FORCE OF ARMS






The sergeant aimed his rifle and fired at the large hangar ahead. He ducked out of the way as a grenade exploded beside him. Ear-shattering machine gun fire spewed out right after it. That made it the fourth lousy gun inside that building; he could see its muzzle in the third-to-left lower window. He started inching towards it, his belly to the ground, as the volley went over his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted an American lying a few yards to his right. He recognized Jensen Meyer, his German interpreter. He turned and crawled towards him. "Keep moving!" he muttered as he drew up beside the inert soldier. The squad's radio lay shredded into twisted parts beside Meyer. A cracked pair of eyeglasses hung askew across the bridge of the man's nose. The sergeant gripped the soldier's jacket and turned him over, anxiously hoping to see him move, but the sleeve in his hand felt torn and wet, and he let it go. "Meyer? You hear me?" the sergeant asked at the top of his voice, shaking Meyer's sleeve again. "Get up!" But, he knew that dead men don't listen.

He stared up as several dark-clad forms surged from the immense building in the distance, the morning light glinting off the rifles in their hands. His heart raced at the sight. More Krauts! A whole regiment, it seemed, against only his squad. The sergeant raised his rifle and pulled the trigger. Hearing only clicks from it, he chucked his empty weapon aside and grasped another one lying beside Meyer's body. Aiming it at the approaching Krauts, he fired several rounds. One of the Germans fell to the ground in mid-step. The sergeant heard the clip empty. Cursing, he threw down Meyer's rifle and reached to his belt for his .45, his last useful weapon.

"Wick!" cried a voice behind him. "Help me, please! I'm... wounded. Shrapnel. It hurts! I lost... my rifle back there..." A soldier fell to his knees beside him, grunting as he clutched at his chest.

The sergeant recognized Doug Felton, his second-in-command. Felton's chest gleamed with blood, flowing down from a wound near the sternum. He looked bad. "What about the others?" the sergeant asked, helping his wounded friend down to the ground.

A soldier wearing a medic's helmet appeared beside them. He dropped to his knees next to Felton and put down his medical bag. "Okay, I got it!" he said, calmly. With quick, practiced moves, he opened the wounded man's jacket.

"They're all dead!" Felton replied, gasping. "We've gotta get out... It's murder! Oh, God!"

"Sarge!" The medic pointed behind the sergeant, his eyes wide with alarm. "Watch it! Grena...."

Something sharp burned the left side of the sergeant's neck, knocking his breath away. He touched the wound instinctively, and he gasped as a dagger of pain stabbed him. Panting, he scrambled back to his knees and fired in the Krauts' direction. Several more poured out of the hangar, their rifles blazing. Dammit! His men were all wounded or dead! The sergeant threw away his empty clip and shoved another one into the .45.

The wounded soldier moaned and grabbed the sergeant's jacket with hands as rigid as claws, staring pleadingly at him. "Please, Wick...." he whimpered. "Get help!"

"Take him back, Doc!" He pulled the wounded man's hands away. "I'll get there later! Go!"

In the dawning light, he crawled madly out towards the huge train hangar, convincing himself that the pain coursing through his body was nothing.

It was madness, but he had to at least try and take a look in that building before full daylight made it impossible to get near the thing! Already, it could be too late. Bullets whizzed over his head as he crawled over a railway track. It vibrated dully underneath him, and he stared up, almost expecting to see a train come barrelling down on him.

Still on all fours, he scurried across the tracks.

The large, flat-topped hangar loomed ahead, its broken windows reflecting bright orange tones in the dawning sunlight. Gripped by a rush of adrenaline, the sergeant pushed on. As he drew nearer, a blast shattered the ground only yards away, spewing a rain of metal shards. He felt a searing jolt in the face, and his helmet was knocked off his head. He pitched to the side and rolled to the bottom of a shallow ditch beside the tracks. His head struck the ground hard on jagged rocks. His vision blurred as he fought to get his breath back, and he touched the wound in his neck. A chunk of flesh had been ripped out damned close to the jugular. It was bleeding like a sieve; he wiped the blood on his sleeve.

He saw a body lying on his side in the same ditch a few yards to his right. The man was crumpled into a foetal position with his back to him. The sergeant rubbed his eyes and stared out at the body again. That was Emerson, the only man remaining from his original squad after Omaha. The two men had gone through hell and back together in the last months but now, Emerson's head twisted upwards at a crooked angle and stared up at the sky lifelessly. His friend was a tall, gangly welder from Wisconsin. Emerson had gotten his second kid and his second stripe only the week before. The sergeant cursed with helpless frustration.

Something big thundered to life inside the hangar. He heard German voices cry out over the din it made. "Forsicht! Zieht das Schnabel heraus! Jetzt!"

He ducked as more German soldiers ran past him, crying out excitedly. Dread overwhelmed him as the air buzzed with frenzied shouts and activity. Had the Krauts stashed a big gun like the one at Anzio in there? Was that what the Americans would have to face later?

The sergeant shuddered as he stared at the building, remembering a faraway countryside lit up with shellfire, the night air resonating with the screams of the wounded and dying. That hangar could so easily conceal the same kind of rail-mounted devil. He could hear loud rumbling noises coming from there. He had to know what was making it. The sergeant slapped his helmet back on and fought to climb out of the ditch, but he fell back down again, still badly winded. Right now, the rocky incline seemed a mile high.

Something black and huge suddenly slipped out of the hangar. The sergeant squinted hard to see the object. He made out a meters-long horizontal cylinder with large face and swastika painted on its side. A cannon, lowered for transport! Oh, Damn! A 240 mm at least, maybe bigger. He was right! The divisions poised to take Montanniers would be chopped to ribbons. His vision blurred as he tried to stand. He felt faint. He shook himself back to his senses. His ears pounding, he clawed his way up the side of the ditch as the dark monster gained momentum and headed south towards the hills.

"The tracks!" his mind screamed. "Jampel, have the platoon watch the tracks all along the line to Montanniers! Get that beast!" How the hell could he get his hands on a radio and report back? He'd order an air strike right now if he could! He clutched his forty-five, panting, and tried to figure a way out of the rail yards without running into Krauts.

He could see a dozen of them running at the eastern edge of the yards, their backs turned. He took a chance and scrambled out of the ditch. He stumbled, grunting audibly as he fell. He got up again, a sense of urgency, almost of panic, gripping every part of him. The gun was getting away! He had to get back to the town of Dan-whatever, but each plodding step he took felt like a slow motion half-dream.

***

Staccato sounds of machine gun fire rang out in the street.

"Let me try and get him, Sarge! I can keep real low!" Caje cried as he peered over Sarge's shoulder with his rifle raised. Several yards away, a transport truck lay on its side with its front end in a bomb crater and a street post lying over it. He saw Billy's helmet behind the back fender. The kid tried one more time to dash out to safer shelter. A hail of bullets sent Billy ducking back behind the truck. Even from so many yards out, the smell of gas and Billy's fear-stricken face had registered clearly to the Cajun.

"Stay put!" Saunders replied, clutching his Thompson and squinting into the street.

Caje nodded. "I don't see Littlejohn."

"He's covering the alley near the church." Saunders slapped the Thompson's magazine into place, making sure it was firmly installed. "What about Wickham's squad? Any sign of 'em?"

"Not yet!"

"That machine gun nest is right between us and them. Maybe he's been held up. Let's just take care of our own problems here," Saunders continued, hefting the Thompson. He ducked as a hail of bullets slammed into the wall next to his shoulder.

"Nelson's pinned down too good!"

"Yeah." Saunders peered out into the street. "We can't help him from here. We'll have to try something else." With a curt nod, he indicated the other side of the street. "I'll get across."

A gutted antique shop stood out there, barely visible through the smoke. A shattered sign lay on the walk in front of it. Saunders saw a narrow alley separating it from a two-storied, brick house just to its right. They could make out a machine gun in a smashed window on the upper level of the house, its black muzzle sticking out through a white lace curtain. It spat a constant rain of fire into the street.

"That has to be a two-man crew up there, Sarge," Caje said. Below it, through a window next to a bombed-out door, a Schmeisser pointed straight at Nelson, and Caje definitely thought he'd seen another figure beside the sniper down there. But then, he'd only had a second's glimpse of the house as he'd sprinted through the rubble towards the Sarge. The dark second figure might have been only a shadow. So that made three or four Krauts in all up there.

"You and Kirby stay on this side. Move up and take positions over there. Give me cover." Saunders's left hand came up and clasped Caje's shoulder for a second, giving it a slight squeeze of encouragement. "Keep 'em busy, huh?"

"Right, Sarge!" Caje nodded curtly and then rose to go. Getting one door up the street would bring him damn close to the machine gun, but it wasn't as bad as crossing out in the open like Sarge was planning to do. He could almost feel the Krauts poised in the windows up there, spoiling for a fight.

The Cajun dashed out onto the rubble-strewn sidewalk. He ran madly, just making it to the next storefront and leapt over its broken windowsill. Inside, he ducked down next to a fallen dress mannequin and flattened himself against the red brick half-wall. He waited, panting for breath, and listened to the roar of bullets whipping across the bricks above his head. With blackened hands, he hefted his rifle, gauging its weight and counting how many rounds were left in it. Doing that came automatic now. Only three, and one clip in the belt. That was all he had left to lay cover fire for the Sarge, damn it! Line 'em up and squeeze 'em out fast! ...And make 'em all count!

The noise of the Thompson echoed in the street. The shower of bullets streaming over Caje's head stopped, and he heard the MG swing its deadly fire out towards the Sarge.

His heart leaping wildly, Caje stood and aimed his M1 out into the street, exposing his upper body full out. Knowing he'd draw enemy fire back to himself, he opened up, emptying the Garand into the window with the MG in it. To his right, he saw Saunders make a move towards the street, taking one step out in the open. Something must have stopped Sarge, because he pulled back out of sight again. Caje ducked in turn, panting, and listened to the M1's clip eject noisily at his feet. The Krauts had everyone pinned down good out there, not just Nelson. He glanced towards the overturned truck and saw that Billy still crouched behind it, grimacing, his rifle pressed up against the side of his face. He looked frozen with terror.

The Cajun dug into his web belt to take out another clip, cursing impatiently at the broken bricks strewn all around him. Those damned things were going to trip him next time he rose to shoot. It was a miracle he hadn't hurt himself on them so far. With his right foot, he kicked away a chunk of debris lying next to his boot, and then he pushed the new clip into the Garand's chamber with his thumb.

As he slid the bolt back, the loud roar of the BAR thundered from somewhere at his right.

The windows across the street all exploded in sequence as rounds from Kirby's heavy weapon raked the shop fronts. The Thompson roared to life, its distinct noise echoing loudly in the street. Sarge was giving Kirby cover fire. The BAR man appeared from nowhere, leaped over the bricks beside Caje and then plopped down in a gesture identical to the one he'd made moments before. Both men ducked as a spray of bullets smashed against the bricks above their heads, ricocheting in all directions.

Them lousy injuns're winnin', Caje!"

"What're you doing here?" Caje cried, impatience in his voice. "Don't you know we shouldn't bunch up, you crazy fool?"

He could see a thick cover of white dust covering Kirby's jacket. Caje's own uniform barely showed a speck of green anymore. The dust might make good camouflage for this lousy village, but it sure tasted like Hell! He spit out a mouthful of the white chalk powder and ran the back of his hand against his mouth.

"I ain't seen Wickham!" Kirby exclaimed, ignoring Caje's remark. He peered into the street, trying to get a glimpse of the machine gun barrel. "Wasn't he supposed bring up his squad on the right flank? Cover our move?"

"I don't know! Maybe he ran into a mess of 'em! He got the rail yard sector. That one's rough!"

"Odds-out Wickham prob'ly pulled back again! Left us high and dry. Whad'ya think, Caje?"

"I think you always talk too..." Caje ducked, unable to continue, as a hail of bullets whizzed across the top of the bricks over their heads, flying everywhere.

Seconds later, the Krauts' fire swung out towards Saunders' position again, abruptly silencing the Thompson.

Both men glanced at each other, unspoken questions hanging between them. Damn, what did Sarge do to get their attention? Where is he? Kirby peered out intently with sharp, narrowed eyes, forgetting all about Wickham's absence. He swung up his weapon and fired at the muzzle blast across the street, hoping to get the lousy thing that time. Caje opened up with his own rifle, joining the din.

The machine gun muzzle swung out their way in response, and both men ducked down to escape the incoming hail of bullets.

"It's no use!" Kirby muttered. Damn! He had a good weapon, but it couldn't shoot it out with a Kraut machine gun while the thing was tucked inside that house! "I'm on my last Mag!" he added, running a hand across his web belt and shaking his head. He slammed the heavy weapon down on its butt between his knees. "We're gonna be throwin' rocks and spittin' at 'em next!" he cried.

Caje answered with a curt head nod. He didn't have any ammo to waste, either.

Suddenly, through the smoke and dust filled air, he saw the Sarge leap out into the street. Caje's heart froze for a second at the sight of Saunders, completely out in the open, zigzagging through the rubble and heading for the other side. He raised his rifle and spewed fire at the machine gun, covering the Sarge's move. Kirby cursed audibly as he slapped the mag firmly and raised his own weapon towards the machine gun.

With the Tommygun blazing, Saunders raced against the gun's fire, crouching low as he picked his way through a jumble of debris littering the street. He almost tripped on a stone after several steps, and then, miraculously regained his balance just as he reached the opposite side. He dove behind a corner as a shower of bullets raked the cobbled walk, making an ugly line of pockmarks right where Saunders had just passed. Chunks of stone shot up into the air next to his face.

"Where's the Sarge!" Kirby cried, getting up on his knees to peer anxiously out towards the antique shop.

"Stay back!" Caje grabbed Kirby 's sleeve, afraid the new BAR man would leap out after Saunders like Grady Long had done so many times before and try a reckless move that might get him killed.

But Kirby stayed put with his eyes intently trained on the alley beside the house, checking for any sign of movement by the Sarge who'd run out in front of a gun instead of making his men do it. No sign of the Sarge came to him. He couldn't even see the Camo from where he was. What had happened to Saunders?

Kirby waited it out, cursing under his breath. Every lousy second stretched on forever. With his right hand, he fingered the sulfa pocket in his web belt. It was there, but he didn't want to have to go out there after the Sarge to administer it. Kirby shifted the BAR strap on his shoulder to ease the weight down onto another spot. For several seconds, no signs of movement came to him. Every noise in the street stopped cold, too, Kirby noted. It was as if time itself had gotten suspended between bursts of shooting. Maybe the Krauts had eased up to watch that corner too, checking to see if they'd gotten their mark. One of them might even be preparing to carve a new notch on his gun butt. Kirby chased that thought out of his mind, but the image worked its way back in.

