Clervaux

 

PART TWO

 

Based on the ABC Television Series:  Combat!

Story Copyright 2003 by Terry Pierce

 

 

Thanks, JMcG, for making me an offer I couldn’t refuse…

 

 

 

 

 

They never had a chance.

 

Outnumbered, exhausted, and outflanked, the Americans were flushed from the woods like quail.  They stumbled onto a wide field blanketed by drifts of new-fallen snow as the enemy closed in at their backs.  A sunken road lay a few hundred yards ahead, its sloping sides offering a breastworks suited to a last line of defense.  Slipping, falling, struggling back up, the GIs tried desperately to reach it.

 

The Germans reached the edge of the forest and turned the field into a bloodbath.

 

The first American to be hit staggered, dropped his M1, and fell to his knees.  Gushing blood from a hole in his neck, he tore at his collar, frantic to breathe.  A soldier nearby grabbed the wounded man’s arm while shouting at him to get up.  Before the GI could react, another volley of shots cut both men down.

 

The other Americans returned fire.  A machinegun roared and bullets chased them in jagged lines kicking up clouds of snow.  Tracers zipped past, piercing the air like glowing javelins.  Within seconds, another GI fell.

 

He clamped a hand over the gaping hole in his right thigh and his severed artery.  Gasping for air, he yanked open his first aid pouch.  The slush around him turned dark red as he unwrapped and tried to flap open a bandage.  More bullets snapped by his ears, and startled, he dropped it.  He clawed for the wet gauze, beginning to see double, and finally panicking, howled for help.

 

A soldier farther ahead heard the agonized cry.  Turning, he saw the bleeding man collapse.  He changed directions, running serpentine, firing his M1 from the hip.  As he got close to his squad mate, the burst from a Schmeisser caught him full in the chest.  Knocked backward off his feet, he slid into a snowdrift, a crumpled, khaki heap.

 

His commander saw the rifleman’s death a split second before being shot in the face.  The bullet slammed into his right cheek, snapped his head sideways, and exited his mouth.  Losing his submachine gun, he fell to his hands and knees.  Blood splattered the snow beneath him as he wavered, choking on his severed tongue.

 

Somehow, he collected himself, drew his sidearm, and raised his head.  The Germans watched incredulously as the lone American struggled to stand.  It wasn’t until he was upright and swinging the gun around toward them, that they finished him off.

 

Silence settled over the landscape and not a single American moved.  Blood collected around the bodies in steaming pools that stained the killing field red.  Rushing forward to descend like vultures on the corpses, the Germans pushed and shoved each other, stripping the dead of cigarettes, gloves, and boots.

 

Less than a quarter of a mile away, Saunders’ squad stood frozen in place.  The snow sifting between the men and the shadowy evergreens was the only buffer between safety and discovery by the enemy.  For a moment, no one spoke in the sudden ominous silence.  Then as another barrage started up in the distance, Littlejohn uneasily shuffled his feet.

 

“Who else you figure is out here?” he whispered.

 

“You mean besides Krauts?” Kirby whispered back.

 

Littlejohn squinted sideways.  “Of course that’s who I mean.”   

 

“Must be a small unit,” Doc said, cupping a hand over his red nose.  “I didn’t hear more’n a couple automatics and a few M1s.”

 

“That’s what I heard too,” Littlejohn agreed.

 

“What do you think, Sarge?” Doc asked.

 

“I don’t know…”  Saunders murmured, going back to his compass and trying to get an azimuth.  He leveled it and peered at its radiolite markers.  “Could be a gun crew that got overrun…some GIs from the roadblock…another patrol.”  He saw the squad was still on course and, relieved, snapped the compass shut.

 

Whattaya think happened to ‘em?” Littlejohn asked, his voice muffled by the coat collar buttoned up around his throat.

 

“They got hit,” Kirby said.  “And by a big Kraut unit that’s pretty close.”

 

“Then get going,” Saunders said, looking up, “before we get hit by it too.”

 

He signaled Caje keeping watch farther away, and the scout waved, stepped out from cover, and pointed the men north.

 

They trudged forward in a loose diamond formation, Saunders limping along at the rear.  He worried about the late hour and night falling so early this time of year.  If any more time was wasted dodging German patrols, waiting for bigger units to pass, or just trying to walk on the slippery mix of snow, moss, and pine needles, the squad could get caught in the woods after dark.

 

He stumbled over a root and, thrown off balance, grabbed at a nearby fir.  Latching onto a branch, he pulled a shower of snow down on him.  A heavy clump hit his back, and biting off an oath, he fell to his hands and knees.

