For the Glory




Hanley looked up and saw the stack of letters that Saunders held up towards him. He took the plain, elastic-wrapped envelopes and strode slowly towards the jeep, contemplating the task of opening them all. Saunders watched him climb into the passenger seat and fall heavily into it.

Removing the elastic band, Hanley flipped through the envelopes and stared at the names of the senders. All of them women that he'd known, seen, flirted with. Monique, Simone, Hazel, Barbara the Evac nurse who never seemed to be able to close up the last button of her shirt, and Mélusine, the beautiful barmaid in the Auberge de la Licorne. A half-dozen plain white letdowns and come-ons that he almost knew by heart already. What did they want from him?

Nothing in his hands bore the familiar, right ways-slanted handwriting that indicated the penmanship of his father. He sighed; none of these represented what he waited for, some kind of word from Major Julian G. Hanley, retired. Hanley eagerly awaited a message from him after his recent promotion to the rank of Second Lieutenant.

"Smoke?"

Saunders's voice had startled him. He took the offered cigarette and placed it between his lips. A small, flickering flame materialized in front of it. Hanley bent forward to catch it and inhaled deeply. "Thanks," he said, matter-of-factly.

Saunders acknowledged Hanley's word with a head nod. Nothing else needed to be said. He went around the jeep to the driver seat and climbed into it.

"I got two," said Saunders. "How many d' you get, Lieutenant?"

"Why do you ask? You see the bundle." Hanley flicked his ashes out onto the road. "Seven." He smiled tiredly. "Aren't you going to read yours first, before we head back?"

"No," answered Saunders. "I'll do it later."

Hanley put his letters into his right coat pocket without saying another word. His attention returned to the morning briefing with Major O'Connor, his first such meeting as a commissioned officer, hoping that the drive back to their squad would be as short as soon as possible.

Saunders started the jeep and looked into the rear seat to check on the weapons and their radio, stuffed in between duffel bags. He shot a quick glance at Hanley; the lips were pinched, the eyes tired, and the whiskers smudged. He smiled thinly.

The jeep started its way eastwards. Saunders drove through the first few miles of winding dirt road, squinting ahead at the rising sun as the two men distanced themselves from HQ and headed back toward the platoon.

"Major O'Connor wants me to handle Sector George," said Hanley after a short silence. "You know what that means?"

Sarge looked at his passenger."He told you that before or after asking why you didn't shave this morning?" He used a tone of familiarity despite Hanley's recent promotion. A few days of officer-ranks separation meant little during an early morning jeep ride in the countryside. Hanley looked at his non-com, feeling more like the master sergeant he'd been only days ago rather than the brand new commissioned officer of the United States Army.

"After," he replied.

Saunders nodded. Teasing his companion had always been a pleasure for him. God knows, he'd done it often enough, and Hanley had looked so damned serious holding those perfumed letters. Oh, the urge. "I'm not sure what it means, he said, swerving the jeep to avoid a shell hole in the road. You were the one at the meeting. You tell me.

"For the moment, we stay in Montreuil, along with Fox Company, Hanley went on. O'Connor wants us to wait it out there until Item reaches us. They hit a few snags in their sector yesterday, but now they're moving forward. He shifted his legs, trying to stop his knees from banging against the jeep's dash, and lifted his helmet to scratch the back of his head. His head throbbed so badly, and the pot in his hand felt so heavy, that he briefly thought of throwing the thing onto the back seat along with their weapons. Sighing, he plopped the helmet back on his head and closed his eyes.

Both men knew that O'Connor would order an advance any time now. Two American squads from the 361st had been wiped out in the last four days during fierce fighting to wipe out pockets enemy resistance. They'd been good men, who had advanced onto German positions in the French towns when ordered to, but then found that every struggling step forward meant two bloody steps staggering back again.

Hanley's platoon had chased Germans all the way to the village of Montreuil. There, the Germans had stopped running and dug themselves in on the south side of the only bridge crossing the river. The Americans had stopped within rock throwing distance of the Krauts at this position.

Saunders reached inside his pocket for his pack of Luckies, holding the wheel with his left hand. Shaking the cigarettes loose, he presented it to Hanley.

Hanley took one and then took out a folded map from his coat pocket, opening it onto his lap. "The Krauts are dug in at Montreuil. That's here." He pointed at a dot along a crease in the paper. "They have artillery set up. That alone could clobber us. But O'Connor ordered us to hold until extra troops arrive. I told him we couldn't counter an assault if they should decide to cross that bridge and head for our lines right now. They'd run right over us."

Saunders had dealt with O'Connor before and wanted to comment that the major's opinions were his opinions. "We're stretched out thin, Lieutenant. Are those replacements coming in today?"

"Yeah, later this afternoon." Hanley said. "But it looks as if the Krauts are bringing up reinforcements too. Along crossroads 55," he added. "Somewhere on the southern tip of Montreuil. That's according to French civilians. So, we sent out patrols south of the river during the night to find out if it's true. They came back just before sunrise. Saunders, they didn't see any Krauts. But they did see something else." Hanley waved towards the river, somewhere to his right.

"What?"

"They debriefed the patrols who came in from Kraut territory. Afterwards, O'Connor said those men saw some kind of structure in the river. It was dark and they weren't too sure what it was. Our maps don't show any other bridge for miles in any direction. But if it is one, the Krauts could try and break through there."

Hanley looked out towards the river. "I don't know. That whole sector's a no man's land,he said. "The Krauts could be massing for an assault; they've plenty of cover for it." He sighed, turning back towards Sarge. "I just have a bad feeling they might try to take that town before we get our replacements. The platoon isn't ready. We're way under strength."

Saunders looked at Hanley peer down at the map again.

"This thing the patrol saw in the night is supposed to be down about half-way between Montreuil and HQ. We're going along that river now. So, O'Connor asked if we'd just make a short detour and take a look at it on our way back to platoon. Find out what it is. It won't put us out by much, Saunders. I told him yes." Hanley pointed ahead at a small intersection coming up before them. "What's the matter? Don't you want to get a quarter-mile closer to Paris?"

