Do You Hear The Trumpets Singing?
on the ABC Television Series: Combat!
Fan Fiction Take-off on the Episode "What Are the Bugles Blowin’ For?"
Copyright 2003 by JMcG
Disclaimer: They’re not mine—boo hoo! I just like to take them out and play with them.
He saw it out of the corner of his eye. The jerky movement, the loss of the control that was as much a part of the scout as his accent.
Damn, Caje is hit.
Saunders drew a breath and stole a quick glance to his right, his finger continuing to pull the trigger in response to the oncoming images burned in his mind. He tried to catch Caje’s attention, hoping to see some wordless reassurance about the severity of the injury, but the private’s expression was blank. To Saunders’ horror, Caje started to stumble away from the limited protection of the railway bench by the wall and out into the open. Realizing that he couldn’t reach the soldier in time, Saunders returned his attention to the seemingly endless gray onslaught coming down the old railway tracks. He screamed for Doc, not even aware that he did so.
Aim. Fire. Fire. Don’t let any of them have the chance to draw a bead on the wounded soldier. Fire. Fire.
It wasn’t ending. The Krauts kept coming. Someone came up from behind, shouting “Withdraw!” Had to be one of the Brits. Extra heavy fire started, breaking from the carefully directed bursts that had been employed to conserve ammunition. This was it then, their one chance to pull back.
Saunders slid up and to his right in a crouch, noticing with relief that Kirby had somehow moved forward and grabbed Caje. The BAR man was dragging the semi-conscious soldier unceremoniously back toward the depot. Suddenly, Doc appeared. Together the medic and Littlejohn took control of the wounded man, freeing Kirby and his BAR to assist in the retreat.
With discipline born of too much time under fire in too few months, the squad moved back at the pace set by the medic. Nelson and Kirby provided cover from the sides and Saunders took the rear, allowing Doc and Littlejohn to run Caje up the middle. The remaining soldiers of Captain Johns’ unit parted to allow them through, closing and following behind, momentarily swelling the American squad, until German firepower began reducing the ranks once again.
Saunders took up a position just outside the entrance to the depot, Kirby to his left, Nelson and Littlejohn to his right. Someone must have helped Doc get Caje inside, for the wounded soldier was nowhere to be seen. Doc suddenly reappeared as Captain Johns took a bullet near the doorway. That seemingly symbolic carnage signaled the end of this particular onslaught.
When Saunders looked at his watch, he realized there had been a total elapsed time of less than fifteen minutes from the time they took their positions to now. Fifteen minutes. At least ten dead. Ten that he could see, anyway. He thought there were at least three other Brits left out near the edge of the train platforms when they retreated, but that ground was gone now, ceded to the Germans. And the field had changed in more ways than just the terrain.
After looking around once more to reassure himself that the reprieve was indeed real, Saunders took off his helmet and ran his fingers through his hair, then swiped at the sweat dripping down his face with the back of his sleeve. He peered over at his squad, huddled together, the shock and relief both apparent in their faces. Good, no one else appeared to be wounded.
Saunders tried to wrap his mind around the new situation.
Fact: One wounded British Captain, hell bent on staying and keeping the Americans with him.
Fact: No communication with the rest of their lines.
Fact: Less than 14 able bodied Brits and his five—no, three with firepower.
Fact: One wounded squad member…
He heard footsteps approaching, and then sensed the British Sergeant Rawlings at his back. He didn’t turn, waiting for the other man to make the first move.
“The Captain is bad, Sergeant. He’s asking to see you.”
Deliberately keeping his back to Rawlings, Saunders replied softly, “I’ll be there in a minute. Tell Captain Johns I have to check on my man.” Despite the quiet tone, the anger was evident.
Saunders knelt beside Caje, feeling powerless. Doc was on the other side of the room, frantically trying to stem the bleeding from the nicked jugular of the Brit they called “Donald”. Though he hadn’t had a chance to talk to the medic during the few minutes since he had entered the cordoned off triage area, Saunders could tell that Caje’s condition was serious. The soldier was breathing rapidly, his color gray and chalky. Saunders lifted the blanket and moved aside Caje’s shirt, observing with sinking heart the blood soaked bandage on the right side of the stomach.
“Went right through, Sarge.” Suddenly Doc was next to him, shaking his head in answer to Saunders’ questioning glance toward the injured Brit.
