THE REPLACEMENT





"You wanted to see me, Lieutenant?"

"You look dead on your feet, Saunders. Sit down." Hanley put the phone receiver to his ear as he watched the sergeant plop down on a rickety chair next to the table he occupied. "Yes, sir. Right away. I understand, sir." He placed his left hand over the speaker for a moment. A gauze bandage covered the palm, leaving out all of the fingers. "What's the news, Saunders?"

"I know we were ordered to evacuate the town, Lieutenant, but it's no use. Some of the people won't leave." Saunders could see a red stain seeping through the bandage, but he said nothing about it.

"What do you mean, they won't leave? Didn't you tell Caje to talk to them?"

"He did. But we can't just order them out, sir. They say their cellars'll protect them. A lot of 'em stayed put through the shelling this morning." Saunders shifted the Thompson across his shoulder. "Some of 'em are carrying rifles. They want to fight. Caje said that a few are even trying to join the American Army. Won't take no for an answer, it seems."

Hanley gave him an exasperated look. "Volunteers, huh? What about casualties? What's the count?"

"The Krauts hurt us, Lieutenant. Grady's ammo carrier got it this morning. And three others." Saunders placed a Lucky in his mouth and reached inside his jacket pocket, extracting a ring of bloodstained dog tags. "Baxter, Mendes... and Dettmeyer." As he paused to let Hanley listen to a voice on the other end of the phone, he glanced around the room, taking in seven or eight square tables, a bar with broken stools at the far end, rows of glasses still perched on racks behind it, and broken windows. Thick smoke obscured any view of the street.

"Yes, sir. Thank you Sir. Out." Hanley replaced the handset in its cradle and took the dog tags. They clanged against each other as he fingered them. "Too bad about Dettmeyer," he said. "He was a good kid. They all were."

Saunders just sat on the beaten chair and looked up, nodding his agreement. He remembered Hanley edging his way along a ruined brick wall during that morning's push. As he walked towards an abandoned truck, waving his men forward, the vehicle exploded with no warning. He'd seen Hanley fall backwards and Dettmeyer, walking just before him with his M1 in the air like he always did, scream and bolt out in front of Hanley before anyone could stop him. Dettmeyer had flung himself over the lieutenant and gotten hit across the lower spine by a flying, twisted piece of truck fender.

Hanley pocketed the tags and swung out of his chair. "I know what you're going to say, Saunders. Our casualties have been high. We're shorthanded now. We'll need replacements."

Beaten to the punch, Saunders kept his lips tightly closed.

"Look. Have Nelson carry Grady's ammo for now. I'll ring up Company and see what I can do to get you those replacements. Meanwhile, if you want, there's some java left behind the bar there. Help yourself."

Saunders strode over to the counter. As he poured some tepid coffee into a cracked porcelain cup, he watched Hanley struggle to crank the phone with his right hand. The lieutenant grimaced with the effort of holding onto the box with his wounded left one. "Shorthanded was right," Sarge thought. Every one of those men whose tags he'd just handed over had trained for months to come across the water into France. They'd been his best riflemen, his money players. They'd had the sharpest eyes in the squad. Their absence was going to hurt. Where the hell would Hanley ever get his hands on anybody as good, as loyal, and as keen-sighted?

****

"Kirby! Kirby! There's trouble, man!" The voice came out of nowhere, shaking him awake.

Kirby opened his eyes and heard the roar of a vehicle's motor revving all out. God! He'd just come to inside an ambulance! His heart racing, Kirby sat up in the stretcher he occupied, as the vehicle swerved left and then right again. "What's goin' on?"he screamed.

"The ambulance's plumb out of control!" His riding companion, a young, blue-eyed kid named Watson, sat on the edge of the other stretcher with his legs dangling over the side. The kid wore white bandages around a thin, bruised torso. Clenching his fists, Watson grabbed the sides of his head and shut his eyes. "We're not gonna make it to Battalion Aid, Kirby!"

The ambulance careened to the left again, and it just managed to straighten itself as it jolted forward, heading out to only God knew where. Kirby cursed loudly as he dove out of the stretcher and banged his knees on the metal floor. "Where's the driver?"he croaked as he struggled to his feet.

"I'm tellin' ya, Kirby! We're gonna die right here. I can feel it!"

The small, wiry man pitched towards the front of the vehicle and opened the sliding panel to peer into the driver's compartment. Two men were supposed to be riding up there. What in blazes were they doing? Horrified, Kirby saw his corporal, Riley, sitting inert in the passenger seat with his body twisted across the dash. Blood streamed down his shoulder and back. The left side of his face was reduced to an oozing mass of bone and flesh. Two cracked, round bullet holes marred the middle of the windshield. Kirby instantly understood that a sniper had gotten Riley. The man beside him should have been driving the ambulance, but Kirby could see his hands resting in his lap instead of on the wheel.

"What're ya doin'?"Kirby gasped as he reached out to shake the driver's shoulder. The instant he touched him, he recognized Captain Myles, his CO since Omaha Beach. All six feet of the lean, broad-shouldered officer now sat slumped over in the driver's seat, unmoving. The man's chest was nothing but a sea of blood around a large, ragged bullet hole.

"Captain? Sir?"

The officer's helmet, which dangled precariously on his head, fell onto the stick shift, as the vehicle bounded over another bump in the field. Hey, they were in a field! Where was the road to Battalion? Only tall, green grasses stretched on in front of them, heading out to a black smoke-filled void in the distance. If the ambulance didn't swerve soon, Kirby realized, they'd head right into that big hole or whatever that was in front. He could see the yellow tips of flames coming out of it.

"No! Captain, please! Get us out!" With desperate strength, Kirby reached through the open panel and tried to grab the steering wheel. He had to turn the vehicle fast!

He managed to touch the wheel with his left fingertips and press down. The thing just spun crazily, leaving the ambulance heading straight into that God-awful hell-pit in front. Kirby tried again, stretching his arm out further, and grasped the steering wheel. To his horror, it came loose in his hand. At that instant, he knew he was going to crash. The ambulance wouldn't turn away in time. His two leaders hadn't managed to get him clear of the danger ahead. As he held the broken-off steering wheel and stared, wide-eyed, out the windshield, he knew he was headed right into certain death.

"Kirby? Kirby! Wake up, man! There's trouble!" the voice beside him repeated.

Kirby's opened his eyes just a crack and poked his head out of his bedroll. "What? Huh?" Cursing, he pushed off the hand gripping his shoulder. He'd only been almost, just about asleep, for crying out loud. Then, he saw a familiar face beside him. "Watson!" he grumbled. "Get outta here! You gonna bug me all night?"

He rolled onto his side and threw the rough wool blanket back over his head, trying to block out the intrusive little wide-eyed squirrel crouching next to him. Man! That kid was worse than the nightmare he figured he'd almost been having. But the other guy wouldn't go away. Kirby threw the blanket aside again. "Hey!" he snapped. "Trouble's an old friend o'mine, kid. I've seen 'er before. Just tell her to get lost, and if she won't go, then... tell her I'll see her in the morning."

"Kirby, I'm tellin' ya. You've gotta get up. Please!"the young soldier repeated, shaking Kirby's arm.

Kirby's exasperation just bounded away. Grabbing the front of Watson's jacket, he pulled the annoying, round face down to within inches of his own and told him, and straight too, just exactly how fast the kid's bulb was going to be punched out if he didn't quit making so much noise.

He figured he must have been pretty persuasive, because the crazy kid finally headed back to his own bedroll. Pointedly muttering "good riddance", Kirby plopped back down into his sack and let out a deep sigh. Resting his hand over the barrel of his trusty M1, he shut his mind from the darkness of this God-awful place.