The sergeant turned the jeep south at the next winding dirt road.

***

Saunders and Hanley sat in the jeep, examining a narrow track that led up to a derelict wooden platform spanning the flowing river. Shelling had reduced it to a pile of broken planks thrown across the water. Only rare civilians would ever have use for it, now.

"There it is, Lieutenant. But that thing's barely good enough for cows, let alone trucks," said Saunders.

Hanley agreed and marked a dot on his worn map. "The brass'll decide what to do with it."

They jumped, startled, when the radio crackled to life in the back seat. A faint voice came on amidst the hissing noise, calling for help. Saunders reached for the radio first and brought it to his ear, momentarily shrugging off Hanley in his effort to listen. But the words barely came through.

"What's your call sign, Soldier?" Saunders asked. Impatiently, he pulled out the antenna until it was fully extended. "Where are you? Over."

"Help. Please, help me..." The voice had sounded desperate. "Someone... Help me..."

For a second, Saunders and Hanley stared at each other.

The lieutenant motioned for Saunders to give him the radio, finally asking the same questions in turn. Only a low-pitched wail answered him. He shifted uncomfortably in the passenger seat, the radio feeling as if had turned to ice in his hands. "Your call sign, Soldier?" he repeated. "Can we help you? What is your position? Over!"

"Please...." A loud hissing sound flared out, momentarily drowning out the voice. Wincing, Hanley pulled the radio from his ear.

"Can't get.... tanks. ...hurt," the voice uttered, more quietly now.

He and Saunders sat listening as a chilling moan issued from the speaker. The man on the other end of the airwaves hadn't replied to their questions. He probably hadn't even heard them. The calls for help had sounded as if they were being desperately, hopelessly sent out.

"Wheat field. Windmill... Field..." Hanley could barely hear the voice now. "Please help! Hurt bad...."

"Your name, Soldier? What's your name? Over," Hanley repeated, his mouth dry. No response came. He rubbed his chin and turned to face Saunders. It's an American calling for help, he said. "Saunders, this could be a member of the patrols we sent last night. Some of those men haven't made it back, yet. He's reporting that he saw tanks. And that he's been injured." Hanley looked out towards the ancient wooden bridge, a frown darkening his features. "The Krauts might be coming through there. They could circle around our flank and launch a bit of Blitzkrieg on our positions."

Saunders shook his head. "I don't think so, Lieutenant" he said. "Look at that bridge. Tell me if a tank can get across it, even shored up. No, I think they'll head straight for the town."

"How can you know that, Saunders?"Hanley asked.

An image flashed in Saunders's mind; three men wearing desert Camo following him into a setting African sun, their squad ordered to pull out from their position to go investigate a reported enemy sighting. Coming back to their camp just hours later only to find two of their sentries killed in a Kraut ambush.

"There is a chance this might be a trick to weaken the lines, Lieutenant," Saunders answered finally. "The Krauts plant a sentry in an area. Use one of our own radios to call out fake warnings and try to pull out some of our squads to go cover other sectors. Then, while our men are off on a wild goose chase, the Krauts head towards the area that's been left undefended."

"I think they might come through here," Hanley replied, nodding towards the old wooden bridge. "If the Krauts make it across, they'd be in perfect position to outflank us. Saunders, either way, we have enough time to go take a look. All of the patrols that made it in this morning reported everything was quiet." Hanley stared at the radio, trying to will the soldier on the other end of the airwaves to speak again. "We'll go in and see if anything's out there."

"Lieutenant!"Saunders insisted, uttering the word in a tone of command. "I'm telling you that I once heard a call just exactly like that one before. And two good men are rotting in Africa now because I was ordered to go and investigate what turned out to be a dummy call."

The radio hissed again. "Help me..." cried the voice.

Frowning, Saunders shook his head to underline his disbelief. Hanley nodded his confidence in the radio message's authenticity. The two men faced each other, locked in a forceful disagreement.

Hanley drew Sarge's attention to a spot indicated on the paper in his hands. "This man says he's at a windmill. According to this, there's a couple of mills just on the other side of the river, about half a mile apart. The first one is just east of here. Saunders, the Krauts're several miles away." He folded the map and put it back into his jacket pocket. "We'll take a quick look on the other side and come back before any tanks show up.

"There may not be time, Lieutenant." Saunders put forth his view once more. "There could be Kraut patrols out there. And that bridge might not even hold a cart, much less a jeep."

"I know." Hanley sat back and motioned for Saunders to advance the vehicle. "I still think it's best. Let's get ourselves something to report, Saunders."

"Yes, Sir!"

Saunders gave a last look at the brand new bars on Hanley's collar. With a jerk,he threw the stick shift into first and drove the jeep towards the ancient planks, which spanned the flowing water. The two men made it across by speeding over it as fast as they could. They headed left on the other side, heading into a vast expanse of unknown territory.

***

"He's supposed to be at a windmill," said Hanley, picking up his carbine. "This whole region is dotted with mills."

Saunders nodded. Both men had seen dozens of burned and ruined windmills since Omaha Beach. However, one such structure stood, still intact, five hundred yards in front of them. Saunders could see its revolving wings turned towards the river and beyond it, to the English Channel.

"But there are only two left in this area,"Hanley added. That helps. He raised his field glasses to stare at the river meandering out towards the wooden sails. "There's the first. Saunders, you're just taking a look over there, that's all. As soon as you..."

Another wail issued from the radio at Hanley's feet.

Saunders reached into the back seat for his weapon, shaking his head. Doubt came naturally to him in this circumstance, he had to admit. He put an extra magazine for his Thompson into his jacket pocket as he settled the weapon onto his lap.

"Follow the riverbank and stay low, the lieutenant continued. Just make a quick recon and then report back, whether you see anything or not. Whichever. Got it?"

Removing his helmet, Saunders ran his hand through his disheveled mane a few times, vigorously rubbing the scalp as he nodded.

