Saunders looked up from his map to the soldier beside him and nodded grimly. If he had to pick any one man to be at his side, for this mission, he would have chosen this man.
Bring back a prisoner. Before nightfall.
Hanley made it sound so easy. It was never easy. Not when you had a full squad at your disposal. And pretty damn impossible when the lieutenant could spare just two men for the job.
Krauts didn’t tend to travel alone. The Americans had to hope to find a small patrol, ambush them, kill them all but one, and probably wound that one enough so he couldn’t get away, but not so seriously he couldn’t tell the brass back at S2 what they wanted to know. And not so seriously that they would have to carry him back either. Sarge and Caje were unanimous on that goal!
All this, hopefully, without becoming casualties themselves.
That briefing was hours ago. Now, he and Caje were crouched behind some fallen trees in a gully, rubbing their arms for warmth in the chill November air, and keeping watch over a small stone arch bridge that crossed the Beuvron River. They had found a stash of German gear, bedrolls and packs, hidden carelessly there, that suggested a patrol was nearby and would probably return before dark.
And so they waited, in silence.
Sarge always knew what the other guys in the squad were thinking. He was an intuitive leader and, face it, they were a chatty bunch of guys. Except Caje. The quiet sharpshooter was content to sit, watchful and calm, always ready to roll up his sleeves and do whatever was asked of him when the time came.
Saunders tucked away his map and wondered about Caje, huddled alone with his thoughts. Did it bother him to wait in ambush? To strike down a man before he could even raise his weapon?
It never seemed to. Sarge may have killed more men, with that lethal and impersonal spray of the Thompson, but the Cajun - a man who still paused to genuflect at the altar when they secured a church - was ironically cold and efficient at a very personal kind of warfare. Whether sighting down his M1 at the face of the enemy, or driving his bayonet into his opponent and holding on until he was sure the other man was dead… Caje never shirked his duty. If it cost him anything, he never showed it.
Just then, Caje caught Saunders’ eye and nodded toward the bridge. A squad of three men was approaching the river, from the same side the Americans were on. Sarge held up one hand to indicate that Caje should wait. When the Krauts were in the middle of the bridge they would be more exposed.
Then he waved his hand. Caje opened fire. The three Germans dropped. Only two popped their heads back up and began returning fire. Shredded leaves and twigs rained down on them as a Schmeisser raked the trees behind them. The chatter of the Thompson joined in. Another German staggered backwards. Spent shell casings flew from the M1 and as his rifle emptied, Caje lowered his gaze for the second it took to grab another clip from his belt. And then he rocked back, his helmet flew off, and he sagged in a heap against the fallen oak.
Saunders whirled to see what had happened, and something slammed into his shoulder like a red-hot iron spike, and he fell, limp, across Caje’s legs.
And then the shooting stopped.
* * *
"Wha - ?"
Caje came to, in a series of painful jolts. He could just make out a canopy of bare tree limbs above, laced together like an old man’s gnarled fingers clasped in prayer. He supposed the trees were blocking the sun; that must be why everything seemed so gray. How long had he been out? What had happened? He struggled to remember, but another jolt sent his vision swirling and made him clench his jaw against the pain in his head.
Someone was dragging him through the woods. That much his disoriented faculties deduced, but when he tried to remember more, he couldn’t hold onto the question, much less seek an answer. The gaunt tree branches blurred and swelled, until they blotted out the sky entirely and everything went dark.
* * *
When he next woke, they were out of the woods. It was still daylight after all. He was lying next to a rotten wood post where two dirt roads came together, Saunders sitting close by his side. Caje remembered now what had happened. He hadn’t seen Sarge fall, but it was obvious from the way the NCO moved that he’d been hit too. Saunders was struggling to tear open his field-dressing packet one-handed.
Caje sat up. The world turned upside down and then righted itself again.
"Lemme get that, Sarge." Moving slowly, Caje got to his knees and took the dressing from Saunders.
"Th-thanks," Saunders’ teeth chattered and the single word came out in a puff of condensation that floated away.
