The Music Box
By Christine Bacro
All characters belong to the Combat! TV show; I am just using them for my own amusement, and hopefully yours.
“Is it ready yet?”
The men from King Company’s 2nd platoon, first squad rushed across the cobblestone street, surrounding their leader as he left Lt. Hanley at the command post. They all asked the same question, all hoping to hear the same answer.
They didn’t get it.
Sergeant ‘Chip’ Saunders shook his head and sighed, watching the faces of his men - Private William Kirby, Pfc Paul ‘Caje’ LeMay, Pfc Littlejohn, Private Billy Nelson, and the company’s resident medic, Doc. Each had the same sad, lost look, one that he rarely, if ever, displayed.
Montigny-En-Arrouaise had been a welcome change for 2nd platoon, a town that had somehow survived the war mostly intact. Streets here were clean and well populated, very few buildings showed signs of the war raging on its outskirts, and the people had welcomed the Americans more as a business opportunity than as saviors. An empty warehouse on the outskirts of town had been set up to serve as a CP, and most of the platoon had spent the day milling about outside the building. It had been over a month since they had received any mail and even longer since they’d been paid, and each and every man was anxious to get both.
“I knew it,” Kirby groused. “It was too good to be true. This is the first half-decent sized town we’ve been in that still has goods to buy, and we have no money.”
“And it still has bars to drink in too, right Kirby?” Caje laughed.
Kirby tried to look shocked at Caje’s remark, failing miserably as he noticed the knowing looks on all the other faces.
“All right, all right.” Saunders lifted his right hand, forestalling any comeback by Kirby or the others. “I have good news, and I have bad news. Which do you want first?”
“Aw, come on, Sarge. How about we skip the bad news, and go straight to the good?” Littlejohn’s powerful, yet muted baritone pleaded, the boyish pout turning the six and a half-foot soldier into an overgrown, but lovable, child.
“Okay, Littlejohn, good news first.” Saunders reached into his right jacket pocket, shaking a cigarette out of his crumpled pack and lighting it.
“Division will have your mail and back pay here by tomorrow morning.” Taking a long drag, he let out a thick streamer of smoke and smiled. The men cheered and clapped each other on the back; jumbled plans and long-missed words from home mixed easily with their laughter.
Saunders waited, watching as the men celebrated, slowly rolling the cigarette between dirty, roughened fingers. One by one the men sobered, turning to see their leader standing silently nearby.
“What’s the bad news, Sarge?”
Saunders threw down his spent cigarette and flattened the glowing butt with his boot. Taking a deep breath, he hitched his left thumb into his pistol belt, right hand ruffling the unruly blond hair on the back of his skull.
“The bad news is, we won’t be here to get it.” He waited until the groans subsided to continue. “We head out at oh-five-hundred, patrolling sectors C and D.”
“Short patrol, right?” Billy Nelson asked, hopeful.
Saunders shook his head.
“We’ve got a lot of territory to cover, so we go with no packs and only as much ammo as you can carry. We’re traveling fast and light. S2 wants checks on German forces in the area. There’s rumours of heavy troop movement farther down the line, and they want to know if the Germans are massing men and equipment in our area.”
“Can’t they send someone else?” Kirby whined. “I mean, we just got here; a fella needs a break now and then.”
“Sorry, Kirby. We’re not the only patrol going out, and the Lieutenant said that reinforcements wouldn’t get here until late tomorrow. Doc,” Saunders turned to the medic, “you’re staying here. They need help setting up an aid station.”
“No problem, Sarge.” Doc grinned, his eyes flashing with amusement as he looked at Kirby. “I’ll try not to buy up the place without you. I’m sure there’ll be something left when you guys get back.”
“Sarge, maybe Doc here needs help.” Kirby moved next to the medic, his receding hairline a direct contrast to Doc’s wavy brunette locks. “I mean, I’ve been to the aid station enough times to almost qualify as a medic. Gee, I could almost set one up in my sleep.”
“That won’t be the only thing he’ll be setting up,” Littlejohn muttered.
“If you feel that way about medicine, Kirby, maybe you could do something.”
“Yeah, Sarge?” Kirby’s face lit up.
“Yeah. Go with Doc to the aid station and pick up some extra medical supplies. You’ll be our unofficial medic on this trip.” Saunders tried to hide his smile as Kirby’s face fell.
“Don’t worry, Kirby,” Caje threw his arm around the B.A.R. man’s shoulders and winked at Saunders. “All your money will still be here when we get back. You just think of all the ways you can spend it, and the patrol will be over before you know it.”
“Yeah, well,” Kirby shrugged, looking at the others, “I guess I could figure out a couple of new ways to have fun in this town.”
“You mean, get into trouble,” Nelson and Littlejohn said as one.
“Same thing.” Kirby smirked, pulling a wool cap from his coat and slipping it on his head. “I have a feeling tomorrow is going to fly by, just fly by.”
“Checkmate King Two, this is White Rook, over.”
Sergeant Saunders held the receiver as close to his ear as he could, trying to hear over the noise of exploding artillery shells. Sheltered at the bottom of a small hill, he had trouble seeing the sky through clouds of dirt and smoke. The smell of spent shells and blasted earth assailed his nostrils, making it hard to breathe. ‘’Fly by’, my ass,’ he thought.
“Checkmate King Two, this is White Rook, over.”
He knew they were out of range, that they would be for a while yet, and the radio’s silence confirmed that fact. Shoving the handset back onto the radio, he passed it over to Nelson.
“No luck, Sarge?” Billy Nelson shrugged back into the heavy pack, shifting the radio to allow him more freedom with his M1 rifle. He looked no more than twenty, but had fought enough in this war for forty lifetimes.
“No, not yet.” Saunders pulled a well-worn map from his field jacket, trying to measure the distance the squad still had to go to get back to the CP at Montigny-En-Arrouaise.
“Do you think we have enough of a head start?”
Saunders dragged a knuckle over his left eye, trying to stem an oncoming headache, and glanced at the young soldier.
“It’ll have to be.”
Nelson nodded, biting nervously at his lower lip. He knew it was as much reassurance as the sarge would give. He scanned the area, sighting Littlejohn and Kirby standing watch at the base of the hill. Through the dust and smoke at the crest, he looked for Caje, but the Cajun was still not back from scouting the rear.
The morning and early afternoon had gone smoothly as the men crossed over into a heavily wooded portion of sector D. They were enjoying the relative peace and quiet of birds flying overhead and insects buzzing around their ears when they heard them.
Crawling forward on their bellies, Saunders and his men watched as fifty or sixty krauts rushed around trucks and artillery, loading mortars, ammunition and supplies.
Memorizing as many details about the attack force as possible, the squad headed back towards the CP, spending the rest of the day dodging as many German advance patrols as they could, fighting when they had no choice.
Now they sat, unable to contact Hanley, waiting for word from Caje about how close the krauts were on their tail. It was a race between the two forces – one that wanted to alert the American lines of the oncoming onslaught, the other wanting to destroy those lines.
Caje slid down from the top of the hill, skidding to a halt next to the two men as bits of rock and debris rattled down in his wake.
“As far as I can see, the krauts are still a couple of hours behind us, but they’re moving fast,” he panted. Glancing quickly at the map Saunders held in his hand, he pointed. “Their lines were there when we first spotted them, and by now they should be around here.”
Saunders looked at the position on the map that Caje had indicated. It had been, at one time, a very quaint French village, home to twenty or so families, but when they had gone through it a few hours before, it had been reduced to smoking ruins by the German artillery.
There had been no sign of any of the families.
At least, none that survived.
“Any sign of more patrols?” he asked, passing a lit cigarette to Caje, who happily accepted.
“I can’t be too sure, one, maybe two - but I don’t think they’re too close.” The Cajun exhaled smoke with every word, lowering his head and drawing his shoulders up as a shell exploded nearby. “The way they’re hitting this area, they know we’re out here.”