"I'll come back from the other mill and meet you here at O-Nine Hundred. It doesn't leave much time, but it should be enough. All right, move out. And good luck, Saunders."

Sarge glanced at his watch and threw out his cigarette. Holding his Thompson, he jumped down from the driver seat.

In the jeep, Hanley watched Saunders's figure disappear down the riverbank's incline. Slowly, he took out the stack of letters from his pocket. He wasn't even tempted to open them first; he just ripped them and let the shredded paper fall to the ground beside the passenger seat.

He thought of the fact that he'd seen very little real combat before coming ashore at Omaha. Without Saunders' precious instincts and knowledge of the enemy's ways, Hanley knew he'd have gotten it long ago. Now, he'd just disregarded all of those instincts while making his first decision as a commissioned officer and sent his sergeant out alone to patrol an unsecured area, despite the imminent danger to the men dug in at Montreuil.

What would Captain Jampel and Major O'Connor say about that? "Well done! You passed the test! Here's your Silver Star!" Orrather, "You're unfit! You should have backed up your man. Give us back those bars!"

A faint wail hissed out of the radio's speaker.

Brushing those thoughts away, Hanley went around to the driver side and started the jeep. It would take him only a few minutes to cover the half-mile to the next mill.

***

Saunders crouched low as he followed the riverbank. Once he reached the abandoned structure, he crawled on his belly to the top of the ridge above the water. He could make out the circular chalk-colored concrete wall and the wooden upper portion of the windmill several yards away. But the ground he would need to cover in order to reach it would put him within view of any Krauts who might be hiding in the hedgerows and ravines to both his left and his right. All seemed calm and peaceful right then, as if the war were a thousand miles away, but Saunders shuddered slightly. All of his senses told him to watch the bushes all around like a hawk. He slammed the magazine more firmly into his Thompson, making sure it was firmly installed.

Carefully, he set out, crawling through the underbrush towards a dark green hedgerow to his right.

He realized he had to slow down his breathing and concentrate on inhaling through his nose, before his tongue dried and fell out. Saunders positively hated the unseen, the hidden dangers that could spring up without warning and clobber you before you even had a chance. He could deal with Krauts when they at least gave him a chance.

Half-crawling, he followed along a line of small trees for a short distance, and then he dashed out of his cover for a heart stopping instant. At a sprint, he reached the side of a rotting wood fence and lowered himself back into the grass beside it. He began crawling along its length, smelling the rot and the sea in the planks. He spat out a blade of grass, which had gotten inside his mouth, and pushed his way through a broken hole in the fence. Only a couple of yards of open space left.

The sergeant bolted away from the fence and ran in a half-crouch towards the windmill's circular base. Panting, he flattened himself against it and scoured around him in all directions, weapon raised in readiness. His heart felt lodged up inside his throat, almost choking him.

But everything stayed quiet as he began to circle towards the door.

***

Hanley drove eastward to the only other windmill within radio range indicated by the topographical map. As he'd done at the first mill, he stopped the jeep about five hundred yards away and reversed it into a stand of pines. From this distance, he could see a French man and woman entering and exiting the windmill's concrete base. Those civilians might help him. He just hoped that they'd speak passable English.

With his field glasses, Hanley surveyed the horizon in all directions, seeing nothing but green carpets of undulating grasses, the river behind him, the gray planks of the mill to his left, and a half-clouded sky above. A flare of pain suddenly knifed through his head. He took three aspirins from his web belt and threw them into his mouth, crunching them dry. After swallowing, he exited the jeep.

For the moment, Hanley could see nothing to indicate the presence of Germans in the area. But the soldier on the radio had reported seeing tanks, and so they had to be nearby. It was still daylight;the Krauts had to be keeping their heads low. Waiting for the right moment to head for that bridge they'd crossed before. He kept seeing images of German armor rolling across that bridge and swerving towards Montreuil.

Gripping his Carbine, he stepped up his pace, knowing how fast a simple, quiet mission could turn out to be anything but that. Where could Krauts tanks be hidden in all of the crevasses, fields and hedgerows around him? And where could he find one lone, perhaps wounded, American soldier in such diversified and unknown terrain?

Almost anywhere.

***

The air inside the empty mill reeked of decay and rotting grain sacks. Its owners had obviously decamped long ago. Saunders crept towards a flight of half-broken stairs that wound up along the circular wall. He took a tentative step on the first one, looking up at a structure he hoped would hold up under his weight, and silently began to climb.

On the upper level, he posted himself at a tall, windowless opening with his weapon ready, checking out the surroundings. From there, a fabulous overview of the countryside, and of the little river flowing right next to the mill, offered itself. As he reconnoitered, Saunders let a cool, delicious breeze dry the sweat from his face.

Everything looked quiet and calm to him as he went around to examine the other sides. Finally, he exited the structure from the same door he'd used to enter it. Carefully, he started to make his way back towards the river.

After ten wary steps, he stopped, startled by a strange noise, and cocked his head. Faint sounds, like sobbing, came to his ears. Something about the tone of that voice cut deep inside Saunders' chest. He brushed the feeling aside and aimed his Thompson, listening.

Several yards to his right, he saw an American soldier lying in a fetal position in a patch of tall grasses. He wore no helmet or any stripes on the sleeves of his uniform. His face bore the features of youth; he looked like an injured boy, and his dazed, unfocused eyes stared out at something that Saunders couldn't see. The soldier clutched a radio to his chest, like a drowning man holding onto a lifeline. As he drew closer, Saunders almost heaved when he saw that everything below the kid's hips had been crushed beyond human recognition. He winced; in all his actions, he'd never seen a soldier still alive after such an injury.

"I'm here, Private," he said. "What's your name, Son?"

The boy looked up with tear-filled eyes.

"I'm... sorry, Dad. So sorry," he said, half-sobbing.

Saunders swallowed hard before answering the dying kid. "It's all right, Son. What happened?"

The soldier's eyes focused again momentarily, and he tried to put the radio up to his face to speak. Wincing, Saunders gently took it from him. For the first time, he noticed how the ground all around bore shallow treads marks.

