Purple Hearts—Part III

 

Based on the ABC Television Series: Combat!

Fan Fiction Elements taken from “Best Intents” by Bayonet and “The Circle” by Victoria

Copyright 2004 by JMcG

 

 

Caje shoved his nearly untouched plate away and leaned forward, intent on getting this part of his explanation right. He felt his normally very acute sense of direction was completely gone in this personal terrain.

 

“I was at a crossroads, Sarge. Not sure about myself.” He looked away. “I knew some of you all thought that I…maybe still think that I…well, that it all didn’t bother me. And sometimes I thought it didn’t bother me enough.” He glanced back up and saw the confusion on Saunders face. He sighed, then rested his elbows on the café table and added softly in explanation, “The killing...”

 

Saunders started to make a feeble denial and stopped. Yeah, he had wondered. They had all wondered. But there had been exceptions to the dispassionate façade Caje maintained in the field. Enough cracks to let him know he didn’t have a cold-blooded killer on his hands. But not enough to stop the wondering…He vaguely recalled the uncomfortable conversation in the Loire valley. Caje had been trying to tell him something then, also. But he hadn’t responded, not in the right way. He remembered now. But it didn’t matter. Only what they had accomplished, on the endless advancement forward.

 

But now there was no where else to go. No where else to go but home.

 

“Anyway…” Caje turned away again, focusing deliberately on one of the windows on a building across the street.

 

“Anyway, this girl—Claire Marie—she helped me work through some things. And I thought that was it.” He gave a bitter snort. “At that point, I mean, who really thought there could be more? Right? I don’t even think Paris was liberated yet. Sometimes I thought we’d be swimming the Channel back to England, just like those guys at Dunkirk.”

 

Caje started to hold up his hand and to signal the waiter for another cup of coffee, but stopped and looked to Saunders. The sergeant glanced at his watch, then nodded his head in perceptively. There was really no where he had to be. Doc and LittleJohn would hold things down ‘til he got back.

 

After the waiter poured their coffee, Caje lit another cigarette and continued. “After that, I just tried to concentrate on the important things. Tried to be smarter about…stuff. Who knows, maybe I was. I didn’t have another serious problem…injury, I mean, ‘til Christmas. When we all got it. Remember?”

 

“Yeah, I remember.” Saunders almost smiled. It was one memory he would not try to forget. The camaraderie, the sense of survival and hope, the really bad brandy…And one of the few instances that he placed someone’s personal interests over that of the squad.

 

He had allowed LittleJohn to stay, despite the fact that his hearing in his left ear was significantly affected. It was obvious from the moment the big soldier awoke, though he tried his best to disguise it. Doc had finally clued Saunders into why, told him about the letter. And told him that, though it was outside of his bounds as a medic, the guy would function best if left with the squad.

 

Saunders knew Doc wasn’t referring to LittleJohn’s soldiering. He had struggled with his decision, but rationalized that a green newbie replacement would be just as detrimental as a hardened veteran working extra hard to compensate for something. He didn’t allow himself to wonder whether it was just the hearing disability that made LittleJohn work and think extra hard. He just watched as LittleJohn became an even better soldier.

 

Saunders brought his thoughts back the present. Caje was adding even more sugar and cream to his coffee. It never ceased to amaze the sergeant how different his soldiers could be away from the front. Like this soldier, who had for the past year been so uncomplicated and undemanding on the front.

 

“At Christmas I got this letter. From her. Well, from England…it’s a long story. And I started thinking…maybe because it was Christmas, maybe because it was a New Year, maybe because we soon had them on the run…I don’t know. I just starting thinking sometimes about seeing her again. Daydreaming, you know. I hadn’t really allowed myself to do that before. So, when you told us we were going to stop here on our way home…”

 

“She’s here?”

 

***

 

December 1944

 

Liberated, yes, they had been liberated for nearly four months. But the battle was not over—neither for the Allied soldiers now thrusting into Luxembourg, nor for the citizens or France. Every day was a battle—for food, for heating, for clothing. Under three years of German occupation it had seemed part and parcel of the situation, but not now. Now it seemed a betrayal, a betrayal of their hopes. A betrayal of that day in June on which they had all rejoiced.

 

Not that the people were ungrateful to the Allies. Everyone knew what price the young soldiers—American, English, Scottish, Canadian, and others—had paid. Their bodies were still discovered in ditches, pastures, abandoned buildings...waiting for someone to give them proper burial, to let their families know their final fates, to receive acknowledgement for their last moments, their last full measure of devotion. And the farmers, village dwellers, priests, mothers and children who found them gave them the respect and gratitude they deserved, notifying authorities and attending burials, shivering in their thin, worn coats in the cold December winds, their bellies growling from the lack of food.

 

It just was not the Christmas season they had visualized in June. They had so hoped it would be different than the ones of recent memories, and it was. It was a Christmas season of uncertainty, the hope still burning warm, but the ashes of reality now scattered in their face and beneath their feet in the graves of the fallen.

 

Claire Marie pulled her coat closer around her. The clogs did not protect her feet from the slush on the road, and her woolen stockings were soon drooping around her ankles. In exasperation she thought about removing them when they reached the chateau. Her legs were soaked already, and the stockings were doing nothing but irritating her. She worried she would trip—it was hard for her on the ice anyway, and she didn’t want to drag Bridgette down with her. Well, both problems were easily solved. She already planned to leave Bridgette at the chateau with Elise, and now she would go into town bare legged.

 

She hunched down further, against the wind, peering at Bridgette’s stolid form. The child never complained. She never said much at all, anymore. Not since the bombings, not since that terrible night, huddled in the darkness of the basement of the chateau, as the Allies and Bosche battled throughout Santenay and around the chateau. The prattle that usually proceeded the sunny haired child into a room and followed her out was no more. Almost, Claire Marie thought, leaving her like a shadow without a person.

 

They had not had time to get back to the overseer’s house after Bertrand returned from his one and only Resistance mission. The Bosche had questioned them the next day. Nothing formal, they had just wanted to know what Bertrand and his family knew about Rolph’s disappearance. His jeep had been found, wrecked, but there was no sign of the Captain or his driver.

 

It had been easy for Claire Marie to burst into hysterical tears thinking of that night. It had been a welcome release, and she had let herself go, frightening Bridgette and even Louisa with the depth of her wailings. The tears had convinced the Bosche of her innocence in anything that had happened to the doctor. Everyone knew of their relationship.

 

Curious to Claire Marie, once she recovered from her cathartic experience and sat with Louisa and Bertrand to reassess their situation that evening, no one ever questioned Bertrand about other activities that night. And Louisa had been allowed to leave and return with minimal questions. She accomplished her missions, including the burning of the barn, with ease. If they were under suspicion for anything, it was not apparent.

 

What was apparent, after that night, was that with Rolph missing, Bertrand was needed to remain here to treat the Bosche wounded. The family was not held prisoner, not formally. There was not time. The bombing of the Panzers had left many burn victims, who were brought to the chateau for treatment. With Rolph not there, Bertrand was requested to provide aid. He would have done it anyway. The poor boys, in agony, many dying slow, suffocating deaths from scorched lungs...It reminded him of the last war, of the gas—it was no way for anyone to die. Not that there was any good way.

It was a trying week, passing in a blur for all, as they took turns nursing, cooking, and cleaning. Bridgette watched it all, saw the sadness in her mother and felt the underlying fear. She clutched her doll tighter to herself, and found corners in which to huddle and be near her mother, out of Claire Marie’s way as she bustled about under the watchful eyes of the Germans. When the soldiers would occasionally offer the child a kind word or chocolate, she would just shove her thumb further in her mouth, and stare at them with her large blue eyes.

