Based on the ABC Television Series: Combat!
Story Copyright 2001 by Terry Pierce
For back story, read ‘Tokens Exchanged.’
“She sure was something, all right.” Saunders set down the empty mug in his hand and scooped up his cigarettes to tuck them into a breast pocket of his shirt. “A first class beauty making all the right moves.”
Caje swallowed what was left of his wine, put his glass on the table, and agreed. “Uh huh. It gets a man’s heart pounding pretty fast to see something like that. You can’t blame the jokers for going after her. Especially with her teasing them the way she was.”
“You said it, Charlie.” The sergeant smiled at the thought of the Piper Cub that had repeatedly buzzed a German patrol pinning down Saunders’ squad in a Luxembourg ravine that morning. The Americans had been trapped along a section of the Our River fronting Dasburg, Germany, when the small reconnaissance plane had appeared out of nowhere to render them unexpected aid. “If she hadn’t drawn ‘em off and given us time to lob a couple of grenades their way…another few minutes, and even I would’ve bet we were in trouble.”
Caje feigned disbelief. “You think so?”
Saunders laughed. “Yeah, I think so. Just like I think we’d better get a move on here. It’s getting late.”
Caje gathered in his Chesterfields and lighter. “You figure we’ll be going up early tomorrow?”
“If I know the lieutenant. Plus that outpost line’s gotta be manned before sun up.”
“Yeah, with the front being so dead that B Company’s allowed to come in, out of the cold, at night, I can see why.” Caje closed his eyes for a moment, frowning, then pressed a hand to his forehead. “Considering the fog all the time though, I wonder if outposts even make much difference. You can’t see a thing in those woods come daylight either. I’ll bet that Piper didn’t get any better scouting done than we did today.”
“Probably not. But at least the Krauts are working blind too.” Saunders looked at Caje thoughtfully. “You feel all right out there this morning?”
Caje lowered his hand. “Yeah, okay. Maybe a little sore after using the rifle a while, but nothing worse than that.” He quashed an urge to scratch at the sutures lacing up his right cheek. “I guess Doc making me stay off my feet a couple of days is paying off.”
Saunders nodded. “Uh huh. And keeping you out of slippery alleys too.”
Caje colored at the sergeant’s remark, knowing full well it wasn’t a fall on icy cobblestones that had left him in his banged up condition. It had actually been a run-in with an old enemy, Sergeant Rafferty, and his hired goons. Uncomfortable with the subject, Caje smiled anyway. “Yeah, and that too.”
Saunders considered the scout for a moment, still suspicious of Caje’s claim that he couldn’t remember much of what had happened to him near the Chateau de Brouscheid the other night. But if the soldier wanted to keep whatever scrape he’d been in to himself, there wasn’t much that could be done about it. Saunders rose from his chair and picked up the overcoat he’d draped over its back. “Well, however you busted open that shoulder wound you got in the Huertgen, you look like you could still use some time in the sack.” He tilted his head toward the small cluster of empty glasses on the table. “So…?”
“All right,” Caje grumbled good-naturedly, sliding a hand into one of his trouser pockets for the money to pay off the waiter now standing at his elbow. “A bet is a bet, I guess.” He shook his head at the thought of the hasty wager he’d made with the NCO over who would come out on top in the squad’s latest go-round with the enemy, and handed his money to the server.
“Merci, Monsieur,” the elderly Belgian said in a Flemish accent, with practiced, if not necessarily sincere, courtesy. He accepted the proffered invasion scrip with a slight bow.
Caje rose from the scarred chair he’d been occupying for the last hour, briefly palmed the man’s shoulder in appreciation, and echoed his merci. Retrieving his own overcoat, he trailed after Saunders through the noisy crowd of soldiers, hopeful prostitutes, and few older locals jamming the tiny side-street inn. Smoke from several dozen glowing cigarettes swagged the room’s atmosphere in heavy folds of eye-watering haze, nearly obscuring the lounge’s exit, but Saunders navigated his way toward it, droning “Excuse me’s” and “Gotta get through, buddys” until a particularly boisterous voice disengaged itself from the general din to shout, “Hey, Goldilocks!”
Saunders stopped so abruptly that Caje nearly ran into him. Doing an about face, the sergeant scanned the faces bobbing around the room while Caje tried to dodge the knees and elbows of patrons carousing nearby. Both men ducked under a tray of drinks being borne overhead by a harried barmaid and narrowly missed being doused with the beverages.
“Over here, you sawed-off little SOB!’ the owner of the voice shouted again. “Are you as blind as you are hardheaded?”
Saunders squinted at a shadowy corner at the back of the room and returned, “Farrington! Are you as drunk as you are irritating?”
Sergeant Michael Farrington of the 110th Regiment, 28th Infantry Division guffawed enthusiastically and stood to wave his long-time acquaintance over. “I sure am, you no account, good for nothing, sway-backed army mule! Get yourself over here and have a round of chock on me and the boys! We’re buyin’.”
Amused but wary, Caje watched to see what Saunders’ reaction to this unusually phrased invitation would be.
The squad leader grinned but remained where he was. “I can’t tonight, Mike…Pat…Eddie,” he called, nodding in turn at each of the men clustered around a tiny table nearly as battered as Farrington’s weather-beaten face. Saunders raised a hand to gesture his time wasn’t his own. “I’ve got a war to fight in the morning. Besides, you sorry excuse for an Irishman, I’m not thirsty any more.”
“Aw, hell, Saunders,” Farrington dismissed the other man’s words with an impatient wave of his own hand, “what war? Ike’s gonna have us all home for Christmas in another week and a half. Didn’t you get your wire from him this afternoon? And who cares if you’re not thirsty? We sure as hell are! Get over here and buy us a drink.”
It was an invitation Saunders couldn’t refuse. Laughing, he shook his head in resignation and glanced at Caje. “I’m gonna get ‘em set up, then head over to the chateau. If anyone’s still awake when you get back, pass the word it’s moving day tomorrow, bright and early. I want things buttoned up by the time I get in.”
“Okay. You want me to pick up Kirby?”
“Yeah, take him home and tuck him in.”
“You got it.”
The sergeant moved toward the corner as Caje pushed off through the crowd once more. Somewhere in the room, a GI began playing a piano, and Caje recognized the familiar strains of Lili Marlene. He smiled at the thought of going home, maybe one day soon now, and hearing his own kind of music again – music that spilled from the darkened doorways of cavernous bars and smoky jazz clubs, beckoning passersby to stop in for a tumbler of bourbon and a helping of New Orleans blues.
He reached the small vestibule fronting the inn and, squeezing past a buxom girl in the hungry embrace of a corporal from second squad, angled for a narrow staircase in the corner. Cheap oil paintings of Rubenesque women lounging among silk pillows and admiring cherubs graced the entry’s walls, the pictures’ heavy burnished frames almost lending the watering hole a measure of class. Caje wondered whether the Germans had missed them in their looting or the enemy simply had better taste in art.
He climbed the steep, uneven steps leading to the second floor of the building, easing his way into his coat and pulling on his beret. He knew where to find Kirby. There were six rooms at the top of the stairs, all with steeply pitched ceilings, once-garish wallpaper now tamed by age, and just enough space to house the beds being rented inside. Kirby would be in Antonia’s sheets.
Caje crested the upper rise and entered a dimly lit hallway. He spotted Jan Haanstra seated on a stool at the end of the corridor, the burly man’s club propped within easy reach against a nearby wall. Caje nodded an acknowledgment, and Haanstra nodded back, knowing the dark GI was here to retrieve the noisy one.
Caje moved to the second door on the left and, rapping on it, called, “Hey, Kirby! Time to fall out, buddy. You’re wanted, front and center.”
The sound of a man laughing beyond the door ceased, and Caje knew Kirby had heard him. But he also knew the randy soldier wouldn’t come along quietly. Kirby would have to be threatened, if not flat-out dragged from the room. The guy was as predictable as his choice of recreational activities. Caje waited a few moments, then briefly pounded on the wood, shouting, “Come on, Don Juan! You don’t get out here in another ten seconds, and I’m coming in after you.”
This time, Kirby yelled back. “Aw, Caje! Ain’t you got no decency? Why don’t you go bother somebody else for a change? I’m busy!”
Caje sighed and closed his eyes. He wasn’t up to this tonight, but he doubted telling that to Kirby would make much difference. There had to be a better way to go about this. Mulling over his options, Caje decided to outflank his squad mate. Maybe that would work to speed things up. Leaning in toward the door, he shouted in French, “Antonia! If you’ll come out here, I’ll pay you what he paid you, and you’ll have more cigarettes for doing less. You’ll be able to go home and get some rest.”
Within seconds, a woman’s voice could be heard speaking, followed by her partner’s protests and the sounds of someone moving about inside the room. Then the door opened and Antonia appeared. Nearly twenty-two, she was attractive, disheveled, and obviously tired. She smiled wanly at Caje, and he returned a smile of his own before pressing a pack of smokes into her hands and tilting his head toward the stairs. She understood he wanted her to leave quickly, and with a nod of thanks, she slipped past him.
Kirby, struggling into his shorts, arrived at the door a moment later. “Where ya goin’, honey?” he called after her. “I love you. Whatever he said ain’t the truth!”
The girl continued to descend the stairs and was no longer visible from the hallway. Music and conversation drifting up from the floor below swallowed her footsteps, and Kirby grimaced in disgust.
“You’re a helluva friend, you know that?’ he said, turning to go back into the room.
Caje grinned and pushed the door fully open, to lean against its jamb. “So buy yourself a new one.”
“Whattaya think I was doin’?” Kirby retorted, padding to the bed to retrieve a cigarette from a small table wedged against its headboard. He lit the Camel and, leaving it to hang from a corner of his mouth, reached for his pants.
“It’s a tough war,” Caje said absently, eyeing the bed and wondering what kind of accommodations they would find beyond Clervaux the following night.
“Yeah, and you ain’t makin’ it any easier.” Kirby buttoned his pants, then dropped onto the quilt spilling off the worn bolster and began pulling on his socks and boots. “If it weren’t for my trustin’ nature, I’d think you was tryin’ to bust up my love affair.”
Caje laughed. “You’d call ten minutes in an alley with one of those commandos in Piccadilly a ‘love affair.’ ”
Kirby gave up. “You’re becomin’ a cynic, Caje. And that ain’t right for a Frenchman.” He retrieved his shirts and a belt that were slung around a bedpost. “Where’s Sarge?”
“Downstairs. He wants us out of here and back at the chateau. We’re pulling up stakes in the morning.”
“What for? He’s tired of soakin’ up the local culture?”
“He’s big on following orders.” Caje leaned forward to scoop Kirby’s coat off the floor before flinging it at him. “You didn’t think we were going to stay here forever, did you?”
Kirby peeled the coat from his face and chest, and stood. “What, and miss out on the chance to be wet and cold and hungry and miserable, sittin’ in another foxhole somewhere?” He wrestled his way into his coat and picked up the scarf he’d dropped on the floor earlier. Draping it over his head, he knotted it in place under his chin. “Fat chance of anyone lettin’ that happen.”
“Well, then why not just accept your lot in life with a smile on your face? Think how much happier you’d be that way.”
Kirby scooped up his cigarettes and wallet from the bedside table and crossed the floor. Squeezing past Caje, he muttered, “How can anyone be happy when everybody’s forever takin’ all the fun out of the war?”
Caje shook his head and followed his friend downstairs. At the bottom of the staircase, the two men eased their way around the couple still entwined in one another’s arms. Kirby briefly tried to catch the woman’s eye over her partner’s shoulder before dropping his cigarette butt and pulling open the inn’s heavy front door. Stepping outside, he gasped at the frigid night air as Caje nudged him forward into it and pulled the door shut behind them.
Both soldiers descended several steps to the street. They walked briskly north, their breaths trailing them in vaporous plumes. Caje watched doorways and the breaks between the buildings they passed, while Kirby talked to him through the flapping ends of his scarf.
“You know, Caje, I ain’t kiddin’. That Antonia’s really somethin’. I wouldn’t mind livin’ in a dugout so much if I could do it with somebody like her. I mean, it’d sure beat sittin’ in a hole with you all the time. Except that I don’t know if I could afford it, with the way she charges for everything. Maybe it’d be cheaper just to make an honest woman of her. You know, she an’ me, we could get hitched or somethin’ like that. Right here in town. And then when the war’s done in a couple of weeks, I could take her back home with me, to the States. Get settled into a brownstone somewhere, maybe over on the east side. And find a decent job doin’ somethin’ that’d pay enough to keep her an’ me in beefsteaks and beer. And let us go out every once in a while too. Like down to Hoxie’s Dance Cabana over on West Eighty Sixth Street. Or Little Celia’s Saloon up on Third Avenue. Yeah…that might just be all right. You know? I mean, hookin’ up with a dame for life might not be the worst thing a guy could do. You think?”
Caje shrugged and scratched his stitches.
“Well, it could be okay,” Kirby went on, pulling out another smoke. “Havin’ a woman around all the time might pay off. You take my ol’ lady, for instance…”
“My ol’ lady. You know…my mother. She was a girl and all that, and it wasn’t so bad livin’ with her, growin’ up. She’d holler sometimes, sure, but most times she was all right. She cooked for me an’ my brother and sister, and washed our clothes…worried about us some and kept things together after our ol’ man took off. Maybe Antonia’d do just as good.”