“The way they’re hitting us,” Nelson ducked as a piece of tree bark bounced off the radio and ricocheted past his ear, “they must think we’re the whole Company.”
“I agree.” Caje took one last long drag and passed the cigarette back to Saunders. “The krauts are really trying their best to stop us from getting back.”
“I’m just glad we don’t have to follow the road. The shortest way between two points is a straight line, right, Sarge?” Nelson wished he felt as confident as Saunders looked.
“Studying up on your math during down time, Billy?” Caje chuckled. “Nice to see it coming in handy.”
“Kirby! Littlejohn!” Saunders waved over the rest of his squad.
The two men raced over, each covered in a layer of dirt and sweat.
“Yeah, Sarge?” Kirby knelt on the grass, B.A.R. resting across his lap.
“Sarge?” Littlejohn towered over the rest of the men, his late afternoon shadow dwarfing those of nearby young trees.
Saunders took one last look at the map before stuffing it inside his jacket, grabbing his Tommy gun from the dirt as he stood.
“We’ll head due west, straight through the woods. There shouldn’t be anything but an old town between our lines and us. Littlejohn, take the point. Nelson,” Saunders leaned over and gave the heavily burdened young man a hand standing, “you’re next. Caje, Kirby, I want you two keeping a lookout at the rear. I don’t want the krauts sneaking up on us.”
With a round of nods, the men took their positions for the long trek back towards Allied lines.
Keeping watch for kraut patrols as they marched through the trees and underbrush, each man thought less of the letters from home awaiting them ahead than they did the Germans behind. They traveled quickly, the sun sinking well below the treetops as they walked.
“How much further do you think we have to go, Sarge?” Billy Nelson slowed down enough to stay a few paces in front of the sergeant.
“I don’t know.” In his mind, Saunders went over the details of the map, taking into account the terrain they were traveling and the exhaustion of his men. “We won’t be in radio range for at least an hour, and an hour or so after that we should hit our lines.”
“But, the Germans – won’t they be on top of us soon? I mean, we’re on foot, and they’ve got trucks.” Nelson tried not to sound nervous, eyeing the trees and brush around them.
“Don’t worry,” Saunders gave Nelson
a small smile, patting him on the back and giving him a slight push forward,
“we’re on that straight line of yours, remember? If we keep moving, we’ll be able to radio
ahead and set up an artillery barrage to slow them down. The Germans will have more than they can
“I sure hope so.”
Shaking his head, Saunders let his smile fade as Billy quickened his pace. It felt right to assure the young private, but he knew that unless their luck held out, the help from the rest of King Company second platoon would come too late.
Saunders, well aware of the news the B.A.R. man seemed eager to deliver, grunted and nodded his head.
Kirby jogged up close, the large gun pointed into the air. “I guess the krauts must have run out of ammo.”
“Probably just repositioning. Moving the guns closer to our lines before they start up again.”
“Aw, Sarge,” Kirby groaned. “Did you have to say that? I mean, could it have hurt to let me think the krauts were having a bad day?”
“And what would you have done if I let you believe that?” Saunders pushed his camouflage-covered helmet higher on his head, waving his arm. “Let your guard down? Relax?”
“Gee, Sarge.” Kirby was taken aback by the sharpness of Saunders’ tone. “You know I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just trying to lighten up...“
“Listen, Kirby.” Saunders stopped, grabbing the B.A.R. man’s arm to pull him close. “This isn’t the time to ‘lighten up’. We won’t be in radio range of the CP for another half-hour and the Germans are mounting an offensive that our people won’t be ready for unless we get them the information. Our whole platoon and a town full of people could be slaughtered, and the way I figure it...“
He bit back the words, lifting his helmet off and running his hands through his thick thatch of sweat-dampened hair.
“The way you figure it?” Kirby prompted, feeling a hard cold lump form in his belly. He had gotten chewed out by the sarge more times than he could remember, but usually Saunders had a good reason to rake him over the coals.
Saunders sighed and started walking, sliding his helmet back onto his head. “The way I figure it, we’ll be lucky to get within a couple of miles of our lines before the Germans are on top of us. And I don’t mean their patrols.”
“Checkmate King Two, this is White Rook, over.”
“Checkmate King Two, this is White Rook, over.”
Saunders shook his head at the men around him, handing the radio back to Nelson and violently snubbing out his cigarette on the fallen tree on which he leaned.
“We’ve got to be real close to being in range, Sarge,” Nelson offered, his dirt-covered face barely hiding the stress and fatigue felt by all. “We’ve been walking for over an hour.”
Saunders unhooked his canteen, taking a long draught of the warm, metallic tasting fluid.
“Maybe if we get up on top of that,” Littlejohn pointed to a small hill about three hundred yards to their left, “we could get through from there.”
Saunders shook his head. “We’re not closed in here, so the higher we go won’t make a difference. We just need to get closer.” Shouldering his weapon, he waved his men on. “Caje, take the point. Littlejohn, Kirby, watch our backs.”
“Sarge, you want me to keep trying?” Nelson held the radio in front of him, holding the handset in the air.
“No, we’ll try again in a few minutes. I need you with both hands on your gun.”
Nodding, Nelson swung the pack onto his back, wobbling unsteadily on his feet as he grimaced at the weight.
“You okay?” Saunders grabbed the base of the radio, easing the pressure on Billy’s back.
“Sure, Sarge. The darn thing just seems to keep getting heavier every time I wear it.”
“Give it here.”
Saunders pulled the straps off Nelson’s shoulders, slipping the radio onto his own back.
“But Sarge, I can do that.” Nelson reached for the radio.
“You’re tired and the radio’s slowing you down. I don’t want to have to carry you back to the command post. Get going,” Saunders ordered, “before I change my mind.”
Looking slightly guilty, Nelson rushed to catch up to Caje as the man soundlessly vanished into a large stand of brush and trees. Saunders followed close behind, searching the encroaching darkness for any sign of the enemy.
Pushing through the narrow opening between two shrubs’ barbed limbs, Saunders glanced over his shoulder, catching sight of Littlejohn making his way on their left flank, forty feet to the rear. He knew Kirby would be on the right flank, a little further back.
He just hoped they would all still be alive by this time tomorrow.
“Someone’s in there.”
They had gone another twenty minutes before trying the radio again, this time getting what Kirby called ‘promising static’ - hearing the frequency open and close, but no distinct voices. They had started walking again when they came upon the farmhouse.
“Would you look at that.” Kirby whistled.
The farmhouse itself was unremarkable, a single story with missing shutters and a patched roof. A small chicken coup housing five or six chickens was built against the raised front porch and the barn that had once stood on the back of the property was now a loose pile of rotten wood and hay.
What had stunned the men were the flowers. Thousands of them. Roses of every colour, wildflowers, small window pots overflowing, a large horse trough filled with blooming white and pink carnations. Even in the dying light, the blossoms glowed.
“I think I’ve died and gone to heaven,” Nelson whispered, sniffing the fragrant air. “I’ve never seen anything so...“
“Beautiful,” Nelson echoed Caje softly.
“Somebody in there must have a green thumb.”
“Kirby, I think someone in there has a couple of green thumbs and a green arm or two to boot,” Littlejohn ribbed the smaller man.
“If there is someone in there, we’re going to have to get them out before the Germans come through here.” Saunders surveyed the landscape, noting areas for cover as he pulled off the radio pack. “Littlejohn, head right, take cover behind the well. Nelson, Kirby, head left towards the barn. Caje, take the radio and keep close.”
Waiting for the men to take positions, Saunders crawled a few feet closer to the house, pausing as a soft melody floated past.
“Is that singing?” Caje whispered behind him.
Edging along the porch, Saunders could see someone silhouetted by the warm glow of oil lamps through the curtains of a small window.
Making his way up the two steps that led onto the wooden porch, he could hear the woman’s voice, warm and beautiful as it sang a mournful French song. He paused, listening for voices other than the woman’s, but only heard the scrape of chairs being moved about.
