My Brothers’ Keeper

 by Repple Depple Rosie

 

 

 

Too big.

 

Too ugly.

 

Too slow.

 

He hated working with a different squad--the looks, the whispers, the supposed “jovial” comments that cut him to the quick. He always tried to maintain what his sweet grandmother had called in reference to the man she married and whom Littlejohn took after, a “quiet dignity”. And at home, after years of repeating this to himself, he felt he had created this persona in people’s minds.

 

But since leaving the wide open skies of his Plains home, he had been met with the stares and remarks that his six and a half foot, 240 lb frame, wide spaced teeth, broad nose, and rumbling voice naturally generated. All those outside of his small town in Nebraska initially saw was their preconceived notion of a country bumpkin, a giant, slow boor with little in the smarts category. Because for some cruel reason, that was the visage that the one above chose to give him. In France of 1944 he rarely had time to engender the second consideration that his dry humor, generosity to others, and thoughtful steadfastness deserved. This was a place where first impressions were often the only ones you got, and he could see it in the faces of the men in front of him.

 

Big.

 

Ugly.

 

Stupid.

 

Slow.

 

Littlejohn sighed, wishing Hanley had not felt it necessary to send two of Saunders’ soldiers back into Kraut territory with a squad from another platoon. At least in first squad the core group had been together long enough for the other fellas to really know him, to consider him a solid soldier. Yeah, they still made comments. In fact, Littlejohn had vowed before this last disastrous patrol that if Kirby made one more “oaf” comment, he was going to…going to… well, going to do nothing except threaten. But he wouldn’t be taken seriously, just as he really wouldn’t take Kirby’s remarks as anything but what they were—mouthing off. The guys under Saunders had somehow managed to stay together long enough to know each other, really know each other, Littlejohn thought. And this knowledge comforted him, both from a personal standpoint as well as from the standpoint of making the squad itself more effective—usually.

 

This last recon, though, ended up a mess. Billy had taken one in the side, Saunders given a concussion by the same grenade that blew a piece of shrapnel deep into Kirby’s arm. And to top it off, they hadn’t accomplished their mission. They never made it inside the village to estimate the usability of the bridge.

 

Caje had wanted to continue. As acknowledged default leader, he had seemed determined to have Littlejohn go on with him, until Doc stepped in. Calmly and rationally, the medic had persuaded the single-minded scout that they must turn back. The mission most likely would not succeed with just Caje and Littlejohn, and Doc could not get the wounded back without help. Reluctantly, Caje had acquiesced.

 

Caje. He stood next to Littlejohn now, also detailed to this new squad. If Littlejohn had to pick one man he would rather not be detailed out with, it would definitely be the scout. The others in the first squad would probably be surprised to know this, but of course his feelings about Caje were something Littlejohn kept to himself. His squadmates would undoubtedly pick the most unlikely, unworkable pairing to be Kirby and Littlejohn, largely due to the smaller man’s constant comments about Littlejohn’s size, speed (or lack thereof), and sometimes clumsiness. But those types of comments from Kirby, whether serious or not, were something Littlejohn was used to handling .

 

No, Littlejohn’s feelings about the Cajun scout were something different altogether, and something that he tried not to analyze too deeply. Because he was afraid that what those feelings said about him was not attractive. But today, when placed in front of a new squad, those sentiments surfaced. He couldn’t help it.

 

He hated the contrast. New guys looked at him, and he sensed they saw only big and clumsy, a detriment to the squad. They looked at Caje, and Littlejohn knew they could see the speed, sense the dangerous competency beneath the still surface. Unlike Littlejohn, though, the Louisian seemed indifferent to what others thought. Caje didn’t appear to need anyone, as was evidenced by his contentment with his usual solitary position at the front of Saunders’ squad. He was a loner, as opposite in this trait from Littlejohn as in appearance.