 

Endless, he thought.  It was endless.  The cold.  The worries.  The misery.

 

He used to look forward to weather like this a few years ago.  Sledding, ice skating, getting into snowball fights...

 

Snowball fights.

 

He wiped his face and sucked in some air, nauseated at the thought.  Fighting, combat, battling on and on…to hell with heavenly peace.  He felt around for the Thompson and, blinking snow from his eyes, thought grimly of all the latrine rumors he’d heard recently…but known better than to believe.

 

Home for Christmas.  The whole VIII Corps.  First to Berlin, then shipped stateside in a couple of weeks.

 

Hell, he’d be glad just to get out of these woods.

 

He pushed up, clenching his teeth as pain flared in his calves, and staggered to his feet.  He leaned against the tree trunk and adjusted his helmet.  Squinting at Doc’s bloody coat just disappearing through the next row of trees, he brushed off his arms, pushed his hair out of his eyes, and lurched forward to catch up.

 

Doc was plodding along behind Littlejohn, who was preoccupied with thoughts of the Dasburg-Bastogne Highway.  Concerned that Krauts would be on it, Littlejohn fingered one of the two clips of ammunition Caje had shared.  Eventually, he increased his pace, sidled in closer to Kirby, and in a low voice asked, “Do you figure the Krauts’ve got that bridge up yet?”

 

Kirby moved his eyes from the firs on his right back to those on his left.  “If they do, I’m thumbin’ a ride back to town.”

 

“On what?  A panzer?”

 

“C’mon, Littlejohn.”  Kirby turned his head.  “On the first GI wheels I see.”

 

“Then you think no matter where the Kraut tanks are, our guys’ll be pulling out of Marnach?”

 

Kirby shrugged and looked back into the forest.  “If the new CO’s got any sense.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean, with all the tanks the Krauts got across that river…”

 

“Unless they’re already on this side,” Littlejohn interjected.

 

“…the company’ll hafta pull back.”  Kirby swept out a hand as if to dismiss Littlejohn’s pessimism.  “It can’t hold off all that Kraut armor we heard.  Not without some help from ours anyway.  So if Captain Elsbourne ain’t buckin’ for a promotion, he’ll have our guys advancin’ to the rear.

 

“But what if the colonel’s got support moving up?”

 

“So what if he does?” 

 

“We’re still attached to the 110th , right?”

 

Kirby frowned.

 

“If the reserve’s trucking forward,” Littlejohn went on, “the company’ll stay put.  And that means Sarge’ll probably get us a lift right back to Marnach.”

 

Kirby’s eyebrows shot up.  “But the whole Kraut army’s on the move!  What’s a few Bloody Bucket guys and one lousy rifle company at half strength gonna do?  The brass’d be nuts to make us try to hold on to that burg.”

 

“Well, that’s what they wanted Fox Company to do last month when it was attached to the 112th.  Those guys didn’t have anything in Schmidt except for the couple bazookas and mortars they dragged though the ravine at their backs.  And you heard what happened when the Krauts moved in their tank reinforcements; the 112th got clobbered.  Then when it fell back to Kommerscheidt, it got clobbered there too.  If it hadn’t have been for some of the fellas bugging out, nobody would’ve made it back to Vossenack.”

 

Kirby said nothing, but gritted his teeth.

 

Littlejohn, oblivious, went on.

 

“And don’t forget we were supposed to take that road junction at Raffelsbrand, even though the Krauts had the whole place mined…plus all those bunkers…boy, I’ll bet I haven’t seen that much concertina wire since we hit Omaha…”

 

“Littlejohn, do me a favor, will you?” Kirby interrupted.

 

“Sure, Kirby.  What is it?”

 

“Drop back and cheer up Doc.”

 

Surprised, Littlejohn halted.

 

Grumbling, Kirby trudged on.

 

Doc approached and, glancing Littlejohn’s way, smiled encouragement as he continued past.  Littlejohn watched the medic’s back a moment, then shrugged, hefted his rifle, and double timed to catch up.  When Doc looked his way a second time, Littlejohn asked, “Do you figure the Krauts’ve got that bridge up yet?”

 

Caje, alone in front of the group, peered carefully into the gray and white maze of trees.  Looking for snipers, trip wires, and Grenadiers wearing winter camouflage, he strained his eyes to catch anything out of the ordinary in the bleak December light.  He spotted a patch of ice and went around it, knowing better than to risk cracking through the frozen puddle and warning the enemy of his presence.  Another ambush…another round of being cornered and outnumbered, and…

 

Caje pushed away the thought and ground the heel of his hand into the bandage on his face, trying to relieve the itchiness underneath.  He wondered if Germans were on the highway.  If they were, it would mean keeping to the woods.  Plus even more hills to climb.  And with the way his…

 

Caje shook his head.  So much for that smiling and cheerfully accepting your lot in life crap.