Back home, Kirby'd always had a knack for hunkering down anywhere, even in dark alleys behind his favorite poolrooms, and easily getting to sleep. Something sure must have changed since coming ashore at that lousy Omaha Beach.

He pulled the cloth back over his head and tried to shut his ears. He listened unconsciously to the grunts and snores of the other G.I.'s around him, anyway. At that moment, Kirby decided that he hated war, hated Krauts, and above all, hated this place. He had come to a funny-speaking land, and it felt damned strange underneath his body as he stretched out on it in his sack. He turned his mind instead to the pretty, French dam-selles he'd seen in the town. Many nice-looking ones, with tight blouses, had streamed out of the bomb-damaged houses when they'd marched in. They'd thrown their arms around his neck, doing their enticing best to make his squad feel welcome.

But it was no use. "This isn't home," he thought. "It'll never be."

Each night, his mind replayed images of uniformed men jumping off landing crafts into churning seawater up to their armpits and running up the body-filled beach. He could still hear the loud commands to spread out being shouted by Captain Myles, the CO. He'd kept going forward like Corporal Riley had ordered, firing up at the bunkers on the cliff, just trying to kill Krauts. Then, the screams of his buddies had almost drowned out the roar of rifles bursting into action on the sands of Omaha. He remembered being sick with fear when the big German cannons opened up on his position, just about slaughtering his whole platoon. For the rest of his life, he'd never manage to shut out the Technicolor reels of D-Day playing over and over each night in his head. Damn! Why had he been given such good eyes to see it all with, anyway?

Letting out a sniffle, Kirby turned over in his sack. Most of the men around him couldn't be sleeping either, he felt sure. Good thing they were all lying further away, because if Watson, or any of those others for that matter, had seen the tear trickling down the side of his nose just then, he'd have punched the kid in the face.

He waited restlessly until the sun rose to signal the arrival of the mess truck so he could finally get his share of the morning chow they called breakfast. He patted a bottle of scotch tucked inside his shirt, right next to his heart. It had exactly one ounce of fiery liquid left in it. He wouldn't have it now, Kirby decided. Better to wait and dump it into that army's version of coffee he'd soon be getting.

As Kirby rolled up his pack, a tall man wearing corporal's stripes over muscular arms strutted over. Ha! Ole buddy Riley finally made it back after the big night out! Riley seemed unperturbed by the dark, brown spots covering his uniform. Kirby figured that must be because those stains had all been made by other men's blood since the landing. He would have jumped into the nearest river to wash them off.

"The C.O. wants to see us on the double," Riley said, smiling. "Leave that and get your butt in there, eight ball."

"Nobody said nothin', I swear!" Kirby muttered. Hey! Better to protest first and then check later to see what the trouble was. "...An' my name is William G. Kirby, got it?"he added under his breath as he followed the man out to the tent erected at the furthest edge of the large field. Clutching his rifle strap, he threw open the flap to Captain Banks' tent, letting Riley enter it first. Kirby gulped hard, and he almost stumbled as he followed the corporal inside.

Both men stood at attention before a red-faced officer holding a dented cup filled with steaming coffee. Salutes were quickly put out of the way. Banks seemed to be in a hurried mood this morning, and he pointed at a metal plate perched on the corner of a small table. He invited them to help themselves to the slices of French bread in it as he dabbed a cut underneath his chin.

"Good day, Gentlemen. At ease. Corporal Riley, I asked you here to tell you that your new orders've just come down. You and your men are going to be leaving us to join up with King Company. You probably remember them; they came ashore next to your unit at Omaha. Both our platoons took the bulk of it that day. Now, they're heading to Avranches."

"Yes, sir. I remember them. Avranches, Sir?"

Kirby and Riley both eyed the stocky officer, trying to ignore the cut on his face. Kirby could hear Riley coughing to suppress guffaws. Bile soured the inside of his mouth. He swallowed it down. Here he'd been about to spill out some lame excuse for going AWOL in town until three in the morning over the fear that both of 'em were sure to be slapped with handcuffs and thrown into the slammer. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and glanced up at Riley, almost losing it when he saw the other man's smirk.

"That's where they're headed," Banks continued. "They've had heavy casualties, and you're being sent to join them as replacements. They need 'em. Bring Private Timothy Watson with you. You three are the only ones left from your original squad. ...I prefer keeping teams together."

Banks dabbed a handkerchief on his chin again. Suddenly, the men in front of him lost all urge to laugh.

"Corporal," the captain added. "You three are just about the best shots we've got around here. I, for one, am going to miss your experience and abilities. I'm sure that Captain Jampel will find good use for those keen eyes of yours, men. He and his platoon have a good reputation. They're a solid, well-trained bunch of soldiers. He's lucky to get you."

The officer picked up a piece of bread from the plate and waved at Kirby, indicating that he was now dismissed.

Kirby plopped his helmet on his head and left. He fumed; he hadn't been summoned into the captain's tent at all. That Riley! He'd find a way to get back at him for this! Kirby headed out to search for Watson and for the mess truck, not necessarily in that order. He found both at the edge of the grassy field and sat down on the ground next to the young private, balancing a plate of tepid gruel and a cup of not-much-warmer coffee on his knees. Glancing up at Watson's face, Kirby poured the last of his scotch into the metal cup. "Where'd you get that shiner, kid?" he asked.

"This? Why, you remember, Kirby. It's from that rifle butt that hit me when we came ashore." Watson heard the other man snort. "It's the truth! I don't care if you believe me or not."

"Awright, awright! It's your own business, kid. You can go off 'and fight all you want. I only asked 'cause I might want to put some bucks down on your opponent next time, that's all." Kirby laughed and replaced the empty scotch bottle inside his jacket.

Watson swallowed another mouthful of his breakfast, looking very serious for a moment. "Kirby?" he asked. "One of the sentries almost found your empty bedrolls last night. Where were you?"

"Ha! Now, you're the one who won't believe this, kid. Ole Riley met two Resistance guys, and they invited us to a pool game in the basement under one of the houses. They had a real table down there, too. The felt on it was hardly even ripped. What a night! Riley skunked those suckers in two rounds flat. Man, you shoulda seen 'im run those balls! He didn't miss a shot!"

"Just like that?" Watson put his plate down, looking at Kirby. "Riley met someone in the street and... presto, they said come on over and play some pool? I mean, there's a war goin' on. We're not in England any more. How does he do it, Kirby?"

"He's a magic man, my friend." Kirby drew a long mouthful from his tin cup and gulped it down. "That's all I'm allowed to tell you, so I ain't sayin' nothin' no more."

"I always wind up stayin' here when you guys go sneaking off and...."

"Well, that's the way it is." Kirby chuckled. "We're the only ones old enough to vote in this group. And we voted to go alone."

"Well. There's just something about 'im. I never know if he's serious or not. I can't make him out. He kinda scares me, Kirby."

"Ha!" Kirby punched the kid's arm, winking. He felt in better spirits this morning. That usually happened after eating breakfast and drinking his personal brand of coffee. He related the orders that had been given inside the tent, that the three of them were being transferred to another outfit. "Traded to another team like baseball players," Kirby added, as he swallowed the last of his coffee.

Riley came up behind Watson, giving the boy's shoulder a tight squeeze with a beefy hand as he passed. "You were late, Watson. I had to explain your absence to the captain." Riley grinned slyly as he sat down. "Make sure that doesn't happen again. Got it? Be ready at your post next time I have to give you your orders. Now here's the word. We get our gear together and leave on foot for our new platoon within the hour." Riley brought out a map from his jacket.