Caje leaned forward and, taking care not to jostle him, eased Sarge’s jacket half-off. The bullet had entered just below the left collarbone; there was no exit wound. Caje tore open the packet and pressed the sterilized gauze, sulfa-side down, against the ragged bullet hole in the blood-soaked shirt. Sarge hitched in a breath. Frowning, Caje quickly unrolled the trailing ends of the bandage and fastened them in a tight knot behind Sarge’s shoulder blade. "That should hold," he muttered, helping Saunders steer his arm back through the jacket sleeve. "If you don’t move much," he added with a worried look, buttoning the jacket back up snugly.
Sarge shrugged and winced. "Not really an option. This will be fine."
Caje squinted at the road sign, but fat snowflakes had started to swirl around them and it was like trying to read a faded sign through a fluttering lace curtain. That must be why the letters were too fuzzy to read, he thought. Something wet trickled past his ear, down his jaw and dropped onto his hand. He looked down – it was blood. Caje ignored it; he had more important things to worry about. "Where are we, Sarge?" he asked.
Saunders pulled out his map with his good arm, and placed it across his knee. A grease-pencil wavy line indicated a river. The Beuvron, Caje supposed. For a moment he saw two lines; then they blurred and settled back into one again.
"There’s a chateau about five kilometers away," Sarge said, pointing. "A chateau could mean occupants. Vehicles or horses. Something." He shivered.
"What about the Krauts?" Caje climbed stiffly to his feet, slipping his beret out of the shoulder loop on his jacket. He pulled it on gingerly, avoiding the still-oozing gash along his left temple. "Are they after us?"
"I don’t think so. I’m guessing they got casualties of their own
to worry about." Saunders stood up too. But while Caje swayed
and then gradually steadied, Sarge came up smoothly, wavered a moment,
and then dropped over in a dead faint.
* * *
They had lost all sense of time. A loose rock skittered under their boots, Sarge stumbled, and Caje felt the weight of the other man pulling at him, dragging him down. He braced himself but it was no use; he seemed no more substantial than a pile of dry, dead winter leaves, and when Saunders fell, Caje was yanked off his feet too.
His vision grayed and started to go black, like a tide of darkness rushing in. He shut his eyes fiercely and waited for the tide to recede, willing it to pass.
There was no sound from Saunders, not even a moan. He had fallen hard.
Caje tried to open his eyes, but the darkness clung to him. The
thicker the black cobwebs wound themselves around him, the more they muted
the stabbing pain that radiated from his temple to a spot behind his left
eye. It was so tempting, to let go … to surrender to it. But
he couldn’t surrender Sarge.
Caje’s fingers fluttered across the ground, searching for Saunders in the dark. At first he felt nothing but the trail, frozen and hard and dusted with a layer of powdery snow that melted at his touch. Nothing but cold, black silence. Panic flared, and clenched his heart like a fist. Breathing hard, his hand groped forward, inched through a damp puddle - perhaps the edge of a frozen stream? - and finally found the rough wool of Saunders’ field jacket.
The cobwebs gave up and fell away, layer by gauzy layer, and his vision lightened - at least with one eye. The trees around them swam in and out of focus. Caje saw the sergeant lying on his side, motionless. The puddle under his shoulder was not a frozen stream, but a growing pool of dark red blood.
"Sarge!" Quickly, Caje rolled the injured man onto his back.
The wound hadn’t bled this hard before - the fall must have done further
damage. It seemed as though the blossoming stain on the front of
Saunders’ jacket grew wider with each pump of his heart. Caje fumbled
in his web belt for another dressing, and tore it open with cold-stiffened
fingers. When he slapped it on top of the other dressing, the sergeant
Blue eyes blinked up at him, then narrowed with pain. Caje took Saunders’ right hand and pulled it up to his shoulder to hold the dressing firmly in place. Then he got his own feet under him and rolled up to a stand, pulling the wobbly soldier up with him. The movement set off a wave of nausea, but Caje bit it back and looked around for the Thompson submachine gun. It was nowhere to be seen - must have fallen during one of those periods when the dark cobwebs had sent their strands reaching for him, to lure him into stopping. He didn’t remember much from those stretches.
