paper against his chest, he smoothed it with his hand and pushed it inside his jacket. He couldn't really blame the woman.  Right or wrong, she only knew what she had been told.  Placing the body of the puppy in his jacket with the card, he moved back up the street where his men were.

The sun was fading in the lowering sky, and the sergeant thought of the child and her mother, perhaps trying to find a warm place for the night, or more importantly, trying to find a place safe from the feared invader.  After seeing that his men were settled in and a sentry posted, he and Meyers worked their way to the train station. Saunders told the corporal to go ahead into the building, and he walked around to the side. The bodies of dead Americans were lined up on the platform.  Saunders walked the row until he found Sobieski. Squatting down, he pulled the dead puppy from his jacket and placed it in the crook of the soldier's lifeless arm. The kid had often talked of the time he had spent in the woods hunting with his father and his coonhound. Somehow, the sergeant figured that tucked safely in the arms of the Hoosier farm boy was the most fitting place for such a tiny casualty of war.

As Saunders started to rise, he caught a quick movement behind him.  He crouched low and swung the Thompson to his chest in firing position.  From the shadows, a flash of red moved out from behind the corner of the station and stopped behind one of the columns on the platform. The child peeked around the corner and froze, seeing the weapon pointed directly at her.  Eyes wide, the child hugged the wooden post.
 
Saunders immediately lowered his weapon and dropped down onto one knee.  He placed his Thompson on the boards beside him and held up his empty hands, showing her that she had nothing to fear.  The child made no attempt to move.  Her mother's terror had been imprinted on her, and she couldn't trust the soldier. But he also saw that she had followed him to the station in spite of that fear. He spoke quietly and reassuringly to her. A burly soldier with a fistful of tags
approached, but the sergeant waved him off. Saunders reached into his jacket and removed the crumpled red paper card.  He held it out to her, and her eyes widened. She wanted to move, but her feet were rooted to the spot.

"Here," he said as he held out the valentine. "This is yours."  He placed it on the platform in front of him. Then he picked up his weapon and backed off. The girl sidled around the post and inched her way toward the glittering card, keeping her eyes on the soldier and matching a step forward to each of his steps backward. She reached the valentine and lifted it tentatively. Saunders slowly turned and started walking away.

"Mister,' the tiny voice behind him called.  Saunders stopped.  "Danke, Mister."

The sergeant stopped and swiveled his head in her direction.  The girl held the ragged bit of paper, lace, ribbon, and sparkle tenderly.  "You're welcome," he whispered.