 

Claire Marie saw the girl retreating into herself, and pulled her tight to her every night, murmuring sweet promises of things to come. That they would get through this, that soon she would not be cold and hungry, that she would have a new dolly. She was doing everything she could, everything she knew how, and not allowing herself to focus on her own feelings.

 

But at the end of the week, after they had cautiously emerged from the basement to the carnage around the chateau, she had felt hope surging through her. The Allies were here…things would be better. It was a new world, anything was possible…anything.

 

They rejoiced with everyone else in the village at the arrival of the Americans in force. Claire Marie could feel the occasional cold stares of certain villagers, but was enveloped in the feeling of goodwill toward her uncle and Guileau. The leader of the local Maquis received the respect he felt his due from his fellow villagers and the American commander of the town.

 

Claire Marie could not help herself, she looked for a familiar face among the young GI’s spilling through the small streets. She found a handful of wildflowers for Bridgette to hand out, bringing a smile to the faces of weary soldiers. And tentatively she began asking, but no one knew him—her GI. A couple tried to help, inquiring as to his division or unit, but she had no answers, she didn’t know. She only had a name, and a feeling deep inside her.

 

But over the months, after the initial euphoria had blown away with the cold north wind, the chill settled within Claire Marie. She focused her energies on Bridgette and on maintaining a cheerful demeanor for Uncle and Louisa.

 

They were alive, they were all alive. And life settled down to normal, with a few changes. Guileau moved into the chateau with his mother, now making their familial relationship freely known to all. It had always been speculated, but never commented on. But with Guileau’s present elevated status in village, no one questioned the obvious play for an additional role.

 

Strangely, Elise seemed better. Perhaps it was the relief from the strain of having a houseful of Germans, perhaps it was finally having everyone acknowledge her son, or perhaps she had been faking her degree of lucidity all along. No one was sure. And when obliquely questioned as to her health, she smiled an enigmatic smile and said merely that it was “never better.”

 

Claire Marie, Bridgette, Louisa and Bertrand finally moved back to the overseers’ cottage. Guileau had asked them to stay at the chateau, but Claire Marie had demurred. Louisa backed her, to Bertrand’s surprise. The cottage was more work, requiring more trips back and forth to town for him in his practice and for the women for supplies.

 

Hence the trip now, through the snow. Claire Marie was determined to do something special for Christmas. It would not be much—it could not. There was not much to be had even now in the shops, though Bertrand brought in some money from his practice. The cold and deprivations had been good for that, at least.

 

Claire Marie wanted to cook a special dinner for Louisa, who was struggling with influenza. Though the older woman was on the mend, the reversal in their roles had frightened Claire Marie. She had tended the woman night and day, while Bertrand was forced away to deal with other cases. And Bridgette had watched in silence from the corner, her thumb in her mouth.

 

Claire Marie wanted to make something for Bridgette, also. She had debated about trying to do a new doll, but realized that the child’s attachment to this one was special—not to be disturbed. So she decided to try to locate some cloth heavy enough on which to paint. A small book, a colorful book about Bridgette and her doll, a story of happiness and light. And she would read it to her little daughter over and over—until they both believed it.

 

She had not painted or drawn since the American had left. Like the promises of liberation, her hopes of an artistic reawakening had not occurred. Not yet. She still felt drained—by everything. But, as always, she would look to her child for inspiration.

 

When she shared her idea with Louisa, the woman had smiled, momentarily returning her visage to normal. The recent deprivations and the current illness had not done the woman any favors—she had aged further, and not gracefully. But she did not care. Keeping this family intact was her primary concern. For Bertrand, it was relatively simple—food and laughter. But both were hard to provide.

 

The child, thought Louisa, would be better when the mother was. But though Claire Marie tried to hide it, Louisa knew that she had been hurt. Louisa had tried to confront her about it once, but Claire Marie had brushed it aside, insisting that she and the American had parted without expectations. The letter that night was only the result of exhaustion and stress. Though the first may be true, technically, Louisa knew that neither statement was the whole truth. But Claire Marie returning to her first love, art, was promising. So when Claire Marie had suggested a small outing for Bridgette and herself to get some Christmas supplies and give Louisa some peace and quiet, the woman had readily agreed.

 

Now close to the chateau and on the more even part of the approach, Claire Marie stopped and squatted down to face level with her daughter. Over two now, Bridgette was starting to look less like a baby and more like a little girl. But she was still so young, so vulnerable. Claire Marie stroked her cheek and smiled gently.

 

“We are close, are you too tired, sweet? Do you need Mamma to carry you the rest of the way?”

 

Bridgette shook her head solemnly. “No, Mamma, I can walk.” She knew her mother had trouble walking—she watched and listened. She absorbed everything, and would do nothing that could potentially make her mother have that sad face she wore sometimes when she thought no one was looking.

 

Claire Marie nodded. “You are a good girl, Bridgette. Now, is it okay if I leave you with Elise? We talked about this, just for a while—so I can work on a surprise for Louisa?”

 

Bridgette nodded again. “Yes, Momma, you told me. I like Elise—she lets me play with her brushes.”

 

Claire Marie pulled at one of Bridgette’s corkscrew curls and her smile grew wider. “Yes, and I’ve seen your hair after you’ve played with her brushes.” At Bridgette’s crestfallen face, she added quickly, “I love it—you look extra beautiful.” Mollified, Bridgette tucked her hand back in Claire Marie’s.

 

***

 

The chateau loomed ahead, the broken windows and bullet holes unmended due to the continuing shortage of materials. Everything was still needed for the war effort. Elise and Guileau kept to four rooms, both for heating purposes and to stay dry. Guileau had single handedly—literally—dragged the most valuable furniture and pictures, those not destroyed in the fighting, into one of waterless rooms. Bridgette loved this room, loved to touch the pretty things, to crawl under and around the furniture, and find a small niche in which to play house with her doll. She felt safe in this small place, safe with her doll. But she had never stayed alone, without Claire Marie or Louisa nearby. She would be brave, though. She knew she could—even if the monster was there.

 

Bridgette did not know when she starting thinking of Guileau this way. She vaguely remembered not being afraid of him, of sitting on his lap and being bounced high, laughing the whole time. But not lately, not since she heard Guileau yelling at her mother. They argued a lot, every time Guileau came around. But they were careful to hide this from Bertrand and Louisa. Bridgette heard, though. She did not understand it all, but she heard the heated whispered words, and saw her mother’s face afterward.

 

They gratefully entered the side door. Though the grand entryway was not one of the inhabitable rooms, it offered welcome relief from the wind. After taking off their sodden outerwear, they climbed the stairs to the makeshift living quarters.

 

***

 

Louisa climbed the stairs to the attic. They were steeper than she remembered. She had not been up here since the liberation—since the wounded American was here. She tried to give Claire Marie and Bridgette a little space, a little room of their own. She did not want to intrude on the Claire Marie’s mothering, she only wanted to give support.

 

Reaching the top of the stairs and pausing to catch her breath, Louisa confirmed that statement with a look at the beds. The one the American had slept in obviously was not being used. Just as she thought, Claire Marie was sleeping with Bridgette. It was not natural. Despite the circumstances, the child needed to learn to sleep on her own. And so did Claire Marie—or at least not with the child. Bridgette was no substitute for a husband.