Saunders' form suddenly appeared in the darkened doorway across the street. Caje and Kirby both exhaled when they saw the Sarge push his helmet up and run the back of his hand across his forehead. Man! Had he come close that time! Sarge pushed up on the Thompson's magazine again.

From the corner of his eye, Kirby saw Caje aim his rifle up at the window. Swallowing dryly, he hauled himself up onto his knees and let out a burst from his BAR towards the house, along with Caje.

The Schmeisser's barrel wavered on the window frame for a second, and then did a forward flip into the street. It clattered to the ground amongst the rubble littering the front walk.

"I'm almost out of ammo!" Caje cried, lowering himself beneath the brick half-wall.

Kirby raised his aim, sending his last rounds into the upper story window, hoping to blast away that lousy machine gun once and for all.

The BAR fell silent in his hands, its loud report changing to clicks. Kirby ducked down next to Caje, muttering to himself worriedly that Sarge's plan wasn't working too good, that there ought to be an easier way to flush out that Kraut-infested house. There just had to be!

He fished out his last mag and peered behind him over the bricks. The BAR in his hands could do a fair job on that meat grinder across the street, he knew, but it just wasn't happening from where he was. The way things were going right then, the Krauts were going to own that place 'till doomsday! Kirby rammed a fresh magazine into the BAR and peered out towards the building next door. It might provide a better shooting angle. Maybe he should work his way over there and try it from behind that heap of bricks on the corner of....

Caje's hand clasped his shoulder and shook it lightly. "What's the matter?" Kirby asked.

"Look!" the Cajun said, pointing at Saunders.

Sarge had his back against the shop corner, out of the Krauts' line of fire, and stared at them purposefully, pointing at the machine gun with his left hand. Then, Saunders gestured towards the building next to the store Kirby and Caje crouched in. The same building that Kirby had just been concentrating on.

Kirby understood Sarge's meaning immediately and gave a curt return signal. "I'll go over, Caje." He clutched the BAR. "Cover me, will ya?" The heavy weapon came off his shoulder, and he threw himself down flat against the wall.

He reached the fallen mannequin. "Madame!" he muttered tersely, his right hand finding purchase on the plaster mound of its bosom. He crawled over it, wanting to get to the other building as fast as he could.

He crept through broken stones, scraping his knees and elbows, and reached the eastern wall of the gutted store. He posted himself at a large hole in it, with the BAR ready, and caught his breath before dashing across the open to the next house. He could squirm through the hole in the wall, but Kirby pursed his lips at the sight of a deep shell hole gouged out of the cobbles between the two buildings. He hadn't expected to find this new obstacle right out in the open. That lousy crater was so big; he'd have to cross it by crawling along its bottom like a sewer rat, and do it fast.

He could see Nelson pinned down next to the broken truck, right in the middle of the street. The vehicle barely gave him cover. The kid was scared, but no one could do anything for him now. Nelson was too damned out of reach over there. Kirby waved at him curtly, signaling to the kid to stay put. Nelson waved back to show that he understood and suddenly flinched as a bullet banged off the fender next to him.

The Thompson opened up again. Kirby heard the Kraut machine gun respond with a loud burst near the antique shop. He cursed for the dozenth time. Sarge would run out of ammo soon, the way things were going out there. They all were. And on top of it, Wickham hadn't shown up to help them like he was supposed to. What was keeping him?

The BAR man adjusted the strap on his shoulder and then, forcing out all the images of bullets and flying shrapnel from his mind, he leaped out into the alley. His heart pounded thunderously as he dove headfirst into the shell hole. He flattened himself at the bottom, cursing mightily, as rounds from the MG raked a lip of broken stones above him, and he slithered forward in the dank-smelling earth. Hey! He just had to tell himself this was another foxhole! A loosened cobblestone suddenly bounced hard against his helmet. Kirby's ears rang as everything went black. He curled up in to a ball, feeling like his skull was going to explode. He grunted and spit out a disgusting mouthful of earth.

Dragging his weapon, he pushed on, regardless of the pain cutting deep into his skull, and wormed his way across the bottom of the crater. Broken stones rained in all around him. He avoided most of them and reached the opposite end of the hole surprised to still be in one piece. Clutching the BAR, he readied himself to dash out of it, unsure whether his legs would hold up.

The noise of the machine gun firing in Caje's direction spurred him on. The whole squad was getting it bad out there. Kirby worried that he'd taken too long to get across the crater.

He steadied his weapon and, with the speed of the terrified, scrambled out into the open. Bullets whizzed by him as he bounded towards the neighboring house. One of them hit his right arm before he reached the wall. He slammed into it with such force that it knocked his breath away. Slinking down onto his haunches, he grimaced as a red flow came down his arm. That's just a scratch! A scratch! He tried to drill that into his mind before the pain would take over, but he was still stunned from the hard blow to his head. He felt a sharp burning sensation where a bullet had grazed his arm, and he held it against his chest.

More bullets raked the brick wall beside him. That cleared his head in a hurry. The Krauts knew he was out there. They were after him.

He took a quick peek into the street. Saunders still crouched in the same spot, looking his way. From the expression on Sarge's face, Kirby guessed that he had seen him get hit. He signaled back and raised the BAR, holding onto it with only his left hand. The weapon felt like a lead cannon now as he sent out a burst at the house with the machine gun in it. He concentrated hard at keeping the heavy weapon steady and cursed at the pain of the recoil slamming repeatedly into his shoulder. He stopped shooting when saw the Sarge gesturing for him to hold his fire.

Saunders stuck his head out and peered at the broken truck with his weapon ready, hoping to catch a view of Nelson's helmet. The kid was keeping low; that was good. Sarge took a deep breath and tried to swallow his acid-tasting spit, but his mouth was dry. He slung the Thompson onto his shoulder and reached into his jacket for a grenade. He'd have to make a run for the door to the two-storied house. That would take him several damned-long seconds.

He glanced at the two soldiers positioned across the street. Yeah, they'd seen him. Caje gave a return signal and raised his M1 to give him cover.

Saunders leaped out. The machine gun roared to life once again, spraying the ground at his feet. Clutching the grenade firmly, he bounded through the shower of bullets. Adrenaline gave him speed, and he dashed across those final yards to the open door like a man running for the goal line. He reached the house and flung the grenade inside, just managing to outrun a line of bullets spraying the walk.

Caje ducked down again, listening to the sound of the grenade blast. He turned to check on Saunders's progress. He caught a view of the Sarge's chalk-covered backpack disappearing through the busted doorframe.

Inside, Saunders jumped over a body lying next to a pile of debris and headed for a staircase at the back of the room. He climbed the steps two at a time, listening to the distant reports echoing in the upper story. He reached the top and took a careful step forward into a dark-wallpapered hallway. His boots crunched loudly on broken glass, and he eased his weight off the shards, his heart pumping fast.

A German burst out of a door at the farthest end on his left, aiming a machine pistol at his chest.

The two soldiers fired their weapons at the exact same instant. Flashes of light illuminated both ends of the hall as a deafening noise reverberated against the walls.

Bullets whizzed by Saunders. He dove to the side, feeling a burning heat against his face. A sharp vibration almost wrenched the Thompson from his hands as bullets banged off it. He flattened himself against the wall and fired again.

The German staggered backwards, grimacing and fell on his side next to an open door with his machine pistol at his side.

Wasting no time, Saunders pushed on to the end of the hallway, avoiding the glass littering the floor. He reached the very last door to the left and pulled another grenade from his jacket. A quick glance inside the room revealed a very thin soldier crouching behind a machine gun at a corner window next to a lace curtain. The Kraut machine gunner suddenly jerked to his feet and stared at him, his face frozen in a look of utter confusion. He looked about sixteen, Saunders judged. Huge, blue eyes locked on him for a second. Saunders saw terror filling the German kid's entire face.

The young German suddenly roused from his stupor and raised a rifle in his direction, shouting at the top of his voice. "Amerikaner! Hilf mir, Bitte! Sigmund!" He fired wildly, spraying the doorframe next to Saunders.

In a swift-arced movement, Saunders hurled a grenade inside the room and ducked down against the wall with his arms over his head. The blast rocked the hallway for a few seconds. A stream of plaster chunks stung him on the back of the neck. The shock wave sent a shower of debris flying through the door as a shrill scream echoed from inside the room. Aiming the Thompson, he peered through the door and saw the young Kraut leaning against the silenced gun, his face contorted in an ugly grimace. Then, he sagged down with his arm draped over it and moved no more.

Below, Caje saw the Sarge's figure appear at the window. Saunders jerked the lace curtain open and gave an "All Clear" signal. Then, Sarge turned towards the dead Kraut and examined him for a second. He put a hand on the German's shoulder, shaking it with an almost delicate gesture. The Cajun lowered his rifle and stood, peering up at his squad leader. It was only a probing gesture by the Sarge to make sure the gunner was dead, but it reminded him oddly of the friendly shoulder clasp Saunders gave him so many times.

As Caje watched, Saunders stepped back, letting the dead Kraut to slide out of sight below the window frame, and the image of friendliness instantly faded from the scout's mind.

Nothing but eerie silence came from the house, now.

Noting the silence too, Kirby stood and crept carefully out of his cover. With the BAR aimed, he slowly strode towards the busted transport truck, looking for Nelson. "Hey, Kid!" He held his weapon ready as he took several more steps towards the vehicle. A gust of wind lifted his jacket collar. A feeling of dread made Kirby slow down. He froze, letting the breeze die down, and then took another step towards the truck. It just didn't feel like it was over yet, to him.

"Nelson!" Kirby muttered. "What'cha doin'?" Something was wrong. He could smell Krauts nearby, and he shivered, waving his weapon warily in all directions.

He heard, just barely, grunts coming from somewhere to his left, and he whirled around, swinging up the BAR. Two uniformed figures rolled on the ground in a dark alley across the street, locked in a close fight. Kirby recognized Littlejohn; there was just no mistaking that big lug, even in shadow. Littlejohn had lost his helmet and was barehandedly trying to pin down a yellow-haired Kraut even bigger than he was. Kirby couldn't see Littlejohn's rifle anywhere. The big guy had probably lost it while he was fighting.

Littlejohn landed a hard uppercut to his opponent's jaw and managed to pin him to the ground. His enormous hands went around the Kraut's neck, trying to keep him subdued. "Stop!" Littlejohn muttered, his voice raspy.

The blond German was lying on his back but fought furiously, his eyes bulging. In desperation, he kicked at Littlejohn and tried to pry off the big hands. He flailed at Littlejohn's face furiously.

Littlejohn clasped even tighter, hoping the Kraut would just give up! He held on only as much as he needed, afraid of snapping the other man's neck. This was a human, dammit! "Don't move any more! Hear me? Don't...." he strained to tell the struggling Kraut, but the other guy wasn't listening. He wiggled and fought to get out of his grip worse than any bass he'd ever had on a hook. Feeling the German's neck give way beneath his hands turned his stomach, but there wasn't anything else Littlejohn could do.

A shot rang out, coming from his right. It echoed against the walls, making him wince. He felt a hard blow against the side of his helmet, turning his vision gray. His hands went numb, and he let go of the blond soldier's neck. As Littlejohn fell back, stunned, he felt a trickle come down his temple. Had he gotten one in the head? Was this it for him? Oh, Jeez, no!

His veins frozen, Littlejohn glanced up and saw a German sergeant standing next to him, clutching his chest. An ugly grimace contorted the Kraut's features. His helmet rolled off, revealing a balding head. The German staggered sideways, and he crumpled into a dark heap. The bald Kraut lay against the brick wall, unmoving, and made no move to recover his Schmeisser, which lay at Littlejohn's feet.

Littlejohn's huge, blond-headed adversary from moments before sat up, his eyes flashing.

In a desperate movement, Littlejohn grasped the Schmeisser at his feet and swung it up in the blond Kraut's direction. "Don't move!" he muttered. He couldn't believe it when the yellow-haired German reached behind and then reared up, a long blade shining in his hand. He held it up menacingly, waving it in Littlejohn's face, and then lunged forward. Littlejohn squeezed the trigger.

A loud shot burst through the alley, deafening him.

The blond Kraut let out a scream and fell back against the brick wall. He sagged to the ground, still clutching his knife. Within seconds, the neck that Littlejohn had tried so hard not to snap in two turned blood red. The German exhaled a last breath without uttering a word, his eyes still locked on Littlejohn.

Kirby strode over to the German sergeant and nudged him slightly with his boot to make sure he was dead. Littlejohn saw that he held a reddened arm against his chest. "What were you tryin' to do, ya big lug?" Kirby asked. "He almost stuck you."

"I had 'im," Littlejohn protested, touching a wet lump on the side of his head. His words barely came out through the panting breaths he took. He stared at the Schmeisser, confused. His head hurt!

"With that thing? Huh! It's out of ammo. Why d'you think this guy hit you upside of that big moose head of yours with it?"

The BAR man took out the knife from the blond German's hand and turned it over to examine it, hoping it might have special insignias on it, something to give it some use as a souvenir. But it was just a plain, Kraut-issue bayonet. He pursed his lips and flung the valueless thing away.

Littlejohn stared at the Schmeisser in his hand, considering Kirby's words. It was empty? When he aimed it down at the ground and pulled the trigger again, only clicks came from the weapon. He shuddered.

Kirby handed him an M1. "Here's yours. It was right over there." He turned and headed out of the alley, hefting the BAR. "And check the ammo in that pea-shooter next time, Littlejohn," he added with an ironic tone.

"Thanks. I owe ya..."

But Kirby was already heading towards the overturned truck.

"...Twice," Littlejohn added, struggling to his feet.

Out in the street, Kirby saw Billy standing in the bomb crater beside the vehicle, as if frozen. The kid stared with wide-eyed wonderment at the two dead Germans in the alley, all his fears from minutes ago forgotten. His eyes were wide as saucers, and his jaw seemed to be hanging about two feet below where it normally did.

Kirby gave Billy a slight jab on the shoulder. "Weren't you supposed to be the eyes on this squad? Lookin' out front? There were Krauts all over the place, kid!"

"I didn't know they were up there! How could I?"

Littlejohn strode over to them. "You okay, Billy?" he muttered, still panting.

