Purple Hearts

 

Based on the ABC Television Series:  Combat!

Fan Fiction Take-off on the Stories “Best Intents” by Bayonet and “The Circle” by Victoria

Copyright 2003 by JMcG and Terry Pierce

 

 

For the Combat! fan fiction writers whose stories I silently enjoyed for years before I got the guts to give it a try…and for Bayo in particular, who took my thanks and gave back more…

 

 

 

 

 

Kirby’s face was red and shiny with exertion, and his breath came out in a rapid staccato.  Even from the distance of the arm that Sarge was using to support the private, the smell of alcohol was overpowering that of the perspiration that dripped from his face and stained his once crisp uniform. 

 

“Breathe deeply and start over,” Saunders ordered -- not that he wanted to hear.  From the moment the three week furlough in Paris had begun, the unit that had fought so well and so cohesively through Europe had started to spin out of the battlefield discipline that had held it together.  At this rate, the slow trip back home after victory was looking like more of a losing proposition than any live fire the squad had encountered during the past twelve months. 

 

Saunders shook Kirby non-so-gently and repeated the order.  “Start over.” 

 

The other platoon members just waking in their bunks started to gather around, their curiosity piqued.  Both old and new members sensed that the strange incidents of the week might finally be coming to some sort of head.  Most hoped so, finding the shifting equilibrium in the group more and more disturbing.  Once reliable soldiers disappearing for days on end, friendships starting to unravel, the sudden fear of obtaining what had been hoped for for so long -- all combined to create a sense of uncertainty that had not been felt by many since they first stepped foot in France.  Anything or anyone on which to focus their anxiety, even for a moment, was welcomed.

 

“Sarge,” Kirby started again, his breathing beginning to slow.  “He just went berserk, started pounding on a door, smashing a window -- it was just a stupid painting.  Never seen anything like it.”  He ran his sleeve across his forehead, trying to catch the sweat that was forming droplets in front of his eyes.  Then taking a quick look at the gathering men, he dropped his voice and continued in answer to Saunders’ baffled look, “Caje -- Caje just lost it.  MPs took him in.  I had McCall go with them, but we need you.  You know, to go find out what’s going on.”  His bloodshot eyes took on an imploring look.

 

Saunders sighed, releasing his hold on the smaller man and giving him an uncharacteristically hard shove into a nearby chair.  He sank into the chair next to Kirby, ran a hand through his already tousled hair, and addressed the men across the room.  “Go back to what you were doing.”  When they continued to stare, he reiterated his statement with an emphatic, “Now!”

 

The nightmare week just didn’t seem to end.  Saunders wanted to disengage -- to sit back and let it flow around him.  No more counting his men every night, no more trips to the slammer to find them, no more breaking up fistfights and handing out coffee in the a.m.  He was tired of babysitting rather than leading, especially with regard to this group that knew better.  If the remaining eight weeks that it would take to get home continued like this, he was not sure that the trust and camaraderie that bound him to these men -- some tighter than others -- would continue stateside.  Good riddance and goodbye when they reached NYC, USA.

 

“Sarge,” Kirby hissed.  “C’mon, we gotta do something.”

 

Saunders didn’t react, and Kirby rose from his chair.  He grabbed Saunders by the arm and began tugging at him.

 

“Sarge, c’mon!  I’ll go with you.”   

 

Saunders shrugged him off and ran his hands through his hair again.  This time, however, he kept his head in his hands and said, “Sit down, Kirby.”

 

Kirby sank back down.

 

“Tell me everything from the beginning.  I gotta tell you, I’m thinking about leaving him there for awhile.”

 

“No, Sarge, you really can’t do that.”  Kirby was emphatic. “I mean, this is not just like me drinking and getting into a fight or something.  He really went off the deep end this time.  It’s like he was possessed or something.”

 

Saunders said nothing, and Kirby latched onto the sergeant’s sleeve.

 

“Sarge…”  He shook Saunders’ arm and then paused.  “I think he was hurt when the MPs drug him away.  I saw blood.  I think he was cut up from the glass.  You know they won’t take care of him if they just think it was some drinking accident.  And Sarge, you know it’s more than that -- you know that.” 

 

Saunders finally looked up.  “Kirby, I don’t know that it is more than that.  I don’t know anything anymore.”  He shook his head at all the uncertainty. “I ought to leave him there.”

 

“C’mon,” Kirby pleaded.  “He’s hurt and he ain’t been the same since he came back.  Sarge, he’s one of us.”

 

At this point, Littlejohn drew near, followed closely by Doc.  The two men looked at Saunders for permission to enter the discussion and, receiving reluctant acknowledgement, pulled up chairs. 

 

They leaned in intently toward Kirby, and Doc asked, "You said he was hurt?"  Nearly a year of tending these men through illness and injury made the soft-spoken Arkansan's interest keen and his question sharp.

 

Kirby answered in the affirmative, and Doc and Littlejohn exchanged quick looks that made it obvious they had come to an agreement.

 

“We’ll go get him, Sarge,” Doc said.  “Kirby’s right; those docs won’t pay him any mind in jail. He shouldn’t sit there alone and injured.” 

 

It was an open challenge to the tired sergeant.  Saunders could not deny all that the longest serving men in his squad had been through together, relying on each other day in and day out for months.  While there were other men in the room and other men in the platoon, these six men had a bond that even today, even in Paris, even this week, and even on the way home, could not be ignored. 

 

In fact, among those who had fought alongside them in the ETO, Saunders’ squad had near legendary status.  Battered, beaten, scarred, and maimed, the blond sergeant’s men had survived together for an unheard of amount of time during this war that had made one June to the next an eternity.  Other soldiers assigned to the platoon during the last few months of the war generally had one of two reactions to them -- either they hoped the veterans’ luck might rub off on them, or they resigned themselves to the fact that they were the expendables.  Because everyone knew that a squad always took casualties -- just not Saunders’ men.

 

It had even been forgotten, or perhaps it just made a better story, that McCall hadn’t really been with the group from the beginning.  Nor did the stories recognize that there had been others -- others at the heart of this squad -- who hadn’t made it.  Others like Billy Nelson, Grady Long, Brockmeyer…

 

“No.”  Saunders drew himself up to his feet.  “I’ll get him.  If he’s hurt bad enough, they’ll tend to him.  If he’s not, I don’t care at this point.  Kirby,” he nodded to the inebriated soldier, “sleep it off.  I’ll be back.  Doc and Littlejohn, hold things down here ‘til I see what’s up with Caje.  If McCall gets back before me, keep him here.” 

 

Saunders donned his service cap, still unused to its light weight after the camo helmet he’d worn in the field.  As he stepped out the door, he nearly ran into Hanley…Captain Hanley, that is.  Saunders still wasn’t used to that, either.

 

“Saunders, I heard one of your men was taken in by the MPs again last night.  What is going on here?”

 

Saunders ducked the question, responding quickly, “I’m on my way to get him.”

 

Hanley looked at him with an eyebrow raised.  “Who is it?”

 

The sergeant looked uncomfortable, and Hanley warned, “Sergeant, I asked you a question.” 

 

Trying to calculate the captain’s response, Saunders waited a moment before he answered reluctantly, “Caje, sir.”  He wasn’t sure of Hanley’s potential reaction.  The captain knew Caje well through battle and, unfortunately, through these past weeks of the soldier going missing for three days and participating in drunken brawls.  “But like I said, I’m on my way to get him.”

 

Hanley plainly saw frustration, exacerbation, and worry vying for the top spot in Saunders’ expression.  And although he was inclined to remind the sergeant that this was the third time this week Caje had been in some type of trouble, he dropped in beside him.  “Let’s go.”

 

Saunders nodded his appreciation and the two set off down the chaotic streets of a rejuvenated Paris, its sidewalks continuing to brim with soldiers rejoicing in triumph and survival.  Liberated nearly a year before, the city was settling down to reconstruction and a semblance of civilian order.  Hanley glanced admiringly at several young women walking arm-in-arm down the sidewalk and returned their tentative smiles with a practiced charming smile of his own.  Victory in Europe had brought a return to normalcy that he and most other soldiers were relishing.  They were adjusting quickly, writing letters home, and planning for jobs and futures that included houses, wives, kids, and dogs.  Others, however…

 

Hanley looked over at Saunders’ bowed head.  The sergeant’s stride kept quickening.

 

“What is it this time?” Hanley asked.

 

“I don’t know, sir.  Kirby came in saying that Caje busted up some shop.”  He shook his head.  “Said there was some glass and he got cut up.  I’d have left him otherwise….”

 

“Some men don’t adjust.”

 

The two walked for several more minutes before Saunders finally spoke.  “He’s not one of them.”  It was a flat declaration.

 

“How do you know?  How do any of us know?  What we were out there…it’s not who we were or are at home.  They said after the last war that some guys never adjusted.  Caje was good out in the field.  One of the best.  It may be hard to turn that off.”

 

Saunders was silent.  Caje was good in the field -- almost too good.  Except for rare occasions, he did his duty without complaint, and with a thoroughness and seeming coolness that sometimes mystified both his commanders and the other members of the squad.  Maybe Caje’s capacity for killing should have been questioned, but in the field you didn’t look too close.  And everyone was grateful for the soldier’s efficiency.  In fact, Saunders was grateful to have had another man with leadership qualities alongside him, and he knew that Caje’s reliability had engendered the closest thing he had to a real friendship in the squad.

 

“I know him,” Saunders said.  “And he’ll be all right.”

 

They rounded a corner and started up a wide boulevard when Hanley suddenly asked, “Did I ever tell you that Major Pickard once asked me specifically about Caje?”

 

Saunders glanced up at Hanley.  “Old Picayune Pickard?  The one who had a heart attack or something?”  He paused and then continued, “The one caught, uh, with his CO’s wife?”

 

Hanley and Saunders grinned, the seriousness of their conversation allayed as they both remembered the various stories that had circulated about the circumstances surrounding Major Pickard’s unfortunate death. 

 

Hanley nodded.  “Yeah, the very one.  From Louisiana, you know, like Caje.  Stopped me one day and asked if I had Armand LeMay’s boy in my platoon.  It took me a moment to realize he meant Caje.  Asked me how he was doing.  I told him that Caje was probably my best scout.  He seemed surprised for a minute, said that LeMay’s father had spoiled the boy, let him run wild…”

 

The screech of jeep tires interrupted the conversation.  Hanley and Saunders shook their heads in disgust as a very young, fresh replacement nearly mowed down several civilians crossing the street in front of them.  There was a perceptible difference in the actions of the soldiers who hurried with excitement to what used to be the front and the combat experienced veterans who crept with caution to peace.  As they waited for the civilians and the jeep to sort themselves out, Hanley asked, “Did you know Caje went to college?”

 

Saunders grunted at this new piece of information.  Caje had never mentioned it.  But that wasn’t a surprise since it wasn’t in the scout’s nature to volunteer personal information and feelings…though he managed to avoid these topics in such a way that few in the outfit ever noticed.  Saunders noticed, but it wasn’t in his own nature to push a man for information beyond what was required to maintain the squad’s unity.  And if Caje being a college student didn’t enter into that, what did it matter?

 

Still, Caje having a college education did make sense.  The guy often knew things that seemed beyond the realm of the average soldier's ordinary life experiences.  And it had become natural for the men to ask him the history of a city or the meaning of an inscription on the rare building they found still intact -- just as it was natural to ask Littlejohn about farming, Kirby about poker, and Doc about anything medical.  The roles of the squad’s veterans had become set over time and something they’d all just taken for granted.  With the war over, that didn’t matter now either.

 

“He never mentioned it.  Guess it never came up.”

 

“So then maybe you don’t know him as well as you…”

 

“I know him,” Saunders interrupted.  “You don’t live next to a man, eat with him, share your cigarettes with him, owe your life to him and save his several times over without…”  His voice trailed off.

 

Spoiled and wild.  Caje had gone to college.

 

Saunders wondered how much he had really allowed himself to know the members of his squad.  He was a good observer of his men and, through those observations, thought that he knew them well.  But maybe he’d been so busy with the war, so consumed with carrying out the next mission, that he had actually only known what capabilities they had for fighting.

 

Saunders shook off the thought.  “Something happened…something happened in that seventy two hours.”

 

“You mean when he went AWOL?”  Hanley asked.

 

“He wasn’t AWOL.  Technically, anyway.  But, yeah, when he didn’t check in for three days.  I stripped him of his leave for awhile, but he didn’t seem to care.  Just slept for sixteen hours straight.  Never talked about where he had been.” 

 

Saunders thought back.  It was unlike Caje to disappear without a word, and when twenty four hours passed, the squad grew worried.  The first days of the men’s furlough in Paris were spent looking through the streets and alleys, in the bars and whorehouses, without them finding a trace of the corporal.  By the time Caje returned, sullen and withdrawn, seventy two hours later, his squadmates’ concern had turned to anger over the fun they’d missed and their wasted energy.  The silence that greeted their questions only infuriated them more, and Caje’s last two brawls and subsequent lockups had only solicited shrugs and “serves him rights.”

 

Last night though, Kirby and McCall, having gotten over their anger, had gone out with him while the rest of the platoon, finally tired of carousing, opted to stay in and play poker.  Saunders regretted not putting a stop to Caje's antics then and there.  He had had cause…

 

He was just tired.

 

****

 

The jail was dank and the air rendered heavier and more fetid by the crowded cells full of drunken, unshowered soldiers.  Hanley pulled rank on the commanding MP, and they were now being escorted down into one of the cells.  They’d found McCall camped out at the processing desk and sent him back to the squad -- Saunders and Hanley wanted to talk to Caje alone. 

 

Caje looked terrible as he sat on the edge of the bunk smoking.  His face was grimy, unshaven, and bloodshot eyes peered up absently at his commanding officers.  His left hand holding the cigarette trembled somewhat from a combination of alcohol and the cuts up and down his forearm.  A large cut on the upper arm had been cursorily bandaged by a medic. 

 

“Get them out of here.”  Hanley nodded at the two other occupants of the cell.  When the young MP looked uncertain, he barked, “Now, soldier.”

 

They waited until the soldiers were prodded out, then settled on the cot opposite Caje.  No words passed between the men for several minutes.

 

Finally Saunders posed a question. “Well?” 

 

Caje took several more draws on his cigarette, not answering.  It seemed as though each time he wanted to talk, he drifted away into his own thoughts by the time he exhaled.

 

“Kirby said you busted up some shop.  This is starting to get serious.  You know that, don’t you?”

 

Hanley added, “You can’t go home this way.  Aren’t your parents still alive?  What are they going to think -- fist fights, brawls…  The war is over, Corporal.” 

 

Saunders put a restraining hand on the captain, not taking his eyes off the man in front of him.  “Caje?”  His voice was soft but insistent.

 

“Sarge…”  Caje was hoarse but there was no trace of the evening’s spirits in the question that followed.  “What kept you alive out there?”

 

Saunders was startled.  Caje had never asked such a thing before.  With reticence being pretty much in character for him, Caje didn’t talk much about private matters.

 

What kept him alive…was Caje thinking about his own plans for after the war?  Maybe once or twice Caje had mentioned what he had been looking forward to, but it was all hypothetical and spoken of under extreme circumstances.  Otherwise, he kept such things to himself.

 

Over time, everyone had become used to Caje’s reservation -- most passing it off to slight cultural and language differences.  But at the beginning of the war, the majority of men in the squad had not been aware of the French-speaking descendants of Canadian settlers living in Louisiana slightly apart from the rest of America, so the Cajun’s accent and unfamiliarity with common pastimes like baseball seemed strange.  It didn’t help either that he thought in French, as Saunders had found out through a couple of exchanges with him.  After an exhausting day of soldiering, the tired scout was rarely up to participating in banal round-the-campfire conversations spoken in his second language.  Still, Caje’s ability to speak French had been invaluable during the campaign across the continent, and the men as a group now stood up for their companion when other soldiers asked pointed questions about the “Frog in the GI uniform.”

 

Well, at least before Caje alienated most of them…

 

Saunders answered abruptly, “Keeping you all alive.  What’s your point?”

 

Caje didn’t answer.  He looked around the dirty cell as though seeing it for the first time in the three hours he had been there.  Dropping the cigarette on the filthy floor, he ground it out with the tip of his boot.  He peered down at the bloody bandage on his left bicep with slight curiosity before turning his attention back to the stares of the men across from him.

 

“Caje, you’d better say something,” Hanley warned.

 

Caje knew the captain meant business, and he reluctantly began, “There was this woman…” then hesitated, seeing Hanley’s look of disgust.

 

Saunders’ face registered surprise, though.  He hadn’t expected this at all.  Sure, Caje had definitely done his share of carousing with the other men, maybe even with more success than most -- a combination of his knowledge of French and quiet self-assurance undoubtedly contributing factors.  The whole platoon knew the ladies considered him good-looking, with his dark hair, slim build, and eyes that were often withdrawn, but when focused, reflected both intelligence and humor.  But the number of “Dear John” letters addressed to Caje that came streaming in from the States at the beginning of the company’s efforts across France had reinforced the image of a man who knew how to have a good time while not being the commitment type.

 

Saunders scratched his chin.  It was inconceivable that something as large as Caje’s apparent involvement with a woman had escaped his notice.  But then again, so was Caje’s behavior the past few weeks.  He nodded at Caje to continue.

 

Seeing Saunders’ support, Caje started again.  “Back in September, when we were in Loire and I took that bullet in my shoulder…”

 

 

****

 

Kirby felt Caje’s arm begin to slip from around his shoulder.  Already having trouble keeping his balance while going up the ravine, Kirby began tipping dangerously backward as he adjusted to his partner’s sagging form. 

 

“Caje, give me some help here.”  The sweat running into Kirby’s eyes began blurring his vision, but he couldn’t spare an arm to wipe it.  In fact, he could use an extra hand to continue the last five yards to the top.  Caje had started out gamely enough, buoyed by the unexpected turn of events that brought the Allied lines to them.  But the short climb back up to the farmhouse where they had been held captive was sapping the limited energy of the wounded scout. 

 

“Kirby, I can’t…” he panted.

 

Kirby paused and looked at his friend’s face.  Despite their exertion, Caje was white except for the nearly black circles around his eyes.  And when their eyes met, Kirby nodded.  He lowered Caje to the ground, holding tightly to the soldier’s sweat-soaked shirt to keep him from rolling back down the hill. 

 

Kirby looked to the tantalizingly close lip of the ravine, took a couple of deep breaths, and mentally tried to summon a couple of GIs from the farm.  But realizing the company’s efforts were probably being spent securing the area in the opposite direction, Kirby shrugged and made a decision.

 

“Caje…hey, Caje.” 

 

Caje’s eyes were closed and he didn’t move. 

 

“Oh, come on…where are those reserves you were holding onto?  Come on, buddy, we’re almost there.” 

 

Maintaining his grip on his friend’s shirt, Kirby shifted his feet into a more secure foothold and used his other hand to gently slap the scout’s cheeks. 

 

Caje moaned and opened his eyes.  “Sorry, Kirby,” he rasped.  His breathing was rapid and shallow.  His eyes rolled back, and his head lolled downward with the slope of the ravine. 

 

Kirby shook his head, resigned.  There was no way Caje could go anymore, not with the blood loss, and there was no way he was getting him the rest of the way by himself.  Looping his arms under the scout’s shoulders, Kirby dragged him several feet toward some bushes.  He was thankful that Caje was already unconscious -- the pressure on the shoulder wound would have been unbearable.

 

The bushes sufficed to keep the limp body from rolling back down the hill, and Kirby spoke to the unhearing man.  “I’ll be right back with some help.  Hang on…”

 

He scrambled to the top of the ravine for the second time in less than twenty minutes.  Again, he surveyed the farm compound before walking out of the security of the tree line.

 

“Halt!”

 

Two dirt-splattered soldiers aimed their rifles from forty feet away. 

 

Kirby raised his hands and smiled without humor.  “Boy, am I glad to see you guys.”

 

The soldiers looked uncertain.  One barked, “Identify yourself!”

 

“Kirby, William.  2nd Platoon, King Company.  I need some help here…”

 

“2nd Platoon is nowhere near here, fella,” one of the soldiers cut him off.

 

As the GIs moved closer, weapons still at the ready, it became apparent that the man doing the talking was a sergeant.

 

Kirby sighed.  “I know that, Sergeant.  Me and my buddy got separated yesterday from our platoon.  These Krauts caught us, brought us back here.”

 

As the soldiers lowered their weapons, Kirby continued.

 

“Caje, my buddy, he’s down there.”  He nodded back toward the trees.  “I can’t get him up here.  How about some help?”

 

“He’s injured?”  The sergeant tipped back his helmet and wiped his eyes.

 

Kirby’s exhaustion got the better of him.  “No, Sarge.  He’s taking a nap.  Don’t want to be disturbed, you know.” 

 

Sergeant Danvers straightened up to his considerable height of 6’3”.  As he did, he looked closer at the bedraggled soldier in front of him and bit back the dressing down he was about to give.  The uppity private was swaying on his feet, his uniform covered with mud and brambles, and bright red rope burns glowed around his wrists.  It would be hard for a Kraut to fake the accent and the attitude.  Clearly this soldier had had a time of it, and the concern for a comrade was plain on his face. 

 

Danvers nodded once in the direction of the woods.  “Okay, let’s go.  Rainer and I will accompany you.  Now, tell me what happened.”

 

As they moved into the trees, Kirby quickly outlined the events of the past twenty four hours, starting with his and Caje’s separation from Saunders and the rest of the platoon, continuing with Caje’s shooting and their capture, and ending with their escape during the melee at the farm compound.  Kirby was too tired to put his usual self promoting grandiose spin on the story.   When the three soldiers reached the ravine, Kirby paused and looked at the Sergeant.  “I’m glad you guys showed up.  I don’t think I could have gotten Caje back to our lines.”

 

Rainer started to speak, but Danvers cut him off.  “C’mon, soldier.  Let’s get your friend and get a move on.”

 

The three struggled down the ravine toward the unmoving figure Kirby had pointed out.  Danvers shook his head.  The guy looked like he was already dead.  The Kirby fellow, however, immediately began talking to the unconscious man, trying to rouse him. 

 

“Caje, lookee here what I found.  Gonna get you patched up so as I don’t have to face Saunders alone.  Told you I had a plan.  We’re just gonna’ get you up this hill and right to a real doctor.  Yes sirree, you’re gonna be just fine.” 

 

Kirby looked up at Danvers and Rainer, desperation clear on his face.  “He was awake a few minutes ago.”

 

“Rainer will get his feet, Kirby -- that’s right, isn’t it?” 

 

Danvers felt sorry for the private.  He knew the tight bonds that could be formed between front-line soldiers, and he understood the angst the soldier was feeling.  His gut told him that the large, dark pool of blood on the ground underneath the wounded man might put him beyond the help of a company medic, but he couldn’t tell the guy’s friend that when Kirby so obviously needed to believe their ordeal was over. 

 

“Kirby, take his shoulders.  I’ll keep a lookout.  This area may still be lousy with Krauts.”

 

Slowly the three struggled up the hill, with the limp body of Caje between Rainer and Kirby.  As they moved into the farm compound, Kirby noticed that there were fewer soldiers around now than a while ago.  His mind didn’t bother to try to process the information, as his attention was focused on maintaining his grip under Caje’s arms.  The warm wetness on Caje’s right side was making the task more and more difficult and making Kirby’s steps heavier and heavier as the men approached the farmhouse. 

 

Danvers went into the house first, holding the door open for Kirby and Rainer as they carried Caje.  The front room was occupied by three or four men huddled around a radio.  Danvers went over to join them.  Kirby looked around and, receiving no direction from the sergeant who was speaking rapidly with a lieutenant, tilted his head toward a staircase

 

“There’s probably a bed up there,” he said.  “Help me find a place to put him down, and then let’s find a doctor.”

 

“There is no doctor.”

 

Kirby didn’t stop as he headed up the steps.  “Well, get the medic.  He’s bleeding like a stuck pig.”

 

Kirby turned the corner at the top of the stairs.  Spying a bed, he guided Rainer and the limp form between them to it.  Gently he placed Caje on bed and then turned to the other soldier.  “Get the medic, already, will ya?”  With that, he sank to the floor and put his head in his hands.  Rainer looked at him for a second, then spun around and quickly took the steps.

 

****

 

Kirby awoke some time later to Rainer shaking him insistently. 

 

“C’mon, Kirby.  The sergeant says we gotta go.” 

 

Kirby stretched and yawned, the latter movement making him aware of a crusty sensation on his forehead.  He rubbed it and brought his hand down to his face, staring at the dried blood on his fingers.  Oh, yeah.  Caje…

 

He looked around for the bed and the doctor.  Disoriented, he looked back up at Rainer.  

 

“Sarge said to let you sleep awhile, but now we’ve got to move out.”

 

Kirby rubbed his eyes, still trying to clear the cobwebs from his mind.  Vaguely he remembered someone guiding him to a bed across the room from Caje and being checked out by a medic.  Blood.  Yeah, the medic had said that Caje needed blood.  Without a word to the lanky young soldier standing over him, Kirby scrambled up and strode with purpose across the room. 

 

“Kirby…”  The voice of the private was uncertain.

 

“Give a guy a minute, will ya?” 

 

Kirby looked down at Caje.  The dark scout’s eyes were closed, and his head moved from side to side as he mumbled incoherently.  Kirby was relieved to see a fresh bandage on Caje’s shoulder as he leaned down and placed a hand on the soldier’s forehead -- it was damp and hot.

 

 “Hey, Caje, we gotta go.  We’re gonna get you to a real field hospital.  Pretty nurses…”

 

“Kirby, Sarge said we’re leaving him here.  We’re needed up ahead.  But don’t worry --some other company’s coming along right behind us and they can probably take care of your friend.”

 

Kirby spun around, his disbelief evident in his voice.  “Go tell your Sarge I ain’t leaving him here like this.  I told him I was gonna get…

 

Danvers came up behind Rainer, and Kirby caught his eye. 

 

Danvers shook his head.  “Sorry, private.  It’s every man to his weapon.  We’ve gotta move.  What do you shoot?”

 

“I’m a BAR man, “ Kirby answered automatically.  “But wait just a minute,” he demanded as the other man turned and headed toward the doorway.  Kirby followed the sergeant and grabbed his arm as he started down the stairs.  “We ain’t just going to leave him here.  Those Krauts almost did him in once.  He ain’t in no position to help himself.”

 

“Look, soldier.  I don’t have time to argue with you.  There’s supposed to be a company moving up behind us.  Our medic said your friend here has an infection and has lost a lot of blood.  We can’t do anything for him if we take him with us, but the old French doctor here says he can help.  So, if we leave him, he might have a chance.  Now move it.”  Danvers raised his Tommy with authority, leaving no doubt as to his mind set.