 

Louisa thought about that—about after the last war. There would be few men left to make Claire Marie a wife and Bridgette a father. And, she thought objectively, few that would want to take on a—she could hardly bring herself to think it, but she knew others would—cripple. And her bastard daughter—her Bosche bastard daughter. Not that anyone need know that. But knowing Claire Marie, she would tell. Her candor was one of her charms…to some.

 

Ah, but before the war…well, things had not been perfect. Not between Timone and Claire Marie. But there had been those taken by the girl’s ingénue. She had had style—and Timone’s money to buy it and her mother’s guidance. It may not have been important to Claire Marie, but when she had gone down the street, she had made not a few heads to turn. Her determined stride and animated expression caused people to forget her diminutive stature. She was so—alive. And her laughter could fill a room.

 

But not in this house…not now. Louisa shook her head and returned to the task at hand. She had traded some eggs for a couple of frames. One for the picture of Bridgette that Claire Marie had shown her months ago, and one of Bertrand. She would surprise them all with the framed pictures on Christmas morning. She already knew where she would hang them—in the kitchen. Even the wailing picture of Bridgette was humorous. They needed that. And these pictures would serve as reminders of happier times, times of natural laughter and tears—and a time when Claire Marie found some fulfillment.

 

Art would be no substituted for a husband or a man in her life—Louisa knew that—but the yawning void could be blocked off, if not fulfilled. She had done so. She had found solace first in the work the nuns in the convent provided, after she had broken down, finally acknowledging that she would never find the answers or the closure she sought in France. And simple solace turned to joy when Bertrand later hired her to help take care of young Claire Marie.

 

And now her child—and that was the way she thought of her—her child needed to find the same fulfillment. And Claire Marie was lucky that she had this talent to draw on. She could find her comfort within herself and within a child of her own.

 

Louisa went over the bureau, and pulled on the handle. It was stuck, probably from the cold and the fact that it had not been opened in a while. She pulled again, a little harder, realizing anew how much the influenza had taken out of her. The drawer came out with force, nearly knocking down.

 

Bracing her hand on the top of the chest, she looked in—and gasped. She hadn’t know Claire Marie had done a picture of the boy. She didn’t know when she did it—but then again, she hadn’t been here during those days when so much had occurred. Bertrand had seen to that, afraid of Louisa’s protective instincts toward Claire Marie.

 

She looked closely at the picture. His face was a blur in her mind, just as the boy was a symbol to her of the misery that liberation had brought. The association was not his fault, she did not even know him, could not even remember what he looked like. She just knew the pain he had unwittingly caused Claire Marie.

 

Louisa had done her best to alleviate that pain. She had gotten the note to the English airman, and had been excited when searching for clothes for the Englishman that she found the dog togs to accompany Claire Marie’s note. But nothing had ever come of it. Old Pierre had gotten the other boy to the Allied lines, but at the time no one knew to what fate. He had been bad off. Perhaps he had not been able to carry out his promise to Louisa. Or perhaps this boy, staring with an expression of such melancholy out of this very dormer window, was already gone. Like so many of the others. Like her own…

 

She quickly put the picture on the top of the bureau, then located the two she had in mind. Yes, just as she remembered—they were perfect. She started to close the drawer, then remembered the other picture. She did not want Claire Marie to know what she was doing. She grabbed it to return it to the drawer. And then she noticed the writing on the back.

 

She did not recognize the bold, decisive handwriting. She walked over to the bed the GI had occupied and started reading.

 

Petite,

 

I told you I did not want this picture—that you captured more of myself than I could handle. But something has changed in the past few days, and I want you to know how grateful I am to you for it.

 

I wish we could have met under different circumstances. I wish I could ask you to someday do a portrait of me in happier times—but we both know that there will probably not be the chance.

 

Your “brooding liberator”,

 

PAAL

 

If there is ever anything my family can help you with—maybe New Orleans?—let them know. Tell them I was here. And that I was alright with everything.

 

Louisa stared at the address listed and thought. Well, Claire Marie had clearly meant something to him. But, smart boy, he had not wanted to hurt her. He had not offered an address of where to write him. Or the unit with which he fought. Maybe he couldn’t? Maybe it was against American Army regulations? No, Louisa was sure there was a way his parents could contact him. He just hadn’t offered false hope or enough information to have Claire Marie following every rumor or piece of information about the fighting. He was not a fool…and he did not treat Claire Marie like one.

 

But he had offered a way, if she chose, to try to find him. He had left the decision to her, the decision to put her heart in harm’s way along with him if she chose.

 

Louisa knew by Claire Marie’s actions of the past months that she had never seen this note. Why would she? She had never gone near her art supplies. Louisa wondered when the boy had written the note. Before or after whatever had transpired during their last moments together? No matter, either way it appeared that the boy had hoped that Claire Marie would get this message. She wondered if he was wondering why he never received any response. Whether he was still capable of wondering…

 

The news from the front was not good. Everyone knew. The information from the working radios in the villages and towns was disseminated on the wind it seemed. A counter offensive, a push back from the might German Army. All of France shuddered.

 

Louisa shuddered. She wondered whether to show this to Claire Marie or not. If the girl did return to her artwork, as Louisa hoped, she would surely notice if this particular sketch was missing. But if she found the note—would it reawaken wounds that were just starting to heal? Or would it bring closure to the entire incident?

 

She folded the note, tucked it in her apron, and picked up the other two sketches. She would have to think about this.

 

***

 

Caje twisted on the narrow cot, trying to get comfortable. He could not turn to the right because of the bulky bandages around his arm. But turning to the left aggravated and increased the pressure from the swollen cheekbone. At least he was warm—it seemed ages since he had not longed for heat. While this wasn’t the kind of heat he had dreamed of—the blazing, bone-baking heat of Texas or even the drippy, melty heat of Louisiana—at least it wasn’t the numbing cold of the past nine days in the Ardenne Forest anymore.

 

He hadn’t known it was possible to be so cold. So cold that it took everything you had to hold on to the legs of one of your unmoving buddies. So cold that you didn’t even realize that you yourself were injured. So cold that you couldn’t feel how heavy your heart was as you were ordered to leave your squad. So cold that on that long, slippery walk back, you couldn’t think of what you had left behind.

 

Now he was finally warm. The shock from the transition from continuous battle to forced rest had worn off. And at this very moment, he wished that the 88 that had knocked LittleJohn unconscious and torn up his own arm had left him deaf. He couldn’t take it anymore.

 

“Kirby, for the love of God, can you get him to knock it off?”

 

“What kind of Christmas spirit is that, I ask you?” Kirby turned indignantly to the soldier on the other side of him, then turned back to Caje. “I don’t think he knows what he’s doin’ anyway, Caje.”

 

“Well, something’s getting through to him. Why else is he humming Christmas stuff?” Caje fumbled around on the small table beside the bed, trying to find the pack of cigarettes he had put there earlier.

 

Kirby looked up from his game of solitaire, and tossed his own pack across the small space between the beds. “Here, take mine. I think you’re out. But ya’ better ration these—I doubt any more will be gettin’ through for a while.”

 

Caje grabbed the cigarettes, put one between his lips to hold it, and lit it with the lighter he had found on the table. Exhaling, he mumbled, “Thanks, Kirby.”

 

“Yeah, count it as your Christmas present. Some stinkin’ Christmas this is…Oh, but Doc dropped by while you were asleep. That’s how come LittleJohn to know it’s Christmas. Dropped off the mail we never picked up before we went out. Thought it might cheer us up.”

 

“He say how McCall was doing?”