 

He shifted his rifle to cope with its weight.  It seemed to be getting heavier by the minute.  So was his wet, mud-caked overcoat.  He glanced up at the icicles forming on the brim of his helmet and, pulling his head lower into his collar, wondered how things could possibly get worse.

 

McCall suddenly loomed in his thoughts, and Caje knew exactly how things could get worse. McCall had been alive this morning, bumming cigarettes, baiting Kirby, griping about going out on another patrol.  Now he was just another bloody, frozen corpse.  And with the Kraut push going on, KIAs might never be recovered.  McCall would lie over here and rot while his folks wondered where he was, whether he’d suffered, why they’d never get to bury their son…

 

Caje shook his head again, irritated at becoming distracted.  Too much more of that kind of thinking and he’d get himself killed next.

 

Besides, he thought, a familiar dull ache in his chest, brooding over dead men never brought any back.

 

Wishing he’d had more sleep, he forced himself to concentrate and soon noticed a change in the pattern of trees.  A clearing, a road, maybe another firebreak was probably straight ahead.  He’d seen Saunders and the Kraut’s maps and knew that the latter lay at the base of the next ridge.  Pausing, he listened carefully, but he couldn’t hear anything except the men behind him and far-off explosions.  Still, that didn’t mean much.  With at least a Kraut division sneaking up to the Our, by now half the German army could be using whatever was up there as a route of march.

 

Unsnapping the next pouch on his cartridge belt, he gave Kirby a high sign.  Kirby signaled the rest of the squad to hold up as Caje eased himself forward to check things out.  Keeping his breathing even, his muscles loose, Caje carefully slid his numb fingers along his rifle’s stock.  He took up the slack on its trigger and, ready to react if so much as a pinecone dropped, darted his eyes back and forth.

 

The silence was unnerving, the footing treacherous.  A sudden plopping noise sounded, and Caje jerked sideways, whipping his rifle to the right.  He caught sight of a nearby fir bowing under a heavy layer of snow and got out of the way as another clump slid off its branches.  Pausing to draw in a shaky breath, he made sure nothing else was moving, then he threaded his way between more fallen pine boughs and tangles of brush.  When he neared the edge of the woods, he drew up behind a large spruce and looked out into the clearing.

 

It was the firebreak, all right, but one wider than most.

 

He turned his head left, then right, listening intently and trying to guess at the break’s width.  Fog had again begun settling over everything, its milky fingers clutching at the growing shadows drawn like curtains between the trees.  He couldn’t see much, but things seemed quiet enough, and easing up a bit, he pressed his fingertips into the bandage on his cheek.

 

He shifted his gaze to the ridge lying beyond the firebreak.  Lurking in the mists, it loomed ominously, a nearly vertical slope covered with more of the endless rows of evergreens planted by the local lumber interests.  But somewhere up there, the Dasburg-Bastogne Highway slashed its way through the pines crowning its heights and led in snaky curves to Clervaux snuggled up against the ridge’s northwest slope.

 

His hopes soaring at the thought of that, Caje glanced around again in a last security check.  Then he backtracked a short distance to wave the other men up.  Moving his hand to his left shoulder, he probed at it gingerly until he spotted Doc and Saunders coming forward.  He quickly dropped his hand to the M1’s receiver and, folding his palm over it to keep its action from freezing, watched the squad form up.

 

Whattaya got?” Saunders asked when he drew near, his face red, his breath short.

 

“It’s the firebreak,” Caje answered, noticing he wasn’t the only one the day’s hike was taking a toll on.  “And it looks clear.”

 

Saunders thought of the two maps in his coat and took in what there was of a view over the scout’s shoulder.  “And beyond that?”

 

“The ridge and highway, I figure, but it’s pretty hard to see.”

 

“Okay.  Better check it out.”  Saunders reached down to tug closed the slit Doc had cut in the left leg of his pants.  “You ready?”

 

Caje wondered if Saunders knew about the blood still smeared on his face.  “As I’ll ever be.”

 

“Shake a leg.”

 

Caje turned away, pulling up his rifle, and retraced his steps.  Saunders waved Kirby left and Littlejohn right as they followed.  The two men crept farther off, down the tree line, to get into position to provide Caje cover.  Caje moved back toward the spruce, while Saunders and Doc hunkered behind a nearby log.

 

Caje checked his cartridge belt, making sure the flap over the last clip he had was still open.  A nerve in his cheek twitched.  The firebreak seemed empty, but who knew what lay on its other side?