“After you run out on her and your kids, you mean?” Caje glanced over his shoulder at the empty walkway behind them.
“Aw, c’mon, Caje. That ain’t what I meant, and you know it.”
The scout looked forward again, smiling, and resumed his study of the structures lining the street.
“Anyway, maybe you shoulda spent some time with somebody back there tonight too,” Kirby continued. “We’re gonna be on Kraut turf again pretty soon. There’s no tellin’ if any of them Nazi aprons’ll be friendly.”
Caje said nothing, but pulled his collar up around his face and held it closed at his throat.
“You coulda got someone. You don’t look that bad.” Kirby eyed his friend a moment, taking in the cuts and bruises marring Caje’s features, then frowned. “Well, okay…you do. But those kinds of girls don’t care about nothin’ like that.”
Caje dodged a patch of ice and grimaced at the sudden movement’s effect on his left shoulder. “Kirby, didn’t you pay attention to any of those movies they showed us before we got over here?”
“Sure, I did. But look at you an’ me, and tell me which one of us looks and feels lousy. It ain’t me, pal. And I’ll tell you somethin’ else too – if I was you, I’d let the sarge in on what happened the other night. With you bein’ in no shape right now so’s the two of us can go take care of Rafferty ourselves, the guy’s gonna get off scot-free. At least Sarge’d get ‘im hauled in on charges.”
“Yeah, and then I could testify about what you, me, and Billy were up to in Pontgouin after the sergeant left you in charge, right? Not a chance. I’ll catch up with Rafferty myself.”
“But leavin’ town tomorrow’s gonna mean leavin’ him behind too.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll see him again.”
“Yeah, but suppose you don’t?”
Caje looked at his companion.
Kirby shrugged. “Okay. I guess you will. But I’d better be there too, ‘cause it ain’t like I don’t have a stake in this thing myself, y’know.” He watched Caje turn to check the street behind them a second time. “The dirty son of a bitch, gettin’ a gang together to jump a guy out walkin’ on his own…well, except for that kid that was with you. How’d you keep her from talkin’ anyway?”
Caje looked forward again. “She didn’t see anything after Rafferty used her to set me up. And I asked her to stay quiet about what she did know, to keep her safe. Rafferty’s got a long memory. I don’t want him going after her some day.”
“So where’s she now?”
“Pontgouin. I got Doc to set it up with Angelique and the other girls at St. Marie’s after the lieutenant gave it the okay.” Caje dipped his head as a gust of icy air rushed past. “She ought to be in good hands by now.”
Kirby snorted. “Don’t I know it.” Then he laughed. “And don’t I still wish I was in them hands too.”
“Yeah? What about Antonia?”
Kirby launched what was left of his cigarette into the darkness. “Who?”
Caje laughed too, and both men turned a corner to approach the imposing chateau looming ahead of them. The centuries-old structure standing on the eastern end of a forested ridge overlooking Clervaux was shrouded in heavy fog; the firing apertures crowning its heights, once the bastion of twelfth century soldiers wielding crossbows, brooded overhead in gloomy darkness. Thick wooden doors flanked by entry towers stood open to admit the American troops garrisoned there, and on warmer days GIs sometimes engaged in pickup games of baseball in its cobbled courtyard. While the fortress once owned by ancestors of Franklin D. Roosevelt lacked a moat, Clervaux’s most prominent landmark resembled nothing less than a small medieval castle.
“Home, sweet home,” Kirby observed, tilting his head, trying to see the outline of the chateau’s moss-covered walls and stately turrets. “I’m sure gonna miss the joint.”
Caje, beginning to relax now that the buildings on either side of them had fallen away, agreed. “We’ve stayed in worse places.”
“I’ll say. In fact, I wish we’d stay in this here town for the rest of the war. It’d suit me just fine. You think we’ll ever get back here?”
“I doubt it. The war’s moving forward.”
“I guess.” Kirby frowned and reached up to rein in the ends of his scarf. “But you never know. We could get lucky.”
Caje supposed there wasn’t any harm in agreeing with that. “Yeah. You never know.”
Hanley had barely laid a hand on the sleeping man’s shoulder when Saunders became fully awake. Pushing himself up onto an elbow, he dragged a forearm over his eyes, glanced at his watch, and squinted up at the figure leaning over him. “Lieute…” Saunders cleared his throat and tried again. “Lieutenant?”
Backlit by a hallway wall fixture’s glow spilling into the room from the partially open doorway behind him, Hanley squatted next to the antique recamier serving as the sergeant’s bed. Speaking in low tones, he said, “I know it’s only 0300, Saunders, but I want you to pull a patrol together and move up to Marnach ahead of the rest of the company. Another report came in from the forward positions on noise coming from the woods beyond the Our yesterday. No one saw anything, but it could mean the Krauts are moving up heavy stuff. I want you to go out there and take another look around. See if anything’s going on that we should know about.”
Saunders pushed a tangle of unruly hair from his eyes and sat up. “You don’t think the Krauts are just marshaling a defense because of the decoy operation the general pulled off?”
Hanley knew Saunders was referring to the American “armor” made of papier-mache that had been driven around near Clervaux recently, to make it look as though Allied forces were being built up in the Ardennes. The intent had been to siphon off German units from the Roer area to the north, where an attack by the 99th Division and elements of the 2nd Infantry Division was in the works to seize control of the Roer River dams threatening the Allied advance through the Siegfried Line.
“Well, nothing’s come down from the VIII Corps HQ that says any different,” Hanley said, “but the Kraut patrol you ran into yesterday might have been worried about that Piper for a reason. Maybe the Krauts are planning a spoiling attack to divert us away from the dams, and they’re putting things together after our outposts are withdrawn. That’s where you come in. I want you to see what their set up is so we can figure out what - if anything - they’re up to.”
Saunders nodded and scratched at his ribs. “Then I’ll see you in Marnach?”
Hanley stood to leave. “Not until tomorrow, so call in your report. I’ll be here in Clervaux, at the Claravallis Hotel, for the rest of the day, finishing up paperwork and sitting in on another meeting with the CO of the 28th. The company’ll be pulling out at 0500 though, so have your men leave their packs and bedrolls behind. They can go up on the trucks with the rest of the gear.
“Okay, sir.” Saunders looked around for a moment before stretching for his clothing draped over a nearby bust of a 15th century duke. “I hope the Ghost Front’s as dead as it’s supposed to be, though.”
Hanley smiled at the sergeant’s pun and nodded. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Saunders.” Glancing at his watch, he turned and departed the room.
With his clothes in hand, Saunders swung his legs over the side of the sofa and began dressing. Five hours of sleep wasn’t much, but he’d gone out on much less before - and without having almost two weeks of r & r in a resort town under his belt. What was left of King Company was beginning to bounce back from the mauling it had suffered in the Huertgen Forest, and Saunders hoped they would have another few weeks to take it easy in the quiet Ardennes sector before joining in on the push to Berlin. He buttoned his shirt and looked around the room. Five of the sleeping forms sprawled over the beds and chairs scattered everywhere would have to be awakened for the reconnaissance detail, but the choice wouldn’t be difficult. Saunders knew who he wanted already.
Almost an hour later they were dressed, fed, briefed, and climbing into the back of a six by six parked in the chateau’s courtyard.
“Damn, you guys. What does the army think we are? A bunch of Eskimos? They could at least give us a truck with a roof on it this time.”
“Kirby…” Littlejohn yawned, then he began again. “Kirby, will you just get up there so we can all sit down?”
“Well, hell, Littlejohn, you know we’re gonna freeze sittin’ in the back of this thing again. Look at this.” He gestured impatiently at the wooden slats running horizontally down each side of the vehicle’s open, straw-littered bed. “This thing’s made for transportin’ cows, not people!”
McCall, who was in no mood for Kirby’s carping, cut in. “Kirby, if you don’t quit your bellyachin’ and get up there, I’m gonna pick you up and throw you in.”
“All right, all right. You don’t hafta go gettin’ your nose out of joint.” Kirby patted the air in a conciliatory way, then leaned in toward Littlejohn and said in a confidential tone, “Didja ever meet such a hothead in all your life?”
Littlejohn looked thoughtful for a moment before putting on his most solemn face. “Never.”
Satisfied, Kirby nodded, turned, and swung himself up into the bed of the truck. Littlejohn and McCall followed him, grinning at one another behind his back.
Already seated, Doc was reapplying a bandage to Caje’s cheek and admonishing his reluctant patient to keep it on. “You don’t wanna go gettin’ that cut all full of dirt, Caje, or an infection’s liable to set in. And…” he tilted the scout’s head to the side, to better see what he was doing, “I want you to keep your hands off it too. You keep scratchin’ at it like you are, and you’re gonna bust those stitches wide open.”
Caje grunted something that Doc took to be an, “Okay,” and the medic secured the last piece of tape in place, then released him. “And how’s the shoulder holdin’ up?” he asked. “Has there been any more bleedin’?”
“No,” Caje answered, moving his legs out of the way so the other men could sit down opposite him. “It’s all right.”
“Okay. Well, it’s only a little nick, but I still think a few more days off your feet’d be the better way to go. How you opened it up again in that fall, I swear, I’ll ne…”
“Hey, Doc,” Kirby, now seated between Littlejohn and McCall, prodded the medic with the toe of a boot, “you got anything in that bag of yours to keep a fella warm on a mornin’ like this?” He grinned wickedly and, giving McCall a conspiratorial nudge in the ribs, added, “Like, say, maybe a hot-lookin’ redhead?”
McCall laughed. “Yeah, and I’ll take a blonde if you…”
Saunders appeared at the back of the truck and, grabbing hold of the boards, hoisted himself up into it.
“Hey, Sarge,” Doc greeted the squad leader. “I think McCall wants you to sit over there by him.”
Everyone laughed and McCall’s face flushed with embarrassment. Saunders knew something was up but, looking around and glad to see everyone in place and in high spirits for a change, decided to play along with them. He crossed the bed, settled in next to the frowning PFC, and smiled at him. “Well, McCall. It was awfully nice of you to save me a place. I didn’t know you cared.”
The other men broke up at this, and looking at his feet, McCall muttered a string of obscenities. A heavyset corporal swung around the truck’s rear and, taking hold of its tailgate, slammed it shut.
“Hey, Schuber, you got any heat for this jalopy yet?”
Schuber grinned past a wad of Doublemint and nodded. “You better believe it, Littlejohn. Got us a heater installed last night. Me and Roger are so hot up there in the cab that we’re fanning ourselves and about to roll down the windows.” He ducked the handfuls of straw thrown at him and addressed Saunders. “You ready to go, Sergeant?”
“You’re taking us up to the Skyline Drive again?”
“A’yuh. Unless we fall into a ravine on the way.”
“Then all ready.”
Schuber tossed off a salute and pretended to mop sweat from his brow as he departed amid a firestorm of insults. Within seconds, the driver’s side door of the truck slammed shut, its engine coughed and sputtered into life, and the vehicle began lumbering toward the chateau’s front gate. The men seated in its back instinctively huddled together for warmth, ducking their chins into their collars and pulling their overcoats in tighter around their legs. Gloved hands grasped rifles and adjusted scarves higher over mouths and noses, while heads bowed into the wind. Schuber shifted gears, and the truck shuddered, then lurched past a pair of MPs standing on either side of the exit leading to the street. The vehicle rolled down a short incline before turning left onto the avenue bordering the fortress’s walls. Minutes later, it merged onto the Dasburg-Bastogne Highway, then crossed the creek-sized Clerve River and began laboring its way up to the front.
Saunders knew it would be a while before they reached the drop-off point. The narrow route taking them the few miles from Clervaux to the St. Vith-Diekirch Highway – better known by the Americans as the Skyline Drive – was a slippery series of hairpin turns and icy macadam running up and down wooded mountain terrain. To drive it in the daytime, in good weather, was a challenge; to navigate it in the pre-dawn darkness, using only blackout lights to illuminate the way, was nearly suicidal. But Schuber had done it the previous morning, and Saunders figured there wasn’t any reason why the corporal couldn’t do it again. PFC Roger Ludington, Schuber’s assistant driver, usually manned the .50-caliber machine gun in a ring mount on the cab’s roof, when the two men ran supplies, but now he was acting as an extra pair of eyes to make sure the vehicle stayed on the road.
“Kirby,” Littlejohn’s irritated voice interrupted the sergeant’s reverie, “what are you trying to do? Climb into my coat with me? Back off and give me a little room, will you?”
“Come on, Littlejohn,” Kirby urged in return, “just be a pal and hold still. You’re messin’ up my wind block.”
“Wind block?” Littlejohn raised his voice to be heard over the air rushing past and the truck’s noise bouncing off the craggy ridges lining both sides of the road. “What wind block?”
“I think he means you,” Doc shouted, trying to be helpful. “You’re the wind block.”
Littlejohn frowned, and Kirby, intent on taking advantage of the bigger man’s size, leaned in even closer to him. McCall followed suit, pressing himself into Kirby, and Doc and Caje shook their heads at the sight of the soldiers squashed together opposite them.