Doc nodded back toward Caje. “I think it missed any organs, but he’s got an exit wound on the back even larger. Bleeding’s slowed, but…”
Doc shrugged. Saunders put his face his hands and used his palms to viscously rub his eyes and then dragged them across his face, trying vainly to physically erase his mental alarm about the current situation.
“Sarge?” Saunders looked up quickly, a smile starting on his lips. The smile faded as he realized it was Kirby’s sharp tone, not Caje’s soft inflection.
Kirby was poking his head through the curtains. “Sarge, how is he?”
“Kirby, get back to your post.” Saunders couldn’t trust himself to answer directly.
Rawlings burst through the curtains. “Medic, you’re needed, now! You too, Saunders.”
Doc turned and followed Rawlings, stopping briefly to whisper to Kirby, whose expression conveyed initial relief followed by concern.
Saunders stood abruptly, reached over and readjusted the blankets on Caje, then exited the triage area. Without a look at Kirby as he walked by, Saunders reiterated, “I said to get back to your post.”
As he strode the distance from the makeshift aid station to the captain’s makeshift office, Saunders could see Nelson and Littlejohn by the depot’s outside door. They both turned as Kirby joined them, then Saunders felt their eyes turning to him, following him, asking him…Why?
Saunders didn’t break stride as he entered Johns’ office, his footsteps moving in cadence to his mind’s weary refrain. Damn, damn, damn…
The rain started yet again. The damaged station yielded some protection to the wounded soldiers, but tiny waterfalls found their way through the many gaping holes in the roof, falling directly on some of the prone soldiers and causing growing puddles that soaked all indiscriminately.
Saunders cursed as what had been intermittent drops near Caje’s head turned into a steady rivulet. He had been sitting here for nearly two hours, telling himself that there was nothing else he could be doing now. But he knew the truth. The showy expression of concern that Captain Johns had expressed for his men earlier that day was not for him. No, Saunders knew he was hiding—from the unspoken disapproval of the Brits, who blamed him for the death of one of their own through disregarding the opinion—orders?—of Sergeant Rawlings, and from his own men, who blamed him for not disregarding orders and forcing them to remain in this untenable situation.
He tugged on the blanket under Caje, sliding the wounded soldier out of the direct path of the leak. Even as he did so, however, he could feel the water under his boots, and could see it beginning to darken the wool of the blanket as it streamed across the floor from yet another source.
It was everywhere, the wetness. Death, accusations, duty, loyalty…his mind continued the litany of factors aside from the weather in his decision. In his observations over the past several months, Saunders had defined two types of almost pre-wired mantras that men in command used to cope: duty above all, men above all. Johns and Rawlings were clearly the former, despite their solicitous actions toward their men. Providing tea and asking about cricket…that was all superficial. They were the type that took hills and bunkers, the type that-- what was it that private had said earlier?--hadn’t retreated since they hit the beach.
Then there was the other type, the type of commanders who were so concerned with the well being of their men, that they failed in their military objectives. They commanded the love of their men, as long as they could keep them alive.
So, where did he fit in? He tried to span that chasm between the two lines of thinking, the… the abyss that so many seemed to be unaware existed. Do your duty, keep your men alive. Each on its own was easy. Together…
His record was proven, and yet somehow, somewhere along the line, he had engendered the loyalty and trust of his men. The type of relationship between leader and men that caused Caje earlier today to follow him without thinking on top of that train for an incredibly foolhardy attempt to stop the halftrack. It had been stupid, but lucky. Luck brought about in part because this soldier lying here on the hard wet floor had been covering his back, giving him the time needed to get off the one perfect clean throw.
So what now?
Johns had given permission to leave. Saunders could take his men out of here along the old supply road. It was a chance, but from what Doc indicated, if Caje didn’t get blood soon, it could be the soldier’s only chance.
Or the squad could stay. Johns would soon be unable to give orders, if he wasn’t already. And Rawlings was clearly an order taker. Without a coordinated, tightly controlled plan, Saunders knew that the remaining men at the old train station did not have a chance. And he was the only one remaining who could provide that plan…
Saunders felt eyes on him, but not the hostile eyes of the Brits or the questioning eyes of Doc. Caje’s eyes were open, focused on him with an almost amused expression.
“Johns told you we could go?” Caje whispered hoarsely.