 

A loner…and a killer. It seemed to Littlejohn that the scout actually at some level enjoyed the lurid aspects of this war. He never shirked when asked to do the most gruesome of tasks, such as slipping up behind unsuspecting Kraut sentries and stealthily slitting their throats…or shooting a harmless old German soldier. Though he wasn’t in this squad at the time, Littlejohn had heard whispers about that incident. No, the Cajun never batted an eye at such an order nor did he ever evidence any regret as he wiped his bayonet, often on his own pants leg, and slid it back into its sheath. He never spoke of any feelings of remorse.

 

But despite this remoteness, whenever the Louisian opened his mouth, it appeared to Littlejohn that everyone flocked to him. The accent drew them like flies, commanders and dogfaces alike. They wanted to know if the villagers had seen Krauts, knew where such and such a road was, or where to procure food, drink, women… And the French-speaking Cajun provided answers to these as well as translation of the myriad of non-lingual differences between here and home---about customs, etiquette, religion…He was comfortable and welcomed here in this strange land, and Littlejohn resented that, too.

 

Littlejohn waited. It would only take a moment for the situation to settle itself into the inevitable. This new sergeant, Riley, would look at them, question them, ask about what they brought to the squad, what they could contribute to survival. And despite his size and his heart, Littlejohn knew that against Caje, his contribution would appear short…

 

***

 

Too different.

 

Too foreign.

 

Too…

 

A fit of coughing interrupted Caje’s thought. The niggling discomfort in his chest was just one more reason he felt some unease about going out again today. The main reason for his apprehension was staring at him—a new squad. He hated working with a different squad. The looks, the whispers, the questions that expressed interest, but really signaled that he was considered separate, an outsider.

 

It had taken long enough to feel accepted in Saunders’ squad. Especially after the incident at the landing, though Saunders was the only one left who probably remembered when he turned tail and ran. Certainly no one ever mentioned it, even obliquely. Sure, the guys in his own squad needled him about the accent, a few cultural differences, but he knew they didn’t really mean it. They trusted him, relied on him to do his job, to keep them alive. And that was what was important.

 

If he had been conscious, Sarge probably would have agreed with him this morning on the decision to go on with the recon. After all, the wounded weren’t so bad that and hour or two could have hurt. And then no one would have had to go out again into territory where the Krauts were now alerted that they were being probed.

 

Littlejohn, though, had been adamant about turning back. Caje was rather surprised when Doc backed the other soldier. Usually the medic left strategic questions to the one in command. Caje knew his own stonewalling about his condition to the medic outside the field hospital as they waited on news about the others was a direct reaction to the earlier feeling of being undermined. However much it satisfied his pride at the aid station to shut the medic out, in that instant Doc had probably been right, he needed to do something about this cough.

 

Littlejohn was staring at him now. Caje reached around and grabbed his canteen and took a long swallow. It helped for the moment. He abhorred showing any weakness in front of the new guys. They were clearly tired, and probably angry about being sent out to finish up the job that another squad didn’t complete. He knew it would be easy for them to direct their frustration at him—or Littlejohn. And that could be detrimental to the mission.

 

Littlejohn. No, it was unlikely that anyone could direct their frustration at that big soldier. He was as white-bread, guy-next-door as it gets. Instantly trustworthy, your best buddy. And he didn’t understand enough to create the walls that were so essential to survival out here. Well, that was because he still had his best friend. He only knew the upside of those special bonds that men in squads formed between each other. Sure, Littlejohn theoretically understood the downside—they all did. But you never really knew until it happened. You couldn’t.

 

Caje decided not to wait. He knew the new squad would look at them, deciding what they brought to the mission. It would only take a moment for the situation to settle itself into the inevitable. Littlejohn would be accepted, his worth and loyalties readily apparent. But for himself, there would be the suspicion, the whispers, the smoldering resentments over friends lost in this foreign land with which he was equated. Well, there was nothing he could do, except to prove himself over again

 

***

 

The patrol had not gone as Littlejohn expected. Yes, it was a disaster, but unexpectedly it was more so from Caje’s standpoint than his own--and from the squad as a whole’s standpoint. Unfortunately, the latter was the only one that was going to matter soon.