Saunders eyed them for another moment as well, hoping they wouldn’t all tumble backward in his direction as the six by six continued its steep climb up the mountainside. He hugged his Thompson closer to himself, then turned to look out over the tailgate once more. Although he couldn’t see it, he knew Clervaux was falling away behind them, the scenic town nestled comfortably asleep in the deep river valley below. He wished they’d be staying on over Christmas, but Marnach might be okay. A warm house, some decent food, a place to sleep other than on the ground – it couldn’t help but beat the holiday he’d spent last year, shivering on a railway overpass in Italy.
“Say, did you guys hear the Armed Services report last night that said Glenn Miller’s plane is overdue?”
Doc’s question sparked a conversation that would keep the men occupied throughout the rest of ride as they speculated on Major Miller’s whereabouts, discussed the popular bandleader’s music, then moved on to the rumor that Marlene Dietrich and her USO Troupe were heading from Diekirch to the nearby village of Honsfeld, to put on a Christmas show. The truck jounced and jolted over the narrow mountain passes as the GIs plotted a way to see the performance, argued over which tunes Dietrich should sing, and voted on the comic they hoped most would perform. Saunders listened quietly, smiling at some of their comments while he watched the charcoal landscape and hung on to the tailgate to keep from pitching forward every time the truck topped another ridge and plunged down the next icy slope. By the time Schuber pulled up to the roadblock at Marnach, the squad had agreed it would most like to see Frances Langford, the sky to the east had barely begun to lighten, and Saunders had decided he was ready to do some walking.
A barrel-chested MP carrying a grease gun and a clipboard advanced to the cab, and Schuber idled the engine while talking to him. Saunders stood and jumped from the vehicle, then waited for his men to detruck. When they’d all done so, he rapped on Ludington’s window and gave the drivers a thumbs up in appreciation for the ride. They returned the gesture, and Saunders led his squad off to the side of the road.
The soldiers clustered around him and he spoke. “Okay, like I said earlier, we’re going to the other side of the river to take another look around. Caje, you head for the boat, and all of you keep to the right side of the road before we hit the logging trail. If you’re having trouble seeing, hang on to the cartridge belt of the man in front of you ‘til things lighten up. Littlejohn, you’re on the oars. McCall, you’ll row on the way back. Kirby, you’re getaway man. I don’t want anyone talking, and make sure you watch your step on the way down that gorge. It’s steep as hell, and the last thing I need is someone breaking a leg. You got any questions?”
The men shook their heads or shrugged, and Saunders glanced at his watch. Its luminous dial read 0442. “Okay. Then Caje, lead out.”
Caje slipped his arm from the sling on his rifle and brought the M1 to a port arms position. Turning around he moved forward into the heavy mist as the others fell in behind. The chilly fog seemed to swallow them whole, soon isolating them from the GIs of the 110th Infantry Regiment’s Company B manning the roadblock. It also forced the soldiers in Saunders’ squad to keep to within a few feet of one another so as not to become separated. As the men walked, hands occasionally reached out to confirm positions and straighten out the file.
The squad worked its way along the slippery highway that eventually led to a bombed-out bridge which had, until recently, tied Luxembourg to Germany. The road’s surface, patched with ice and what was left of the previous week’s snow, made for hazardous travel. Saunders slid and slogged his way over it behind Caje, followed by Littlejohn, Doc, McCall, and Kirby. They all kept to the thoroughfare for nearly a mile before veering off onto the slick trail that Saunders had mentioned earlier. It ran roughly parallel to the roadway and cut through a series of precipitous draws bisected by icy streams and wooded with silver birches, poplars, beech trees, and numerous pines. Sometimes grasping at branches and trunks to maintain their balance and stay on course, the GIs toiled their way along the path to within two hundred yards of the fast-moving Our. Then Caje stopped, raised his right arm, and dropped into a crouch.
Saunders followed him down, all his senses alert as he strained to see and hear whatever might have caused the scout to signal a halt. The men behind the squad leader also lowered themselves, sweating now inside heavy coats and woolen sweaters, and struggling to control their breathing. No one spoke, and for several moments nothing could be heard but the sound of rushing water and the creaking of trees. It wasn’t until Saunders began to work his way closer to the lead man that he picked up on low voices speaking to one another in an area somewhere off to his left.
Saunders glanced backward at his men, barely able to make out their dark forms lined up along the path. He knew each soldier in his patrol well and that they, in turn, knew their jobs. None of them would start anything that would interfere with the mission. They would sit tight and wait as the Kraut patrol in front of them finished up whatever it was doing and moved on.
Germans weren’t anything new in the area. For almost two months, both the Americans and their Nazi counterparts had been probing into one another’s lines, testing each other’s strength, grabbing prisoners, and taking potshots at anyone who got in the other’s way. It seemed, at times, to be the only real reminder that the war still existed in this part of the country. Wehrmacht soldiers even crossed regularly through the thinly spread American lines to visit friends and family on the west side of the Our. Considering this, Saunders didn’t feel undue alarm.
Still, he hoped they wouldn’t have to wait too long before gaining access to the boat. He wanted to navigate the river in darkness rather than paddle across it in full view of any German snipers positioned on the bluffs lining the opposite bank. As he crouched in the slush, he checked the time again and saw that it was 0528. Saunders relaxed a little. It looked as if they still had over an hour before daylight.
Suddenly the gates of hell banged open, and his heart nearly stopped. The jagged heights of the Skyline Drive erupted in a conflagration of fire and smoke that tore open the coal-black sky as hundreds of shells whistled in from the east, hurtling over the river on high trajectories aimed at the American-held villages in the west. There, they slammed into their targets with bone-jarring concussions that shook men from their beds, rent bodies and buildings apart, and sent civilians and soldiers alike scurrying for cover. Screeching rockets fired from multi-barreled Nebelwerfers streaked overhead too, their deafening explosions upon impact shattering everything around them. Within minutes, German mortars and railroad guns joined in with the 88, 105, 150, and 170 millimeter assault guns pounding the American lines all along an eighty five mile front running parallel to Hitler’s West Wall. The ferocity of the salvo was incredible. Its suddenness, astounding.
Saunders and his men cringed on the path, stunned. They had endured many barrages since landing on the continent but had never seen anything like this. The voices coming from the direction of the river could be heard plainly now too as German soldiers shouted commands and called out replies. From the direction of Dasburg, engines roared into life and the ominous clanking of tanks sounded farther in the distance. Whatever the squad had walked into, each man in it knew it was going to be a hell of a feat to walk back out.
“Shit,” Kirby croaked.
His observation summed up the situation and galvanized the NCO into action. Saunders reached forward to grip Caje’s shoulder briefly before he rose and turned around. Passing the rest of the squad, Saunders tapped each man on the helmet. The soldiers understood he wanted them to follow, and climbing back up the trail, they retreated from the river.
Saunders then maneuvered his way off the path and into the trees. He reached a patch of scrubby brush and squatted among the brambles. When everyone else had followed suit, he pulled his scarf away from his face and spoke loud enough to be heard over the din.
“We’re gonna stick around until daylight since we need to see what’s going on. After we’ve determined what we can of the Krauts’ strength and operation, we’ll move back to Marnach and report in.”
Littlejohn leaned forward, sounding anxious. “But shouldn’t we withdraw now, Sarge? With all that incoming mail, it’s gotta be an attack!”
Saunders already knew it was a German counteroffensive and also wanted to pull back but was well aware of what would happen if they tried. “Littlejohn, we wouldn’t last fifteen minutes trying to make it through that barrage. You know as well as I do that, for now, we’re safer down here with the Krauts. So until they stop the shelling, we stay put.”
No one else said anything and Saunders nodded. “All right. Keep your eyes open and hang tight. We’ll get out of here as soon as we can.”
They settled in to ride out the holocaust, watching the pyrotechnics raging across the western skyline, wondering when the artillery would let up, and waiting for whatever the dawn would bring. Minutes crawled by as leg muscles cramped and fingers turned numb. The bitter December temperature began to take its toll on first one man, then another. They shivered as their sweat-soaked clothes turned clammy, and several of them sat or knelt in the patchy snow, only to feel more miserable as their coats, trousers, and long underwear became wet. Occasionally a shell would strike overhead, impacting against the upper slopes of the ridgeline, and someone would issue a muffled curse.
It wasn’t until they’d decided nothing could be left of the American lines that the barrage suddenly lifted and only the sounds of Wehrmacht men and machinery continued to traverse the river valley. Saunders’ squad remained in place, straining to hear with ears still ringing, trying to see anything – anything at all – through the drifting smoke and gloom. Finally the sergeant tapped knees and arms, signaling everyone to get up. He stood himself and cautiously moved out of the brush while, following him, the rest of the soldiers worked their way back to the path.
Moving among the lifeless cornflowers, poppy stalks, and mustard plants without making noise proved difficult; the frozen underbrush snapped and crackled as the men forced their way through. Once, someone’s rifle banged against a tree and everyone froze. The tempos of their pulses increasing, their fingers curling into the trigger guards of their weapons, the GIs waited and wondered if the Krauts had heard. But when nothing came of it, Saunders waved them forward, and the squad moved on.
They reached the logging trail and Saunders directed Caje back to the point position, this time to lead them west again, the rest of the way up the promontory. The high ground would allow them to observe the make-up of the German forces, as well as determine the status of the wrecked bridge the enemy undoubtedly intended to rebuild or replace. The soldiers fought to keep their footing on the soggy lichen carpeting the rocky path beneath them. They had barely made it halfway to the top of the ridge when the entire landscape was abruptly bathed in an unnatural glow.
McCall reacted first. “What the hell…?” he gasped, dropping to the ground and landing heavily on the bandolier filled with M1 clips slung across his chest.
The others dove into the frost-covered heather and bracken lining both sides of the trail, all of them awed and shaken by the otherworldly illumination of the countryside. From the east, massive searchlights bounced their beams off the low-hanging cloud cover, flooding everything for miles with unearthly light. As far as the small band of Americans hugging the side of the ridge was concerned, it might as well have been high noon.
“Sarge?” It was Littlejohn again. Waiting for orders. Waiting for an explanation. Waiting for the signal to begin a marathon.
The enemy obliged him with the signal. McCall grunted as the round from a G43 slammed into his lower back, scant inches from his spine, and plowed through his abdomen.
Doc dove for the stunned soldier, grabbing McCall’s left arm and yanking him to his feet. The others opened up on the indistinct figures suddenly blasting at them from the pathway, farther down below. Shots from Caje’s Garand lanced the milky vapor shrouding everything, striking pay dirt first and directing Saunders, Littlejohn, and Kirby’s enfilading fire. As Germans fell screaming, Doc hauled McCall the rest of the way up the slope.
On top of the bluff, the wounded man collapsed. The medic, steeped in adrenaline, swept him up and over his shoulders, in a fireman’s carry. As the shootout behind them increased in volume, Doc wondered if he and his moaning patient would stumble all the way back to Marnach alone. But Caje, Saunders, Littlejohn, and Kirby burst over the hilltop in a spray of snow and mud, panting and red-faced, hands fumbling for clips and magazines to replace those spent.
“They were right behind us!” Kirby yelled. “Right behind us!”
“Littlejohn! Give Doc a hand!” Saunders shouted, crashing through the underbrush. “Get McCall across the creek and to the firebreak. We’ll hang ‘em up in the trees while you go!”
Littlejohn bulleted forward onto the path to catch up to the overburdened aid man. The three men behind him fanned out, flanking the trail, and twisted around to intercept their pursuers.
The first Germans appeared on the crest of the ridge, and the GIs opened up on them again. Several men dropped, but others ducked behind maples and firs to return fire with machine pistols and bolt-action rifles. The woods buzzed with hundreds of deadly projectiles splintering bark, snapping tree limbs, and severing pine boughs. The firefight filled the area with muzzle flashes and the cries of those wounded. Saunders emptied the magazine in his Thompson, then grabbing for a reload, shouted at Caje and Kirby to pull back.
Still getting off bursts with the BAR, Kirby sprang from his place behind a downed chestnut. He followed Caje already racing ahead of him to the next copse of trees. When the two reached it, they stopped for a moment to provide cover for the sergeant now sprinting across the path toward them.
A potato masher sailed into the spot Saunders had just vacated. The stick grenade’s explosion added a thick layer of haze to the foggy landscape. Taking advantage of the acrid smokescreen, the GIs also bolted for the creek, using a different route than the one Doc and Littlejohn had taken. Saunders and his companions raced through the woods, away from the path, then slipped and slid down a hillside, aiming for the tributary where it threaded its way along the slope’s base.
Saunders hoped desperately that the Krauts would follow their tracks and not continue on the trail after his other men. If he could get across the creek upstream, there was a chance he could stop the Germans there. To ensure the enemy knew which way to go, he jerked his submachine gun skyward and fired off a short burst.
The decoy worked. Shouting and firing in response, the Germans turned to give chase to the three men fleeing cross-country. Saunders, Caje, and Kirby ran for their lives, all but tumbling down the final yards to the stream. When they reached its bank, they dashed across the water’s frozen surface. Howling with bloodlust, their pursuers tore down the slope after them, plowing through pine branches, dodging fallen trees, and straining to see their quarry through the ghostly mist.