"Well, that's just fine!"Kirby remarked, taking in the scene of the dozen-or-so G.I.'s gobbling up platefuls of chow in the field nearby. He returned his attention to the map stretched out in front of them.

As the corporal listed the names of the roads they'd use on their way to King Company, Second Platoon, Kirby focused on the name of Saint-Michel-Les-Bains. That little town was where his next squad was, and its name sounded promising. What did he care about trees and hedgerows and wide-open fields, anyway? He was purely a city boy. Towns always had potential for finding dames, drinks and distractions from the bloody war. Kirby watched Riley fold up the map. He couldn't wait to see what the potential was in Saint-Michel-whatever.

***

"What's the word, Lieutenant?" Saunders bent forward through the doorframe and brushed aside a yellow wisp falling over his forehead.

Hanley put down the receiver and flexed the fingers of his left hand. "We hold. The Krauts were supposed to head east, into the Carnier sector. They didn't. French civilians told S2 that there's a bunch of 'em massing up west of here, along the river. If they should decide to come back, we're never going to stop them from entering. They have the strength to push in here any time they want."

"Can't they just shell the Kraut position? Get them from the air?"

"There's a big network of caves in that area. The Krauts could take cover in 'em any time they want. It'd be useless."

Saunders entered the café, strolling over to a chair in front of Hanley, and he removed his helmet. "How 'bout those replacements? They gonna get here this year? We could use 'em."

Hanley rubbed his forehead tiredly. "I don't know, Saunders. They're on the way." He turned and stared at the Sarge. "How's the evacuation going?"

"Most of 'em are gone now. Guess Caje got through after all."

"Okay. Have him tell the rest of them that the Krauts could come back to the village." The officer motioned with his right hand, acknowledging Saunders' nod. "He should also tell 'em, and make it clear, that we can't give any guarantees for their safety. We just can't."

"Right, Lieutenant."

"In the meantime, take Grady and Braddock. Go out and patrol that sector. Try to see if, and how many, Krauts're out there. Just try to spot what's going on and come back. That'll give some idea, at least."

Turning towards the door, Saunders put his helmet back on his head. Grim-faced, Hanley watched him leave. The Thomson dangled loosely between the sergeant's shoulder blades. It seemed to be heavier on certain days. Sighing, Hanley returned his attention to the papers in front of him.

***

"You dirty louse! Come back here!" Kirby spit out his wet, ruined cigarette and pulled a clump of mud off his face. The stuff dribbled through his fingers as he tried to hurl it at the transport truck roaring out ahead of him.

Two smiling soldiers, looking down at him from the back of the vehicle, began to laugh good-naturedly as the mud fell a yard short of their seats.

"Nuthin' I like better than sloshin' out here in the muck, Riley!" Kirby exclaimed, looking back at the corporal. "Just explain to me how come those jokers get to ride."

"Could be worse, Kirby." Watson's flat, nasal voice irritated Kirby more than usual. "At least it's not a bullet that got you. That stuff doesn't hurt. You can be thankful for that."

"Oh, yeah? Well, then, here!" Kirby scooped up another wet, brown handful from the front of his raincoat. Whooping loudly, he flung it at the annoying private. The mud ball thudded across Watson's chest and ran down the kid's rain cover. "Ha!" Kirby snickered. Your own special unit decoration. Now you can write your mama!"

"You guys knock it off!" Riley shouted from the end of the file. The corporal shifted the BAR strap on his shoulder and raised his hand, signaling towards the front. "It's only about a mile or so 'till we get there. I'm gonna check out the map. Head over there and take five."

The men moved to the side of the road, entering tall grasses. With Kirby on point, they marched to a stand of oak trees bordering the muddied track, sagging down tiredly beneath the overhanging canopy. The grass wasn't as muddy there, at least. Kirby fished out a Lucky from his jacket and put it to his lips.

"Yeah, I sure gotta thank the American Army," he said, striking a flame, "for givin' us this real nice, long tour 'a rainy France." Kirby exhaled a thick cloud of smoke and put his head down over his forearms, trying to settle himself more comfortably inside his rain hood. For the dozenth time, Kirby cursed the miserable wall of water streaming down the front of his helmet. He looked up at Watson, startled by the sound of his voice, and saw the kid motioning for him to hand over his cigarette.

"When are we gonna get there, Corporal...." Watson stopped talking as his chest heaved in a fit of coughing. Red-faced, he spit out the Lucky and handed it back. "It's no use, Kirby. I keep tryin' but... I don't know how you both do it," he muttered.

Chortling, Kirby drew another puff and blew it out towards Watson's reddened features.

"Captain Myles didn't smoke either," the young private commented. "Do you remember when...?"

Riley burst up onto his knees and reached the young soldier, yanking on his jacket collar. "You shut up about him! Just don't say anything. Got it?"

Gulping, Watson looked down and said no more.

Riley released the kid's jacket and sat back again, re-shifting the BAR strap to pick up the unfolded map, which had fallen beside him. "There's a valley right before we reach a hill," he said, looking across the distant hills. "Another mile after that and we reach our new home. Let's go." While Riley put the map back inside his jacket, Kirby threw down the stub of his cigarette and got to his feet.

The noise of an explosion in the distance made them jerk their heads up.

Riley grabbed his rifle and signaled the others to follow him. At a fast crouch, they ran across the muddy road and headed towards the crest of a hill. There, they threw themselves into the sodden grass and looked down into the valley beyond. Instantly, they spotted the cause of the sound they'd heard.

The transport truck, which had spattered them with mud minutes before, now lay on its side at the bottom of the hill. Its tires were shot. Black smoke and flames billowed up from its motor. Several uniform-clad bodies lay sprawled on the ground beside the overturned vehicle. Three more G.I.'s crouched against the fenders, firing up into the hills on the other side of the valley. Up there, Kirby made out several Krauts dug into a large foxhole firing at the Americans with rifles and machine guns.

"That's a Kraut machine gun nest! They're goners!" Watson bolted towards the slope leading down to the truck.

Riley grabbed his arm, pulling him back down and ordered him to stay put. "We'll help 'em. ...This way!" he screamed as he led the others towards the right. Hurrying, they went down a slope covered with tall grasses. They made it all the way down the incline, hidden by the thick cover, and then started back up the other side.

The noise and smell of gunfire almost made them sick as they approached the Kraut nest. Kirby and Watson crawled to the furthest edge of a tree line and positioned themselves behind tree trunks. They aimed their weapons as they tried to make out the Krauts in their sights. It was no good. Too low inside their foxhole, the Germans remained perfectly shielded.

Kirby felt a grip on his arm, startling him so badly that he almost opened up. He saw Riley nodding pointedly, looking at him with slitted eyes. "What's he doin'?" Kirby wondered.

Riley released his hold when he saw he had Kirby's attention, and he pointed up at a tree several yards away.

Kirby shook his head and grabbed Riley's sleeve in turn. "You ain't goin' up there! It's crazy!"

"Give me cover!" Riley shouted above the din.

Inch by inch, Riley hauled himself up the tree until he reached halfway to the top. Finally finding an adequate spot, he stopped, letting his legs play out on each side of a large branch. He aimed his heavy weapon at the enemy nest and tested the view in his scope. Perfect. Three Krauts hid in a wide trench-like hole behind some wooden logs, perfectly framed inside a bright circle with two crossed lines. All he had to do was pull the trigger. Riley kept his index finger still as he evaluated the targets. "Don't worry! I'll get 'em!" he cried out as he fired off three quick rounds. Riley just had time to see the barrel of the Kraut gun below swing up in his direction. He squeezed the trigger again, and then, all of his senses went numb.