Well, at least he still had his M1. But even that would be of no use if they didn’t find shelter…and soon. The temperature, already below freezing, was still falling.
Just one more kilometer, he guessed, would bring them to that chateau. If they could make it there, at least keep the wind and snow off them, and get that bleeding stopped….
It was the only chance he saw. Steadying Sarge with his left arm and clutching his M1 with his right, they started off again.
Night fell before they reached their destination. The pain inside Caje’s head swelled like a percussion symphony with each step. The moon rose pale over the horizon, a welcome sight that reassured Caje that the graying sky was truly nightfall and not his vision faltering again. He could still see nothing out of his left eye, which was worrisome because he could tell by the near dead weight at his side that Saunders was in no state to watch for the enemy either.
It seemed quiet enough, almost eerily still, as they approached the building from the west. Caje paused, the instinct strong to scout the property despite their need for haste. The building stood three stories tall, with a steep mansard roof and high narrow windows that were all broken or boarded up. Ivy crawled up the fieldstone walls haphazardly to die there; dead brush erupted from the broken steps leading to the main entrance. It was an abandoned ruin.
That was bad.
On the other hand, there were no footprints in the snow in front of the chateau. That was good. They didn’t want to run into any unexpected "visitors" there either.
The wind whipped through the chill night air, turning their bones to ice. Saunders sagged and started to slip to the ground again. Caje slung his rifle over his shoulder to grab him with both arms and drag him toward the north corner of the building where the windows seemed more intact. They would just have to hope the back of the building was secure. There was no time to scout it out. He wouldn’t leave Sarge.
Pushing the heavy wooden door open took almost the last of his strength. The two soldiers collapsed on the floor. For a moment, the only sound was that of their harsh breathing. Caje had to dig deep inside himself to find the energy to stir. He kicked the door shut, shook the snow off his beret, and sat up groggily to look around.
The chateau had a tiny chapel.
The pews were long gone but an altar still stood at the end of the room a dozen feet away. Moonlight reflected off the white ground and cast enough light through the broken leaded windows that Caje could see the faded images of angels painted and chipping off the brick interior walls and ceiling. There were candles on the altar.
He climbed clumsily to his feet, sending his rifle skidding across the floor, and then he put one hand against the wall as a wave of dizziness struck him. Using that hand to keep his balance, he made his way toward the other end of the chapel. When he came to the crucifix on the raised ledge at the back of the altar, Caje stopped. His right arm swept up in an automatic gesture, his thumb tracing a small sign of the cross on his forehead, his lips and his heart. After a moment’s pause, he leaned forward to take hold of the dark green altar cloth and tugged it off the table. A cloud of dust triggered a coughing fit that wracked his lungs. Caje bent over, hands on his knees, while tiny stars stabbed at the blackness behind his eyes. The spasm passed and he leaned shakily against the wall. After a minute, he reached for his lighter and directed the flame to the candles beside the crucifix, but it took several attempts - he was still seeing double. Finally, they were all lit - the two tall ivory spires and the squat little votives.
"Caje?" Saunders’ voice came weakly from the entrance. He had one fist pressed to his wounded shoulder. Sarge’s lips moved again but he lacked the strength to make the words audible.
Quickly, the Cajun trotted back and knelt beside his sergeant. "C’mon," he said. "We’ll be safe here tonight." Putting both hands under Sarge’s arms, he pulled him to the altar, propped him against the wall under the confessional screen, and draped the dark green cloth over him. Then he reached for his canteen and pulled it out, only to discover that the little water that remained was frozen solid. Frowning, he set it between the candles. Then, patting his pocket, he found his cigarettes and shook them out. Two left. He lit one, took a shaky but satisfying drag, and then passed it to Sarge. He carefully put the other cigarette away – little in their world was more precious to a GI than his last cigarette.
Saunders let go of his shoulder to take the cigarette, and closed his eyes as a wave of pain told him that was a big mistake. The dressing became steadily saturated with blood as soon as the pressure was lifted.