Kirby slipped and fell on the ice, three quarters of the way across. Caje scooped up his friend’s helmet as it skittered past him, while Saunders grabbed the downed man’s arm. Kirby rose, skidded forward to gain the stream’s opposite bank, and clambered over it behind his squad mates. A few wild shots careened off to either side of the GIs, but most of the Germans held their fire. They wanted to get close enough to see the men they were chasing before opening up again.
Saunders didn’t plan to let that happen.
Scaling the hillside beyond the creek, he waved Caje and Kirby into a stand of trees a short distance up from the water’s edge. Positioning himself behind a cluster of birches a few yards away, he yelled, “The ice!” and gestured at it with the Thompson. They knew what he meant and brought up their weapons. Saunders looped the sling of his own gun around his shoulder before grabbing two grenades from his webbing. The mist wouldn’t hamper his targeting at this range. He could see through it nearly to the creek’s other side. Throwing a last look in the direction of his men, he raised a hand, tipping one of the grenades he held toward the water. Caje and Kirby nodded. All they had to do now was wait for their prey.
They didn’t wait long. In moments a pack of Panzergrenadiers from the 304th Regiment of the 2nd Panzer Division thundered onto the ice, following the tracks across its snowy expanse. As the SS men neared the waterway’s middle, Saunders swung out from behind the tree and hurled the grenades at them. Instantly, Caje and Kirby drilled the stream’s frozen surface with armor piercing .30-caliber bullets, perforating the area in front of the surprised Germans.
The grenades detonated, and those men not immediately killed found themselves suddenly submerged up to their chests in icy water. Floundering in the frigid current, they were quickly torn to pieces by the devastating gunfire ripping into them from the hillside. The Germans still on the opposite bank fired back wildly, desperate to halt the gory slaughter going on in the water, but the creek was transformed into a channel of blood.
Another salvo of heavy guns opened up in the distance, this time the work of the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion supporting the small American garrison in Marnach. It was soon joined by artillery fire from other American batteries opening up in pockets along the front as German mortar fire resumed and small arms cracked. Hearing it, the Grenadiers on the opposite side of the creek disengaged and withdrew, their commander shouting angry commands and excitedly pumping his arm up and down.
As the Germans scrambled back up the slope, toward the trail, Saunders knew it could only mean one thing – enemy troops had already infiltrated the area along the Skyline Drive sometime during the night. The ground assault had begun. That, in turn, meant that he and his squad – along with every other outfit deployed along the Ghost Front – had their necks on the line.
And Doc, McCall, and Littlejohn might have run directly into danger.
“Caje! Kirby!” Winded from the chase and battle, Saunders beckoned to the two soldiers. They joined the NCO, their faces ruddy, their mouths chugging clouds of vapor into the air.
Kirby spoke first. “Where’d they go?” he gasped. “You see how they took off like that? I thought they’d split up, then work their ways past the busted ice to come after us.”
“They’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Saunders panted. “The Krauts want those roads up there, and they’re planning to take out our strongpoints to secure ‘em. And that includes Marnach, so…”
“Sarge, we got company!” Caje was looking past the squad leader, up the hillside at Saunders’ back.
Saunders snapped his head around. In seconds, German shouts and the sounds of men climbing the reverse side of the slope could be heard plainly.
“They picked up on our firing!” Kirby exclaimed. “They’re on this side of the creek too!”
Saunders pushed the soldier forward. “Get to the firebreak! Follow the creek! Go!”
Kirby and Caje took off. Saunders stayed right on their heels as they fought to keep their footing on the uneven terrain. All three men dodged the areas still covered with snow, hoping to leave behind as few tracks as possible. They ran for a time along the waterway, weaving in and out of the trees, and Saunders cast frequent glances over his shoulder to see if they were being followed. When he decided they weren’t, he signaled the others to slow down.
They did so, braking to a more reasonable – and quieter – pace. The strange artificial light overhead gave the misty woods a surreal, spectral look, but it also aided their travel. It wasn’t long before they rounded a bend in the stream and began aproaching the footbridge that extended the logging trail over the creek.
Kirby looked back to the NCO for directions. Saunders motioned him to move left so they would remain in the woods on a course running parallel to, but south of the trail. The Panzergrenadiers might have returned to the path, and Saunders didn’t want to fight them for its use. He planned to pick up the rest of his men before any more situations developed, then take things from there.
Kirby nodded and veered west, leading them up the slope and away from the creek. Moving deeper into the forest’s gloom, the three GIs listened to the distant booming of artillery and wondered how many of the enemy had infiltrated the sector. Already, their first run-in with the Krauts had proved costly; McCall had caught a bullet before anyone had even realized what was happening.
Without warning, a hulking figure sprang out from behind a pine. Kirby yipped and twisted sideways. Caje threw his rifle to his shoulder, but a split second before squeezing off a round, he recognized the threat.
“Littlejohn!” he gasped, jerking his head away from the M1.
Saunders skidded to a stop beside the scout, also stunned at the big man’s appearance. “What’s going on?” he asked in a sharp voice. “Where’s Doc?”
Littlejohn, shaken as much as the others, took a moment to wipe his forehead with the back of a gloved hand. “He’s over there by some stumps, trying to help McCall.” He pointed first one way into the fog, then another. “We had to get off the path ‘cause Krauts were coming up behind us, and McCall’s in real bad shape. I figured if Doc didn’t get him fixed up and quiet, we’d never make it to the firebreak.” He exhaled deeply and shook his head. “But then you guys showed up, and you really scared me.”
“We scared you?” Kirby was beginning to recover from his own shock and spoke as quietly as his raw nerves would allow. “You’re the one jumpin’ out from behind trees, scarin’ people half to death. You’re lucky we didn’t fill you full of lead, you…”
“Knock it off, Kirby,” Saunders interrupted. “Take over security here. And Caje…”
Caje pulled his right hand away from his left shoulder and looked up.
“Get to the firebreak and check it out.”
Caje stepped around Kirby, moved off into the shadows, and disappeared.
“Littlejohn, I want you to show me where Doc is. If McCall’s ready, we’ve gotta get moving.”
“Okay, Sarge,” Littlejohn said, bringing up his rifle and also squeezing by the BAR man.
Saunders turned to follow, but Kirby, noticing McCall’s blood smeared on the front of Littlejohn’s coat, grabbed the sergeant’s sleeve.
“Hey, Sarge?” he said. “Since McCall’s my assistant gunner, I think I oughta be the one to go with you. Maybe there’s somethin’ I could do to help.”
Saunders saw the worry on Kirby’s face, but he had no choice; Littlejohn knew the way to the stumps. Clasping Kirby’s arm, Saunders said, “You stay here and watch for Krauts. You don’t know where McCall is.”
Kirby looked disappointed, but he nodded, and Saunders moved past.
Turning his head and looked faintly amused, Saunders added, “Get yourself behind that tree too, but don’t scare Caje when he gets back, huh? The guy’s liable to shoot you and let all the Krauts know where we are.”
Kirby blinked, then he curved his lips into a smile. “Yeah, okay.” He pulled up the BAR and began edging his way around the tree. “I’d hate to put you guys in a bind that way.”
Saunders returned his attention to Littlejohn. Already, the larger man was a number of yards ahead and quickly fading into the trees. Saunders double-timed to catch up, then followed him to several jagged stumps rising from a mound of rotting tree trunks.
Doc was hunched behind them, trying to soothe the wounded man moaning and whimpering on the ground in front of him. Saunders’ stomach muscles tightened at the sound of McCall’s suffering, and unconsciously, he took several deep breaths. It was never easy for him to see one of his men down, but he considered it a threat when it was someone he’d come to know and respect. McCall had been a latecomer to the unit, a replacement like a hundred other GIs before him. Only he’d survived long enough to become one of the squad’s ‘old men’. And the old men were the ones Saunders most dreaded losing, especially this late in the game. He couldn’t afford the distraction of grief, nor the toll it took on his judgment. His time wasn’t his own.
He wiped a hand across his dry lips and skirted the stumps. Doc looked up at Saunders’ arrival and sat back on his heels. Bloodied and coatless, he seemed unaffected by the cold. In contrast, McCall, lying face down on his own coat and covered with the medic’s, was shivering violently.
Saunders unbuckled his web belt. He handed it to Littlejohn and stripped off his own overcoat. “McCall, take it easy,” he said, kneeling at the agitated soldier’s side. “Just take it easy.” He laid the coat over the medic’s and, with Doc’s help, tucked it in around the wounded man.
McCall moaned and attempted to lift his head, but the clothing restricted his movement. Squeezing his eyes shut, he dropped forward again and resumed his incoherent muttering.
Saunders looked at the man opposite him. “How is he, Doc?”
“He’s bad, Sarge.” Doc shook his head and spoke in a low voice. “Real bad. The bullet went in near his spine, and from the looks of it, probably up through his middle. I’d guess it’s lodged somewhere underneath his diaphragm, maybe in his liver. He’s hemorrhagin’ inside and been vomiting too, so he’s dehydrated. But since he’s gut shot, he can’t have any water. And you see how gray he is? That blue color around his lips?”
Saunders peered at McCall and nodded. “Shock?”
“Uh huh. Even with his head down lower than the rest of him on this slope, it’s not doin’ ‘im any good. In this cold, shock sets in real quick. And without a way to get him warm and keep him that way, he doesn’t stand a chance.”
“Then we’ll get him back.” Saunders jerked his head up. “Littlejohn. Give me my belt and go round up something for stretcher poles. Make sure they’re…”
“It won’t help, Sarge,” Doc interrupted him, his voice very quiet. “McCall’ll never make it.” The medic’s eyes dropped as he carefully picked a few leaves off the coats covering the soldier. “He’s dyin’ right here, and there’s nothin’ we can do about it.”
Saunders’ shoulders sagged. It had all happened so fast, just like it had with a hundred other guys. Long. Temple. Walton. Cooper. Hacker. Crown… The dying just went on and on and on. The war was a monster chewing everything up and spitting it out again…broken, ruined, and dead. Saunders wondered bitterly if anything would ever stop it.
I’ve got a war to fight in the morning…a war to fight in the morning…a war to fight…
The words he’d spoken the night before continued to echo in his mind as his eyes fell on his Thompson. Saunders rubbed his lips again, then lifted the gun from his lap. “Okay. Well, how much time has he got left?”
Doc shrugged. “I don’t know. But not much.”
Saunders tightened his grip on the submachine gun and looked at Littlejohn once more. “Go get the branches. We’re not staying, so McCall’s coming with us anyway.”
“Okay, Sarge.” Littlejohn sounded very somber. “Do you think McCall oughta have my coat too?” He put a hand to his chest to begin unfastening buttons.
“No. We’ll use that for the litter. Get going.”
Littlejohn lowered his hand to retrieve the pick-mattock hanging from his cartridge belt and turned for the woods. As he lumbered off, Saunders stood to take over security. He walked a short distance away from the sad spectacle at his back and willed his mind to think about something else. There were plenty of things from which to choose - what the Krauts were up to, how big of a push did they have on, what was happening in Marnach, how long would it take to get back there, what kind of report would Caje bring in, did battalion know what was going on yet…”
“What is it? What is it?” McCall’s sharp cry cut through the sergeant’s thoughts and severed his concentration. Saunders turned to see the wounded man suddenly thrashing beneath the makeshift blankets covering him. McCall’s voice quickly grew louder as his agitation increased. “It’s not…it’s not what I thought…it’s not…let me up! Let me up…!”
“McCall!” Doc threw himself forward, trying to pin the man’s flailing arms in place. “McCall, you’re all right. Stay down!”
“I have to…I have to…let me up!”
Saunders rushed to the panicked GI’s side, dropped to his knees, and also tried to restrain him. “McCall, hold still. Hold still!” He grabbed for the soldier’s right hand and, grasping it tightly in his own, pulled it toward himself. Leaning in near the back of the writhing man’s head, he urged, “Take it easy, McCall. Take it easy! It’s me - Saunders! Do you hear me? It’s Saunders!”
McCall twisted at the sound of the squad leader’s voice and choked, “Please…please! Help me! I can’t, I’m not…I can’t…!” before he suddenly went rigid, the veins in his temples standing out in dark relief behind eyes that were wide and frantic. His words became horrible gagging noises as he struggled to breathe. Doc and Saunders both hung on and tried desperately to aid the wounded man, but within seconds McCall collapsed. Curling in on himself, he expelled the last of his air and fell silent.
For a moment Saunders had no thoughts, none at all. He felt the dead soldier’s fingers relax in his grip, but he continued to grasp the GI’s hand, unwilling to let go. He dropped his gaze to take in McCall’s slack expression, the sightless eyes, his prematurely gray hair framing a deeply lined face, and could see, not for the first time, that the man had grown much too old before his time…grown old while fighting a ‘young man’s war’...a war that took young men and made them ancient before they were thirty.