Kirby saw two helmets fly out of the foxhole and roll down the slope. He crawled nervously out of his cover, firing at a third dark helmet still visible inside the gun emplacement. As the German in it fell onto the ground in front of the wooden barrier, Kirby finally lowered his weapon, waiting.

No more movement came from the Kraut machine gun nest.

Kirby hobbled up the slope on rubbery legs, panting, with Watson on his tail. He almost reached the Kraut body when he looked up in the direction of the tree line. He gasped, almost dropping his M1, as he saw Riley on the ground beneath the tree he'd climbed, clutching his head. Riley looked dead, and Watson cried out something Kirby's brain didn't register.

Making his way over to Riley's limp body, Kirby slumped down at his side. Carefully, he turned Riley over and took the soldier's bloody hand away from his forehead, gasping at the sight of the bullet wound. Kirby took out a sulfa pack with trembling hands, spreading some all around the corporal's head as he applied it.

"Is he dead, Kirby?" Watson placed his head on Riley's chest, listening for a heartbeat.

"What'ya talkin' about? Help me get him up." Kirby placed a hand underneath Riley's shoulders. "Riley? Come on now. We're gonna get you to a medic!"

***

Saunders and his men leapfrogged from tree to tree, keeping low. At the crest of a ravine, they threw themselves down beside a fallen log.

"Man!" Grady turned onto his back, panting. "Saunders, I swear to God. I've seen more than I ever want to see. Those Krauts are massing at the river, all right. For a skinny-dip party. I tell you, if I should ever see another Kraut butt, I'll either puke or start baying at the moon!"

"Never mind their butts," Braddock groaned, lifting his helmet to scratch his head. "I don't want to get any more ganders at their... tent poles. Drive me section 8, Sarge. Now, you'll have to send me back to New York. I think I have a reservation at Belleview with a nice lady shrink. How 'bout it?"

"All right you two." Saunders rose again. "Comedy hour's over. Come on. Let's get back." He turned away to hide a crack of a smile. "And report what we've seen."

The thundering sound of an explosion followed instantly by machine gun and BAR fire reached him. "It's coming from over that hill! I make it, a quarter-mile. How 'bout you, Grady?"

"Closer than that, Saunders."

The men grabbed their weapons and hurried out towards the sounds to investigate. As they ran, the echoes died down as suddenly as they had begun. By the time the three Americans came to the top of a hill, the air had become quiet again. They threw themselves down onto the ground and looked below. A smoking transport truck lay on its side at the bottom, surrounded by inert American soldiers.

"Guess we're too late." Panting, Grady lowered his BAR.

Movement to Saunders' right made him swerve, his weapon ready. In the distance, two Americans were dragging a third one. Saunders could just make out their backs, heading away from them along the crest of the hill. Breaking into a slow trot, he and the others headed out to join the three G.I.'s.

"Hey, hold up!"Sarge cried out as he jogged ahead. He came up beside the limping Americans. "Need help, Soldier?"he asked the one on the left. A wiry, thin-faced soldier with two weapons criss-crossed over his back looked up at him. A feeling of familiarity came over Sarge as he watched him. He thought he might have seen these three before. But then, he'd seen so many dogfaces in the last months and years.

"Yeah. We sure could, Sir. I mean, Sarge." The soldier's features grimaced with effort as he spoke. "We got a head wound here. He's real bad. You know where we can find a medic?"

Saunders looked at the injured man closely, seeing corporal's stripes on the sleeve, and he noticed a BAR belt strapped across his shoulders. Blood covered the left side of his face and shirt. He wore a blood-soaked bandage above his ear, obviously put on in a hurry, and was making no effort to control the bobbing of his head on his chest.

"We have a medic with us. He'll take care of 'im 'till he gets to an aid station." Saunders turned to Braddock, pointing down towards the bottom of the valley. "What about the others down in the truck? They dead?"

"Looks like it, Sarge," the stocky soldier answered. "We got here too late. I don't think any of 'em made it."

"It was a turkey shoot," the thin-faced soldier added. "Those lousy Krauts were pickin' 'em all off. We tried to get in there to help but...."

Saunders nodded. "Grady, go check if there's a stretcher in there." With his right hand, he gestured towards the German foxhole. Then, he turned to the thin-faced, familiar American again. "You did a good job taking out that machine gun nest. What outfit 'you with, Soldier?"

He nodded slightly when the man told him where they'd been heading.

Grady carried a folded litter out of the foxhole. He and Braddock took turns carrying the wounded man for the half-mile separating them from King Company, Second platoon's position. Kirby limped along a half step behind them. The thick strap of Riley's BAR pressed down on his shoulder, making it sag uncomfortably lower than the other. He shifted it as he listened to the quiet steps of the others walking in file behind him. He felt the stare of that pale-headed sergeant boring down his back, and it unsettled him somehow. Why was that sergeant doing that? "Huh," he decided, "you waitin' for me to fall on my butt with all this heavy stuff? You ain't gettin' the satisfaction. ...You don't know me or my buddy yet."

***

"Lieutenant! They're back!" Caje's voice reached through the door a second before his lean, unshaven face appeared. "They've got somebody wounded with 'em!"

Hanley stood and headed out the café door, making an effort to hear the approaching voices. At the end of the street, Hanley saw Nelson and Littlejohn rushing out to greet the new arrivals. Even from a distance, he recognized the three men he'd sent out patrolling an hour earlier. He exhaled a breath when he realized that the three of them were bringing in a casualty. Two unknown soldiers limped along closely behind them.

"Saunders? Any news?"

"A lot of 'em, Lieutenant."

"Come inside. There's a bunk in the back room for the wounded. There's been a lot of damage there, but it'll have to do."

Hanley settled against the makeshift desk that he'd made for himself. As he watched, Braddock and Grady carried the wounded corporal through the café and into the storeroom, followed by the others.

Saunders paused at the door for a beat, watching as they placed the wounded man onto a narrow mattress in a corner; he scanned the interior of the room, noting the cracked, peeling walls and broken windowpanes. Above, he saw a gaping shell hole in corner of the ceiling, through which light rain drizzled down onto broken wine cases. "If Hanley's quarters look like this," he thought, "he'd gladly go back to the men's bivouac."

"What's the report, Saunders?"

"We saw Krauts at the river, Lieutenant," he reported. "Maybe fifteen or twenty of 'em, about a half-mile west of here. But all they're doing right now is washing up and doing their laundry." Saunders shook his head. "I don't know. They look like they're on down time. Either that, or else they're planning to be clean as can be when they rush the town."

"That doesn't mean a thing and you know it, Saunders. There could be Krauts anywhere, anyplace." Hanley picked up a pencil, marking a dot on the map spread out on the table. "Well. At least we know what these ones are up to."

Saunders nodded. "We brought in the new replacements, Lieutenant. Met them along the way. Three men from 2nd Battalion. I thought they looked familiar. They were in the same cruiser as we were coming across the channel, but on a lower deck. Their platoon came ashore on Omaha right next to ours. They had it rough that day. Just like we did." Saunders looked at Hanley pointedly. "Their corporal's the one that got it. Bullet grazed his head."

"All right. Get those two men in here."

Hanley waited for the new soldiers to enter and take their position in front of the table. Silently, he stared at the new men's features. Saunders had been right. He too remembered seeing them before. The soldier on his right seemed to be the youngest, barely eighteen or twenty, judging by his beardless cheeks and look of stunned emptiness. Hanley had come across a few of those in the last weeks. Kids so staggered out, they looked like cold death itself had touched them as it passed by.