 

Once again they were on the outskirts of the godforsaken village, though this time they had made their destination and were on the way back. However, Littlejohn still experienced a sense of déjà vu, the location of this calamity slightly different than this morning, but the results basically the same. Riley and the three remaining members of his original squad lay pinned behind the tumbled walls of what had once been an outbuilding of a small house.

 

They had gotten this far without incidence, thanks in part Littlejohn had to acknowledge reluctantly, to the man next to him. Caje had immediately endeared himself to Sergeant Riley just hours before with his detailed explanation of the Kraut placements Saunders’ squad encountered in their unsuccessful foray into the village. Furthermore, he offered forth an already thought out plan to circumvent his own squad’s misfortune. Littlejohn had been surprised at the scout’s memory of every ditch, hillock, and potential Kraut emplacement along the way. But then again, the big soldier told himself, he had been too concerned with making sure that the radio was secured on the way in and the wounded secured on the way out. Burdens of those types were not ones that Caje generally shouldered.

 

And up until a few moments ago, everything had gone according to plan. Caje’s plan. But now…

 

Littlejohn had noticed Caje struggling all afternoon. The strain on the scout was particularly obvious after the Cajun returned from a quick relief break in the bushes. The scout seemed extremely pale and drawn, and sat heavily away from the rest of the group without even lighting his customary cigarette. Littlejohn was concerned enough to go over to his squadmate. But, when Littlejohn asked how he was doing, Caje gave him an inscrutable look, with a surprising curl of wry amusement on his lips.

 

“What?” Littlejohn never could read the quiet Cajun.

 

Caje had shrugged, grimacing slightly. “I’m fine. It’s nothing.”

 

Then Riley called the scout back and conferred with him, the disagreement between the two loud enough to be partially overheard by the remaining men.

 

“...goddam stubborn Frenchman.”

 

Caje’s face remained carefully blank as he came back to the group. Riley bawled, “Greene, you take the point. I don’t care how well he knows the area, his hacking is going to give us away.”

 

Less than ten minutes later, Greene led them right into this Kraut machine gun nest.

 

Three GIs were dead already. Larson was from Iowa and reminded Littlejohn of a couple of guys he had known at home. The fair-haired farmer’s son fell without a sound, a bloody shard of his uniform lying on the log sheltering Littlejohn and Caje.

 

Littlejohn could see Riley looking over toward them, yelling something. But he could not make out the words over the ack ack of the Kraut gun and the ack ack of the soldier next to him. Caje was doubled over, now not pale but bright red with the coughing attack. He still clutched his rifle, but was unable at the moment to take aim. Littlejohn knew Riley was probably frustrated with the lack of firepower. His own rifle lay out of reach in four feet or so in front of the log. He had dropped it as Larson had stumbled back into him moments ago.

 

Littlejohn shook his head at Riley to indicate that he didn’t understand the message. He wasn’t sure if the Sergeant saw him or not. The Kraut firepower was concentrated on the ditch where the Sergeant, Greene, and Owens huddled. The lack of attention to his own hiding place made Littlejohn think that perhaps the Krauts were unaware of the other soldiers ten feet or so to the left of Riley’s position.

 

Suddenly, Caje hissed in his ear, “Stay here.” And he slid out to the left. Littlejohn had no idea of what the scout was doing. Exasperated, he turned back toward Riley, feeling useless…

 

***

 

Caje felt useless. No worse than useless. He had failed, and in such a way as to put the squad in an even worse position than it had been before, if that was possible. Near the old house at the top of the hill from which the Krauts directed their fire, another violent fit of coughing had overtaken him. There was never a chance to toss his grenades, and he didn’t even hear the two Krauts trying to flank the Americans just as he was trying to flank them. They took him without a shot.

 

And now here he was, tied up in the Kraut post. It had been quiet for the last 30 minutes. Too quiet. Either the squad was dead or somehow had pulled back. Surprisingly, Kraut reinforcements had not arrived. He had seen the Kraut sergeant radioing in their situation. At least, that is what he assumed the guy to have done. Perhaps he had told them that everything was fine…that the Ami were no longer an issue.