 

He’d never get used to this job, he decided, no matter how many times he did it.

 

Nodding at Saunders, he took a deep breath.  Saunders, Kirby, and Littlejohn raised their weapons as Caje pushed the scarf mantling his head back from his face.  He exhaled slowly, checked the safety on his rifle a last time, and stepped out into the open.

 

Nothing happened.

 

His heart drumming quick-time, he took another step.  Only fifty feet, he told himself.  The firebreak couldn’t be more than fifty feet across.  And if no one shot him while he was in it, maybe the woods over there would be safe.

 

The snow became deeper, and he lifted his legs higher to keep it out of his boots.  Frozen ruts left behind by lumber carts threw him off balance, and Caje broke out in a cold sweat.  He hoped he wouldn’t slip and twist an ankle as he picked his way more carefully between snow-covered lumps.  By the time he reached the halfway point, he was breathing hard and wondering if he’d ever make it across.

 

At least he could finally see the weeds lining the opposite side of the firebreak…weeds that looked sculpted in ice…ice that would make a helluva lot of noise if he tried to push his way…

 

Something suddenly crashed out of the underbrush.  Caje spun to shoot it as a black whirlwind roared, throwing his aim off.  He swung the Garand in a vicious arc to meet the streaking blur hurtling toward him, but struck and thrown backward in a smoky red spray, he hit the ground hard, rolled once, then slid forward into darkness.

 

“Doc!”  In the tree line, Saunders lunged for the medic.  “Keep your head down!”

 

Doc sucked icy air into his lungs, his muscles coiled for action after the explosion.

 

Sarge!”  It was Kirby, his voice too high, his face white.

 

“Shut up!” Saunders yelled, still holding on to Doc.  “Just keep your mouth shut!”

 

He shoved the medic into the snow, threw a leg over him, and hissed, “Stay down!  You got it?  Stay put right here!”

 

Doc trembled as adrenaline raced through him, but he closed his eyes, nodded, and forced himself to lie still.

 

Saunders let him go, yanked out the maps he was carrying, and ran his eyes over the grids.

 

“The firebreak’s not marked,” he muttered.  “The damned thing’s not supposed to be mined…”

 

He looked up again through frosty clouds of his breath.  Maybe Krauts were laying mines over there and Caje had seen them so that’s why he’d twisted around like that.  Or maybe the Kraut engineers were finished and some unit had set up defensive positions on the ridge flanking the highway…

 

Sarge, Caje might be alive…” Doc tried.

 

“And he might be dead,” Saunders cut him off.

 

He jammed the maps back into his coat and, with his heart in his throat, crawled off Doc and toward the spruce Caje had hidden behind.  He had a fast decision to make and didn’t have time for arguments.  More Krauts were close behind and had probably heard that blast.

 

He hugged the tree and shinnied up its rough bark.  Getting to his feet, he leaned past it, but he wasn’t prepared to see Caje lying face down, surrounded by body parts, a crumpled, bloody mess.  Saunders’ knees suddenly went weak and he snapped his eyes shut, his thoughts scattering in a whirling kaleidoscope of panic.

 

“…the squad’s old men…chewed up and spit out again…whattaya wanna do next, Sargewhattaya wanna do next…”

 

What did he want to do?  Shut down.  Let it all go.  Walk into a bullet and put an end to this whole damn…

 

Sarge?”

 

But that was bullshit.  He’d do what he always did.  Just like the medic.

 

Keep it together, suck it up.  Push on and not crap out on the rest of the men.

 

And the war would go on and on and on…

 

“All right, Doc,” Saunders said, opening his eyes.  “I’m getting a fix on things.”

 

Doc lay down again, relieved, but watching him.

 

Saunders cleared his throat, steadied himself against the tree, and looked back at Caje.  The first thing to do was figure out if the guy was KIA.  The only problem was it was damned hard to tell.  Not only were the fog and storm cutting down on visibility, but Caje’s scarf and right arm covered his face.  And snow hid most of what was left of him, making it impossible to see which limbs had been blown off.  But considering all the blood and the force of the blast…

 

Saunders stared at the smoking black crater, wondering how a Bouncing Betty could have thrown Caje like that.  Castrate a man, take off a foot, but lob him a dozen feet?

 

Saunders wondered whether to go out there himself.  Check on the soldier…try to pull him out.  But he’d risk getting himself blown up, or even walk into a field of fire if the Krauts were already holding the highway and dug in below it.  And if Caje was dead, it wouldn’t make sense.  He should follow the break west, see if he could bypass the Krauts, find some other way to get the map and the rest of his men back…

 

The hell he would.