He turned his attention to the other soldier. That one stood in front of Saunders, next to the empty-eyed kid. The one's face looked somewhat older, wary-looking. His sharp, brown eyes peered at Hanley from beneath a damaged camouflage net. His thin, pinched lips clasped a bent cigarette. He reminded Hanley of a jackrabbit he'd once caught in his headlights in the middle of a busy highway. Scared and dying to dart out of the traffic. "Names and outfit?" the lieutenant asked.

"Watson, Donald C. Private, sir," the younger soldier answered.

"Kirby, William G. Private. But I was a Private First Class. And I'm Acting Corporal some days. We was sent up here to join up with King Company. Is that you people, by any chance?"

Hanley looked past this man and caught sight of Saunders. Silently, he noted the sergeant holding his Camo under his arm, looking down at this boots and clearing his throat. Hanley took a cigarette out of his pocket and slowly brought it to the corner of his mouth.

"Sir," he said.

"What?"

Hanley stood, stretching out his entire frame in front of the brash new arrival, and he pushed up his helmet. "You understood me, soldier."

"...Uh. Okay, okay, Sir. Our outfits, Sir? Well, our papers an' everythin' is all in Corporal Riley's pockets in there. He had 'em. There might be some blood on 'em, though... sir."

"All right. I'll get them later." He paused as Grady and Braddock appeared at the door to the café. Then, he turned back to the new arrivals. "Looks like you've both seen some action already. That's good. We can use experienced men up here. This town looks quiet, but it isn't secure. Krauts are massing near here, and they could decide to come back. We'll have men on guard duty until we move out. Till then you can go sack out with the others. Saunders'll show you where to bunk." He turned back towards his chair again. "And, I'm sorry about your friend. Doc in there's a good medic. He'll do the best he can for him. All right. Take off."

"Well, yes. Uh... thanks, Sir." Kirby stood still and watched the tall, badly shaved officer turn and head back to his chair.

"I'll show them where to bunk, Lieutenant."Grady remarked, striding over to them. "Come on!"

"Ha! How 'bout this here outfit?" Kirby nudged Watson in the shoulder as they stepped out. "Their CO won't even salute 'ya." He blinked in the late afternoon light. For the first time, he took in the sight of the dilapidated village; it was just a wet, ugly place like every other he'd seen since coming to France. Craters and rubble cluttered the street everywhere. Kraut shells had leveled every building to a single, bomb-damaged story. Nothing remained of anything higher, except for a half-destroyed steeple down the street. One old, black-clad woman pushed a wheelbarrow around a corner and disappeared. "Man! The Krauts'd be crazy to wanna come back to this," he quipped.

"Kirby, is it?"Saunders asked. "I saw you holding a BAR. Is it yours?"

"It's Riley's. I just carry his ammo."

"Good."Saunders' companion replied. "Then you can carry mine till he's back. Just stick close to me. My name's Grady Long. Good to meet ya."

Kirby examined at the tall private standing next to him. The man looked relaxed as he smiled and held out his hand. "Yeah, you too," he muttered quietly. "Where do I get some wine around here?"

Saunders and Grady led the way. They didn't have far to walk. Several doors down, a row house with a crumpled front served as their bivouac area. Inside, Kirby saw a gigantic G.I. bent down over a crooked table, folding up a shirt. He looked like he must be one mean, seven-footer for sure, and no dame magnet either. Maybe his name was "Moose." Yeah, Kirby liked that name.

Braddock passed them as they entered; heading towards some rolled up packs at the back of the room. He sat down and began to rummage inside one of them.

"Let me introduce everybody," Grady said, pointing to the tall soldier. "That's Littlejohn."

"Howdy." The giant nodded his greeting.

Kirby stared quietly. The mountain spoke, all right, but with a big yokel accent.

"You met Saunders, he's the sarge around here," Grady continued. "There's Nelson coming in now. Braddock's over there. Doc, you already met. Uh, where's Caje? Anybody seen 'im?"

"He's on guard duty," the one named Nelson said. He struck Kirby as the youngest soldier he'd ever seen. Even younger than Watson. A real baby-face. Hanging around him would only bring in motherly types. Uh, uh.

Saunders came up behind him. "This is Kirby," he said. "And Watson. They're the new replacements."

Sarge stood at the center of the room and watched the two new men remove their rain covers. The shovel hanging from Kirby's pack looked covered with mud, he noted. It had seen use, at least. "We just received word," Saunders said. "Orders have been changed. Tomorrow, we move out and head for the Kraut outposts at Carnier. Dig foxholes all along the line there. That, to you men, is going to be the edge of the known world."

"Aw, really, Sarge?" Nelson asked.

"Yeah,"the giant added. "We were just settlin' in here where it's dry."

"Don't worry, Sarge," Kirby said, letting his pack drop. "I'll dig that sucker real deep like no one ever saw before."

Saunders just nodded and exhaled his cigarette smoke. "Well, just get some rest until we move out, huh?" He strode to the back of the room and hung his rain poncho up on a hook beside one of the packs along the wall.

Kirby followed Grady to a corner and plopped himself down next to his gear. He smoked the rest of his cigarette in silence, just staring back and forth from one face in the room to the next.

Watson smiled shyly and dropped his gear next to Nelson's. He sagged tiredly onto the floor beside it and sat staring off into space. Littlejohn left the table and joined them. Crouching, he spoke quietly with the two young soldiers. Kirby observed them as they chuckled and shook hands. Braddock just sat by himself on the floor next to his own gear, eating rations. The yellow-haired sergeant, Saunders, left after giving all of the men a quick glance.

"Hey," Kirby commented, nodding towards the door. "That non-com of yours. What's with him? He ain't no chickenshit, is he? I mean..."

The giant whirled around, looking bullets at him. "Drop it! You say one thing against the Sarge and I'll feed you to the...!"

"Awright, awright. I was just asking, that's all. Didn't mean nothin' by it! I was just sayin' 'cause he kept on watchin' me the whole time we was comin' in. Thought he was gonna jump all over me." Kirby settled back and patted the empty bottle inside his shirt. "Man, I could use a refill. Maybe I ought'a go flush out a cellar!"

Private Long chuckled beside him and extracted a bottle from his pack. "Saunders is okay," he said, "once you get to know him." Grady took a good, long swig before handing it over. "Guess you had a rough one, Kirby."

Snorting, Kirby took it and drank a mouthful of the offered liquid. He spotted Grady's weapon lying at his feet. "That yours?"he asked, picking up the BAR. "You kept the pods on it. Not ole Riley. He just says them things're too heavy. Takin' 'em off helps his aim." He turned the weapon over in his hand. "He made me strip clean his a hundred times, I swear!" Kirby examined the weapon for a while, feeling restless. He missed Riley. He hated having to leave him behind tomorrow and head out alone with these guys. He closed his eyes and rested his head on his forearms, trying to empty his mind. Right now, he'd have traded all them all in just to have his best buddy there. He was startled by the sound of boots clattering at the door.

"Hey, Eight-Ball!"his friend's familiar voice called out to him. "What 're ya doin' with these Joes? They're boring. Let's take off and go fetch some cues!"

Riley! The old rascal was all right! Cracking a smile, Kirby raised his head, expecting to see his buddy. Then, his heart sank. That wasn't Riley talking but only some thin, unshaved G.I. standing at the door, holding a rifle and looking damned serious.