Stepping carefully to the window, he peered in, the thin yellow curtain hiding little.
She was older than her voice conveyed. Forties, dark graying hair swept back with two large silver combs, a faded yellow dress. She was thin but not weak; Saunders could see years of hard work in her manner. She swept the kitchen floor with easy broad strokes that kept time with the tune she in turn sang and hummed.
And she was beautiful.
More beautiful than her garden.
Scanning the room, Saunders noted an archway leading to a small parlor to his left and another smaller doorway that led to a hall in back. On every shelf or cupboard he could see, fresh flowers sat in vases or pitchers, and clumps of drying flowers hung from the ceiling over the sink.
Moving to stand next to the door, Saunders nodded to Caje and tapped it twice.
The singing stopped abruptly, the soft scratching of the broom’s straw bristles slowed and faded.
“Ma’am?” Saunders knocked again, louder and harder. “Ma’am?”
He was reaching down to try the doorknob when he heard it: the low-pitched keening that quickly grew into a shriek.
Lifting his Thompson high, Saunders kicked in the door, Caje following closely as Kirby, Nelson and Littlejohn sprinted from their cover.
Expecting to see the woman being attacked, Saunders rushed into the kitchen, sweeping the point of his gun across the room, looking for the menace. All he found was the woman, kneeling in the archway next to a twelve or thirteen year-old boy, trying to comfort him and silence his screams.
“Shhh, Marcel,” she crooned, ignoring the soldiers as they entered one by one. “Shhhh, mon petit chou.”
The boy, dark of hair and eye, was sitting on the floor, legs outstretched, hands clasping and unclasping on his lap. He was not as thin as the woman, but had her features, even as the mouth formed around another animalistic screech.
Shock slowly faded to urgency as Saunders waved his men on to check out the house, sending Nelson outside to check the perimeter. Taking a few halting steps forward, he watched the scene unfold before him.
Singing softly, the woman held the boy, rocking him gently. Casting quick glances around the kitchen and small parlor, she ignored the Americans as they wandered the house. The boy continued to scream, his voice sounding hoarse as the volume got louder and louder.
“Can I do anything?” Saunders felt helpless, wondering if the boy was hurt. He had no real medical help to offer, having left Doc behind at battalion aid.
“You could leave.” The woman’s English was accented but clear, as was her meaning.
“We can’t do that.”
“You’re scaring him.”
“He was screaming before we came in,” Saunders reasoned. “I don’t think we did anything.”
“You are here; that is enough,” the woman spat, stroking the boy’s hair as her eyes searched the shelves.
Finally spying what she was looking for, the woman pointed to a small table in the parlor.
“The music box, get it for me.” Turning away from the sergeant, she softly added, “Please.”
Saunders spotted the small golden music box on a table next to the only other furniture in the pale yellow room: an old wooden piano and bench. Grabbing the object, he was surprised by the weight of the box that was no bigger than his fist.
Taking the music box, the woman sat back, turning the key on the bottom. Holding it close to the boy’s ear, she slowly opened the lid.
The notes rang crisp and clear in the small room, the song simple, but filled with a deep sense of melancholy. As soon as the first notes hit the air, the boy’s cries lessened, then faded to nothing as the music box played its song.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Kirby stood in the back hallway, B.A.R. hanging loosely in his hand. “I was starting to think there wasn’t an off switch for that kid. Is he always like that?”
“Kirby, shut up,” Saunders warned angrily.
Setting the music box in the boy’s lap, the woman stood, turning to the men gathered in her kitchen.
“I must ask you to leave at once. You are not welcome in my home.”
“Ma’am, I’m Sergeant Saunders. We’re Americans and we need to get you and your boy out of here as soon as possible. The Germans--”
“No. Leave.” The woman brushed by Kirby, returning from a back room with a small yellow blanket. Retrieving the music box from Marcel’s lap, she wound the key before the last notes faded, setting it in the middle of the parlor floor. Taking his hand, the woman led the now quiet boy next to the music box, laying him down and placing the blanket over him.
“Is he going to be okay?” Kirby wondered, eyeing the now silent form. “Is there something...I mean, is he sick or something?”
“Do you mean, is there something wrong with him? Is he normal?” The woman looked accusingly at the four men gathered in her home.
“I didn’t mean to...”
“No, they never mean to,” the woman snapped, advancing on Kirby who took a step or two back out of the kitchen. “Oh, don’t worry about hurting his feelings, or mine. It’s all been said before, and will be again. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter what you say about him, you know; he can’t hear you. Only I can do that.”
“He’s deaf?” Littlejohn was confused. “But he calmed down when you played the music box for him.”
“I never said he was deaf, only that he couldn’t hear you.”
“I don’t understand.” Saunders exchanged troubled glances with the rest of his men.
“Marcel does not live in this world, Sergeant. He hasn’t since he was a small child.” Plucking a single red rose from a ceramic pitcher on the table, the woman twirled the opened bud in her hands.
“He was such a beautiful child. He would laugh and sing; he would play for hours, never cause a fuss.
“Then, when he was three, he stopped laughing, and then he stopped singing.” The woman dropped the flower, the stem cracked and bent.
“What did the doctors say?” Kirby watched as the boy shifted and stirred under the blanket.
“They said to send him away.” The woman picked up the broken flower and threw it in the trash, turning to lean heavily on the counter.
“He was our son. We were not going to send him away, so we made this a home he could live in.” She waved her hand around the room. “He likes yellow, it calms him, so my dresses are yellow, the curtains are yellow, everything is yellow.
“Do you know what it’s like to have a son who breathes, yet does not live?”
Saunders shook his head. “Why the music box?”
“Very perceptive, Sergeant.” The woman smiled. “Music is the only thing he responds to. My husband even bought a piano, learned to play it. All for our son.”
“Where’s your husband now?”
“My husband died more than two years ago.”
Saunders bowed his head. The woman had been through so much, and now he was going to have to make her life even more difficult.
“Ma’am, there are Germans readying for an attack--”
“There are always Germans or English or Americans readying for an attack,” the woman interrupted, “but I still stay here. It is my home. It is our home.”
“It’s not going to be your home much longer.” Saunders felt his frustration grow as the time ticked by. “The Germans are going to push through here in less than a couple of hours, and you’ll be lucky to have a home left, let alone your lives.”
“Our lives are mine to control.”
“Your lives are mine to protect,” Saunders growled.
“Sarge?” Caje held up his hand, silencing the room. “Do you hear that?”
The sounds of artillery shells could be heard exploding in the distance, each new blast closer than the one before.
“Caje, go outside with Littlejohn, see if you can reach the Lieutenant.”
The two men ran out into the deepening gloom, a three-quarter moon visible low in the sky.
Seeing the set of the woman’s jaw, Saunders tried a different approach.
“What’s your name?”
“Noelle, Noelle Broussard.”
“Well, Noelle Broussard, you may not care about what happens to you, but what about your son? Are you willing to throw his life away?”
“And what life does he have, Sergeant? The only world he knows is his own to make; the only comfort he has is within this house. I will not deny him what little he has.”
“He’ll have nothing at all, not even his life if you stay here.” Saunders grabbed a small satchel that hung by the door, tossing it at the woman.
“Grab what you need - we leave in two minutes.”
“We will not leave.” Noelle threw the bag onto the table.
“I’m not going to argue with you,” Saunders fumed. “We’ll take you and your boy out of here if I have to throw you both over my shoulder to do it.”
Noelle eyed the bag, and then the stubborn man on the other side of the table.
“You are not a kind man.”
“I never said I was. And I hope you get to tell me that tomorrow and the day after that.”
The sounds of exploding shells grew deafening as the door flew open, Caje rushing in, radio pack slung over his shoulder.
“I don’t think we’re going to get through to the command post.” He tossed the radio onto the table, the front and top panel smashed in.