 

“Move it now, soldier,” he repeated.

 

Kirby turned and looked back across the room at Caje.  “Hey buddy, I’ll be right back, you hear?”  Grumbling to himself, he followed Danvers down the stairs, with Rainer behind him. 

 

“You guys been together long?” the young private asked, curious.

 

“About as long as anyone still alive out here,” Kirby mumbled. 

 

He stepped out of the cramped stairwell and into the parlor.  The group that had been huddled around the radio earlier was nowhere to be seen.  Instead, he spotted Msr. Bertrand and the old lady he had seen from across the courtyard.  He paused, staring. 

 

The couple was talking to a girl.  No -- she turned and looked at him -- a woman.  A woman, small and slight, with her hand clasping the hand of a young child.  The old man prodded her and she walked several steps toward Kirby without releasing her hold on the toddler.  Her gait was uneven, but so smooth that Kirby could not tell which side she favored.

 

“Monsieur soldat.”   Her voice was small but strong, and her green eyes looked directly into his.  “My uncle says to tell you that we will care for your friend.  Be, uh,” she hesitated, searching for a word, before continuing, “unafraid.  We will wait with him.”

 

Kirby did not bother to give her the usual once-over he customarily gave to any woman under forty…or lately, fifty.  “Lady, you do that.  You tell him…”  He struggled for the right message.  “You tell him I’ll take care of the sarge.  I got a plan.  You be sure to tell him that for me, okay?” 

 

Danvers yelled for him from outside the door.  “C’mon!”

 

Rainer pushed him.  “Sarge means it, Kirby.  We’d better get going.  He’s got a quick temper.”

 

Kirby retorted, “Yeah, I got one like that myself.”  With a quick duck of his head toward the woman, he heeded the sergeant’s command. 

 

As he stepped outside, a fine cold drizzle washed the last of the cobwebs from his mind.  A front had come in some time during the early morning hours, bringing an end to the oppressive heat and making the approach of fall seem imminent.  Kirby was acutely aware that he could for once really use the field jacket that he’d constantly sweated in and complained about all through the summer months, but the Krauts had stripped him of that -- as well as his beloved BAR. 

 

He reached into his pocket, feeling an unfamiliar bulge -- Caje’s beret, his watch tucked inside it.  Kirby didn’t remember picking them up.  He started to go back inside to give them to the girl, but Danvers shoved a BAR at him, with a quick, “Our guy doesn’t need it anymore.”  Kirby crammed the beret and the watch back into his pocket and gave the weapon a swift, knowing once-over before running his fingers over the crude initials carved in the stock. 

 

Danvers watched with appreciation.  The man obviously knew the weapon.  The squad could use some seasoned firepower.  The last BAR man hadn’t lasted long enough to achieve real live fire proficiency. 

 

And then there was the guy they were leaving behind who the medic said kept speaking French.  Danvers knew he could use a French guy, too.  It would make speaking with the natives like the old man at the farm here easier.  Find out more about what they were facing.  The old woman knew English, but she was difficult at best…

 

King Two was lucky, Danvers thought.  He wondered how you went about getting a translator.

 

At least he had the BAR man, for the moment.

 

Danvers brought his thoughts back to the task at hand.  “Our lieutenant already moved out.  We waited as long as we could for Fox Company, but we’ve got to move on east.  There’s a counteroffensive over near your old lines.” 

 

As they fell in with two other waiting privates, Danvers moved out in front of the group and continued, “Looks like you and your friend may have missed a lot of the action over the past day.”

 

Kirby gave him a look that could have burned a hole in the sergeant’s back.

 

Danvers felt the smaller man’s withering stare and got the message as they started to trot through the unmown fields.  He shrugged and quickened his pace.  “He’s French, isn’t he?”

 

Kirby pulled up.  Danvers sensed the BAR man was no longer with him and stopped.  The other soldiers turned around, following the sergeant’s lead, unsure of what was going on.

 

Kirby took two steps toward the sergeant.  “Did you leave him ‘cause you thought he was French?”

 

Danvers sighed.  He had been as tolerant as possible given the obviously difficult circumstances Kirby had been through, but he had had about enough mollycoddling.  This little sawed-off dogface seemed to be constantly spoiling for a fight.  On second thought, maybe King Two wasn’t so lucky. 

 

“Private, I don’t care what he is.  We’re following orders.  Ours are to take you to your squad on our way to meet up with the rest of our company.”

 

“HQ knows we’re back?  We’re here?  Me and Caje?  The Sarge is gonna kill us…me.”

 

“Not if I do it first. Now shut up and move out.”

 

They continued east, away from the farm and the wild forests surrounding it.

 

Kirby huffed up beside Danvers.  “Cajun…”

 

“What?”

 

“He ain’t French, he’s Cajun.”

 

Danvers looked down.  This guy was obviously the type to have the last word.  But he couldn’t resist asking, “What’s a Cajun?”

 

Kirby slowed and fell in behind Danvers, silent for a moment.  “I don’t know…”

 

 

****

 

The specks of dust in the sunlight gleaming through the window held his attention.  It was a peaceful sight, reminiscent of the wonders of childhood.  And it was accompanied by the belly laugh of a very small child.

 

His eyes refocused on the small girl moving forward, holding out a piece of bread, obviously determined to put it in his mouth.  As her jam-smeared hand drew closer, Caje attempted to sit up and apprise where he was.  A sharp pain in his right shoulder reversed his momentum back down onto the bed just as the chubby hand came close enough for him to smell raspberry.  His eyes darted about in utter confusion and caught the blur of another hand diverting the jam away from his mouth.

 

He looked up into green eyes crinkled in amusement.

 

“I believe she wanted to welcome you back to the world of the living.  Unfortunately, her verbal skills are not yet very developed.” 

 

The small blonde woman quickly and competently scooped the child onto her hip, nuzzling the baby’s ear before returning the soldier’s gaze.  She had nursed him for several difficult days, and though she had come to know his lithe body well and some of his experiences through his feverish ramblings, she was uncertain where to begin.  She wasn’t even certain of his name. 

 

“I’m Claire Marie, and this little terror is Bridgette.  Do you know where you are?”

 

Caje shook his head, and continued to stare at the woman.  Her fine blonde hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail hanging halfway down her back.  Its color and waves matched the incoming cap of hair on the child.  Her dress was simple, emphasizing her slim build, and covered with small splotches of color on the skirt.  The scene of mother and daughter together was so domestic and so far from the norm of the past months that Caje was thoroughly confused.  He looked around the small room -- an attic or storeroom apparently -- for a point of reference before shaking his head again.

 

“You were left here by your soldiers.  My uncle had treated your wound when the Boches brought you in -- he is a doctor.  But unfortunately you lost a lot of blood.  You also got an infection.  My uncle was forced to cauterize your wound after we ran out of medicine.  He says you will be alright, but I’m afraid you will have a very bad scar.”  Claire Marie blushed slightly at this and hoped the soldier wouldn’t notice.  Quickly she added, “What is your name?”

 

“Paul LeMay.”  Caje tried to sit forward again, but retreated away from the pain and back to the pillow.  “Madame, please forgive me, but I’m confused.  Where is my squad?  This doesn’t look like a field hospital.”

 

Claire Marie put the child down with a quick pat on the rump and directed her to a small blanket in the middle of the room.  “Bridgette, go finish your jam bread.  Good girl…”  Smoothing her skirt, she moved closer to the bed with a slight hitch in her step that did not go unnoticed by Caje.

 

“I’m afraid that you are outside Santeney.  You and a friend were captured by the Boches.  The Americans were here, but they had to leave.  You were too ill to travel.”  Claire Marie reached over and placed a small hand on Caje’s forehead.  “Your fever has broken, finally.  Uncle said that if you awoke, I could offer you some soup.  Would you like some?”

 

Caje shook his head and closed his eyes.  There were many questions he would still like answered but, for the moment, he decided to give in to the peacefulness of his surroundings.  The baby was making her own little patois over on the blanket, the sun was hitting the foot of the bed through the one gabled window, and the small hand on his forehead was cool.  

 

“Not now, Madame, thank you.  I’m very tired…”

 

“Let me just check your shoulder then.”  She sat on the bed and leaned over Caje in order to reach the wound.  Caje caught a faint whiff of something feminine and clean-smelling.  It stirred vague memories of home, but he was so tired that clarity in regard to identifying anything remained out of reach.

 

Claire Marie sat back up.  “It looks fine…I think.  Still pretty raw, though.  Uncle will be back soon and can check more thoroughly.  Now, I will take Bridgette downstairs so that you may sleep.”  She stood and started to walk toward the child, and again Caje notice the slight hitch in her gait.

 

 “Madame, it’s alright.  I like to hear her…” 

 

Claire Marie turned back toward the bed, her eyes again crinkled because of her smile.

 

“Please, do not call me ‘Madame.’  And if you can rest to her ‘singing,’ you must still be ill.  Is there anything I can get you?”  She clasped her hands behind her back, suddenly looking confused, and then went on to say somewhat shyly, “I do not know what you need.  My uncle did not really think you would wake. He and Louisa are off trying to find the chickens.  They should return soon.  I shall give you some water and then leave you be.  If you want anything, just let me know…”

 

At Caje's small nod of assent, she moved once again over next to the bed and poured water from the pitcher beside it into a small, chipped cup.  She slid her arm behind Caje and, with a strength that surprised him, moved him up to support him with her shoulder as he gratefully sipped from the proffered cup.

 

“Mad…Claire Marie.  My friend -- is he still here?”

 

“The loud soldier, yes.  No, he is not here.  He said to tell you he had a plan.”  She paused, trying to remember the rest of Kirby’s message, and then continued in heavily accented English, “He has a plan about your sergeant.  You are not to worry.”

 

Claire Marie stayed on the edge of the bed as the soldier smiled and then drifted back to sleep.  The smile made her reassess her estimate of his age.  She looked at him critically, her eyes taking in the strong bone structure that contrasted prominently with his sunken eyes and cheeks.

 

His eyes had surprised her.  When she had seen them open and unseeing through his fever, they had appeared brown, in line with his dark hair and complexion.  However, with consciousness, he had looked at her with eyes that seemed back-lit to the color of clear amber, with small flecks of green.

 

His eyes and hair, as well as the planes of his face, made for an interesting study in contrasting shades of brown.  Claire Marie’s fingers absently sketched her mind’s picture of him on the sheets of the bed.

 

The soldier intrigued her.  Although the uniform he wore when he was brought in was American, he cried out through the fever and awoke speaking French.  She had noted, though, that his accent varied considerably.  At times as she bathed him with cool water during the two nights he was delirious, she could barely make out the words of his incoherent babbling.  At other times, such as just now, his accent was nearly as Parisian as her own.

 

For this contrast she had no answer, and her hands returned to her lap.

 

She had many questions she would like to ask him, especially if he truly was from America, but it would be awkward knowing how to begin.  His body, as she had seen while assisting her uncle and Louisa through the nursing, bore many recent, raw scars, which Uncle categorized as “bullet graze,” “knife,” “shrapnel.”  One large jagged scar over his ribs caused her uncle to shrug and declare “probably before the war” when he saw her questioning eyes.  The Allies had only been here less than two months -- a short time for the many wounds.  So much these American men were giving!  Rumors of the numbers of casualties from the landing had penetrated even her small household. 


Sighing, she absently tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and three emotions welled up in her as she looked at the resting man -- curiosity, gratefulness, and fear.  The latter prompted her to get up, move across the floor, and snatch up the little child, squeezing her startled body tightly to her own.

 

****

 

Caje opened his eyes.  It was night.  The small room glowed in the yellow light of a single old-fashioned lantern.

 

He looked around for the woman and child he remembered -- or thought he did -- from earlier.  Not spotting them, he struggled to rise to a sitting position, the memory of the pain he'd felt the last time he’d tried to do it one point of extreme clarity in his mind.  Again, about halfway up, the incredible sensation in his shoulder sent him gasping back to the pillow.  He recognized that he could push through it if need be, but at this moment, there didn’t appear to be a good reason to subject himself to that.

 

Vigilance, though, was the key to survival.  He’d definitely learned that.  Therefore, he attempted to take stock of his current situation.

 

Aside from his overall weakness and the now-throbbing wound in his upper right side, he appeared to be intact.  And dressed -- though not in his uniform.  There were rough woolen pants on him underneath the blanket, and a loose sweater covered his top.  He looked inside the unbuttoned sweater and saw the thick bandages winding around his right shoulder.  No bleeding showed through that he could see.  Good.  But his dog tags were missing.

 

He knew that before he had awakened fully, he had sensed a presence in the room.  No one was there now, but it was unlikely that someone would leave a lamp burning precious oil if they were not coming back.

 

He saw one entrance to the room and, beyond it, a stairwell.  The furniture was a hodgepodge of pieces -- some fine and some homemade.  Interesting.  The bed itself and the linens were exquisite in detail, though the wood was worn and the sheets yellowed even beyond the casting from the lantern.

With all the upheaval going on in France due to the war, this could be the home of an impoverished upper class family, looters, or God knew what.  Of course, back in Louisiana he had seen fine heirloom furniture in even some of the roughest bayou homes.  Judgments about the situation couldn’t be made from these inanimate objects.

That line of thinking drove him to glance around for his ever-present Garand -- not to be seen.  Of course, the Krauts had taken it.  But he couldn’t see anything else that could be used as a weapon either -- except possibly the water pitcher on the nightstand beside the bed.

He closed his eyes, trying to make sense of the varied impressions he had of what he believed to be recent events.  He remembered being with Kirby.  Being shot.  The care he received in the barn -- they had escaped.  That he was pretty sure of, though not how he had ended up separated from Kirby now.

He could also recall soothing voices, followed by the disturbing sensation of being held down.  Incredible pain.  Then mixed images of his family and childhood, together with frightening, distorted impressions of soldiers known and unknown.

Oh, and there was the girl -- no, woman -- and the child.

That was clear.  Definitely.

Now what to do?  Though heavy of mind and limb, Caje did not feel like letting sleep overcome him again until he ascertained his exact circumstances.  Maybe he could call for the woman, but her name remained somewhere out of reach in the fuzzy edges of his memory.

And, besides, what if there were Krauts around?

Given the care he seemed to be receiving, though, maybe he wasn't in any immediate danger.  He began to discern voices wafting up from the staircase, and he debated about moving over there.  If he could listen to the people below, he might find out who they were.  But the effort might only deplete the few reserves he felt he still had left.  Reserves he might need later...

Whatever he did, first he needed water.  His thirst suddenly seemed more pressing than immediate answers.  Using his left arm, he reached for the container on the nightstand table, being careful to stretch slowly and so minimize the movement of his injured side.  Even so, he could feel his efforts breaking apart his wound and wetness beginning to seep underneath the bandages.

Grasping the pitcher, he attempted to pour the water into the small glass on the table.  The awkward extension of his arm lasted only for a few agonizing seconds before his strength gave way.  He fell back to the soft landing of goose down while the pitcher tumbled to the wooden floor.  His groan and the simultaneous shattering of glass were followed by sudden silence from below, only to be replaced by the clear scuffling of chairs and then footsteps moving toward the stairs.

Stunned by pain, Caje blinked several times, trying to clear his vision as two people approached his bed.  With relief, he recognized Msr. Bertrand from the barn.

 

The old man spoke first.  “How do you feel now, my friend?” 

 

Caje relaxed.  “Not my best, Msr. Bertrand.  But I thank you for your help -- again.”

Both the old man and a woman standing next to him gave him smiles -- the old man’s large, the woman’s, small and tight.

"It is our pleasure, again, Paul LeMay," Bertrand said.  “My niece told me you woke earlier.  You may not believe it, but you soon will feel better.  Your infection has subsided.  What you need now is rest."

Caje moved his head from side to side slowly, his eyes not leaving those of the old man.  "Msr. Bertrand, we both know that a long and peaceful convalescence is very unlikely.  So please tell me where I am and what’s happening."

Msr. Bertrand nodded with appreciation.  He had formed his initial estimate of this American soldier when, in the barn, the severely wounded man had deftly slipped the knife from his hand as the guards had been subduing his friend.  The assessment had been bolstered as Bertrand had tended the soldier again when he was brought back after the Boches had been driven out by the Americans a day later.  So many recent wounds -- so many battles relived in delirium.  It was a shame there was no better news to tell him.

“The Americans have had to pull back.  There was considerable fighting near our village two days ago.  Everyone wants the old bridge.  The Boches have resisted, for the moment.  And, I think, brought in reinforcements.”  Bertrand paused, waiting for a reaction from the soldier, but there was none, so he continued, “We have been left alone for the moment, though.  I believe the Boches are concentrating on the village and the bridge.  That means you may rest.  We all must -- there is nothing to be done but wait.”

The soldier nodded.  But he knew he needed to leave -- soon.  His presence could only increase the danger to the kindly old man and his household.  And the woman and child…

Although not hungry, he asked, “May I have something to eat?”  He would need his strength.

"Of course.  Louisa and I managed to recapture some of our chickens, and she has added them to the soup."  The old man bobbed his head. "Yes, this is a good thing, for you to eat."

His eyes met Caje’s, and the scout knew that Bertrand was following the same train of thought.

As Louisa started down the steps, Caje asked Bertrand, almost as an afterthought, “Does your niece live here with you?”

The old woman stopped on the steps and stiffened.  She turned, and replied in the precise, clipped tones of the English schoolteacher she once had been,  “Claire Marie, and her daughter,” there was heavy emphasis on the last phrase, “are in our care.” 

Bertrand turned away from the bed and looked at her.  He did not know why Louisa had chosen to reply in English to the young man's question -- the soldier's first language was obviously French – and slightly annoyed, he frowned.  Louisa knew he always felt handicapped by his lack of knowledge of English.

Not knowing what she said and used to being in control, he added, "Yes, she is downstairs tending Bridgette.  This is all our family, now.  I will have her bring your soup and more water up so that you young people can talk.  She very much misses people her age.  We are from Paris, you know, and life on the farm, until recently, has been very dull for…"

He stopped and looked at Louisa in confusion.  First she had shown him up in her knowledge of languages, and now she was snorting loudly.  Not understanding her cold stare, he blundered on, "Yes, it has been very dull.  Now, let me see that shoulder."

He peered under the bandages and then sat back with a pleased smile.  “There is a little fresh bleeding, but it looks worse than what it is.  Over the next several days, before you leave, I will need to show you some exercises to make sure the scar tissue does not become a problem.”

Caje did not respond as both he and Bertrand became profoundly aware of Louisa's continued stare from the stairwell.

Bertrand looked embarrassed.  "Well, let me go and help Louisa get your dinner together.  It appears she cannot do so alone."  He stood and crossed the room, disappearing down the stairway with Louisa in tow.

The sounds of a whispered argument floated up the steps and Caje smiled.  Despite her living here in war-torn France, the woman, Louisa, reminded him of the nannies he had come across at home in New Orleans.  Black and Creole, they threw down gauntlets in front of the young men who came to court their charges.  The sparring could be frustrating for many young suitors.  Caje, though, had found the challenge stimulating and many times had enjoyed the softening of the caregivers more than the final capitulation of the often spoiled and arrogant young women they protected

As someone with an uneven tread started back up the stairs, the smile left his face.  This was not New Orleans and he was no longer a spoiled and angry young man with time on his hands to conquer meaningless windmills. 

“Your thoughts are far away.  Shall you come back for the soup or should I pack a picnic for you?”

 

Caje started.  He had drifted away, after so recently thinking about the need to maintain a constant state of awareness.  The irony of it caused him to smile wryly as he looked up at the small woman beside him.  Her hair was loose around her shoulders and, with her petite stature, she looked like a young girl.  However, the lamplight that highlighted her hair and silhouette and made her appear young also found the shadows and lines in her face that detailed a maturity beyond her years.  Caje assessed her age as being close to his own.  Older than he had thought from his first impression.

 

For her part, Claire Marie looked at him openly and without discomfort as he studied her.  She had felt uncomfortable earlier when the soldier first regained consciousness, aware that the field had not been even, given her voyeur’s knowledge of the subject.  But now that the American seemed to possess his full faculties, she felt that theirs was a match of equals, of two observers who studied the lights and the shadows, looking for the discrepancies between the expected and the unexpected.

 

The difference, she thought, was that she used this knowledge to create, while the man in front of her used it to destroy.

 

The silence grew long between the two as they studied each other, but neither felt any need to break it.  Still, Claire Marie was the first to break eye contact as she set the soup bowl on the table and pulled up a small cane-backed chair next to the bed.  Without comment, she picked up the bowl and offered a spoonful to the soldier.  With a small shake of his head, Caje reached for the spoon with his left hand and finally broke the silence.

 

“I can do it myself, Madame, thank you.  If you’ll just sit the bowl here on my lap…”  He shifted up on his pillows to allow himself to better balance the bowl and eat without assistance.  A grimace accompanied the move.

 

The woman watched with a tight, tolerant smile on her lips.  Then she spoke.  “I spend my days trying to help a small child and two truculent elderly darlings to do things ‘by myself,’ and now someone sees fit to drop another difficult one in my lap.  Why don’t you let me feed you?  It will be quicker.”  Claire Marie made no move to give Caje the bowl or the spoon.

 

“I’m not used to being waited on, Madame, but of course, if it will make your life easier, by all means go ahead.”  Caje flashed a quick smile.  The woman intrigued him.  She was not the type he had usually found attractive back home before the war.  She was too diminutive, her boyish figure emphasized by the fact she was wearing pants and a shirt, rather the skirt he remembered from earlier. 

 

“Hmm…my uncle sent me up here like a young girl off to a social occasion.  He obviously was unaware of the quality of the company.”

 

“Clearly you did not care about the quality of company, given your dress for the occasion.”

 

They smiled at each other, their initial awkwardness pushed aside as they resumed rusty social skills.

 

Claire Marie looked at her clothes with a combination of real and mock despair.  “I’m never sure what to wear when tending a wounded soldier during the middle of a war.  The choices were limited, I can assure you.”  She lifted the spoon towards Caje’s mouth and, as he acquiesced to her feeding him, she continued, “Truthfully, we need to be ready to leave in the event the fighting returns here, as Uncle said he informed you."  She shrugged her slight shoulders and cocked her head to the side.  “It is easier to travel quickly this way.”

 

“Travel to where?”

 

Caje realized that the choices in travel for this family were very limited.  Caught between two clashing armies, two elderly people probably handicapped by their age, a small child, and the woman who moved quickly but clearly with some problem...where could they go? 

 

Claire Marie looked away while taking a deep breath.  It was a question she asked herself often.

 

The village and the farm had seemed the perfect place to wait out the war after fleeing Paris.  However, despite her uncle’s attempts to isolate the family from more of the bitter horrors they had already tasted, the fact remained that they lived in a country where the waves of war were undulating back and forth, ready to pull them under.

 

She would not care, not after everything…but there was the child.  And Louisa and her uncle as well, who had willed themselves each day to continue for her and Bridgette.  So she should try again, at least for Uncle’s sake, to maintain the appearance of still having the capacity to feel some pleasure at seeing a new face.

 

With a smile, she turned back to the soldier.  “I’m not sure.  I would love to go to America.  Where are you from?"

 

Caje looked into her eyes and nodded once to let her know he understood her thoughts and what she was trying to do.  He would go along with what she wanted, not asking any more questions for which there were not good answers.

 

“New Orleans, originally.”

 

“Ah, I have heard that many people there speak French."  Claire Marie continued feeding him. 

 

Caje accepted another spoonful of the thin soup flavored only faintly with chicken, knowing it probably wasn’t enough to get his strength back up, but appreciating its warmth, the hint of some spice that definitely wasn't ever in his C rations, and the fact that it was probably all these people had after being overrun by first the Boches and then Americans.

 

“This soup is not really enough for you, but if you finish it, I will bring you some bread.”

 

Caje blinked -- this woman was following his thoughts.  No, he dismissed the idea.  There weren't many lines of discussion that wouldn't lead to the same looming issues. 

 

“So, tell me about New Orleans,” she prompted.

 

“What do you know?”

 

“Truthfully, not much.  I have heard it is something like a small Paris for an artist.  Not conventional and bourgeois…”

 

Caje smiled thinly.  “Well, I haven't been to Paris -- yet.  But I don’t know that I would say New Orleans is exactly free thinking.  Maybe compared to the rest of America…”  He accepted another spoonful of soup. 

 

“Ah, is that why you are from it ‘originally’?”

 

Caje did not answer.  This conversation seemed to lead to difficult topics no matter which direction it turned.  Plus he had found the small talk he used to engage in with practiced ease before the war difficult to maintain ever since he’d arrived on the shores of France -- and since Theo’s death.  There was no point in getting to know someone or have them know you when, in a moment, they could be gone.  And, if you cared too much, if you knew too much about their hopes and dreams, you couldn’t do your duty.

 

That he knew well -- and it would not happen again.  He had watched Saunders during down time, and realized that this need for distance was something the sergeant had already figured out.  And along those lines, Saunders, as well as Doc, had noticed his own reluctance to share confidences, and they respected it. 

 

“Once you’re born in New Orleans, you’re always from there, no matter where you’ve been.”  Caje deflected the intent of the question. 

 

Claire Marie sensed the barrier.  But truthfully, she was too tired to continue maintaining the pretense of carrying on the lively conversation that her uncle seemed so intent on her sharing with this soldier anyway.  She knew that Uncle thought that he was offering her some type of treat, but the past seventy two hours -- starting with the ousting of the Boches and ending with this American hiding in the little refuge they had created -- had nearly depleted the small, hard core of resolve that maintained her day by long, difficult day. 

 

“Paul LeMay, I feel that you are finding carrying on small talk at this time as difficult as I am.  However, I am in a predicament -- my Uncle really enjoys the thought, I believe, of me spending some time with someone other than himself and Louisa.  And my dear Louisa is entirely opposed to me talking with any man.  If we can maintain the pretense of enjoying ourselves for a few more minutes, it will give the two darlings endless hours of pleasurable arguing, during which they will delightfully ignore me.” 

 

The spoon clinked in the empty bowl as Claire Marie stopped and drew a breath.  “Why don’t I go and bring you a slice of bread, and you can entertain me with something utterly innocuous before you sleep.”

 

Claire Marie looked at the soldier’s wan face.  It remained closed for a moment, the amber eyes studying her with calm intensity.  Then a tired smile broke it into the planes and angles that she found so interesting.

 

“I will give you a quick overview of New Orleans, focusing on its culinary delights, including my nanny’s beignets.”

 

Claire Marie stood up with a grateful smile and started toward the stairs.  “Talk of your nanny’s beignet’s sounds rather intriguing…”

 

Caje chuckled as he watched the small, retreating form limp quickly and smoothly across the room.  He had not thought of Missy’s beignets in years…and never in the way that Claire Marie intimated.