"Krauts!"the soldier shouted. That word, Kirby focused on clearly. "A bunch of 'em at the other end of town," the thin soldier continued, speaking with a French accent.

Kirby stood and grabbed his weapon along with the others. In the distance, three of four rapid shots rang through the air. Then, all fell silent again.

Saunders came into the doorframe, standing behind the lean soldier. "Those shots came from Hanley's place!" Saunders pointed to his right. "Caje! You head off down that side. Nelson and Littlejohn are on you! Grady, you take Braddock and Watson and cover the left side. This is going to go house to house, so you watch yourselves. Kirby, you're on me! Let's go!"

"Man, I knew it!" Braddock exclaimed. "Every damned time it gets quiet, you just know things are gonna start jumping!"

***

Riley woke up with a start, momentarily confused. He opened his eyes and saw a strange place. His head hurt! The gunfire sounds around him just about ripped out his eardrums. He sat up like a bolt. "Krauts! Krauts are opening up on the guys!" his mind screamed. "Get out, get out, everybody! Leave all your stuff! Don't take anything. Just get out, dammit!"

He saw a tall, broad-shouldered American officer standing at a window near his cot, firing a Carbine through the frame. "They're firing at the captain!"his brain screamed. "Throwing in all they got!" He saw the officer fire off three or four rounds, ducking back inside as bullets ricocheted off a beam beside him. Then, he turned and fired out into the distance once more, cursing. Oh, No! Myles was alone against all those Krauts out there!

"Captain!" he cried. "Captain!"

The officer whirled around and stared at him, frowning. "What the Hell...." he muttered. He grunted and crumpled to his side beneath the window, dropping his weapon with a loud clatter. Grimacing, he curled up on himself underneath the window. Riley saw blood seeping out from between the man's fingers, in his left side.

"Oh, God! He's hit! Myles won't stand a chance!" Riley sprang up from his cot. "Captain! You're bleeding! I'll help you!" he shouted.

Riley reached him in two bounds. "Easy, Captain!"he cried. He placed his mouth over the prone, bleeding officer, trying to push some air into him. A soft groan came out of the wounded man's throat.

"Soldier...." Riley heard the man whisper. "Get Saunders.... Ughh..." The wounded officer caught his breath and clutched his stomach tightly. Riley saw a stained bandage on the man's left hand.

At least he could see the captain was breathing on his own. Thank God! But he stared, wide-eyed, at the blood covering the officer's abdomen. It was coming out so fast! The wound looked bad. Deep. Tears streamed down Riley's cheeks as he ripped out a sulfa pack and poured it onto the ragged wound. He turned the injured man over onto his stomach, quickly checking for an exit hole in his back. There was none. This really was bad. Riley ducked as more bullets whizzed across the frame over his head, ricocheting into the wall. "Lousy Krauts!" he cried. "Don't worry, Sir! I'll get 'em!"

He knew what to do, what to search for. A carbine lay at the wounded officer's side. Riley picked it up, putting his finger in the trigger. Yeah, even better, he saw a Colt forty-five hanging from the officer's web belt. Riley took out and hefted it, balancing its weight in his hand. A quick check of the pistol's chamber told him it was fully loaded. As he glanced behind him, he spotted his BAR propped up against a stack of wooden crates. Yes! Right where he left it! He inched over and grabbed the weapon. With those three weapons, he'd have plenty to knock out the Krauts with. They'd never know what hit them! "We won't let 'em come near, Captain. You'll make it! ...Just hang on!"

Riley crouched beneath the window, trying to ignore the pain in his head, and fired out into the void. Desperately, he aimed at every Kraut he saw moving out there. Every single one. Nobody was going to come in here and finish off his CO. Nobody!

***

Kirby's mood shifted drastically from tense to frightened. Along with the other Americans, he dropped down inside one of the shop doors and kept his weapon ready. From his hideout, he was first to spot a Kraut soldier zigzagging between two houses at the end of the street. Then, two more dark figures appeared, moving in towards them. Clutching his M1, Kirby took a quick look at Saunders, waiting for the Sarge's lead. He saw Sarge raise his weapon and fire off short, rapid bursts into the street. In a deafening roar, every other man in the squad opened up at once, firing on the enemy soldiers. Kirby saw two of the Krauts drop their weapons and fall to their sides. Another made a desperate dash towards a distant house. Kirby raised his rifle and fired.

He stopped momentarily, listening to distant sounds of a carbine coming from another street.

Saunders gestured at the tall, thin soldier. "Caje! That way!" he shouted, indicating a house on the other side of the street.

Kirby saw the one called Caje rise, firing constantly, and run towards the indicated house, followed by Nelson and Littlejohn.

The sergeant gave another signal to the BAR man. He hadn't even needed to say a word out loud; Grady Long just seemed to catch onto the Sarge's meaning. Clutching his BAR, the tall soldier rushed towards the café with Watson on his heels. Then, Saunders turned to him and nodded towards a nearby alley. Kirby's mind flashed with crystal-clear understanding. Something about those intense, blue eyes of the Sarge's had put him off before. But now, they were just talking, telling him directly and soundlessly to head out there with him. Kirby could read that look like a page of the Stars and Stripes. Wheezing out a deep breath, he obeyed and bolted out into the street behind the Sarge.

Rifle volleys rang out from behind the café.

Kirby followed Saunders into a narrow passage between the two ruined buildings. Panting, the two men burst into a back alley. Kirby froze there, as if his boots had been glued to the ground, staring at a young French woman in a dark dress cringing beside a mound of bricks and holding a screaming baby. She whirled around, her eyes wide with terror. Kirby turned his rifle away from her, realizing he'd almost opened up. Saunders gripped his arm and signaled him down beside the wall, in full view of the woman. Kirby glanced at her figure across the alley; any other time, he would have found her curvy legs really enticing. Not now.

Watson stood at the back door to the storeroom, waving at Saunders, a look of panic on his face. The kid turned and looked inside the place, his face transforming into a frown, and he rushed across the threshold. Kirby heard loud cries ring out inside. There was a scuffle going on in that room.

Shaking his paralysis, Saunders headed for the café door. "Krauts! Get out of there, Watson!" He dropped down at a back window and raised the barrel of the Thompson into the frame. He peered inside, straining hard to shake the dread that was pushing his heart up into his throat. He saw Grady lying on the floor of the storeroom next to what seemed like Hanley. Both of them looked dead. Kirby's wounded corporal was on his feet now near the window. He'd taken off his bandage and stood over Grady's limp form with the BAR above his head.

"Hey!" Saunders cried. "What are you doing? Why don't you help 'im?"

He watched, horrified, as the corporal brought the BAR down and fired it point-blank at Watson's chest, sending the kid backwards against the wall. Then, the injured soldier turned towards Saunders, as if suddenly aware of his presence at the window and swung his weapon in Sarge's direction.

"Get down!" Saunders yelled, pushing Kirby out of the way. They landed heavily behind a crate as a barrage of bullets went past the frame where their heads had been.

"Oh, my God!"Kirby cried out, as if to himself. "That's no Kraut in there. ...It's Riley!"

"The kid had no chance!" Saunders snapped, looking out towards the alley. He saw Littlejohn's helmet bulging above a heap of stones, barely visible. Nelson crouched behind a large, square piece of concrete. Caje stuck his head out from behind a cart and waved at him. The Cajun ducked back out of sight as bullets skipped off a wheel beside his helmet. "All of you! Stay down!"Saunders shouted out the warning. Once again, he tried to go peer into the storeroom, just to see if Hanley and Grady still breathed. Bullets banged off the frame just an inch from his helmet. Saunders cursed; all of them were trapped in there.