 

Well, he wasn’t, anyway. The blow to his ribs during his futile struggle at being tied up had landed right where the blond soldier—Larson--sucker punched him earlier in the bushes. One from their side, one from his own side, and he was pretty sure he had caught this bug from that Maquis leader he translated for several days ago. Sitting here with his hand tied behind his back, coughing miserably through ribs that he was sure were cracked, Caje felt completely alone.

 

***

 

Littlejohn slid over beside Riley. With the coming of dusk, he was certain they would pull back. There had been no fire from the Krauts in a while. Either they thought the Americans had already left, or they were waiting on reinforcements.

 

Riley looked him over. “You hit anywhere?”

 

“No—I’m okay.”

 

Riley turned his head back toward the house on the hill, but nodded in acknowledgment of Littlejohn’s statement. He remained quiet for several more minutes, his mind clearly churning through the situation.

 

Without turning back toward the other soldier, he said, “You lost your weapon.” It was a statement, not a question.

 

Littlejohn hesitated, embarrassed even though he knew it wasn’t his fault. “Yeah.”

 

“Owens, is Neal’s weapon working?”

 

Owens looked up from tightening the bandage around Green’s leg. “Just a minute, Sarge. I’ll check.”

 

Riley sighed. Littlejohn had not been able to see clearly the expressions on Green and Owen’s faces, but Riley remained turned toward Kraut machine gun nest, and his face caught the last of the fading light. It was tired, anguished, and determined. Littlejohn had seen the same mix of emotions on Saunders’ face many times. Once again he was glad that he was merely a grunt, and didn’t have to bear the responsibility of leaving behind others. Dead or alive, it was always hard to leave…

 

“Larson dead?”

 

Littlejohn started to nod, then realized that Riley was still not looking at him. “Yeah.”

 

“You sure?”

 

“Yeah, it went…” Littlejohn stopped, not wanting to remember, but then continued, knowing that Riley needed to hear. “It went right through his head.”

 

Riley’s face was now merely shadows as the last of the evening light disappeared behind the hill. Littlejohn heard another deep sigh.

 

“I’m sorry,” Littlejohn stumbled awkwardly. “He…he seemed like a nice kid.”

 

Littlejohn heard Riley snort derisively and was surprised by the incredulous look that Owens gave him as he crept up next to him and handed Littlejohn Neal’s rifle.

 

“Larson was an SOB. But he was my SOB.” Riley paused, then turned and sat back down, facing the three remaining soldiers.

 

“Okay, we’re going to wait 15 more minutes. Even if they’ve called in reinforcements. our chance are better once it is dark. We’ll go out to the right. I’ll lead, Littlejohn, you help Green. Owens, you’ll take the rear.”

 

“And…Caje?” Littlejohn knew Saunders would expect an answer. Caje was Saunders’ SOB. Littlejohn was immediately ashamed of his own thought, even if he did feel that the Cajun got himself into this mess himself. Always trying to be a hero.

 

 Riley rubbed his eyes then began checking his ammunition before he answered Littlejohn. “Sorry. There’s nothing we can do. We need to get the information back.”

 

***

 

 Caje watched in fascination as the flames began to lick along the top of the blanket. The Kraut with the glasses and the slight limp had carelessly flicked the cigarette stub over his shoulders several minutes ago, not noticing where it landed.

 

The smoldering had drawn Caje’s attention, and he had tried desperately to suppress his coughing so that the other soldiers wouldn’t notice the cigarette’s effect on the blanket. While he had no desire to burn with the Bosche, a fire could provide enough distraction so that if the squad still happened to be outside, perhaps they could slip away.

 

When the flames began to skip up the wall, Caje decided it was time. He allowed himself to start coughing, finding some relief even through the incredible pain in his ribs.

 

The Kraut with the glasses turned, clearly ready to show his annoyance with the prisoner once again. However, his eyes rounded with surprise at the quickly spreading fire. He seized the blanked and tried to beat out the fire, but he could not reach high enough. The other Krauts initially laughed at the soldier’s efforts, but their laughter faded quickly as the flames suddenly raced across the ceiling. The dry old farmhouse was ready timber.