 

There was much pleasure to be remembered from those early days of childhood in New Orleans.  Mama tending the garden, Missy calling him in for an afternoon snack of café au lait thick with crème and those beignets, living insulated in the old city, yet having the smells and fragrances and snatches of multi-lingual conversation float over the walls surrounding the house like the ever present humidity.  What happened in the later years of childhood -- well, that's the way of life.  You accept and go on, just as you take the current situation and make the best of it….

 

Claire Marie’s returning tread up the stairwell brought one pertinent question about the present to mind.  As she approached with the promised bread, she saw the look on his face.

 

“I do not believe you are thinking of beignets.”

 

“Actually, Claire Marie, one question, and then we can give your aunt and uncle something to talk about for awhile.  Well, I mean...”  Caje looked abashed and grinned.  Then he sobered.  “Seriously, I will leave soon.” 

 

Claire Marie nodded her head gravely at the statement.  They all knew this.

 

“What is the plan if the Germans arrive?  Do we need to discuss this?” 

 

“We have talked of this and thought about it while you were so ill.  Now that the barn is burned, there are not really any good places to hide you.  We have dressed you in my husband’s old clothes.  If the Boches come, we will tell them that you are a friend of my husband's from Paris, and were injured during the melee several days ago.”

 

Caje thought about it.  There was probably nothing else that could be done, and the family had had several days to think through all possible contingencies.  Besides, at the moment he was too tired to attempt to figure out an alternative. 

 

“Your husband is…?”

 

“Dead, Monsieur.  Nearly two years.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“We have all lost during the war, Paul LeMay.  During your fever, you…”  She halted at the expression that flitted across his face, then continued lamely, “I could tell you have had losses, also.  But my husband went as he always wished -- in a blaze of glory.”  Her face tightened.  “Meaningless, I think, so do not believe me the heroic widow.” 

 

They were silent as Claire Marie stared at the bread on the plate she was holding.  After a moment she looked up at Caje with those green eyes he was finding mesmerizing not for any particular aesthetic reason, but for the resolve behind them.  Clearly she had moved on, and so would he.

 

“May I have my bread, Madame?  The thought of beignets has made me hungry.”

 

“I confess, Paul, I do not know what beignets are…”

 

****

                       

 

Kirby, Littlejohn, and Doc huddled around the fire in the old tin drum.  The ruins of the stone barn offered only moderate shelter from the elements, but the concept of being inside and the glow of the fire was enough to create the illusion of some comfort.  It had been a long forty eight hours since Kirby had caught up with the squad during an interval in the fighting.  It had been twenty four hours since the squad had joined the rest of the company in an ignominious retreat to the lines of nearly a week ago.  No one had said it would be easy, but lately it seemed that they were taking two steps backward…all the time.

 

Sarge stepped forward from the shadows.

 

“Hey, Sarge, did you find out where they’ve taken Caje?  Is he with Billy at that hospital down near the old church?”  Kirby stared at the squad leader anxiously. 

 

Saunders shoved his helmet back and scratched at the wisps of hair straggling down his forehead.  His eyes swept over the small group before locking on Kirby. 

 

“Billy is doing fine.  I found one guy from Danver’s squad -- they were hit pretty hard.  Danvers is listed as missing.  This guy, Rainers, he was able to point out on a map that farmhouse where you said you left Caje.  I don’t know what Danvers was thinking, but Fox Company was never supposed to move that way.”

 

Kirby was confused.  “So what are you saying, Sarge?”

 

“Looks like Danvers had a tough call to make and didn’t feel like sharing it with you.  Maybe he was hoping things would go our way.”

 

Understanding dawned on Kirby’s face.  “He really left Caje!  Why that…I asked him, Sarge!  He told me they were coming.  Fox Company.”

 

Saunders looked away and said nothing. 

 

Doc’s voice broke into the awkward silence.  “Kirby, if Caje was as bad as you said, moving him probably would have killed him.”

 

Kirby sat back down by the fire, and his entire essence appeared to crumple even tighter into his compact body.  The firelight highlighted his drawn cheeks and reflected back from his expressionless eyes.

 

He had gotten Caje into this mess, he thought, and promised to get him out.  There was no way to keep that promise now.  Failure -- of the worst kind.  He didn’t even care what Sarge thought -- about his disobeying orders in the first place, his inability to get a hold of a map to know where he had left his friend, anything…  Keeping a promise to a buddy, that’s what mattered in this whole damn mess.  And if you couldn’t do that…

 

Littlejohn came over and rested his hand on Kirby’s shoulder, thinking how the guy irritated the hell out of him but always came through in a pinch.  Littlejohn recognized that what had happened could have happened to any one of them, and he knew how he would have felt in Kirby’s place, especially if it had been Billy.  “Are we going to go get him, Sarge?”

 

“Hanley has ordered us to move back with the rest of the company.”  Saunders continued focusing on a spot on the wall well away from the eyes of his men.  “We’re going to regroup, get some new guys from the repple depple.”

 

“And Caje?”

 

“There's no way to get to him, Doc.  Assuming that he's still there.  That’s now nearly five miles behind Kraut lines.”  Saunders paused and took in several deep, calming breaths.  He empathized with Kirby, but he could understand what Danvers had done.  Even if he didn’t necessarily agree with it -- or the way it was done.  

 

Soon after the death of the other Cajun in the squad on the beach, Saunders began having the quick, silent-moving Paul LeMay take the point on a regular basis.  The soldier had shown an uncanny aptitude for the scout position and never questioned the decision.  In fact, he seemed to rather enjoy both the confidence shown in him after his initial breakdown under fire and the solitude the position provided.  Caje's ability to read both the enemy and his commanders, while remaining one of the guys, was like oil that lubricated the squad and helped it run smoothly. 

 

Of course, Saunders thought as he moved over to the fire to pour himself a cup of coffee, you couldn’t replace any of the men.  Littlejohn and his strength, Kirby and his often deliberately distracting humor, Doc and his genuine caring, and Billy…

 

The one thing he couldn’t do was let his mind wander to what Caje may or may not be feeling, injured and alone.  He was responsible for these men and couldn’t help the guilt that overcame him when one was lost.  But those feelings could be sealed off for times when action wasn’t required.  Mercifully, there were not many of those times.

 

“Eat your chow, and be ready to move out in thirty.”

 

****

 

Caje sat bolt upright, covered in sweat -- then immediately groaned from the pain in his shoulder the sudden movement created.  He peered around the dark room, trying to remember what had disturbed him from his deep sleep in the warm, comfortable bed.

 

He heard it again -- the very distant rumbling of artillery fire.  It almost sounded like thunder on a warm, Louisiana night.  That was it -- somehow, he must have incorporated that sound into his dream, for he had awakened thinking he was somewhere at home.  Different things from several time periods had converged in his dream -- the large, porticoed house of his childhood, the small, secluded house near the bayou he knew in later years…and the need to protect them from the oncoming onslaught of Germans. 

 

He wiped his brow and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.  He hadn’t allowed himself to dwell on home -- wherever that was -- since Theo’s death.  It made everything too confusing, and made him feel more vulnerable. 

 

He took a couple of breaths to clear his head.  He shouldn’t have allowed the conversation to go that way with Claire Marie tonight.  It was better to remain in this identity somehow created through the heat of battle over the last couple of months.  “Caje" -- not Paul LeMay, or anything that went along with it.

 

The irony of it was really quite funny.  Everything his father had spent his son’s lifetime trying to erase from young Paul’s identity, trying to make him the ideal young Creole gentleman, right down to the perfect French accent -- gone.  The boarding schools in Charleston, summer camps and college in Quebec -- all to have his heir end up as a private known by the scorned appellation of his mother’s heritage. 

 

Well, at least it wasn’t reflective of her original profession.  Caje snorted at the thought.  That would be an interesting label.

 

Reflecting on the last couple months objectively, though, Caje had to admit he was finding more of his father than Angelina in himself.  The ability to compartmentalize, to proceed forward toward the goal without any seeming regrets for what -- or who -- got in the way.  The ability, face it, to become a killer of some real skill -- that ability was definitely from Armand.  For the first time in his twenty plus years on this planet, he had found something he felt he was good at -- and the ruthlessness that that entailed he felt was not even his own.

 

It was a sick thing to be proficient at anyway.  He felt nauseated at both the train of thought as well as the effort of standing.  He was weaker than he had anticipated, but after holding onto the bedpost for a second, he found his initial dizziness passing and being replaced by an overall looseness of limbs.  He compensated for it by remaining close to the wall for security as he moved toward the moonlight streaming through the one dormered window.  He wondered if he could see the distant lights of the artillery fire on the horizon. 

 

A rustle accompanied by a soft sigh from across the room made him stop and peer into the darkness to the left of the window.  Ah, yes…he remembered the other bed tucked in the corner near the dormer.  Someone was in it. 

 

Trying to be as quiet as his unsteady steps allowed, he passed through the light of the dormer and gazed into the bed.  It took a moment for his eyes to adjust from the brightness of the moonlight to the semi-gloom of the shadowed nook. 

 

Claire Marie’s hair, now a silvery waterfall cascading over the side of the bed, was illuminated by a beam of light from the window.  She was curled with her back toward him, still in her pants, but with her shirt untucked.  She lay on top of the coverlet, but the small form next to her was carefully tucked in, with just her face peeking from underneath.  Bridgette’s ringlets shone the same silvery gray against the pillow.  Claire Marie’s forehead and that of her daughter’s were touching, and it was clear their breaths mingled as one.  The protective position of the mother and the child stirred up emotions in Caje that he could not categorize, and he turned back toward the window.

 

He leaned against the wall of the dormer, allowing it to support him as he pressed his forehead against the cool glass.  The horizon shone with only intermittent bursts of light that were out of sync with the rumblings of artillery he could hear.  Good.  By his estimate the barrage was taking place over twenty miles away. 

 

Or was that good?  The Allies had been here only a couple of days before.  Apparently, the Germans were conducting an effective counteroffensive.

 

Well, at least it was good momentarily for this small, unprotected family.

 

Caje considered how weak he was and the substantial ache in his shoulder.  He estimated that, at best, he would be ready to move out and try to get back to the Allied lines in three to four days.  Maybe sooner if he pushed it, but that would be a danger to this family.  The likelihood of avoiding capture if he left the house in his current condition was pretty small, and it would be obvious that he had received succor somewhere.  Some of the soldiers here a couple of days before could be available to identify him and deduce where the help had originated.

 

He rubbed his temples with his left hand and closed his eyes as another brief wave of nausea washed over him.  Damn, what a position to be in.  These poor people most likely couldn’t run and were hiding an Allied soldier.  In for a penny….

 

****

 

She had been awakened by his mumbling and groaning before the soldier stood and came over to peer at them.  Claire Marie had listened to the noises and realized that the man was dreaming as he had done during the days of his fever.  It seemed that all he had seen in the past months had made rest nearly impossible, despite the demands of a wounded body.

 

Well, that was something she understood.  Only the warm body and sweet breath of Bridgette allowed her to occasionally relax and rest in the knowledge that life could be worth living. 

 

She had been feeling the innocent’s comfort a moment ago when the soldier came and looked at them, and she continued to lie still and tried to recapture it.  Out of the corner of her eye, though, she saw him silhouetted in the moonlight by the window and knew that he was disturbed by what she now also heard.  Emotions were illuminated on his face in a way they hadn’t been earlier, when he had been pleasant but guarded company in the light of the lantern. 

 

Her fingers twitched once again with the itch to capture the planes and angles of his face on paper -- the combination of the gray light and shadows that revealed his raw thoughts when he thought he was being unobserved.  She couldn’t resist.  She carefully rolled away from Bridgette and stood.

 

Her movement startled Caje, and he turned toward her.  His face was entirely in shadow now, and she could not tell from his voice whether or not he was happy about her disturbing his solitude.

 

“You’re awake.”

 

“As are you -- now.  You fell asleep earlier during our conversation.  I had to report to Uncle and Louisa that all my vast abilities for parlor conversation have been lost in this rural wasteland.”

 

Caje’s voice was polite as he pointedly turned back toward the window.  “You should get your rest.”

 

It was clear that he wanted to be alone.

 

Claire Marie sighed.  It was typical that she was not working with the uncomplicated, simple American that was oft portrayed in cartoons and literature before the war.  No, from the conversation earlier this evening she knew that this soldier was as educated as herself, able to converse easily about a variety of subjects.  And all the while, he had maintained his own personal distance while respecting hers.  Truthfully, it had been the most pleasant evening she had spent in awhile.  Right up until the point Paul had drifted off in mid-sentence, startling her, as he had given no indication of how tired he was.

 

Even that, she thought, was guarded like a great secret.

 

Well, though he may want to be alone, she could not sleep either.  And she really wanted to sketch him before he left.  There were not many opportunities during the daylight hours when Bridgette was awake.  Besides, this light was so perfect for what she had in mind. 

 

She went over to the bureau next to the stairs and slid open one of the drawers.  Her paper supply was approaching depletion.  She carefully removed one sheet and rummaged through the few pencils rolling around.  When Bridgette got into the drawer last week and tore several sheets of the precious paper, it had been the first real time she had gotten truly angry at her small daughter.  The child’s sweet lower lip had protruded and shaped her entire mouth into an almost perfect square.  That look, combined with the big blue eyes rounded in surprise at her mother’s outburst, had amused Claire Marie so much that she had taken yet another piece of her limited paper and quickly sketched the dismayed toddler.  In the absence of photos to record these early days of Bridgette’s little life, Claire Marie was glad to have such a “candid” moment captured.

 

Not that there would necessarily ever be an opportunity to look back…

 

Her eyes misted over.  No, no, no -- not even in the dark of the evening.  She would not break down, would not think about what could happen.  She would focus on the task at hand, whether he liked it or not.

 

She sensed the American had turned and was now staring at her.  He remained leaning against the wall of the dormer, the moonlight glinting off his dark hair.  She needed him to turn his face back toward the window, where the light would be better for what she had in mind.

 

Relighting the lamp on the bureau so that she could see her sketch pad finally drew a question from the American.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“I want to sketch you.  Can you turn your head back the way you had it?”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I like the way the light reflects off your face and the rather reflective look you had.  If you could just reposition yourself…”  She looked at him and grinned innocently as she pulled up a chair and flung herself down, the sound of pencil scratching against paper already steady.  “I shall call it ‘Brooding Liberator.’”

 

He did not smile back at her attempt at banter.  But he did comply with her request and returned to gazing at the glowing horizon. 

 

The shelling looked to have slowed down, Caje thought.  He knew that that probably meant one of two things -- either the lines had been softened enough to move in the infantry, or something of import had been taken out.  From this distance, there was no way to discern the answer.

 

Or answers to anything…

 

He really wanted to be alone with his thoughts for awhile.  There was a lot he would like to try to sort through during his own personal lull in the battle, away from the daily onslaughts and struggle to stay alive.  He believed that he was at a crossroads, that something in him would soon be determined that would affect the rest of his life.  Whether that life was short or long was a matter largely out of his hands.

 

Before this last patrol he wrote Bere, trying to explain his feelings -- how he found his own capabilities on the field frightening, how he felt he could not share this with the rest of the squad, including Sarge, and how he wasn’t sure what it meant about him as a person. 

 

God knew, or at least Uncle Bere knew, how all his life he seemed to have been struggling with similar issues -- those questions about who…or what…he was.  He hoped that by the time he returned and the mail caught up, there would be yet another comforting letter from his uncle, chiding him once again not to be too introspective and to live life as it is.  Uncle Bere never had the answers, but he had always provided the comfort of stability and unquestioning love.

 

Too much thought -- his head ached, and Caje became aware of the slight chill in the room.  He should go back to bed and rest, as he was going to need his strength soon.

 

He turned and looked at Claire Marie.  Her eye caught his, but the look and the smile were distant.  Her thoughts were far away also.

 

“Are you almost finished?”

 

He sounded curious, not cross.  Claire Marie focused on the man now rather than her subject.  He appeared pale and pinched.

 

“Sorry, I hope you were not remaining there just for me.  I can become quite intent.  Please, go back to bed.  I have what I wanted.”

 

“May I see?”

 

Claire Marie shrugged and pushed herself out of the chair.  With her hands full, she occasionally found maneuvering difficult.  Caje started forward to help her, but backed off after Claire Marie frowned and shook her head.

 

Caje snorted.  Stubborn little thing…

 

She slid in the small space in the dormer next to the soldier and turned the sketch toward the moonlight so that he could see.

 

A low, appreciative whistle escaped Caje.

 

“Shhh -- Bridgette!”

 

Taking the paper from her hands, Caje tilted it slightly and studied the sketch.  Claire Marie clearly was not just a young woman who had studied art at some type of finishing school thing.  He had been prepared to make a few polite remarks and head back to bed, but the image before him erased that thought.

 

It was him.  But it was not just a likeness.  The essence of his thoughts were captured in the lines of the forehead pressed against the glass and around the brooding eyes looking out the window.  Anyone looking at the picture could tell that the subject was at some moment of decision -- it was suggested by the way he leaned forward into the dormer and the way he seemed to be tilting his head, incredulous at the choice to be made.

 

Aside from the uncanny ability of the artist, Caje was struck by his own unmistakable resemblance to Armand.  There had never been any doubt that he favored his father’s very patrician, Creole looks.  The strong face, the thick hair, the hooded eyes.  But if this portrait were to be believed, he had started aging in the few months he had been fighting here in France, to a degree that left no doubt that if his portrait were to be hung in the family gallery one day alongside his father’s, the only real difference would be their dress.

 

“You are quiet.”

 

“You are good.”

 

She shrugged, and cocked her head to the side.  It seemed to be a dismissive little gesture of which she made much use.

 

“I should be, from the hours of lessons my poor mother paid for.  She saw to it that I studied with the best in Paris.”

 

Claire Marie did not add that her mother often traded favors for those lessons.  The knowledge of that as a young girl drove her to absorb every minute of instruction into her very essence.  An innate talent, yes, but one practiced and trained to the highest degree.  At least until now…

 

She was drained artistically, she knew, and needed some type of sabbatical to recapture her creative spirit.  That was not going to happen, though, at any time in the near future.

 

“Keep it,” she said.

 

“I’m not sure I’d like to.  You may have captured a little more of myself than I can handle right now.”

 

“I’ll put it with the others.  Perhaps you will change your mind before you leave.”

 

“I would like to see your others…”

 

Claire Marie looked up at the soldier.  He seemed genuinely interested, but…

 

“Why don’t you go on to bed.  I will bring you over a couple of my favorites.  Then we must sleep.  Who knows what tomorrow could bring?”

 

She repeated her small shrug and started toward the bureau, but then paused.  The soldier had not moved.  Without saying anything, she turned back and placed his right arm around her shoulders.  He acquiesced to her help without acknowledgement.

 

Perhaps because of her weariness, or perhaps because of his additional weight, her limp was more pronounced.  She favored the left side, Caje determined.  They both grunted as he moved from her support to the bed.

 

“You’re surprisingly strong for…”  His voice trailed off.

 

“What were you going to say?  For a cripple, for a woman, for a dwarf?”

 

Caje could discern the smile that took some of the defensiveness out of the words.  He continued lamely, “I hadn’t thought of what to say.  You’re just surprising, Claire Marie.”

 

She tucked the blankets around him.  He rewarded her with a small, tired smile.

 

He was exhausted.  The healing process could take longer than he had originally reckoned, but he -- the family -- might not have the necessary time.  He truly did need to rest, but he also needed to turn off his mind.  Talking a little more with Claire Marie might help him forget his troubled thoughts, might help him forget why he was becoming afraid of himself.

 

“What happened to you?” he asked.

 

“I was always small, even as a child.”

 

“Your leg, Claire Marie.”

 

“I know.  It is actually my hip, not my leg.  The Boches…they left me several things to remember.”

 

“How long ago?”

 

“Over two years.”

 

They were silent.  Caje wanted to ask further questions, but wasn’t sure how to proceed.  Normally he was not so inquisitive -- it was definitely not part of his nature -- but something about the spirited woman provoked his interest.

 

Still, this was not the time to risk getting more involved in even the slightest way with this family.  He needed to stay emotionally detached in order to make rational decisions about the situation they all faced now.  But he hated to leave their brief conversation on the last unsettling note.

 

“How about showing me those pictures and telling me why they’re your favorites?”

 

“I think now it would be better to show them to you tomorrow.  You need to rest.”

 

“I can’t sleep.”

 

“I think you can.  And I think I will.  Good night, Paul LeMay.”

 

Caje watched her petite, dark form cross the small distance to the other side of the room.  The moon had shifted position and no longer illuminated the nook where she and Bridgette slept.  Caje strained to see her hair again spill down the side of the bed, but the light was no longer sufficient.  He relaxed back against the pillows.  Despite his fear to the contrary, he was asleep instantly.

 

 

****

 

The sunlight streaming through the dormer told him that he had slept until late morning.  It was something he had not done in years -- not since college.  He started to stretch, but the dull ache in his shoulder denied him the satisfaction of extending himself fully.  Cautiously he sat up.  He felt pretty well, all in all.  He was still very tired, both from his illness and the interrupted sleep, but the soreness that had pervaded his body over the past several days seemed to have abated.

 

He felt an urgent need to relieve himself.  Reaching over the edge of the bed, he discovered that the cracked china chamber pot he had been using was missing.  Swearing to himself, he got out of bed and gingerly looked underneath it to see if the chamber pot had been shoved further back, out of reach.  It wasn’t there and neither were his boots.  Nausea hit him suddenly, and he held onto the side of the bed until his stomach settled and his head cleared.

 

The pitcher he had broken had not been replaced, but there was a glass of water on the nightstand.  Caje took a small sip, then dipped his fingers into it and ran them through his tousled hair and over his face, following up with the wipe of a shirtsleeve.  His beard was coming in heavy, four days’ worth at least, he judged.  Despite feeling vulnerable because of his bare feet and having no weapon, he decided he had to go downstairs and find whatever latrine…facilities the family used.  This wasn’t a battlefield, after all.

 

There was no sound from below as he cautiously made his way down the steep steps.  Peering around the corner, he could neither sense nor see anyone in the front parlor.  He did not know the layout of the small cottage, but suspected that the kitchen would be behind the staircase.

 

As expected, the short, dark corridor led to a small kitchen, with bright white walls and cheery red-checked curtains.  No one was about, but the evidence of a morning meal on the table indicated some recent presence.

 

A door led outside and was partially open, allowing in the cool morning air.  Voices wafted in with the breeze.  Caje pressed himself against the wall beside the door and looked outside, being careful to stay hidden from anyone glancing toward the back of the house.

 

There was a small vegetable garden, which looked to have been surrounded at one time by a wooden fence.  The fence was lying in pieces around the patch, and the vegetation had been trampled some days ago, as evidenced by their brown and bruised condition.

 

Bridgette was sitting on a small dirty blanket, playing with some type of little toy.  Claire Marie, on her hands and knees, was digging in the dirt with a piece of wood.  As Caje watched, she scooped up her finds and placed them next to Bridgette on the blanket.  She was talking to her small daughter, and Caje could detect no agitation or caution in her demeanor.  The coast appeared to be clear.

 

He stepped out onto the small stone porch, his eyes warily taking in the broader view.  Nothing but a road and, on its other side, the magnificent valley in the distance he had seen from the dormer window the last evening.  He coughed softly.

 

Claire Marie did not hear him, but Bridgette did and looked up at him soberly.  He waved, but she continued staring.  Sensing her daughter’s shift in focus, Claire Marie stopped and turned toward her, then awkwardly turned again to follow her daughter’s gaze.  Seeing Caje, her face broke into a smile, and she signaled him to come out.

 

“Good morning, sleepyhead.  Some soldier you must be if you could sleep through all the ruckus this morning.”

 

“I believe I could have slept the entire day, Claire Marie, but, uh….I need to…”  Caje paused, hesitant to continue.  He had been too much among rough male company in the past several years.

 

Claire Marie scrunched up her face and shook her head.  “I’m sorry.  I forgot to take it back up this morning.  The outhouse was destroyed with the barn.  The chamber pot is still in the kitchen.  And, please, there is some bread left if you are hungry.  We will be done soon.”

 

Caje went back inside.  Feeling awkward about his surroundings, he hastily took care of his need and then returned to the kitchen.  There he found the bread covered by a cloth, and he sat down in one of the mismatched chairs around the small table.  Biting into the bread, he kept an ear out for unusual sounds.

 

Three days.  He would give himself three days.  No more.

 

After he had thought more about it, Caje decided that Claire Marie’s plan to pass him off as her husband’s friend, in the event the Krauts returned, would not work.  Especially if it was the same Kraut unit that had been around a couple days ago and knew who belonged in the area and who did not.

 

He had to figure out which way was back to the Allied lines.  He and Kirby had taken so many twists and turns when they’d looked for Hanley, followed by the period during which he had been semi-conscious after the shooting, that his normally acute sense of direction could provide no guidance. Maybe the old man had some idea.

 

Where were Msr. Bertrand and Madame this morning, anyway?  Claire Marie had mentioned a disturbance, but he wasn’t so out of it now that he could have remained asleep if it had been serious.  Besides, Claire Marie seemed calm enough.

 

The bread finished, but his hunger not abated, Caje started to get up to find something else to eat.  Looking out the window, however, and seeing the small, lame woman hard at work trying to salvage some vegetables, he sat back down.

 

He would like to go out and give her a hand, but he let prudence dictate both the conservation of his strength and the concealment of his presence.

 

He was rested, fed -- more or less -- and too weak to leave.  Now what?  The ability to be still was something that he could do only when listening to or hiding from the enemy.  To be still for the sake of being still…

 

He got up again and decided to look around the house and maybe locate his boots.  The corridor only led to the front parlor, with a side door to what he ascertained was another bedroom.  Three rooms down and one up -- that’s all there was to the house.  Not many places to hide, as Claire Marie had said.

 

There were a couple of pictures on the small, wooden mantle above the fireplace in the front room.  The glass was shattered and cracked in all of them -- reminders either of the recent fighting or the flight from Paris Claire Marie mentioned last night.  All were of happier times -- Monsieur, his face younger and even fuller, and a clearly ill, but beautiful woman in formal dress at what appeared to be an outdoor luncheon somewhere, where a river flowed behind the tables...

 

Paris, Caje decided.

 

There was also a picture of a young Claire Marie, her cheeks more rounded and flushed, standing next to an incredibly handsome -- almost pretty -- young man laughing with his eyes turned away from her adoring gaze.