"Krauts, the young soldier continued in a halting voice. Tanks moving... fast.... to cross here...." He stopped talking and exhaled a low, painful moan.

Placing his hand on the young man's shoulder, Saunders gazed towards the river, suddenly fearing what the boy's meaning might be. "Cross here? You mean tanks?" he asked, alarmed. "Is that what you mean, Soldier?"

In a few seconds, the poor boy would be dead; then Saunders would learn nothing more about what the hell had brought that kid into this area, and just what he'd seen the Krauts do there earlier.

"Here... Kraut tanks...cross..." The words were hardly coming out of his mouth. The boy's eyes went blank once more. He let out a cough, folding his arms across his chest. "Mark," he whispered as he calmed again. "My name. Tell Mom that I...." His eyes fluttered.

"Sure, Kid. Tell her what?" Saunders' voice became gentler. "What?"

There was no answer. Saunders knew that no more information would come from the soldier. The war was over for him. The kid was dying now, his mind lost in some other world.

"Dad?" The soldier spoke so softly that Saunders almost missed it.

"Sure, Son," he answered. He watched as the private slowly exhaled one last pain-filled breath.

Saunders never took the time to think about the sadness of the young soldier's misfortune. He just closed the boy's eyes and pulled off his tags. He gave the dead kid a last look as he patted his head. Finally, Saunders put the dog tags into his pocket and settled the radio onto his shoulder as he looked out warily, scouring all directions. Then, he started back towards the water.

The Krauts were going to cut across the river right there, down the middle; the boys on the other side wouldn't have a chance. If he and Hanley had gone straight back to the platoon, they'd be sitting ducks over there right now. The hunch to cross the river and investigate the mills had been right. Hanley had good instincts himself, Saunders thought. Now, he wasn't sure he'd make it back and be able to tell him that.

The Krauts had slunk along this point of the river. They were hidden all around him.

***

Hanley knelt under the cover of golden wheat stalks, trying to understand the words of the old French mill worker.

"Vous devez vous cacher sur le champ!" The old man's brown eyes focused on Hanley with a penetrating gaze. "Les boches sont là-bas. S'ils vous trouvent..." The Frenchman made a cutting motion across his throat with his hand.

"Can't you speak any English, Mister?" Hanley asked. He had understood "boches". And the throat-cutting gesture.

"Ils sont arrivés ici ce matin, à l'aube. Il y a quatre chars blindés cachés dans le ravin tout près du moulin, là-bas. Vous ne comprenez donc pas?"

"I'm sorry. I don't speak French," muttered Hanley. He felt the urgency of the miller's intended message, but he could only make a single word out of the old man. He certainly got that Krauts were moving somewhere out west, however, as he watched the old Frenchman point that way. Towards where he'd just sent Saunders on patrol.

"Blind?" he asked, trying with growing frustration to understand the words. The puzzle had too many missing pieces.

"Panzers," replied the miller, hoping the American officer would understand that. "Quatre Panzers!" The old man put up four fingers to try to convey to Hanley that four German tanks lay hidden under some form of cover nearby.

"Any troops? Soldats?" Hanley tried to utter words that might sound familiar to his interlocutor.

The Frenchman shook his head. "Vous devez avertir votre commandement!" he exclaimed. "Les allemands se cachent là-bas! Ils vont vous attaquer!"

He stopped, realizing that he'd gone on too fast for the American. In the next minutes, he tried to tell Hanley about the German tanks which had surreptiously passed his property, at dawn. The miller talked about his son in the Resistance, who boated back and forth with information for the Americans. About an extraordinary feature of the flowing river, a narrow, underwater sandbank, known only to the locals, which was situated at the next windmill, exactly a mile west of their position. There, villagers and farmers of the region sometimes crossed.

The miller told Hanley how, just prior to seeing the Panzers that morning, a lost American soldier had arrived, searching for a way across the river in order to return to his unit. The old man explained that he'd directed the young American to that shallow part of the river in order to go back, instead of circling further away to use a bridge.

He also told Hanley how armies could move their vehicles across the river at this strategic shallow point. The old man feared that the boches had learned of its existence and planned to use it against their Allied enemies.

Hanley tried to ignore his headache and watched the old Frenchman gesticulate to try and give him this precious information.

***

Saunders held the Thompson and the radio as he crawled away from the body of the young soldier. He felt Kraut eyes riveted on him everywhere, and he shivered.

He had to find Hanley and warn him! He crawled a few more yards, almost making it to the river's slope.

A voice behind him yelled out. "Halt! Jetzt! Lass das Gewehr!"

Saunders froze. He obeyed slowly, turning around to stare into the face of a giant German soldier pointing a Schmeisser right at his chest.

"Also! Schöne Überraschung! Was machst du hier, Amerikaner?" The Kraut motioned Saunders away from the Thompson. The man's gaze went back and forth from the American to the discarded weapon. With a gesture, he indicated that Saunders should take off his helmet and drop it.

Saunders considered whether to throw it at the Kraut. It might give him a chance to seize his Thompson back and fire it. He knew it would be a dangerous move, and stupid. But then, so would giving the Krauts his weapon. With a swift motion, Saunders flung the helmet outward, throwing himself underneath the resulting barrage of bullets. In an instant, he launched himself at the booted ankles and locked his arms around them to pull the big man down. The German responded by crashing the butt of his weapon onto Saunders' head, dizzying him momentarily.

Despite that, Sarge kept his arms locked around the stocky, dirt-covered legs, struggling to wrestle his opponent to the ground. As the man's heavy frame pitched backwards, he thudded onto his back, losing his grip on the Schmeisser. Saunders released his desperate hold and lunged for the weapon, just managing to seize it and slap it across the German's throat. But pressing down to choke the huge Kraut proved to be harder than anticipated.

"Nein!" The German bellowed despite the pressure on his windpipe. "Lass mich!