"...Can't believe it!"Kirby exclaimed, almost in a stupor. "He just shot the kid! I never said one good thing to 'im. Now he's dead."

Saunders grabbed his arm. "I know. Come on! Riley's watching this side. Let's go back and try it from the front!"

Kirby followed Saunders back through the narrow passage all the way to the main street. Crawling, they edged their way towards the front entrance. At the window, they dropped to their knees, listening to the noises coming from inside. Sounds of breaking glass made them start.

"I think I know what he's doin' in there, Sarge," Kirby said. "He's crashin' all them glasses 'n everything, so's we'll step on 'em and make some noise if we come in. To give him warning."

"Why? Why's he taken Hanley and Grady hostage? Why?" Saunders looked up into the window, his face stricken. He could make out nothing in the gloom. Sounds of breaking glasses emanated from the farthest end of the café.

"He's not takin' your officer hostage!" Kirby exclaimed, trying to peer into the broken window in turn. "I think he's protectin' him!"

Saunders turned and stared at him, dumfounded. "What are you saying?"

"It's just like it was before!"

Kirby gasped when Saunders turned on him and grabbed his jacket collar. For an instant, he thought he might get his head smashed against the wall. He couldn't breathe anymore under the Sarge's piercing stare and iron-fisted grip.

"What do you mean?" Saunders yelled. "He's done this before?"

"Well, only kinda, Sarge. ...It's 'cause of something that happened to 'im after Omaha. He must be living it all over again. In his head, like."

The man called Caje appeared, coming out of one of the passages between two houses. Kirby felt Sarge's steel-vise grip on his collar relax when the thin soldier approached. "Caje!"

"I just made it, Sarge. Looks like all the Krauts have run out of the village. But some of 'em got it back there."

"What about Littlejohn and the others? They hurt?"

"No, Sarge." Caje answered. "But I'll tell you. If they move even a finger back there, that guy'll shoot it off. I never saw anything like it! He's good. The best I've ever seen."

"He's a scout sniper," Kirby interjected. "Or he was. Before he came over here. In Italy, with the 88th Infantry, told me. 'Course, I always said that was a roll o'soft meat. We was put up together over in England." Gripping his M1 tightly, Kirby sat against the red bricks of the damaged café front and stared at Saunders. "One thing's true, Sarge. He never misses! Anybody moves out there, they'll get it for sure!"

"You said it was like before," Saunders said. "Kirby, tell me exactly what happened!"

Kirby took a deep breath. "It was just after Omaha. We'd been marching for hours one day; we was all dead bushed. The CO told us to settle in for the night in a field. So, we all hunkered down along some hedgerows. We never even took off our packs. We didn't know we was supposed to dig foxholes, cause nobody told us in basic. Most of the guys got to sleepin' right away, so we never paid attention to the sound of engines when we heard 'em. We just figured they was G.I. trucks, or somethin'. Well, they was Kraut tanks, comin' on us before we could do anything. Shootin' up flares, lightin' up the sky like it was daytime, firin' their guns all out. We tried to get up and fire back at 'em, but it was no use. Guys was runnin' all over the place, just tryin' to get outta there.

The CO was in a farmhouse right nearby, and he got hit. Somehow, Riley cut through it all and managed to get into the CP. He stayed with the Captain, shootin' Krauts. But all the time, those tanks just kept blastin' away. It was a massacre, Sarge. I don't know how long it lasted. Not long. But it was enough. After it was all over, we got into the CP. Captain Myles was lyin' there with his chest ripped open. Riley was next to him. He didn't say nothin', but he looked at us like we was the Krauts. I dunno, Sarge. The look on his face, then. I swear he was out of it. Riley was my best buddy, but for a minute, he didn't even know us. He scared me worse than anything."

"So you're telling us he thinks we're Krauts?" Caje asked.

"Yeah," Saunders replied. He dug into his jacket and extracted a white handkerchief. "I have an idea. I'll go in there and pretend to surrender, as if I were a Kraut. Try and get him to talk. You two stay here and cover me. If he drops his guard, take him out."

"But it ain't his fault, Sarge!" Kirby grabbed Saunders' sleeve. "It's gotta be 'cause of that head wound. He can't help it!"

"Listen. He's gunning for G.I.'s and civilians. Grady and Hanley are both in there with 'im, wounded. Think they can last longer than Riley's ammo? You two stay here and cover me!"

Kirby and Caje knelt beside the windows and aimed their rifles as they watched Saunders reach the door. He lowered his Thompson and raised the white cotton above his head, peering into the room. A shot burst out of the door, making him dive back towards Caje and Kirby to get out of the way. Grimacing, he looked down at a ragged, bleeding hole in his thigh, and quickly ripped out a sulfa pack from his belt. "Hold your fire," he whispered. "It's no use talking to 'im."

"Sarge?" Caje said as he lowered his rifle and bent down to apply the powder. "Think Grady and Hanley're still alive?"

"You tell me!" Saunders barked, clutching a bandage. He closed his eyes, wishing Caje hadn't asked that. But there might be a way to find out. He turned his shoulders towards the open window. "Lieutenant!"he shouted at the top of his voice. "Grady! Can you hear me?"

"Saunders...." Hanley's weak-sounding voice responded from the depths of the café. "I'm wounded.... Long is alive. He's...." The lieutenant fell silent, as if someone had muffled him. No more noise came from inside the storeroom.

Kirby looked down the village street and saw ruined houses and rubble all the way to the village limits. For a brief instant, he focused on them. What if he could just run out past them and never come back again? He felt his nerves aflame. He was just some ordinary Joe from Chicago, for cryin' out loud. Much too small for the situation rushin' at him now. It was going to crush him, he just knew it.

"Listen to me!" Sarge's voice brought him back to reality. "I said there might be a way! You two go up in that steeple. You should spot him from there. It's the only place high enough."

Caje peered out towards the damaged spire. "He may see us go up in it."

"Sarge!" Kirby objected, staring at Saunders. "You're not makin' me go up in that thing!"

"You know a better way to get a good view of 'im?"

"He's my buddy! You're sayin' I'm gonna have to shoot him?" Kirby cried. "I just can't do it, Sarge!"

"Listen. I don't care if you just arrived today. I don't care how long you've been in this squad. You can be the first, the fourth or the tenth member of the team. It's all the same. If you're carrying a rifle, you're expected to help solve the problem along with the rest of us. Now, you and Caje get up in that steeple and take out that shooter if you can. You got it?"

Once again, something about that intense, blue stare impelled Kirby to actually consider that he'd do it. Sarge telling him to simply meant that he would go there. No question.

"Come on!" Caje grabbed his arm and dragged him out towards the narrow passage. "You need the exercise!"

They sprinted into the street all the way to the church entrance. Entering through large arched portals, they headed over to a smaller side door. That one had to lead to the interior of the steeple. Caje pointed up towards the belfry; several stories up, they could see a gaping opening in the wall where a shell had hit. The stairs near the hole had been obliterated.

"Hey, Cajun," Kirby gulped, slowing his steps. "Look at that thing! It's all apart. If I go up there, I just know I ain't ever comin' down from it. So make sure my mother gets my watch after I fall outta there, will 'ya? She hocked the sofa to buy it when I came over..."

"Go!"

They began to climb up the rickety stairs, sending down broken fragments with every step. At the hole in the steeple wall, they crouched and looked out at the village with their weapons ready. Caje scoured the ruined houses intently, left to right, trying to locate their target. "I don't see it, Kirby," he told him. "No, wait... Over there," he added a second later.