 

A third picture showed a very young girl of about four, standing solemnly, holding the hand of the same but healthier, beautiful woman in the luncheon-by-the-river photo.  Though the woman appeared to be trying to look formal and respectable for the camera, one could sense the laughter and the sensuality pent up behind her merry eyes and full-lipped smile.  The little girl appeared to be a much paler, less substantial version of the older woman, who, Caje decided, must be Claire Marie’s mother.

 

He heard the back door of the house opening and Claire Marie’s uneven gait.  She came down the hallway toward him, carrying a sleeping Bridgette in her arms.  Carefully placing her on a bedraggled sofa along the wall, she turned back to Caje and put her finger to her lips.  He followed her to the kitchen.

 

“How are you doing this morning?” she asked him.

 

“Pretty well.  I haven’t slept that late in awhile.”  Caje took a seat at the table.

 

“I am sure.  You seemed quite peaceful this morning.”

 

“As opposed to…”

 

“You are very restless in your sleep.”  She left the statement hanging and turned to pour some water into the stone sink.  She began to wash the dirt from her small hands.

 

“I hope I don’t keep you awake.”

 

She shrugged.  “The war keeps us all awake at night and makes our days like something out of a bad dream.  Right?  But what can we do?”  She continued scrubbing her hands, but without the benefit of soap, they were not becoming as clean as she wanted.  Irritated, she dried them on a small towel beside the wash basin and then leaned back against the wall and faced Caje.

 

“Claire Marie, where is your uncle?  You mentioned a disturbance this morning…”

 

Pushing her hair back, Claire Marie tied it behind her in a loose knot before answering.  “He and Louisa went to see old Elise again.  Elise is convinced that she is dying.  Who wouldn’t be right now?  But since Elise is his wife, Uncle goes whenever he can to check on her.”

 

“Isn’t Louisa your uncle’s wife?”

 

“Louisa?”  Claire Marie laughed.  “No, no.  Louisa was my nursemaid and my tutor.  Uncle hired her to help tutor and take care of me when my mother became ill.  After my mother died, she -- Louisa -- stayed with us.”

 

“So, your mother and Bertrand were brother and sister?”

 

“No, no.  My mother was his mistress.  She was a dancer at -- well, near -- the Moulin Rouge before we went to live with him.  Well, way before….”  She sighed and looked away.  “Elise and Uncle have had an arrangement pretty much since they were married.  He obtained her title, she got his money and was able to keep her family’s old homes.  I married his nephew, his brother’s son.  Everyone is happy…was happy.”

 

Caje nodded.  He had definitely had experience with complicated family relationships.  “So this morning….”

 

“Elise lives a couple kilometers or so down the road toward town.  Where we are now is the cottage owned by the overseer of her estate here.  Old Pierre, who helps at the chateau, comes down all excited about every other day to fetch Uncle to see her.  Like I said, Elise always thinks she’s dying.”

 

Claire Marie walked toward the door, her face now clouded with worry.  Caje watched her, unsure of what was wrong.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

“To bring in the vegetables.  I told Louisa I would try to prepare something for dinner.”

 

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

 

Claire Marie paused at the door, looking grim.  “No, you should rest.  But I am afraid that my youth was misspent, for a female.  I failed to learn to cook.  Louisa would look at our pantry and see endless possibilities for a feast.  I look and see a few rotting vegetables.  I’m afraid your dinner tonight may not be edible.”

 

Caje smiled his first real smile in days.  Claire Marie looked forlorn and somewhat embarrassed by her admission.

 

“Madame, I can assure you that if you are experiencing performance anxiety because of me, you should not.  My experiences here in France thus far have been very limited.”

 

Claire Marie’s expression instantly turned from one of gloom into one of true mirth, and her eyes danced as she responded mischievously, “I assume, Monsieur, that you speak of your culinary experiences?”

 

Caje laughed.  She was fun to spar with verbally, and he was pleased he had succeeded in diverting her attention from their unfortunate situation.  Besides, he enjoyed seeing her smile.  It lit up her face and her eyes, illuminating her from within and highlighting her delicate features.  A girl with a sharp wit was something he appreciated…which probably explained why his only two semi-serious relationships thus far in life had been with older, very clever and experienced women.  Lust, he had found, could be satisfied quickly, but often left him bored in the aftermath.

 

Laughing, however, jostled his shoulder and the sudden pain reminded him of the reason he was sitting in France.  Though it was not what he wanted to do, he realized he should go back upstairs and lie down.  But to just lie down, when not mentally tired…

 

“Claire Marie, I’ll make a deal with you.  If you’ll come show me some of your drawings and where you’ve put my stuff, I’ll help you cook in a while.  Just tell me what you have so that I can be thinking about what we can do.”  He paused as he noticed the change in her expression.  “What’s the matter?”

 

“Your wife let you cook?”  It slipped out before Claire Marie could stop herself.

  

“What makes you think I have a wife?”

 

Claire Marie faltered.  There was no bantering tone in Caje’s question.  She sensed she had stepped unwittingly into a very private area.  Once again she felt like a voyeur, only this time she had been caught.

 

She straightened herself and looked directly into the soldier’s unblinking gaze.  She had done nothing to warrant feeling this way.  “You called out for a woman during your fever.  Many times.  I -- we -- assumed it was your wife -- or girlfriend.”  She tried to lighten the mood.  “I am just surprised anyone let you in the kitchen.”

 

Caje’s expression did not change.  He stood up from the table and started toward the corridor.  Softly over his shoulder he asked, “What name did I call?”

 

“Angelina.”

 

As he stepped into the darkness of the corridor, Claire Marie heard him sigh.  She did not follow.  Paul LeMay was amusing and she enjoyed his company.  He was, to her, very good looking, though without that beauty that caused both women and men to pause and look at her husband as he strode down the streets of Paris.  But she had been down the complicated relationship route before, and look what it had brought her.  Besides, he would only be here for a few more days…if they were all very lucky.

 

“They are in the bureau!”

 

Caje stopped.  “What?”

 

“Your things…they are in the bureau.”

 

He didn’t answer.

 

****

 

A wife!  Caje snorted even though his breathing was heavy from the brief trip up the stairs.  And Angelina, of all people.  If it wasn’t so ludicrous, it would almost be funny.

 

His stomach still called out for more food, but the bed was soft and the small exertion had cost him more than he realized.  He slept without dreams…for nearly two hours.

 

****

 

Krauts!

 

Caje opened his eyes, scanning the small attic room while lying perfectly still.  The Germans were downstairs.  He could hear them conversing, their voices relaxed.  If they knew he was here, they weren’t concerned about him going anywhere.

 

Cautiously he sat up.  He looked around again, but other than possibly under the bed, there was nowhere to hide.  Then again, it would probably be worse for Msr. Bertrand and his family if he were found hiding.  Although he still doubted that trying to pass himself off as part of the family would work if these Krauts had been stationed anywhere near here, it probably would be best to be open about his presence.

 

Maybe it wouldn’t come to that.  He could pick out Claire Marie’s voice and, by listening closely, two additional voices.  Add two more outside -- four men at least.  They could be setting up an OP, but even for that, given what had happened here a few days ago, he assumed they would have sent more troops.  They also would have been up here already.

 

He debated getting out of bed to listen better to the conversation.  Not that he knew any German other than that which would indicate that the conversation had taken the worst possible turn.  He willed himself to be even more still -- an art he was perfecting as a scout.

 

The voices were getting closer.  They were moving toward the stairwell.  He could now distinctly pick out Claire Marie’s voice, but as he strained to make out the words, he realized with a jolt that she was speaking quickly and rapidly in German.

 

A man’s voice was trying to talk over her.  It was moving with her.  Caje could make out that she was protesting something, and he could pick out Bridgette’s name in the conversation.  The German male’s voice was alternately chiding and reassuring.  Caje heard Bridgette’s name repeated.  Abruptly, the male voice switched to French.

 

“Claire Marie, Bridgette is fine with Wilhelm.  He likes children, I told you.  You know I would do nothing to hurt her.  I need to speak with you -- alone.”

 

“Then why don’t we stay down here and speak?  Your men don’t understand us, and I can be near Bridgette.”

 

“I told the Commandant that we were coming here to check for additional wounded and would see if this still remained viable as a potential OP.  I at least need to pretend there is a reason.  I have to be more careful now.  Things are not like they used to be.”  The man’s voice was now a cautious whisper.

 

The footsteps continued moving toward the attic space.  Caje weighed the direction of the conversation, and slid quietly under the bed.  The old fashioned bed had plenty of space beneath, which allowed for easier access, but also for a better view -- both ways.  Caje moved back as far as he could before the inevitable shoes came into view, and then slowed his breathing as he did on the field.

 

“Well, you can tell Oberfuhrer Weisner that the view of the valley from here is still unobstructed.  The only thing that has changed since last week is that we are minus a barn, our food supplies, and….  Stop looking at me that way, Rolf.”

 

Caje could see Claire Marie’s small feet turn abruptly and move toward his hiding place.  She had to know where he was, but as to what was happening here and her intentions with this Kraut soldier, Caje was uncertain.  If she was going to turn him over, she probably would have already done so.  But her voice made her sound comfortable and even familiar with the German.  A Kraut lover?  Claire Marie a collaborator?  For some reason above and beyond his own safety, Caje found the thoughts disturbing.

 

The silence continued for several more minutes.  In his dusty refuge under the bed, Caje could feel the tension in the room.  With decisive steps, the Kraut boots finally moved toward Claire Marie.  Caje could see from the way that Claire Marie’s clogs turned that the soldier must have spun her around.  Instinctively, his left hand reached for the knife that he usually kept sheathed at his side, but it was not there.

 

“Claire Marie, I must have an answer before it is too late.  To stay here is foolish.  Let me help you -- let me take care of you -- and Bridgette.  You know I care for her, and as a mother, you must know that this is the right thing.”

 

“Rolf, I cannot leave them -- Uncle and Louisa -- and I do not want to.  You are a sweet boy, and I will always appreciate all that you have done for us.  But I cannot do what you ask.  Please don’t ask again.  Let us continue as we have been.”  There was a slight pause, and she whispered, “I am sorry about Reiger.  He was quite kind.”

 

There was a catch in Rolf’s voice as he answered, “Thank you.  He was.  And this is why we cannot continue, Claire Marie.  Look at what happened this week.  Look at what happened to Reiger!  Of course, the Reich will prevail -- the Allied supply lines are stretched too far and too thin.  But until they realize this, what happened will happen over and over again.  This will be contested ground.  And you -- and Bridgette -- will be caught in the middle.  How long do you think you will last?”

 

“How long do you think we will last in Germany?”

 

“You know my father is powerful.  Your German is perfect.  I will see to it that you are set up and Bridgette is given all the opportunities…”

 

“Until your wife finds out, or you grow tired of a mistress with a child.”

 

“I could never grow tired of you.  You are different from the rest.”

 

“Different from your wife, perhaps.  But isn’t it that very difference that your Fuhrer is trying to annihilate?”

 

“You know that is not the same…”

 

Bridgette’s high-pitched wail floated up the stairwell.  Caje could see Claire Marie freeze for a second as she assessed the cry, and then her feet moved quickly, stumbling slightly on the edge of the rag rug.  The Kraut’s shiny black boots moved quickly also, and Caje could visualize him offering a steadying arm to Claire Marie.

 

“You must decide within the next week.  I have been patient, Claire Marie.  Think about Bridgette -- I will be good to her.  You know that.”

 

“I am thinking about Bridgette -- let me go to her.”

 

Claire Marie disappeared down the stairs.  The Kraut remained a few minutes longer, pacing around the room.  He stopped, and then moved toward the bureau where Caje had seen Claire Marie store her art supplies.

 

Caje sucked in his breath, remembering the sketch from last night that he had seen her place in the drawer.  And she had indicated his other belongings were also inside the chest.   Just as the soldier reached for the bureau, Claire Marie called from downstairs.  Although it was in German, Caje recognized the insistency in her voice.  The Kraut boots also disappeared down the staircase.

 

Whatever had happened with Bridgette and drawn Claire Marie and the Kraut Rolf away had occurred away from the staircase.  Caje could make out quiet murmuring back toward the kitchen area.  He relaxed from the tense position he had unconsciously been maintaining, but didn’t dare venture from beneath the bed.  Instead, he simply craved a cigarette to go along with his musings.

 

So, Claire Marie had a Kraut lover.  Or seemed to.  And the guy wanted her to move to Germany.

 

The voices continued downstairs, muffled and indistinguishable.  Caje rolled from his side to his back, his shoulder making him painfully aware he had been straining as he peered out from under his dusty hideaway.  He thought concealing himself was what Claire Marie had intended by giving him time as she paused, arguing, with the Kraut on the stairs.  But he couldn’t be sure.  He absently ran his left hand through his damp hair, noting that the tension and pain had caused him to break out in a light sweat.

 

Collaborator?  Lover?!  His mind continued to circle the possibilities.  Claire Marie seemed awfully familiar with the German soldier.  And she spoke fluent German -- at least, it sounded fluent to him, and the Kraut had indicated that it was.  Well, speaking different languages wasn’t that unusual here on the continent, he supposed.  But her tone, her familiarity with the man…they undeniably bothered him.  She hadn’t led them to him, but what kind of game was she playing?

 

Or was it a game?  Maybe Claire Marie was acting in self preservation.  The Krauts had been here for nearly three years.  Living side by side with the people in France and actually welcomed by many who saw a chance to regain some of the glory that they perceived the country had lost between the wars.  How does one act when living with occupiers day after day?  He couldn’t answer that for himself, and realized that he was glad for his unambiguous situation with regard to the war.

 

He heard the front door close and the start of an engine.  The car roared away with an angry screech of tires, as though the driver deliberately gassed the engine before putting the vehicle into drive.

 

After what felt like hours but was more like five minutes, Caje decided to risk moving out from under the bed.  Stealthily, he crossed the room and leaned against the doorway at the top of the steps.  Standing again left him lightheaded, and he waited patiently for the pounding in his ears to abate before trying to hear any sounds below.

 

He could make out someone crying.  Claire Marie.  He debated about what to do, then decided to take a moment and put on his boots.  Though he was certain there was no one else in the house, he still felt at a disadvantage without footwear.

 

After rummaging in the bureau, he located them in the bottom drawer, under some men’s clothes.  Her husband’s, he surmised.  Finding his dog tags crammed in the toe of one of the boots, he hesitated before slipping the tags back in the drawer.  There was no use calling attention to himself if any more unexpected visitors dropped by.

 

He crept down the steps and peered into the sitting room.  Claire Marie was on the floor, Bridgette in her arms.

 

“Are you alright?”

 

Claire Marie jumped.  Her eyes were red and tears spilled down her cheeks.  She did not even try to wipe them.  Bridgette looked at him and answered, “Mamma boo boo.”

 

Caje strode across the floor toward Claire Marie.  She turned her face away from him.  He knelt and placed a hand on her shoulder.  “Are you hurt?”  He could feel her shoulders trembling beneath his touch.

 

Her hair hid her expression, but her voice quavered as she answered, “It is only my pride.  I am fine.  I should have come up and told you it was safe to come out.”

 

Relief flooded through Caje, only to be replaced by uncertainty.  He would rather be caught in live fire than in a maelstrom of female emotions, especially the emotions of a woman involved with a Kraut lover.  However, he at least owed her the courtesy of appearing to care, given that her entire family was endangered by his presence.

 

“Is Bridgette okay?  I heard her cry earlier.”

 

“She simply fell while Wilhelm was chasing her.  She’s fine.  There is food in the kitchen if you are hungry.  Rolf has saved us from me attempting to create something.”

 

Caje jerked his hand away at her mention of the amorous German.  Claire Marie colored at his repulsion and addressed his unasked question.  “I know you heard our exchange upstairs.  I am not a collaborator.  Rolf was -- is -- Uncle’s nephew, through Elise.  He is not a bad boy.  Just caught up in this whole mess.”

 

“He wears the uniform of the Reich.”

 

“It is easy for you to make judgments, Ami.  You have not been here these past years.”

 

Bridgette started squirming in her mother’s arms, her fear of her mother’s tears forgotten.  She looked at Caje hopefully with her almond shaped eyes.  “Chase?”

 

Claire Marie laughed harshly.  “She sees only friends, no matter the uniform.”  Pushing her hair away from her face and taking a quick swipe at her eyes, she started to get up from the floor.  The effort appeared somewhat difficult for her, and Caje proffered a helping hand, which she pointedly ignored.

 

“Come, Bridgette, let Mamma find you something to eat.  Maybe there is a treat, eh?”

 

As she walked toward the kitchen, Caje caught his breath.  The outline of an open hand was visible on Claire Marie’s left cheek.  Hearing his unguarded response, Claire Marie swung her hair forward over her shoulder, masking the ugly, red mark.  Without looking at Caje she said, “There is no reason for Uncle and Louisa to know of this.  They have enough concerns.”

 

Caje took a moment to think and to peer out the tattered lace curtains of the drawing room.  The small compound appeared clear.  The afternoon was overcast, the gray clouds contributing to the desolate appearance of the farm yard.  The barn where he and Kirby had been kept still smoldered from the fire that had destroyed it.  Caje remembered very little of the area before the Allied counteroffensive and decided that today he would take a look around for additional hiding places beyond the confines of the house.  Furthermore, he would sit down with Msr. Bertrand when he returned and try to get some idea of the direction to go to get back to his own lines.  Given the situation here, it appeared more prudent than ever to be prepared.

 

****

 

They ate in silence from the small stores of food that the Germans had left.  Caje noticed that Bridgette seemed familiar enough with the food that she continued pointing with excitement at one small tin in particular.  Claire Marie noted his attention, and returned his gaze with one equally unfathomable.  Finally, she acknowledged Bridgette’s excitement with a forced smile.  “Soon, petite.  Let Mamma and her guest finish our lunch.  Then you can have your treat.”

 

She addressed Caje for the first time during the uncomfortable meal.  “There is some wine if you would like it.  It is German.”

 

“There are some fine German wines, are there not, Claire Marie?”  Caje hated himself for baiting her, but he couldn’t resist.

 

“There are fine wines from many countries, Monsieur, though I am not very familiar with those from America.”

 

She stood up briskly and grabbed Bridgette’s desired tin from the counter.  From a fresh loaf of bread, she cut two slices and then opened the tin and smeared sticky, red jam thickly across them.  Bridgette jumped up and down beside her.

 

“Here, darling.  Be careful and don’t get it everywhere.”

 

Bridgette grasped both pieces of bread in her hands and ran pell mell toward Caje, plastering one on the front of his shirt.

 

“Bridgette!”

 

Caje smiled at the upturned face that looked anxiously into his.  “I believe this is how we met, little one.”  He reached down and peeled the bread away from the shirt and set it on the table.  “Why don’t you sit beside me and show me if you can eat the whole thing?”

 

He patted the seat of the chair next to him, and Bridgette scrambled onto it, smears of jam trailing behind her.

 

“Claire Marie, if you hand me a cloth, I’ll clean this up for you.”

 

Claire Marie wet a cloth from the pitcher alongside the sink and handed it across the table to Caje.  “I’m sorry for the mess she made.  She does not get such treats often.”

 

She paused and looked at Caje closer.  “I’m afraid that between being under the bed and now Bridgette, you are a mess.  After lunch we shall heat you some water to clean up and I will change your bandages.”

 

Caje ran a hand through his hair and looked at it closely.  Specks of dust and gray cobwebs clung to his fingers.  He nodded and decided not to mention anything else, at the moment, about the incident that caused him to seek refuge earlier.

 

“I wish I had a K ration and my pack.  I’ll bet she would love some chocolate.  And I’d like a razor.”

 

“I’m sure she would like that.  Your soldiers brought little and left nothing behind.”

 

The momentary diversion caused by the child relieved some of the tension in the air.  Claire Marie sat back down at the table, with a small glass of wine for herself and a slightly larger one for Caje.

 

“Rolf has been here for nearly two…”

“You don’t have to explain to me.”

 

“You’re right, I do not.  But I want to.  It would be a relief to be able to talk to someone about this, and since you will be going soon…well, if I regret sharing a confidence, it won’t be for long.”

 

For a moment, they both broke their intense eye contact and focused on their wineglasses.

 

“Paul, Rolf has been here nearly two years.  I knew him in Paris, he attended my wedding, and then, once he was posted as a doctor here -- which his father arranged -- he helped deliver Bridgette.  It has been a gift, to have him nearby.  It could have been so much worse, without him.  He’s….

 

Caje stiffened and held his hand up for silence.  Claire Marie started to protest, but saw that the soldier’s attention was not on her, but rather drawn to something she could not perceive.  His entire body froze, his head cocked to the side.  Even Bridgette sensed the intensity of his concentration and quieted her babbling to look curiously at the American.

 

“Is there a gun here?” Caje asked abruptly.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

More quickly than Claire Marie could imagine, the American slid away from the table and moved across the room.  He was back by her in an instant, the large knife she had been using to slice the bread in his left hand, his right hand on her shoulder.

 

“When do you expect your Uncle back?”

 

“He usually returns in the evening.”

 

“I’ll wait in the staircase.”

 

He was gone.

 

Claire Marie pushed her chair back from the table and went over and grabbed Bridgette.  She was just able to distinguish the voices that had alerted the American.  Whoever was out there was approaching the front door.  She carried Bridgette on her hip, her step slowed by the additional weight.  As she moved down the hallway, she began to make out the voices.  It was Uncle, but someone else was with him besides Louisa.

 

She set Bridgette down on the floor, pushed the little girl behind her skirt, and stood by the door, waiting for it to open.

 

“You are back earlier than I expected, Uncle.  Oh, Msr. Guileau!  Welcome.”

 

Bertrand was accompanied by a large, florid man of powerful build.  His bald head shone with perspiration, despite the coolness of the afternoon.  He leaned over and grinned wickedly at Bridgette, growling, “How is this delicious little morsel?  I have not had my lunch yet, you know…”

 

Bridgette squealed in delight as she jumped up and threw her arms around the visitor.

 

He stood upright, with the child clinging around his neck, and the wicked smile on his face turned positively lurid as he threw a huge arm around Claire Marie’s shoulders.  “Has your mother changed her mind about my proposal yet, petite?  It’s an honest woman I would make of her, you know.”

 

There was laughter in Claire Marie’s voice as she replied, “It is too late for that, you know, Msr. Guileau.  And even if my becoming an ‘honest woman’ could be accomplished, I do not think you are the man to do it.”

 

“You wound me again, Claire Marie.  You should take pity on those of us who have served the Republic and given so much.”

 

“Ah, men!  I believe you start these wars just to use as fodder for your romantic forays.”

 

The man’s voice turned sober as he replied, “I wish, Claire Marie, I wish.”

 

The group was quiet for a moment, the mood clearly changing.  “Uncle, where is Louisa?”

 

Msr. Guileau  replied, “Your uncle and I decided to let her stay tonight with Elise.  We need to either move you to the old chateau or move Elise here.  To keep running back and forth is getting more and more dangerous.  I would take her into the house with us, but it would raise some eyebrows among the Boches, and I don’t need to draw any more attention to myself.  I believe that the best solution for the Resistance is to go ahead and have you all move to the chateau…”

 

Claire Marie started to protest, but the large man held up his hand and stooped to let Bridgette slide to the floor and go to her uncle.  “I understand your reluctance to live among the soldiers there, Claire Marie.  But we cannot give up that source of information, especially now.  And we cannot have you here alone so often.  You know it is not safe.”

 

Bertrand broke in at this.  “Your concern is appreciated, Bernard.  But I can talk to Elise…”

 

“Elise is getting more and more erratic in her behavior, and you know it.  She is starting to annoy the Boches, and she is your wife.  We need to deal with this now, before something happens.  But I understand that there is an additional consideration now.  Where have you hidden him?”

 

At the top of the stairs, Caje started at the clear mention of himself.  He had listened intently over the past several minutes to the conversation below.  Now he waited to judge Msr. Bertrand’s response, continuing to grasp the knife in his left hand.

 

“Claire Marie, is the boy asleep?”

 

“No, we just finished lunch.  Rolf brought some food by.”

 

There was an audible intake of breath.  Claire Marie continued, “Rolf does not know he is

here.”

 

“What did he want?”

 

Caje was not sure who asked the question.

 

“He was checking for any wounded and the condition of the farm.  I had the feeling his superiors were not intending to move anyone here right away.”

 

“That would fit with what we know.  I believe they are concentrating everything toward town.”  Guileau grunted and thought for a moment.

 

Bertrand nudged Claire Marie.  “Will you get the boy?”

 

“He is hardly a boy, Uncle.  What do you want with him, Msr. Guileau?”

 

“Hmm, oh, just an exchange of information.  Figure out what he knows, see if there is anything we can tell him of value to take back with him.  Nothing for you to worry your pretty little head about.”

 

“Don’t patronize me, Msr. Guileau.  I’ll get…”

 

She stopped as Caje emerged from the stairwell, the knife at his side, his face pale but set.

 

He and Bernard Guileau sized each other up.  Caje saw before him a bull of a man, which he had expected from the resonance of the voice as it had carried up the stairwell.  However, he had not anticipated the rest of the man’s appearance.  Guileau’s face had been severely burned, with the most extensive damage concentrated on the right side.  The eyelid was fused shut with the shiny scar tissue that swirled across the forehead and down to the jaw line.  The right ear was at least partially missing, though covered with one of the wet patches of snowy hair that were interspersed across the man’s large head.  His right arm was missing from the sleeve of his jacket.

 

Caje had seen burn injuries both in battle and before the war effort while working in the oilfields in east Texas.  However, he had never been exposed to the aftermath of the horrific wounds burn victims suffered.  This creature was beyond the imagination of anything he had seen even on movie screens.  But the members of the household were clearly used to the large, maimed man, so Caje tried not to let his shock show and stood his ground as the man looked him over.  Silently, though, he sent up a prayer to whoever was listening that when it was his time, it would not be by fire.

 

For his part, Guileau measured up the Allied soldier.  His initial impression was one of disappointment.  The man was of medium build, but appeared smaller due to the fact that the clothes he wore were a size or so too large.  His right shoulder, though, nearly filled out the shirt with what was clearly significant bandaging around the wound Bertrand had mentioned.  His features, more Gallic than many of the townspeople’s, were set in a face that was both pale and drawn.  This was no American cowboy such as he had seen in the few movies viewed on trips to Paris.  However, the man’s eyes, when Guileau locked on them after initially taking stock of the American’s physical attributes, reflected both intelligence and resolve.

 

Guileau altered his initial assessment of the man -- which usually consisted of whether he could take him -- and decided that this one could pose a bit of a fight.  Decision made, he forced his mouth into a grimace that approximated a smile and said softly, “You can put the knife down, GI; we are all friends here.”

 

Without taking his eyes off the larger man, Caje flipped the knife in the air and caught the blade in his left hand, proffering the handled end out.