 

Saunders swung up the Thompson and fired a burst across the firebreak.  He raked the trees with half the bullets left in the gun’s magazine.  Startled, Kirby and Littlejohn yanked up their weapons, but Saunders yelled at them to keep their heads down.  He listened to the silence, then swung out from behind the tree and emptied the rest of the magazine.

 

Not so much as a Mauser answered his challenge.

 

He eased up and tipped back his helmet, hopeful now the enemy wasn’t in the woods past the clearing.  After throwing away the magazine, ducking under the Thompson’s sling, and situating the gun crossways on his back, he beckoned to Kirby.

 

“I’m going out there to see if I can reach Caje.”  He reached into his coat and raised his voice, so Littlejohn could also hear.  “Give me cover, but don’t shoot unless you see something.  If I don’t make it, get out of here and into Clervaux whatever way you can.”

 

Kirby didn’t say anything.  He only watched Saunders unholster his Colt and flip off its safety.  Saunders glanced at him, then over at Doc and Littlejohn.  He saw that if he'd wanted a volunteer to go out into the firebreak, he could've had his pick.

 

He jacked a round into the Colt's chamber and directed Kirby to take his spot behind the spruce.  Kirby hugged the back of the tree, and he and Littlejohn raised their rifles as Doc pushed up just high enough to see over the log.  Saunders pulled down his helmet again, then looking around a last time, cautiously moved out into the open.

 

In the silence, Saunders felt their eyes on him…their eyes and a hundred gray phantoms’.  He stepped carefully into the first of Caje’s footprints, flicking his gaze back and forth between the tracks in the snow and the ridge.  Lifting his legs high enough to strain his torn calf muscles, he forced himself to ignore the pain and to concentrate.

 

Move left…careful…careful…step down lightly.  Watch for Krauts…find the next track…raise the right foot.  Line up the boot…easy…easy…

 

He talked himself through the first few yards of the clearing, his heart threatening to beat right out of his chest.  He didn’t know what was worse – the slow, torturous progress he was making or nearing what might be Caje’s corpse.  But when he saw Caje move, his heart nearly stopped.

 

Caje!” he murmured in disbelief that turned instantly into panic when he realized what would happen next.  “Don’t move!”  He raised his voice.  “Stay down!”

 

Caje pulled his hand away from his face and groggily lifted his head.

 

Dammit,” Saunders muttered, nearly missing his next mark.  The blast had affected Caje's hearing, and facing the ridge, the soldier couldn’t see anyone signaling him.  But if he didn’t stop moving, he’d get himself blown to bits.

 

Caje pushed up, wobbling on his hands and knees.  He shook his head, coughed, and fell into a sitting position.  Dazed, he wiped some of the blood off his face and stared at his hands.

 

Saunders again felt a mixture of relief and mind-numbing terror.  Caje was alive and miraculously intact, but could trigger a chain reaction of explosions across the firebreak.  Trying to swallow past his constricted throat, Saunders took two more quick steps forward, sweat sliding down his ribs.  He overshot one of Caje’s tracks and, hitting a rut, felt his heel slip out from under him.  Fighting wildly for balance, he tottered forward another step and barely managed to nail the next footprint.  He paused, trembling, to straighten up and through the hair spilling into his eyes saw Caje grope for the scarf that had slipped down his back.  Horrified, Saunders knew what would happen next.

 

Caje would get the scarf over his head, then reach for his helmet.  And when he spotted the Garand lying farther away…

 

Caje!”

 

His heart beating like a stopwatch ticking off his and Caje’s last few seconds, Saunders took half a dozen more reckless steps.  Seeing Caje get his legs under him, lurch to his feet, and begin looking for the M1, Saunders came in close, shoved the Colt into his belt, and lunged forward to grab him.

 

Caje swung around, and Saunders ducked a solid right hook.  He glommed onto Caje’s shoulders before the soldier could cock back another fist.

 

Caje!  It’s me - Saunders!”

 

Caje blinked and staggered back.

 

Saunders yanked him in close.

 

Caje made a choked sound, his face pinched.

 

“Stay put,” Saunders hissed.  “You’re in a minefield.  You understand?  A minefield!”

 

Caje clenched his teeth, his eyes squeezed shut, and tried to absorb what the sergeant was telling him.  “A…minefield?”

 

“That’s right.”  Saunders said, remembering Caje’s shoulder wound and moving his hands lower.  “A minefield.”

 

“I was in a…firebreak.”

 

“You’re in the firebreak,” Saunders agreed, “but it’s mined.”