Finally he opened his hand and noticed McCall’s was bare; his glove had come off at some point during his struggling. The PFC’s hand was clean, the stark white fingers splayed across the sergeant’s gloved palm unsoiled…not yet dirtied with the day’s business of killing. There was no grime under the nails, no blood smeared on the palm, no gun oil or grease staining the fingertips. McCall’s hand was spotless. And it would stay that way, now that the man would no longer be handling anything, holding anyone, reaching for…
“Sarge,” Doc quietly interrupted the sergeant’s thoughts, “you’d better put your coat back on before you catch a cold. Here…” the medic carefully lifted it away from McCall’s body and proffered it toward the NCO, “you’re shivering.”
Saunders looked at the coat, then into the medic’s eyes, and realized numbly that it was time to get on with business. He reluctantly allowed McCall to slip from his grasp and reached for the clothing. Slinging it around his shoulders, he made himself dismiss his feelings and focus on the man watching him – one of the men he still had left - and he cleared his throat. “You too, Doc,” he said. “Get your coat on. You catch the flu, and nobody’s gonna want you working on him.”
Doc shared the sergeant’s forced smile and nodded, then he turned to scoop a mound of snow into his hands. Rubbing it over his fingers, palms, and wrists, he began washing McCall’s blood off himself.
Saunders felt unsettled while watching this, so donning his pistol belt, he turned his head and scanned the woods for signs of Littlejohn.
When Doc finished with the snow, he asked, “You want McCall’s Ronson, Sarge?” He gingerly peeled his overcoat away from the corpse, relieved that he’d thought to place it lining-side-up on the GI so that McCall’s blood only wet the outside. The medic shrugged his way into the coat and continued, “Since the lighter’s engraved, the Effects Quartermaster probably oughta ship it back home to his folks with the rest of his kit.”
“I know,” Saunders said, closing his eyes for a moment before turning back to the aid man. “See if he’s got anything else on him they might want too. And get one of his tags, will you?”
“Yeah.” The word came out sounding as dry as Doc knew his mouth to be, but he hoped the squad leader hadn’t noticed. After all, Saunders didn’t need to worry about anyone else’s grief. The man had plenty enough to worry about as it was.
Saunders, taking in McCall’s bloody back bisected by a swath of bandages, hadn’t heard. Instead, he was staring at the red smears visible through McCall’s shirt and sweater neatly cut up the center, then fallen off to his sides as he suffered his death throes. Saunders wondered if it was a good thing McCall had gone so fast. If nothing else, the soldier wasn’t suffering any more.
Now if that were only true of the rest of them…
Doc straightened up and handed the noncom the lighter, a wallet, a dog tag, and a pair of dice. Saunders stashed them away in his own pockets and realized McCall’s luck hadn’t held up any better this morning than it usually did when the guy gambled with Kirby. Beating the odds was just never one of McCall’s strong suits.
But so far, it had been one of his own, and – as much as it was within his power to do so – Saunders intended to keep things that way. He reached out to pull the shirt and sweater halves up over McCall’s back, and after lingering a moment longer, he stood. “Doc, hand me that gear over there,” he said, pointing at McCall’s bandolier and the assistant automatic rifleman’s belt lying a few feet away from the medic. “We’re gonna need all the ammo we’ve got. I want the grenades too. He should have a couple of ‘em.”
Doc retrieved the items indicated and passed them up to the NCO before pulling on his gloves and repacking his medical supplies.
Saunders looked around for McCall’s Garand, knowing Littlejohn had brought it from the ridge, and spotted the rifle lying in some nearby weeds. He picked it up, unlatched its trigger guard, pulled out the trigger housing, and lobbed the assembly into a cluster of firs. Walking over to the downed trees next to the stumps, he jammed the M1 out of sight beneath them. Getting to his feet, he saw Doc standing and waving at Littlejohn now carrying the slim trunks of two saplings cradled in his arms.
Saunders rested the butt of his Thompson on his hip, canted the weapon away from himself, and waited for Littlejohn’s arrival. When the soldier came near, the sergeant allowed him a few moments to take in McCall’s still form and absorb the fact that his squad mate was dead. Then he said, “Littlejohn, lose the poles and come get Kirby’s ammo. We’re moving out.”
Littlejohn looked up from McCall’s body, his face pale, his expression guarded, and he nodded. Without a word, he dropped the scrounged stretcher-makings and moved toward the NCO. Saunders lifted his arm to extend the BAR magazine belt to him, and Littlejohn took it. After slinging the belt’s suspenders around his left shoulder to leave the magazine pouches trailing down his back, he hefted his M1 and fell in behind Saunders and Doc, who were already moving ahead of him, into the mist.
In silence, the three soldiers walked the forested distance taking them back to Kirby. Dawn had begun breaking, and they all hoped its feeble light would soon overtake the artificial moonlight and burn off some of the fog. The Krauts could be anywhere, doing anything, and none of the GIs wanted to be caught off guard a second time.
Approaching Kirby’s position, they discovered he didn’t want to be caught off guard again either. Kirby hissed out a challenge. “Safe!”
Saunders supplied the countersign. “Sorry.”
Relieved to hear the familiar voice, Kirby stepped out from behind the tree shielding him from view. Right away, he noticed McCall’s bandolier hanging from Saunders’ left arm.
“Where’s…?” Kirby moved his head left and right, trying to see around the sergeant and past the men following him. “Where’s McCall?”
“He’s dead, Kirby.” Saunders’ words were blunt and to the point.
Kirby’s eyes widened. “Dead?” He sounded incredulous, uncomprehending. Looking from one man to another, he tried to gauge the truth of the report by their expressions and sputtered, “Well…well, are you sure? Are you sure he ain’t just out of it?”
Saunders passed a hand over his eyes and frowned. Sometimes Kirby could look so damned young, so vulnerable…as if he were the kid brother of every man in the outfit...a kid brother who couldn’t stand being left behind. “I’m sure.” The sergeant hoped Kirby wouldn’t start anything and tilted his head to indicate the PFC standing behind him, slightly off to his right. “Littlejohn’s your second man now.”
Kirby gaped at the soldiers a moment longer, then simply closed his mouth and looked away.
No one else said anything, and relieved, Saunders considered the matter closed. “Let’s get going. We’ve got a lot to do today.” He moved past Kirby and headed in the direction Caje had disappeared earlier.
The others fell in behind, wrestling with their thoughts and anxieties as they followed him quietly west. So far, nothing had gone according to plan, and McCall’s death had left them feeling more vulnerable than usual. The firebreak, only one of many such corridors cleared of trees and cutting through the Luxembourg woods to control the spread of wildfires, lay a short distance ahead. For all they knew, it could also be filled with Germans. And if it were, they would be trapped, caught between the Our, the logging trail, and the enemy forces Saunders and Kirby knew to be somewhere behind them on their left flank.
It was little wonder more than one of them started in surprise when Caje issued a challenge a short time later.
“Sorry,” Saunders said quickly, knowing the Louisianan’s propensity for being fast on the trigger.
The scout materialized from the fog, lowered his rifle, and drew near to begin his report. “It looks like the firebreak’s clear on our end of things, Sarge, but farther up, it’s full of Krauts. They’re not only moving west on that trail we were using earlier, but they’re veering off at the break too, to head north. It looks like they’re getting a pincer effect going around Marnach.” Caje shook his head. “And if they do, those guys up there are going to be in for some real trouble.”
“They’re already in trouble,” Saunders commented, hearing the distant sounds of battle and wondering how long it would take German armored support to get across the river. “But any Krauts planning to come in from the northeast side of town are gonna run into a helluva lot of mines, so that oughta slow ‘em down.”
“Yeah, it should,” Caje agreed. “But there are an awful lot of them. Sooner or later, they could get through. And Sarge,” Caje frowned as he realized one of their own number was missing, “they’re outfitted pretty good. Lots of burp guns, panzerfausts, meat choppers, mortars…they mean business. I don’t think we’re set up to meet something like this.” He also noticed Littlejohn toting the BAR gear. “McCall…?”
The sergeant pulled the dead man’s bandolier off his arm and held it out. “He didn’t make it.” Looking past Caje on the pretense of studying the gloom at the soldier’s back, he added, “And I know we’re not set up to meet something like this.” He sucked on his lower lip in frustration as he considered how everyone, from division headquarters on down, had been caught with his pants tangled around his ankles on this one. And his own squad was out here without a radio, a plan of action, contact with other units, adequate rations, packs, backup supplies, and just about everything else they would need to fight their way home through the nightmare this morning was shaping up to be. With nothing more than a couple of rifles, a BAR, a Tommygun, eight pineapple grenades, and some extra M1 ammo, what were the chances of any of them making it? “But you took a look at the Krauts, close up?”
“Had to. In this fog, it was the only way to confirm their position.” Caje tried to keep his voice steady as he situated McCall’s bandolier around his chest. “I went to the other side of the break to recon the woods we’ll be going into, since I figure we don’t want to walk into another mess like we did earlier…”
“Yeah,” Kirby muttered at Saunders’ back, “we sure as hell don’t.”
“…and although it looks like a lot of Krauts might’ve been lying in formation over there before,” Caje continued, bringing up a hand to wipe at his eyes, “they’re not there now. My guess is that they’re already attacking the roadblock, and the ones on the path are heading up there to reinforce them. But that means we should be okay to keep going, since everything to the south of the trail’s clean.”
“Sarge,” Doc spoke up, “if the Krauts were all over the place in there earlier, how do you figure we made it past ‘em, on our way to the river a little while ago?” He shivered inside his coat and knew it wasn’t entirely due to the cold. “They must’ve heard us goin’ by. Why didn’t they open up on us while we were walkin’ right through the middle of ‘em?”
“Because if they had - and they had guys on both sides of the path - they would’ve been firing into their own ranks.” Saunders had a sudden urge to smoke a cigarette but knew it wasn’t the time for it. “Or maybe they were worried about tipping somebody off to what they had planned for this morning. Or it could be it was too dark for them to tell we weren’t just some more of them walking through there.”
Hearing all this, the men appeared even more ill at ease, and Saunders turned back to Caje. “Anything else?”
Caje shook his head.
“Okay. Then let’s go.”
The scout brought up his rifle and led the others forward. It took some maneuvering for them to trek through the thick stands of pines. When the soldiers reached the firebreak, they stopped and crouched in the muck at their feet, straining to see along the corridor’s length, in both directions. Despite the morning’s growing light, visibility remained poor. They could only hear the German troopers in the distance, the Krauts speaking freely, singing snatches of Wenn Wir Marschieren, and occasionally breaking out in raucous laughter.
“Sounds like they’re real worried about stiff opposition, don’t it?” Kirby whispered bitterly.
“Count your blessings, Kirby,” Littlejohn whispered back. “With them making all that noise, maybe they won’t hear us traipsing around in these woods.”
That was what Saunders was counting on. “Caje, get over there, and we’ll move on your signal. The rest of you,” he twisted to see their grim faces, “one at a time, in the same order we’ve been going so far, except this time I’m in the rear. You got it?”
As always, heads bobbed up and down at the question, and Saunders grunted in satisfaction. He turned back and slapped Caje on the rump. “Get going.”
Caje lifted himself and bolted out into the open. Within moments, he was in the brush and barely visible on the firebreak’s opposite side. His squad mates watched as he took in the view around him, confirming their landing zone was still safe. Then he lifted his rifle to point it at the woods at his back while waving his right arm to signal ‘forward.’
Doc pushed up and ran into the clearing. Littlejohn, Kirby, and Saunders tensed over their weapons, ready to give him covering fire. Making a mad dash for the safety of the tree line, Doc clutched his medical bag against his chest. He slid through the brush, past Caje and into the woods, then dropped and lay still. Everyone else waited, uneasy and alert, before following him, one by one.
Reunited, the squad resumed its journey and struggled through the ravines and across waterways for the rest of the morning. Without the logging trail’s footbridges, the men couldn’t make good time. They probed north a few times, hoping to find a spot where the enemy’s ranks were thin enough to try a breakthrough into Marnach, but without any success.
Upon reaching the Skyline Drive, they found themselves forced to fall back farther south, to avoid the fire being laid down by the five 57 mm cannons being manned by the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion defending Marnach, as well as the twelve infantry companies of the 2nd Panzer Division assaulting it. Saunders’ squad crossed the highway, then skirted open fields to climb a series of rocky ledges jutting out from a ridge southwest of the village.
Saunders eventually called a halt on top of one of the ledges, and the men fell out, exhausted, to rest along the stony shelf. Canteens appeared and scarves were loosened as Saunders reached inside his coat for a badly needed cigarette. He kept an eye on the shrouded countryside below as he lit the tobacco and inhaled deeply to take in its soothing flavor.
Kirby, sitting somewhere behind him, said, “Littlejohn, gimme a drink.”
Saunders thought he sounded testy, ready to pick a fight, probably worked up over not seeing McCall a last time, but seeking an easy target not wearing too many stripes. And Littlejohn would be good for that too…unless the Nebraskan was feeling sorry for the guy. Then Littlejohn would surrender his canteen without a battle. He had a thing for helping a buddy over a rough spot, as he had once put it, and losing a friend was about as rough as it got. But Saunders knew coddling a man only helped him to stay so tied up in his emotions the guy wouldn’t be able to fight the war. So, peering over the sights of his Tommygun, he said, “Drink your own water, Kirby.”
“It’s frozen,” Kirby sniped.