 

“Better.”

 

LittleJohn?”

 

“Aw…he’s gonna be okay. He’s just addled. It’s probably better this way. I think he understood when Doc stood over him and talked to him. That’s how he knows it’s Christmas.”

 

“Oh…did he say anything?”

 

LittleJohn? He ain’t said anything.”

 

“No, Kirby. Did Doc have any word on Sarge?” Caje didn’t look over, but stared at the smoke hovering over him.

 

“No, nothing.” Kirby’s voice was soft and serious, lacking any of his usual bluster. “But,” he added, “Doc said that we were able to get some planes up yesterday. Finally. The guys are getting some support out there. That sure would bring ‘em some holiday joy.”

 

Caje impatiently flipped the ash from the end of the cigarette on the floor and brought it back up to his mouth. “Yeah, we should be supporting them. Sarge shouldn’t have done this.”

 

“Done what?” Kirby scooped up his cards—the hand hadn’t been going well anyway. “Done what?,” he repeated. “Sent us back here? Somebody had to get LittleJohn back. And he didn’t want to send guys in good shape—I mean, it seemed okay, as long as we could carry the big lug.”

 

“Yeah, I know that. What he shouldn’t have done is had us stay here. He needs everyone he can get.”

 

“Well, he didn’t tell us to stay here. He just told each of us to have the doctors check out the other one. Sarge knew that if we were up to being sent back out, they would send us back out. No special treatment here, I can tell you…no nurses, no doughnuts, not even a hot meal. This is the worst aid station…”

 

Kirby mumbled on, but Caje didn’t listen. He supposed the BAR man was right. LittleJohn couldn’t have just been left—he hadn’t wakened even after hours of intense fighting. Just lain there. They had all kept fighting around him, holding on to their designated piece of earth as though it were a family legacy. Not to give an inch…that is what they had all been told. Hold on all costs.

 

***

 

Caje had kept firing after he picked himself up from the same 88 blast that had knocked LittleJohn out—he wasn’t sure how long after it was—despite the curious looks from the others. He had thought about asking Doc to take a look at his cheek during a lull—the blood kept making the stock of his Garand sticky and was affecting his aim. But then he remembered that Doc wasn’t there, he had taken McCall back a while ago—a day ago? Who could remember…Anyway, that is why LittleJohn was just laying there with them still.

 

When a lull had finally come, Saunders had motioned him over.

 

“You okay?”

 

“Yeah, Sarge.” Caje noticed that despite the cold, Saunders face appeared red and there was sweat on his upper lip. He didn’t know if the Sergeant was sick or just winded from the continuous battle. Who knew…who knew with any of them. It didn’t matter. There wasn’t time for it to matter. There hadn’t been for as long as they could remember…since that last hot meal before all hell broke loose. That’s why he was surprised by Saunders’s next statement.

 

“Take Kirby. I want you all to get LittleJohn back.”

 

Caje shook his head. “We’re not going to leave you here—not with…” He nodded his head to indicate Knight, Lowe, and the other three new guys whose names escaped him for the moment. “Send two of them back, Sarge.”

 

“It wasn’t a question, Caje.” Saunders rubbed his sleeve across his face, then cursed as he realized he had exchanged sweat for ice-caked mud. “You have the best sense of direction, you know the way back. These guys are in better shape…” He held up a hand to stave off the obvious argument that was coming. Caje recognized the look, and bit back his question. What about you, Sarge? You haven’t slept or eaten either…

 

“And I want you to have someone look at Kirby’s feet when you get to battalion aid. He can still walk, but not for much longer. When you come back, pull any supplies you can carry.”

 

Caje nodded his understanding, and went back over to LittleJohn.

 

“Kirby, over here!” Kirby scuttled over to the Sergeant’s position. Caje couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but when he saw the look in Kirby’s eyes as he came over to help Caje get LittleJohn situated between them, he assumed it was the same as the one he had had with Saunders.

 

Getting the big guy back was just as hard as they had ever anticipated. He was dead weight, and had at least 60 pounds on each of them. They slid, cursed, dropped him once—luckily not on his head—and moved forward into the twilight at a maddeningly slow pace.

 

And the situation was even more maddening at the aid station when he and Kirby both realized that Sarge had given each the exact same instructions. Kirby was put in bed for possible frostbite—he wouldn’t loose any toes, yet, but no one at the aid station knew how he had carried the larger soldier back with the condition of his feet.

 

Caje’s coat was stripped after Kirby had whispered to one of the aid workers that the Sergeant wanted his arm looked at to see if he should be sent back out. And even Caje had been surprised that he had been able to help carry LittleJohn out. His coat had absorbed most of the blood, but his right arm caused even the aids to blanch. Shrapnel from the 88 had sliced him in at least five places, and the blood covered his entire right side.

 

Despite his arguments, they would not just slap some bandages on his arm and cheek and let him go back out. They took his coat and M1, stitched him up—without the use of anesthetic which was being saved for only the most critical cases--and then placed him next to Kirby in one of four cots in a bedroom in one of the small houses in the village being used as temporary aid stations. Relieved from the pain of the stitching, he slept despite himself.

 

***

 

And awoke the next morning feeling warm, stiff, sore and guilty. They all knew this German offensive was decisive—it had to be, no one had even expected it. And now here he was, useless…

 

“What?” He looked over at Kirby, who had shoved something in his direction as he continued talking despite Caje’s lack of attention.

 

“I said Doc will be back by in a little while. They are keeping him pretty busy—they’re really shorthanded here, he said. But he brought this.” Kirby thrust the bottle forward again.

 

“Brandy? Where’d he get that?”

 

“I don’t know, but he’s as good as Santa to me. I told him I’d wait, but it’s getting late. Let’s toast our first Christmas in Europe and our first Christmas together.” Kirby took a long swallow, not even choking as the fiery liquid burned down his throat. “Ah…” He reached across the space between them. “Here…”

 

“No, thanks.” Caje didn’t move to accept the offer.

 

“Aw, come on. What are you so all-fire gloomy about? We’ve got a roof, mail, liquor. We’re a lot better off than a lot of those other poor joes out there.”

 

“And that makes you feel good, Kirby? That Sarge and the other guys are still out there?”

 

Kirby stared at Caje, and returned to his serious tone of moments ago. “Hey, we didn’t come lookin’ for this. Sarge did what he had to do. Just like he always does. He knew we’d only slow ‘em down when the time comes to move, and that LittleJohn just lyin’ there was a liability. Nobody could concentrate or nothin’. And he knew you and I would get the guy back, no matter what. I still think that of all the things we have done since we’ve been here, that has got to be the one I’m still most amazed by. If someone had told me that we could lug that big moose nearly three miles, I’d a bet a paycheck we couldn’t. Hell, three paychecks!” Kirby looked at Caje expectantly, then, receiving nothing in response, leaned back on the bed and took another swallow.

 

“Ah, go ahead and mope. Everyone who thinks I’m the crazy one in the squad should spend some time cooped up with you.” Kirby shuffled on his cot, then reached under it and pulled out a couple of letters. “Here, here’s something else to be gloomy about while we’re warm and dry and still alive. Something from home on Christmas.” He tossed the letters over on Caje’s cot.

 

Caje sighed. “Kirby, I’ll keep your secret.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“That you’re not as dumb as you look.” Caje motioned with his left hand for the bottle.

 

“I’m not sharing. You’re bringing me down.”

 

“Yes you are. Hand it over here while I look at my mail.” Kirby stretched and proffered the still full container to Caje, who took a cautious sip out of the bottle. It wasn’t bad, and it burned warm down inside him.