"We're lucky we didn't all get it back there!" Kirby shot back. His arm stung much worse now that everything was quieted in town. He clutched it. "The whole point of bein' on 'point' is you gotta keep you eyes open, kid!" he snorted.

Littlejohn glanced inside the carcass of the transport truck, wondering if it were booby-trapped. The stench of gas coming from it almost made him puke. At least the thing hadn't exploded. "Just leave Billy alone, will ya?"

"Yeah, sure," he answered as he peered down the street and spotted the other squad members bunching up in front of the antique shop. "Hey, where's Doc? You guys seen 'im?"

Littlejohn frowned at the sight of Kirby's bloodied sleeve as the BAR man headed down the street towards the others. Kirby's helmet drooped sideways on his head, and his shoulders sagged underneath the thick straps. His gait seemed a little stiff, and it had a decided limp to it, Littlejohn noted.

"Did you see that, Littlejohn?" Billy asked. "Wow, he sure can handle that thing. He's good!"

Littlejohn scratched his head and looked at his young companion. "Billy? You shouldn't argue with good advice. Keep your eyes open."

God, did he hate agreeing with anything that loudmouth ever said!

***

"The sector's silent for now," Saunders told Hanley, taking out his lighter. He pushed back his helmet and leaned against the officer's jeep to light his Lucky. "Krauts have pushed back. Do we keep after 'em?"

"Not yet," Hanley replied, putting his pack of cigarettes inside his jacket. "Jampel's orders are to hole up here for a day and wait until word comes. Somewhere around, oh... breakfast tomorrow. If we're lucky and channels are slow, that may get stretched to forty-eight hours."

"That's nice. The whole squad's been fighting for three weeks without a break, Lieutenant."

"I know." Hanley's face grew more serious. "Saunders, I want to talk to you after the squad briefing. It's important. I'm staying at the third house down the street. The gray one that's still standing. Make it over there in half an hour." Hanley turned his gaze southwards to the edge of the village for a few seconds, working it up towards the north. The place remained quiet, desolate, and dead. "It's about Wickham."

Saunders didn't answer. He took a last draw from his Lucky Strike and threw down the stub, nodding. He stepped aside to let Hanley back up the jeep.

"Braddock!" Sarge shouted at the stout soldier stepping out of a doorway behind him. "Give me the radio. You and Baker take security at the ends of the street. And watch yourselves. There could be stragglers."

Saunders took the offered radio and shouldered his Thompson. As he looked at his watch, he spotted an old Frenchman pulling a sheet over two bodies lying next to each other in front of the two-storied house. One was the young Kraut gunner, the other was a kid called Mallett who'd joined the squad only that morning. Both dead soldiers had bloodied chests, but otherwise looked like sleeping kids. Sarge sighed and headed towards the antique shop.

Doc knelt beside the entrance with his back to him, busily dabbing a piece of cotton gauze on a swollen, nasty-looking nick in Kirby's left arm. The BAR man sat helmetless with his arm out of his shirt, clutching his weapon rigidly as he waited for Doc to finish. He let out a loud gasp. "Hey! Watch it, Doc! That stings! Who taught you to be a medic, anyway? A hairy gorilla?"

A faint snort issued from the thin-faced medic in response. "At least you won't get an infection, Kirby."

Caje approached Saunders. "Two dead," he said, holding a pair of bloodied dog tags. Sarge noted that the Cajun's face looked thinner and more drawn than usual. "Mallett and O'Neal got it. Want these, Sarge?"

Saunders took the two tags, and they clanged against each other as he read the inscriptions on them. Kirby had almost made it three crossing the alley in front of the gun earlier. He'd held a mess of these tags recently; he just didn't want to wind up having to hand over Kirby's some day, the way he'd done with Grady's. Saunders remembered how those had just about burned a hole through his palms. He closed his eyes and shuddered, not realizing that he'd stopped breathing for a few seconds. Yeah. A few hours of down time would do everybody good.

***

Caje crossed in front of his squad mates sitting against the antique shop wall, nodding at each of them, and sat down at the end of the file. He stared out into the street, smoking a Lucky and feeling that it'd be nice to find a town that wasn't so ripped-apart one of these days. He nudged the medic beside him. "Looks like we got ourselves 48 hours. Got any plans, Doc?"

The medic shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. I'd love to go out and have a bottle or two with you guys. But, no.... I don't think so. The only bottle I'll be holding for the next while is the plasma kind. That guy Felton isn't doing so good. I'm gonna stay here and watch 'im." He scrambled to his feet, intending to go inside. "How 'bout you, Kirby?"

The BAR man groaned as he slipped his jacket back on. "Me? I think maybe I'm gonna go check out that open terrace down at the end of town. You know, that 'Auberge Dandew' place. I wanna see if them twins I saw servin' tables out there is still around." He scooped up his BAR and stood sprightly, all tiredness forgotten. "Hey, Nelson! How about that for a forty-eight hour pass, huh? Nice? Come on, let's go see 'em!" he exclaimed, pulling on Billy's sleeve.

Billy looked up at him, a look of utter confusion on his face. "What twins, Kirby? I mean; I only saw one girl out there. And she couldn't even speak a word of English. How are you two gonna talk, anyway?"

"We'll use the language of romance! Come on!"

Littlejohn's massive frame appeared at the shop door. His left temple had swollen badly, and he wore a patch on it, now. He looked like he'd need it for a while. He flashed an angry look at Kirby as he eased himself down next to Billy. "Look, for the last time, why don't ya leave the kid alone, Kirby?" he grumbled.

Kirby snorted, releasing Billy's sleeve with a grin. "Just teasin', Littlejohn. Just teasin', that's all," he replied. "Hey, Caje, you old Frenchie rascal, you comin' down to that Auberge Dan-dew with me?"

"That's 'Dandieu'," Caje pointed out, getting on his feet. "Dan-dieu, like the town. Practise it. You've just got to round out your mouth and say it like the locals do."

"Ha! That's exactly what I had in mind, Caje," Kirby replied, his eyes twinkling. A malicious grin flickered across his face as the two men set off. "For a full forty eight-hours."

***

Two non-coms stood rigidly in front of Hanley, their harsh voices resonating in the closed air of the room.

"What's the matter?" Kellerich almost spat out the words in Wickham's face. "My own squad made its objective. All of us had it rough!" He ran a grimy sleeve across his mouth and stared daggers at Wickham.

Saunders stayed silent and listened to the other two sergeants. The squad briefing had turned into a shouting match. He preferred to stay out of it.

"All right. Knock it off!" Hanley barked.

His shoulders wet and covered with mud, Wickham stood rigidly at attention, ignoring his detractor. He'd come into Hanley's office earlier, spat out his report and banged a handful of Kraut shall casings down on the table next to a pile of bloodied dog tags. No one knew how he'd managed to get his hands on the things. He stared at Hanley with his jaw set. His squad had only two men left out of six after the American attack that morning.

"The Krauts had four machine guns nests guarding the rail yards, Lieutenant. Their men outnumbered mine five to one. Nobody warned us, and my lookouts never saw them! They decimated Meyer and Emerson's positions. The rest were pinned down and couldn't make a move. No one had a chance to fight back! I was lucky to get Royce and Felton out of there!"

Hanley sat back, rubbing his forehead, and let the thin, tall sergeant finish talking. Wickham's story had sent shivers down his spine. Not even S-2 had known about any clandestine German activity at the rail yards.

Saunders leaned against the square metal table near the window and unconsciously put a foot up on a wooden box lying beside it. His gaze rested on Hanley's makeshift desk as he listened to Wickham, and his heart leapt at the sight of the empty casings. His own squad had made it through a long, messy day. He shook his head slightly as he took out his pack of Luckies and, heaving a deep sigh, put one in his mouth.

Hanley put down his pen, waiting for Wickham to pause. He saw blood trickling down the side of Wickham's chin; the left side of his neck gleamed with it. "Thank you for your report, Sergeant," he said. "It's going to give Battalion something to think about. You've saved a lot of lives with that information. Now, a fresh contingent of replacements should be coming in tomorrow. I'll see that you get some. You'll need them. In the meantime, I'll do what I can to get you another BAR man."

"I'll take whatever you give me, Sir. Thanks."

"Anything else?"

Wickham shook his head and picked up a dented, mud-covered helmet. "Only that I want to get back out there as soon as I can, Sir."

"You'll get the chance. Everybody will. This war isn't going to be decided by any one team. All of us have to lend a hand if we want to get the job done. All right, dismissed.... And get some rest, all of you. You're bushed."

A frown darkened Saunders' face as he watched Wickham and Kellerich turn to leave. The two sergeants strode briskly to the door and left. The room still crackled with tension after they had shut it behind them.

Hanley took out his own pack of Luckies and placed one in his mouth. "I'm gonna have to give him one of yours, Saunders."

Saunders cleared his throat. He'd been certain that he was going to hear just that. "Permission to speak about Wickham? ...Sir?"

Hanley exhaled a cloud of smoke and nodded. "I understand, Saunders. But I can't do anything about it right now. Most of the replacements due in tomorrow are green recruits. I'll have to spread out the ones with combat experience. You have two men qualified on the BAR now. Wickham's got none."

That fact seemed to hang on both their tongues, unelaborated. Of course, Wickham didn't. He had just about nobody left under his command, period. Saunders picked up his Thompson from the table. "His story should be checked out before you do that, Lieutenant."

"I believe him about the gun."

"To see if he didn't make any mistakes out there... Or bad calls."

"Like we all make once in a while," Hanley interjected. "Saunders, you've made your point, but I can't hold up the whole U.S. army just because you have questions about him."

"To see how he ordered his men to rush those gun emplacements."

"I figured you meant that. What would it prove, Saunders?"

"Lieutenant, he was my CO at Anzio. He lost a lot of good men there, and they demoted him. Then, he lost a squad at St. Lo. Having that happen twice is bad luck enough. But now he's done it again...."

"Done what?" Hanley stepped behind the table to take a sheet of paper. "You've had missions go wrong before. You know as well as I do that a mix of judgement, tactics, and luck wins battles. A lot of luck. We've been fighting hard for every inch we gained in this sector. The Krauts have fallen back to Montanniers. And now we may have to hold up our advance because of a cannon. Saunders, they could own the whole valley if they get time to set it up." Hanley's tone softened. "Now, Regiment wants the line strengthened in case of a German counterattack. I'll need every man I can get. I have to put some of the experienced men in with the greens. I'd say Kirby is quite experienced." Hanley sat down, making the frail chair squeak beneath his massive frame. "Why don't you tell Baker he's on the BAR again? ...And I'll arrange a temporary transfer for Kirby. Have him get his things ready and stand by."

Saunders grabbed his helmet on the corner of the table.

"I know you've depended on him since he's been here," Hanley added, his tone softening. "Kirby's got his faults, but he's proven himself to be a good BAR man. You will get him back. ...You'll see."

Heaviness settled on Saunders' chest like a thick cloak, and he shrugged. "Yes, Lieutenant!" he answered sharply. He plopped his helmet on and left the room. He would go find Kirby and tell him the news.

***

"The report's on its way, Sir," Hanley uttered into the phone. "Every squad's had a high number of casualties, but Wickham stated that his encountered something unexpected at the rail yards. He swore he saw a railcar pass by him in the early light. Yes, Sir. A railroad gun, that's what he said. We got lucky and flushed it of hiding out this morning. No, the Germans pulled it away to safety. We couldn't stop them. It's gone now, that's all I can tell you. There isn't a sign of it left. I don't know where they took it." He took the receiver away from his ear, staring pensively at the door through which Saunders had just left, and then put the receiver back to his ear. "Patrols? Today?" he asked. "Yes, Sir. We'll find that gun, Sir. ...Out."

He swallowed dryly and put down the phone.

***

Kirby couldn't believe how hard it was to walk on this sloping forest path, with one foot always landing lower than the other. It was murder on his back, not to mention his ankles! He steadied himself on a tree to keep from slipping down the steep incline on his right, and then plodded forward in the file. Two men walked ahead of him. From their unsteady gait, he knew they were having as much trouble staying up as he was. Two others brought up the rear. He skipped ahead, settling in close behind Littlejohn. The big guy still wore a good bump on the side of the head, but he had taken off his bandage. "Huh. Some pass we got! That was 48 hours going on three, if you ask me!" he snorted.

The point man walked ahead of Littlejohn, his frame seeming wire-thin underneath a too-large helmet. He pushed away a branch growing at face level. It snapped off, making a loud cracking noise, and he apologized nervously as he threw it down.

To Kirby's mind, the kid was being way too noisy up there. But was he going to say so? Well, yeah! "Hey, Levin!" Kirby snapped. "Watch it!" He turned to Littlejohn again. "Recruits!" he snorted, a sarcastic tone in his voice. "He's gonna bring the whole German army down on us! ...Kinda like Nelson!" he added.

Littlejohn stayed silent, gritting his teeth and clutching his M1.

Wickham's voice resounded from the rear. "Stop here. And take out your rations!"

Five weary men broke rank, dropping down against the huge tree trunks. The shade underneath the forest canopy offered welcome relief from the noontime heat. This day had turned into a French August scorcher. Kirby took off his helmet and wiped a film of sweat from his brow. He groaned as he unshouldered his BAR.

A blue-eyed medic he didn't know knelt beside him, jutting his jaw towards Kirby's wounded arm. "Hi. My name is Royce. Want me to take a look at that?"

"Nah..." Kirby shook his head, figuring his stomach needed more looking after right now. He settled the BAR on his lap and put his helmet down beside him. He unzipped his jacket as he eyed Sergeant Wickham settling down beside the footpath, out of earshot.

"This place is almost like the Ozarks," Levin commented, taking a mouthful from his canteen. "That's where I'm from."

"Yeah? Whereabouts?" Royce asked. "My uncle's a preacher in those parts."

Kirby looked down the tree-covered hillside, blocking out the conversation. The slope across the tracks went down sharply to the bottom of a deep valley. A thick forest hid the French village nestled somewhere down there. He figured that if it weren't for the trees everywhere, the view across the divide would be perfect for miles. He could aim his BAR and pick a pigeon right off a house roof if he wanted. The Krauts could too, for that matter. He reached inside his jacket for his box of rations.

"Littlejohn?" he asked, turning towards the big man. "Tell me. All them French towns we go into are empty."

"So?"

"So? Where do all the folks who live in 'em go, anyway? We sure don't see much of 'em!"

"They go wherever they can, Kirby. Some of 'em get chased into the hills. Like these ones, even."