Alarm flashed across Caje’s thin, unshaven face. They didn’t have any more dressings; Sarge had soaked through both. What should he do?
Thinking made the hammer and anvil in his skull start their chorus. He tried to ignore it and study the chapel again, with the additional light cast by the flickering candle flames. Nothing of any use on the right side … and he still couldn’t see out of his left eye. Turning his head suddenly made him feel nauseated and see stars again. When the small room stopped spinning, there was nothing more to discover. Just the altar, the candles, and Sarge lying helpless under the altar cloth.
The altar cloth.
Why was his brain so sluggish? Caje yanked out his bayonet and quickly sliced one end of the fabric into half a dozen strips. Then he wadded up the first one and replaced the sodden field dressing with the fresh cloth. Feeling it immediately turn damp under his fingers, he pressed down harder. Saunders squirmed, but didn’t say anything.
Slowly, the cigarette’s ashes grew longer.
* * *
His hand was getting wet.
Caje jerked his head back, as he realized he had been nodding off. Ignoring the wave of dizziness that followed, he pressed down harder on either side of Sarge’s collarbone to stop the bleeding. Saunders winced, and Caje muttered, "Sorry." He’d hoped Sarge would sleep through the night … and still hoped Sarge wouldn’t ask him how he proposed to get them out of this mess. It seemed pretty clear that if he let go of Saunders’ wound, the squad leader could bleed to death. Maybe within minutes.
Sarge tried to shift his weight to find a more comfortable position on the cold stone floor, and grimaced. He looked back at Caje. "Guess we…" Sarge croaked. He licked his lips and tried again. "Guess we better go to plan B, huh?"
"Yeah, Plan B," Saunders answered with a gleam in his eye. "We didn’t get that prisoner with Plan A. Plan B is … we wait here for a German to come in and surrender to us."
Caje shook his head with a weary smile. He patted Saunders’ good shoulder and said, "Try to sleep. We’ve got plenty of time for Plan B in the morning."
Sarge closed his eyes. Minutes crawled by and Caje watched as his patient’s breathing slowly changed. It was still shallow and rapid, but a steady rhythm developed, unmarred by the little hitches that had come with each wave of pain. Saunders had drifted to sleep. Caje wished he could risk sleep – could forget about the cold and the relentless headache and the trembling that was starting in his arm from trying to keep the pressure applied to the bandage on Sarge’s shoulder.
If only he dared to sleep too… just for a few minutes….
The sound of glass shattering wrenched him from his groggy thoughts.
Caje glanced around desperately for his rifle. The quick head movement made the room dance and it felt as though an ice pick were being driven through his skull. He focused on his rifle – well, he saw two rifles, but knew there was only one. It was still by the door where he’d dropped it. Twelve long feet away.
If he left Sarge to get it and go check out the noise, would Sarge bleed to death?
He turned toward Saunders, looking for orders. Or even a suggestion. But Sarge hadn’t regained consciousness.
And then it was too late. The door was kicked open, a gust of frigid air blowing out the long tapers. The little votive candle flames recoiled in protest but stayed lit.
A stranger entered. His uniform, once an elegant Wehrmacht blue, was muddy and torn. Dark stains covered the front of his coat, but he could not have marched inside so boldly if that blood had been his own. In one hand he held his Mauser, in the other, a dusty bottle. He held up the latter, tilted his head back, and poured the red wine down his throat.
Caje stared, wide-eyed.
"Foolish Americans," the soldier said, in halting English. "You didn’t look in the wine cellar." He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "Move away from your friend." The rifle came up menacingly.
Caje shook his head. "I can’t."
"Move. Away." The German repeated his orders, his deep voice rumbling with anger.
Caje kept his hand on the injured man’s shoulder. "My sergeant is hurt," he explained carefully. "He’s bleeding badly. I have to keep pressure on the wound." He hated to admit this - if this German was one of the men at the Beuvron bridge, he would certainly put two and two together and figure out that his prisoners might very well be the same Americans he had shot at, earlier that day.