 

Guileau’s grimace widened as he took the knife.  “I hope you are as quick on your feet as you are deft with the knife, GI.  You have a long way to get back to your own.”

 

“Maybe they’ll meet me here.”

 

Guileau laughed aloud.  “Perhaps…perhaps, indeed.  Bertrand, Claire Marie, let’s sit.  Bring out some wine if you have some, and let me talk to this front linesman of the Americans.”

 

“I’m afraid we have no wine left…”

 

“Yes, we do, Uncle.  Rolf brought some.”  Claire Marie started toward the kitchen, turning with an urgent whisper.  “Come, Bridgette.”

 

Guileau took the large, battered cane chair near the window, where he could peer out the curtains.  Bertrand took one end of the divan shoved haphazardly in the corner near the fireplace.  Seeing that there was nowhere else to sit, Caje took the other end of the divan.

 

Bertrand peered closely at the American sitting near him.  “What have you been doing?”

 

“What do you mean, Monsieur?”

 

“I mean what have you been doing?  You have cobwebs in your hair and your shirt…  Has Claire Marie taken you from your sickbed and put you to work?”

 

Caje hesitated before answering, “No, Msr. Bertrand.  When the Boches came, I slid under the bed upstairs.”

 

For some reason, admitting this in front of Guileau made him uncomfortable.  And as he had anticipated, Guileau pounced on the statement.

 

“No wonder you are losing the war, GI!  Hiding from the Boches while our women and children entertain them.”

 

Tired, his shoulder throbbing, Caje did not bother to try to keep his quick temper in check.  “Perhaps you should worry more about how your women entertain the Boches than how we fight them.”

 

A movement in the hallway caught his eye.  Caje saw Claire Marie looking at him without expression, and he returned her look then turned away, his attention caught by an uncomfortable lump pressing into his left kidney.  Reaching behind himself, he pulled out the ragged toy he had seen Bridgette dragging around for the past day or so.  It was a small, obviously hand-sewn doll, made beautiful by the sweet face and exquisite dress painted on the rough cloth.

 

Bridgette came flying across the room to claim her precious possession.  “Noo noo!”  She snatched the doll out of Caje’s hands and gave it a passionate embrace.

 

Guileau noted the look that had passed between the American and Claire Marie.  He remained silent and considered his next statement while everyone gratefully focused on Bridgette and her doll.

 

“GI, you will need help to get out of here and back to the Allies, as we have all needed help in recent times.  I would keep that in mind if I were you.”  He looked directly at Caje, his single-eyed stare unblinking.

 

Caje waited a moment, glanced again toward Claire Marie still standing in the doorway, and then returned Guileau’s gaze along with a nod.

 

“Now, Msr. GI, as Bertrand or Claire Marie may have mentioned, I am the leader of the Maquis in this area.  As such, I thought perhaps we could be of help to each other…exchange what we know, and I could use you when you go back to your own.”

 

Caje did not reply, so Guileau continued.

 

“The Allies have requested information about Boches defenses and strength in this area.  We have been providing this information for awhile, but now we are without a means of getting it to them.  Our radio is compromised -- I only want to use it if we have no choice, and I have no more young men to send out.  It is getting to the point that someone missing will be noticed, and not in a friendly way.  The Boches are quite anxious, as you can imagine.”

 

Guileau paused and took a breath.  Claire Marie used the break to hand out small wineglasses to each of the men.  Then she took Bridgette’s hand and led her back to the kitchen, as the girl talked unintelligibly to her doll.

 

Again, Guileau noticed Caje’s eyes following Claire Marie, and he looked questioningly at Bertrand.  Bertrand had also noted Caje’s gaze and shrugged his shoulders as he took a large sip of his wine.

 

Guileau scowled and continued, “Our resources are limited, as I mentioned, and I cannot take chances with those we have here.  Bertrand tells me your French is very good.  I have heard from other Maquis that the French some of the Brits dropped in here speak is appalling, despite the fact they had supposedly been trained by their Intelligence.  So, let’s hear you speak more than a practiced phrase or two.  Talk a little more for me.”

 

Caje resisted the urge to roll his eyes as he replied in the precise accent he had gained through boarding and prep school, “I grew up speaking French in my home.  However, you will have to judge if I can pass for a native with the Boches.  As for carrying information, it would depend.  I do not know you to be Maquis, or even with whom within the Maquis you are allied.  From a personal consideration, it would be better to be caught as an Allied soldier than, perhaps, a Maquis conducting espionage.”

 

“You will not help us?”  Guileau leaned forward, his face reddening.

 

Bertrand interrupted hastily.  “I do not think that that is what the boy said, Bernard.  He obviously is aware of the fractionalization of our resistance.  If I were in his shoes, I would question also who was asking him to do something.  After all, it could be the difference between being a Prisoner of War and being, well...”

 

As Guileau continued to look unmollified, Bertrand pushed on with determined conviction, “As for his accent, I don’t know what you think, but he could pass, with most of the Boches, as being from here.  Those few who would know the difference -- well, we can concoct some story about school in Paris or something, no?”

 

Guileau sat back in his chair, appearing to consider what Bertrand had said.  A reluctant smile played across his scarred lips, but did not carry to his eyes.  “I am not used to being questioned, American, but perhaps I would do the same.  It sounds as though you have had some experience with some of our brethren, eh?”

“We have worked with the Maquis from time to time.  Help is always appreciated.”

 

“Who is ‘we’?”

 

“Does it matter?  I am sure that our lines have been scrambled considerably since I was separated from my platoon.”

 

“You do not trust us?”

 

“I just prefer to be careful, Monsieur.  I am sure that as an experienced member of the Maquis, you can understand.”

 

“You will do, American, you will do.  I will check on you over the next few days.  As you get closer to taking your leave of Bertrand’s hospitality…” he raised his one eyebrow suggestively at this, “I will give you our latest information to take with you to whomever you feel is appropriate.”

 

Caje nodded and started to rise as Guileau got out of his chair.  Guileau waved him down.  “Conserve your strength, boy.  You will need it.”

 

Bertrand followed Guileau out the front door, leaving Caje alone in the parlor that had seemed to be crowded just a moment ago by Guileau’s hulking, disfigured presence.  Caje sighed and put his head in his hands.  It wasn't that he minded providing help to the Resistance, but it was hard to know exactly whom you were helping.  Communist, Fascist, so many others…the Maquis couldn’t just be lumped together as ‘Resistance,’ as many of his fellow soldiers thought.  It was a situation he wouldn’t be privy to if his abilities to translate French had not brought him into many recent discussions between commanding officers and the country’s natives.

 

The situation was further complicated by the help he was receiving from Bertrand’s family.  If it was discovered that he, as an Allied soldier, had been helped, well, he might be able to convince the Krauts either that he was able to force the help or that Bertrand had simply aided him as any doctor would.  If caught as a Maquis, however, the entire family would fall under the suspicion of espionage.

 

The answer, of course, was to take only information that could be memorized.  Then he could play the situation -- if it came to that -- whichever way was needed.

 

“He is a bit overwhelming, isn’t he?”  Claire Marie stood over him.  “I think he tries to be so, so that you don’t have time to think about how he looks.”

 

When Caje didn’t respond, she continued, “I have heated some water in the kitchen and stolen Uncle’s razor and a little soap.  Perhaps you would like to clean up?”

 

Caje looked up and gave Claire Marie a small smile.  “Thank you, Claire Marie.  I would like that very much.”

 

****

 

When Bertrand returned to the house a few moments later after talking to Guileau, he paused in the parlor and listened with appreciation to the sounds of domesticity coming from the kitchen.  Splashing could be heard, and Bridgette’s giggle.  He could discern the low voice of the American, gently teasing the small child, and then Claire Marie’s voice laughingly protesting, “You’re getting everything wet, you two!”  It was a good sound.

 

Louisa would have run in and disrupted the little scene.  In their approach to this war, they were diametrically opposed.  Louisa found it unseemly to try to retain normalcy and enjoy the small bits of it that came their way.  Bertrand, on the other hand, relished the moments when they could pretend that the country was not ravaged and that life could go on.  There was no harm in remembering why they struggled from day to day, of remembering what still could be.  However, Louisa’s caution and approach were appreciated, and had saved them from difficult situations many times.  Such as when she forced them to leave Paris…

 

Well, tonight she was not here, and Bertrand would give in to the small tableau he saw in his mind.  Besides, it would be good for Claire Marie and the child.

 

****

 

That night they enjoyed a relatively large dinner that Bertrand had insisted they create from the stores left by Rolf.  “Our guest needs to be reminded that France can be a place of charm and good company, else he forgets for what he fights, eh?

 

The candlelight and the darkness, combined with the quantity of food in their small, pinched stomachs, relaxed everyone.  Claire Marie reluctantly rose from the table and reached for the very drowsy Bridgette.

 

“Come, petite, let Mamma take you to bed.”

 

Caje pushed his chair away from the table.  “Let me, Claire Marie.”

 

“It is okay, Paul.  I do it every evening.  You are still recovering.”

 

“I hardly think carrying that small child will impede my recovery.”

 

Bridgette finally was tucked in by her mother, and Claire Marie returned to the kitchen and sat back down at the table.  The conversation was stilted at first without the distraction of the child running around.  Caje inquired about the way back to Allied lines, and Bertrand answered to the best of his ability.  The older man did not dwell, though, on the situation.  Rather, he purposefully continued to pour the wine and provide a jovial lubricant to what soon became livelier conversation with his continuous sly observations about everything from Petian’s relationship with the Germans to the town grocer’s wife, who continued to remain obese despite food rations.

 

Caje noted that the barbs were sharp enough to generate laughs, but always tempered by an added kind word and smile, as though the eccentricities and foibles of others were merely a small part of their persons that did not distort their true worth.  A kind man was Bertrand, much like his own uncle, Caje decided -- the type from whom you could always seek advice, knowing that truths would be given, but with care.

 

After nearly an hour, Claire Marie stood and started to remove the dishes.  Caje began to gather the utensils.

 

“Stay still, young man.  Let the mother do it.  I have some fine brandy a patient gave me in appreciation of relieving him of his appendix, and I have been keeping it to celebrate liberation.  I think the first appearance of an Allied soldier -- not to mention another man in the house -- is a good occasion to break it open for a sample, don’t you?”

 

Caje smiled at the invitation and at the twinkle in the old man’s bright blue eyes.  “I believe the Allies were here several days ago, Msr. Bertrand.”

 

“And I believe I may have gone ahead and opened that brandy.  Your men had better hurry back, or the rest of it won’t make it to the liberation.  Besides, you will need a little fortitude for some of the exercises I am going to show you for that wound.”

 

While the men talked over the liqueur, Claire Marie stole upstairs to check on her daughter.  Bridgette was nestled comfortably in her blankets, still dressed.  Claire Marie no longer put her in nightclothes, always ready to flee.

 

Claire Marie then walked over to the bureau and pulled out a brush.  The moonlight did not provide enough light to discern her reflection in the cracked mirror perched precariously atop the chest as she unpinned the knot in her hair, but she quickly and deftly ran the brush through her loose curls until sparks jumped out into the dark room.  Then she poured a small amount of the water from the glass beside the American’s bed onto a cloth and wiped her face.  She bit her lips and pinched her cheeks, trying to bring some color to them.  She debated about slipping on her usual evening attire of pants and shirt, but decided against it.  Not yet -- and then laughed at herself as she picked up the glass to take it downstairs to refill.

 

She was, she decided, acting like a schoolgirl with a crush.  And on someone who witnessed that embarrassing incident with Rolf this afternoon!  Furthermore, though he had tried to disguise it, Paul had appeared somewhat shocked when Bertrand had casually mentioned her mother’s profession.  For some reason, the fact that Paul now knew that her mother was a courtesan -- albeit a rather famous one -- disturbed her.  It usually did not.  It was just the way things were and did not affect how her mother had loved her.  As she herself loved Bridgette, and would do anything for her.

 

Well…  Claire Marie recalled the conversation with Rolf.  almost anything.

 

Still, her evening spent in Paul’s company at least let her know she was alive and capable of feeling something…even if Paul had made it quite clear after that scene what he thought of her.  His impeccable manners had slid back into place, leaving him with that veneer that was both charming and untouchable.

 

Nevertheless, her artist’s eye had been drawn to his angular features while her mind reveled in the tales of life in America he spun out for her Uncle.  She learned that Paul had worked in the Texas oilfields right before joining the Army -- a place he made sound both like something out of the movies about the wild American west and her own beloved Left Bank with its cast of characters improbable and amusing.

 

He was also well educated.  This she had guessed, but he confirmed it in answer to her Uncle’s direct question about his language abilities.  Boarding school in Charleston, and then prep school and college in Quebec -- his family must be wealthy.  But how sad for a child to be sent away, Claire Marie thought and cast a look over at the quiet form on the bed before she went downstairs to rejoin the others.

 

As she approached the kitchen, it was Paul she heard protesting as Uncle tried to dissuade him from finishing the clean up from dinner.

 

“I’m used to cleaning up after myself.”

 

“Sit down, boy.  You need to be resting.  Have some more brandy.”

 

“No more, Monsieur!  I want to have some of my senses about me, as well as we all should.”

 

“Yes, yes -- I know.  But occasionally we need to forget, or at least enjoy ourselves.  Even if that line hasn’t been working on Louisa lately, either.”  Bertrand looked up and gave Claire Marie a big wink.

 

“Oh, don’t tell me you are losing your touch, Uncle!”

 

“No, but you young people are in danger, I fear, of losing yours in all this nonsense!”

 

“Well, I have to assume it is Paul I have to thank for doing this clean up.  Why don’t you both retire like proper men to the parlor while the woman drudges along and puts things away and brings in the water.”

 

Bertrand smiled and grabbed the bottle of brandy.  “Nothing I love more than a woman who knows her place, Paul LeMay.  Come and let me take a look at that shoulder.”  His voice took on a serious tone.  “It may be painful, but you need to start doing some stretching of that scar tissue before it sets too tight.  I saw many men from the last war who had lingering issues that could have been prevented with a little thought on the part of their doctors.  I’m sure there will be many more such men from this war, but not among those whom I treat.”

 

Caje looked at Claire Marie who, with a nod of her head, urged him to go down the hallway.  As he turned to follow Bertrand, he decided maybe it was better to remove himself from her presence.  The fact was that being around her disturbed him.

 

All evening, in the comfortable warmth of the kitchen, he could not stop looking at Claire Marie.  Not that there was much else to look at anyway.  But rather than the polite conversation he had vowed to stick to during the remainder of his stay, he constantly found himself responding to her animated, astute banter and being drawn in by her face in the glow of the candlelight.

 

She had, he decided, the type of beauty that crept up on you.  Once you were aware of it, it took your breath away, making you anxious to catch the curve of her cheek when she turned her head, or to study her not-quite-right nose set in her otherwise perfectly symmetrical features.  He could not stop staring…

 

Actually, the prospect of the thought-diffusing pain that Bertrand was promising was not unwelcome.  He didn’t want to continue thinking -- about anything or anyone.  At least that was one good thing about the battlefield -- there wasn’t too much time on his hands for idle thought.

 

****

 

From the kitchen, Claire Marie listened but did not hear any complaints from the American as Uncle took him through some exercises in the parlor, explaining all the while the importance of maintaining dexterity and limberness.  She knew from personal experience how painful this type of thing could be, and remembered hearing the same lectures from Uncle as she sat sweating from the exertion of moves she once took for granted.  Of course, she never had the comfort of a considerable amount of wine and brandy to numb the pain…

 

She heard the men finish up and then go outside.  Paul had asked Uncle earlier for a tour of the compound so he could get a little better lay of the area around the house.  It was a sensible idea, Claire Marie knew, but maybe not optimal at this time of night.

 

The thought of some fresh air to clear her own head, though, was appealing.  She didn’t relish the idea of going up to bed and taking a chance on spoiling a wonderful evening by having to talk about Rolf when Paul came back in.  If she waited a bit longer, perhaps Paul would be asleep by the time she went upstairs.

 

As she finished wiping the table -- Louisa would be incensed enough to find out how much food and wine they had consumed this evening; she didn’t need to come home to mess in her kitchen -- Claire Marie listened for their return.  When she heard the front door open and close, she sighed in relief.

 

Bertrand called softly, “Good night, sweet girl” from down the hallway.  Claire Marie took the water pitchers from the kitchen and slipped out the back door into the wet chill of the autumn night.

 

****

Out in the darkness, on a fallen timber near the remains of the barn, Caje sat and enjoyed a second cigarette from the pack of Lucky Strikes that Bertrand had produced from a treasured store left behind by the Americans.  Caje had wanted a few moments outside to clear his head since it wouldn’t do to find additional places to hide from the Krauts if he were too wooly-headed this evening to wake.

 

It was more than that, though, and Caje knew it.  He wanted to wait until Claire Marie was asleep before he went up to the loft they shared.  He didn’t want her to again try to offer an explanation of what he had witnessed this afternoon.  Whatever it was, he could not imagine it not spoiling the first comfortable, almost home-like evening he had experienced since Theo’s death.

 

Theo...

 

Caje ground the remains of his cigarette out almost angrily.  He still could not understand why Theo was gone and he was still here.

 

It was from Theo, indirectly, that he had gained the nickname “Caje,” and it had stuck.  Before that, he had been Paul Alexander Armand LeMay, the only child of Armand and Angelina LeMay, who had been separated since Paul was nine.  His father, Armand, was a very astute and successful New Orleans business man who had pulled himself up from the impoverishment into which his old and revered Creole family had fallen.  By the time Paul was nearly 10, Armand had already amassed a small fortune in the oil business in the swamps of Louisiana, and was starting to expand into east Texas, as well as diverging into real estate in New Orleans and Charleston, where a number of relatives lived.

 

Paul’s early childhood had been spent in the heart of New Orleans, in a decaying antebellum city house set amidst the small, walled gardens once so popular.  The garden had a front lawn with an iron fountain that never worked but that caught and held rainwater and was a source of hours of amusement for the small boy.  With his mother and Missy during the long hot days of childhood -- his father worked ‘round the clock and arrived home for dinner often after the little boy had gone to bed -- Paul had been perfectly content.

 

Armand, however, was not.  He had gotten to where he was by hard work, as well as some dubious dealings, yet together they were not enough, in his mind, to return the family to the social status to which it belonged.  So when Paul was nine, Armand paid a princely sum to the Church to have his marriage to the beautiful Angelina annulled, and he married Therese Gould.  He had married Angelina when they were both very young and he believed that her Cajun origins would not matter.  But as they grew older and his ambitions grew greater, he came increasingly to believe that all his efforts to return the family to its former status were thwarted by Angelina, rather than any personal defects of his own.

 

Cajuns in Louisiana were starting to be singled out by the government for their lack of integration in the rest of white American culture, and various programs were instituted to eliminate the French-originated dialogue they spoke among themselves.  The old Creole families around New Orleans began to separate themselves from their Cajun neighbors, ignoring the recent past and the cultural bonding that had taken place since the Civil War.  Instead, they clung tighter to their “pure” French origins, and started reviving some of the social separateness that had been their standard before the war.  Angelina’s low class accent, lack of traceable ancestry and, perhaps, her original vocation -- though they had tried to keep that a secret -- embarrassed Armand in his ascent back up the social ladder.

 

However, he was rather fond of the boy, and had ambitions, and was determined to raise and educate him as a gentleman, even if Therese produced additional heirs.  Therefore, young Paul was sent in the fall of 1930 from the comfortable, old house that had been home to a strict Catholic boarding school in Charleston that prided itself on both its continuous emphasis on classical French education and discretion.  His childhood was virtually over, and the mother who had rocked him to sleep with the sweet lullabies she had grown up with deep in the bayous neither visited nor wrote.  It was as if she had never existed, and no satisfactory explanation was offered.  After a while, Paul stopped asking his father about her, since Armand at first offered improbable placations, then later answered gruffly, “I told you.” He also stopped asking the household help, who turned away sadly from the small boy.

 

It was a difficult period for Paul, but to those on the outside, it did not appear to last long.  At school, he was initially teased and bullied -- because of his muddled accent, because he cried quietly in the night, because he was small, and because he was soon at the top of his class.  But he was a well-muscled boy and good at most sports, and after he bloodied the noses of several bullies, he gained a reputation for having a quick temper and doling out swift and effective retaliation that earned him a wide berth and a measure of respect.  By the time he returned to New Orleans for the Christmas holidays with his new, unattractive but well-connected stepmother and his father, he had grown two inches and lost all traces of the Cajun accent he had inherited from his mother.  Missy, who remained with the family despite her personal grief over the loss of a mistress who had treated her more as a friend than an employee -- very unlike the new lady of the house -- also grieved over the loss of the child she had known.  But Armand was delighted, and appeared to have no qualms about proudly presenting the son of the woman he no longer acknowledged as his wife to the social connections he valued so highly.

 

After finishing boarding school in Charleston, Paul went on to prep school in Quebec, where he earned the reputation of being an all around reliable young man.  A natural skier, good scholar, and relatively popular student -- despite being too self contained to make close friends -- he was often the recipient of last minute invitations to fill in at holidays and other adventurous outings.

 

Returning home, though, was invariably difficult.  The truth was that his place in the house remained ambiguous, despite Therese’s inability to produce the socially correct male heir that Armand desired.  The addition of a half sister did ease the visits somewhat, as Paul was fond of the small, pretty, young girl.  But he felt sorry for her being brought up in the house with the cold Therese once Missy left.  And Armand’s embarrassing pride and superficial interest were overwhelming.

 

It was not all terrible, though.  Word spread around the correct circles that the LeMay boy, despite the distinct disadvantage of his birth, was not only good looking and possessed the correct accent that any true Creole mother desired, but was also perfectly presentable given the fact that Armand seemed determined, in light of the situation, to make him his heir.  Therefore, if anyone needed a spare date?  The invitations started piling up as soon as he arrived home for term breaks.  Debutante balls, Magnolia balls, sweet sixteen balls -- parties where the family names read off like a “who’s who” of Southern French-descended culture.  Boarding and prep school had stood him in good stead, and he was able to smile, be attentive, and dance until the wee hours, generally acquitting himself to everyone’s satisfaction.

 

He, himself, took some small satisfaction in conquering a few of the well-chaperoned maidens.

 

But it all seemed like play-acting.  He was who he was, with no illusions to his background or breeding.  Occasionally, he returned to school early, or left Armand’s home before the term break ended, in order to slip away to the swamps of Louisiana without his father’s knowledge.  With the help of Missy, with whom he had maintained a sporadic correspondence -- her writing skills were minimal -- he had located Angelina. 

 

She lived near her family on Lake Ponchetrain, not far from the Cane River.  When he visited her, various uncles and cousins -- whose relationships to Paul were always rather obscure to him -- helped him develop a love of the wild, gloomy swamps and forests of his mother’s people.  His innate survival skills blossomed in the primeval land of his forefathers, and he learned to canoe, to hunt, and to find his way through the bracken and shifting earth of the region.  Here he was accepted without reservation, despite his inappropriate clothes, his upper class French, and his education.

 

However, the time he spent with his mother was always somewhat stilted, though he could sense Angelina’s absolute love for the son she had had to give up.  It was a subject they had not broached directly, since Paul’s natural reticence seemed to have come from his mother’s side, and neither at first had wanted to take a chance on destroying their budding relationship.  But when Paul tired of the occasional whispers he heard during the whirl of New Orleans social activities and he could no longer ignore the sotto voice comments of Therese -- who barely hid her disapproval of Armand’s continuing close relationship with his son -- he finally asked Angelina about herself.  When his mother did not try to deny her son’s embarrassed probes, nor did she apologize, Paul fled back to college without even undertaking his scheduled visit to Armand.

 

He lasted only another week at the university, feeling that he could not face his classmates when his mother’s secret might somehow have even traveled across the border to Canada.  He ran off to a seminary nearby, run by a Jesuit priest from New Orleans who had befriended him during his first year in Quebec, and remained among the priests for one month, contemplating joining the order.  That is, until his Uncle Bere made his first direct intercession in Paul’s life.

 

It was Bere who both saved him from his misguided attempt to lose himself in the seminary and then, a year later, from the dissolute life he spun into upon his forced return to college.  Paul had not been in contact with his father in over twelve months, since the disastrous visit to his mother, and was taking minimal courses toward the completion of his degree, spending most of his time on the ski slopes, scraping class fees and room and board together from intermittent work as a ski instructor.  He would accept neither letters nor money from Armand.

 

Bere showed up unexpected at the boarding house, sitting quietly on Paul’s bed in the semi-gloom of the boy’s room, unseen at first as Paul stumbled in tipsy from an afternoon spent in one of the local establishments with a mixed group of acquaintances from the college and a nearby resort.  Paul, after his initial surprise over seeing Bere, was struck as he always was by the total contrast between his uncle and his father.

 

Whereas Paul’s father remained trim, nearly austere, as he grew older -- emphasizing his patrician good looks -- Bere gave in to his love of good food and wine, and it showed.  His easy-going demeanor endeared him to all, but his business acumen was not on a par with that of his younger brother.  Luckily, Bere had married into one of the oldest and wealthiest of Charleston families, and still treasured his small, bright wife after nearly thirty years of wedlock.  At this point in his life, having overcome his early impoverishment, survived the Great War, and married his best friend, his only regret was that their one son, five years younger than Paul, continued to create problems due to his dissolute ways and drinking.  Perhaps as a result of this, he was greatly saddened by the estrangement between his brother and his only nephew, and he decided to intervene before the damage became irreparable to Paul.

 

Bere offered him a job - or rather informed Paul that he would be taking it.  The employment involved managing one of Bere’s new oil concerns in East Texas, and it would be rough since the site, like many in East Texas in the early forties, was a rollicking anarchy.  A large number of Louisiana’s Cajuns had migrated to East Texas, both because of their familiarity with the work -- the bayous had been producing oil since the turn of the century -- and to escape the governmental persecution of their culture.  With their long hours, their unfamiliarity with the terrain, and their separation from their families, the men were living in a community whose social fabric had broken down, leaving towns and settlements that resembled the Wild West of old -- but where the cowboys often punctuated their sentences with bayou patois.

 

Paul accepted his Uncle’s offer without comment.  He cared for the old gentleman and still remembered fondly the weekend leaves in Charleston that he had spent being pampered and fussed over by Bere and Annabelle.  And the emptiness of his existence was a concern of his own.  It was one thing to punish Armand for, well, for everything, but he really had no desire to lose himself in the process.  Besides, Paul found the idea of Armand being daily tortured by his son’s very proximity to everything he had tried to disavow rather amusing.