 

“Well, I’m keeping your secret, too.”

 

Caje detected the irascible tone in Kirby’s voice. “And what secret is that?”

 

“Your name.”

 

“Everyone knows my name, Kirby.”

 

“Only the part you shared—Paul Alexander Armand LeMay…” Kirby emphasized the two middle names, then paused for effect. “The Third!” He finished with a dramatic flourish of his hands.

 

Caje stared down at the letters. The writing or return address on neither envelope looked familiar. The top one was from Charleston, the other from England. But they both contained his full name, spelled out for all to see. No one he knew did that, even his father.

 

“Aw, shut up, Kirby.” He had to set the brandy bottle down to open the letters, and Kirby snatched it back from the floor, nearly falling off the cot to do so. Caje said quickly to distract him from the previous topic, “You get anything good?”

 

“Just my mom. Everything’s okay—she talked about putting up a tree, but said she decided not to. Hoped I had someplace warm to be on Christmas. Said maybe next year we could do a tree together. Whole thing made me feel like a kid—I kept expecting her to write that if I was good, Santa would bring me something. I’m telling ya’, if we make it outta here and I’m putting up a tree next year—well, that could be with my mom, but I want someone else under it on Christmas morning, if ya’ know what I mean. What’d you get?”

 

“I’m not sure.” Caje didn’t look up from the first letter, but could see out of the corner of his eye Kirby taking another swig. “Hey, go easy. We could all be pulled out of here at any time.”

 

“Not from what Doc was saying. Looks like things may be turnin’ our way. Or at least not the Krauts’ way.” He took another swallow despite Caje’s advise, then sensed something. He turned back to Caje and looked at him closely. The guy usually maintained a poker face, but Kirby thought he had gotten pretty good at reading him, though he tried not to let Caje know it. Didn’t want to give away any of his advantages when they actually played poker.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

Caje was staring at the letter in front of him. He hastily folded it and shook his head to clear it of the various images that had momentarily filled his mind. “Ah, dammit, my uncle died. This is from his lawyer. Just some stuff to get settled when I get a chance.”

 

“Oh…He the one that had the heart attack or somethin’ you mentioned?”

 

Caje looked over at Kirby, surprised that he remembered. Bere had suffered a stroke soon after finding out that his son was MIA. That was several months ago. Caje had received the stiff, formal letter from Armand informing him of Bere’s status soon after returning to the group from that shoulder wound he had received in the Loire. He had never received the anticipated letter from Bere that time, the one he had been hoping for while recuperating with Bertrand’s family.

 

He allowed his mind to drift back to feelings he had tried to sustain. When the letter had not come from Bere, nor any additional word from Bertrand’s family—from the girl—the euphoric feeling of discovery of the time had slowly ebbed. Not that he had expected anything from Claire Marie—they had not left it that way. And he knew from Armand’s letter that Bere was in no condition to write. Perhaps he lost the sense of potential because the day to day struggles through France and then into Luxemborg sucked the dreams out of everyone. Or perhaps he hadn’t really found any answers to his own personal problems at all. Or perhaps the answer had been at the farmhouse, but he would never know because…

 

Sarge!”

 

Caje glanced at the door at Kirby’s exclamation. Doc was bringing Saunders in, and the smile on the medic’s face immediately quashed any qualms about the sergeant’s presence in the makeshift aid station.

 

“He’s got pneumonia.” Doc answered their unasked questions and he helped Saunders settle down on the remaining cot in the room.

 

Sarge, how you feelin’?”

 

“Like shit, Kirby.” Saunders pushed Doc away from his boots. “I can get them off myself, Doc. Why don’t you go help someone who needs it.” The last was an order rather than a question.

 

“I’m off duty, Sarge. Been on for …I don’t know, since I brought McCall in. Thought I’d go grab us some chow—K rations, I’m afraid—and come back and pass the evening with you all.”

 

Saunders dropped his boots to the floor with a decided thud, and pulled the thin blanket on the cot over him. It didn’t help the shivering. He had had to be drug off the front line even after the reinforcements finally made their way through. By this point it was obvious to everyone that he couldn’t hold up any longer, his hacking cough not only doubling him over, but also alerting every Kraut within 100 yards of their location.

 

“Hey, Doc, can Sarge have a little something to warm him up?” Kirby held up the bottle.

 

“Kirby, I thought you were gonna’ wait for me? But, yeah, if he wants.” Doc turned a skeptical eye toward the sergeant’s huddled form, then left with a “Right back.”

 

Saunders peered up from the cot and rasped, “Kirby, what have you got?”

 

At the irritable tone, Kirby started to shove the bottle back under the bed, but Caje struggled out of his own cot and took the bottle from him. He walked over to Saunders’s cot.

 

“Brandy, Sarge. I’ve had better, but it’ll warm you up.” He held it out.

 

Saunders looked at it thoughtfully for a moment, then gave a small, lopsided smile and reached for the bottle. “Thanks, I think it might.” He took a sip, then started coughing violently. Seeing Caje’s concerned expression, he motioned him away and choked out, “Get back…you look like hell.”

 

Caje reached up and fingered the bandage on his cheek. “It’s nothing.”

 

Saunders wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and took a cautious breath. The coughing had subsided for the moment. “And your arm?”

 

“A few stitches.”

 

“More than a few. Doc told me. He also said that we’re lucky Kirby didn’t lose some toes.”

 

Caje shrugged and tried to grin, though it hurt. “Depends on if how much we want to hear him complaining about his feet. Might have helped.”

 

“Hey, I resent that! How about you all stop talking about me and send that bottle over here. Spread the joy around.”

 

“I think you’ve had enough joy, Kirby. But I could use some.” Saunders took another pull at the bottle, longer this time.

 

Caje looked at him thoughtfully. He hadn’t really seen Saunders put down the liquor before. “How’s everyone else?”

 

“They’re fine. Hanley is giving them some down time—some chow and a few hours sleep. Then probably going to divvy them up among a few other squads who are shorthanded.”

 

“He’s able to give out some downtime?”

 

“Things are turning around. Reinforcements are getting through. I really think…” Saunders paused and looked out the window beside his bed, then continued, “I really think we may have held them off. And I don’t think they have that much more to throw at us. It may…it may be turning our way” He was silent for a moment, then added softly, “Finally.” He took another swig and then handed the bottle up to Caje. “Get back in bed. We’ve all done what we can. It may have been enough.”

 

Caje took the bottle back over to his cot and sat down on the edge. He sensed that Saunders was speaking of more than the current confrontation. He took a mouthful and rolled it around with his tongue, the burning sensation pleasant. He started to swing his legs onto the bed, and became aware of Kirby staring at him.

 

“Uh, uh. Why don’t you wait ‘til Doc gets back and you get some food in your stomach?

 

Kirby glared at him, then raised his voice. “Hey, Sarge! You awake?”

 

“What, Kirby?”

 

“Did you know that Caje’s real…” He was cut off as Caje reluctantly shoved the bottle across the floorspace between them.

 

“Did I know what, Kirby?” Saunders asked sleepily.

 

“Nothing, Sarge. You just get your rest.” Kirby struggled and turned over on his stomach, leaning over the edge of the bed toward Caje, the bottle dangling from his right hand.

 

“So what was in your other letter, Paul Alexander Armand LeMay the Third?” He bungled the pronunciation of “Armand” so badly that Caje winced.