“Shelling’s getting worse. The radio took a good sized rock meant for my head.” Caje motioned to the opened door. “Littlejohn and Nelson are out scouting for the quickest way out of here. I suggest we leave.”
“Okay, let’s...” Saunders stopped, traded puzzled looks with Caje, and turned to the parlor.
Marcel sat at the piano, eyes closed, head bent, his small blanket crumpled on the floor next to the music box. The same tune that the music box had played now issued from the piano, each note clear and precise.
“It is his world, Sergeant,” Noelle whispered. “He lives in a world of music.”
“Did his father teach him to play?” Kirby asked, amazed.
“No one did.” Noelle moved behind her son, setting the half-filled satchel at her feet. “When his father died, I bought him that music box. It’s Schumann, you know, ‘Scenes from Childhood’.” She slowly brushed the dark hair from his temples with her fingers. “I hoped that in hearing the music, he would remember his father, know what he had lost. When he plays it, I think he remembers in some way.”
The boy finished, placing his hands on his lap. The explosions outside did not seem to disturb him.
“We have to go.” Saunders walked over to the piano, picking up the bag. Plaster fell from the ceiling and walls as a blast hit the back of the house. “Can he walk?”
Noelle nodded, picking up the music box and blanket from the floor and handing them to Saunders.
“You will need to carry these. Just let the music box play, and he should follow you. It will not be an easy journey for him, Sergeant,” the woman warned. “He does not like change.”
Gently, Noelle coaxed Marcel from the bench, the boy whimpering as he was led away from the piano.
“Kirby, find Nelson and Littlejohn. Tell them we’re moving out.” Saunders held the music box and gun balanced in his right hand, winding the small key with his left. Marcel’s whimpers grew louder.
“Right.” Kirby ran out the door, jumping over smoking craters and avoiding the debris that littered the ground. Another shell exploded by the chicken coop; the squawks of dying chickens mixed with the smell of burning straw and flesh.
“Caje, I want you and Kirby to take the rear. Nelson gets the point.” Saunders leaned close, whispering so the woman couldn’t hear. “The Germans are going to be on our boot heels all the way back. We’ve wasted too much time here already.”
Giving a quick nod, Caje hefted his M1 and disappeared out into the darkness.
Saunders shoved the blanket into the bag, noticing some bread and cheese, and a change of clothes for Marcel. The only other thing in the bag was a small needlepoint of a rose garden.
“Sergeant, we are ready.”
Noelle and Marcel each had on a heavy coat and boots, the boy no longer screaming as he stared at some unseen pattern in the yellow kitchen curtain. Saunders noted the blanket in the bag was made of the same material.
Slinging the satchel and Tommy gun over his shoulder, Saunders grabbed Marcel’s left arm as Noelle held the right. Pulling the boy to the door, he opened the music box as the boy tried to tear away and run back into the kitchen.
Barely three steps out the door, Saunders felt the rough planks of the porch shift under his feet as a shell exploded in the kitchen. Falling to his knees, he yanked Noelle and the boy down as the building shook, shards of glass and timber raining down onto the three linked forms.
“Marcel!” Noelle cried, throwing her arms up, trying to protect the boy as a section of the wall collapsed on them.
Crawling out of the wreckage, Saunders felt bits of glass grinding into his knees and the meaty flesh of his hands. Tossing the bag and gun clear of the debris, he climbed quickly to his feet. Adrenaline rushing through his veins, he barely felt the sting of sweat running into cuts on his face and neck as he dug through the rubble.
“Can you hear me?” Saunders shouted. He shoved a large section of roof to the side, exposing a tangle of long, wavy hair.
“Sergeant?” Raising her head, Noelle grimaced as another chunk of wood was lifted from her body.
“Are you all right?” Saunders knelt next to the woman as she pulled herself to her knees.
“Yes, Sergeant.” Noelle stumbled as she stood, brushing away the hand Saunders held out to steady her. “Where is Marcel? We must find him.”
Turning back to the debris, Saunders paused, seeing the porch suddenly grow brighter.
Flames raced up the exposed framework of the house - the old timber and broken furniture acting as kindling to fuel the fire.
“Sarge!” Littlejohn rushed to the house from the edge of the trees, worry evident on his face.
“Get her out of here.” Saunders grabbed Noelle, pushing her to the stairs and into the bigger man’s arms.
“MARCEL!” Noelle screamed. She fought to free herself as Littlejohn backed away from the house.
Saunders returned to the mound of debris, sifting through the splintered boards and glass as the fire spread to the porch roof. He found the boy wedged under a large piece of the front door, where he had been protected from most of the blast.
Lifting the slab off Marcel, Saunders was surprised to hear the music box playing its melody from where it lay, undamaged, near the boy’s head.
“Marcel!” Noelle tore free from Littlejohn’s hold, managing to reach the first step before the Pfc could catch her.
“Stay back,” Saunders warned. Grabbing the music box and satchel, he tossed them to the woman. “Take these while I get the boy.”
Swinging the gun over his shoulder, Saunders reached for Marcel, pulling the boy to his feet as the fire inched its way across the floorboards. Throwing the boy’s left arm over his shoulder, Saunders wrapped his right arm around Marcel’s waist, dragging the boy through the flames.
“Everyone all right?” Saunders moved away from the burning structure, searching the darkness for Nelson, Caje and Kirby. As he watched, a shell exploded next to the well, sending large pieces of stone hurtling through the air.
“We better go, Sarge.” Littlejohn, pulling a reluctant Noelle with him, edged towards the woods where Nelson waited.
“No,” Noelle cried, shrugging out of Littlejohn’s grasp. “I must stay with Marcel.” Placing the bag on her shoulder, she rushed to the boy, winding the music box with trembling hands.
“Let’s go.” Saunders started moving towards the trees, the woman and Littlejohn a few steps ahead of him. The soft whirring of the music box was being drowned out by the noise of artillery.
Passing the edge of the property, Saunders glanced back as another shell hit the house, sending burning pieces of wood into the air where they fell like a fiery rain. Searching frantically, he could barely make out the forms of Caje and Kirby speeding towards him, their arms thrown up to protect their faces.
“Sergeant!” Noelle shouted, the music box in her hand held out to him. She and Littlejohn stood ten feet in front of Saunders, Littlejohn’s large hand wrapped around her upper arm.
Taking one last look to make sure his men had made it through the fire, Saunders nodded to Littlejohn to get moving. As they hurried through the trees, the boy, tucked tightly into Saunders’ side, began to shake and cry, each step becoming more difficult as the boy’s panic increased. Littlejohn’s bigger strides had allowed the Pfc and Noelle to outdistance Saunders and Marcel, leaving the sergeant struggling to catch up.
Dragging Marcel over the small trunk of a toppled oak tree, Saunders staggered as the boy suddenly tried to lurch free, sending them both to the hard ground. Climbing to his feet, Saunders pulled the wildly screaming boy up, trying to avoid the small, but powerful flailing arms and fists. He took a few halting steps forward as Marcel tried to dig in his heels.
“Marcel, stop fighting me,” Saunders snapped, frustrated, as an unintentionally well-placed elbow caught him in the ribs. Looking ahead, he could barely make out the slender form of Noelle disappearing into the darkness as Littlejohn unceremoniously dragged her along. Just as she vanished, Saunders caught the faint glint of moonlight hitting metal.
“The music box!” Shouting to the woman, Saunders tried to quicken his pace, Marcel making every step difficult. He could see the dark forms, one extremely large, the other thin and delicate, as they moved ahead of him. “Littlejohn! Wait a minute!”
Littlejohn pulled up as he heard Saunders shout, keeping his firm grip on the woman’s arm as she wilted against him. Letting Noelle rest against his chest, Littlejohn kept an eye out for Nelson at the point while waiting for Saunders to catch up.
Seeing her son struggle in the sergeant’s arms as the two approached, Noelle straightened, lifting the lid of the music box. As he came close enough to hear the music, Marcel’s cries lessened and he stopped trying to break free.