"Yeah. Resistance fighters. I'm talkin' about women, Littlejohn." Kirby grinned as he made hourglass shaped gestures in the air to accentuate his meaning.

"Look. There's one right under there!"

Kirby whirled around, his mouth full of ham sandwich. "Under where? " he asked, his voice garbled. All he could see was Wickham staring at a map.

"Made you say it. And it was easy, too", Littlejohn replied, chuckling. He leaned back in triumph, and his face broke into a broad grin.

Kirby drew a mouthful of water from his canteen. Some trickled down his chin, and he wiped it off with his sleeve as he watched Littlejohn run his shoulder blades contentedly against the bark of the large tree to scratch his back. Boy, did he hate being on Wickham's patrol. Here he had been getting used to first squad, to a Sarge that actually took care of his men, and now he was busted down to third squad with Odds-Out Wickham. It felt like a transfer to a team that always lost all of its players during the season. And it meant logging time with a bunch of guys he didn't know all over again. Well, except for Littlejohn.

"Know what they say about Double-O Wickham," Kirby commented. "He's a butcher! When you're servin' with him, you're gonna get served to the Krauts. Like a plate of meat!"

"What? You talking 'bout St-Lo? I don't buy that, Kirby."

"You know he didn't stay on our tail like he was supposed to! He was with us and then, nobody knows where this guy veered off!" Kirby settled himself more comfortably.

"He went after a machine gun nest. Maybe he saved our necks, you ever think of that?"

"Well, he came up short a squad for doin' it!" the BAR man quipped. "All I'm saying is, every rock that guys turns is always crawlin' with ten times more Krauts, that's all! He's always in the thickest of it! He's got a reputation! I just wish they'd have given him Baker instead of us!"

"It'll be alright. It's just temporary, Kirby."

"I heard about that!" Levin exclaimed, keeping his voice low. He bent his head towards them, his face wracked with tension. "In our outfit, they call him 'Blood-and-Thunder'. They say he used to be an officer a long time ago. Seems he's so desperate to get his bars back that he don't care a whit 'bout nothing or nobody."

Royce laughed. "That's just talk. In Baker Company, they say he started gunning for danger after his brand new wife died in Italy last year. Some local woman he met there. Well, I've been with him a long time. He hasn't said anything to me about it. And I can tell you right now he's not stupid or suicidal. Just try and get to know him more. You'll see."

"That's just what I mean," Kirby interjected. "He don't even know us from Adam! Think he's gonna care? Mark my words," the wiry BAR man gulped down more water, "he's gonna find us ten panzer divisions and twenty Kraut patrols before he's done!"

"Not in these hills." Littlejohn pointed out. He glanced at Levin, frowning, worrying that Kirby's words were having an effect on the kid. Levin looked scared. Kirby wasn't helping anybody's morale with his talk. Anyway, he was a fine one to complain that Wickham didn't care about anybody. "Hey, I don't think you oughta...." He stopped, interrupted by a long, high-pitched train whistle sounding in the distance. The wail had come from the west.

Wickham stood, gazing worriedly towards the source of the sound. "That's the third time," he muttered under his breath.

"For what?" Kirby asked, gulping down his last mouthful of cheese.

The tall sergeant raised his rifle and stared down the valley through the gun sight as if it were a pair of binoculars. A gold wedding band flashed on his finger as a ray of sunlight caught it. "Means the train's approaching something," Wickham stated curtly. "I don't know what. Could be a bridge or a tunnel, or maybe a station. I'd say a tunnel. There could be some in these hills. It'd be the perfect hideout for that gun." Wickham lowered the rifle, still gazing eastward pensively. "Alright. There's still a lot of track to cover. As soon as you're finished, get a move on!"

***

Caje threw himself down on the ground beside Saunders and peered over a mossy ridge that banked sharply on the side of a rushing mountain stream. Before them, broken beams and twisted metal trusses lay in a jumbled mess across the waves like a huge skeleton. It was all that remained of a railway bridge that had once spanned the deep, narrow gorge.

"That bridge's been bombed-out," Sarge stated matter-of-factly.

"Probably the Maquis did it, Sarge," Caje replied. "They've been active in this sector. I don't think we're gonna find any bridges still standing around here."

"Yeah. They did a thorough job. Nothing's going to get across that." Saunders swung his field glasses to examine the valley. He could see nothing out there that looked out of place or suspicious. Ahead, the river divided into two forks leading left and right. "

"Which way, Sarge?" Caje asked.

"Doesn't matter much. Those two rivers meet up again about a half-mile ahead." He pointed at the forest near the water's edge. "That's just an island, Caje. We'll scout up one way and come back the other." Sarge examined the left-hand branch of the river with his field glasses. "We'll go that way. This map shows another rail bridge further off."

He turned to head back to the others, and he stopped at the sight of the large trees around them, shuddering. This forest made the worst terrain for infantry fighting. Thick vegetation, high ridges and deep gorges criss-crossed the entire sector. Out here, Krauts could easily hide behind anything, hit them by surprise and then slither right back where they came from. The green canopy offered perfect cover for an ambush. He always preferred seeing the enemy coming at him.

Caje turned, then stopped and looked quizzically at Saunders sitting frozen beside him. "Sarge?"

"Come on. Let's keep going." Both men headed out to join the others.

***

"Private Kirby, you're on point! Move out!" Wickham ordered.

As Kirby stood, the sounds of Schmeissers ripped the air, their loud reports thundering above him, a short distance away. More gunfire burst out, filling the forest air with the sounds of battle. Littlejohn stared at Kirby, their conversation forgotten.

"That's on the other side of this hill!" Levin exclaimed, his eyes as wide as saucers. He clutched his rifle with whitened knuckles. "My God! What... Kirby, what is that sound?"

"Stens, you lug head!" Kirby readied his own weapon as he flung the strap across his shoulder. He looked at Wickham, waiting to hear what the next order was going to be.

"Get your gear!" Wickham snapped. With a gesture, he ordered his men to fall in behind him and then led them up the hill along a switchback trail until they reached the crest just above them. Wickham signaled the men to stop there, and they threw themselves down in the thick grasses, peering down the other side of slope.

Wickham gazed through his gun sight to survey the valley. That side of the mountain dropped off sharply. It led down to a dirt track passing for a mountain road that cut a swath across the forest and then disappeared towards the East. Below, Wickham saw three civilians crouching behind a ridge of timber that bordered a narrow, roadside clearing, firing Sten guns into the forest. Return volleys blasted off chunks of bark right beside their faces. One of the Frenchmen suddenly fell sideways, clutching his chest. He impacted violently against a nearby tree and crumpled to the ground, his jacket reddened. The man next to him bounded over to the wounded man, narrowly escaping a hail of bullets. He grabbed his friend's shoulders and turned him over.

"Listen up!" Wickham ordered. He pointed towards the east as another loud series of shots reverberated up the hill. "Those Frenchmen are caught in an ambush! They're probably Resistance! I'll lead the way down to them, and you all make sure you stay on my tail. I don't want any hiccups on this, you understand?" He pointed further to the left. "We'll stay up here and follow this path. We'll swing around that way and get down the hill any way we can to cut the Krauts off on that side. Royce, you follow right behind me. Everyone else understood?"

The Americans nodded.

"Come on! This is a war! Let's go!"

Already, the noise of the gunfire had abated. A few shots still ripped through the air, and the Americans could hear distant, frenzied shouts in German. Wickham gestured Kirby and Littlejohn to move.

"The fight's almost over, and it sounds like the Krauts're winning, Littlejohn!" Kirby cried out, his tone urgent, as he moved out behind Levin and Royce.

Littlejohn followed behind Kirby. They stopped a few yards away and peered down the incline. It dropped off almost vertically for several yards. The whole hillside was a steep brush-covered cliff. "It's impossible, Kirby! Where are we going to get down?"

"Shut up and follow orders!" Kirby replied as he inched forward along the narrow path.

"Maybe there!" Littlejohn shouted, making a move to clamber down the ridge. "Kirby, I still don't see any Krauts!"

Kirby pointed to the sheer drop below them. It was covered with rocks and blackberry bushes. "Think you can make it? That's crazy! You're a big moose, not a mountain goat! Hurry up, we gotta get further ahead!" Kirby turned to follow along the narrow path, trying to spot an easier way downhill.

Littlejohn cried out instinctively as his foot slipped out from underneath him. He stumbled, unable to recover his balance.

"What're ya tryin' to...." Kirby muttered impatiently. They had to hurry, dammit! The Resistance fighters down there were getting it bad, and this place was crawling with Krauts. Didn't the big lug behind him know he should keep quiet? Kirby turned to see just why Littlejohn was yelling like that. "Littlejohn! Oh, Man!" His heart stopped cold when he saw the big soldier sliding down the hill in a clumsy mass of arms and legs.

Wickham, crouching in the lead, turned and saw Littlejohn slipping down the incline, trying to grab hold of rocks and branches to stop his fall. The big man kept sliding, catching his sleeves on thorns and ripping chunks out of the cloth. His rifle clattered down the incline alongside him, useless. And Kirby was sliding down the incline on his backside, going after the giant soldier.

Kirby didn't care about the scrapes he was getting or the burning in his wounded arm. He landed at the bottom, grunting, a few yards away from Littlejohn. He saw the giant lying on his back, caught in a mess of intertwined nettles. Littlejohn tried to push them off, and then let out a pained yell.

Kirby heard Wickham's voice echoing down the hill. He looked up and saw the sergeant still on the path above, gesturing for him to hurry it up. Kirby signaled back that Littlejohn was all right and saw Wickham move out again. Then, he forced his legs into action, scrambling to Littlejohn's side. "You're a damned stumblebum, did 'ya know that? Boy, is that new Sarge gonna give it to you!" he quipped, heaving a sigh of relief that the guy hadn't been hurt any worse. "Don't move, will ya?"

Littlejohn's low-pitched voice spoke up. "Shut up, Kirby!" He watched as Kirby plunged his bayonet into the stinging nettles, cursing loudly, to extricate him.

***

"Caje! What's the ..." Billy cried out, startled out of his wits. He grunted as the scout fell backwards and struck him accidentally. Billy tried to stop Caje's fall, but the collision sent both men sprawling into the moss. Another shot rang out, missing them by inches. Nelson and Caje scrambled to safety and managed to get a bit of cover behind a pile of rotting logs. A dark, uneven stain began to form around a tear in Caje's uniform pants above the right knee, spreading outward rapidly.

Saunders leaped over the logs and dropped to down beside them. "You hit?" He tipped his helmet back and slipped a hand underneath Caje's leg to examine it.

"I'm okay!" The Cajun tried to clamber to his feet but stumbled back to the ground, wincing. He pointed excitedly across the river, showing Sarge a dark-helmeted figure crouching behind a tree on the other side. "Sniper! Over there!" Everyone ducked as another bullet hit the log they crouched behind.

"How are we gonna get back home now?" Billy fretted, staring with baited breath at the trees all around them. Each one might have a Kraut hiding behind it. This made it the second time he'd been pinned down by Germans in a single day. That was almost a record for him.

Doc leaped over the logs a second later and ducked, panting, beside Saunders and Billy. He put down his medical bag. "I got it, Sarge!" In a quick motion, the medic tore a bandage from it and widened the tear in Caje's trousers to sprinkle sulfa on the wound. "Looks like the bullet went clean through. But I've gotta stop the bleeding."

"I'm okay!" Caje stood, ignoring the pain jabbing through his leg. Damn! He couldn't be wounded now; it wasn't the right time.

"Put a tourniquet on it, quick." Saunders ordered, worried about the ever-spreading bloodstain. Then, signaling to Billy to head out and cover the other side, he dashed out along the riverbank towards the sniper. With luck, they might get that Kraut and find out what they needed.

"Sarge!" Caje shouted. "Ugh!" His voice trailed off. "Doc, I have to go with...."

"Don't talk! Sarge knows already. Just stay down, Caje." He shoved the scout down by force, telling him that he hadn't finished bandaging the leg yet.

***

Wickham ducked behind a boulder and ordered the others to fall in behind him. He listened to the noise of Schmeissers coming from inside the tree line He stared through the gun sight to get a closer view of the situation across the clearing.

Kirby arrived next to him, panting, instantly followed by Littlejohn. Good! It was about time those two showed up, they'd taken too long getting back. He signaled them to get down.

More shouts reached them, audible even through the gunfire. The two remaining Frenchmen made a desperate attempt to escape their ambushers and dashed along the edge of the trees towards the road, but the Germans held the higher ground and had a clear view of the two civilians. One of Frenchmen suddenly pitched forward, cut down by a bullet between the shoulder blades, and rolled to the ground. The other man turned his companion over, and then he sprinted across the clearing by himself, firing into the forest. He almost made it to the road, but he twisted sideways just as he reached the shoulder, hit by a bullet, and crumpled to the ground. He grappled at his neck frantically, his mouth rent into a silent scream, forgetting the weapon at his side.

"Sarge!" Royce cried out, making a move to head out to the wounded Frenchman.

"Wait! Later, Doc!" Wickham ordered. "We have to secure the area first. Levin, you're on me. We'll take the left flank. You two!" He pointed at Littlejohn and Kirby. "Cross the clearing on the right and head for that shallow ditch near the road!"

Following the base of the hill, Wickham led the youngster to the edge of the clearing.

A loud, startling explosion behind them suddenly froze both men in mid-motion. Wickham whirled around and saw the medic in the field, clutching his face and letting out an agonized scream. Royce's Red Cross helmet flew off his head. Through a cloud of smoke and flying debris, Wickham saw the medic spin wildly and crumple to ground beside the broken radio. He lay in the grass and moved no more.

"Mines! Oh, shit!" Wickham cried out.

Kirby, following the right edge of the open field, whirled around, startled by the explosion. He froze and stared at the medic's body. His legs almost gave out as he distinguished Royce's badly mangled arm jutting out towards his charred medical bag. "Oh, my god!" the BAR man muttered unconsciously, swallowing the sour spit in his mouth. The medic had gotten it trying to cross a field to reach the wounded Frenchman at the side of the road. "He can't be dead!"

Littlejohn, crouching in a crater, froze as he stared down helplessly at Royce's body in disbelief. A chilling heaviness gripped him, and he sank back onto his haunches. "Not the medic..."

Levin couldn't move any more. "He... stepped on a mine! Why'd he go out there, Sarge?"

"Watch out for mines!" Wickham shouted the order at the top of his voice. "Get away from the clearing, it's a minefield! Head back! Now!" He made a move to stand and then stopped, noting that the youngster had stayed frozen in place.