 

So he moved to a small drilling camp near Port Arthur, Texas in the summer of ‘41.  The heat was a startling contrast to the climate of Quebec, and the bordellos and roughnecks were starkly opposite the rarified spires and students of the university town.  His initial adjustment was hampered not only by his position as an assistant to the tough site supervisor, but also by his name.  Unfortunately, his father’s well known turbulent relationship with Governor Long, along with Armand’s service on several advisory boards of the Standard Oil Company, brought the LeMay name and fortune into prominence.  The connection was inescapable.

 

After six months, Paul had decided that no matter how hard he worked and how much satisfaction he gained from it, his success would never make up for the sense of belonging he felt he lacked.  He was neither Creole, nor Cajun, nor “American”.  The men of the town saw him as the boss’s nephew and, because of his father, one of the gentry with nothing in common with the majority of Louisiana ex-pats.  The few managers of the place, largely Creoles or whites themselves, knew through the rumor mill of his estranged relationship with his parents and some variation on the reason why.  Therefore, they, like their linesmen, kept him at arms length.  Until that fateful day in October, when he met Theo.

 

He was out on one of the new rigs to watch what the crew hoped was the final push through to a large reserve.  Once the drilling had started, it had been nearly continuous for forty eight hours, and the men were getting tired.  Someone, and it was never ascertained in the aftermath who, forgot to apply the hourly lubricant to the gear housing.  Running full throttle in the heat, which continued to push 95 degrees due to a late westerly front, the drill’s gears swelled dangerously as friction continued to build between them.  In a millisecond, the men’s excitement over the potential breakthrough to a new supply of oil turned to horror as one of the gears jammed and caused a lightening fast reaction in the drill that ended with one of its connecting chains snapping loose due the sudden halt of its driving machinery.  The six inch wide, free swinging chain -- extended to twice its normal length after the break -- decapitated two men standing near the shaft.  A third dove to the grimy floor of the housing.  Without thinking, Paul grabbed one of the nearby four by sixes left over from the construction of the platform and lunged it forward, nearly tripping because of its weight and his haste.  The chain wrapped itself momentarily around the wood before snapping the timber in two like a toothpick.

 

Paul felt a searing pain in his side and toppled to the floor.  The man who had been trapped, observing the slowed momentum of the runaway chain, seized the opportunity to slide himself off the edge of the platform and drag Paul to safety with him.  Immediately they were surrounded by the crew who had watched the scene unfold.  Paul was rushed in his own car to the camp medical building, conscious, but in shock.  There, the six inch gash in his side was stitched and his broken ribs bound, and he was placed in one of three sickbeds to allow the ribs to begin to set.

 

That night, despite the painkillers given by the on site doctor, he experienced the first of the horrible nightmares that would continue to plague him for the rest of his life.  The crewmen’s heads, rolling away from their bodies, danced through senseless dreams over and over again until he awoke late in the morning, covered in a cold sweat.

 

“Cher, I thought you would never wake.  Makes for the bad night, huh?”

 

The young man who he had rescued was sitting next to him, smoking a cigarette and drinking chicory coffee.  Paul had seen him around the camp and knew him by name, though he had never had occasion to interact directly with him.  However, from that day forward Theo Gautier adopted Paul, forcing him out to the local saloons as soon as he was able to stand and bear the pain of his grinding ribs.

 

Theo prefaced his initial introductions of Paul to his friends and coworkers as, “Cher, this is the man who saved my life,” as though no one in the camp or those nearby had ever seen or heard of Paul Alexander Armand LeMay.  He forestalled anyone’s objections to the presence of the owner’s nephew, a Creole, one of the “bosses,” by his own sheer force of will, and soon the two were a constant duo, creating a swath of broken hearts through the eligible -- and some ineligible -- women in the region and participating in a whirl of social activities that Paul had no knowledge of before meeting Theo.

 

Paul enjoyed Theo’s company, not just for the break in the loneliness he had experienced since leaving Quebec, but also because the young Cajun had a dry sense of humor, an incredible capacity to enjoy the moment, and, surprisingly, a very astute business mind.  Theo enjoyed hanging around Paul since, even in the crude camp environment, he unwittingly opened up a whole new world to the backwoods Cajun.  Paul subscribed to the New York papers and magazines, liked fine wines, and, when drinking, would occasionally regale Theo with stories of balls, college, and a whole other way of life of which Theo had only dreamed.  Theo also found it incredibly amusing that the quiet Paul had a quick and hot temper which could be triggered in certain ways that Theo quickly learned, so that he could bait his friend whenever he was bored.

 

With the gathering storm clouds of war in Europe, production quotas at the camps were pushed higher and higher.  Within a year, Theo was camp crew leader and Paul an influential manager, and the business became one of the most profitable concerns in Bere’s East Texas operation.

 

One of the few sources of friction in the two friends’ business and social relationship reared its head after the men attended a raucous fais do-do over in Port Arthur one Friday night.  Theo, who had been exceptionally well behaved following his promotion, had had more than his usual quota of liquor, and was frustrated by his lack of success with several young ladies.  Dragging a protesting Paul outside -- Paul having been enjoying a waltz with a shy wallflower he had asked to dance out of sympathy, but who proved to be an exceptional dancer -- Theo announced that they were going to go where girls knew what men needed and there was not une cage aux chiens.  He was fifteen yards down the street before he noticed that his friend was not following.

 

Theo had been through this several times already with Paul, who had made it clear that he did not engage in that sort of activity, though he never elucidated on the reason why.  This time, however, Theo was spoiling for a fight.  He had been argumentative and anxious the entire day, to the point that Paul had almost stayed behind at the camp to catch up on the books.  At the last minute, however, Theo had wheedled him into driving them the two hours into Port Arthur.

 

Theo turned and walked slowly back toward Paul.  “Cher, you’ll hang out with us, but not go to a Cajun bordello, eh?  With your high-class accent, your fine Creole family in New Orleans, and your too-good-for-us airs.  Go on back to camp and be alone.  See if I care.”  Abruptly, he turned to walk away again and glanced over his shoulder to deliver a final slurred salvo.  “If I were as high and mighty as you, I would do something with that fine education and not waste it here with us Cajuns -- I would be anywhere but here, Cher!”

 

Paul quickly strode the few feet between them and spun the larger man around.  “You know why I won’t go with you.”  He was breathing deeply, and Theo, usually more sensitive to his friend’s temperament, did not heed the warning signs.

 

“Ah, it’s not like it’s your mother…”

 

He did not finish the sentence as Paul’s fist connected with his mouth, sending him sprawling despite their nearly thirty pound weight difference.

 

“Don’t you ever mention my mother again.”

 

Theo wiped the blood from his mouth with his shirtsleeve.  His ears were still ringing from the blow, but he felt more sober and looked up ruefully at his friend.  He spoke softly.

 

“If you want to be ashamed of something, don’t let it be Angelina.”

 

Paul started at his mother’s name.

 

“Cher, everyone knows your mother.  Not,” he added hastily as Paul’s eyes glittered, “in the way you think.  The bayous are small in many ways.  If you want to be ashamed of something, be ashamed of what we are doing here…”

 

“What do you mean?”  Paul grabbed Theo’s arm, both to help him up and to keep him from turning away and not explaining his remark. Then he used it for support as Theo explained what everyone around the camp had been shielding him from for the past several months.

 

The series of upgrades and then shutdowns as the crews waited for parts and machinery had all been ordered by his father.  Rumors were flying that Armand LeMay and several of his Standard Oil cronies were making a killing from profiteering, both by selling “drip,” or black market crude, and by helping the OPA to hike up the prices it set via an organized slowdown in production.

 

“But this is not my father’s concern,” Paul protested.  “It’s my uncle’s!”

 

“Open your eyes, LeMay!  Your uncle acts only as a front for your father.  Read the papers -- the editorials from the home papers you use for starting fires.  If you want to be ashamed of something, be ashamed of someone who uses people.  He used your mother, he uses your uncle, he uses us...”

 

Theo straightened, shook his head to clear it, and his eyes softened as he looked at his friend of two years.  “Cher, I’m sorry.  This is not about you; it’s about me.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a dusty, dirty camp, a place not fit to bring a real woman and petites to.  I also don’t want to be involved in your father’s dirty business because, despite being a rough, uneducated Cajun, I do know what is right and what is wrong.”

 

Theo shrugged his shoulders and gave Paul an apologetic look.  “I’m leaving.  I signed up at the recruiting office yesterday.”

 

Paul was still trying to absorb the information Theo had shared, but drew up at his friend’s last statement.  “What do you mean?  I thought we had talked about this.  Our work is considered vital to the war effort.  If we stay here, we can make our fortune….”  His voice trailed off. 

 

“You can pretend you aren’t hiding here all you want, Cher.  But I don’t want to play some game with my life.  I have a fortune and name to make, not to hide from.  And I do not want to make it here.”

 

“You think you’ll make it as cannon fodder in the Army?”

 

“I think, Paul Alexander Armand LeMay, that the Army will recognize the innate talents of simple Theo Gautier, and that I will be made a general by the end of the year.”

 

Theo saw that Paul was not yet ready to lighten up, so he tried again.  “I think, Cher, that I do not know what is out there, or what I might be.  I listen to you talk about classes you took, or what some of your classmates’ fathers did, and I’ve never even heard of such things.  I’m twenty four years old, and I don’t even know everything that I could be.  I will never get to college, never have the opportunities that you take for granted -- have thrown away, even!  Maybe, if I leave here,” he gestured vaguely at the darkened street illuminated only by the light that spilled from the dancehall, “if I see more of what is out there…” 

 

“Theo, it’s only a matter of time until we enter the war and business will be better.  What good will it do you if you end up killed?  You -- we -- could have it all here.  We don’t need to work for my uncle; people know us.  We can take some of the others and go anywhere we want.  We don’t have to stay here.”

 

Theo looked away.  “It’s all the same -- here or there.  This is no way to live.  It’s not what I want.  I had no choice.”  He paused, then continued, “We all signed up together, yesterday, while you were at the management meeting.”

 

“What do you mean ‘we?’”

 

“Matt, Pierre, Buck, the whole team.  All except Austin -- he’s got those three children over in Ascension Parish.”

 

“When were you going to tell me?”

 

“Tonight, Cher.  And I just did…though it was not how I intended.”

 

Paul continued toward the car, blending into the shadows without breaking stride.

 

Theo continued feebly, “I’m sorry….”

 

There was no response.

 

Paul did not see him again until a week later, as Theo and the gang were waiting at the bus stop.  Paul had been assiduously avoiding everyone.  It was not as though he had created the home he so craved here, but he had gone a long way toward filling the void that he had lived with for the past fourteen years.  He looked over and saw that the group had their few belongings rolled up in a rag tag assortment of duffels, and knew they were headed to Corpus Christi to be sworn in.  He started to drive by, but then stopped the car and leaned out the window.

 

“Hey, cannon fodder -- keep your head on.”

 

Theo grinned.  “It’ll be hard without you around.  Where you heading?”

 

“Dunno.  Just quit.”

 

Shaking his head in wonder, Theo replied, “Ah, you’re not going to find it if you don’t start looking.”

 

“Looking for what?”

 

 “Anything, Cher, anything.  You spend all your time running away from your life.”

 

“Looks to me like you’re the one running.”

 

Theo looked into Paul’s eyes, certain that this was the last time he would be seeing his friend.  “The difference is, I am looking for something.”

 

 

****

 

One year later, Paul sat with his unit in England.  Rumors were flying through the Quonset huts and bets were being made and lost about the exact date of the company’s departure for France.  Everyone knew the mission; no one knew the time.

 

Paul had received a chiding letter the day before from Uncle Bere, and he remembered how Bere had supported his decision to enlist, only asking that Paul try to make some overtures toward both Armand and Angelina before he left.  Despite the hurt that he knew it would cause his uncle, Paul had ignored that advice and went straight from Charleston to training.

 

It had been tougher than he ever imagined -- the heat, the endless days, and, even worse, being forced to live so close to so many people, a situation that robbed him of the solitude he valued so much.  But, on the other hand, it also left him with little time to think or brood, and his standing among his fellow recruits rose daily.  The years in the rough oilfields had given him a toughness that many of them lacked, and he would have probably been given a field promotion to sergeant if it were not for his aloofness and the slight accent that occasionally made it difficult for others to understand him out in the field.

 

But he didn’t care.  He had no illusions that the Army would provide what he was looking for.  All he knew was that it gave him the opportunity to find out what sort of man he could be outside the shadow of his family.  No one in his unit here in England knew the LeMays, or even much about Louisiana, as was apparent by their blank stares when he tersely answered their questions about his accent.  And the sergeant seemed okay -- too busy carousing with a fellow NCO to pay much attention to whether the men were bonding as a group.  Paul chalked it up to the fact that Saunders was a battle-hardened veteran, having survived the invasion of Italy and endured the loss of most of the men from his first unit.  He probably didn’t care to get too close, and Paul couldn’t blame him.

 

Having free time on his hands now, Paul decided to go ahead and leave early to pick up his uniforms from the sweet old widow living on the outskirts of the town in which the company was garrisoned.  A walk on such a beautiful, sunny May morning would help him think through a response to Bere’s letter.  There were many locals who performed similar services for the Yankees plopped down in their midst, but Paul preferred going to the widow’s home, even though it was a bit more of a hike.  She was French and had wound up in England after marrying a British soldier she had met during the last war.  Her pleasure at having someone to converse with her in her native language caused her to take extra good care of him -- especially since he reminded her of the son she had lost at Dunkirk, leaving her alone in the cold, wet country.

 

He arrived at her house just after eight.  The widow often encouraged him to sit at her table as she bustled about, chattering to him in French, not expecting an answer, but simply enjoying his company and his occasional polite grunt or nod.  He, in turn, found these visits reminiscent of the long-ago afternoons he’d spent in the kitchen with Missy, and he always departed in a better frame of mind than when he arrived.  So he knocked on the door, looking forward to her smile and a pleasant diversion.

 

Mrs. Paron greeted him warmly and asked him to come in.  She had tea steeping and he knew she would offer him a cup.  He wasn’t particularly fond of the beverage, but it was part of their little routine.  Mrs. Paron prattled on about not having any butter to make proper brioche, and the other deprivations that cause her to not be able to feed a boy in the manner that she would like, until three soldiers arrived, startling them both.

 

It was apparent that the newcomers had not yet been to bed from their previous night’s carousing and were all more than a bit drunk.  Looking a little frightened at their loud and obnoxious behavior, the widow quickly hurried about gathering their shirts and pants from the washroom behind the kitchen.  Hesitantly, she explained to them, as she had to Paul, that their undergarments were not quite yet dry, and that they would have to come back later in the day or take them still damp.

 

The seeming leader of the group, a fat ruddy fellow with a distinctive New England accent, looked nonplussed at having to make the hike back out.  He started to get threatening, and then spied Paul walking toward the door, quietly, but with purpose.

 

“Hey, why don’t you tell me what unit you’re with,” Paul said, “and I’ll drop your clothes by later on, after I come back to get my own.  You all look like you’ve had a lot of fun; why ruin it now over some shorts, and with a sweet lady?”

 

The widow looked up gratefully at Paul and then expectantly at the soldiers.

 

They hesitated, until a small, ferret-faced man behind the heavyset soldier said, “Hey, what have we got here?  Another Frenchie?  Maybe Frenchies do their old ladies and that’s why the broad’s a little too busy to finish the laundry for some good ol’ ‘merican soldiers who’ve come to save her.”  He grinned at his inebriated companions.  “And maybe that’s why the Frenchies lost the war in the first place, huh?”

 

The concept amused his buddies and they began expounding on the idea.

 

The widow, at first dismayed that they did not appear to be leaving and then angry when she understood their implications, started to respond, but Paul held up a hand to silence her.  He didn’t want to make the situation any worse, and these fellows were spoiling for a fight.  But when one of the men tried to cross the threshold into the cottage, he shoved him back, his own quick temper getting the better of him.

 

The situation seemed destined to escalate into serious violence until the cottage’s old gardener suddenly appeared and diffused it.  Though nearly an octogenarian, he used his pitchfork to persuade the drunken men to back out of the front garden.  The widow tossed their laundry over the stone fence into the dirt road with instructions to take it elsewhere from now one.  As the GIs hurled a few more unintelligible epithets in her direction, they stumbled off down the road and disappeared into the otherwise bucolic countryside.

 

Paul remained another few minutes at the cottage to make sure that the widow was not too put out by the morning’s events, but it was soon apparent that the gardener was using his heroic actions to gain the opening he had been looking for with the venerable Mrs. Paron, and this was an attack Paul felt the widow could handle by herself.  He slipped out with his neatly tied bundle of laundry and headed back toward town.

 

He had just entered the outskirts of Sheffield, still quiet in the early morning hours, and glanced down at his watch, when something hard smashed into the back of his neck.  Dropping to the ground, he lay there stunned as two of the three goons he’d encountered at the widow’s house slid a knife under the string holding his parcel together and started pulling out pieces of laundry.  The third man put his boot on Paul’s back, pinning him down on the dirt lane.

 

Paul groaned, both in pain and because he had been stupid not to anticipate the situation.  Truly, he hadn’t thought there would be any retaliation for what had happened at the widow’s house since he’d assumed the men would go somewhere and sleep off their hangovers.  But now he was at their mercy, and this was not how he had planned to spend the day.

 

His NCOs and a third man suddenly rounded the corner of a nearby building.

 

“Hey, what’s going on here?” Hanley demanded in his most authoritative tone.

 

“None of your business,” stated one of Paul’s attackers, irritated, until he and his companions looked up and caught sight of Hanley’s and Saunders’ stripes.  Then he added lamely, “We thought he was…a Frenchman.”

 

Hanley raised his eyebrows.  “A Frenchman?”

 

Saunders walked over and assisted Paul to his feet.

 

“Yeah.  We thought….”

 

“Soldier, I don’t know what you were thinking, but this is one of our men.  And, as you should know before your sorry ass is shipped over the channel, the French ARE our allies.”

 

“Yeah, but….”

 

“I don’t know what is going on here, and I don’t want to,” Hanley continued as one of the men started to speak.  “All I know is that I don’t want to see your faces again.  Make yourselves scarce—and stay that way around me!”

 

The three ran off down the street as Paul stared ruefully at his belongings strewn across the road.

 

“That fancy accent will get you every time, Cher.”

 

Paul turned, stunned by the familiar voice, his ruined laundry and aching neck forgotten.  “I thought they had standards for this man’s army!”

 

Theo laughed.  “That’s what I thought when I signed up, but now that I see that they let anyone in, I’m going to have to reconsider my enlistment.”

 

Hanley and Saunders stood by listening to the exchange, but not understanding a word of the rapid fire French and bayou patois.

 

Saunders interrupted after a moment.  “I take it you know each other?”

 

Theo switched to English, aware that they had been excluding the NCOs.  “Sorry, Sergeant.  All us Cajuns know each other.  Paul and I, we go way back.”

 

“You don’t sound like you’re from the same place,” Saunders replied.  He had been curious about the quiet, dark-haired private, but it wasn’t in his nature to ask too many personal questions.

 

Theo flashed a disarming smile.  “You Americans don’t all sound alike to us, either, Cher…er, Sergeant.”

 

“Well, whatever, help him clean up this mess, and then you, LeMay, take your buddy to the barracks.  Hanley and I have other things to do.”

 

Saunders and Hanley sauntered back the way they came, happy to be relieved of their charge and leaving Theo and Paul alone in the street.

 

Over the next several hours, the reunited friends filled each other in on what had occurred in the past six months.  Theo’s unit had suffered a debilitating round of dysentery while training in the moors of Scotland.  “Guess growing up in the bayou left me immune…”  Orphaned from his platoon, he had just been assigned to Paul’s.  He expressed shock, somewhat feigned but somewhat genuine, at finding his former companion an enlisted man like himself.

 

“I figured for sure that, if you ever joined the Army, your father would get you some safe officer’s commission.”

 

Paul shook his head.  “It’s so predictable.  He tried.  Some big-wig military friend of his pushed through a request for me to go into OTC since, after I left Bere’s camp, I was subject to the draft.”

 

“So why didn’t you take it?  Still throwing away every opportunity that comes your way?”

 

Paul rolled his eyes over his schooner of beer.  He preferred wine, but the pubs in the village were not well stocked and he and Theo were lucky to find even beer on a Sunday afternoon.  “How many times do I have to tell you before you get it through your thick head -- I don’t want anything handed to me!  I want to do things on my own.”

 

“Cher, no one does things on their own.  Me, I am using Uncle Sam’s dime to get out of the bayou -- to find out what I can be.  You, you’re using it to punish someone or something.”

 

Several days later, Saunders accepted at face value Theo’s “We don’t know anything about that, Sarge,” and LeMay’s blank stare when he questioned them regarding the assault by several unknown men one night on the three soldiers who had attacked Private LeMay.  However, the sergeant did look at the quiet private in a new light and made a note to watch him and his friend.

 

They were not hard to watch.  Over the next several weeks, they were as inseparable as they had been in Texas.  Theo was the life of the party, and everyone in their unit and the others stationed nearby learned to yell “Laissez le bon temps rouler!” in the pubs at his and Paul’s entrance.  Theo was known by name by everyone within a week, but the quieter Paul LeMay was just one of those “crazy Cajuns,” which was soon shortened to “Caje.”  Theo would grin at him, that wry, sardonic grin, at first when Paul started to respond to the nickname.  But one day he commented that while Paul’s woods savvy and tracking skills may have come from his Cajun side, the quickness with knife and temper that was displayed during several bar room brawls was pure New Orleans Creole, and he shook his head with disapproval.

 

They trained hard and played hard, knowing that without warning, everything would change soon.

 

 

****

And so it did.

 

Caje took another draw on his cigarette.  Theo was dead, he was wounded and stuck behind enemy lines, and he didn’t know where his father’s watch or Theo’s beret were.  Hell, he didn’t even know where Theo had gotten it.  Up in Scotland, he guessed, during training.  Paul had kept it as sort of a talisman and a remembrance, like the watch.

 

But now there was Claire Marie.  Paul could almost hear Theo’s voice…

 

“Cher, you would throw away every opportunity!”

 

The recurring dreams of torn and dismembered bodies that had first started plaguing him after the accident in Texas had become more frequent and more intense since Theo’s death in June.  But there was another dream that he sometimes had, one that now seemed suddenly poignant:  that one day, he would come to a house, to people he had never seen, and he would know instantly, utterly, that he belonged, as though he were finding a missing limb of which he had never been aware.  He had set the dream firmly aside, over and over again when it unexpectedly crept into his musings during lulls at work or at war.  But tonight, common sense had fled out the window and had been replaced by an unexpected sense of fulfillment.

 

Home…family…

 

It was peculiar because these ideas had never been thoughts to fill him with much pleasure.

 

The woman at the table in his dreams had never had a face.  Over the years, every woman in his relationships had, without their knowledge and sometimes without his conscious thought, been placed in this illusory tableau, each failing to fit.  The Creole debutantes, spoiled and often vacuous, never seemed right.  Nor did the women of the camp -- a few older and more interesting than the debutantes, but all too rough and too needy of what they thought he could provide.

 

He had noticed that when Claire Marie had come back downstairs tonight, her hair was unpinned again and flowing in silvery sheets across her shoulders and back.  And her face was slightly flushed, perhaps with the wine, but maybe, he thought, with the excitement of connection that he had felt…

 

She was turning to carry the water back into the house.  “Claire Marie!”  His voice floated across the evening air, surprising himself and the woman.  She turned, looking around in the darkness for a moment before spotting the glowing end of his cigarette.  She set down the water pitchers and walked slowly across the yard.

 

Caje nodded to a spot next to him.  Claire Marie awkwardly sat down, her precarious balance made more so by the tilt of the beam.  Caje put out a hand to steady her, and this time she took it.  Neither one let go, nor did they look at each other.

 

“Cigarette?” he asked out of politeness and to fill the void, not expecting her to accept.  She released his hand, though, and reached over for the pack next to him.

 

“Thanks.”

 

She put a cigarette in her mouth and leaned toward him so he could light it, but his movements were hampered by the bandage on his shoulder and his fatigue after doing the stretches Bertrand had forced upon him.  So she took the lighter out of his hand and lit the cigarette herself with one fluid motion.

 

“Mmmm…” she said, taking a deep drag on it and exhaling into the night.

 

He chuckled.

 

“What is so funny?”

 

“I just didn’t have you pictured as a smoker.”

 

She sat quietly for a moment, enjoying her cigarette, before responding, “Are you shocked?”  When Paul didn’t answer, she continued, “I noticed your reaction to what Bertrand said about my mother.”

 

Caje looked her in the eyes for the first time.  The moonlight was bright enough for her to make out his slight smile.  “My reaction was not what you think.”

 

She looked at him expectantly and took another puff on her cigarette.  She debated about following up with the obvious question, but did not feel like encountering his considerable defenses again.  So she sat.

 

“My mother, Angelina,” he emphasized the name, “was a…prostitute, too.”

 

There, it was out.  Except for that one, horrible argument three years ago, he had never acknowledged it out loud.

 

For a moment, the night remained silent, and Caje wondered if it had been a mistake to share his secret.  Then Claire Marie spoke quickly and softly.

 

“That is a horrible thing to say.  I never said that about my mother, and I never will.”  She looked at him fiercely, her small chin tilted up and her eyes flashing.  “And I won’t say some silly things about her doing it because she had to, or she made terrible choices, or any of that, because I don’t know.  All I know is that she loved me very much.   I never apologize for her…and she never asked me to.”

 

She waited for his walls to come up again.  The impassive face, the eyes that reflected only what they saw and gave away nothing about what was going on behind them.

 

Instead, he nodded.  “Tell me about her.”

 

It was more a command than a request, but the tone was apologetic.  A formal apology, for anything, she decided, would never come out of this one.  What the hell, she thought.  It was a cool night, his body was warm next to hers, and the cigarette was a nearly forgotten pleasure.

 

“She was Russian…at least that’s what she said.  It is hard to know; she spoke many languages.  She always claimed we were from some offshoot Russian nobility, that her parents fled the Bolsheviks, but died soon after reaching Paris.”  She shrugged.  “Russian nobility -- people claiming it -- they were…are…everywhere in Paris.  Her Russian was good -- there were always many…Russians…in and out of the apartment.”  She grinned a little wickedly.  “There were others, too.  Writers, painters, courtesans.  Mother really created quite the salon.  Parties…as a child I thought it was fun…staying up too late, sneaking a sip of champagne from someone’s glass.  Our apartment was in a fabulous location, near the Moulin.  At night, there was the sound of voices and all the hustle and bustle, followed by very quiet mornings, and then afternoons where a feeling of excitement began to build toward another evening…”

 

“You sound as though you loved it.”  It was a question.

 

“Yes. I loved the odors, the lights, the sounds -- the stimulation.  And I loved her.  She was so beautiful, and made everyone, even the street cleaners, feel special.  And it was genuine -- everyone just wanted to be around her -- men and women.”