 

“Kirby, you’re easily amused. What do you need to know about someone else’s mail for?” He struggled to open the letter in question, the bandages that extended down to his right hand making it difficult.

 

“Here, give that to me.”

 

Caje srtuggled a minute more, then handed the letter over, taking the brandy from Kirby while he did so. It was actually starting to taste good. Doc had better get here with some food soon, he thought.

 

“Aw, it’s in French.” Kirby dangled the letter out to Caje.

 

“Of course it is, you idiot. Give it here.” Caje reached for the letter, but Kirby jerked it back.

 

“Kirby…”

 

“Hey, there’s another one. This one I can read.”

 

“Here, Kirby. Take the bottle. Make yourself sick.”

 

“Knock it off, you two.” Saunders started coughing again.

 

Caje picked up the letters Kirby dropped in the floor, and started to read the one in French. He leaned back on the bed, numb. It couldn’t be. How did it get here?

 

He looked at the other one, the one that had come from the same envelope. It was in English.

 

Dear PFC LeMay,

 

You don’t know me nor I you, but I was entrusted with this letter after being shot down near the Loire in France in August. I should have sent it to you before, but due to circumstances that I regret but will not bore you with, I could not. Please accept my apologies, and I hope this finds you well.

 

Sincerely,

 

Martin Christopher

Windmill Cottage

Cotswald

 

So Claire Marie had given this to this English man, who must have survived the plane crash. But if she wanted to write him, why didn’t she just send it to the address he had left? Unless she hadn’t found it…

 

Caje rubbed his temple with his left hand, then picked up the first note to read again.

 

Dearest Paul,

 

I have been wrong about so many things. But I am not going to let this be one of them. If you make it through this time, and if you find yourself at the end still “brooding”, well, we—I—will be here. You will always be welcome in our home, for, I think you already have a home in my heart.

 

There, I wrote it. And maybe it was easy to write because you will probably never get this. But it was not easy to write because now it is committed to paper. And I take committing to paper seriously, as you know. As I said this evening, I am tired of being afraid to put myself in a situation where I might be hurt. And I will regret not saying it—I already do.

 

Take care of yourself, find your way safely through this.

 

CM

 

She said “this evening.” That explained some of it. She had not yet found the address on the back of the picture. This letter had been on its journey of its own for a while.

 

Caje, do you want something to eat?”

 

Doc was standing over him. He hadn’t even heard him enter the room.

 

Naw…thanks, Doc.”

 

“I know it ain’t much Christmas dinner, but you need to eat. “ Doc shoved the ration toward him.

 

“In a minute—just put it on the table.”

 

Doc moved over to Kirby. “Here, Kirby, trade me that bottle for this.”

 

“You gotta’ be kiddin’, Doc.” Kirby was starting to slur his words. “This here fine brandy for beefstew? This is a better Christmas dinner than that shit.”

 

“Kirby, you were supposed to wait for me.” Doc took the bottle and plopped wearily between the two beds.

 

Saunders sat up and looked over. “Doc, you alright?”

 

Doc swallowed and answered, “Yeah, Sarge. Just tired like everyone else. I thought you were asleep.”

 

“Trying—too much yapping going on in here. Any word?”

 

“We’re holding. Better than holding, they’re saying. Things are slowing down as far as wounded. I wouldn’t call it a Christmas truce, though.”

 

“It’s Christmas?” Saunders sat up a little further.

 

“Yeah, Sarge. Merry Christmas.”

 

“So that’s Christmas joy Kirby’s been trying to spread around?”

 

“That’s what I was tryin’ to tell you, Sarge.” Kirby kept his eyes closed. “Christmas joy--some old house in some place I can’t pronounce, with four smelly GI’s and feet that I think are finally coming off.”

 

Doc laughed. “Kirby, just add yourself a couple of turtledoves and I think you have a song.”

 

Despite Doc’s protests, Saunders sat up and the bottle was passed between all. Doc started them talking about Christmas at home. Maybe it was the liquor, maybe it was the hell they had just been through, but the stories were more personal than they usually allowed to pass between them.

 

Not surprisingly, Kirby fell asleep first, followed soon thereafter by Saunders. He and Doc had switched topics after Kirby dropped off, discussing the status of McCall and LittleJohn and speculating on whether they would all be back out on the lines by the New Year. And just what that New Year would bring.

 

Caje sat silent. He had slipped out of the conversation a while ago after Doc had gone over with the bottle to sit next to Saunders. Hearing nothing from the other side of the room, he picked up the letter on his lap and read it for a third time.

 

He had shared a little of his own Christmas’s past, drawing on those times when he was a young child, before the breakup and boarding school. But if he dared look forward to the future, which tonight seemed more possible than in the past six months, there was only one way he could picture Christmas. Perhaps it was the alcohol, perhaps it was the fact it was Christmas, perhaps it was this letter—but he had to try to capture it. He had to do something. There was that feeling of possibility again. He didn’t want to let it slide away.

 

Doc had brought in some writing supplies with the rations, thinking that the guys might want to let their families know they were okay tonight. On this night of all nights.

 

Caje slid out of bed and went silently over to the paper and pencils tossed near the door. He grabbed what he needed and then paused to look out the window. It was dark and silent. Nothing, he could see nothing. But in his mind’s eye he saw the small kitchen at Bertrand’s, the faces illuminated by candlelight, and heard her laughter. He wondered what they would be eating. Everyone knew it was a hard winter, even for those already freed from German occupation. Whatever it was, he hoped Claire Marie had not cooked it.

 

A smile passed over his lips at the thought, and he returned to his cot. He tried to balance the paper across his knees, but the combination was awkward, and he was further hampered by the bandages. He scratched his head, then slid back out of the cot and down on the floor. The surface was better for writing, but he still could not put anything legible on the paper. He tried with his left hand.

 

“You want some help with that?”

 

Doc was still on the floor next to Saunder’s cot. Caje had thought from the medic’s silence that he had fallen asleep on the hard wood.

 

“Just trying to write a letter. It’s a little awkward.”

 

Doc nodded and grunted. He had noticed that the Cajun rarely received mail, and even more rarely wrote letters. But tonight there had been two letters, and now, despite the condition of his arm…Whatever it was, it must be important.

 

“You know, I forgot you wrote righthanded.”

 

“Yeah, the fathers didn’t allow us to use our left hands.”

 

“The fathers?”

 

“You know, the monks. At school. They had this thing about breaking lefties. I used to be able to do it, before…before I went away to school. But now I can’t seem to put anything down anyone could read.”

 

“You want some help? You could just tell me what to say.”

 

“Thanks, Doc, but since you don’t speak French, I assume you can’t write it either.” Caje smiled ruefully.

 

Doc struggled to his feet. He brought what was left of the bottle over with him, and settled on the floor next to Caje.

 

“Anything you need to talk about? You’ve been awfully quiet.”

 

Caje shrugged, and Doc laughed softly. “Okay, well, not any more so than normal. The brandy just loosened us all up. Even Sarge. You just seemed…preoccupied. Can’t you let me write whatever you have to in English and whoever can find someone to read it?”

 

“I don’t know, Doc.” Caje thought about it for a moment. The old woman had spoken English. It may not say what he exactly what he wanted, and it would have to pass through Louisa, but…He didn’t want to loose this feeling again. He wanted to, as Claire Marie had said, capture it and put it on paper. He didn’t want to miss out on maybe, perhaps, having a Christmas of the type he had pictured a moment ago looking out the window.

 

“Okay, Doc. We can give it a try.” He shoved the paper and pencil over to the medic, and picked up the bottle. “Mind if I finish it?”