“Walk beside him,” Saunders yelled to Noelle.
Shaking off Littlejohn’s hand, Noelle pushed free of the big man, moving to stand in front of Marcel as the sergeant came close. Wiping the tears from the boy’s face with her fingertips, Noelle kissed the boy tenderly on the forehead and straightened the collar of his coat.
“Noelle, let’s go,” Saunders urged the woman as she stroked the fine hairs at the nape of Marcel’s neck.
Noelle nodded, smiling sadly at Saunders as she wound the music box. Kissing her son one last time, she slipped her left hand into Marcel’s right, holding the gold box opened and playing in her other hand.
“Littlejohn. Do you see Nelson?” Saunders tugged at his charge, relieved Marcel was willingly putting one foot in front of the other.
“Yeah.” Littlejohn flinched as a shell landed thirty feet to their left. Looking back to make sure the sergeant was all right, Littlejohn pointed to a thick stand of oaks in the distance. ”He’s waiting for us just on the other side of those big trees.”
Saunders gave a quick nod, and followed closely behind the large soldier. He allowed Littlejohn to set the pace, pulling the two civilians along with sheer force of will.
Noelle held the music box close to Marcel’s ear, moving quickly as Saunders led them under low-hanging branches and through dry grass and brush. The shells were landing less frequently, but each new shell seemed closer than the last.
“We’ve got to hurry.” Saunders noticed Noelle was stumbling, grabbing Marcel’s arm and using him as a crutch as they ran. “Can you keep up?”
The woman nodded, too winded to reply. Her hair flew freely around her face, the silver combs lost, as she kept pace with the rest of the squad. She concentrated on the music box clutched tightly in her hand, winding it each time it stopped playing.
As the sound of shelling turned to distant thunder, Littlejohn slowed, helping Noelle as her feet caught on some roots, catching the music box as it fell from her fingers.
“I can’t...” she breathed, collapsing in Littlejohn’s arms.
“Take five,” Saunders said as he lowered Marcel to the ground, the boy too exhausted to do more than curl up and sleep where he lay. Looking around, Saunders spotted Nelson standing twenty feet ahead, clutching his M1 as he scanned the area. “Littlejohn, Nelson, keep watch.”
“You okay, Sarge?” Littlejohn asked as he passed Saunders the music box.
Saunders wiped the sweat from his forehead, his hand coming away bloody.
“Just a cut, Littlejohn.” Saunders moved to Noelle, noticing her flushed cheeks quickly paling. “Go relieve Kirby, and send him back here with the medical supplies.”
“Sure.” Littlejohn faded away into the trees.
“Noelle?” Saunders lifted the woman’s head, dribbling some water from his canteen into her mouth.
“Sergeant, you must promise me something.” Slowly opening her eyes, Noelle locked gazes with Saunders.
“What?” Saunders heard the rustling of leaves as Kirby stepped up behind him.
“You will promise me that you will take Marcel somewhere safe - somewhere they will let him have his music.”
“You can do that yourself.” Placing his arm behind her shoulders, he tried to raise her up, stopping as she gasped in pain.
“Once we get back to our lines,” Saunders reassured, lifting the satchel from her shoulders and slowly undoing the woman’s coat, “someone will take you and your son to a place where you can both be safe and happy.”
Pulling the two sides of the heavy material apart, he frowned. The once yellow dress was stained black in the moonlight from her chest to her knees, blood oozing from a large hole in her side.
“Promise me, Sergeant,” Noelle whispered, reaching for the man’s hand.
Saunders nodded his head slowly.
Smiling, Noelle closed her eyes.
“You know, Sergeant,” her voice was so soft, Saunders had to lean in close to hear her. “I only wish Marcel had a music box to remember me by.”
Feeling her fingers relax in death, Saunders let her hand fall to the ground, bowing his head.
He said the only prayer he could think of.
“Sarge, we have to go.”
Caje came hurtling through the trees, Littlejohn close on his heels.
“I’ve spotted a kraut patrol about a mile back. It’s gonna take us twice as long to get back with...“ Caje looked down at the blood-covered form at Saunders’ feet.
“Is she...?” he let the question hang.
“Yeah.” Saunders wiped his bloodied hands on his pant leg and picked up the small satchel.
“What are we going to do about him?” Caje nodded to the sleeping boy.
Having checked Marcel for injuries and finding none, Kirby stood over the boy, waiting nervously for Sarge’s answer.
Throwing the bag over his shoulder, Saunders picked up the music box and turned it over in his hands. Grasping the small key, he turned it until it wouldn’t turn anymore.
“We bring him.”
“I know you made a promise,” Kirby moved, facing Saunders, “but he’s just going to slow us down. The krauts are right behind us. We can leave him--“
“Leave him where, Kirby?” Saunders snarled. “Leave him to starve to death out here? Leave him to the krauts? To the hundreds of other things or people that would kill him - or worse?”
Stepping around Kirby, Saunders squatted next to Marcel, shaking him awake. Dragging the boy to his feet, Saunders thumbed open the lid of the music box as Marcel started to scream, quieting the boy.
“He comes with us, all the way back to Allied Command if need be.” Throwing Marcel’s right arm over his shoulder, Saunders slid his left arm around the boy, Tommy gun and music box both gripped tightly in his right hand. “I made a promise to keep him safe.”
Kirby threw up his arms in resignation as he watched Saunders walk away.
“He’s going to get us all killed for that kid.”
“Shut up Kirby,” Littlejohn grumbled. “It’s the sarge’s decision.”
“Yeah, but it’s my life.”
“It’s the army’s life, until they tell you otherwise.” Caje watched Saunders as he moved away. “Littlejohn, stay with me back here. Kirby, stay with the sarge.”
“Caje?” Littlejohn whispered as Kirby loped away. “Do you think he’s right about this?”
“I never like to admit Kirby’s right about anything.”
“But this time?” Littlejohn tried to see the Cajun’s face in the moonlight.
“This time I think we should be worrying more about the Germans behind us than the sergeant in front of us.”
They were pinned down.
They were up a creek.
They were –--
Kirby figured he could make a list a mile long for what they were, and having a good time wasn’t one of them.
Twenty minutes after starting out with Marcel, they heard the unmistakable sound of German guns behind them, followed by M1 return fire.
Littlejohn and Caje bolted through the trees, German soldiers hot on their heels.
Now, huddled behind tree trunks and ducking behind small boulders, the five men and one screaming tag-a-long faced off.
“Caje, how many do you count?” Saunders tried to ignore the shrieks from Marcel, the boy inconsolable without the music box. A music box Saunders could see lying in open ground, but just couldn’t reach.
Caje held up his hand twice, five fingers then one finger. It was no use trying to be heard over the boy.
Peering over the broken tree he hid behind, Saunders noted the positions of four of the Germans, the other two unseen in the darkness. He knew they were there because he had the hole in his right shoulder to prove it.
He was pinned down in the middle, literally holding Marcel to the ground with his left arm. Littlejohn was to his right, Caje and Nelson to his left.
“Littlejohn, where’s Kirby?”
The big man looked to his right, finding the B.A.R. man about fifteen feet away behind an old chestnut tree.
“About twenty feet to your right,” Littlejohn whispered loudly, “behind that old tree.”
Saunders nodded, signaling the two outermost men to flank the Germans, before they could outflank them.
“Littlejohn, Caje, give them cover fire.” Saunders had trouble lifting his weapon, grimacing with pain every time he flexed his finger to pull the trigger. The recoil sent spikes through his shoulder into his entire body, his stomach clenching and teeth grinding with every surge as blackness threatened to envelop him.
The first grenade Nelson threw took out two Germans on the left; the young private making short work of the third man turning to fire on him from behind a grassy hummock.
Kirby’s B.A.R. echoed from the right - quick, deep bursts that flushed one of the Germans from behind a bush, while cutting another down as he tried to throw a grenade.