 

She paused and ground out her cigarette on the beam.  Caje offered her another one, but she motioned it away.

 

“Oh, yes, everyone loved her.  They loved to hear her sing.  She had stopped performing after I was born, but she would still do little impromptu vignettes during parties.  She was in constant demand.”

 

“You chose a different path.”

 

“It wasn’t as though I had much choice.  She was so beautiful, so alive.  Everyone knew when she entered a room.  She was such a presence.”

 

Caje lit another cigarette.  “You are beautiful, Claire Marie.”

 

She leaned into him, both for warmth and in appreciation, but laughed.  “That is sweet.  But I have always felt like a pale shadow, a water color next to an oil.”

 

He started to protest, but she interrupted him.  “Oh, I’ve never minded.  I never even wanted what she had, or wanted to be what she was, and I don’t think she wanted that either.  That’s why when Timone came along…well, it seemed so perfect.”

 

“Your husband?”

 

“Yes.  By that point, Bertrand had become Mother’s constant companion, and he was basically taking care of us.  She was starting to not feel well, and he had first come as a doctor, sent by a friend.  Like everyone, he fell under her spell.  As I mentioned before, Timone was his nephew -- his dead brother’s son -- and someone who I had met before at several parties.”

 

“You fell in love?”  He recognized the senseless jealousy creeping in, but held his tone steady.

 

“I did…though I think Timone was in love with the whole scene and probably with my mother.  I was young, and my friendship with him stopped my mother from worrying about what would happen to me…though with as kind as Bertrand is, she really didn’t have to fret.”  She stopped and was quiet.  “So, what about you?”

 

He ignored her question.  “But your marriage was good, yours and Timone’s?”

 

“What is a good marriage?  Did we each get what we needed?  Yes, sort of.  We provided what each needed at that moment, so it worked.”

 

“That doesn’t sound so idyllic.”

 

She looked away, and her tone was very soft.  So soft, that Paul thought he had misheard her.

 

“What?” he asked.

 

“Timone was not interested in me, not as a woman anyway,” she explained.  “He wanted so desperately to be a famous writer, and I gave him entrée into the whole ‘artistic world’, through my mother, who had so many connections.  We ran in all the chic circles, and in the social sphere of his parents, I -- given my background -- provided an air of, well, I guess I was risqué…different.  It made me feel exciting, for once.”  She paused.  “I was very young.”

 

He didn’t try to analyze his feelings.  He just wanted her to keep talking, to continue that rapport he had felt with her since he had awakened and focused on her face two days ago.

 

“Tell me about Rolf.”

 

“I thought you didn’t want to know.”

 

“I don’t.  So tell me.”

 

“He is Timone’s cousin though marriage.  Elise’s sister’s son.  And I believe the boy had a crush on Timone while Rolf was finishing his medical studies at the Sorbonne.”  She shook her head.  “Poor thing, he’s always been a loner.  I really think he thought that uniform would make him belong.  And now he spends all his time being afraid.”

 

This is not what he expected, not at all.  But he knew she spoke the truth.

 

“What does he want?  What did he want, then, today from you?”

 

“The same as Timone -- entrée into another world.  The Reich is not very open to different people, you know.  And he thinks his wife may suspect -- about him.  She would be very surprised, pleasantly I think, if he had a mistress.  But,” she added hastily, “he also wants to take care of us.  He loved Timone very much.”

 

Caje ground out his third cigarette and put his arm around Claire Marie’s slight shoulders.  When she did not draw away, he pulled her closer to him.  They sat in companionable silence.  It had turned into an evening of exchanges, of openings in the dark, each feeling safe both because of the things in their backgrounds they shared and the knowledge that their paths -- for many reasons --might never cross again.

 

There was none of that awkwardness of ‘what’s next.’  Only a moment of solace and harmony, in a cacophony of displacement, separations, and death.

 

“Should we go upstairs?  It’s starting to rain.”

 

Caje helped Claire Marie to stand, and they crossed the yard and entered the small house.

 

 

****

 

Saunders stepped aside to allow two men to pass.  One wore a relatively clean U.S. Army uniform, the other, the rough peasant clothes typical of the area.  Both were conversing rapidly in French.  After they moved by, he stepped into Hanley’s temporary HQ.

 

The platoon had been held back a day, allowing the men to rest, while artillery tried to soften up the German lines.  Despite the noise, everyone slept.  But even after the long -- by recent terms -- rest, Saunders could sense the edginess of his squad.  He knew what the issue was.  They all did.  Everyone just avoided saying anything.  And the two new fellows found the silence disconcerting.

 

Saunders actually looked forward to some action.  Anything Hanley had in store had to be better than what was going on -- or not going on -- back at the old schoolhouse where the squad was now billeted.

 

“Lieutenant, you wanted to see me?”

 

Hanley held up his hand, asking for one more moment to rummage through the papers on his desk.  Then he said, “Yeah, Saunders.  Come over here.”  He gestured at a spot beside him and opened the map he had just located.

 

“Artillery has pushed the Krauts back here.”  He thrust his finger down in the middle of the paper.  “S2 believes that several enemy units are converging over here.”  He slid his finger to the left and continued, “They have an escape route over this bridge in Santenay.  Once they cross, it will be difficult to prevent them from moving north and joining up with these units over here.”  They both squinted at the map, trying to read the small, smeared type.

 

“Anyway, what I need you to do is to try to get a feel for whether they really are there, and how many have been concentrated near Santenay.  See if they have moved across the bridge yet.  Stay low, don’t engage.  Leave at 0600 and be back in twenty four hours.”

 

Saunders continued studying the map.  After a moment, his attention was diverted from the mission, and he picked up the map in order to see it better.

 

“Don’t even think about it.”  The lieutenant pushed the map down and looked Saunders in the face.

 

“It would be just a couple of miles out of our way.”

 

“And across the main road we believe the Krauts are using to pull into Santenay.”

 

“Kirby was there -- he may know of some back ways.”

 

“We both know Kirby’s sense of direction is…lacking.  I’ve given you just enough time to get there and back.  We don’t have any longer for heroics.”

 

Saunders was silent.  Then something occurred to him.  “What about the Maquis in the area?  If they know where he is, maybe we could arrange some type of rendezvous.”

 

Hanley considered for a moment how much he should tell the sergeant.  1st squad was one of the finest, and he knew the men were reeling from the loss of their scout.  Hell, he liked Caje, too.  He had come ashore with him on D-Day just like Saunders, and had also watched him become a soldier with considerable promise -- if there was such a thing.

 

He also liked Saunders.  Their friendship extended back to England, back to before the invasion, back to before they had to decide how much they could tell each other.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Yes…sir.  See you in thirty six.”  Saunders started out the door.

 

“Wait.  I don’t want you to do anything stupid.”

 

Saunders paused without turning.

 

“Listen, S2 believes the Maquis in that area are compromised.  There is going to be a drop tonight to try and ascertain to what extent.”

 

“And you’re telling me this because…”

 

“Because if the drop isn’t compromised, and if they decide that we can continue communications in the area, I’ve asked them…”

 

Saunders looked back at Hanley expectantly.

 

“I’ve asked them to inquire about soldiers being held by the Maquis or by the Krauts in the area.  Then, maybe…when we move forward…”

 

It was a lot of ‘ifs,’ even if it was the best the lieutenant had been able to do.  Saunders’ face betrayed his skepticism.

 

Hanley felt himself growing tired and a little angry.  Saunders had no idea of how hard it was to get through the right channels to ask for favors like these.  “I’ll let you know when you get back.  Dismissed.”

 

Saunders turned away.  “Probably too late by then.”  He walked out into the night.

 

Hanley added sotto voice, “Probably too late now.”

 

****

 

It was difficult undoing the button of the rough woolen shirt, but he took his time getting it open, taking in Claire Marie with his eyes as he did so.  Her own clothes already undone, Claire Marie moved over to help him get the shirt over his bandaged shoulder, and their skin touched, warm and soft.  He held her close to him, drinking in her scent.  She in turn, wrapped her arms around his chest, careful to avoid his shoulder.  They said nothing, as they moved toward his bed.

 

The bed was narrow.  She let him lay down and began tenderly kissing each of the scars on his chest and arms.  Her hair fell over her face and followed each kiss with a silken absolution.  When their mouths met, it was gentle and exploring, but not tentative.  Without asking himself why, Caje realized he had never before cared so much if it was right.  He brushed her hair away from her face.

 

“Claire Marie…”

 

“Shhh…”

 

“Claire Marie…”

 

“It is alright.  I want to know.”  Her kissing was becoming more insistent.

 

“Want to know what?”

 

“What it…”

 

A sudden noise broke them apart.  They looked over.  Bridgette lay on the floor.

 

Claire Marie pushed herself away as Bridgette began to cry, “Mamma!” and she strode across the room purposefully, without looking back.  Caje watched her cradle the child, murmuring soothingly as she struggled to put Bridgette back in the bed.  But the girl would not be comforted and, after a moment, Claire Marie -- with a quick, despairing look back towards Caje -- slid into the covers next to her.

 

Caje took a deep breath and reached over the side of the bed to grab his shirt.  With a quiet oath, he realized that he could not get it without straining his already tender wound.  He decided to forget it, but could not rest.  With a deep sigh, he ignored his throbbing shoulder, got up, and moved over toward the window.  He opened it a crack, though the effort was more than he had anticipated, as it had not been done in awhile.  Caje pulled the precious pack of cigarettes from his pants pocket, deciding that despite the limited quantity, it was needed.

 

By the time he finished smoking, the even, harmonized breathing coming from Bridgette’s bed confirmed to him what his body already knew.  He closed the window.  It was time to sleep. 

 

 

****

 

Caje slept well.  He was surprised when he woke at how good he felt.  Chalking it up to the food and the wine meeting the needs of body and soul, he stretched slowly and guardedly, then rolled over to see if Claire Marie and Bridgette were awake.  They were not, and he was thankful.  He sat up, put on and laced up his boots, and then looked around for the shirt he had thrown on the floor last night.  Finding it, he picked it up to take it downstairs, not yet ready to struggle into it.

 

Before he left the room, he moved quietly over to the bed where Claire Marie and Bridgette were sleeping.  During the night, the blanket had slipped from Claire Marie’s shoulders, and her partially opened blouse exposed one shoulder.  She was painfully thin, but as lovely, he decided, in the daylight as had been promised in the moonlight.

 

He looked with regret at his own arms and chest, and the scars that covered them.   Among the men in his company, he hadn’t thought of them, except when the wounds that left the marks had affected his performance.  But to a civilian, the scars must appear rather, well, macabre.

 

Still, Claire Marie’s acknowledgement of each and every one last night had been strangely beautiful and stirred up feelings within him that lingered.  He reached over and pulled the blanket back over her.  She did not move, but a small pair of eyes looked at him suspiciously before Bridgette snuggled deeper into her mother’s arms, silently declaring ownership.  He ceded victory and backed away.

 

Caje wanted a smoke, but decided to try to ration the precious pack.  Coffee, or some approximation of it, would do.  Finally going down the steps, he entered the kitchen to find Bertrand was already there, humming to himself as he threw some wood into the ancient stove.  At first, Caje wasn’t sure the old man wasn’t aware that he had company, but Bertrand soon spoke without stopping what he was doing.

 

“She is a wonderful girl, no?  Lovely in her own way.  Sweet and kind.  But nothing like her mother.”

 

He let his statement hang in the air for a moment while he filled a teapot with water.  Caje remembered that Claire Marie had been bringing in the water when he had called to her last night.  Clearly Bertrand had finished the task this morning, and must have put two and two together.

 

So now he would hear about taking advantage of his host’s hospitality and his niece -- or whatever she was, Caje thought.  He wasn’t going to try to deny what had nearly happened last night, but he wasn’t sure what Bertrand would expect of him this morning.  Should he apologize?  Offer an explanation?  Promise that nothing else would happen between him and Claire Marie?  Caje knew that if he got off with nothing but a lecture, he was lucky.  He was dependent on this family’s largess for at least another couple of days. 

 

He slipped the shirt over his head, suddenly keenly aware of how he must appear.  It was still difficult to raise his arm in the right position to get the sleeve over the bandage.  Bertrand noticed his struggling and motioned to a chair.

 

“Let me change the dressing on that shoulder and see what damage we did last night with our exercises.” 

 

Caje at first thought the double entendre was unintentional, but moving toward the indicated chair, he noticed the twinkle in the old man’s eyes.  Now he was confused.  But he kept his face impassive as Bertrand moved in front of him and pulled back the shirt to examine the dressing. 

 

Bertrand clucked to himself as he worked. “Very good, very good.  No new bleeding, and looks like some good, healthy tissue there.  May give you some problems later on -- muscle damage like that always will.  That’s why it will be important for you to keep doing those exercises I showed you last night.   Now, do you want some coffee?  Boches, of course -- but we take what we can get around here, eh?”

 

Again, Caje thought he saw a wicked look in the old man’s eyes, but he dismissed it as impossible.  Surely, Bertrand wouldn’t be saying…

 

Bertrand continued, “You know, determination and passion can be very similar things -- at least in their outcomes.  I saw the determination in you out in the barn.  True passion -- a lust for life, if you will -- can do things for you that determination cannot.”  He placed a cup of coffee from the kettle on the stove in front of Caje.

 

Now Caje had no doubt about the real subject of this morning’s one-sided conversation.  He took a drink, glad to have something to occupy his hands.  He felt uncomfortable and was unsure how to handle the situation.  Falling back on his propensity for silence, he wondered where this discourse was going and hoped for an interruption of some sort.

 

“Claire Marie, she also has determination,” Bertrand went on.  “I recognized that in her even as a young girl and saw it as she studied art.  Passion, though, she has lacked, or perhaps has just been afraid of, given, maybe, her mother.  Or perhaps her marriage.”

 

Caje started at this, and Bertrand noticed.

 

“Oh, I know all about it.  She thinks I still have delusions about my nephew, but I know.  And I know about Bridgette.  But, as I was saying, it is in those quiet ones, eh, that when passion is awakened, it can truly create something beautiful.”  Bertrand was standing and gesturing so animatedly that the precious coffee from time to time sloshed out of his cup.

 

“Take my Louisa -- an uptight English nanny.  That is why I hired her for Claire Marie.  Such a little jewel, though…I am sure she also, buried deep within her, has the passion I’m talking about.  Digging for it has been so…so engrossing while we are stuck in this dreary wasteland."

 

Startled, Caje now spilled some of his own coffee.

 

Bertrand appeared not to notice.  “Claire Marie also needs to taste passion, to know that it exists.  She cannot live just for me, or Louisa, or the child.  And for you, passion may make a difference out there.  Perhaps you have it; I do not know.  But somehow I suspect you are still looking.”

 

Caje stole a look at the door leading into the hallway, both wishing for and dreading Claire Marie’s appearance.   He was curious about Bertrand’s reference to Bridgette, but not enough to ask a question and, so, prolong this conversation. 

 

“What I am trying to say, and listen to me well, young man, is this:  Live and love and never look back.  Allow passion to bring you…and the one you love…to life!”

 

He looked knowingly at Caje, seeming to wait for a response.  When none was forthcoming, Bertrand sighed and added, “There is more to surviving war, my friend, than simply living through it.”  With that declaration, he bestowed on Caje a slightly sad but benevolent smile, and then looked at the bread left over from the night before.  “Would you like some toast?  This bread is fit only for the fire now, but it is all that we have.”  He spotted what was left of the tin of jam and his eyes lit up.  “Of course, something sweet added to it would make it palatable.”

 

Caje decided he needed some air.  “Thank you,” he began buttoning his shirt, using his left hand, “but I think I’ll have mine after I go outside and take another look at that barn, in the daylight.”  Getting the final button through its buttonhole was proving difficult, and Caje looked down to finish the job just as he heard Claire Marie’s distinctive tread sounding on the staircase and Bridgette’s voice as she prattled on about something.

 

Caje had wanted a moment to collect his thoughts after this morning’s unexpected onslaught of advice -- warning?  But it didn’t appear he was going to get it without looking like he was trying to avoid Claire Marie.  So he remained in his seat and hoped his eyes didn’t give away his uncertainty about how to act in her presence.

 

She looked fresh and vibrant to him.  She had slipped on the same dress he remembered from their very first encounter.  Her hair was down and brushed into a shiny aureole that framed her thin face and then curled around her shoulders.  Her eyes danced when they caught his, without reproach or recrimination.  And she smiled a full bright smile that let Caje know that there would be no awkwardness this morning.  After putting Bridgette down so the girl could toddle over to the table, Claire Marie went over and bussed her uncle on the cheek.

 

“Good morning!  I can’t believe you made coffee all on your own!”  She sniffed the air in an exaggerated show of appreciation.  “I’m afraid that I have lost my tolerance for wine -- I could have slept all day.  But, of course, someone wouldn’t let me.”  Looking over at Bridgette with a smile, which the child matched, she continued, “Here, Uncle, shoo out the way.  My cooking skills may be minimal, but when it comes to making toast, I do believe they exceed yours.”

 

Bertrand moved toward the table and drew himself up a chair.  Bridgette, settled in her own chair with her doll tucked behind her, studiously made patterns on the table with a finger she kept wetting in her mouth.  Caje again felt completely at home in this tranquil domesticity and reveled in the sense of belonging that was a balm to his soul.  He drank it in with his coffee as his eyes followed Claire Marie bustling about the kitchen.

 

It was a beautiful morning.  The room was still chilly due to the night’s autumn temperatures, but the bright sunlight streaming through the kitchen’s windows promised a clear, warm day.  The type of day that armies would be on the march, squads would be on patrols and, if he was on point, he would be extra cautious…

 

“Will Louisa be back today, Uncle?”

 

Claire Marie’s question startled Caje out of his reverie.

 

“I don’t know,” Bertrand answered.  “I was thinking that I would go check on Elise…see what is going on over there.”

 

Bertrand turned back to Caje and explained, “The Boches are now headquartered in my wife’s house.  It is rather large, and they mostly stay in their own wing.  The house is on the outskirts of the village.  This was the farm manager’s house.  When we came here from Paris…well, I did not want to impose on Elise.”

 

“How long will you be gone?”

 

“I’m not sure.  It depends.  And I was thinking...” he paused, looking at Caje and then at Claire Marie, to ensure he had their attention, “that I would take Bridgette with me.  It would do Elise some good to see the child.”  He leaned back in his chair, beaming with delight at his own idea, and waited for their reactions.

 

Claire Marie looked dismayed and then turned back toward the stove to wipe up crumbs.  “I was going to give her a bath.  She’s been covered in jam several times over, and it looks like a nice, warm day to drag out the tub.  Besides, does Elise even know who’s there anymore?”

 

His voice projecting mild annoyance, Bertrand replied, “Of course she knows who’s there.  Guileau makes it out worse than it is…makes it sound as though she’s…she’s ready to be moved to a sanitarium.”

 

The old man looked at Caje and tried to clarify the situation.  “Elise’s mind…wanders occasionally.  She has always been delicate -- not like Claire Marie.  I think “befuddled” might be a better layman’s term.  In medical circles, there are a variety of different names for it, none of which I am sure you would have a reason to know.  It has progressed over the past several years, though she can often have long periods of lucidity.  I recognized it soon after we were married and moved her to Paris with me.  I think the noise and hustle and bustle were too much for her, so she returned to her parents’ residence here.  That was nearly twenty years ago.  She has been happy, here, among the people she grew up with and in her family home.”

 

“I still don’t think you need to be taking Bridgette by yourself,” Claire Marie said, wiping Bridgette’s face a little harder than necessary with a damp cloth.

 

Bridgette squirmed away and went behind Caje’s chair, her eyes defying her mother to finish the job.  He picked her up and nestled her on his lap.

 

“Claire Marie, I am a doctor.  I believe I am perfectly capable of keeping the child alive for the next several hours.”

 

“I still don’t like her being around all the Boches.”

 

“Rolf should be there.  There will be no problems.  How about if I agree to have her back this afternoon, early, still in time for that bath?  You can wash the Boches off her.”

 

Claire Marie stared at her uncle in disbelief.

 

Seeing her expression, Bertrand suddenly looked abashed and spluttered, “Forgive an old man, my dear.  I was just trying to…give you…”

 

He stopped speaking and looked so dejected that Claire Marie came over and placed an arm around his shoulder.

 

“It is okay, I think we all know what you were trying to do.  You are such a dear.  Just bring my baby back safe to me, please.  And see when Louisa will be returning.”

 

Bertrand rose to his feet, returned her hug, and mumbled something about getting his kit together.  Caje watched all this with Bridgette still on his lap, playing with the buttons on his shirt.  He was touched by the obvious love between the members of this makeshift family, but also curious about the child.  He bounced her gently on his knee, and she looked up at him with her large clear eyes.

 

“Why are you looking at Bridgette like that?” Claire Marie asked.

 

Caje hesitated, then replied, “I just found out in my last letter from home that my sister is going to be having a child.  I’ve never been around many…”

 

“Well, surely you were around her.”

 

“Actually, no.  We’re seven years apart and, as I mentioned last night, I went away to school.”

 

“She still must be awfully young.”

 

“Yes, she is.  But she, like everyone else these days, wanted to marry her soldier before he shipped out.  I don't even know him, so I wonder what my niece or nephew will look like.”

 

Bertrand reappeared and announced that he was ready to leave.  Bridgette was reluctant to be taken from her mother, but when Bertrand promised that Louisa would be waiting at the end of their walk with a treat, she hopped up happily, bumping her head into Caje’s shoulder.

 

The direct blow caused enough pain to take his breath away, but Caje tried to hide it.  Bertrand heard the sharp intake of breath, saw the soldier pale, and started toward him.

 

Caje waved him off.  “It’s nothing.  Go ahead.  I’m all right.”  He took a deep breath and willed himself to sit up straight.  “Let me ask you a question, though -- do you know how or where to get me a gun?”

 

Bertrand and Claire Marie suddenly looked concerned, and Caje hastily added, “Before I leave, I’d like to show Claire Marie how to use one.  She should know how to load and aim a weapon so she can defend herself and Bridgette during those times when they’re here by themselves.”

 

Bertrand thought about it for a moment, then nodded.  “Yes, I should have taught her already.  Come, let me show you…”

 

Caje followed Bertrand into the small downstairs bedroom, furnished only with a simple bed and an armoire.  The bed, like the one Caje occupied upstairs, was fine, but the windows were covered with the same type of cheery, red-checked curtains that hung in the kitchen.

 

Bertrand reached under the bed’s mattress and pulled out a pistol that Caje guessed had been the old man’s sidearm in the last war.  It was well taken care of and had recently been cleaned.  Bertrand reached under the mattress again and pulled out some ammunition, and he counted out enough bullets to load the gun.  Then after shoving the rest of the ammunition back under the mattress, he handed the weapon to Caje and watched him check it over before the younger man tucked it in the back of his pants.

 

The two men returned to the kitchen and, after a flurry of activity to get them ready, Bertrand set off with Bridgette.  Claire Marie and Caje were finally alone.

 

They were silent for several moments, and then both began to speak at once.

 

“I thought you should learn…”

 

“I think you should know…”

 

They stopped.

 

Caje nodded toward Claire Marie.

 

“Bridgette is not Timone’s.”

 

Caje did not say anything, did not react at all.

 

Claire Marie stumbled on, “I don’t know whose she is…it was the Boches…”

 

Caje bit his lip and thought for a moment.  He recognized that his reaction could easily destroy the tenuous connection he had made with this intriguing woman over the past forty eight hours.  And while there was little or no future for them, he wanted to preserve this extraordinary time.  Claire Marie’s comment made sense anyway -- it explained Bernard’s earlier comment about Bridgette.

 

The silence broadened, and Caje realized that he was staring down at his hands.  He looked up quickly and took in Claire Marie’s small, open face.  Sorry for his hesitation, he pulled out the gun.

 

“Well, whatever happened, that’s why you should know how to use this.  If another situation arises, you’ll be able to protect yourself.  A gun is a tool that will let you live.  Use it if you have to and don’t look back.”

 

She looked so vulnerable to him that he could no longer hold himself back, and he leaned forward and kissed her, his lips gentle on hers, her breath sweet in his mouth.  She put her arms around him and felt the cold metal of the gun.  When she drew away, he hesitated.

 

“Do you want to do this?”

 

“I’m not sure what I want to do.”

 

“That’s okay.  Let’s take it slowly.”

 

“We may not have the time.”

 

“I think your uncle has given us enough time.”

 

“Are we talking about the same thing?”

 

“What are you talking about, Claire Marie?  I’ll be leaving soon -- I want you to be alright.”

 

“I will be alright; I’ve always been fine taking care of myself.”

 

“I know, but…”  He paused and glanced at the gun in his hand before looking up into her questioning eyes.  “You know, a wise man once told me there’s more to surviving this war than staying alive.”

 

“And are you taking his advice?”

 

“I’m thinking about it…”

 

“My uncle is a wise man.”

 

He laughed.  “Well, experienced anyway, it seems.  Why don’t we work first, and then see what happens next?”

 

He pressed the gun into her palm, noting the contrast between the sizes of their hands as he wrapped his around hers.  Then he looked over her shoulder and began teaching her how to sight down the barrel, and how to load and unload the pistol.

 

Claire Marie, in turn, noted the strange contrast between the cold metal of the gun and the warmth of Paul’s hands gently cupping hers.  It was both disturbing and sensual.  After several tries, and one frustrating jamming, she turned and asked, “Shouldn’t we be doing this outside?”

 

“Doing what?”

 

She laughed and drew away from him, giving him a playful smack on the cheek.  “Can’t you get your mind on what we are doing?”

 

“I thought I had it on what we were doing, M’selle,” he assured her solemnly, but his eyes belied the words.  “It is you who seem to be…hey, where are you going?”

 

“I was going to see how many of these bullets we have.”

 

“You know where they are?  You knew your uncle had this?”

 

“Of course; it is a small house.”

 

“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?”

 

“I thought perhaps Uncle had his gun with him.  I know that he takes it when he goes out occasionally with the Resistance.”

 

“Does he go out with them often?”

 

“Not lately.  The Boches have been too…overwhelming, I think, lately.”

 

“Well, Bertrand already showed me his ammunition and there are a dozen rounds left.  Stay here; I want you to practice some more with what we’ve already got.”

 

Claire Marie almost made a comment, but then decided to change the subject.  “What do you think of Guileau?”

 

“I don’t know.  I only met him for a few minutes, and his appearance is…a bit of a distraction.  Why do you ask?”

 

“Well, I told you Uncle goes out with the Résistance occasionally.  With Guileau.  But for some reason, I just don’t trust him.”