Kirby noticed how the other guy held his M1 coldly and efficiently, keeping his left index finger lightly on the trigger. Another lefty, just like him. He nodded; he'd already made out the place where Riley held their platoon leader. He could get a view of the scene from two windows, one door. Three different places where Riley might expose himself as he passed. "Not much of a target," he commented, shaking his head.

The Cajun looked up towards the belfry above them. "Not good enough. I can't see him from here. We've got to go higher. Just grab hold of those steps up there. I'll give you a boost."

Kirby looked up at the damaged structure, his eyes stating how crazy he thought the French-sounding guy was.

"The Lieutenant's gonna buy it if we don't get up there!" Caje insisted. "We're his only chance!"

As he pushed the wiry soldier up, the steps shattered under their combined weight. Caje fell back, trying to steady himself, and saw the other man a yard above him, dangling from the upper part of the stairs.

Kirby, grunting, managed to slide his legs over. A second later, he threw his head over the edge, peering down to make sure the Cajun hadn't taken a long dive to the ground.

"Go!" Caje insisted.

Kirby went. He hugged the wall as he climbed up the last rocking, groaning steps until he reached the bell chamber. God, was that place dirty! Birds lived up there, and their droppings covered everything. Kirby almost threw up as he crawled in it. He positioned himself at the opening that faced the café and looked through his gun sight. The view of the town really was better there. He even had a clear view through the shell hole in the roof of the storeroom below. A wounded man was lying on his back inside there. But because of the size of the shell hole, Kirby could only distinguish him from the knees to the shoulders. It had to be Lieutenant Hanley, and he was covered with blood. He was moving a little, but he wouldn't be for long unless someone took out that slug in him.

Kirby aimed his rifle, waiting.

In his sight, he saw Hanley curl up into a tight ball, clutching his stomach, his face contorted with a grimace. Then, he relaxed a bit. Kirby swallowed dryly at the sight. He wouldn't want to be that guy down there right now.

Riley appeared inside the hole in the storeroom's roof. Kirby saw him bend down next to Hanley and place a hand on the officer's shoulder, saying something to him. Then, Riley lifted the wounded man's shirt, certainly checking a darkened bandage.

Kirby wanted to shout to the others in the alley. He's not looking! Get him! He shuddered; Riley was in his sight, but he was standing right in front of Hanley. Jeez! Did he really have to shoot Riley? Couldn't someone just go in and talk to him? Riley was his buddy! They'd been out raising hell only last night. The familiar voice calling him Eight Ball rang in his mind. He always complained about that, but really, he enjoyed hearing it. Please! There had to be another way! Then, he remembered Saunders trying to go into the café a little while ago and getting hit. Maybe Sarge was right, and no one could talk to Riley right now. But he so desperately wanted his buddy to put down his weapons.

Suddenly, a flock of birds swooped past the arched opening. Dozens of them, flapping and squawking angrily around his spot. His presence up there was disturbing them. They danced a ballet around the steeple, and then, they turned as one and flew out over the houses.

Stupid, stupid things! Why'd they all have to get in there, now? Kirby watched in fascinated stupor as Riley scrambled to his feet and looked up at him, right through the shell hole above the wounded man. The lousy creatures had made too much noise and given him away. He knew it. Riley raised the BAR up towards him. No! Why wasn't the other guy in the steeple firing? Because he couldn't see from where he was, that was why.

The parade of birds flew past again, just as a bullet hit his helmet, knocking it off, making him feel as if his head had split open. Panting, Kirby ducked out of the way and ran his hand across his skull. A glance at his palm showed a film of sweat, but no blood. The buddy he cared so much for had just shot Watson in the chest and killed him. And now, Riley had just taken a shot at him! Kirby was too stunned to even think any more. His rifle lay at his side and he picked it up instinctively. Turning back towards the opening, he aimed the barrel downwards.

"Riley!"he cried, one last time. He bore upon his best friend's face and pulled the trigger.

Within seconds, he was flying down the damaged, gap-filled steeple stairs, almost pushing the Cajun out of his way.

In the street, Saunders heard the rifle shot coming from the steeple, followed by a loud clatter in the back room of the café. The BAR had toppled to the floor. He steadied his own weapon and limped through the broken glass towards the storeroom. The wounded non-com in there might still be a threat to the others.

Posting himself at the door, he peered inside with the Thompson ready.

The gunman lay dead in a corner, the left side of his face darkened with blood. Grady lay near the empty cases. He wasn't moving either. A few yards away, Hanley turned his head and looked at him, a hint of a grimace appearing on his face. He tried to utter something, but then he gave up the effort. Doc entered through the back door, shaking his head. Littlejohn followed him inside, with Nelson and Braddock on his heels. None of them spoke; the sight of Riley's body sprawled behind Hanley with his features half-destroyed cut their words short. They just crouched near the windows, covering the alley.

Saunders watched Doc bend next to Hanley and peer at the wound underneath his shirt. "Come on. Give 'im a hand, huh?" he said, motioning to the others. Then, he sat down next to Grady and turned the BAR man onto his back. He heaved a deep sigh; his friend was breathing softly, despite a swollen right temple.

Grady's eyes fluttered open.

"Easy,"Saunders said, taking off the camo.

Kirby suddenly burst into the room, clutching his M1. Without a word, he leapt over Hanley's prone figure and sagged to his knees at Riley's side. Kirby stared down at the dead sniper, as if frozen. His dead friend's face looked just exactly like it had in all of his nightmares, only this time it was real.

The others turned away, wishing to give the new man a moment of silence.

"You louse!" Kirby grabbed the blood-soaked collar and pulled it up violently. "Dirty, rotten louse! Ya hear me? You shot that kid, ya punk! Why? He was jus' tryin' to help you." Anger exploded in him. He shook the front of the dead man's jacket relentlessly, yanking on it with frantic energy. "You shouldn't have done it!"

Nelson nudged Littlejohn's arm in wonderment. "Hey, look! That new guy. He's pickin' a fight with a dead man! How 'bout that!"

"Well, stay away from him, Billy."

Kirby felt a light squeeze on his shoulder, and he looked up, startled out of his anger. Caje was standing beside him, looking at him with questioning eyes. Right now, that French-sounding guy seemed okay to him, much like the others did. That thought calmed him a bit. All strength drained from his hands and the jacket slipped from his fingers. "Why'd ya do it?" he asked once more, in a subdued tone. Of course, he knew he wouldn't get any answer. A cigarette appeared in front of him and he took it, drawing deeply. With a quiet gesture, he indicated to Sergeant Saunders that he was calmer now, and he sank to the ground.

Caje looked at Saunders quizzically. "Sarge?" He strode over and crouched next to him, glancing quickly at Grady. "You know, that replacement? He's got keen eyes. It was him who made the shot. He got 'im, but..."

"Did he have to kill him? I don't know."

Caje turned back towards Kirby. "He's taking it hard. Guess those two were close."

"So one more dogface lost a buddy. Let it go. He's a combat soldier. He'll find a way to justify to himself what he did. No one else will be able to do it for him. It's hard enough for a soldier to do his duty and survive with some sense of goodness in this war. He came through, that's all that counts. He did it." Saunders took out his Zippo and lit a cigarette. "And that's all the speech he'll get."

"You know, Sarge. Now, Kirby's the only one left in his squad."

Saunders shook his head. "Don't tell him that, Caje." He shifted his position on the ground as he watched Hanley being tended by the medic. "He isn't. We're his squad, now."

Lyne Tremblay,

October 2000