Littlejohn sighted down his M1, firing two shots at the fleeing man, bringing him down.
“There’s one more!” Caje shouted to Kirby as he spotted the last German raising his gun.
The quick burst of a Tommy gun split the night, the German clutching his stomach as he pitched forward into the dirt.
“We better get out of here fast. The entire German army will be here after that racket.” Caje picked up the music box, winding it as he handed it to Saunders.
“You’re wounded?” Caje drew back the gold box as he noticed the dark stain on the sergeant’s jacket.
“Just my shoulder.” Saunders stood up slowly, releasing Marcel. He grabbed the box with his left hand, opening it.
The first few notes chimed into the darkness, then the music stopped.
The five men froze, staring at the music box.
“Tell me you’re joking, Sarge.” Nelson swallowed, hard. He found himself more scared now than he had been facing the Germans.
Saunders closed the lid and reopened it: silence.
“Let me see if I can fix it.” Kirby reached for the box, Saunders not letting it go.
“Sarge, let Kirby look at it,” Caje cajoled the injured man. “He’s always tinkering with stuff; maybe he can fix it. Let me see your shoulder.”
Saunders let Kirby take the box, tensing as Caje pulled the jacket and shirt from his shoulder, exposing a bloody entrance and exit wound.
“Nelson, you and Littlejohn on watch.” Saunders, feeling lightheaded, sat on the fallen tree he had hidden behind earlier. He tried to ignore the pain in his shoulder, concentrating instead on Kirby as the man fiddled with the music box.
“It’s not too bad, Sarge.” Caje dug into his small first aid pouch, ripping the top from a sulfa pack and sprinkling the powder on the sergeant’s wound. Packing compresses on Saunders’ back and upper chest to stem the flow of blood, Caje wrapped two-inch gauze around the shoulder, using extra gauze from Kirby to strap Saunders’ upper right arm to his side.
“Littlejohn?” Saunders called over the bigger man as Caje finished up.
Saunders used his left hand to pull out the map and a zippo from his jacket. Flicking on the lighter, he held the flame close to the paper, ignoring the freshly smeared blood as he studied the map closely.
“Do you think you can carry Marcel?” Saunders looked back at the boy, whose screams were wilder and higher than before.
“Sure I can.” Littlejohn swung his M1 over his shoulder, moving to pick him up.
“Hold it a minute, Littlejohn.” Saunders stuffed the map and lighter in his jacket and grabbed the satchel. “Everyone come here.”
Drawing two lines in the sand about a foot apart with the heel of his boot, Saunders started to explain his plan. He knew the men were not going to like it.
“This is our line, about three or four miles due west.” He pointed to the line on his right.
“This other line is the Germans, no more than a couple of miles behind us and closing in fast.” Saunders dropped a piece of bark near the centre, closer to the left line. “We’re here.”
“It’s not looking too good, is it Sarge?” Billy Nelson tried not to stare at the lonely piece of bark caught in the middle.
“This,” Saunders dropped a bigger piece of bark to the right of centre, “is the town of Noyales. Marcel and I will hole up there while the rest of you go back for reinforcements.”
“No way, Sarge.”
“We’re not leaving you behind.”
Saunders waved off the protests.
“There’s no way we can all get back to warn the Lieutenant in time. I’m hurt, and Marcel can’t keep up, especially without the music box.”
“I can carry him no problem, Sarge.” Littlejohn stood straighter. “I can carry him back with time to spare.”
“You don’t have to carry him that far, Littlejohn. Just to the town.” Saunders lifted the satchel and gun over his uninjured shoulder.
“Maybe Lt. Hanley already knows about the Germans,” Nelson tried to reason with the sergeant. “They’ve been firing off artillery all night.”
“I’m not about to take that chance.” Saunders stood, eyes fixed solely on the private. “Are you?”
Nelson dropped his eyes, shaking his head.
“Caje, I need you to run ahead and see if you can find us a nice hole to disappear into. According to information I got from the CP, Noyales is empty, bombed out about a month ago.” Saunders felt beads of sweat break out on his forehead as the muscles in his right shoulder started to cramp and tear. “Kirby, Nelson, guard our backs. Don’t engage unless you have to. No use drawing more attention to ourselves than we already have.”
“Sarge, no offense, but the krauts will find you in about ten seconds with this kid screaming his head off.” It was Kirby’s voice, but all the men agreed.
“I’ll just have to hope I’m lucky.” Saunders held his hand out for the music box. “You have your orders.”
Kirby didn’t look at the box as he pressed it into the sergeant’s waiting hand.
“It’s still not working.”
“It’s all right, Kirby. I’ll see what I can do on the way.”
It took Caje less than fifteen minutes to find a suitable hiding place, and almost the same amount of time to find Saunders and Littlejohn.
It wasn’t until he heard the music that he understood why.
“You fixed it!” Caje smiled at the three figures before him.
Littlejohn walked, carrying Marcel in his arms while Saunders held the music box near the boy’s head.
“How close are we to town?” Saunders was pale and sweating. The effort of keeping up with Littlejohn’s longer strides was clearly taking its toll.
“Right through those trees ahead.” Caje moved next to Saunders, ready to offer him a hand.
“How’s the shoulder?” Caje could see the sergeant’s left hand shaking as it held the music box at an odd angle, the man’s right arm hanging stiffly at his side.
“Did you find a hiding spot?” Saunders ignored the other’s question.
“A good one, I think, but there wasn’t a lot to choose from.” Caje took the music box as the gears wound down.
“Careful.” Saunders tilted Caje’s hand so the music box sat at that odd angle on his palm.
“It’ll only work one way,” he apologized as Caje turned the key. “I don’t want to have to try and fix it again.”
They emerged from the trees to find a town in ruin.
A main roadway crossed through the centre of town with four or five smaller roads radiating out from the hub. Three roads bisected each spoke, with the third road on the outside edge of the town. Not one of the houses or stores still stood intact.
“Come, on. Over this way.”
Caje led them down one of the spokes through the centre of the town, Nelson and Kirby following the group at a distance. When they reached the opposite edge, he led them to a bombed out crater that had once been a house.
“This looks pretty open.” Saunders eyed the broken foundations and the small overgrown field that bordered the town.
“Yes, but it’s what you can’t see that’s important.” Caje moved aside a broken chair, and exposed a pair of badly damaged doors set in the ground.
“A root cellar.” Grabbing the left door, Caje pulled it open, small slats of wood falling off it as the door hit the ground. Opening the other side more gently, Caje then stepped aside as Saunders leaned over the hole.
The doors hid an opening four feet by three feet, the pungent smell of rotting vegetables and damp soil rising from the depths.
“It’s not pretty, but it should do the trick.” Caje accepted the music box from Saunders, helping to stabilize the injured man as he lowered himself down the ladder.
Taking shallow breaths, Saunders had to stoop as he took a couple of steps forward. His head grazed the ceiling and he could feel cobwebs brushing against his face and neck. Feeling the small bristled legs of a spider crawling across his cheek, he slapped the creature away and flicked on his lighter to survey the cool dank cellar.
It was not much more than five feet high, very narrow, but it stretched back more than ten. A small pile of what may have once been potatoes or turnips sat molding on his left, a scant two feet away, but the rest of the dirt floor seemed relatively clear. Small shapes and shadows caught his attention as the flame bobbed and flickered in the air, but he could only catch glimpses before the light danced away.
High on the right hand wall, the side where the house had once stood, large gaps showed where the foundation had collapsed. The night sky was barely visible through the openings, but Saunders could feel the caress of cold fresh air on his overly warm damp skin.
Saunders moved to the cellar entrance, able to stand in the opening with his head well above ground level. “Littlejohn, pass me the boy. Caje, see if you can find some blankets; it’s pretty cold down here.”
As Caje’s dark form vanished from his sight, Littlejohn’s bulky silhouette filled the sergeant’s view and blocked most of the moonlit sky.