"He's dead!" The youngster just couldn't take his stare away from the medic's body.

"Watch out, Levin! There are still Krauts out there! Move, soldier! Now!"

Levin shook himself back to his senses and took one step back, trying to obey the sergeant's order. He stood, aiming his rifle at the trees, but he had no idea in what in what direction to look. The Germans were blending into the forest like wild animals, perfectly camouflaged, but suddenly, the young soldier thought he saw a German uniform run out from behind a tree at the edge of the timberline. Levin gulped as he aimed his rifle, blocking out all thoughts, and pulled the trigger. The Kraut whirled around and brought up his Schmeisser in Levin's direction. He fired a burst from his rifle and then took off again into the forest.

A flamed burned in Levin's stomach, making him gasp. He froze, forgetting all about following orders, and glanced down at his own body.

Dark stains were blooming across his belly, getting bigger by the second. Oh God, no! Not me! Levin's head spun with utter disbelief. He dropped his rifle, and it clattered to the ground as he clutched himself and moaned softly. His brain conjured up the image of Medic Royce, still lying dead in the mine-infested clearing, and all the medical stuff lying with him, a million miles away. He felt too stunned to call out for help. Wickham appeared before him. The sergeant's face looked dark with concern. "Sarge?" he pleaded. "...Sarge?" He sobbed the words like a frightened child; he just couldn't help it. His legs gave out and he fell, with his eyes still locked on the sergeant.

More Schmeisser fire whizzed over their heads. Wickham fired in response, pulling the trigger again and again, trying to blast the enemy of that forest. He stayed in front of Levin, covering him. With satisfaction, he saw a German stumble in mid-stride between two tree trunks and collapse.

He heard a soft moan behind him. "You'll be alright, kid!" Wickham shouted. From the corner of his eye, he saw two more Krauts running along the base of the hill, high-tailing back to their position. One of them turned and fired at him. He ducked as bullets whizzed by his head, but they missed their mark. Wickham looked everywhere, trying to find out where the other two soldiers who were with him. Damn! The BAR man and the giant should be giving cover fire. He heaved a sigh of relief when he spotted their helmets in a shallow ditch near the road, further to his right. The two soldiers were staying low and firing into the forest.

Wickham desperately wanted to head out there and grab one of those Germans. Then, they might be able to pump the bastard dry. Find out about that gun. But the Krauts were getting away now; he could no nothing about it.

He heard a moan behind him and turned to check on Levin again. He pulled up the kid's shirt and peered inside, tearing a sulfa pack from his web belt. Levin's abdomen shone bright red; he'd lost a lot of blood, but Wickham had seen worse before. The kid still had a chance, if he was lucky. "At least your guts aren't spilling, kid! Hold on! By tomorrow, you'll have an army of nurses on you!"

The forest crawled with Krauts, and the clearing beside them presented a deadly mine danger. The roadside ditch seemed the only place to offer any measure of safety. He signaled to Kirby and Littlejohn, urgently gesturing for them to stay put. Then, he turned towards Levin again and sprinkled the sulfa on the kid's bullet wounds. Two, maybe three entry points cut right across the lower abdomen. It was hard to count them all in the dark blood.

He put a hand under Levin's shoulder and tried to pull the kid up. The young man remained apathetic and unresponsive. "Move it, soldier!" he ordered impatiently. Levin should at least try to take steps, Dammit! But the kid only mumbled incoherently, acting as if his will had been knocked out of him.

"Let's go!" Wickham finally got hold of the young soldier and led him carefully out towards the others. He eased his charge down onto the bottom of the ditch beside Kirby and Littlejohn. "Easy, easy..." he muttered, tension in his voice. The kid was slipping into shock fast, and all the medical equipment lay out in the lousy minefield. He touched Levin's cheek. The skin felt utterly cold and clammy. He shook his head. "It'll be alright, soldier,"

Kirby knelt down next to Wickham, examining the young soldier. "Hey," he chimed in. "You got yourself a million-dollar wound there, kid." He pulled put a fresh bandage from his belt and placed the young man's hands onto the gauze to keep the pressure on it. "That thing's a one-way ticket stateside."

"Yeah," Littlejohn added. "You're a lucky son-of-a-gun!" He forced a thin smile, but his face was frozen with worry.

Levin's hands dropped to his sides, and he stared emptily into space. "I'm... dead.... D...ead..." he whispered between labored sighs. His mouth continued to move silently.

"Because Royce got it?" Wickham grumbled. He put Levin's hands back on the bandage again. "That's just giving up, soldier!" He tried to find a way to force some willpower into the kid. "Now, hold on to that!" He worried about the dilatation in the kid's eyes. Levin was drifting off. But there just wasn't any reason for the youngster to stop functioning after witnessing the explosion in the field. He'd seen fighters' morale break down before, after losing their medic. That thought suddenly brought back the image of Royce, clutching his face and screaming. Wickham almost let out a sob himself. He exhaled, burying the image and closing his mind's door on it. Royce had been a good medic and had patched up dozens of wounded G.I.s in the last months. He'd been steadfast, loyal and brave. And now, Wickham couldn't even reach him without getting blown to bits. So, what would crying over it in front of the others accomplish now? Get them killed, that was what.

"Come on, Levin! Fight!" he barked.

Kirby spoke up, trying to use a reassuring tone. "Yeah. Sarge's right.... It's just a couple of slugs in the belly, Kid! Look, I've been shot before. We all have."

Levin's throat rattled softly. He let his hands drop loosely to the side once again. His chest rose a final time and then, he was still.

"The kid could have made it to a hospital," Wickham muttered.

Kirby stared at the lifeless blue eyes and shook his head. "Sarge, it's like he didn't wanna live anymore!"

Something about Kirby's expression stirred Littlejohn's deepest memory, bringing up an image from a long time ago. A young cousin, still a baby girl really, had wandered over to their neighbor's corn field and gotten hit by a tractor. His uncle had found the child's body after a half-hour's search, dead in the afternoon sunshine. The look on his uncle's face had been so much like Kirby's right now. Littlejohn hadn't thought about it in years. It had happened on beautiful day just like this one.

Littlejohn watched the sergeant close Levin's eyes and get up without saying another word. From the look on his face, Wickham didn't seem at all like the uncaring leader that Levin had just called Blood-And-Thunder. Then, he saw Kirby pull off the dead kid's tags and read the writing on them, just a hint of a sigh escaping from his lips. Littlejohn had always thought Kirby incapable of caring about anything but himself. The BAR man had even turned Levin's morale to zero with his dumb talk before. But right now, it sure looked to him like Kirby had cared a lot about the dying kid.

Kirby looked up and met Littlejohn's gaze. He grumbled, wondering what the big lug was staring at.

"Want these now? ...Sarge?" Kirby glared angrily at the non-com as he asked. He handed the tags over to that Odds-Out Wickham, feeling certain that the sergeant had gotten two of his soldiers killed within minutes of each other because he was so anxious to find that lousy gun. Now, there was only him and Littlejohn left on the patrol. Just exactly who was going be ordered into the meat grinder next?

"All right," Wickham continued. "We still have our mission. First, let's go see about the Frenchman over there." He indicated the last of the Resistance fighters who lay several yards away.

***

Saunders stopped in mid-stride, and he raised the Thompson. "Krauts up ahead!" he warned. "There's a half-track with them. Take cover! Quick, it's right on us! Caje, can you make it?" He dropped down beside Caje and Doc. The scout's face looked white, and he had begun to pant more heavily in the last minutes.

Caje clutched the Garand, ignoring the sweat running down his face. "Yeah."

Already, the loud vibration of a vehicle's motor was making the earth shake. Billy, clutching his rifle, splashed into the rushing water, gasping at how cold it felt.

All of the soldiers flung themselves into the river and waited anxiously. As the noise of the approaching vehicle grew louder, they turned their weapons out towards the road. The half-track came into view, rolled past their position, and disappeared in the distance. Saunders aimed his Thompson at the truck as it distanced itself from his men.

"All right, let's go." Saunders made a move to head out, then stopped, startled by another noise that thundered across the valley. At first, it seemed like it might be a large truck.

Billy stared up at the Sarge, gulping, a look of awe stuck on his face. "Sarge, that's sounds like something bigger than a half-track. What could it be?"

"What do you think?" Sarge mouthed quietly.

***

Littlejohn knelt at the inert Frenchman's side and put his rifle down beside him. The Resistance fighter moaned and opened his eyes, blinking confusedly. As he tried to turn his head towards Littlejohn, a red trickle flowed down the side of his mouth. He coughed lightly. Littlejohn stared up at Wickham in surprise. "Hey! He's still alive, Sarge. I think he's trying to talk!"

Wickham knelt beside the Frenchman, pursing his lips at the sight of a cluster of bullet holes at the right of the sternum below the heart.

"Saloperie boche..." he gasped in a raspy voice.

"Easy..." Wickham told the wounded man. "We're Americans. You have to talk English." He gazed up at Kirby, and then at Littlejohn. "Any of you know what he's saying?"

"Boches... they come," the Frenchman continued with desperate effort. "Entendons à la... radio. Arrêtez-les ici.... Il le faut." Talking had become hard for him, and he grasped Wickham's wrist.

"What were your men doing down here?" Wickham asked.

"This is... l'endroit. Here...." The man's eyes glazed over for an instant, his speech interrupted.

"What's he sayin'?" Littlejohn asked.

"He said somethin' about a radio, Sarge" Kirby interjected. "An' about stopping Krauts."

"I know. He's probably saying that there's not much time, that the Kraut cannon is gonna be moved to Montanniers as soon as it gets dark!"

The Frenchman shook his head painfully and coughed again. More blood trickled from his mouth. "C'est pas ça... Le camion... arrêtez-le.... Stop the... camion...." A deep, throaty rattle shook the wounded man as he struggled to speak. His arms dropped limply to his side. His chest wheezed, and his head rolled back. He tried unsuccessfully to move his lips to speak, and then his eyes closed a final time.

Wickham rubbed his chin. "He said camion. That's no train. What's a damned camion, anyway?" he asked, standing up again. "Get your gear. We go back up there and watch the tracks. There's no time to waste."

Wickham took a step, and then he froze, remembering that morning's attack at the rail yard. In the early twilight, and in his wounded stupor, the thing rolling out of the hangar had seemed like a train, but.... His shoulders stiffened, and he whirled around, look of understanding on his face. He seemed to have grown a foot taller within the space of five seconds.

"A damned truck!" he exclaimed. "That's what he meant. The Krauts switched it to a road load in there. Hell, there was equipment enough in the yards to do the work. No one figured it! That's why we never saw a thing on the tracks all day."

"But why?" Littlejohn asked, his tone incredulous. "Isn't that a lot of trouble? We were almost on them. It sounds crazy!"

"Think about it. Wheels give a lot more freedom."

"That's impossible!" Kirby shot back, staring at the narrow road in disbelief. "How could anything the size of that lousy thing roll on that?" Suddenly, he feared that Wickham would order him to attack that rolling cannon right there. It wouldn't be the first time that Sarge did something stupid.

"This road shortcuts between the two main routes to Montanniers. It's narrow but passable. The Krauts might think that they could make it. The Maquis were trying to attack here because this is where the bastard'll be! On this road!"

***

"If that was the gun, then, why can't they just get it from the air, Sarge? It's full daylight out. Stop it before the Krauts have a chance to set it up good?" Billy huffed, trying to stay close behind the sergeant as he helped Caje to walk.

"They've go perfect cover under those trees." Saunders replied, listening to another plane drone by. He looked up, wincing, at the sounds of machine gun fire in the distance. He had led his men back along the river, away from the machine gun emplacement, trying to escape Kraut reprisals.

"Ground patrols'll find it, won't they, Sarge?" Caje stopped talking to take in a breath. Everything around him went gray. His head drooped heavily onto his chest, and his legs buckled.

Doc caught him, worried about how white the Cajun's face had become. "Sarge, we've got to go back," he said. "Caje isn't doing too well." He helped the wounded man down at the side of the water.

The medic saw Caje suppress a shiver. A bright red stain had appeared on top of the bandage, growing faster than it normally should have. Caje had to be feeling the heat of this scorching late afternoon. "Okay," he said with a reassuring grin. "How 'bout another aspirin?"

"Yeah. As long is it's not morphine. I don't want any, Doc."

"Right, Caje." Doc placed the Syrette box up on top of the other medical supplies, just in case, and waved a persistent fly away from Caje's leg. Those germ-infested bugs, not Krauts, could finally be what killed the Cajun out here. The insect came back for another dive at the bloodied bandage again, and Doc waved the damned thing off, worried about getting back to the aid station in time.

"We'll head back in five," Saunders said, his tone urgent. "Caje, take it easy, huh?"

***

"That big thing is coming?" Kirby snapped, looking back and forth between Wickham and Littlejohn. "Here on this road? That's nuts!" For once, he hoped the big guy would jump on the bandwagon with him instead of gaping at the road like an oversized hedgehog. Littlejohn should say something to back him up, for crying out loud! He stared at Wickham again.

"According to that Frenchman, it is," Littlejohn replied.

"Doesn't matter," Wickham snapped. "We'll stop the thing before it even gets here."

"What're you talking' about?" Kirby asked. "Sarge, there's only three of us! We gotta go back 'an warn the guys! Call in some artillery out there!"

"No time!" Wickham's face registered steely determination. "The road has a sharp bend just before it gets here. Remember, their rig needs a wide girth to turn. It has to go slow on winding mountain roads. It has to because there's a sheer drop on the other side." The sergeant stood, gesturing to the others to follow him. "You two have bayonets on you. Have you any cotter pins, too?" he asked.

Kirby dreaded what he was going hear next. He frowned, hefting the BAR, and turned towards Littlejohn so that Wickham wouldn't see the angry pout on his face. "Why?" he asked, his mouth dry, regretting the word as soon as he uttered it.

"We go back into the minefield. You'll search for mines, and do it carefully but as fast as you can. We'll dig 'em out and shove the pins in 'em."

Kirby's jaw dropped.

"Now, file in behind me and don't step a toe outside the path I'm going to clear for you!"

Kirby unhooked his knife, clutching it with trembling hands. Sweat poured down his face as he inched back into the field on all fours behind the sergeant.

***

Saunders found a passable spot in the river at the far end of the narrow island and led his men across it. They followed along the other branch of the river on their way back, keeping to the edge of the water.