 

Caje gulped the December air, shuddering, and soon nodded his understanding.

 

“An animal…an animal.  It came right at me,” he said, opening his eyes as a bit of color returned to his cheeks.  “I think that’s what happened, anyway…”

 

Saunders tried to assess his injuries.  “Where’re you hit?”

 

Caje focused on the squad leader.  “I’m okay.  Okay.  Just hit my head…after something knocked the wind out of me.”

 

Saunders, his gloves red because of the blood covering the man, stared in disbelief.

 

Caje turned his head left, then still wobbling, tried to look over his right shoulder.  “You see it?”  He was too close to Saunders to twist around.  “Behind me?”

 

Saunders kept a hand on each of Caje’s arms and looked to see what he was talking about.  A torn carcass lay in the bomb crater a few yards away, strips of hide, pieces of bone, and chunks of flesh surrounding it.  Closest to Caje lay what was left of a head and, surprised, Saunders realized what had happened.

 

“A boar charged you?” he said, stunned by the size of the animal’s tusks.

 

Caje was looking at the blood on his coat.  “I got this all over me…”

 

Caje, I want you to pay attention.”

 

Caje stopped mumbling and looked up.

 

“We don’t have much time.  The animal got itself blown up because it triggered a mine.”  Saunders paused, still amazed by the size of the beast.  “Now, if you’re okay, we’ve got to get out of here.  The Krauts are right behind us.  But you’ve got to follow me exactly and step only where I put my feet.”

 

“In your footprints.”

 

“That’s right,” Saunders said, relieved Caje seemed to be following this.  “And I don’t want you too close.”

 

“Not too close.  Yeah.”  Caje coughed and tried to look around again.  “But I need my gun.”

 

Uh huh, Caje was more or less himself, Saunders thought.  “We’ll get you another one when we get back.”  He let go of the scout and pulled out the Colt.  “You gonna be able to walk?”

 

Caje wiped more of the boar’s blood off his face.  “I can follow you.”

 

“All right.  But remember – not too close.”

 

Saunders moved carefully past him, placing his feet where the snow had been trampled.  Spotting several more of Caje’s tracks made before the explosion, Saunders cautiously continued forward.

 

The animal’s head lay directly in his path, still bleeding from its nose and mouth.  Stringy gore spilled from its neck, and Saunders hesitated before stepping on top of it.  His gorge rose at the sensation of standing in a pile of raw meat, and he hurriedly looked for another place to land.  A chunk of flesh nearby caught his eye, so he stretched for that.  It gave way beneath him, and he wobbled, nearly slipping.

 

Just a couple more feet, he thought.  A couple more feet to get to the boar’s body and reach its tracks.  Then he could breathe easier and signal Caje to advance.

 

Step by bloody step…

 

Saunders glanced over his shoulder to make sure Caje was staying put.  What caught his eye nearly made him fall on his face.  Kirby was crossing the firebreak, with Doc and Littlejohn close behind.

 

No! Saunders signaled frantically.  Stay back!  Get down!

 

Now if he set off a bunch of mines, he’d wipe out all of his men.

 

Krauts! Kirby signaled back.  On both our flanks!

 

“Damn,” Saunders swore under his breath.  He’d hoped to have the men find a better place to cross, but from the look on Kirby’s face, the Germans were already on top of the squad and could get it cut off.  Frustrated, he waved at the soldiers to come ahead, anxious at how they were bunched up.

 

“Krauts?” Caje asked.

 

Saunders twisted back to the scout.  “Breathing right down our necks.”

 

Caje looked at the M1 again, swaying, and pressed a hand to his forehead.

 

Saunders also hated to be minus another gun, but nothing could be done about it.  Or anything else, for that matter.  Frustrated, angry, helpless, he turned back to the bomb crater and aimed for the boar’s body.  There was no way to keep his balance on it, so he simply used it as a stepping stone to reach the first – or really, last – of the boar’s tracks.

 

The animal had churned up so much snow that Saunders was able to move faster.  He turned and told Caje to come on.  He wouldn’t, though, look at the other men.

 

He forced himself, instead, to focus on what lay ahead.  Each soldier in the squad would have to get across the firebreak as best he could.  If he watched and worried about any one of them…

 

Saunders made short work of getting into the tree line.  The boar’s tracks led to where it had concealed itself to sleep away the day.  Skirting the tangle of crushed weeds to reach a pine, Saunders took cover, raised his Colt, and strained to see into the fog bank opposite him.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Caje drawing near.  And following him, Kirby.  Saunders wondered if he’d be able to hold off the Krauts for a few minutes.  If he could, maybe the whole squad would make it in.