 

“If will help.”

 

“It might. Thanks, Doc. Okay…” He began to dictate.

 

“Dear…”

 

“Dear who?”

 

“Uh…let me think.” He wanted to keep this formal, given the intermediaries through which it would have to pass. But he didn’t even know Claire Marie’s last name. It could be the same as her uncle’s, but he had never asked her married name. Dear Madame? Dear Mademoiselle? He wasn’t sure.

 

“Dear CM?”

 

“The letters ‘C’ ‘M’?”

 

“Yeah, Doc. Dear CM. I just received your note. It is Christmas, and I am well. Better now than when we last saw each other. Better now than in a while. They say that the tide may be turning, that things may go our way. And if they do…”

 

“Slow down. Just a minute.” Doc finished the sentence. “And if they do?”

 

“And if they do, then …Wait, Doc. Can you put something at the top of the letter about why I am not writing this myself?”

 

“Sure, Caje. Just a minute.” While Doc scribbled at the top of the page, Caje tried to think of how to finish the note.

 

“Okay…and if they do?”

 

“And if they do, I hope you will have dinner with me sometime in New Orleans. Until then, take care of everyone.”

 

“That’s it? That’s all you want to say?” Doc could sense there was more. Caje’s eyes belied the stilted, somewhat cold words.

 

“I’ll just add couple words on the bottom myself, Doc. And sign it. That’s it. Thanks.”

 

Caje slowly and painstakingly added a postscript. Then he reread it. It didn’t even begin to say what he wanted it to, but…Doc was staring at him. Caje looked up.

 

“Well, there’s an empty cot in the room next door. I think I’ll go catch some shut eye. If Sarge seems worse, or LittleJohn wakes up…”

 

“Yeah, I’ll get you, Doc. I think your biggest problem will be finding some spare aspirin for Kirby. And while you’re at it, could you find somewhere to send this out in the morning?”

 

“I don’t know if it will make it out for a while. Things aren’t that good yet.”

 

“I know. I just want it to go out as soon as it can.”

 

“Well, then, sure. I’ll do my best. Merry Christmas, Caje.”

 

“Merry Christmas, Doc.”

 

Doc walked out of the room, stumbling a little from exhaustion and the brandy. What a group, what a Christmas. But they were here and alive. And despite the wounds and deprivations, there had been an almost euphoric atmosphere this evening as these four men sat and passed the brandy bottle between them, reminiscing of holidays past.

 

Even Sarge and Caje…Doc felt a cold shiver pass over him, and it wasn’t due to the lack of heat in the house, or leaving the comfort of the squad. No…it was something else. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. For some reason, seeing two most reserved members of the squad step out of their usual solitude was enjoyable at the moment, but disquieting upon reflection. He supposed it was because he had always attributed their reliability, their willingness to do whatever the job took, to a quiet resignation in each. A resignation of their personal selves to the events around them. It was not that they had given up, not that they were suicidal or anything. But it seemed they had somehow managed to cast aside or shut out those things that caused others to hesitate where they did not. Things like families, hopes, dreams…things they rarely talked about. Whatever this detachment of the squad’s leader and scout, it did not take away from their bravery. But maybe…maybe, Doc surmised, their real bravery lay in their self-imposed isolation, rather than in their actions.

 

He didn’t know how the squad ended up with two men so alike. Three, really. He had the sneaking suspicion that the Lieutenant had some of these tendencies. But he did not know Hanley well. He wasn’t sure how well he knew Saunders or Caje, either. He supposed that Saunders was the way he was because of all he had already seen, even before this unit had come together. He was the only experienced battle veteran, and from what they had all heard about the Italy invasion…well, it was not surprising that Saunders had learned some hard lessons about what it took to survive and to lead.

 

Caje…well, he was a different matter. Doc guessed he was the way he was even before arriving on the shores of France. When he had brought it up once to Saunders, the sergeant had confirmed it, at least from what he knew during the squad’s time in England. But as was his way, he didn’t elaborate or speculate about causes or reasons. Doc knew about Caje’s friend Theo from conversations with other squad members. But Saunders had said to leave it alone, what mattered was how men did their job. And, of course, he was right. That was what mattered here and now. Everything else…everything else may not happen.

 

Doc sighed and looked at the envelope in his hand. Caje had spelled out a name and a town in France. Doc had been surprised, but had not commented. He didn’t know if the letter would get through this way, but had not wanted to mention it to the scout. Caje, quiet as always, had still seemed, strangely, happier than he had ever seen him. Hence this foreboding.

 

The Sarge had seemed happier, also. It was almost as though he had allowed himself to finally envision an end to the conflict, rather than keeping his continual focus on the mission, the mission, the next mission…

 

That was it.

 

Doc stopped as he started to enter the door to the next room. As a medic, the healer he had become during these past terrible months, he knew that the worst wounds sustained—the one ones that seemed the most horrifying and the ones that everyone whispered about—were usually the ones that came about unexpected. And they were not always fatal—not physically, anyway. Like the guy who was enjoying his first hot shower in weeks in a newly liberated town, and set off a mine that had been overlooked. Or the guy that had the million dollar wound and was on his way home, only to be in an ambulance accident.

 

Sarge and Caje had never seemed to think they were safe, they had never let their breath out and their guard down. Not realistically, not figuratively. They had maintained the constant watch in everyway. They could not be surprised, or let down.

 

But now they both seemed to be looking up. And if they even momentarily took their eyes off where the squad was going, and focused on something else…

 

It would be like it was for LittleJohn. Only Doc knew about the letter the soldier had received prior to this last patrol—the letter that confirmed that the girl he had left home thinking was his, who had stopped writing, was indeed marrying another. Doc thought that was why the guy wasn’t fully awake yet. There was no real medical reason—at least not that anyone could tell with their limited equipment—for the big soldier to still be unresponsive. It was the unexpected blow, when he had been so excited about a Christmas letter from her…so sure it was something else. He had hoped…

 

But if something like this happened to Caje or Sarge…it could have implications for the entire squad. Doc knew their dynamics, whatever their source, were a large part of the reason this squad was relatively long-lived, the core still intact. Their dynamics…and maybe luck.

 

Doc sighed and walked into the room. Lying down on the empty cot, his eyes still wide open after nearly forty-eight hours, he wished he hadn’t offered the last of the brandy to Caje.

 

***

 

Louisa stood on the windy knoll, her skirt blowing around her. She ignored it, staring at the fresh graves, until the skirt whipped into Bridgette’s face and finally elicited a small sound from the girl. She turned and picked her up in her arms, trying to comfort her. Everyone else had left a few moments ago, not saying anything. Not that there was anything they could say.

 

Still holding the girl, Louisa turned and started the walk back to the cottage. For the first time, the distance between the château and home seemed almost insurmountable. Her grief overwhelmed her, but as she always had, she would do her duty. She would do it with love. But not here. They couldn’t stay here. Not after what had happened.

 

They would go to Paris. The idea had started forming in her mind even before the events of this horrible Christmas week, but Bertrand would not hear of it. Well, she sniffed, there was nothing he could say now. Then the realization almost brought her to her knees, but drawing upon the stalwart resolve of her English forbearers, she again pushed aside her anguish and tried to plan out the move.

 

But she could not shut out the images. The images kept playing in her mind. Claire Marie’s broken body brought to the door. Bridgette’s white, white face as she held on to Elise’s hand with her left hand, her right hand reaching out to stroke what was left of her mother’s hair.