After several minutes, he stopped and ordered the others to fall in behind him. They crouched behind a tree and waited. Several yards before them, a massive mound of earth stood high above the embankment. Faint voices speaking German issued from it. "Machine gun nest," Sarge mouthed. He scoured the valley, trying to see a way past that nest without being spotted. There was none. He heard Caje groan softly as he tried to shift himself to get a better view of the thing. Caje was getting worse.

"Are we gonna go back, Sarge? That thing's pretty big!" Billy exclaimed, his voice tense.

"It'd take too long," Saunders replied. He checked the Thompson's magazine. "Caje you stay put! Nelson, you're on me, we'll go take a look over there."

As he led Billy up the steep embankment, they spoke no more. They threw themselves down onto their bellies at the top and peered at the view offered up there. A narrow dirt road stretched on before them. Several yards to the left stood the machine gun nest guarding the road and the river. On the right, the valley widened into a broad plain leading to Montanniers. In front, on the other side of the road, stretched a grassy field leading to an overhanging rock face coming down the side of the mountain. Camouflage netting hid the cliff's base, creating a closed emplacement, and another huge mound of earth had been erected beside it. "I'd say we just found where the Krauts stash their shaving kits!" Sarge whispered, lowering his rifle. A large-sized cannon could be tucked under there, he felt convinced of it. And no planes could strike the iron bastard once it was hidden underneath the cliff. He made out several soldiers moving about in the encampment, and he could just discern the tip of a machine gun poking out of the nest. Saunders cursed; the Krauts might have panzerfausts in that mound, too. As he surveyed the open clearing in front of it, he realized that taking a step in that field would get a soldier blown to bits before he could even aim his rifle.

"There must be a dozen of 'em in there, Sarge!" Billy exclaimed, gulping; he could only figure a single reason for all that Kraut activity. "Are they gonna set up right there?"

"Yeah. They're dug in tight," Saunders chimed in. "They can shell the town from over there. The whole valley! And we won't be able to touch 'em under that mountain!"

Billy's eyes widened, and he clutched his rifle tightly. "What're we gonna do?"

***

Kirby clawed his way out of a shallow hole and ran towards a bush at the base of the mountain, dropping down behind it. With the BAR turned towards the road, he signaled to Littlejohn to follow. When the big guy stayed put, just looking at the road, Kirby whistled impatiently. The big lug was taking way too long. Already, that damned cannon could be heard, it was almost around the corner. What was keeping Littlejohn? Vibrations grew stronger every second, making the earth shake beneath his feet.

He could still hear Wickham say that the rig had to go slow on these roads. Damn! The lousy thing had barreled in much faster than anybody had figured! The Krauts were making time. Kirby just hoped that the landmines they had painstakingly dug out of the field at great danger to themselves and then buried in the road ahead would detonate under the big wheels like they were supposed to. His hands were still covered with dirt and trembled from having handled the things. He stared at the road intently, waiting, hoping to see the damned truck blow up good and flip down to the bottom of the hill. Maybe it was a crazy plan, but once the rig went down, all the Krauts would be huffing towards them, double-time! Now, that prospect scared him. "Come on, ya big lug!" he called out, urging Littlejohn to come and join him.

Littlejohn poked his head out of the hole. Sweat ran down his face as he scanned the distance between him and Kirby. He could hear the big truck coming. There was no time left; the tall man wouldn't make it. His heart pounding, he made one desperate, last-ditch try to get over to Kirby. Movement to his right made Littlejohn abandon his effort and flatten himself at the bottom of the hole. Krauts! Two of their sentries rounded the corner and came into view. Littlejohn aimed his rifle in their direction.

"Achtung, ich sehe was!" They brought up their weapons simultaneously, eyeing the form crouching in the hole with suspicion. "Wer ist darunten? Komm heraus!"

The big man held his breath as the two Germans slowly approached. Their booted legs appeared at the edge of the hole he hid in. He heard one of the Krauts snort and comment to his companion. "Was ist das?" He grasped his ears as the BAR thundered behind him in a loud, startling burst. Bullets whipped through the air just above Littlejohn's helmet.

The German soldiers dropped their weapons and spun crazily. They fell to the ground just beside Littlejohn' hiding place

The tall man stayed where he was, feeling the ground shake, and then he saw a huge fender come into view. Behind it, a fifty-foot platform carrying a thick, horizontal tube rolled in, its wheels crushing the earth beneath them, dragged down by the sheer weight of the load. The vehicle looked as long as a football field. The noise it made almost knocked out Littlejohn's eardrums. The monster rounded the bend and advanced slowly, interminably, until it came right up alongside him. Several dark-clad soldiers walked behind it, waving Schmeissers all around; Littlejohn could see their boots underneath the platform. Should any Kraut look his way, they'd spot the two dead Germans beside him. The big man stayed down, afraid to move out towards Kirby.

One of the Krauts shouted something that Littlejohn couldn't understand. He flattened himself at the bottom of the hole without moving. It was too late to get out of there unseen, too late! Just about any second now, the mines that they'd buried in the road would....

An ear-shattering blast ripped through the air as the front tire blew. The screech of twisting, buckling metal made Littlejohn's heart stop. The truck shifted unsteadily, and the metal rivets groaned. The big man watched, mesmerized, as it moved one way, then the other, gaining momentum. The platform jerked sideways, shuddering under the shifting weight of its load, and finally sprawled onto its left side, totally blocking the road. The enormous cannon snapped off the platform. As Littlejohn clenched his eyes shut, it landed across the hole, right on top of him.

***

Saunders ducked low at the side of the ridge and peered at the grassy clearing surrounding the gun emplacement. A distant explosion thundered across the valley, startling Caje and Billy behind him. When the reverberations abated, staccato gunfire sounded right on the heels of the blast. "Krauts?" Nelson asked, panting.

Saunders turned towards the sounds to try and gauge the distance from them more clearly. It had happened less than a half mile away. "Trouble," he concluded, tersely.

Several Krauts poured out of the encampment at the base of the mountain and ran towards the East. The entire area came alive with frenzied shouts and activity.

"Do you think they're heading over there, Sarge?" Billy asked, trying to raise his head to get a better view of the clearing. His feet slipped on the steep embankment, and he almost took a tumble as rocks clattered down into the water behind him. Saunders caught him by the arm, preventing him from falling.

Two Germans running nearby whirled around, alerted by the noise. They cried out warnings, aiming machine pistols in their direction.

A burst from the Thompson sent both of them sprawling backwards. "Let's go. Krauts're busy now!"

Together, Saunders and Billy crawled along the grasses, heading out towards the machine gun nest. After several minutes, they reached the edge of the clearing. Several yards of open space remained to be crossed in order to reach the gun nest, now.

"We can't make it by them without being seen. The Krauts've got us cold out there," Saunders told the youngster. Faraway gunfire sounds still ripped through the air. "I'm gonna take a chance the Krauts're watching the other way!"

The two men ducked out of sight and took out their grenades. Wasting no time, Saunders taped three grenades together and slipped them inside his jacket. Billy gulped as he grasped his M1, relieved that he hadn't been the one to go and charge that gun nest.

Sarge rose to his feet. "Cover me!" He dashed out of the grasses silently, running towards the mound. Instantly, gunfire erupted from it. He heard bullets from Nelson's M1 whip through the air beside him, deflecting off the earthen wall. He pushed out all thoughts of danger and ran on.

He reached the side of the gun nest and flattened himself against it. A burning sensation seared his arm and looked down at his sleeve, seeing a charred, blackened tear above the stripes, but no blood. The bullet had just grazed the skin. Sarge let out a breath as he saw Nelson's wide-eyed stare. He signaled to the youngster to get back down. It was a miracle Billy hadn't been hit, sticking his head out like that. But the Krauts had to know he was up against the nest. Maybe they figured only a madman would charge openly right in the line of fire like he'd done. He hoped the Krauts were thinking hard and sweating in there right now. His heart drummed wildly as he pulled the pins out of the grenades and held them ready. Gulping hard, he turned and clambered up the side of the dirt mound.

Billy watched him fling the grenade cluster into the top of the mound and duck to the side, holding onto his helmet. He ducked, too, even though he was a safe enough distance away.

An ear-shattering blast ripped the top right off the mound. Smoke rose from it and debris flew everywhere and rocks and gravel pelted him. Billy saw the Sarge stand and fire the Thompson into the hole at the top of the nest, waving his weapon all around in there. He wondered if he should head out and join him, but then Saunders turned and gave him the signal to go back.

***

Littlejohn couldn't believe he was still alive after that thing hit him. He lay at the bottom of the hole, and it lay on top of him. He tried to scream, to push the metal thing off, but it was too heavy. He was choking, choking.... Then he realized that it was panic that was freezing him. He clawed at the ground feverishly to dig himself out, wheezing with effort, and he managed to free himself just a little bit. The roar of gunfire rang out just outside his earthen prison, but he couldn't see who was doing shooting. One of the weapons was Kirby's BAR; he recognized its distinctive sound.

Kirby scurried over to him, crying out Littlejohn's name, afraid that the big guy had been crushed. He saw Littlejohn's hand move; the big moose was still alive, at least. "What were ya doin'?" he yelled, handing over his knife. A Kraut's figure appeared next to the huge truck, bracing his machine pistol against the fender. Kirby turned towards him and shot off a burst. The BAR's bullets banged off the twisted metal, missing their mark. Return fire from the Kraut strafed a pile of loosened rockets beside the cannon, narrowly missing Kirby's head.

"Get me out! Quick!" Littlejohn managed to utter despite the weight pressing down on him. His hips and legs were pinned under the cannon, and he could barely move. A wave of sickness washed over him as he tried to wriggle free.

His ears pounding, Wickham crawled to the back of the overturned rig and positioned himself near the wheel. He steadied his rifle and gave out covering fire. The entire area was a maelstrom of Schmeisser and American gunfire. He saw a German soldier rushing him, weapon blazing. He fell to the side of the road, hit by a slug from Wickham's rifle. Two more Krauts came round the bend in the distance; he fired again, covering the two soldiers behind him. He turned to gauge Kirby's progress in getting the giant out of the hole. It didn't look good. He could see the smaller man digging furiously with his bayonet. Kirby dropped the knife suddenly and swung up the BAR, shooting at a target just behind Wickham. Kraut reinforcements were coming in. "Hurry it up!" the sergeant cried.

***

Saunders led his men into the river again, listening to gunfire echoing through the valley. Progress was way too slow; he had tried to make better time, but battling the current with their weapons held high took more energy than his men had left. Doc held Caje's rifle for him, and the medic had begun to pant audibly in the last while. "All right, we'll take a rest," Saunders said, gesturing towards a bend just ahead where a clump of trees bordered the river. There, they would be able to sit Caje down on a mossy patch.

As the Americans reached the bend, a dark, wooden quay came into view several yards further out. Saunders heard shouts as a pair of German soldiers standing on it whirled around and raised their Schmeissers at him. Gunfire erupted from quay. The Americans ducked back as a stream of bullets flew by. Then, the sounds of Schmeissers stopped, replaced by the sounds of the Krauts tramping along the riverbank, hot on their heels.

"Get behind those rocks!" Saunders ordered, curtly. He raised the Thompson and fired at two approaching figures. As bullets raked the other side of the rock, he ducked and fished out another magazine.

"Sarge!" Billy cried. "There's one out there!"

Saunders rammed in the magazine and turned to fire.

A flash of pain seared through Caje's leg as he tried to get up and shoot along with the Sarge. He fell back down behind the rocks again, grunting. He heard the sound of splashing as the Germans sentries fell in the water.

Saunders sank to the ground beside him, panting. "Take it easy, huh!" He said, seeing Caje's set, pale features; the scout was making an effort not to shiver, but still held his rifle ready. They waited for several minutes, but heard no more Krauts approaching. Saunders hefted his weapon, making a move to stand. "Caje, you stay! Some Krauts could come by from that direction, watch yourself."

Doc saw Caje's leg; the river water had cleaned the wound, but loosened the bandage. At least the infection hadn't gotten worse. That was positive, anyway.

"Are you going somewhere, Sarge?" Billy asked, frowning.

"We both are. Krauts're everywhere. That place is probably where the Krauts go to fetch their drinking water. There could be more of them around. I have to go scout ahead before we can make a move. In the meantime, take care of him, Doc."

Saunders winced as the distant sounds of a machine gun thundered across the valley. One fierce burst lasted several seconds and then stopped. "Still some trouble out there!" he said. "All right, let's go!"

***

Wickham winced at the sight of a half-track coming up on the northern side of the road. Damn! The Krauts had motorized escort, too. Its machine gun roared to life, sending a blaze of bullets above the rig he crouched against. Then, it fell silent for a beat as more German soldiers appeared beside it, aiming machine pistols in his direction. The sergeant heard a loud noise behind him. "What's the...." He grumbled, but a loud burst from the BAR cut his words short, startling him. He saw a German soldier collapse, only feet behind him, a bayonet fixed on his rifle. Wickham's heart skipped a beat; that knife had been only inches away from his back. The impudent BAR man had had a sharp reflex to get that Kraut in time. Well, he'd thank Kirby later. Wickham kicked the dead German away and turned to fire again.

Kirby worked feverishly, digging out more handfuls of dirt out from underneath Littlejohn. He couldn't afford to take his time with this job. His fingers bled badly. They were covered with dirt and dozens of scratches. Pain jabbed through his hands as he wiped them. Then, he went right back to work, scraping out more earth but keeping a wary eye out on the road.

"Almost!" Littlejohn rasped, his voice straining. He was wedged in tight, but every handful of dirt taken out eased a little more pressure from underneath him. He clawed at the ground, and he managed to slide forward a few inches. Then, he was out of the trap created by the iron cannon, tumbling into the indentation that Kirby had scraped out. He coughed, gulping in huge lungfuls of air. The freedom felt good, but his legs were completely numb. He made a quick examination of his legs; nothing seemed broken. As Littlejohn sat up, slapping dirt off his torn uniform pants to try and restore the circulation in his legs, his M1 materialized in front him. He blinked at it, thinking back on the scene in the alley that morning. He took the offered rifle, trying to say thanks, but a coughing fit racked him.

A loud motor sounded just beyond the road turn ahead. Littlejohn met Kirby's gaze, both men's faces filled with tension. The vehicle had rolled right up to them while he just sat there doing nothing. Already, the half-track was stopping at the bend up ahead and swiveling its gun towards them.

Wasting no time, it burst to life, spewing deadly fire at the two Americans. Bullets banged off the cannon and ricocheted into the air above their heads.