 

He could go down the tree line and draw the Krauts off with diversionary fire, but what kind of unit was it?  A platoon?  A company?  A battalion?  Twenty one rounds and a Colt wouldn’t do much good…

 

Saunders wished he had magazines for the Tommygun.  And something in his stomach.  Maybe he wouldn’t feel so sick.

 

Off to his right, Caje came in.  The scout stumbled through the weeds and dropped behind a log.  Kirby only had a few more yards to go.  Already, he was lifting the BAR into a firing position. 

 

Saunders cursed at not being able to see the forest opposite him.  Only fog, thick and heavy, weighed down by the growing darkness.  But he could hear something now…movement…a lot of movement…somewhere over there in the invisible trees.

 

Amerikaners!”

 

Saunders jolted upright.  “Hurry up!”

 

The firebreak came alive instantly with gunfire.  

 

Kirby crashed through the weeds and dove for cover.  Back up on his knees in an instant, he let loose with the BAR.  Saunders, shooting at muzzle flashes, ducked return fire hitting the pine.

 

Doc and Littlejohn struggled forward.  Tracers zipped all around them like angry hornets.   Doc reached the boar, leapt on top of it, and jumped to its tracks, but he twisted as though hit by a baseball bat.  Staggering a few more feet, he pitched forward onto his knees.

 

Out of ammunition, Saunders yelled, “Caje!  Get me Kirby’s grenades!”

 

Caje reached over, yanked them off Kirby’s suspenders, and tossed them Saunders’ way.

 

Saunders grabbed the grenades out of the air, pulled the pins, and lobbed them as far as he could.

 

Back to back explosions slowed the firing.

 

“Hurry up!” he shouted again.

 

“Doc!”  Littlejohn vaulted the boar, tore up its tracks, and dragged the medic forward.  “You gotta get up!  You gotta run!”

 

Doc, clutching his right arm, got his legs moving under him.  Over the broken snow, he and Littlejohn plowed toward the safety of the trees.  In seconds, they blew through the underbrush.

 

“That’s it!” Saunders yelled. “Go!  Go!  Go!”

 

Kirby jumped to his feet, grabbed Caje, and pulled him into the forest.  Saunders, close behind, raced after his men.  Littlejohn set a break-neck pace until Doc suddenly shrugged out of his grasp, twisted, and hollered, “I left my bag back there!”

 

“Forget it, Doc!” Saunders shouted over Caje and Kirby’s heads.  “It’s…”

 

The first German grenade landed in the weed line and exploded at their backs.

 

“It’s gone!”

 

“But…”

 

“I said forget it!”

 

More grenades exploded and Littlejohn dragged Doc forward again.  All the soldiers ran as fast as they could toward where the ground began to slope.  They dodged tree trunks, ducked branches, and slid through snow banks.  When Saunders finally called a halt, the men hugged trees, gasping for breath.

 

Saunders stood behind them, cocking his head.  Littlejohn leaned his rifle against a fir and pulled out sulfa and a bandage.  As Littlejohn prepared to tend to Doc’s arm, Saunders strode over, picked up the M1, and ordered everyone to stay put.

 

“Where’s he going?” Kirby panted as Saunders vanished back into the fog.

 

“To make sure nobody follows us.”  Caje pressed a hand to his forehead again.

 

In seconds, the squad heard the sharp report of the Garand, mines exploding, and more German small arms fire.

 

It soon quieted, and Littlejohn turned back to Doc.  “Does it look too bad?”

 

Doc finished examining his arm and gave him a wan smile.  “No, I’m all right.  Just missin’ a chunk of skin.”

 

“Okay.  Well, I hope this doesn’t hurt…”  Littlejohn proceeded to disinfect the medic’s wound before carefully bandaging it.

 

Saunders reappeared and made his way over to the two.

 

“You okay, Doc?”

 

“Yeah, it’s just a scratch.”  He glanced over his shoulder.  “But I think Caje oughta let me take a look at ‘im.”

 

“I told you, Doc, it’s not my blood.”

 

Saunders shifted his attention to Caje and leaned the M1 against the tree next to Littlejohn.  Caje still looked pale, shaken, obviously not in the best shape, but he was on his feet, didn’t want aid, and couldn’t handle being babied.

 

“It’s all right, Doc,” Saunders said finally.  “I’ll get him checked out when we get back.  What could you do for him without your bag anyway?”

 

Doc frowned but didn’t really have an answer for that.

 

“Just take care of that arm,” Saunders said.  “Make sure Littlejohn treats you right.”

 

A smile curved Littlejohn’s lips as Doc promptly dropped his gaze to his right bicep.