 

***

 

Caje managed to open his eyes from the violent coughing racking his body and realized that his ploy may have succeeded too well. The Krauts started gather their weapons, the leader gesturing toward the door, just a few feet to Caje’s left. However, the flames were splitting the room, filling it with dark smoke. Caje could barely make out the soldiers as they started flinging themselves out the windows from which they had been keeping watch.

 

No one was paying any attention to him. No one was going to release him.

 

Above the crackling of the flames, Caje heard rifle fire. The squad was still there. Or someone was. The Krauts had to be sitting ducks as they dove out of the house.

 

He tried to scoot his chair toward the door, uncertain as to how he would open it, but he would deal with that once he was closer. He lungs screamed for air, the smoke aggravating his cough to new levels. Three feet shy of the door, the chair tipped over. In the second before his head hit the floor, he realized he wasn’t going to make it.

 

 Sarge watched Doc through half-closed eyes, careful not to let on that he was awake. The medic had been with the squad for a month now, but the designation “new” usually left a man out here after the first patrol. Still, this had been the first real down time since this medic replaced Walters, and Saunders allowed himself the rare luxury of observing relaxed interaction among his men.

 

The medic was clearly reassuring Kirby and Nelson about something. Though Saunders couldn’t make out he words, the tone and mannerism were clear. He liked that about the medic. The assurance, the confidence. As much as he had liked Walters, the kid had been skittish since before the landing. This medic, though, had unwittingly—or perhaps it was calculated—stepped into the squad and created a –a—a refuge for the emotions that wracked the soldiers before and after they did their duty.

 

This Doc absorbed the emotions, allowed the soldiers to come at him with them, pawn them off on him, and walk away lightened of their burdens for the moment. Saunders wasn’t sure what Doc did with all that was unloaded on him. Truthfully, Saunders had to admit that he found himself wanting to open up to the Doc, talk about the nightmares that assaulted him when motion stopped and he was stilled enough for emotion to catch up. But he couldn’t. Just as he couldn’t do what Doc did for his men.

 

They all had different roles to play out here. Roles that were assigned or determined within the first few days. Perhaps these roles would not fit these men outside the context of the hell they were facing, but within it they allowed the squad to function as a unit rather than a group of individuals. They also reduced the amount of friction between the men, Saunders thought. They gave an air of predictable ness to behaviors that often could otherwise have created additional tension within the squad.

 

Kirby the “loudmouth”…

 

Nelson the “kid”…

 

Littlejohn the “big brother”…

 

Doc the “mother hen”…

 

Caje the “loner”…

 

Sarge the…

 

Doc walked over to him. Checking, always checking on the men. He took his job seriously. Saunders appreciated that, but at times…

 

“How yadoin’, Sarge?”

 

“Fine, Doc. Just fine.”

 

“Good. Anything you need?”

 

“Nah. Just some more sleep.”

 

“Okay.” Doc remained standing beside Saunders’ cot. Saunders could sense there was something more, but he didn’t ask. Didn’t want to know. Didn’t have to know.

 

Doc wasn’t leaving, despite the fact Saunders had closed his eyes. Well, he would fix that. Without opening his eyes he said, “Why don’t you go find Hanley and see if Riley’s squad has reported back in to Lt. Conners.”

 

The medic let out a deep sigh, and Saunders could sense the relief in the medic’s tone. “So, you are worried, too.”

 

Saunders opened his eyes and looked at Doc’s face. The tension was evident. “Worried about what? Two of my guys out with another squad? Sure, I’m worried.”

 

Doc nodded, but his forehead remained furrowed. After a moment, he volunteered, “You know Caje was sick?”

 

Saunders struggled to set up. Doc helped him then handed him the pack of cigarettes and lighter on the nightstand. Saunders got one lit and took a drag, but didn’t answer the question. He had to give the medic credit, though. He didn’t look squirm or look uncomfortable. He just sat there waiting, eyes locked on Saunders.

 

Kirbv spoke up from across the room. “Sarge, you hear anything ‘bout Caje and Littlejohn?”