“You got legs,” Saunders fired back.
“Yeah, I got legs.” Kirby scowled at the canteen in his hands before jamming it between his thighs to thaw its contents. “It’s buddies I’m runnin’ out of.”
Saunders shifted positions. “Keep your mind on staying alive and off everything else.”
Kirby huffed at that. “Why bother when I already know I’m gonna wind up a dead man too, bein’ in a Mickey Mouse outfit like this?”
Saunders frowned and turned his head. “You got a problem, Kirby?”
Kirby ignored the question and kept talking. “ ‘Cause only an outfit with no intelligence would walk right into the middle of the whole Kraut army like we done earlier. An’ I ain’t talkin’ about G2 neither.”
Saunders bristled at that but said nothing. The other men behind him stirred uneasily.
“‘Course that might not be a bad thing, bein’ a dead man,” Kirby went on. “Once all of us end up that way, maybe the war’ll finally stop. So, what the hell, let’s keep goin’ on the way we are now. Whattaya wanna do next, Sarge?”
Saunders had heard enough. “Kirby, I’m warning you…”
“Sarge,” Doc interrupted, alarmed at the turn this conversation had taken. “Is it okay if we eat somethin’? I’m feelin’ hungry.”
“Yeah, Doc, that’s a good idea,” Littlejohn agreed. He had nearly interrupted the conversation himself. “What do you say, Sarge? Is it okay?”
Saunders said nothing, but struggled to contain his raw emotions and regain control. They had an avalanche of Krauts on their tails, and it wasn’t a big enough problem. He looked to the east once more as he took another drag off his cigarette to calm himself down. Then he said, “Yeah, go ahead. Just don’t fire up the boxes to heat anything; I want to get moving again. And hold back something for later. It could be a long day out here.” Noticing the ash on the Lucky’s tip, he flicked it off casually. “But Kirby, you keep that canteen between your legs ‘til it cools you off. It’ll do you some good.” Saunders picked a bit of tobacco off his tongue. “Besides, a hothead like you, you’ll have a drink in no time.”
Deflated by the dismissal, Kirby dropped his eyes to the icy container in front of him and moodily toyed with its loosened cap. Doc and Littlejohn pulled out cartons of K-rations, neither man really hungry, but glad to have something to keep himself occupied in the awkward moment. Caje lit a cigarette and smoked it in silence. It wasn’t the first time somebody had taken a death in the squad hard, and they all knew the score; they all had lost someone. Getting over it took time and giving each other leeway. It wasn't always easy, but it was how they kept going.
Saunders knew plenty about grief, and he gave up ground too. Shifting again he said over his shoulder, “But when you’re done with that water, you better give me a drink of it.” He reached a hand behind his back and patted the canteen hanging from his own belt. “Mine’s frozen.”
Kirby looked up, startled at so quickly getting an obvious chance to fall in again. He glanced around at the others and, seeing their faces, was glad, not for the first time, to be in the company of these men. "Sure, Sarge," he said. "No problem."
Saunders might have smiled at that, but he saw movement near the edge of the woods bordering the meadow. Ditching his cigarette, he dropped onto his belly and urgently waved down the soldiers behind him. Canteens and frosty tins of corned beef hash were instantly forgotten as the others also dropped forward to hug the ledge and bring up their weapons.
No one moved and nothing could be heard in the wintry silence. After several minutes, Caje inched his way forward to lie alongside Saunders. "What is it?" the PFC whispered.
Saunders stared at the slope below them and the field and woods beyond, trying for another glimpse of whatever it was he thought he’d spotted through the fog. "Dunno," he murmured, aware that his mouth was dry and he really did need a drink.
Shimmering mists undulated back and forth over the December landscape, opening up a view one moment only to quickly obscure it the next. When a spectral form finally seemed to separate itself from flickering images of rocks and trees, Saunders questioned whether his eyes were playing tricks on him. More shapes soon followed the first, and Caje flicked off the safety on his rifle, confirming Saunders wasn’t seeing things.
The sergeant turned his head and whispered, "Krauts," to the men at his back.
Kirby and Littlejohn threw looks at one another, then also moved up. Doc kept himself low in the shadows of the rocks, out of the combatants' way. He couldn't risk drawing fire by allowing the enemy to see the red crosses on his brassard and helmet. Caje and Saunders strained to see the unit of Panzergrenadiers working its way toward their position, and wondered what the Krauts were doing so far from a strategic objective.
The Germans were engaging in Hutier tactics, bypassing American strongpoints all along the line. Forward elements of the panzer corps had been commanded to infiltrate sectors farther west while storm troops following them mopped up resistance left behind. The company of the 304th Panzergrenadier Regiment approaching Saunders’ squad intended to reach the bridges over the Clerve River by slipping between Munshausen and Clervaux. It had orders to secure the bridges for the spearhead of the 2nd Panzer Division which would be attacking west toward Highway N-12.
The SS men reached the base of the hill and shouldered their Mausers and MP40s. They placed woolen-gloved hands among the slippery rocks to begin their climb. Virtually hidden by the low cloud-cover, they moved up the slope, confident of penetrating the American lines without being seen or challenged in the desolate terrain.
They were wholly unaware of the threat looming over them.
Saunders signaled his men to hold their fire. He wanted to take out as many Krauts as possible while the squad still had the element of surprise. That meant allowing the Germans to get in close.
It was nerve-wracking work for the GIs as they waited in the gloom and gauged the enemy’s progress by the sounds the men below made. The nearer the Germans drew, the louder the clanking of their weapons and gear became, the squeaking of their boots and leather greatcoats sounded, the murmuring of their voices seemed.
Littlejohn grew edgy and began panting. He expelled such clouds of moisture into the air that the ledge looked like a dragon was crouched, hidden, upon it. Saunders reached over to get his attention and made a chopping motion in front of his own face to warn him he might compromise their position. Littlejohn snapped his mouth shut and moved his head lower behind his rifle.
Kirby, lying between the two men, eyed the terrain in front of him with a mixture of anticipation and dread. He pushed the ends of his scarf away from the BAR and silently calculated how much ammunition he had left. Deciding he should have been issued a double basic load for a combat patrol instead of what he had for a recon, he promised himself he’d complain about it to Saunders later.
Caje, on Saunders' other side, lay stretched out behind his M1. He adjusted and readjusted the position of its butt plate against his shoulder, aligning the front and rear sights as he settled the walnut stock along his cheek. Placing his finger on the trigger, he tried to guess where the first Kraut would make an appearance.
Saunders brushed away the hair hanging in his eyes and wished the Krauts would hurry.
At last a dark figure appeared out of the fog. His dusky overcoat fell open, revealing the autumn-pattern camouflage smock he wore beneath it. He was so close to the GIs that they could see the SS runes on his service tunic’s collar jutting up from the smock’s neckline. He leaned forward to fumble for another handhold among the rocks, and the Americans also saw that his rifle was slung across his back. If the rest of his companions were equally disadvantaged, taking them out would be easy.
If the enemy scout reached the ledge before more of his unit showed up, it would mean big trouble.
Saunders leveled his Thompson and hoped for the best. Another scout emerged from the mist, then more SS infantrymen. Most of them wore their weapons in the same fashion as their lead man, to free their hands for climbing. Relieved to see it, Saunders permitted himself a brief smile.
He knew that Caje had the first scout lined up in his sights. Saunders aimed for a corporal heavily bandoliered with a long belt of ammunition. The soldier was carrying it for his section's MG42 and was one of the few clutching his Schmeisser. Saunders would have rather nailed the Kraut lugging the heavy machine gun itself, to keep his cargo out of action, but the gunner wasn’t visible, so the ammo bearer would have to do. Saunders tightened his finger on the trigger of his submachine gun and waited another moment for the Krauts to get closer. Bracing himself for balance, he let loose with a spate of .45 caliber slugs that made an instant corpse of his target.
His men opened up a deadly fusillade of their own, mowing down Panzergrenadiers, left and right. Germans screamed and twisted in pain as bullets ripped through flesh and shattered bones. Some of the wounded dropped where they stood, to writhe on the steep slope and shriek for medics. Others fell backward, tumbling down the way they’d come, leaving trails of blood in their wakes. A few still standing grabbed for rifles and potato mashers, but they were cut down before they could bring them into play. Their grenades exploded near them, spattering the snow with grisly remains.
The Americans above and Germans shooting blindly below continued to blanket the area with fire. The noise of battle rose to a deafening crescendo as the two sides raged at one another. In the poor visibility, they finished off the wounded casualties lying exposed and helpless. It wasn’t long before only dead and dying men littered the incline.
Finally the Germans pulled back, and Saunders shouted at his men to hold their fire. The stench of gunpowder, bullet-riddled corpses, and loosened bowels hung thick in the air. It sickened him and choked the others. A haze of smoke curtained the ledge from view. Saunders knew it was time to move.
"Caje! Doc! Littlejohn! Get up to that next ledge! Set up shop, but don't let 'em know you're there. Kirby," he twisted to see the automatic rifleman, "wait three with me, then follow. You see or hear anything, lay down suppressing fire!"
Kirby grunted as Littlejohn crawled over him to follow Caje already climbing up the slope. Saunders suffered the big man’s bulk passing over him next but kept his eyes trained on the hillside. Doc waited for Littlejohn to go by, then hauled himself up along the boulders, behind the PFC.
Saunders knew they didn’t have much time. He hoped the others would reach the ledge quickly, and counted off the seconds before he and Kirby would make their move. Loose rocks and pebbles slid down the icy slope, farther and farther off to his left, allowing Saunders to gauge the men’s progress as they climbed. When he finished counting off three minutes, he pulled in the Tommygun, tucked it under his arm, and lifted himself.
Kirby gathered up the BAR, only too glad to put more distance between himself and the Krauts. Crawling past Saunders who was leaning back to let him get by, Kirby stretched for a clump of brush. He scrabbled his feet on the gravelly incline, managed to gain a toehold, and began pulling himself up the hillside’s rocky face.
Saunders waited a few more seconds, to cover him, then followed. He knew that whatever the Krauts tried, it would be rough. Having the high ground meant having the advantage, but the Germans’ superior numbers wouldn’t allow him and his men to hold it for long. Just running out of ammunition would be enough to do them in. About the best he could hope for was to put a few more Krauts out of action before the squad took off.
To save time, although uneasy doing it, he paused and slung his submachine gun over his shoulder. His hands free, he grabbed at a tangle of exposed roots anchoring a scrawny pine. He struggled to hoist himself to the base of the tree before stepping sideways to a cleft in a rock offering a level place to stand. After gaining his balance, he shifted his weight forward and scuttled his way through the dirt, snow, and shrubs that led, diagonally, to his men.
He passed a cluster of boulders and could see the outcropping sheltering the squad above him. A hand appeared over the side of the rocky platform, and Saunders stretched to grab it. Just as Doc began hauling him in, Saunders felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
“Doc!” he gasped, overcome by a sudden sense of foreboding, his skin crawling, his testicles retracting. “Let go! Get dow…!”
A tremendous explosion cut off his words. Saunders slammed into the rock face, the concussive force of the blast flattening him against it. A wall of heat broke over him, followed instantly by shrapnel whistling past in all directions. Chunks of dirt and stones clanged into his helmet, hit his back, and pelted his legs. Held in place only by Doc’s iron grip, Saunders hung stunned, disoriented, helpless.
More hands grabbed at him. They snagged his coat at his shoulders, then pulling him forward, latched onto his belt. He scraped against the edge of the outcropping as Doc and Littlejohn hauled him up and over it. Deposited on the floor of the stony shelf, Saunders coughed the smoke and rock dust from his lungs, his ears ringing, his arms and legs dead weight, his face streaked with blood.
He vaguely noted being dragged farther from the ledge’s edge before Littlejohn let him go and dove forward to lie alongside an anxious-looking Caje and Kirby positioned a few feet away. Saunders groggily took in the three GIs as they turned to peer down the hillside once more. A worried face appeared above his own and muffled words filtered into his ears.
“Sarge!” Doc hissed, trying to keep his voice down. “Sarge! Are you all right? Can you…?” Another blast rocked the hillside, and the medic threw himself forward to cover him.
More shrapnel whizzed past the ledge, this time slamming into the granite above them, chipping boulders, and sending a shower of debris raining down on the prone GIs. Covered with dirt, they coughed into their hands or the crooks of their arms as smoke poured into the cramped hideout.
Saunders blinked the soot from his eyes and willed his mental cobwebs away, knowing he needed to move. “Doc,” he croaked, “get off me.”
“But, Sarge!” Doc lifted himself enough to speak. “You’re bleeding. I need…”
“You heard me!” Saunders pushed up to topple the medic off him. Straining forward, he untangled himself from Doc’s protection and crawled up next to Littlejohn.
Doc retreated to the rear of the shelf, shaking his head, once more forced to do things the squad leader’s way. He hated being hampered in his work, but knew the danger of the situation and Saunders’ priorities. The war came first, then the sergeant’s welfare. Doc hunkered lower, resigned to his place in this man’s army, and bided his time.
Saunders fumbled for the sling on his Thompson and pulled the weapon off his back. Bringing the gun around in front of him, he stared at it bleary-eyed.