The same Americans who had killed his friends.
Easiest thing for the Kraut to do would be to put a bullet in both of them, and head back to his own lines. Isn’t that, Caje thought, what he would want to do, would have to do, if the situation were reversed?
The German soldier came toward them, his rifle unwavering. At the altar, he stopped and leaned forward, peering through wire-rimmed spectacles to study the unconscious man at his feet. His boot suddenly jerked forward and he kicked Saunders in the leg.
Caje rose to one knee, his face a bloodied mask of angry protest, but Saunders didn’t flinch. He was out cold.
The Kraut leaned toward his other prisoner with a scowl, driving the barrel of his rifle into the hollow of Caje’s throat.
Caje sank back on his haunches, his hand never leaving the sodden cloth on Sarge’s shoulder, but his eyes locked on his captor. The German stooped low to grab the bayonet lying half-buried under dark green rags on the floor and he tossed the weapon in the corner, where it fell with a clang beside the M1 rifle. Then he moved woodenly toward the door and sat on the floor with his back against it; his own Mauser perched across his knees, and he cradled the wine bottle to his chest. For long moments there was no sound except for the wind.
The adrenaline ebbed away, and Caje became aware again of how his stiff muscles screamed for comfort, so tired of straining in that awkward position to keep the pressure on the bandage. His skull throbbed, and he put his free hand up to his temple, gingerly touching the gash. A crust of dried blood matted his hair to his forehead and flaked off his eyebrow. There was swelling over his cheekbone - maybe he couldn’t see out of that eye because it was swollen shut, or because the blood had stuck his eyelid shut. Maybe he wasn’t blind in that eye permanently.
The shadows in the room danced in the flickering candlelight and gradually grew, until the room became dark all around. The German slowly disappeared in the shadows and then Sarge was swallowed up by them too and Caje’s thoughts began to drift to a dark and quiet place where the pain ebbed away until it was merely a memory….
And then he felt his fingers grow sticky and damp again.
His good eye flew open and he fumbled for another strip of the altar cloth. It lay by the far wall, knocked carelessly aside when the German had tossed the bayonet out of reach.
Caje turned his head to see the German lifting his rifle threateningly.
"I need another bandage, dammit!" Frustration made his voice hoarse. "Help me!"
Their eyes locked.
Then the German turned back to his wine bottle. Caje noticed it was nearly empty. Had he been out that long before he noticed Sarge was bleeding again? Damn! He had to stay awake.
Their captor saw Caje eyeing his bottle. He smiled thinly. "I had to pick up many bottles in the wine cellar before I found one that wasn’t empty."
That explained the sound of breaking glass earlier.
"We have a tradition in my Company," the soldier continued. "After battle, we drink - to honor the memory of good men who died that day." His voice was bitter. He took a final swig, draining the bottle, and then hurled it against the wall over the Americans’ heads, where it shattered. Caje flinched and quickly threw himself over Sarge as they were showered with glass fragments. The German stared after it a moment, then he climbed to his feet and strode toward the prisoners lying at the foot of the altar.
Caje rolled off Saunders and looked up at the grief-crazed soldier. He had never felt so helpless. The Kraut was going to kill them. Caje tensed his muscles - waiting for the right moment. He would fight - he knew that. He wouldn’t just lie there waiting for a bullet. But he knew that Sarge would die in this place and there was nothing he could do to prevent that any more.
The German stopped. His hand held the Mauser loosely. Instead of looking down, he stared at the spot on the wall where the bottle had smashed. Caje followed his glance. Behind the altar, pale colors bleeding into broken plaster, they could make out the image of a mother cradling her son’s lifeless body in her arms, the silhouette of a cross faint as a shadow behind them.
A heartbeat passed. And another. Nobody moved. And then the soldier took one of the unlit tapers and re-lit it from the flame of one of the little votive candles. It flared into life and then he repeated the gesture with the second one. "Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine," he whispered softly.
Without thought, Caje found himself echoing, "Et lux perpetua lucent eis."
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
The Latin prayer for the dead was the same on both sides of the Atlantic.