Somehow, the Kraut found the strength to push Saunders off him. Jumping forward, the German tried to seize the barrel of his weapon and wrench it from the American's hands. Saunders reacted by backing off and squeezing the trigger. But the weapon made only clicking sounds. Still, Saunders wasted precious seconds as he tried to pull the trigger again and again. Looking up, he saw the giant lunge across the space between them, a bayonet in his hand. In a quick gesture, Saunders swung up the Schmeisser like a stick, using it to defend himself against the knife.

The bayonet came at him with lighting speed, slicing into Sarge's left forearm. He let out a gasp as he swung the rifle up into the Kraut's chest, just trying to keep the sharp blade away. The tactic worked momentarily, but Saunders' left arm went numb as blood began to appear around the cut in his sleeve. Saunders shifted the Schmeisser to his right arm, ready to swing it up.

Achtlose Gelbkopf! the German screamed, waving his bayonet. Du bist tot! He sneered at the sight of the blood spreading across the American's jacket sleeve. Without warning, he lunged again, making Saunders stumble backwards and fall helplessly onto his back. Still, Saunders managed to bring up the Schmeisser in a last, desperate attempt to shoot.

It opened up with a blast that deafened Saunders instantly. Screaming with rage, the giant Kraut fell in a heap at Saunders's feet and lay unmoving for a second. Then, incredibly, his fist sprang out from underneath his body, still holding the knife, and jabbed at Saunders's ankle. Sarge backed away frantically, dragging the still-hot weapon with his only good arm. He had to use his bleeding left one in order to lift it and shoot again.

But the Schmeisser remained silent.

Cursing, Sarge threw away the useless Schmeisser and scrambled to his knees, searching for the Thompson. A second later, he saw it lying a few yards away. As he scrambled painfully for it, he heard truck doors slamming in the distance. German-speaking voices rang out in alarm. The gunshots from the Schmeisser had alerted the others, he realized with horror. They'd be on him any second. His vision blurring, Saunders tried to pinpoint the direction in which he'd heard them. He failed to notice the wounded giant behind him raising his head.

As Saunders reached the Thompson, the German scrambled to his knees. In a last desperate effort, he lunged at Saunders, still clutching the bayonet. Startled, Saunders turned to fight off the unexpected attack, pushing the Kraut away with all the strength he could muster. He gasped as a sudden pain stabbed him deep inside his body. For a second, cold shock strangled him. Saunders fell, dragged down by the weight of his assailant's fall, and thudded onto his side next to the German. Stirring himself, he pushed the giant aside and backed away, ready to fend off any moves from the Kraut.

Only then did he look down at the knife handle protruding from just above his web belt.

Sharp pangs shot through his abdomen like a flash. Sarge stared down at the bayonet handle; the knife was still deeply lodged in there. He'd have to grab the handle and pull it out in order to have any hope of getting away from the Krauts. There were more of them coming; he knew this from somewhere inside the daze that was overwhelming him. He clutched the wound in his side, wincing, as he threw the knife down. Then, he shook himself; he was going to die right there at the end of his life's blood, if he didn't get out now! And only Krauts would ever find his body!

Instinctively, Saunders grasped the Thompson, and he managed to seize the end of the radio antenna. He constantly clutched the bleeding wound in his stomach during the slow, painful crawl towards the river. By a miracle, he reached the water's edge before the Krauts discovered his presence. Silently, Saunders slid under the canopy of a small tree and lay down, groping desperately through his belt pockets to find some bandages.

***

Hanley crouched behind an oak tree, watching three German soldiers circle his jeep. Damn! It would have to be abandoned now!

He crept away from the now useless vehicle, following the length of a hedge line to circle around the Germans. What he needed right then was a quiet spot to hide, and quickly, to call in his report. Earlier, he'd been able to drive right up to that spot along the river. Now, the Krauts seemed to be everywhere, their eyes constantly on the lookout. They were going to make their move right now.

A shallow trench in the ground beside Hanley offered cover. He crept into it and settled at the bottom, cradling the radio. "This is King Two. Come in. Repeat, this is King Two. Come in, over," he muttered. He needed more time to be able to give his men some warning. Again, he uttered his call sign.

Only hissing sounds answered him. As Hanley was about to give up and head further down the trench, he made out an English-speaking voice on the air. Yes! An acknowledgement was coming in faintly, but quite recognizably. Some Americans across the river must have approached his position enough to be within range!

He put the speaker to his ear again. "Enemy build-up approximately two miles west of crossroads 55! Repeat. Enemy build-up two miles west of crossroads five five. Over!"he uttered, breathing heavily into the radio. "Please acknowledge transmission!"

Come... in, o... ver, a faint voice broke in over the waves, cutting into the frequency. In a strangled whisper, the voice repeated the call for someone to come in. Hanley listened closely; it was that pleading voice again, the man he'd listened to all morning. He shook his head; he could do nothing more to help this pleading soldier. He was trapped himself and separated from his friend. All he could do now was to try to find a way to reach Saunders and get back across the river.

But somehow, the tone sounded different this time. Deeper. Hanley guessed this voice to belong to someone older. He thought he heard the word King, but hisses drowned it out. He wasn't sure. This couldn't be the same man that he'd heard before he met with the mill worker. Some other soldier now had hold of the airwaves and had begun calling out in turn.

***

Saunders had to stop and let the spasm subside before trying to call out again. He could see blood seeping out of the stab wound in his left side, just below his ribs. His hand shook as he put pressure on it with his hand. The cut hurt badly, but he could feel even sharper pain deep inside his body somewhere. And it was damned frightening. "Hanley!" he wanted to scream. "Can you hear me? Don't give up now!"

"King Two, this is..." he uttered into the microphone with slow deliberation. "White... Rook. White..."

Another violent spasm shook him. More blood seeped out of his wound into the water. Saunders had used up the last bandage minutes ago. But he knew that most of the bleeding from the wound in his side was going on internally.

He pushed the radio's button with a shaking hand.