 

Saunders was actually glad for the intrusion. “Kirby, I have been in here same as you? You see anyone come in here and tell me anything?”

 

“No, but..”

 

“But what?”

 

“I dunno’, Sarge. You’re just supposed to know.”

 

“Can’t know what no one tells me, Kirby.”

 

“Or you don’t want to hear.” It was said so softly, but it echoed in his head like an explosion. The accusation was clear in the medic’s eyes.

 

“I thought I gave you an order.”

 

The medic spun around and stalked out of the tent, leaving Saunders alone with his thoughts.

 

***

 

Littlejohn shifted Caje’s arm again, then softly called out to Riley to stop. Caje had finally collapsed.

 

It wasn’t surprising. When they found him just inside the burning building, Littlejohn had thought the scout was already dead. They drug him out and down the hillside still tied to the chair, moving as quickly as they could. If the Krauts hadn’t already called for back up, the smoke from the fire would surely bring it. And it was evident that the bodies scattered around the outside of the house didn’t perish from the fire.

 

Once at the base of the hill, the scout had surprised them when he opened his eyes after Riley slit the ropes. No word of thanks, no joy at seeing the familiar faces. He had just rasped, “Let’s go,” and scrambled out of the chair. Riley had shrugged at Littlejohn’s incredulous expression and then followed the scout back over to where Green and Owens lay.

 

Whatever adrenalin had been powering Caje gave out two minutes later, though. After taking a swig from Owen’s canteen, Caje started coughing. And coughing. He couldn’t stand, he couldn’t breath. Littlejohn watched in fascinated horror as each intake of breath by the scout became shorter. Caje held his side, eyes closed.

 

Littlejohn had sensed Riley looking at him expectantly. But he didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t a medic. Owens had knelt down beside Caje, unbuttoned his shirt, and probed around. Littlejohn wasn’t sure what the soldier was looking for. He hadn’t seen any blood.

 

Probably pneumonia, probably broken ribs. What a combination. And Littlejohn had not known. Sure, he had heard the scout coughing. But if it was bad enough, Doc would have held him behind. Or Sarge. The ribs…how was he supposed to know that Larson had taken a swing at the Cajun when the guy wasn’t looking? But Green seemed to know, and Owens, and Riley. He had seen the accusation in their eyes.

 

Littlejohn had felt the frustration welling up inside himself. Caje didn’t share. He was a loner. Everyone knew it. Everyone acknowledged it. It was his own fault. He could have said something.

 

Without saying a word, he had reached down and helped the scout up. Supporting his wounded squadmate as best he could, Littlejohn followed Green and Owens, with Riley trailing behind.

 

Caje still never said a word. No thanks, no accusations, no explanations…He just trudged resolutely beside Littlejohn, the only communication involuntary grunts of pain at sudden moves that jostled his ribs or a wave away when the occasional bout of coughing forced the scout to stop.

 

After a while, Littlejohn felt grudging admiration for the Cajun’s determination. He wasn’t sure how he would act in a similar situation, with the pain of the injuries coupled with the pain of knowing that some came deliberately from his own side. His allies…his friends?

 

Sitting here now, the Cajun laying beside him, Littlejohn had to admit he hadn’t been much of a friend to Caje. But maybe he could make it up. Starting now, when the Cajun actually needed someone. Littlejohn felt the competence in his own abilities rising, for he knew this is where he excelled, where his size and heart really mattered. He would get Caje back to Sarge

 

He took out one of his bandages and doused it with the remaining water from his canteen. Gently he wiped the soot from the Cajun’s face. It was rare to see Caje not tensed and watchful, coiled like he was ready to strike. Everyone knew even in his sleep to approach the scout carefully. But now, Littlejohn looked at the prone body resting beside him as if for the first time, and remembered is initial assessment of Caje. Small, wiry…foreign.

 

Littlejohn let the guilt wash over him.

 

He felt the Cajun’s eyes on him, and brought his thoughts back from his musings. He turned quickly with a smile of reassurance that died on his lips. The look in Caje’s eyes, which quickly closed, had clearly been of anger.

***

 

Each breath was becoming more and more difficult.