The German looked at Caje thoughtfully. His eyes were wet with unshed
tears, but no longer crazed. He stepped to the pile of rags and scooped
them up and without a word handed them to the American.
Quickly, Caje flipped off the wet bandage that covered the original field dressing, and replaced it with the new one. His hands were slick with Saunders’ blood.
A gust of cold winter air swirled in through a broken window. The German hugged his arms to himself and Caje tried to tug the altar cloth more securely over Saunders to give him what shelter he could. Then, their captor sagged against the wall near them, slid down to the floor and drew up his knees. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a small package. "My wife," he said, smiling faintly, "sent this to me." Gently he unfolded the brown paper and pulled out a bright scarf. It was hand-knitted, with a gap here and there that revealed the knitter’s earnest inexperience. Mostly it was red, but the bottom was brown. He drew out a letter too, one that was well creased as though taken out and folded back up often. Pushing his glasses up his nose with a long finger, he settled back comfortably and murmured softly as he read. "Victor, Liebling, Ich verpasse Sie...." His voice cracked and faded.
Finally, he looked up. "She did not have enough yarn," Victor said. "She had to unravel some brown socks to finish it." He caressed the soft yarn thoughtfully and then wrapped it around his throat and tucked it into his collar. "In the letter, she says to save it until our anniversary. But I think she would not mind if I use it early." His fingers brushed the ink on the paper, as though touching her words could bring them together.
Caje eyed the Mauser on the floor beside the Kraut. Victor seemed to have forgotten they were enemies; lost in thought, perhaps he had almost forgotten the Americans were in the room with him. Maybe, Caje thought, after all that wine, Victor would fall asleep. And then Caje could… what?
Suddenly, his arm cramped from the long hours of keeping pressure on Saunders’ wound and fell away. A groan escaped through gritted teeth and he clutched his shoulder with his other arm. Dark spots clouded the edge of his vision.
Victor crawled toward them and looked closely at the wounded American. "He has lost a great deal of blood. He will not last the night, you know."
"I don’t believe that." Even as Caje said the words, he felt his self-control slipping, felt the darkness growing. He swayed dizzily.
"He was a good man?"
"Yes!" It had been too many hours, holding onto consciousness by a thread. The thread was fraying rapidly.
Victor nodded. "I will find another bottle from the wine cellar. We will drink to honor another good man who dies today."
Caje fought to stay alert. The dark cobwebs were back, growing denser, absorbing the light. He willed his arm back up to reapply pressure on the bandage, but to his surprise, nothing happened. He felt his head fall back against the altar. "It doesn’t have to be this way," he said. The words came out in a whisper. The room went completely dark. "Help me…."
* * *
And then it was light again. Not candlelight or moonlight, but full daylight.
Caje blinked, discovering that the throbbing of his head wasn’t any better. But Sarge was.
Saunders lay sprawled at the base of the altar. Another dark green bandage was wadded against the bullet hole in his jacket, but for the first time, this one wasn’t black with blood. Finally, the hemorrhage had stopped. A pile of used rags showed that Victor must have changed the dressing several times while Caje was unconscious. Now, it was the German who slept, still sitting upright at Saunders’ side.
Caje squinted. The sunlight hurt his good eye. But he was sure that Sarge had more color in his face than he had during the night. His chest rose and fell. He was still alive.
Turning his head slowly, to minimize the skyrockets still threatening inside his skull, Caje studied his surroundings again. He could probably reach Victor’s Mauser before the German soldier could awaken. But, Caje realized, he couldn’t move Sarge. It was bound to start the bleeding again.
He would have to escape on his own, and bring back help.
Caje stared at Victor. An American patrol had gone missing. A German patrol had gone missing. Either side might send a squad to look for them. And eventually, they would check out the chateau. If it were the Americans, Sarge would be safe. If the Germans arrived first….
He couldn’t leave Saunders to them. If necessary, Caje would have to defend the chateau against the Krauts. And that meant getting the rifle away from the German. And if Victor woke and tried to stop him….