Guiding Marcel onto the rungs, Saunders helped the boy into the cellar and hustled him over to sit against the far wall.
“Sarge?” Kirby stood over the hole, panting from his run through the streets. “We’ve spotted the krauts in the woods just on the other side of town, heading right for us.”
Saunders, left hand holding his right arm tightly to his chest, bent low as he headed back to the opening. He stopped as he felt something give under his left boot. There was a piercing squeal followed by frantic clawing as tiny bones cracked.
“Was that the kid?” Kirby tried to peer into the darkness.
“No.” Saunders kicked the dying creature under the ladder.
A low moan came from the back of the cellar.
“That’s the kid,” Littlejohn whispered to Kirby.
“Where’s Caje?” Saunders poked his head out of the root cellar, realizing he had not retrieved the music box before the Cajun left.
“Right here.” Caje dropped to his knee beside the door, handing over the music box and one blanket.
“Sorry, but I couldn’t find anything else.” Caje removed his jacket and tossed it in, Littlejohn following suit.
“I still say one of us should stay with you.” Kirby squatted next to the hole, ready to climb down the ladder.
“And I say the longer you stand up there arguing, the longer it will take you to bring back help.” Saunders cradled the music box in the crook of his right arm and wound the key carefully, the sound echoing loudly in the small space.
Using the butt of his B.A.R. to push himself upright, Kirby traded knowing looks with Littlejohn and Caje. They could all hear the boy’s cries echoing from the back of the cellar, and, no matter how hard Saunders tried to mask it, the men could see the pain and fatigue etched on the sergeant’s face.
“Sarge...” Kirby started, hoping to talk some sense into his commander.
“Get going,” Saunders ordered, crouching low to move out of the moonlight and into the darkness of the root cellar. “That’s an order.”
Caje nodded once, Kirby and Littlejohn’s worried faces disappearing as the doors closed.
Saunders heard the soft thump of the last door settling in place and the small shower of dirt sent falling onto the ladder and floor. The indistinct shapes glimpsed through the holes in the doors melted away, the sound of boot heels hurrying along the dirt road fading into the distance as the squad headed out of town.
Laying the satchel and gun against the wall, Saunders spread the blanket and coats over the boy. Settling down on the damp earth, he sat close to Marcel’s left side concerned that the boy’s cries and whimpers were quickly growing louder and more desperate.
“Shhh, Marcel.” He held the box close to the boy’s ear, but still Marcel’s cries grew with each breath. Placing the music box in his right hand, Saunders reached to smooth the boy’s hair as the mother had done earlier in the house. “Shhh.”
Eyes growing accustomed to the darkness, Saunders could make out small shapes scurrying along the walls and floor, some coming close enough to scratch and nip at the soles of his boots.
“Back off.” Kicking dirt into the air, he tried to frighten them away, but the rats were fixated on the two huddled figures.
“Marcel, you need to be quiet.” Saunders, remembering the bread and cheese, grabbed for the bag, pulling it on his lap.
“Are you hungry?”
Left hand reaching inside, his fingers brushed against something warm and furry.
Grabbing the rat, Saunders flung it across the room, feeling a small sense of satisfaction as its soft body hit the opposite wall with a faint squeak.
Fingers stinging from the rat’s teeth or claws, Saunders carefully wiped his bleeding hand across his chest, hissing as a tender flap of skin tore away from the wound.
Angrily, Saunders dug through the bag, pulling out a small piece of bread and flinging it across the room.
“This is the deal,” he growled, grabbing his gun and using the butt to kill a rat crawling by his thigh. “You eat your dinner over there and leave us the hell alone.”
Leaning the music box against the wall, he moved to Marcel’s feet, tucking the blanket in tightly under the screaming boy and brushing away rats as they tried to crawl over them.
He wanted to use his lighter to start a fire so he could see this fur-covered enemy, but he was sure the Germans were already swarming the town.
Much like the rats were swarming them.
“Marcel, I need you to be quiet.”
Saunders’ temper was growing short and his heart beat so fast in his chest that he felt like he was going to pass out. His head ached, his shoulder was killing him, and everything seemed to be working against him - especially the one person he was trying to help.
“DAMN IT, MARCEL.”
He felt like shaking the boy, but he backed off; the boy had no idea what was going on, except that he was not at home where he belonged.
Where he belonged.
Home. Home where a father learned to play piano and a mother decorated and dressed in the same colour because it comforted.
Saunders grabbed the bag, shaking off the two rats foraging inside, and pulled out the yellow blanket.
He draped the cloth across the boy’s chest and lap, holding a corner up close to the boy’s face.
“Come on, Marcel.”
The boy averted his eyes, staring into nothingness as he continued to scream.
Dropping the cloth in disgust, Saunders pulled the bread from the bag, ripping off a section that the rats had chewed and throwing it across the room.
“Eat, Marcel.” Holding the leftover bread, Saunders waved it under the boy’s nose, letting him smell it.
“Come on, buddy. Eat.”
The screams quieted, but did not completely die.
Encouraged, Saunders placed the bread to Marcel’s lips, easing a piece into his mouth.
Marcel’s hand slowly came out from under the blankets and coats, pulling the bread from Saunders’ hands as he took a bite and chewed. The screams faded to whimpers as the boy ate.
Sitting back on his haunches, Saunders rubbed a shaky hand across his forehead. The sound of the rats scurrying around in the darkness became very loud to his ears, and then even the rats became merely background noise. Taking a deep breath, he welcomed the silence.
It wasn’t until he heard the silence that he heard the Germans.
Saunders struggled out of his jacket, grunting as the material caught and pulled at his bandages. Grabbing the music box, he carefully wrapped the coat around it.
Turning the key, he hoped the music would keep Marcel quiet as the Germans patrolled above. Shoving a corner of his coat under the lid to keep it open, Saunders hoped to muffle the notes with the folds of his jacket.
Placing the bundle behind the boy’s head as a pillow, he shuffled back a few paces, relieved when he could barely hear the music from where he crouched.
“Schauten sie ueberall?”
Saunders grabbed his gun and crawled to the base of the ladder as shadows lingered overhead in the street. He could make out two figures through the holes in the doors; the smaller of the two seemingly only armed with a small pistol.
“Die schreie kamen aus dieser Richtung.”
He could see the larger man on the left nod, the moonlight reflecting off his helmet.
“Ja, Herr Hauptmann. Patrouillen haben berichtet dass eine Gruppe von Amerikanern hier vor uns durchgekommen sind.”
Saunders inched closer to the ladder, watching closely as the two Germans moved away from the cellar, heading down the street.
That was when he heard the rats.
Then he heard the boy.
Sensing a source of food, the rats had overrun Marcel, fighting for the food in the bag, then for the food the boy was eating.
Each angry squeal and squeak of a rat soon was drowned out by the increasing cries of the boy.
“Marcel.” Saunders flew across the room, knocking away rats and tossing the teeming satchel towards the ladder. The last hesitant notes from the music box stilled as he reached the boy.
“Shhhh.” Saunders clamped his right hand over the boy’s mouth, reaching for the bundle behind Marcel’s head with the left.
Trying to untangle the music box from his jacket with one hand, Saunders watched as two shadows returned, moving closer to the doors.
“Was ist das?”
Saunders fumbled with the box, dropping it on the ground.
“Es kommt von dort unten.”
Bringing the gun down to his right side, Saunders let go of the boy and swung around as the doors opened. Firing two or three rounds into the silhouettes framed in the moonlight, he staggered to his feet and rushed towards the ladder.
The larger man, closer to the hole, pitched headfirst into the root cellar as the other man fell backwards onto the street.
Jumping over the dead German on the floor, Saunders climbed the ladder, his gun at the ready.
The street was deserted, but he could hear shouting as men ran towards the sound of gunfire.
Grabbing the legs of the smaller German, Saunders yanked him off the street and into the cellar, partially crawling out of the hole to grab the fallen pistol.