A bitter smile played across Saunders’ lips as he nodded.
“It was easier before…” Caje didn’t finish, a bought of violent coughing shaking him. Saunders reached to his belt and undid his newly refilled canteen. He was about to give Caje some water, but Doc spoke sharply from the other side of the room.
“No water! We need to wait and see if that bullet really missed his stomach.”
Saunders nodded and watched helplessly as the soldier convulsed for another moment, finally stopping and panting rapidly, closing his eyes.
“Doc, can’t you give him anything?”
“Sorry, Sarge. We ran out of morphine yesterday.”
Saunders closed his own eyes, weariness overtaking him. Five more minutes. He would make his decision in five more minutes. Maybe it would stop raining. Maybe Johns would take a turn for the better. Maybe Caje would…
He felt a hand grasp his wrist, the grip surprisingly strong. Caje was looking at him again, his gaze steady though slightly unfocused.
“Caje, what is it?”
The soldier tried twice, before finally whispering something in French and closing his eyes.
Saunders swore softly as Doc came over, drawn by something unseen. The medic reached down and took the scout’s pulse.
“Just shock, Sarge. What was he trying to tell you?”
“I don’t know.” Saunders stood to leave. He needed some fresh air, despite the rain.
As he started out the curtains, a voice from behind spoke up. “He said ‘You’ll do what’s right.’”
“Pardon me?” Saunders looked back to see who had spoken up. It was the Brit on the right side of Caje, his eyes bandaged as they had been since the Americans arrived the preceding day.
“I said, your soldier said that you’ll do what is right.”
Saunders shook his head in disgust as he continued his exit. He couldn’t do what was right, he didn’t know. It wasn’t clear, there was no one here to tell him. If there was anyone who even knew….
They chose to stay with him, even Kirby. He wasn’t sure why. He wasn’t sure why he offered them the choice, or why they remained. It would probably mean Caje’s life, but there had been only a slim chance anyway that they could make it back to their lines with the severely wounded man.
The rain had finally stopped. Saunders put his head down on the cool metal railing of the stairs. He was so tired. So tired of trying to span the abyss. Noncom…non commissioned officer. Neither soldier nor officer. Neither friend nor leader. Ineffective, inefficient…inertia. That is what he feared made the decision. He was tired. Just tired of it all.
He went back in to tell Johns of his—and his men’s—decision. As soon as he walked in the depot door, he was greeted by Doc.
“Is he worse?”
“No, he’s sleeping. Fever is setting in though. Not surprising as run down, dirty, and wet we all are.”
“I should have left you all behind, Doc.”
“You did, Sarge.”
“No, I didn’t. I just couldn’t find Kaffeo and Grabowski.”
To Saunders surprise, Doc smiled. A real, genuine smile.
Doc hesitated, then nodded as if coming to agreement with himself. “Well, Sarge, you couldn’t find Kaffeo and Grabowski because Caje found them first.”
“What do you mean?”
“Caje thought you shouldn’t go out there with those two lugheads behind you.”
“And we all agreed. He sent them on their way, knowing you’d take him.”
“And the rest of you?”
“Basically the same. I had to come ‘cause you and Caje were going. Kirby had to come ‘cause Caje was going. Billy and Littlejohn…”
“And you are telling me this now because?” Saunders looked at Doc expectantly. He wasn’t changing his decision. He couldn’t. But if Doc wanted to heap the guilt on, that was fine. He wanted to berate himself about the decision; he just didn’t have any more energy.
“I’m just telling you what you already know, Sarge.”
Saunders looked down at the floor and pushed the words out wearily. “You’re telling me that they came because they are loyal to me.”
“Yes, that. But Caje talked us into it because he knew you--we--may not get the job done without each other.”
“Get the job done…” Saunders repeated, unaware he had spoken aloud.
“Yeah, Sarge, get the job done. And I can tell you right now that Caje is lying in there thankful it is him with that hole through him and not Billy or Kirby or Littlejohn or me, ‘cause he talked us into it, though he thought he was doing his duty.”
Saunders nodded and exhaled, the tension releasing from his bearing. Someone else was playing by the same rules, someone else who saw the abyss. He wasn’t sure exactly what Caje had been trying to say earlier—that it was easier before Johns released them, or it was easier before Caje had been shot. Maybe both. But now he knew for sure, Caje would understand the decision to remain.