Kirby, lying on the other side of Littlejohn, said, “Damn, Sarge. Looks like Lady Luck’s on your side.”
Saunders glanced at the three men off to his left gaping at the four inch piece of steel protruding from the weapon’s butt stock. Had the shrapnel penetrated his back instead of the Tommygun, they would have been minus a squad leader.
“Eyes forward,” Saunders said thickly, his voice sounding oddly distant in his ears. “Watch for Krauts.”
They did as they were told, and Saunders wrapped his fingers around the twisted metal. With a forceful tug, he pulled it out and laid it aside. Retracting the Thompson’s bolt, he checked the chamber, then levered the magazine catch and slid out the box magazine. He depressed the submachine gun’s trigger and racked the bolt back and forth several more times to test the weapon’s mechanism. Satisfied he wouldn’t suffer a stoppage, he reloaded the gun. Then trying not to think about the pain radiating through his back and legs, he peered at their former position.
Nearly blasted apart by the direct hit of a Panzerschreck, the ledge looked like it would have been the squad’s crypt had the GIs not abandoned it. Blackened craters, scattered boulders, and scarred rock marked the spots where two rockets fired from the German bazooka had each impacted, one of them a short distance below the other. Saunders realized that if he hadn’t been just outside the lower one’s blast perimeter, he would have been killed. He wiped perspiration from his upper lip and reached for some snow. Scooping a handful into his mouth, he turned his attention to the Krauts.
The Panzergrenadiers were working their way up the hill, to mop up. When they finally got in close enough, they charged the ruined outcropping, firing rifles and yelling battle cries. Banking on the success of their bazooka man, they expected to find little, if anything, left of the bushwhacking Amis. Instead, the first Germans to reach the ledge found themselves in the middle of another slaughterhouse.
Saunders opened up with the Thompson to butcher two of them. Kirby’s BAR chopped up half a dozen more. Caje and Littlejohn cut into the soldiers nearby as their shrill cries filled the air.
The Germans farther down the slope bellowed curses and hit the dirt. A furious group leader shouted orders. The SS men went into action.
Bullets ricocheted off rocks, splintered saplings, and shredded bushes as the Grenadiers’ weapons snapped and snarled. Saunders’ men ducked in and out of the protection of the outcropping to return fire. Spent cartridges flew in every direction, scorching clothing and landing to lie steaming in the snow.
More Germans moved up with the MG42. They let the machine gun rip as two Grenadiers tried a flanking movement. Caje risked showing himself to shoot their legs out from under them. Another soldier rose with an egg grenade, and Saunders felled him too. The grenade’s blast obscured the Germans’ view, and Kirby took advantage of the cover. He opened up with the BAR again, keeping the rifle chugging in short bursts so it stayed level as he tore up the hillside with lead. His murderous fire forced the rest of the Krauts to keep their heads down.
Seeing this, Saunders yelled, “Littlejohn! Grenades!”
The soldier pulled out two grenades and sent them sailing down the incline. Their thunderous explosions bagged him the machine gun. Their deadly fragments produced screams.
The scout grabbed the pair of grenades clipped to his belt. He lobbed one into a crevice and the other one past a jumble of boulders. The back-to-back blasts wiped out two more knots of Grenadiers.
Saunders’ turn came next. While his men kept up the blistering fire he winged McCall’s grenades at an outcropping farther below. Geysers of smoke and steel shot into the air as the deafening explosions blew apart the soldiers crouched there.
It was enough for the surviving SS men. Stunned by the concussions, pelted with a ghastly shower of body parts, and losing the uphill battle, they withdrew on the run. The Americans gunned down those they could see, strafing the fog with slugs until the last man vanished into it.
Saunders, snapping up his Thompson, yelled, “Hold your fire!”
The men did so, and Saunders heard a German commander shouting in the distance. He knew a counterattack would be in the works soon. That meant there was no time to spare.
“Gimme an ammo check,” Saunders ordered.
Caje swept his eyes over the empty bandolier lying in front of him before fumbling at his belt. “Three clips.”
Kirby jerked a thumb sideways. “I got what Littlejohn’s carryin’.”
Littlejohn looked up and shook his head. “Kirby’s got two mags, but I’m out.”
Saunders patted down his coat, ran a hand over the magazine pocket looped to his web belt, then checked his ammunition pouch. Nothing for the Tommy. Two magazines for the Colt holstered at his side.
There were also the cartridges already loaded in everyone’s weapons. Plus Kirby’s grenades.
A damned small amount of ordnance.
“Okay. All of you,” Saunders barked, “up the hill! To the top. Now!”
The men lifted themselves, snatched up rifles, and scattered.
Saunders pushed up, but still woozy from the Panzerschreck blast, reeled like a punch-drunk fighter. Instantly, the company medic was at his side.
“C’mon, Sarge. You better let me give you a hand.”
Before Saunders could reply, Doc ducked under the squad leader’s left arm and propelled him forward. Saunders staggered alongside the aid man toward a series of boulders littering the slope like stepping stones. Burning sensations running up the back of Saunders’ legs caused him to wonder if he had taken some fragments in his calves. The pain in his back hadn’t lessened either. Only with the medic’s help did he reach the stones.
Before navigating them, he paused. “Hold on, Doc.”
“What is it?”
Saunders didn’t answer but pulled away to loop the Tommygun’s sling over his shoulder.
Doc raised an eyebrow at the sight of the submachine gun falling across Saunders’ spine. “Givin’ yourself cover?”
Saunders cast him a sidelong glance, then cracked a smile. “Gotta watch my back.”
Doc snorted, and Saunders slung his left arm over the medic’s shoulders once more. “Gotta get out of here too.”
“I’m with you,” Doc said.
The two men leaned forward and began struggling up the stones.
The soldiers grappling with the craggy rocks higher on the slope had nearly reached its crest when the first mortar round hit.
Kirby lost his footing and went down. Clinging to the granite beneath him, he twisted around to see if anyone was in trouble.
Littlejohn, plowing up the slope behind the smaller man, plucked him off the rock by his suspenders. “What are you doing?” Littlejohn hollered. “Get up and get moving!”
“But Sarge is down there!” Kirby shouted as another shell burst, closer this time. “What if he needs help?”
“Doc’s got him! He’s coming!”
A third explosion roared across the landscape.
“What about Caje?” Kirby wanted to know next.
Littlejohn looked around. “I don’t know; I can’t see him.”
“He was right behind me, over there!”
“Well, he’s not now…”
Two more rounds crashed into the ridge and Kirby tried to stop.
Littlejohn held on and kept him moving. “You’re the getaway man!”
“He’s a dead man if the Krauts walk those mortars over him!”
“And we will be too, if the Krauts get our range!”
Littlejohn let go of Kirby anyway, thrust the last BAR magazines into his hands, and began descending the slope, off to the right.
“Where’re you goin’?” Kirby yelled.
“To find Caje!” Littlejohn yelled back.
Kirby made a move to follow, but just then Saunders and Doc emerged from another bank of haze lower on the hillside.
Saunders spotted the BAR man and shouted, “Kirby! Get up the hill!”
Kirby lost his footing and fell a second time as the ground shook with the concussion of multiple explosions. The mortar rounds ascending the ridge burst apart the saplings at the sergeant’s back, and Saunders yelled again.
“Get up there!”
Kirby picked himself up and threw himself forward. If the 81s didn’t catch up with him, Saunders would, and Kirby knew disregarding an order would mean hell to pay. He decided he’d better let Littlejohn find Caje, on his own. Kirby just hoped the guy would do it before the Krauts blew the whole ridge to kingdom come.
Littlejohn hoped so too. Shouting Caje’s name, he stumbled along the incline, trying to catch a glimpse of the scout through the thick smoke obscuring everything. He coughed and gagged on the cordite filling his lungs. A sudden whiffling sound warned him of an incoming shell, and Littlejohn threw himself behind a boulder just as the round impacted nearby. Jagged pieces of shrapnel thrown up and out in a conical spray slashed apart the shrubs and weeds on both sides of his refuge.
Littlejohn cringed. If another mortar hit that close, Caje wouldn’t be the only one missing. There wouldn’t be enough left of him to scrape into a helmet. He had to get to higher ground. He pushed away from the rock and, hearing the faint sound of mortar tubes coughing out more shells in the meadow below, dove for the incline. Scratching and clawing his way to its top, he continued to yell Caje’s name, but only another series of explosions roared a response at his back.
On the crown of the ridge, Littlejohn got to his feet and started running. Branches of silver pines pummeled him as he zigged and zagged his way through the trees toward the hogback’s reverse slope. He strained to catch sight of the other squad members and worried about not having a fall back position for a rendezvous. When the Krauts advanced again he would be in a bad way if they caught him out here, by himself, with only two rounds left in his rifle.
Littlejohn eventually reached the west slope and began descending several hundred feet of steep terrain. His eyes roved back and forth constantly, searching for signs of his outfit. When a slight breeze began cooling his face, he realized he was approaching a clearing. Through thinning trees he saw a field in front of him. Barren, frozen, littered with stalks, it looked silent, empty…and dangerous.
Littlejohn paused. Where were the others? He had reached the base of the hill. He should have seen some sign of them by now. But not only did it seem they hadn’t been on the slope, it was also obvious they hadn’t crossed the field. No tracks showed in the snow.
He decided he wouldn’t cross the open area either. It was too risky. It might be mined. Or zeroed in by the Krauts. If he stepped a toe out there he was liable to get an 88 down his throat.
He wheeled around. Maybe he’d missed something. Like a trail somewhere…a deer run. One that was still being used and didn’t have much snow on it. That would be a logical route for the other guys to take. Especially if they were being followed. It would camouflage their movements. It would be free of anti-personnel mines.
It might be taking them in a different direction.
Littlejohn frowned. Were they going north? he wondered. Or northwest? He had been moving due west, but maybe that was a mistake.
Scratching his neck, Littlejohn squatted in the brush. He had to think. What had he passed on his way here? Anything that looked like a path? A drainage ditch? A culvert?
He reached for his bayonet and fixed it to his rifle. It wasn’t much security, but it was nearly all the weapon he had. If one or two Krauts showed up, he might be able to take them out if he got the drop on them. But if more than a pair came along…
A series of twigs snapped. Footsteps sounded. Someone was coming! Littlejohn looked around quickly. He had no cover here. The trees were too thin. Whoever was out there…heading his way…would see him!
He spotted a tree trunk. A thick one. If he could get to it in time…
Too late. Dark figures descending the hillside loomed out of the fog. More than two of them. Coming in fast.
Littlejohn snapped off the safety on his rifle. Blood roared in his ears. He would have to shoot the ones in front, then get in some quick thrusts with the bayonet before anyone noticed he wasn’t just another shrub growing among the weeds.
He reviewed the techniques for using the bayonet he had practiced recently while the company was in reserve and being drilled for close combat in the Huertgen.
Basic Thrust. Littlejohn swallowed. Drive the bayonet in a straight line to any unprotected part of your opponent’s body.
One of the men approaching appeared to slip and grabbed for the trunk of a nearby tree.
Side-step Thrust. Littlejohn brought up his rifle. Bend both knees, move to the right or left, step in quickly, and drive the bayonet into your opponent’s throat or chest.
The men behind the soldier at the tree helped him regain his balance before they all continued forward.
Low-body Thrust. Littlejohn tightened his leg muscles. Do this move the same way as you would the side-step thrust, but target the lower part of your opponent’s body.
The soldiers’ features were becoming more distinct.
Body-contact Thrust. Littlejohn held his breath. Hold your rifle close to yourself, with the tip of the bayonet facing a little bit to the right, then lunge forward and knock your opponent off balance so you can stab him before he recovers.
The soldiers were practically on top of him.
Littlejohn couldn’t believe it.
“Safe!” he said.
“Shit,” the lead man blurted, falling backward.
Saunders and Doc managed to stop just in time to keep from tripping over him.
Littlejohn stood, wearing a look of total relief on his face. “That’s the wrong password, Kirby.”
“Dammit, Sarge!” Kirby twisted around to see the NCO. “If he does that one more time I’m gonna…!”
“Next time, Kirby.” Saunders looked pained and tired. He turned his attention to Littlejohn. “You by yourself?”
Littlejohn took in the other men and hesitated. He hated to answer the question, seeing Caje wasn’t with them, but lowering his eyes, he admitted, “Yeah. You guys are the only ones I’ve run into.”
Kirby gained his legs and said, “You mean Caje ain’t here?”
“I couldn’t find him. The smoke was…”
Kirby pushed past Doc and was nearly around Saunders before the sergeant grabbed the rifleman’s arm.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“To get Caje!”
“Littlejohn already tried. Forget it.”
“I said, forget it!” Saunders snapped.
Kirby’s eyes blazed as he appraised the squad leader, but he backed down.
Saunders released him and turned back to Littlejohn. “What do you mean you ‘couldn’t find him?’”
“Well, I was behind Kirby when we were climbing. And Caje was somewhere off to our right. But when the mortars started coming in, Kirby and I lost sight of him. We figured he might need help or something, so I went down the hill, to find out. But it was no use; I couldn’t see a thing. Then the rounds started hitting awfully close, and I went back up the hill and have been looking for you guys since.”