"King Two, ack... ack... nowledge..., over..." Saunders had precious little strength left to mouth out any kind of signal. He felt frozen with cold, knowing he was deep in shock and losing blood. But he would not stop fighting the growing weakness.

***

Hanley knew he couldn't stay in his hiding place for long. Several Krauts had jumped across the trench, right over his head, during the last minutes. They hadn't seen him, but Hanley knew he'd be discovered soon. Stepping up his pace, he crawled along the bottom of the trench, trying to get further along its length.

He stopped at a curve, blocked by the crouching figure of an earth-covered German soldier several feet in front of him. The Kraut jerked his head up, startled by the sight of an American officer inside the trench. Hanley managed to bring up his bayonet to the other man just as the German's weapon swung in Hanley's direction. Without a sound, the Kraut fell backwards onto the ground.

Hanley looked up in alarm, watching another pair of booted German legs soar just feet above his helmet and then continue to run westwards along with the other Krauts. Wasting no time, he crawled over the German, hurrying to distance himself from the prone figure.

He kept on crawling, dragging his weapon along the bottom of the trench. He slowed and finally stopped, staring up at the sky above his head. He listened with growing alarm; something noisy was approaching. And big. Hanley started shaking along with the ground around him.

Then, with unexpected speed, he felt as well as heard the deafening roar of a tank, just to his right. As he threw himself down flat with his face in the dirt, the hellish machine suddenly crashed across the trench, right on top of him, sending rocks, loosened earth, and flying bits of wood all over his face.

He coughed, choking, as he spat out the debris. How he hated Kraut tanks!

After wiping the stinging dirt from his eyes, Hanley scoured his surroundings. He saw a wooden farmer's fence to his left, its end post just yards away. Still holding his radio and carbine, he dashed out of his hiding place and ran towards it. He made it to the fence and dropped out of sight behind the dried-out planks. He swallowed his heart, thankful that he still hadn't been seen. Panting, he turned and stared through a space between the planks.

The voice on the radio spoke up again. Hanley listened to the call. Had he heard "Rook?" Hanley picked up the radio, his mouth dry. "White Rook?" He put the callbox to his ear, hoping to hear the message more clearly.

***

"Hanley! Listen..." Saunders wished he could shout it. He kept up pressure on the wound in his side. "It's me!"

His vision blurred; he was on the verge of passing out. He could feel it. Speaking out loud had become so damned hard. Those words he uttered into the radio were the only ammo he could use, now. He knew he had to space them carefully and make each one count.

Once more, he held up the radio with shaking, blood-soaked hands. It might be his last effort.

"This is...White...Rook...." Saunders could only whisper his pleas for help, now.

***

Hanley felt a thump on his helmet, and he looked up into barrel of a German rifle.

Three dirt-covered soldiers standing over him ordered him to stand. Throwing down his carbine and radio, Hanley complied. The Krauts around him smiled with self-congratulation and muttered happily amongst themselves. One of them removed Hanley's helmet and web belt with a flourish. "Bist du hier uns spioneren gekommen, Leutnant, oder was?" they asked.

Hanley put out his hands as one of the German before him indicated and watched the others bind his wrists. A dirty blindfold was wrapped around his eyes, plunging him into darkness. He felt the Krauts grab his arms and drag him away from his equipment. He stumbled along, unable to avoid obstacles, listening to the jeers of the German soldiers around him.

He was hauled up onto what he realized must be an armored vehicle. The vibration and noise it made underneath him as it moved told him that it was a tank. Hanley guessed that it might have been the one that had rolled so close to him in the trench. If so, that made it five Kraut Panzers going west. His mouth dry, Hanley clung to the side along with his captors. As the tank advanced, Hanley heard the huge treads roll beneath his boot soles.

After a disorienting ride, he was pulled off the vehicle, shoved away and brought into a reeking building. Once inside, the dirty cloth slid from his eyes. Blinking, Hanley looked into the face of a stocky German lieutenant standing in dim light. Behind the Kraut stood a circular, chalk-colored concrete wall. Hanley recognized it immediately; he'd seen it before from afar. It was the windmill where he'd sent Saunders on patrol.

"Herr Leutnant." The German officer's face remained stony. "I am sorry. I meant Lieutenant. Please, not be distressed to be here mit uns, ja?"

"Hanley. Rank, Master Serg... I mean, Second Lieutenant," Hanley replied, catching himself. "Serial number..."

"Stop!"the German interrupted. "Let uns cooperate to each other, ja? My name is Einzig" The officer put a cigarette in his mouth, lighting it with a gold-colored lighter. "Ich glaub dieser Hund sprecht kein Deutch, he told his subordinate as he exhaled.

Hanley saw a chair being placed behind him, and he sat down on it as ordered. For a heart stopping moment, he feared that the burning tip of the Kraut's cigarette would come uncomfortably close to his own face in a few seconds.

"Wie groß ist deine Mannschaft?"

Hanley didn't understand the words. He stayed silent, watching his captor.

"Wieviele Menschen hast du hier mitgebracht?"Einzig asked, standing before his prisoner. He spoke in an even tone, trying to see whether the American had understood. It didn't seem likely. Slowly, deliberately, he blew out his smoke, measuring his prisoner's potential for cooperation. He saw very little, indeed.

He bent forward, facing Hanley, and signaled for the guard on the left to come forward with his rifle ready.

The American stiffened his shoulders. "Hanley, he stated. Rank, Second Lieutenant..." A rifle butt across the cheek cut his words short.

Impatience flared in the German. Pacing curtly, he waved his cigarette in Hanley's direction. There was just no time to waste in long discussions with an enemy captive. Finally, he gestured towards the guard beside Hanley. The guard trained his rifle on the prisoner's face once more.

"Ich habe dich gefragt, American!" The German realized he'd almost shouted. "The first blow was but a warning. Now I will try another way. We know you had at least one soldier mit you. We have him now. Tell us if you have used your radios or we will kill him. Einverstanden? Understand? We will kill him."

The German stared intently into Hanley's face, finally seeing a spark of reaction. He noted how the corner of the prisoner's eye twitched and his jaw clenched as he swallowed. This told him volumes. "I think that you do, American," he said. "Tell me how many others came here mit you?"