Caje realized Victor was looking at him, with deep, sad, intelligent eyes, as if he could read his mind. Victor looked around at the leaded windows, the medieval funeral carvings in the wall, the worn stone floor, and the faded colors of sacred art above them. "This chapel is very old, is it not?"
"It must have stood here for hundreds of years," Caje agreed.
"In the Middle Ages - what is the word in English? Sanctuary?"
Understanding dawned. "Sanctuary, yes," the American answered. "The church was sanctuary, safety. A place free from fighting."
"This is our sanctuary," Victor said. "The war stops at that door."
Caje shut his eye. Sanctuary. Ever since Omaha beach, he had never truly felt safe. Never felt that you could draw a line and the war would not intrude beyond that point. Maybe it was just an illusion, but he would savor the idea while he could.
But .… "When soldiers come," he began.
"We will keep watch," Victor said. "If your people come, I must leave first. If my people come, you must escape. Outside these walls, we are at war."
Caje nodded and then reached deliberately inside his jacket. Victor watched, wary, knowing he had not searched his enemy. But Caje drew out his last cigarette, and handed it to the German without a word. Then he moved unsteadily to the arched window and began keeping watch down the road.
Sanctuary lasted for eight hours more. Caje spotted the American troops wending their way toward the chateau but when he turned to tell Victor, the man was gone.
* * *
Splinters of bark flew past his face as bullets raked the fallen tree where Caje was huddled. Déjà vu, just like the firefight at the Beuvron bridge six weeks ago. Only there was even more snow on the ground now. He raised his head and peered down the barrel of his M1, waiting for the Germans taking cover at the bridgehead to expose something vulnerable. A head appeared, and as his finger tightened on the trigger, Caje suddenly froze.
His target wore wire-rim spectacles and had a red scarf wound around his neck.
In that moment of indecision, fire spat from the German’s weapon and the boy to Caje’s left, Fahey, screamed and fell back. Saunders’ Thompson quickly answered and the Germans all dropped from sight again.
"Damn!" Saunders’ voice was harsh, and close by.
Caje turned his head to see Sarge checking the fallen soldier between them. Saunders looked over his shoulder to a point 20 yards away, and hollered, "Doc!" There was a motion from the trees there as the corpsman began to run, almost dragging his medical bag as he tried to zigzag low to the ground over the open terrain. Saunders let go of Fahey’s jacket and turned back to the battle.
Caje stared at the enemy across the bridge through his sights. Although the man was too far away to see in such detail, Caje saw him clearly in his mind’s eye, the dropped stitches in the lovingly knitted scarf, the well-worn letter in the man’s pocket, the look of kindness in the sad blue eyes behind the spectacles. In real time, he watched the soldier drop to one knee, and set down his rifle so he could reach under the arms of a fallen friend and begin to drag him to safety.
And from the corner of his eye, Caje saw Saunders bring up his weapon.
It seemed wrong.
Wrong for the sarge to execute an unarmed man. The man who had saved his life.
So Caje pulled the trigger first.
The German soldier jerked back, his arms tightening on his burden, and then he toppled slowly over. His glasses were knocked off when his face hit the ground, but he never let go of his friend. Neither man moved again.
* * *
Saunders found Caje later that afternoon, sitting alone with his pack on a fieldstone fence that surrounded the farm where they were bivouac’ed. Sarge had good news to share for a change - they were getting a day off. And although he didn’t know why, Caje looked like he could use some good news.
When he told him though, Caje merely shrugged. Then he pulled a bottle of wine from his pack. "Wanna join me, Sarge? A drink to the good men who died today." He tilted his head back and drank, drank until he needed to stop to breathe. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he passed the bottle to Sarge.
Saunders took a short swig and nodded his thanks. "But you know," he said as he handed the bottle back. "Fahey is gonna make it. He didn’t die." He didn’t even think Caje had known Fahey, much less cared enough to drink to him. Sarge looked at Caje intently, but he saw the same impassive face he always saw. Caje was okay. The killing didn’t bother him.
If it cost him anything, he never showed it.