 

How could they have done this? How could they have done this? The question kept tempo in her head with her steps.

 

Deep down, she knew the answer. She knew that Bertrand had been playing with fire, and had drawn Claire Marie into it. He had drawn her into it, too, causing her to fail in the one thing she wanted so desperately to succeed in—taking care of Claire Marie. But she thought it was over—they all did. They thought they had survived.

 

She blamed herself. She always would. Every since she had briefly met with the English airman, she had suspected Guileau. Perhaps even before, but she had attributed her misgivings to the fact that he was Elise’s son—the son of the woman whose husband she was living with. But no one had seemed to mind, they weren’t hurting anyone, she had thought. Everyone had what they wanted…or was getting there. Everyone except Claire Marie...

 

And therein lay the problem. Guileau was getting what he had wanted. Respect, and even, perhaps, acknowledgement of who he was. The war had been good for him. He had crawled up out of the morass;l;’. in which he had always lived as the unacknowledged, disfigured son of the Countess. He had made his own place, and for the first time, everyone seemed to be able to see past his face. They just couldn’t see into his soul.

 

And deep inside, Guileau wanted Claire Marie. He always had. Louisa wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was because he thought that Elise’s estate, because of the marriage to Bertrand, would go to the girl in some convoluted way. Even Louisa didn’t know how things would be settled—now. Or perhaps he thought that her limp somehow put her in the same category as himself—disfigured, different. Maybe it made her seem more accessible to him.

 

But the girl obviously didn’t love him. And though she had always treated him with the chiding, gentle affection she did everyone, lately she had begun becoming impatient. Impatient to the point of blurting out that she was in love with another. Louisa had overheard this exchange. And she knew from the little that Claire Marie was unable to shield her from that Guileua had continued to be persistent, badgering her. Threatening her, Louisa suspected, though Claire Marie never said it.

 

No one in the village would say what exactly happened. The mood was so ugly—even with the upcoming holiday. Suspicion had permeated the village after liberation, giving the people with their underlying uncertainties about the future something on which to focus. Someone had been in collusion with the Bosche. Someone had compromised the air drop that night. And if the air drop had not been compromised, if the Americans had been able to get a better grasp on what lie in the village, then maybe the airstrikes would have been more effective. Maybe there would not have been any strikes at all. Maybe there would not have been door to door fighting. Maybe their food supply would have survived better. Maybe...

 

Louisa was sure that Guileua had focused everyone on Claire Marie. The atmosphere merely needed a small spark to ignite. And from what she understood, it was simply Claire Marie appearing alone in the village, minus her stockings. A whisper about her and the Bosche doctor. A murmur about her looseness. A mutter about her lack of stockings. People gathered outside the butcher’s shop, trying to listen to a radio message from de Gaulle. People cold and easily distracted, looking for something or someone to punish for their situation, a resolution to their fears and suspicions.

 

She didn’t know if he meant it to go this far. Maybe he had merely wanted to scare her, or to appear to her as a protector. He said he tried to stop it, and so did the few American soldiers remaining behind. But it was too late, the damage irreparable to them all.

 

Oh, how Bertrand had wept at Claire Marie’s side. He aged so fast in those three days as he kept vigil. And the joy was sucked out of the man who could make the most mundane occasion a celebration. It left him deflated, stooped, wrinkled…old. His footsteps slowed between the bedroom and the kitchen as he occasionally left Claire Marie’s side to hold and comfort Bridgette. The twinkle was gone in his eyes, and they were filled with self-recrimination.

 

And there was nothing Louisa could say when he mournfully relived meeting the bright, beautiful Elise when she came to Paris seeking help for her burned young son. In retrospect, his courting and marrying of the unstable but titled young mother and then shunting the boy to the country was the start of the problem. But he had meant well. He always meant well. He would take care of Elise—he did care for her—and the boy would be better away from the prying eyes and cruel mouths of the city. Better off down where he was known before the accident.

 

Bertrand just didn’t think of how others viewed his actions.

 

The boy was bitter, scarred inside as well as out. And Elise had finally realized it, realized that the damage to Guileau was irreparable also. No one knew for sure, but apparently the clarity that had come with her son’s acceptance in town burned brightly for one more moment. She wrote a note, and nailed it to the church door. In it, she outlined her son’s duplicity, and her role in it. He had played both the Germans and the Allies, relaying information to both that she had provided, covering herself with her own history of instability. She had not realized the extent of the duplicity until the end, but had tried to tell herself that he was merely protecting the family and its holdings. But that was no excuse—look at where it had led. She wanted peace for all, and peace for herself.

 

And as best everyone could piece together, she went home that Christmas evening, after leaving the note on the church door, and set fire to the bed in which her son slept. Was she trying to kill him? Was she trying to kill herself? No one would ever know for certain.

 

But she had, and taken Bertrand with them. When one of the village boys came running to the cottage with the information that the château was on fire, Bertrand had not hesitated. And somehow, as he kissed Louisa goodbye and bid her to keep watch over Claire Marie, she knew he had made some resolution. That he would make things right. Though there was no way that he could have known that plunging into the building after spotting his wife leaning out a window, still alive but surrounded by smoke, would be his last action. Or maybe he had known…

 

Well, it was all up to her now. Louisa carried the small, exhausted form across the threshold of the cottage for one of the last times. They would go to Paris tomorrow. Back to the nuns who had sheltered her once before. The letter from the Englishman had been propitious. There had been no information about the American in the note, but he had sent some money from some ring he had sold—Louisa didn’t totally understand this—to a bank in Paris. He provided her the necessary information to access it. It would be enough for a while. Their expenses would be minimal in the convent. Maybe, despite everything she had done, someone still was looking out for them…in a very strange, strange way.

 

***

 

Two days after Christmas, in a small ceremony near the airbase where she still worked, the lovely Shiela White and Martin Christopher wed in the presence of a select group of family and friends. Even after the ceremony was over and the ritual kiss bestowed, St. Claire could not believe his luck.

 

Looking at him, some in the party might have disputed this sentiment. Afterall, he was minus a leg, his nerves were still too shot to return to any type of formal position, and the nightmares…Well, only Sheila knew about those.

 

But Martin knew about coming home. About making the full circle. He was whole in a manner other may not understand. In his own way he had done everything he could for his friend St. Claire, and the families of the other men lost that night. And he would continue to do so. He could face it all in its awful, glorious, horrifying entirety. He would not allow himself to forget what happened to him or the others, others not even in his unit. And, looking fondly at Shiela, he knew that she wouldn’t let him either.

 

The congratulations of his Aunt Minnie brought another thought to his mind. Martin hoped that his letters had found their ways to those unknown souls still across the Channel, and that somehow they helped them find their way home.

 

***

 

Paris, 1945

 

“I don’t know, Sarge. She wasn’t there when I went back.”

 

Saunders slammed down his coffee. “That’s where you went when you were AWOL? Back to…” He searched for the name of the town where Caje had been wounded. “…to Santenay? Looking for her?”

 

“Yeah. I had written her after Christmas, but I didn’t know if she was still there. I just had to find out…something. And I didn’t know how to tell you, or ask you…I just kind of acted without thinking.”

 

“Yeah,” said Saunders tightly, “You’ve been known to do that.”

 

Caje raised one eyebrow and looked at Saunders steadily for the first time during the conversation. “Look, I wasn’t technically AWOL. You know that. But I know it wasn’t the brightest move. So…so much for ever getting smarter.” His voice became less certain. “She wasn’t there. No one would tell me where she was.”