Saunders felt lightheaded and wondered if it was due only to the thin mountain air. “You sure Caje wasn’t ahead of you two when the barrage started?”
“Not sure. ” Littlejohn shrugged. “But I haven’t seen any tracks to prove he was…or that he is now.”
Mortars continued to pound the east side of the ridge, and Saunders frowned.
“Sarge, maybe one of us…”
“All of us are moving out, Doc,” Saunders said. “Now.”
“You ain’t just gonna leave Caje back there!” Kirby exclaimed.
“We don’t know that he is back there. And no one else is walking into Kraut mortars or a firing line to find out.”
“But it wouldn’t be no sweat to…”
“Dammit, Kirby!” Saunders took a threatening step toward him. “Get over there, on the point, keep to the woods, and move northwest. Now!”
Kirby jerked up the BAR, turned on his heel, and stalked off.
Saunders jabbed the Thompson in the direction Kirby had taken. “Go on, Littlejohn. Move out.” He looked to his left. “You too, Doc.”
The medic hesitated, then nodded and fell in behind Littlejohn.
Saunders brought up the end of the line, stewing over the last time he’d let a couple of squad members look for a man down in a barrage. With the Germans advancing, the pair had nearly wound up MIA while the object of their search had surfaced, bandaged by civilians, a couple of miles away. Even though Saunders wanted to go back for Caje, he wouldn’t risk losing more men - men low on ammunition and so at high risk – the same way, a second time.
Now their survival was his bottom line.
Snow began falling, and soon the flurries became an all too familiar storm. Fat, wet flakes coated the soldiers as they plodded toward the Dasburg-Bastogne Highway. Silent and brooding, they watched every tree they approached, every swale they skirted. They strained to see Germans, but hoped they would run into another American outfit. Being so isolated while the squad was two men down didn’t sit very well with any of them.
The farther the GIs traveled, the more the sergeant’s legs hurt until, finally, he called a halt. He and the others had covered nearly half a mile of rolling, wooded country interspersed with meadows where shepherds brought Leicester sheep to graze during the summer months. Saunders decided the ruins of a long-gone mountain shack’s foundation would provide the squad defilade so they could take a break. He didn’t say it, but he also hoped Caje would show up if they waited for him.
Stepping into the rectangular depression in the ground, outlined by ancient fieldstone overgrown with ice-covered brush, the soldiers fell out. Saunders hobbled to an empty corner, and immediately, Doc was at his side.
“It’s time I take a look at you,” he said.
“I’m okay,” Saunders replied automatically, lowering himself next to a boulder.
“I know you are.” Doc reached for Saunders’ arm, to assist him. “That’s why this’ll only take a minute.”
Doc got Saunders seated, then knelt and slipped the strap of his medical bag off his shoulder. He set the bag in the snow, pulled off his gloves, and reached for Saunders’ left leg. Pulling the limb toward himself, he rotated it and peered at the spots of blood staining the back of Saunders’ ODs. Releasing the leg, he repeated the process with Saunders’ other one.
Saunders watched the cursory examination in silence, resigned to his need for aid. He reached into his coat for a smoke.
“I’m not gonna be able work like this,” Doc said, looking up. “You wanna get on your belly so I can see what I’m doin’?”
Saunders frowned but returned the cigarette to its pack and leaned forward to stretch out. For a brief moment his eyes met Kirby’s, and Saunders read the accusation there - that Caje…and McCall before him…had been abandoned without so much as a second look back. Looking away, Saunders forced himself to reject the charge and concentrated on masking his pain…without being entirely successful at either task.
“Here, Sarge, you’d better take it slower,” Doc said, reaching to provide him with support as Saunders finished lowering himself onto his stomach. “You feelin’ hurt anywhere else besides your legs?”
Saunders hated to admit he was having so much trouble and so further worry the men, but he confessed, “My back. The right side.”
Doc frowned and gave Saunders’ coat a quick once-over. Except for some small tears, he didn’t see anything that indicated a wound. He let go of Saunders’ arm and moved in closer to make another examination. “How ‘bout reachin’ up and undoin’ your belt and some coat buttons so I can get a better look at things?”
Saunders did as he was asked, and Doc flipped the clothing back. Some small pieces of metal trapped between the overcoat and sweater and shirts underneath dropped off to Saunders’ side. Shaking his head in wonder, Doc lifted the sweater and tugged Saunders’ shirts out of the waistband of the sergeant’s pants.
Doc knew the fragments explained the tears in the coat. The shrapnel must’ve lost momentum by the time it got through Saunders’ heavy outerwear. But what was causing the man’s pain?
Doc carefully lifted the shirts to expose Saunders’ back and saw a large patch of discolored skin bearing the rough shape of the Thompson’s stock, running down the right side of the sergeant’s spine.
“You look like you got hit with a two by four,” Doc commented, leaning forward to cautiously probe along Saunders’ shoulder blades and his ribcage, to determine the extent of the injury.
“I feel like I got hit with a two by four,” Saunders said before stiffening suddenly.
“My hands cold?” Doc paused.
Saunders’ voice was tight. “Yeah.”
“Well, I’ll make this fast.” Doc lifted the shirts higher to peer at the smaller marks dotting Saunders’ back. After making sure there was no broken skin, he announced, “I’d say, except for your legs, you’re okay. It just looks like you’ve got some pretty nice bruises started. The shrapnel that hit your Tommy, plus a few of those rocks, must’ve really walloped you good.”
Saunders began shivering and wished the medic would finish.
Doc lowered the shirts and pulled Saunders’ coat over him once more. Moving backward, he worked on his patient’s calves. He reached into his bag for scissors and carefully cut the right leg of Saunders’ trousers to scrutinize the holes in and spots of blood on the long johns underneath. By the size of both, Doc decided the wounds probably weren’t serious.
“I’d say you took a few slivers from the bazooka round too.” He began cutting the long johns. “But I’ll see if I can dig ‘em out and get you patched up.”
Saunders winced when Doc eventually began probing with forceps. He decided to try again for a smoke. He rose onto his elbows, retrieved a cigarette, and lit it while studying the woods. The Thompson lay by his side, and he pulled it around in front of himself. He didn’t know if he’d need it in the next few minutes, but he wasn’t about to take any chances.
“Got one,” Doc said in triumph.
Saunders turned his head and caught sight of Kirby staring at him. The BAR man looked as if he were chiseled in stone. Saunders swallowed his discomfort and asked the medic, “What about the rest of ‘em?”
“I think they’ll come out just as easy,” Doc assured him.
“Good,” Kirby muttered. “Because we don’t wanna have to leave him behind too.”
Saunders became angry but didn’t say anything.
Doc did instead. “Hey, Sarge,” he said casually, still engrossed in his work. “Why don’t I speak to Captain Elsbourne when we get back, and ask about settin’ up some of the men for another short arm?” He aimed the forceps at the next fragment embedded in the skin showing above Saunders’ boot. “After all, with the company bein’ on relief the last couple of weeks, I imagine some of the guys are about due for an inspection.”
Kirby pulled in his legs and turned back to the firs. “Huh,” he grunted as he hunched forward and slid his fingertips under his helmet to tug his jeep cap lower over his ears.
Saunders almost smiled, but a sudden stinging sensation got him wincing again. Doc extracted the second fragment from the sergeant’s leg and looked up to wink at an ill-at-ease Littlejohn.
The unexpected sound of someone forcing his way through the trees interrupted the GIs.
“Safe!” Kirby nearly shouted as three weapons jerked up to shoot the intruder.
A man stumbled out of the pines and lurched toward the hiding place, his hands raised, his chest heaving as he coughed and gasped for air.
“Son of a gun,” Kirby cried. “It’s Caje!” He vaulted from cover and grabbed hold of the soldier to keep him on his feet. The two men staggered toward the abandoned foundation, and Littlejohn stood to help Caje into it.
Once inside, Caje lifted the sling of his rifle looped over the bayonet sheathed at his hip, fell to his knees, and collapsed in the center of the shallow depression.
“Hang on, Sarge,” Doc blurted, already moving to assist the fallen man. After nudging Kirby and Littlejohn aside, he put a hand on Caje’s shoulder and asked anxiously, “Where are you hit? Can you tell me what’s the matter?”
Caje shook his head. “I’m…all right,” he panted. “All…” He coughed again and turned his face away from the medic.
“Are you sure?” Doc asked, unwilling to believe he was being told the truth. He had served with King Company guys long enough to know that some of them tended to give him the brush off, whether due to an exaggerated sense of bravado or, more likely, just plain stubbornness about admitting they needed help. And Caje, over the last few days, had been one of them.
Caje nodded and waved him off, too winded to do anything else.
“Well, why don’t you let me…”
“Doc,” Saunders interrupted. “He said he’s okay.” He crushed out his cigarette and threw the butt off to his side. Seeing Doc’s worry, Saunders’ expression softened. “Just give him some time, huh?”
Doc took in the sergeant’s bloodied face and agreed. “Okay, Sarge,” he said, patting Caje’s shoulder before moving away from him. He crawled back to Saunders. “I guess I oughta finish up with you anyway.”
The sergeant gritted his teeth as Doc began working on him again. Looking at his watch, Saunders was relieved the medic was taking care of his other leg. If Caje was really okay, they’d have to get a move on. The Krauts might be right behind him. Saunders waited another couple of minutes, then asked, “Is anyone following you?”
Caje rolled onto his side. “Not that I know of.” He was still flushed and out of breath but pushed himself up, moved closer to one of the sides of the foundation, and pulled his Garand into his lap. “I was afraid of losing your tracks though.”
“Yeah.” Caje fumbled in his coat for a cigarette.
“Being on your own in these woods is rough.”
Caje nodded at Littlejohn. “You said it.”
“You want to tell me what happened?”
“Sure, Sarge. When the mortars started dropping, I slipped and lost my rifle. It seemed like it slid halfway back down the hill. Took me forever to get it.” Caje shook his head at the memory and lit his cigarette. “Then a Kraut lieutenant - who must’ve been playing dead after one of us winged him - took a shot at me from farther down the slope. I plugged him, then checked to make sure he was out of action. And when I did…” Caje paused to fish in his coat again, “I found this on him.” He pulled out a piece of paper and extended it forward.
“A map?” Saunders took the document.
Kirby couldn’t wait any longer. “How’d you keep from gettin’ hit by those mortars?” he asked.
Caje shrugged. “I don’t know. The Krauts must’ve been concentrating their fire toward the four of you, so they missed me. Once I got the map, I kept going down the hill since going up would’ve been suicide. Then I cut across it until I hit some woods. After that I started climbing again.”
“Well, don’t that beat all,” Kirby said, shaking his head in wonder. “And here I was all ready to go back for you.” He laughed. “If it hadn’t’ve been for Sarge, I probably would’ve got myself clobbered for noth…” For the third time his eyes met Saunders’, and this time Kirby was the first to look away. “Well, I’m glad you caught up to us,” he finished soberly.
Caje nodded again.
Doc spoke. “Sarge, I think I got the last of ‘em. Another few minutes and you’ll be almost good as new.” He reached for sulfanilamide and bandages.
“Make it fast, Doc,” Saunders said, opening the map. “If Caje found us, someone else could too.”
Doc dressed the cuts on Saunders’ legs while the rest of the men watched for unexpected visitors. It wasn’t long before Saunders was folding the map again.
“Doc, that’s it,” he said, his voice terse. “We’re taking off.”
“Hold on, Sarge,” Doc said. “I gotta safety pin this other leg of your pants together or you’re gonna feel a draft.”
Saunders twisted around. “I said that’s it. Get your gear together.” He reached back and pulled his trousers’ leg down over a trio of bandages and the bruises showing on his left calf. Jamming the pants back into his boot tops, he said to the others, “All of you. Off and on. Now.”
Kirby and Littlejohn stood.
Caje was slower to rise, and after gathering up the medical bag, Doc assisted him.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Fine, Doc. Just tired.”
Kirby stepped past them and reached Saunders’ side just as the sergeant finished buckling his boots.
“Sarge? Can I give you a hand?”
Saunders paused but didn’t answer. Instead, he leaned forward painfully and collected his pistol belt. He pulled it around himself and fastened it in place. Snagging the sling on his Thompson, he reeled in the gun and snugged it in tight under his right arm. He checked to make sure the map was still tucked safely inside his coat, then he looked up and raised his other arm.
Kirby grabbed it and helped Saunders to his feet. He said quietly, “Thanks.”
“Yeah,” Saunders told him in a flat voice.
Kirby pursed his lips but caught the warmth in the sergeant’s eyes and smiled.
Littlejohn piped up to ask, “Sarge, are we gonna try for Marnach again?”
Saunders turned his way and said, “No, we might only end up wasting more time. And the Krauts could have the comm wire cut and radio frequencies jammed.”
“But won’t the company be there?” Caje asked.
“Yeah, but that map needs to go back to regiment.”
The men looked at each other.
“So where’re we goin’?” Kirby asked, knowing that Saunders would simply confirm what the rest of them knew already.
“The same place we started from,” Saunders answered, moving toward the foundation wall opposite him and worrying about the information he had seen. He raised a hand to look at his watch and frowned at how soon it would get dark.