Sliding back into the cellar, he bit back a cry as he pulled the doors closed, feeling fresh blood seep from his shoulder as the bandages ripped away from the wound.
The other Germans were approaching fast.
Scrambling back to Marcel, Saunders picked up the music box, tearing the jacket off it as he turned the key.
Shoving his hand over the boy’s mouth to stop the screams, Saunders pressed the box against Marcel’s ear and opened the lid.
None of the gears turned, and the melody that would calm the boy stayed silent.
Saunders stared at the music box, realizing it must have broken when he had dropped it. Closing the lid, he tossed it aside and looked toward the cellar doors and the armed, hostile shadows no more than a few feet away, searching for the source of the gunfire.
Closing his eyes as German boots pounded overhead, Saunders put his mouth as close to the boy’s ear as possible, trying to remember.
Softly, at first, then confidently, he hummed the notes over and over, concentrating on how the music box played.
Marcel’s cries slowly grew quieter as the sergeant hummed. His body relaxing, the boy fell silent as the notes filled his head.
Removing his hand from the boy’s face, Saunders tilted the boy’s head back against the rough dirt wall.
Sergeant ‘Chip’ Saunders ignored the rats, the pain, and the ever-increasing sounds of gunfire and men fighting. At that moment, in that cellar, his and Marcel’s only world was in the music he hummed.
He had no sense of the hours that passed.
He didn’t hear the doors open; he didn’t hear his name.
He only heard the music.
“He’s doing it again.”
Kirby bobbed his head to the left, to where Saunders sat alone across the courtyard, smoking a cigarette and humming to himself.
“Have you noticed he sometimes does it in his sleep?” Caje asked, looking around at the small group relaxing outside of the command post.
Littlejohn and Nelson shook their heads, perplexed, as the Cajun took one last drag from his cigarette.
“Yeah, he’s been doing it the last few nights.” Pulling the black beret from his jacket, Caje placed it on his head.
“Was that what that was? I thought I was dreaming.” Doc dropped his medical bag and settled next to Nelson. “I heard the guys at battalion aid say something about Saunders driving the rest of the patients crazy by singing. I guess that’s what they meant.”
“I’m just surprised he’s not having nightmares about those rats.” Kirby shuddered. “Boy, I was only down there a couple of minutes helping them get out, but those things gave me the creeps for days.”
“I’m sure the rats felt the same way about you.” Littlejohn rubbed his right calf, his bullet wound healing and itching like mad.
“Leg bothering you, Littlejohn?”
“Oh, it’s nothing, Doc.” The big man forced himself to stop, digging his hands into his field jacket. “That kraut just grazed me.”
“You’re lucky they only grazed you.” Kirby shook his head at the memory, stifling a chuckle. “They would’ve got you in the head if you hadn’t ended up face first in that pit.”
“What was it that you fell into again?” Caje asked the larger man, trying to keep a straight face.
“You know damn well what it was,” Littlejohn fumed. “I was chasing a couple of krauts away from where Sarge was hiding, and didn’t see the hole.”
“You guys have been laughing about this for days, so spill it.” Doc looked from one soldier to another. “You know I was stuck here while you pushed the Germans back, and the one time you have a funny story to tell, you all clam up.”
“Hey, I’m not clamming up.” Kirby bobbed his head towards Littlejohn. “I just think it’s something only the big guy should share.”
“Littlejohn?” Doc looked at the other man expectantly.
“Oh, all right.” Littlejohn leaned forward and started scratching at his leg. “I fell into an old hole that used to be—-“
“An outhouse!” Caje and Kirby yelled, laughing.
“An outhouse,” Littlejohn muttered.
“Oh.” Doc smiled then shook his head. “What’s the big deal? Hasn’t the town been empty for a while?”
“It was an old, well-used outhouse, Doc.” Caje wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “It may have been old, but Littlejohn here made quite an impact.”
Doc grinned, and shared a sympathetic glance with the dejected man sitting across from him.
“Anybody know how Marcel’s doing?”
Doc’s words had the desired effect, the laughter turning to small chuckles, then to silence as the men thought back to the young man.
“Sarge said a group of nuns took him in at Mont D’origny.” Caje relaxed against the wall, watching Saunders as the non-com thoughtfully stared at something in his left hand. “He said they even had a piano for him to play.”
“That’s great!” Billy Nelson perked up. “He can play all he wants.”
“I heard that Jacobs in motorpool even fixed up that music box for him before he left.” Littlejohn smiled.
“That’s one lucky kid, making it out of there like that.”
“Kirby, you didn’t even think we were going to make it out of there.”
“Come on, Caje. You have to admit it was a close call.” Kirby took a swig of his canteen. “I mean, if we hadn’t run into our own guys a mile or so out of town, Sarge and the kid would have been toast.”
“We’re just lucky second squad heard all the racket the krauts were making and called it in.” Littlejohn stood and stretched, joints popping with the effort. “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see our platoon in my entire life.”
“It would’ve been better if they hadn’t taken a few pot-shots at us first,” Kirby griped.
“Hey, they can’t help it if you look like a kraut.”
“Caje, there’s no way I looked like a kraut.”
“Well, you sure run like one,” Littlejohn snickered. “You looked like you had the whole 361st on your tail.”
“I was just trying to get back so we could save the sarge,” Kirby defended. “I can’t help it if you guys are all out of shape.”
“Your head’s out of shape,” Littlejohn teased, ducking out of the way as Kirby tossed a stone at him. “Hey, knock it off. Don’t make me get Sarge.”
As the rock bounced off the bigger man’s shoulder to land in the street, each of them turned his attention back to Saunders.
“Can anybody make out what he’s got in his hand?” Nelson strained to see the object, but it was too well hidden in Saunders’ palm.
“Whatever it is, he’s been staring at it for half an hour.” Kirby moved to try to get a better look. “He must have finally spent his back pay on something interesting, though, to stare at it that long.”
“Better than what you spent yours on, Kirby?” Nelson asked.
“I think buying a few rounds for the boys is a worthy cause, even if I don’t have much to show for it.”
“Other than a hangover, you mean,” Littlejohn scoffed. “Besides, I heard you lost most of it in a poker game with the guys from McGinley’s squad.”
“That’s a lie.” Kirby leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest. “It was Oldfield’s squad.”
“Well, at least someone’s spending your money, Kirby,” Doc chuckled.
“You can laugh all you want,” Kirby grumbled, “but I at least had fun. Besides, I still want to know what the heck Sarge seems so interested in.”
“Well, I don’t know what it is, but I’m gonna find out.” Caje got to his feet, lighting another cigarette as he crossed the dusty courtyard.
“Hey, Sarge.” Caje perched on the half wall next to Saunders, exhaling smoke and gesturing to the sergeant’s hand. “What’ve you got there?”
Saunders turned the small silver object so Caje could see what it was.
A music box.
“I thought the kid got his music box.” Caje could see that the silver lid and sides were intricately carved with roses.
“He did. I found this today.” Saunders ran his fingers over the engraved petals. “I’m going to send it along to the nuns - for Marcel.”
Caje was puzzled.
“But he has one.”
“That one was for his father – to remember him by. This one,” he closed his fist around the tiny object and put it in his pocket, “is so he can remember his mother.”
Caje sighed, staring at the glowing end of his cigarette as the rest of the squad watched them closely.
“So, Sarge, what does it play?”
“I don’t know what it’s called,” Sergeant Saunders stood, squinting into the sun, “but it sure sounds beautiful.”
Caje nodded, remembering Noelle. “Just like his mother.”
“Yeah,” Saunders tossed his cigarette onto the ground. Turning away, he slowly walked out onto the street. “Just like his mother.”
A very special thank you goes out to Bayo for all her help and especially her incredible beta editing on the story. Wow!
And another thanks to Rita and Stefan, who helped with the German translation. You all are the best. -cb