Hanley ignored the sharp pain in his face and remained quietly defiant.

Sensing only resistance from the prisoner, Einzig gestured towards the exit. "Unser Mann da will nichst sagen," the officer told the guard beside Hanley. "Geh draussen, und tut was ich bestellt habe."

With a curt salute, the soldier shouldered his weapon and left the building. Another sentry came from behind Hanley, settling himself beside the chair with a rifle trained on him.

Einzig studied Hanley's unshaved face. The American had certainly been out all the night, by the look of him. Most likely spying. Of course, that American had to have brought more soldiers with him than just the one outside. "How many men are come mit you? Where are they? Had they also radios?"he repeated.

Hanley greeted the question with silence.

His gaze turned back to the American radio lying on a small table. What a glory for him to have captured a leader instead of a drone. But the man's stubborn silence was proving inconvenient at this crucial time.

The German paced with quickened steps, thinking back on the last American patrols he'd watched leave the area. Letting them slink back into their camps across the river at sunrise, just before he'd begun shifting his Panzers to this location. The armored vehicles would cross the river and double back towards Montreuil. The attack was scheduled to begin soon, before the Americans increased the number of their own troops. Everything was ready.

What did this American know? And what had he seen? It irritated him that his hiding place might have been divulged to the enemy across the river if this prisoner, or his friends, had used their radio. He'd have to attain some clarity about the Americans' strength. He would tear that prisoner apart if that was what it took.

A loud roar of planes overhead froze him in mid-step. Einzig stared upwards, listening to the sounds of passing aircraft with a growing foreboding. Then, shouts from his men sounded a warning that American soldiers were approaching. Throwing down his cigarette, the German reached for his holster.

Hanley heard the first shots and cries of battle outside. He slumped down against the wall, trying to get out of the way, as a bullet ricocheted off the concrete window frame to his right. He froze, feeling a rifle barrel dig into his shoulder blades. He spotted the German lieutenant and one of his guards taking up positions at the door and fire into the distance. Twice, the Germans reloaded their weapons. Suddenly, the soldier at the door cried out and pitched backwards, clutching his chest.

A machine gun roared to life on the upper level, just above Hanley's head. The ceiling shook as it spit out fiery death on the fields beside the mill. He could hear Thompson and BAR fire responding shot for shot. German and American weapons were firing everywhere, and soldiers' shouts echoed all around the windmill. Chancing a look through the window, Hanley made out the silhouette of a running German soldier losing his rifle and crumpling into a patch of tall grasses.

As abruptly as it started, the roar from the machine gun died away into silence.

Einzig grabbed the arm of the guard lying next to him, letting go when he saw the man was dead. Urgently, he motioned for the soldier guarding Hanley to take up the dead man's position at the door. The guard complied, rushing towards the door to join his superior. He took two steps before a bullet screamed through the window and hit him in the shoulder. The soldier spun sideways and fell to the ground, moaning as he scrambled to take cover against the concrete wall. Einzig turned his Luger on Hanley, crossing the distance to the wounded guard to bend over him. Ruhig! Komm! he shouted.

"Arrêtez! Tous!"shouted a voice at the door.

Both officers whirled to face the person who'd just spoken, seeing the thin silhouette of a French boy in the doorframe, bathed in gray, misty light. The youth had a smudged, angry face underneath a dark beret. By his features, Hanley judged him to be about sixteen, maybe less. The kid trembled, rage evident in his face as he took another step inside the room, aiming an old rifle at the German officer. His long, thin fingers caressed the trigger as he drew a bead on Einzig through the gun sight.

Keeping in front of his wounded soldier, Einzig threw away his Luger and raised his hands. He eye remained steady as he faced the armed youth. "Tire pas, Garçon," he said in French.

"He's right, Son," said Hanley. "Don't do it."

"He is my enemy, a sale boche," said the French boy. "Let me kill him! Now!"

Hanley shook his head. "No. He's given up already," he said.

The boy took another step into the room, angrily waving his rifle at the German officer.

Slowly, Hanley stood, stretching himself out as tall as he could, and deliberately strode in front of the rifle barrel. He could hear the wounded German behind him panting.

"Get away!" shouted the boy, trying to wave Hanley out of his line of fire. "Why do you do this?" In his rage and anger, the youth could not understand what the man in front of him was doing. Who could he be, this American officer standing before him so, protecting Germans and telling him to spare the boche enemy? He stared intently at that tall man, keeping his rifle trained on the Germans.

"Because it's a waste, Son, Hanley replied. Look at him. See what he's doing?" He indicated how, in the dim light, the German lieutenant was sitting now, protecting one of his wounded men.

Behind the boy, two figures burst into the door. At once, Hanley recognized Caje and Kirby. In a simultaneous gesture, both men turned their rifles on the boy, worried looks washing across their faces.

Cage tightened his grip on the trigger as he aimed the barrel at the boy's shoulder blades, unwilling to cut him down. Hoping it wouldn't be made necessary.

You were brave to come here with the Americans, Son," Hanley stated calmly. "Was it your father who sent you? The man who works at the other mill?"

The boy shook his head. I come to fight them with you.

"You'll make a fine soldier some day," he told the boy. "Maybe even a leader. But a good leader doesn't waste his men's lives. Or his enemy's. It's something important that I've learned."

"I... understand," said the boy, as he lowered his rifle slightly. I have found the boche Panzers, where they are hidden. I fear that some of them have escaped to go back to their army. I can show to you where to find the ones that are still there."

"Here," Hanley stated sternly. "You stay here, Son."

Caje spoke up. "It won't be necessary, Lieutenant. They're on the run right now."

Kirby nodded agreement and shifted his BAR towards the Germans at the wall. "The fight ain't over, Sir, but it's movin' out eastwards. The Krauts're all hightailin' it out that way. Our guys are chasin' after the hardcases." Kirby ran a hand across his chin. "Oh, and Fox Company's pushin' through that town we were camped in and...."