Wickham's rifle fell silent. He cursed angrily and shoved another clip into the chamber. He turned to Kirby. "You still have ammo?" he asked.

"Yeah!"

"All right, move out! You take that side!" Wickham gestured across the road. "Go down the incline a ways and swing around! Now!"

Kirby got up, reluctantly obeying the order. He reached the twisted front fender and ducked behind it, swinging his weapon out towards the half-track and prepared himself to dive down the slope. He had about a yard of open road to run across, and then he had to jump over a small wood railing. Some plan! Gulping, Kirby took a step out away from the truck and then cried out as a flash of pain seared him in the left shoulder, worse than anything he'd ever felt before. He crumpled to his knees as more gunfire whipped by him. Cursing, he brought up the BAR and fired at the half-track, hoping to do it some damage. He was Littlejohn's only chance to get out of the mess they were in. He wanted to crawl back behind the fender, but the strap weighing on his shoulders sent him into a dizzying mass of pain. He cursed the Krauts and the war, the pain in his arm, and he cursed that sergeant's dumb orders....

The pain ebbed somewhat as he steadied his breathing, and then it stabbed him like a hot iron once more as he tried to get back behind the truck.

He heard someone call out his name. Littlejohn's face appeared next to him, grimacing at bullets that just missed him. What was the big lug doing there, hurt like he was? "Get back, ya big moose!" Kirby cried. He gasped from the pain as huge hands gripped his shoulders and pulled him behind the truck. "Hey!" Kirby yelled out, "You're gonna kill me!"

Damn! This time, his number was up! Kirby felt sure of it.

***

Saunders and Billy scouted the wharf area carefully, staying just behind the high foliage. They found the riverbank more passable there; the men could walk on solid ground instead of wading like they'd done before. It'd be easier on Caje.

They ducked as German voices rang out at the top of the steep hill just above them. A machine gun roared to life along with the shouts, letting out a thundering burst. The loud reports echoed down to the river. Saunders indicated that Billy should follow him.

Billy stared at Saunders, trembling, waiting to see what he'd have to do next. "Sarge?" he asked.

"We'll make a quick recon. Come with me!"

The two men clambered up the steep slope. They had several yards higher to climb to reach the road at this point. They held onto bushes and steadied themselves on rocks to keep from slipping back down.

***

Wickham grabbed the BAR from Kirby's hand.

"Hey, that's mine!" Kirby exclaimed, as Wickham slipped the thick strap off. He took a swipe at the weapon, trying to get it back.

The sergeant ignored the stream of protest coming from the BAR man. He peered underneath Kirby's bloodied jacket, checking the severity of the wound. The shoulder looked bad enough, but the bullet had gone through without damaging the joint and had made a clean exit hole just above the shoulder blade. Kirby was complaining loud enough to show he still had some fight left in him. He was one lucky soldier.

"We've got to put sulfa on it!" The taller one said, reaching for his belt with dirt-covered hands

Wickham shook his head. "Later! Krauts'll be coming."

"But he'll bleed to death, Sarge!"

"I can't cover you both by myself. We head out. Now!" He put his hand underneath Kirby's shoulder to pull him up.

Kirby pushed Wickham away angrily, shooting dagger stares at him. "Where's my gun?" he mumbled as he reached shakily for his web belt. He didn't care about getting out of line with this guy. He didn't care about the court marshals coming his way for mouthing off. He was going to speak his mind right now, and straight too, before his ticket got punched. He wasn't going out quiet like Levin had just done. "You," he started, wanting to spew out a thousand different words at once, "crazy son-of-a...." He coughed uncontrollably. That made him even angrier. He was so mad that all the words he wanted to spit out bottled up inside his throat, choking him. Great plan, ya big hero..." he finally managed to squeak out between fits. Kirby's shoulder throbbed badly, and he stopped himself from crying out from it. His head swam. The view of the forest flashed across his field of vision; it was greenish, like the G.I. uniforms. He blinked out the tears welling in his eyes, noticing the sky's deep tint above the tree line. He'd never seen it that blue back in Chicago.

As Littlejohn and Wickham grasped him and dragged him along the grasses, Kirby fought to stay awake. Something he had wanted to say to this Sarge? He forgot what it was, now.

He felt himself being pulled forward by the others, and he tried to hold his head up and follow them. His helmet came loose a few minutes later, jarred by his movements. His shoulder hurt so bad that he kept losing consciousness. He didn't know how far they went. Voices rang out behind them, sounding like a dozen Germans were after them. Fear galvanized him, spurring him on, but the pain in his shoulder was slowing him down. He needed to go faster! He kicked at the earth furiously, trying to keep up with the others.

After several minutes, Wickham ordered the men to stop, afraid that the tall soldier would run out of breath. A thick film of sweat covered that soldier's face. He gulped in air like a drowning man. They all needed to rest. The BAR man jerked his head towards him, his face white. "Odds-Out Wickham," he grumbled, his voice defiant despite the strain. "Where do you come off... taking my gun?"

Wickham's features hardened. "You got a name, Soldier?"

"Kirby. William G. Private. ...Stationed with... Ugh! ...First Squad, King Company. ...BAR man and a damn good one...." Kirby groaned loudly again.

"My name is Wickham. Gordon Ronald Wickham. Sergeant with Third Squad, King Company. Don't forget it again, you understand?"

Kirby's chest heaved, and he gulped, nodding silently. Jeez, the Sarge hadn't even raised his voice, but he felt as if a hand had slapped him upside the face. A flash of pain seared his upper body, and he sucked in a difficult breath.

"Easy!" Wickham said, peering beneath the reddened jacket once more. Both Kirby and Littlejohn were going to need medical attention soon. They were finished for the day as combat soldiers. It was up to him to get them out of there now. The sergeant shook his head, clutching the heavy weapon, and surveyed the distance between them and the overturned cannon.

"This should be far enough. You should be safe here," he concluded, as Littlejohn ripped open a sulfa pack and sprinkled the powder onto Kirby's shoulder.

"Safe?" Littlejohn asked, perplexed.

"You're leavin' us... alone?" Kirby snapped, staring from one man to the other.

Littlejohn nudged Kirby, afraid that he'd add some stupid word like "again". That guy just never knew when to quit. Then, the sergeant grabbed the BAR and made a move to go back the way they'd come. "Where're you going, Sarge?"

"The half-track's still out there, blocking our way." Wickham replied. "I'll come back for you."

***

"Oh, my God," Billy whispered, his mouth agape. He felt sweat trickle down his spine as he stared at a gigantic truck lying on its side, blocking the whole road. Crates and rockets had spilled off it and rolled onto the ground everywhere. A half-track with three soldiers escorting it stood at a bend in the road, just to their left.

Saunders pushed Billy's head down as a German soldier ran past, a pair of potato masher grenades hanging from his belt. The Kraut slowed his steps as he drew alongside them, looking over the Americans' heads suspiciously, and swung up his machine pistol in their direction. Billy froze, afraid he'd been seen, and steeled himself for the familiar booming sound of Sarge's Thompson. He knew they'd have to huff it out of there fast, afterwards.

But the German picked up his pace again and ran on, hurrying towards the right.

Saunders let out a breath and gestured for Billy to get back down.

"But, what about you?" Billy asked, keeping his voice as low as possible. He gazed at Sarge with a quizzical expression.

Saunders pointed at the half-track. "If I don't make it, you go back to camp with the others. Got it?" Billy's gaze went from Saunders to the vehicle, and he nodded his understanding of what Sarge was planning to do. The young man watched the top of the hill intently as he silently slid back down the incline, and then he headed back to join the others.

***

Littlejohn heard a voice behind him. "Ich gehe Jetzt. Wart mal!"

Clutching his rifle close, the tall man flattened himself on the ground and spread his massive frame in front of Kirby to cover him. The two Americans froze as a dark-clad figure strode into view. The German waved the barrel of his Schmeisser across the grasses like a pendulum, probing through them. He missed Littlejohn and Kirby by only a few yards. Another German voice shouted in the distance, and the soldier near them answered something they didn't understand. The two men watched as the sentry strode away, still swiping away at the grasses with his weapon.

"They're keepin' off the road," Littlejohn muttered worriedly.

"They think it's... mined."

"Kirby, they're bound to find us! We can't stay here!" Littlejohn considered dragging Kirby up the steep hill to get away from the search parties, but the stain on Kirby's jacket had grown markedly in the last while, and Littlejohn knew his own weakened legs would have trouble bracing for a climb. He pointed across the road, at the ditch. "Maybe we could hide down there?"

"Too steep...."

"Yeah, but that means no mines and no Krauts!"

***

Wickham crawled towards the half-track as fast as he dared, keeping his head down. He could hear German soldiers shouting excitedly near the armoured vehicle as he reached a large oak tree and ducked behind it. The half-track stood at the same bend in the road, aiming its gun at the road. To his left, a moving figure caught Wickham's attention. He did a double take, blinking, and stared at the figure again. A familiar Camo helmet had suddenly moved into view beside a large rock.

Saunders flattened against the boulder, holding the Thompson ready, as a tall, thin German strolled by. He waited with baited breath as the Kraut leaned against the other side of the rock and pulled a flat bottle of liquor from his jacket. Casting a nervous glance all around him, the tall German raised the bottle to his lips and downed the reddish contents in a single gulp. He smacked his lips contentedly. After wiping his mouth, the German braced himself with his back to Saunders and reached down to open his pants, unaware of any other presence nearby.

Saunders trained the Thompson on the tall Kraut and waited.

"Hände hoch!" a voice behind him snapped. Sarge whirled around and stared at a young German waving a Schmeisser in his face. He threw down the Thompson and stood slowly, as ordered.

"Werner! Komm hier! Ich habe ein gefangenen!" the German called out to his taller companion excitedly, and the other German hurriedly closed his pants again.

Wickham stayed immobile in the tall grasses and watched the young German. Then, he approached the large rock as stealthily as a cat. Saunders needed a hand badly right now. Wickham readjusted the thick BAR strap on his shoulders and swung up the weapon, grunting quietly with the effort. He hadn't handled one of those things in ages; he'd forgotten how heavy they were. He waited for Saunders to move out of the way and give him a clear shot at the Kraut, but the young German kept shuffling his feet and moving about. The German paced in front of his prisoner for several seconds. Finally, he ordered Saunders to turn around, yelling out with a voice full of anger and prodding him roughly between the shoulder blades with his Schmeisser.

Wickham couldn't make out the unfamiliar words, but the tone of that Kraut's voice sent shivers down his spine. He could see Saunders' alert stance, ready to pounce on his captor at the first opportunity. He wasn't getting much of one. Wickham aimed the BAR at the Kraut, fingering the trigger, ready to squeeze. Just then, another, very tall-looking Kraut appeared in the crosshairs. Wickham took his finger off trigger and let out a breath. Through the gun sight, he watched the two Germans as they lined up, a foot away from Saunders, and aimed their weapons at him. Then, Wickham coldly pulled the trigger.

Saunders dove to the ground, reaching for the Thompson. "Kirby?" he asked.

"Not Kirby. ...Need a hand?"

Saunders shook his head, looking across the space separating him from the man who'd just saved him. A look of recognition washed across Sarge's face. "What about Kirby and Littlejohn?"

"Wounded, so left 'em back there. Saunders, that half-track's blocking our way. I came back out here to get it."

"Yeah. You got any grenades?"

***

"Come on, Kirby! The Kraut has his back turned!" Littlejohn held onto Kirby as the two men crossed the road and crawled underneath the wooden railing. They froze on the other side, teetering on the edge of the incline, and caught their breath as they waited to see if the Krauts had spotted them.

Kirby groaned; his shoulder had turned into a flame ball, his hands felt like he'd cut them with knives. Every breath sent jabs through his chest. As he tried to peer down the hill, loose pebbles gave way beneath him. He cried out as he slipped and lost his footing, desperately grasping at anything he could to stop his fall. Suddenly, a hand reached out and grabbed his left wrist, clasping it like a vise. Kirby looked up, panting, into Littlejohn's gleaming, set face.

"Hang on, Kirby!" Littlejohn muttered anxiously. "Be quiet! Shhhh!" The big man pulled him up again, sending waves of agony though Kirby's shoulder.

***

Saunders crept along the side of the hill and positioned himself just above the half-track. He had to dig his feet into the ground and steady himself against a boulder to keep from pitching forward as he readied himself to launch his last grenade into the vehicle's well. He could see a Kraut soldier inside it, resting an arm against a machine gun. Saunders could hear several voices coming from somewhere near the overturned rig, to his left. Wickham came up behind him with the BAR trained on the road, muttering to Saunders to hurry.

Sarge measured the distance to the half-track and accurately hurled the grenade into it. The resulting explosion sent both Americans scurrying to the ground with their heads down. The got back up immediately, not even waiting for the blast to die down, and hurried back the way they'd come.

***

"Kirby? ...Kirby?" Littlejohn gulped as he settled his companion down near the river, worried about the ever-enlarging bloodstain on his jacket. The wound must have opened up again when he had caught Kirby's arm and pulled him back up towards the railing, but it just couldn't be helped. Otherwise, Kirby would have fallen forever. "Stay awake, will ya?"

"...Got hit...." Kirby whispered hoarsely. He glanced down at his shoulder, grimacing. "Get back.... Little...john. ...Back." His head rolled backwards and hung loosely.

Breathless with worry, Littlejohn put an ear to Kirby's chest. He heard a faint, but very fast heartbeat. His hands shook badly as he sprinkled the last of his sulfa onto Kirby's shoulder. A small rivulet of blood trickled down the side of Kirby's mouth. Littlejohn wiped it away, telling himself it was nothing. Nothing.

"I'll get ya out... Littlejohn...." Kirby mumbled. "Get ya... out...."

"You gotta be quiet, Kirby! Krauts're all around!"

***

"They were both here," Saunders stated, looking down at a bloodied spot on the ground. His tone stayed even, but his legs felt weak as he knelt down beside the reddened grass. There was quite a bit of it staining, he noted. But not a trace of the men's equipment could be seen, except for a discarded sulfa packet.

Wickham popped his head out of the thick brush, the weapon held aloft. "The Krauts're searching hard out here. They know something's up. Your men might have been captured. Then again, who knows with that BAR man of yours? Tell me, Sergeant. Has he ever played hooky on you before?"