 

Caje hated the fact that he was now being carried by Littlejohn, but there had been no choice. He could not force himself to go any further. His body simply would not obey.

 

Though he was conscious, he did not open his eyes again after the decision was made for Littlejohn to carry him. The humiliation was just too great. They had debated giving him morphine for the pain in his ribs, but Owens, who seemed to know a little about medicine, had decided that the drug may make his breathing even more difficult.

 

He hated Littlejohn knowing. Knowing about the humiliation he suffered at Larson’s hands. It was rare Caje allowed himself to be caught off guard, but he allowed that he had been pretty sick at the time. Unfortunately, events like this were not uncommon when he was away from the squad, but he usually was able to take care of himself, and hide any collateral damage from Sarge and the guys.

 

Caje let the guilt wash over him. First he had allowed Sarge and the guys to walk right into that Kraut outpost today—or was that yesterday? Then he had not been on point today when Riley’s squad walked into that machine gun nest. Because he had been too ill, because, as Riley had guessed though Caje denied it, Larson had gotten the best of him.

 

He became away of Littlejohn panting heavily. He wanted to open his eyes, to take a look at how the big soldier was doing given the burden he was carrying. But his eyes would not open…and suddenly it felt as though the air would not come.

 

*** 

 

Sarge! I think we gotta stop!.

 

Littlejohn non-so-gently laid Caje by the side of the road. The wounded soldier’s breathing was irregular, heavy, rasping, the stuggle for air a fight apparent to all. It reminded Littlejohn of the fish he sometimes caught at home in the pond and laid on the dock, struggling out of the water in which they belonged. He shoved the disturbing image aside as Owens came over and tipped Caje’s head back, then opened his shirt and placed his ear on the other soldier’s chest.

 

“I think his lungs are closing down ‘cause of the smoke. And as I said earlier, he probably had pneumonia to begin with. I really don’t want to give him anything ‘cause I think the only reason he is still breathing is ‘cause he’s actually trying. But that’s gotta’ hurt with those ribs.”

 

Littlejohn saw the frown cross Owen’s face. “What do we do?”

 

Owens looked up, “What?”

 

“I said, what do we do?”

 

Riley was suddenly beside Littlejohn. He was looking at Caje, shaking his head slightly.

 

Owens and Riley reached some type of unspoken agreement, communicating with their eyes. Then Riley answered Littejohn’s question. “We leave him.”

 

“What?! You can’t do that…”

 

Owens gripped Littlejohn’s arm. “It’s the only way. We are just a couple of miles from Ilse. Carrying him is only constricting his lungs even more. What he needs, we can’t give him. But if we can hurry back and get some help, he may have a chance.”

 

Littlejohn struggled to understand. “What do you know? You’re not a medic.”

 

Riley stood and pulled Littlejohn away from Caje. “No, he’s not a medic. But his dad was a doctor. Owens probably knows more about medicine than most of our medics running around here. I trust his judgment.”

 

At the stubborn look in Littlejohn’s eyes, Riley continued. “Look, the guy is clearly a fighter. He’ll make it the extra hour or so it will take to get help back here. But if Owens says he won’t make it being carried…I’d believe him.”

 

“I’m staying.”

 

Riley gave Littlejohn a half smile. “It never occurred to me that you weren’t.”

 

*** 

 

Doc came up beside Saunders, who was sitting next to Caje’s cot.

 

“How’s he doing, Sarge? He wake up yet?”

 

“Yeah, once, when Littlejohn came by earlier. He tried to say something…”

 

“Well, he can’t talk with that tube in his throat. It’s just helping him breath. Doctor said they’ll take it out tomorrow.”

 

Saunders nodded without looking up. “When can I have him back?”

 

Doc sighed, the exasperation clear in his tone. “You’re lucky you got him back. You sent him out there with pneumonia. Now he’s got a tube in his throat…”

 

Saunders cut in. “I didn’t ask for your opinion. I asked when I could have him back.”

 

“A week. Maybe ten days. Depends on the ribs and if there are any complications from the pneumonia.”