"Knock it off, Kirby!" Hanley ordered, sharply.

Obeying, the BAR man strode over to Hanley, bringing out his knife to cut the lieutenant's bonds.

Hanley rubbed his wrists, remembering that the German officer had told him they held another prisoner. He had to be around there someplace.

With a last glance around the room, Hanley exited the mill. He saw a group of American soldiers crouched in a circle near a patch of grasses. They were looking down at a body of an American, with expressions of shock on their faces. Saunders, he thought.

As he strode towards the soldiers with measured steps, he steeled himself, preparing for the hard scene that was about to unfold before him. It wouldn't be easy, he knew. The men crouched around the body were having trouble with that sight themselves. He drew in among them, swallowing.

Stiffening his back to stand at attention, Hanley stared down at the soldier's body lying before him. He saw the pitiful sight of a half-crushed boy with short, dark hair and arms crossed over his chest. Hanley bent down and looked closely at the face of the dead American; it belonged to an unknown young man and not to his friend. This must have been the soldier calling for help on the radio, the one he and Saunders had crossed the river to search for.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nelson and Doc excitedly signaling from the river's edge. Looking up, he saw the two of them make waving gestures in his direction. He stood, hurrying towards the water.

***

Saunders had heard, dimly, the sound of raging gunfire and the shouts of warring men resounding all around his refuge. He didn't know how long he'd been unconscious, but he knew with frightening certainty that he was in deep trouble. His arm still bled profusely, reddening the river water around him, and violent spasms of pain from the deep knife wound in his side shook his body again. Voices sounded from nearby. Desperately, he tried to move fromhis cover in an attempt to escape them.

Boots splashed into the river to his left. He attempted to bring up the Thompson and shoot; it was too heavy to lift. Helmeted soldiers grabbed his arms and picked him up, dragging him out of his hiding place. The Thompson and radio slipped out his cramped hands. He fought to keep them, but his head swam from the pain in his side at the sudden movement.

As he felt himself carried up the incline, he heard a voice, speaking in a familiar Arkansas accent, saying, "Come on, Sarge! We've gotta get you inside. We've been lookin' for you."

***

The sound of faraway rifle fire roused Saunders into wakefulness. In a few glances, he took in the sights around him. Caje knelt at his side. Hanley's broad-shouldered figure sat beside a thin, French boy, further to his left. It dawned on him that he was inside the mill he'd entered once before and used as an observation post, in a long-ago lifetime.

Hanley turned towards him, seeing that Saunders had opened his eyes. "Caje!"he ordered, indicating the entrance. "Take over here." He crept over to his wounded friend and checked the gauze wrapped around Saunders's waist. "How're you feeling, Saunders?"

"Lousy." Sarge closed his eyes again. He could feel the pain and the damage deep inside his body.

"Doc bandaged you. You lost a lot of blood, Saunders." He saw that no bleeding had reappeared yet. The bandage had remained white. "Doc did all he could here, and then he went out to help with other casualties. An ambulance should be arriving soon."

Saunders shook, racked by a sudden spasm, and clutched his side.

Hanley steadied him. "Easy, Saunders. Easy..." He waited for the spasm to subside before patting a clean handkerchief across Saunders' forehead, exposing bandages wrapped around his wrists.

"The men?" Saunders asked. He spotted a dark, swollen welt marring Hanley's left cheekbone.

"Out chasing the Krauts. You missed a big gun show here, earlier."

"Next time, Lieutenant." Saunders could barely raise his voice above a whisper.

"You know, Saunders," said Hanley, "the Krauts were aware of all our troop movements because they'd been sending patrols across the river here. Then, this bright Lieutenant got an idea..." he pointed towards the corner, where Kirby sat guarding the two German prisoners. "He started shifting units over here to go hit us on the other side. It almost worked, except for a Pvt. Mark D. Owens. Poor kid got separated from his patrol last night and stumbled onto the Krauts as they were moving in."

Hanley paused to give Saunders time to settle back against the wall. "Because of that soldier," he continued, "our boys got the warning in time. We owe that young man a lot. I just heard that we got into Montreuil this morning."

Caje looked on as Hanley and Saunders quietly conversed. They had it rough, he concluded. He rubbed his side absentmindedly, wondering what such a stabbing wound might feel like. He shuddered, hoping he'd never find out. He turned to the youngster beside him. "Quel âge as-tu, mon grand?" he asked, when a distant echo of rifle shots died out.

"Bientôt seize ans," the boy proudly replied.

Caje sighed, knowing how young this kid was to be in firefights with Krauts. The Cajun turned his attention back to Saunders and Hanley. Both remained where they were, talking.

"I was wrong, Lieutenant," Saunders whispered.

"I know." Hanley put a cigarette in his mouth and lit a flame underneath it.

He figured Saunders meant he'd mistakenly believed the Krauts would head straight for Montreuil. Personally, Hanley would never admit to having been in error about the Krauts planning to cross at the old wooden bridge. He cleared his throat. "S2 didn't know about that shallow spot in the river. Nobody could have guessed the Germans were massing right here. They were just about to make it across. It was very close."

Hanley looked at Saunders' bandages again. "It was a tough one, Saunders. I'm glad you made it back. I may need you again for other jobs, you know."

"I only work here, Lieutenant." Saunders could barely speak.

"I guess we all do," Hanley concurred. He raised his head at the sound of an approaching vehicle. "That's got to be the ambulance."

The lieutenant sat quietly beside the sergeant as the sound grew louder. The morphine was taking effect; Saunders had closed his eyes and seemed to be drifting into a light sleep. Hanley looked around the room; Caje stood guard the door, with the boy at his side. Kirby sat next to the prisoners, his BAR trained on them.

He fingered the bar on his collar, feeling its texture, thinking of the heavy responsibility of the work it represented. He'd be doing that job for the next while. He felt comfortable wearing that thing now. Hanley knew that it belonged there.
 
 

Lyne Tremblay, PFC
June 2000