Saunders didn't answer. He ran the back of his hand over his mouth. It hadn't felt this dry since North Africa. He drew a mouthful from his canteen as the other man held up Kirby's weapon and aimed it at the roadside, a gold band glinting on his finger in the indirect sunlight. The stripes on Wickham's sleeve caught Saunders' attention for a moment. Wickham had had them for a good while, now. Saunders swallowed the water as his gaze returned to the bloodied spot on the ground. Damn! This day had turned into a long, hard one. He examined the road and the valley on the other side of it and cursed, wondering if Kirby and Littlejohn had gone that way.

"Watch it!" Wickham muttered, keeping his voice low. "Sentry!" He unsheathed his bayonet, holding it ready.

Both Americans flattened themselves as a thin German soldier approached their position, his face barely visible under a dark helmet. He came straight at them, waving a machine pistol diagonally across the top of the grasses, his attention completely on his search. Saunders and Wickham stayed put, waiting for the German soldier to come as close as possible.

Moving as one, they jumped the Kraut and brought him down onto this back. As Saunders pinned him to the ground, Wickham's knife ended the German's struggle with swift, and quiet efficiency. They pushed the limp form away and crouched at the side of the road.

"Still don't carry one, huh?" Wickham asked, his question sounding more like a comment. He slipped his knife back into his belt.

Saunders didn't reply. He turned his attention to the road, alerted by another noise a few yards away. The two sergeants crouched in the foliage and watched another German soldier approach, striding quickly along the shoulder towards the overturned cannon. This one didn't seem interested in searching the grasses; he scanned the road inquisitively and missed seeing the green uniforms tucked in the brush beside him as he passed. He continued on and disappeared around the bend a few yards away. The echoes of his steps died away a few seconds later.

"Maybe they went up there!" Wickham mused, indicating the tree-covered hill that rose behind them. He rubbed his chin for a second, and then he shook his head. It would be damned hard for him to believe that the two wounded, weakened soldiers had done that.

"Right now, they could be anywhere. Even prisoners," Saunders replied. That was what it most looked like to him right then.

"We ought to go back and check around the rig again. See if they got taken there."

Saunders responded by shaking his head and pointing at the road. "There! See that?"

Wickham saw it too. A line of dark spots crossed it, heading towards the railing on the other side. The stains were hard to distinguish if one didn't specifically watch for a blood trail. Wickham nodded. "This thing's almost empty, Saunders," he said, hefting the BAR. "The sentries walk by here every couple of minutes. Some of them could get smart and start checking the other side. We'll have to time it right."

For a few heart-pounding seconds, the two men dashed across the road in a low crouch, following the blood stains and crawled hurriedly underneath the railing. Panting, they threw themselves down at the edge of the embankment and swung their weapons around, ready to respond to any Kraut gunfire.

***

Littlejohn carried Kirby along the river's edge, concentrating on each slow step. His legs buckled with weakness from the day's actions; he struggled on even though his shoulder joints almost rent themselves. Kirby had gotten very heavy and wasn't helping him at all. Panting, the big man put Kirby down next to a small tree, being careful to place the head gently on the ground. He muttered Kirby's name, trying to wake him up.

Angry-sounding mumbles answered him.

"Yeah... I know," Littlejohn shot back, his tone full of unfelt irony. "You hate getting hit. Well, how do you think I liked it when that cannon fell on top of me?" Littlejohn brought up a hand to rub an itch on the side of his nose, and then changed his mind when he saw the blood on his fingers. In fact, dark stains covered the whole front of his uniform shirt. He opened Kirby's jacket for the dozenth time to see if the wound had bled any more. The gauze had turned dark and wet. All this jostling was taking its toll on the smaller guy. He'd bleed to death if Littlejohn kept on going like he was. He pressed down on the dressing, wincing at Kirby's loud, strident complaint. If only Doc were there, he'd know what to do!

***

Doc spread out his arms and grasped an overhead branch, stretching upper body joints tiredly. He winced, ducking behind the tree as a faint noise came to him, carried over the water. Someone had snapped a twig or something out there. The medic spied a distant figure approaching along the riverbank. Seeing a giant of a man coming up on them, he almost cried out with excitement. At first, he thought he was seeing things; Littlejohn's massive frame had moved out from behind a tree, heading his way. Doc pushed his helmet back and stared at him again! It wasn't a dream; he recognized Littlejohn trudging in the grass at the water's edge. The tall man carried an unconscious soldier in his arms. Doc's heart skipped a beat as he recognized Kirby's short, dark-haired skull bent back at a sharp angle. The wounded man's arm dangled loosely at his side. Littlejohn looked dead on his feet. His face gleamed with sweat underneath a helmet that was held too high on his forehead. He had no way to push that pot back into place. Doc bounded towards him at a running pace, followed closely by Billy.

"...Got him down the hill, Doc," Littlejohn whispered tiredly. He heaved a deep sigh of relief when Doc and Billy took Kirby out of his arms. "Don't ask me how...."

Together, they deposited Kirby on the riverbank next to Caje.

Littlejohn settled himself beside them. "We gotta get outta here quick!" he said urgently.

Doc reached into his medical bag and extracted the box of syringes. "I gotta give him morphine first. Kirby's about had it!"

"Doc! I saw a couple of Krauts near the stream. They might be coming this way...." Littlejohn groaned quietly as he bent next to Kirby. He whirled around, his fatigue forgotten, as Saunders' familiar voice spoke out just behind him.

"How is he, Doc?" Sarge knelt at Kirby's side; his Thompson poised upwards, and examined Kirby's ghost-white face. The BAR man was wheezing, but he looked like he had a chance. "Scoop 'im up and let's run, Doc. We have to make time!"

"In a minute, Sarge!"

Kirby's eyes fluttered open as the needle entered his arm, but otherwise stayed silent.

Wickham came up beside a tree several yards away, the BAR in his hands. He hefted the heavy weapon, shuffling his feet impatiently, as he watched the buzz of activity going on around Kirby's prostrate form. He cursed, wondering if the procedure was going to last much longer. Krauts could be anywhere. He clutched the BAR and scanned the valley on both sides, trying to discern any Krauts approaching. All remained quiet for now, but a bad chill rippled along his spine. He saw one of Saunders' soldiers, a young-looking private, stand and head out the other way with his rifle ready. Now, that was more like it! He signalled his intention to take security on his side, and he strode out, scanning the river's edge.

He scouted for several yards swinging the BAR back and forth.

As he passed a boulder, a helmeted figure surged out from behind it and grabbed Wickham by the neck, giving him no time to call out. Strong hands choked him, and he felt his rifle fly out of his hands before he could pull the trigger. It was kicked out of reach somehow as he struggled to swing himself around and punch the Kraut's face in. Saunders and the others were only yards away, right behind a clump of trees. Damn! Couldn't they hear what was going on? He wanted to shout, to alert the squad, but his voice came out only in a strangled croak. Something suddenly clubbed him on the side of the head. His vision blurred as he fell. He writhed on the ground, fumbling for his bayonet, but he was having trouble concentrating on grasping it. Through a curtain of pain, he spotted the German soldier standing over him with a short cudgel in his hands. In a desperate effort, Wickham kicked at the Kraut's legs, bringing him to the ground, and jumped on him. In a flash, the Kraut twisted Wickham around and pinned him down underneath him. The two men struggled for possession of the club. Suddenly, the cudgel came at Wickham again. His head caught a hard blow, turning the world into a star-filled tailspin.

The German kicked him away and crawled, coughing, towards the others. He didn't see the American sergeant behind him getting back to his knees.

***

Kirby let out a pained wail as Doc pressed on the bandage over the bullet wound. "Easy..." Saunders knelt beside him, the Thompson held ready. He could see the whole front of Kirby's jacket saturated with blood. "Doc! Hurry it, will you?"

Movement beyond the branches to his right caught his attention. He glanced up, seeing two figures moving jerkily near the water, and jumped to his feet with his weapon raised. Several yards away, Wickham was fighting with a German soldier, struggling hard to keep a stick pressed up against the Kraut's neck. Only, it wasn't a stick. Kraut's eyes bulged out of their sockets; his face was puffed and red. Blood covered the side of Wickham's face as the two men swung back and forth while they fought. Saunders stood frozen, aiming the Thompson, keeping his finger poised on the trigger. He dared not shoot. The fight unfolding much too fast in front of him imprinted itself on his mind like a lightning flash. Saunders would think back on it later and say that Wickham hadn't known that the potato masher in his grasp was armed. That Wickham hadn't seen Saunders standing a just few yards away with the Thompson aimed, ready to cut the Kraut down. He'd have let go of it if he had. He'd have tried to get out of the way and give him a clear shot. Wickham was stopping the Kraut from launching the grenade at his squad. He was only trying to strangle the enemy soldier with it. That's all.

But Wickham had turned his head, damn him! At the last split-second before the blast, he had put his head down behind the Kraut and kept his hold on the grenade.

Saunders knew he'd always remember how Wickham had turned his head away.

***

Saunders entered the hospital room and strode over to Kirby's cot. He crushed the end of his Lucky Strike into the ashtray on the table beside it. "They say I shouldn't smoke in here," he explained. "How're you feelin'?"

"Well, that depends, Sarge." Kirby replied, his tone petulant. "Am I goin' back to first squad?"

"Yeah. You're coming back to us. Soon as they let you out of here. Caje and Littlejohn're already back. They're right outside now. Nelson's trying to make Littlejohn come in here to talk to you."

"Huh. What's the big moose want in here?" Kirby reached out to his bedside drawer for a cigarette. Chortling, he put it in his mouth and lit it. "Tell me he likes me, now? Well, like the man said, this is a war, Sarge. Him and me, we clash. Why doesn't he just..."

"No mouthing off, this time. I mean it, Kirby."

"Okay, okay," Kirby chimed in. "Uh... well then, we'll just play some open-on guts. How 'bout that?"

"Fine."

Kirby raised his head and stared out across the two rows of metal cots lining the walls along both sides of the room. A plain, white door stood in the middle of the far wall. The BAR man grew more serious momentarily as he indicated that door. "They put the guy in there, all alone like," he said. "I tried to talk to him about what happened, but.... Well, I dunno, Sarge. If it were me, I'd have wanted to be out here with the rest of the guys, not stay shut away, know what I mean?" Kirby looked up at Saunders. "Sarge, if it weren't for what he did..."

Sarge nodded. He stuffed his hands deep into his pockets and stood, heading for the next room.

***

Wickham lay on his back, his chest rising and falling softly. At his left, an intravenous line came down from a stand and disappeared underneath the sheet. Low-pitched sounds in the room made him open his eyes. He saw Saunders closing the door, looking at him. Wickham said nothing as he watched Saunders shove the Camo helmet under his arm. Both men seemed hesitant about what to do next.

"I thought you'd come," Wickham said, staring back up at the ceiling. "Been watching there long?"

Saunders strode slowly to the side of the other man's bed. "I... just saw Kirby." He put the Camo down onto a small square table and stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets, clearing his throat uncomfortably. He didn't know what else to say. Wickham's eyes looked a bit reddened but then, Saunders could understand why. He felt his heart skip at the sight of the bandages covering Wickham's arms. They ended in stumps several inches above the wrists. Nothing was left below that.

Wickham stayed silent, turning his head away. He just didn't want to meet Saunders' gaze.

Sarge thought back on the scene near the river. It had replayed in his mind many times since then, except with the alternative occurring. He saw the Kraut's grenade land in the middle of his squad and then explode before he could do anything about it. Caje and Littlejohn and Doc would get hit with metal shards and scream with agony and then... he cut that lousy image right there, refusing to play out the rest. "I... want to thank you," Saunders stated simply. "For what you did."

Wickham sighed. "Doctors told me that they tried to save the right thumb," he said. "No dice."

Saunders stared at his bootlaces silently.

"What the hell. You know I was never much for saluting the men anyway." Wickham shrugged as he lay back on his pillow again, staring at the ceiling. "Although now, there are some that I wish I could have."

"I know."

"It's too late for it after they're dead. You're lucky, Saunders, you still have yours."

"Well, I'm just a buck sergeant." Saunders swallowed hard. "I have something of yours," he said, changing the subject. "I asked to be the one to bring it over." Sarge fished out a small, round object from his right pocket. As Wickham turned to see what it was, he saw it shine in Saunders' open palm. It was a wedding band.

"Thanks," he croaked. He tried to bring up what was left of his arms. "But I can't wear it any more. "They're sending me back to the States to be fitted for hooks. War's over for me."

Saunders hung it onto Wickham's neck chain. He released it, and it clanged between the dog tags on Wickham's chest, gleaming brightly in the morning light.

"I saw a name inside it," Saunders stated, his tone becoming inquisitive. "Is that your wife?"

"Yes. She was Italian."

"Was?"

"She's dead. Buried in San Pietro. It happened last year." Wickham stopped talking. He seemed to be gathering strength to continue talking. "She was someone special I met over there. I never saw anybody so dedicated to orphaned kids. You should have seen the way she danced with the sick ones in her arms.

The two men let the next few moments pass in silence.

"I had money put down on a place there..." Wickham continued, his voice filled with irony. "Then the Krauts brought in that gun. Our place was the last one hit. The last one."

"I remember hearing something about it."

A tall, brown-haired nurse entered the room, balancing a hospital tray in her hands. She nodded at Saunders, indicating that it was time for him to leave. Saunders looked at his watch and stood. As he opened the door, he heard Wickham's voice behind him.

"Thanks. For bringing the ring."

Saunders gestured that it wall all right. He placed the Camo on his head, and he left the room.

***

Kirby saw Saunders stride towards him. He turned to his visitors to continue his story. "So," he said. "The next morning, this woman is still on the horn to the power company, see..."

"Stop it, Kirby!" Littlejohn snapped.

"I'm almost at the punch line, Littlejohn!" Kirby exclaimed.

"Would ya... just leave the kid alone?" Littlejohn wheezed through his chuckles. He did want to hear the rest of it.

Kirby sat up in his cot and jabbed a finger at Nelson, his eyes twinkling. "...Anyway, there's a knock on the door, and the woman opens it. She sees the power company guy standing there. He's got all his tools and stuff on 'im. She cracks a smile, she's all happy." Kirby's voice chimed higher, imitating a female tone, as he continued. "'Oh, at last!' she says to 'im. 'Thank Heaven they sent a man over. I had to use a candle all night!'"

Billy frowned, staring across the cot at his buddy, not quite sure if he got the punch. All he could see was the top of his buddy's head, shaking quietly. As Saunders came up beside him, Littlejohn sat with his face in his massive hands, rubbing tears out of his eyes. His shoulders heaved with uncontrolled laughter.
 
 
 
 

Copyright Lyne Tremblay
June 2001