 

“Why not?”  Caje took her hand and led her into the parlor, pulling her down on the divan next to him. He decided the lesson could wait.  Claire Marie seemed very insightful; at least he divined that from her portrait of him.  If there was some issue between her and Guileau, he wanted to know what it was.  His safety -- and more importantly, the safety of this family, given Bertrand’s involvement with the Resistance -- could be compromised.

 

She laid her head on his left shoulder, the gun resting between them.  “He is Elise’s son.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Guileau.  By one of her father’s groomsmen.  Before Uncle married her.”

 

Caje groaned.  “I need a scorecard,” he muttered in English.

 

“Pardon me?”

 

“Never mind.  It’s not important.  Just an American expression.  So he and Rolf and your husband were -- are -- all cousins?”

 

“Yes, sort of…I guess.  Elise and Rolf’s mothers are sisters.  In fact, I think Rolf’s father arranged for him to be sent here in the hopes that Elise’s holdings would all be given to him -- instead of Elise’s illegitimate son, Guileau -- under the Reich’s ‘new order.’  I wouldn’t be surprised if Rolf arranged to have the Boches headquartered in Elise’s house so he could eventually claim ‘squatter’s rights.’”

 

“What does any of this have to do with trusting Guileau?”  Caje did not think Claire Marie would be telling him this just to fill the time -- there were other things to be done.

 

She picked up his hand and studied it for a moment, then turned it over and began absently drawing circles on his palm with her finger.  “I believe that Guileau is well aware that since Elise and Uncle did not have any children, she could give everything to him -- as her only child.”

 

Caje considered this for a moment.  “Then if he perceived Rolf as a threat to his inheritance, wouldn’t his participation in the Resistance make sense?”  He pulled his hand away and smiled at her.  “Stop that if you want me to concentrate.”

 

“Sorry.”  She leaned her head back against his shoulder and sighed.  “You’re right.  If he’s not participating in the Resistance because of pure ideological reasons -- which somehow I doubt -- then, yes, it would still make sense from a personal gain perspective.  But…”

 

“But what?  If his motives make sense, what are you unsure of?”

 

“But…but…I don’t know.  Before the war he was considered strange -- an outcast.  But now, he seems to revel in the power the war has brought him.  The power and the acceptance.”

 

“A fortunate, or unfortunate, thing about war is that many men find what they are made of, Claire Marie,” Caje said softly.

 

“I just feel that Guileau sees Rolf as a threat if the Boches win, and he may see Uncle as a threat if the Allies win.  Yet, we have all become bound together and dependent as we never were before the war.”

 

“Well, they do say that war makes strange bedfellows.”  Caje knew the stale observation was inadequate before it was out of his mouth.

 

“I know, I know,” Claire Marie said with some impatience.  “But it is as if we are all playing a game, and I do not know who is making the rules.”

 

“It all seems to be working, though, for you and the Resistance.”

 

“Oh,” Claire Marie broke in hastily, “do not get me wrong.  I do believe in the Resistance and doing what we can.  It’s just…with Bridgette…and what happened to Timone…I… ”

 

“What did happen to your husband?”

 

Claire Marie was silent.  Caje put his left arm tentatively around her shoulders.  When she didn’t resist, he reached up to run his fingers through the ends of her hair.  It felt cool and silky.

 

“Claire Marie?”

 

“Timone had been late at yet another one of his ‘meetings.’  Have you heard of Le Musee d Homme?”

 

Paul shook his head.

 

“Well, it’s not important.  Just the name of one of the many resistance groups in Paris that became active soon after the occupation.  It created and distributed a lot of materials.  You know, pamphlets on how to do civil disobedience, how to disrupt German this or that, how to preserve true French culture.  Timone wrote some of these and was really enthralled by the whole thing -- thought it validated his experience as a writer.  He viewed himself as perhaps a…a…Turgenev or some such thing.”

 

She pulled away from him, needing to draw into herself to continue.  “I spent the evening with Uncle and Louisa at their home.  I was so tired of being alone…” 

 

Paul denoted just the slightest note of bitterness in her otherwise flat voice.

 

“When I returned to our apartment, they were waiting outside.  I guess someone had tipped them off that Timone would be returning from a meeting.”

 

“‘They’ who?”

 

“A group of Boches soldiers.  Gestapo I guess.  I can’t remember… much.”

 

Caje felt a sudden sick sensation in the pit of his stomach.  The Krauts had attacked Claire Marie.  He didn’t want to hear this.  Enough already.  Enough emotion, enough pain, enough hurt.  He searched desperately for the cold, unemotional veil he drew about himself during battle, but without physical action, he couldn’t seem to conjure it up.  Afraid to hear what she would say next, he quickly asked, “What happened to Timone?”

 

“He had stopped off at a ‘friend’s’ house.”  Claire Marie’s voice dropped to a near whisper.  “He didn’t arrive home until later, the next day, but they -- the Boches -- got their warning across.  After I found out I was pregnant, he couldn’t deal with the fact that they had done what he had never been able to do…the one thing that may have bound us together.  Anyway, he signed his next essay.  He knew it would not be ignored.”

 

“He gave them his name?” Caje asked automatically, trying to push the conversation beyond this revelation.

 

“That is exactly what he did.  The pamphlet wasn’t even out a day when they showed up and took him away.  He got the fleeting glory he was looking for.  Everyone in Paris talked about what happened -- how brave he was, how bold...”

 

“How do you know he’s dead?  Maybe he’s just being held somewhere.”

 

“Rolf’s father found out for us.  Uncle had Elise ask for us…it took several months…”  Her voice trailed off, but Caje’s thoughts raced.

 

“Wouldn’t he have a vested interest in declaring your husband dead?  Rolf’s father?  If he’s trying to move in on…”

 

Caje quieted.  Someone was approaching the house.

 

He pulled Claire Marie up and toward the window with him, then dropped her hand and pushed aside the curtain to peer outside, the gun poised in his left hand.  He couldn’t see anything, but he knew he wasn’t wrong.

 

Someone was out there…

 

“Paul?” Claire Marie whispered, frightened by his actions.  He was so calm, so cold…so different.  She thought back to the juxtaposition of the gun and his hands just minutes ago…

 

“Shhhh…”

 

Caje thought quickly.  Krauts would come directly to the door…unless they knew there was an American in here.  And if they knew he was here, it would be better for Claire Marie to be someplace else.

 

“Go upstairs and stay there.”  He spoke in a tone that brooked no opposition.  “Stay there unless I call you.  And take this…”

 

He handed her the gun, but she tried to give it back.

 

He grabbed her shoulders and looked into her face.  “Claire Marie, trust me.  Go!”

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her move into the hallway, pause at the staircase, and then run upstairs to get out of sight.

 

Caje was sure there was someone outside.  He could feel it.  He no longer questioned his intuitions -- just like no one in the squad did.  He wished the other guys were here now.  He didn’t know what he was up against and, as Kirby always liked to point out, you could never have enough firepower.

 

As he moved from room to room, window to window, looking for whatever – whoever -- was out there, he wondered if he should have given Claire Marie the gun.  Then again, he couldn’t have it if Krauts were here to take him; he couldn’t endanger Claire Marie by resisting.

 

Maybe he should try to get away.  But how could he leave her behind, in possible danger?  He could take her with him, he knew, but she’d never leave the farm without her child.

 

He looked out the kitchen windows and could still see nothing.  Prudence dictated that he should stay where he was, but his tendency to act on emotion got the better of him -- Claire Marie’s safety was involved.  Arming himself once again with the bread knife, he took a deep breath and hoped his luck held out.  He couldn’t help himself -- he went out the back door. 

 

****

 

Claire Marie tried to look out the window to see what was going on.  It was jammed, and she could not get it open.  She strained to force it up, and a button popped from her blouse with the effort.  Still, the window did not move.  Maybe she should hide under the bed, she thought, but she had to know what was happening to Paul.

 

Or to whoever was out there…

 

The change in Paul had been almost as frightening to her as whatever triggered the response in him.  She had noticed the same thing happen when her Uncle and Guileau had shown up unexpected yesterday, but quickly dismissed it in light of all that had transpired.  Now, though, she recalled her initial reaction two days ago to Paul’s apparent powers of observation -- he would use it to destroy -- and she shuddered, feeling what she could only categorize as a premonition.

 

 

****

 

The heavyset man squatted near the front corner of the house, looking out over the compound, a bloody package in his hand.  Although he knew the Boches had left several days ago, he had approached Bertrand’s house with caution.  The normal person-to-person village communications had been disrupted during this recent onslaught of fighting, making it impossible to find out if any Germans had returned to the farm.  But he needed to find Bertrand, to tell him about the plans for the evening.  And he owed the doctor for treating his wife’s gallstones again last week.

 

The question was, where was the man?

 

He had heard voices speaking inside the house a few moments ago, and he recognized the girl’s, Bertrand’s niece.  But the other one didn’t sound familiar.  He had looked around for a vehicle but, not seeing one, guessed that whoever was in the house with her wasn’t the German doctor she spent so much time with. 

 

Trying to peek in several of the windows, he had considered his options, but thinking on his feet was not his best trait.  Now he wondered if he should just continue searching elsewhere for Bertrand.  He didn’t want to leave the message with the girl.  And he didn’t relish the idea of meeting the strange man.  Still, he should probably leave the meat…although the girl would then wonder why he came all the way out here…

 

He did not sense anyone’s presence behind him until it was too late and an arm was tight around his neck, the tip of a knife pricking the underside of his chin.

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

Jacques Boulanger’s pale eyes bulged in fear behind his thick spectacles as he tried to turn his head, hoping to see who had him.  He could think of nothing to do except to hold up the package.

 

After a moment, the arm moved from around his neck and a voice commanded, “Turn around.”

 

Quaking, afraid that any sudden movement would cause him to loose the tenuous control he had on his bladder, Boulanger turned and looked into two of the coldest eyes he had ever seen.  He felt a need to say something quickly, anything, to lessen the intensity of that stare.  So he stammered, “I am Jacques Boulanger.  I was looking for Bertrand.  I am the butcher.”  He thrust the package forward, to validate his identity.

 

The man in front of him glanced at the bloody parcel, but he didn’t lower his knife or soften his gaze.  “Why didn’t you knock at the door?”

 

Boulanger, his face red, his lips tremulous, now wished that he had done that very thing.  Terrified, he answered, “I didn’t think anyone was home.  Then I heard voices, but I did not recognize who was here…”

 

The stranger sized him up, then spoke in a tone that made it clear he didn’t consider the butcher much of a threat.  “You do not know Claire Marie?”

 

“Why, yes,” Boulanger spluttered with a sudden measure of defiance.  “Everyone knows her.” 

 

His momentary boldness left him, though, when the other man seemed to grow colder, more dangerous again.

 

“If you know her, why did you not come to the door?”

 

“I was looking for Bertrand,” Boulanger repeated, sounding meek once more.  “I wanted to give him this roast since he helped my wife last week.”

 

Receiving no response, he added, “I have a message for him too.”

 

“And you didn’t want to leave it with Claire Marie?”

 

Boulanger felt that he should answer the question with care.  “As I said, I did not know who was with her.”

 

The two men looked at one another in silence, Boulanger sensing that the stranger understood what was being implied.  Whoever he was, he wasn’t the girl’s husband -- everyone knew that Bertrand’s nephew was dead.  And why wouldn’t he be another one like the Boche doctor, a ‘friend’ she liked to…entertain?

 

As if reading Boulanger’s mind, the stranger said smoothly, “I am a friend of the family’s,” he put an emphasis on the last word, “…from Paris.”

 

He lowered the knife a little, and Boulanger sighed in relief.  Apparently, he was out of immediate danger.  But he knew the man was lying about where he was from.  Not only was he wearing overly large clothes and what appeared to be a bulky bandage wrapped around his right shoulder, but since when did Parisians -- collaborators or Maquis -- start skulking around filthy farmyards?  For food, yes, but this was a long way from Paris…

 

The stranger, noting Boulanger measuring him, smiled tightly, a smile that did not reach his eyes.  “Why don't you come inside and leave your package?  I am sure Claire Marie can find some paper for you to leave your message on.”

 

Boulanger sensed it was more an order than a request, and he stepped toward the door, hoping that his legs would carry him over the threshold.

 

“Claire Marie,” the stranger called when they entered the house.  “Come down, please.  It is a patient of your uncle’s.”

 

He nodded toward the divan, and Boulanger sat, still holding the bloody package.  When Claire Marie came down the stairs from the bedroom, Boulanger glanced up.

 

Just as I thought, he snorted to himself.  The girl didn’t venture into town much, but everyone knew about her.  And here she was, her hair tousled, her face flushed, and the top of her blouse opened low enough to reveal a glimpse of her cleavage.  Well, she could smile at him all she wanted, but he wasn’t going to be taken in by her charms…

 

“Msr. Boulanger, what a surprise!  Is your wife okay?”

 

The butcher pursed his fleshy lips and replied, “Yes, Mademoiselle.  Thanks to your uncle.  Where is he today?”

 

“He went over to see Elise.  She has not been doing well lately.  You have met…” she paused and looked over at Paul, who shook his head, “…my friend?”

 

For some reason Paul frowned at this, and she lifted her shoulders in a silent question.

 

It wasn’t lost on Boulanger, who sneered, “Yes.”

 

Silence fell over the room, and Claire Marie became uncomfortable.  She looked again at Paul for direction, but now he seemed preoccupied, playing with the knife in his hand.  Deciding she was on her own, she said to Boulanger, “Why don’t I get you a glass of water after your long trip and take that…”

 

“It is a hind roast.  From one of Langer’s pigs.”

 

“How wonderful!  Why don’t I take that to the kitchen.  Louisa will know just what to do with it.”

 

“I do not need your water.  I have to get back to town.”

 

Caje did not look up, but spoke quietly from the other side of the room.  “I thought you had a message for Bertrand.”

 

“I prefer to leave it with him -- personally.”

 

“Not even on some paper?”

 

The old butcher was adamant as he leaned forward to place the package on the floor with exaggerated deliberation.  “No.”  Then he stood, but he didn’t go anywhere.

 

Caje realized Boulanger was waiting for permission to leave and said, “Go on,” as he tilted his head toward the door.  “I will tell Bertrand that you were here.” 

 

Boulanger hurried to the door, but just before he reached it Caje moved forward and casually placed his left arm across the opening, blocking it.  He waited for the shorter man’s scared, darting eyes to meet his and then queried in a soft, measured voice, “We don’t need to mention my presence to anyone, do we?”

 

Flustered, Jacques Boulanger looked at his feet and suddenly noticed the other man’s boots.  Understanding dawned on him, and he raised his eyes.  Looking defiant once more, he shook his head.

 

Caje glanced down to see what had caused this change in demeanor, and he frowned.  But quickly raising his head, he asked in a friendly, conversational tone, “Your wife, you love her, eh?”

 

Boulanger started at the unexpected question.  “Wh…why do you ask?”

 

Caje didn’t say anything, but rubbed the knife against his pants and then stepped aside and signaled Boulanger to leave with the point of the blade.  The old man stumbled out the door as quickly as his pudgy legs could carry him.  He rushed across the farmyard without looking back.

 

Caje watched him disappear down the road, then became aware of the silence behind him.  He turned and looked at Claire Marie who stood unmoved from her place near the hallway to the kitchen.  She had been staring at him as he watched the ironically named butcher.

 

“Why did you ask him that?” she said.

 

“What?”

 

“If he loved his wife.”

 

Caje smiled a tired smile, but his eyes lit up with amusement.  “Because, Claire Marie, the imagination can often be…more self-limiting than anything else.”

 

Claire Marie said nothing, her thoughts unfathomable to him.  But he decided that what had just transpired had caused her to pull away, to look at him in a new light.  He had seen the look before, among the men with whom he fought.  He had become used to it.  But it was not the way he wanted her to look at him.

 

“Claire Marie…do they have children?”

 

Her eyes widened.  “Why?”

 

“Because…that frightens me.”

 

Claire Marie’s clear laughter filled the room, diffusing the tension.  Caje winked at her and went over and grabbed the butcher’s porcine compensation.  When he straightened up, Claire Marie gasped.

 

“What?”

 

“There is blood!”

 

Caje stared at the package.  It looked the same as it did before.  He looked back up at Claire Marie, not understanding.  She noted his confusion and came over, taking the package from him and putting it back on the floor.  She pushed him unresisting onto the sofa.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Your shoulder is bleeding again.  Turn around a little, let me look at it.  Hmm…not too bad, but I should probably change the bandage.  Why don’t you wait right here and let me take this…this offal to the kitchen and get something to clean you up?”

 

She retrieved the hind roast again and disappeared down the hallway, leaving Caje to look at his shoulder.  The front of the wound looked alright, but it was impossible to twist around and see the back.  It was definitely healing though, he could tell.  And it did not hurt -- much -- unless there was direct pressure on it.

 

He did, however, feel that overwhelming tiredness of the past several days weighing down on the very edges of his mind, and he knew he still wasn’t up to long periods of physical exertion.  Maybe he’d been a little overly optimistic in his initial assessment of the time it would take him to recover enough to get back to his lines.  But it couldn’t be more than another two days, maximum.  There was too much going on in this little house for him to stay much longer. 

 

After a few moments, he heard the back door open.  Curious as to just what Claire Marie was up to, he decided to disregard her orders and see what was happening in the kitchen.  When he entered the small room, she was not there, but he could see her through the window, out by the well, buckets in hand.  Looking around for something to do, he spotted Bridgette’s small doll still in her chair from breakfast and…

 

****

 

Caje looked away from Saunders and Hanley and back at the floor of the jail cell.  It had been the doll that had first attracted him to the painting in the window.  He had only seen one of Claire Marie’s oils during their brief time together, so at first hadn’t paid the artwork much attention.  But when he looked closer, he recognized Bridgette’s toy and…

 

“And?” Sarge prompted, trying to help him out.  Just like Kirby and McCall had been trying to help him a few hours before. 

 

“And…never mind, Sarge.  I just saw one of her paintings last night.  That’s all.”

 

Sarge recognized Caje’s withdrawal when the soldier finished, “I was just drunk.”

 

Hanley became impatient.  “Caje…you’ve got to do better than this.  I’m not even sure if I can get you out of here as it is.”  He had a myriad of things to do that came with his newly assumed position.  And he wanted to get them done in time to attend a little soiree that was being put together for him and several of the other new captains.

 

“That’s it, Captain.  Sorry.” 

 

“Okay, then I’ll just go down and see how they want to handle this.  You may be in here a few days, and you’ll be lucky if that’s all.  You might have to pay for that damage you did.”  With that, Hanley left.   

 

Saunders and Caje were alone in the cell, neither saying a word.  It was something that had never been uncomfortable before now.  They had spent a lot of time together in companionable silence, both recognizing in the other no need for idle chit chat.  But something like this had never hung between them before.

 

Caje could tell that the sarge felt he had let him down, that he had shattered the unspoken understanding they had based on his unvarying sense of responsibility and the sarge’s unwavering loyalty.  Shit, he thought, now he had even lost this relationship.

 

For his part, Saunders decided there was nothing more he could do for the soldier in front of him.  Caje’s flat, unemotional monologue had not made much sense.  He knew that Caje was trying to tell him something, but without more insight…

 

Well, he had given Caje every chance he knew how.  If the Cajun wanted to shut down, that was the end of it.  He would respect the man’s privacy, like he always had, and if that meant that this trusted soldier -- a friend -- would sit in this stinking hole for three days, then so be it. 

 

Caje said nothing as Saunders stood to go.  The sergeant moved toward the door but turned back before heading out.  “If there’s anything…”

 

Caje started to reply in the negative, but stopped and focused on something behind Saunders.  The sergeant turned around and saw Hanley had returned and brought someone with him.

 

“Caje, this man owns the shop you busted up,” the captain announced.  “From what the guy at the front desk said -- and the best we can make out -- he’s not going to press charges.  But he did want to talk to you.”

 

Caje and Saunders looked at the man Hanley thrust forward.  He was small, petite even, and his features delicate.  Looking quite nonplussed at Hanley’s handling of him, he pointedly straightened his expensive but worn jacket.

 

His name was Vilmont Pineau, and he looked at the two men in front of him, trying to decide to whom to address his message.  Clearly, it must be the one with the bandages, he thought.  The police had told him the perpetrator had been injured.  Pineau wrinkled his nose in disgust, deciding the soldier definitely needed cleaning up.

 

In English so heavily accented that his hearers thought he sounded like a caricature of a Frenchman, he spluttered, “You!” and took a step toward Caje.  “You should stay in here for what you did to my display.  It is a total mess!”  He moved his hands in quick, small gestures that reminded the soldiers of a spastic music conductor.  “It is not just the cost.  Do you know how many weeks it will take to find someone to replace that front glass?  And the blood…the cleanup…I have to do it all myself now!”  He wrung his small hands, then raised his voice.  “Even the Boches…”

 

That was enough for Hanley.  The little man was insistent back at the guard desk that he see the perpetrator of “theez ‘orribal crime,” and now he had.  But there was no reason to waste time standing here listening to anything else about last night.  Besides, Saunders looked like he wanted to leave, too.  It was time to end this.

 

“Okay, that’s enough.   Drop the charges or don’t,” Hanley looked Caje in the eyes and continued with pointed emphasis, “I don’t care.  But we don’t have to listen to this.  C’mon, why don’t you go back and get to cleaning up that mess?”  He pulled the strange man with him as he started to leave.

 

“I will not press the charges.  But I have been asked to give him…” Pineau dramatically pointed to Caje with his unencumbered hand, “this.”  He reached into his pocket.

 

Saunders casually stepped between Caje and the Frenchman, ready to act.  One never knew…

 

Pineau pulled out a small scrap of paper.  Saunders reached for it.  Pineau pulled it back in toward himself and shook Hanley off his arm.

 

“No, it is only for that one.  I am going to drop the charges.  One of my …er, clients…has said that she will give me a painting I had there on consignment if this man comes to her house.  It will cover the damages.”

 

Caje was across the room in a flash.  “You know where she is?”

 

He grabbed the little man by the lapels of his jacket.  Vilmont screamed for the guards, his English deserting him.  Saunders and Hanley both stepped in -- Saunders pulling Caje back and Hanley trying to silence the excited Frenchman.

 

“Be quiet, I said.”  Hanley resisted the urge to backhand Pineau.  “Give us -- him -- whatever you have there and get out.”

 

Pineau handed the small slip of paper to Caje. “Espèce d’enculé,” he muttered.

 

Caje looked down at the scribbled address.  He did not recognize the handwriting.  “Who gave you this?”  He did not even realize that he spoke in French.

 

Pineau, who was brushing imagined dirt off his jacket, looked up, surprised.  Most of these Americans could barely speak their own language, much less la lingua Franca, he thought.  But he answered, “It is none of your business.”  After all, even if this soldier spoke French, he was clearly still a savage after what he had done to the shop.

 

Saunders could tell that Caje was having a difficult time maintaining control, but he didn’t understand what was going on between the soldier and the annoying man.  “English please.”  It was an order, not a request.

 

The little man huffed at the tone, but said smugly to Caje, “It is not who you think, American.  I have not seen her.  You can go or not go, I do not care.  Either way I will be compensated for what you have done.”  With that, summoning all the dignity he had left after his handling by Hanley, Pineau pranced out of the cell, his footsteps speeding up as his exit down the hall was followed by catcalls from some of the other detainees.

 

“Well, Caje, it looks like you will get out of here sooner than we thought.  Saunders, I’ll go see about getting him released.”

 

Caje did not look up from the scrap of paper as Hanley exited.

 

“What have you got there?”

 

“I don’t know, Sarge,” Caje muttered.  The handwriting, to his disappointment, did not match that of the letter folded carefully in his pocket.  Though against regulations, it had never left him since it caught up to him over six months ago.  Nearly illegible at the time of receipt, it was worn almost to the point of disintegration.  He was even afraid to unfold it now, but he had the fragmented contents -- and the handwriting -- memorized.

 

Hanley poked his head back in the cell.  “C’mon.  Let’s go.”

 

Saunders helped Caje get his jacket over his bandaged arm.  The three of them walked down the hall in silence.  After Caje’s knife and wallet were returned, they stepped out into the bright mid morning sun.  Caje squinted for a minute, his eyes adjusting to the daylight, then he turned without a word to Hanley and Saunders and started down the street.

 

“Hold it right there, soldier!  Where do you think you’re going?” 

 

Caje pulled up at the voice.  He hadn’t been thinking, just acting on his emotions again.  He turned back around to answer Saunders.  But he didn’t know how to respond.

 

Hanley answered for him.  “He’s not going anywhere.  Not without you, Saunders.  You wanted him out.  He’s released on your recognizance.  Caje, you can consider yourself on parole for the next seventy two hours.  You are to go nowhere without being accompanied by Saunders.”

 

“Lieutenant…Captain…you must be kidding.”  Saunders pushed his cap back on his head.  This was not what he needed or wanted -- to be designated Caje’s official babysitter.

 

“No, Saunders, I’m not kidding.  That’s the only way I could get him out.  Otherwise, he’d have to wait until they get all the paperwork cleared up.”  Hanley clapped Saunders on the back, then without a word to Caje, he headed down the street.

 

The two men stood in the morning sun.  The street bustled around them with people and vehicles.  From some little café nearby there was the smell of coffee and pastries.  Patrons, civilian and GI, sat at small tables crowded into a postage stamp size portion of sidewalk defined by small pots of geraniums.

 

“Shit,” Saunders muttered.  He looked at Caje.  “C’mon, let’s get back to barracks.  You need sleep and to have Doc take a look at that arm.”

 

Caje just stood there, wearing the same impassive expression Saunders was used to.  But it did not extend to his eyes.  They flashed with excitement and, to Saunders’ surprise, a small amount of pleading. 

 

“Uh, uh,” Saunders replied to the unasked question.  “You’re not going anywhere.  Hanley stuck me with you,” he smiled at the irony of being unhappily stuck with Caje now when all through the war he’d been glad to be ‘stuck’ with the guy, “and I can’t trust you right now.”  His smile vanished.  Tilting his head, he said, “Let’s go.”

 

Caje still did not move.  He stood there in the middle of Paris, on a small side street shadowed by the hulking former ministry building now housing the Military Police.  He felt the morning breeze on his face, already warm, promising another unusually hot day.  He took in the curious glances of a few passers-by and of Saunders.

 

It was a critical moment.  Somehow, he knew that he would never forget his impression of this place, this time.  Like only a few other times during the war -- Theo’s death, his first close combat kill, Billy’s death, his last glimpse of Claire Marie -- it would remain fresh and vivid, every detail to be easily recalled until he took his last breath. 

 

“Sarge…I have to talk to you.  I have to explain.”

 

“I thought you already did that.”

 

“I didn’t tell you everything…”