 

Kirby crept up on the other side of the cot. “Hey, Sarge. We’ll know he’s ready when he asks for a cigarette, huh?”

 

Saunders laughed, then caught the look on Doc’s face. “Kirby, why don’t you sit with him a while. Doc and I have a few things to talk about.”

 

“Sure, Sarge. I’d love to spend some time with olCaje here. Just laying here, not saying a word, face all scowled up…Come to think of it, seems like most of the time I spend with him. Hey, Caje, I tell you ‘bout that nurse here that…”

 

***

 

“What’s your problem?”

 

“What?”

 

“Look, Doc, you’ve clearly got something to say about the way I handled this. Usually I don’t have time to care what my men think about the way I run my squad. But since we’re all stuck here for the moment, why don’t you get it out?”

 

Despite Doc’s status as a non-combatant, Saunders had no illusions as to the medic’s combative nature when pushed. And something he had done had pushed the man too far. What he said was true, usually he wouldn’t care…or wouldn’t take the time. But he had the time now to listen. Whether he would do anything about it, well…

 

“You sent Caje out there with pneumonia.” The statement was quiet, but the accusation clear.

 

“I sent Caje out there because he was the best man for the job. He didn’t mention anything about being ill.”

 

“Oh, c’mon, Sarge. That was clear to everyone. That’s why I talked him into taking the squad back after you and the other guys were hit out there.”

 

“We’ve been over this, Doc. Unless you have something new?”

 

The medic tilted his chin up. “You push him. You push him harder than anyone else in this squad.”

 

Saunders raised one eyebrow, but didn’t reply.

 

“Okay, Sarge, maybe you push him as hard as you push yourself. But yours is by choice. His…you’re lucky he didn’t die out there.”

 

Saunders ducked his head and stole a sideways look over toward Caje’s bed. Kirby was entertaining himself, talking non-stop to the non-responsive scout. But Saunders noted the BAR man constantly touching Caje’s shoulder and arm, punching him to emphasize some point in his story.

 

Finally, Saunders turned back to Doc. “You know, Doc, let me tell you something. I know what each man in this squad needs. And I know what the squad needs. And I know what Hanley needs out of us. And it’s rare that all those things fit nice and neatly together.” He pause and drew a deep breath.

 

“Let me tell you what else I know. We had a job to get done, information to get. Caje needs to prove himself, for whatever reason. He allows me to push him, wants me to push him.”

 

Doc’s expression was incredulous. “So you would let Caje commit virtual suicide because he needs to “prove” himself?”

 

Saunders sighed heavily. “Doc, did it ever occur to you to wonder why I didn’t send just Littlejohn?” It was evident from the medic’s expression that the thought had not crossed his mind. “No, you understand why it had to be Caje, don’t you? And did it ever occur to you to wonder why I sent Littlejohn if Caje was the one who could guide Riley’s squad?”

 

“Are you saying that you sent Littlejohn to nursemaid Caje?”

 

“I don’t know if I would have put it that way, but…”

 

“Did you tell Littlejohn to take care of Caje?”

 

“I know my men.” Saunders allowed his tone to be abrupt. He had had enough of this conversation.

 

“You get what you want of them, I’ll give you that, Sarge. But do you know why they do it?”

 

“I don’t see where that matters.”

 

“Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe not out here. Maybe not yet. But if these guys—if we—survive this war, won’t the why be what we have to live with?”

 

 

***

 

Five minutes and one cigarette later, Saunders relieved a surprised Kirby. As he sat at Caje’s bedside, he allowed himself to replay the answer he had given Doc.

 

“I don’t allow myself the luxury of the “why”, Doc. And I don’t have the time or the energy to analyze how my men act. It is enough that they do what I expect and what I want.”

 

But was that enough, truly?

 

He took Caje’s unresponsive hand, thinking of the two sullen soldiers who had returned alive from this patrol. He had noticed the tension between them in the few minutes Caje was awake, but he just hadn’t asked why. They would all be lucky if there was ever time to deal with any repercussions of this or any other patrols.

 

For now, it was enough that they had returned…just as he had planned.