 

Saunders looked at his watch and then up at the sky.

 

Sarge?  The Krauts ain’t followin’ us?”

 

“A couple tried, Kirby, but didn’t make it across the firebreak.”

 

“You don’t think the rest of ‘em’ll just go around it?”

 

“Maybe the firebreak’s a mile long.”  He gestured at the slope.  “But we’re not waiting around to find out.”

 

The soldiers got his meaning, collected themselves, and set out.  Littlejohn took the point, with Caje, Doc, and Kirby following him.  Saunders, unslinging his Thompson, carried it in a show of firepower and, feeling uncomfortably vulnerable, acted as rear guard.  He knew he couldn’t do much to protect the men, but maybe using his back to shield Kirby was better than stumbling and falling in front of everyone.

 

The climb was slow and difficult.  Although not having to contend with boulders and ledges, the soldiers struggled to make their way over the same slick mixture of pine needles and moss that carpeted all the forested Ardennes.  Caje and Doc, Saunders noted, had a particularly rough time navigating the steepest parts of the slope…but no rougher a time than he did.

 

When Littlejohn finally paused and turned around, Saunders resisted the urge to collapse.  Instead, he pushed forward to reach his lead man.  Coming in close, he panted, “What’s up?”

 

“I think we’re about there, Sarge.  Want someone to go ahead and check things out?”

 

Saunders briefly considered it.  Littlejohn could do it but was too big a target.  Kirby had the BAR and the strength but was the last one who was supposed to be sticking his neck out.  Saunders figured he had only one option.

 

“Give me your rifle and ammo.  Caje, pass your ammo up too.  If I’m not back in ten, all of you take off.”

 

Littlejohn handed over his weapon, and Saunders passed him the Thompson and pocketed the clips.  As Saunders started forward, Littlejohn guided Doc to a nearby tree where the two men knelt.  Caje and Kirby lowered themselves in place.

 

The woods were quiet.  Nothing but the faint sounds of small arms and mortar fire echoed across the dusky sky.  Kirby, grateful for the breather and a chance to sort things out, turned to Caje with a question.

 

“How’d you make it outta the firebreak back there?”

 

“You were right behind me, Kirby,” Caje said, squinting and rubbing his right temple.  “You saw how I got out of there.”

 

Kirby shook his head.  “No, I don’t mean that.  I mean, why’re you still here when you got blown up?”

 

“I didn’t get blown up.  You saw the boar.”

 

“That pig thing?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Kirby wondered why it seemed every time he talked to Caje, he wound up playing guessing games.  “You mean…the pig saved you?”

 

Caje nearly said no, but paused, then said, “I guess you could say that.  It blew up the mine.”

 

“Which, uh…”

 

Caje looked at him expectantly.

 

“Which, uh…kept you from walking into it?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Kirby thought about this for a minute, then looked satisfied.

 

“Or,” Caje suddenly added, “maybe the mine saved me.”

 

Kirby frowned.  “The mine?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“It saved you.”

 

Caje nodded.

 

Kirby looked completely bewildered now.

 

“From the boar,” Caje clarified.

 

That was enough for Kirby.  “Now look, Caje.  When somebody asks you a question, you oughta have the decency to give ‘im a straight ans…”

 

Saunders reappeared.  “Quiet down, Kirby.  Everybody – on your feet.”

 

Kirby gave Caje an accusing look; Caje only shrugged.

 

“It’s clear then, huh, Sarge?  No Krauts on the highway, I mean?”

 

“Nobody’s on it, Littlejohn.”  Saunders handed him his M1 and clips.  “Not Krauts, not our guys, not civilians.”

 

For a moment no one spoke, then Caje said quietly, “Nobody at all.”

 

Saunders confirmed Caje’s thinking.  “I didn’t even see tracks.”

 

All the men digested Saunders’ report.  If there weren’t tracks in the snow, the 110th’s 2nd Battalion couldn’t have been pulled out of reserve and some of its companies moved up to support their own unit holding Marnach.  And no civilians evacuating the village meant that Marnach had to be completely surrounded.

 

“We gotta get back, Sarge.  We gotta get into Clervaux and tell ‘em what’s happenin’ out here,” Kirby blurted.

 

“We’re doing the best we can.”

 

“Are we going to walk on the road?” Littlejohn asked.  “Or stay in the trees?”

 

Saunders thought about it.  He, Doc, and Caje would move slower if they had to walk along the steep slope.  Although there was a risk in traveling the highway, they’d get into Clervaux faster.

 

“We walk the road.”

 

He led the men toward it, and they cautiously got out into the open.  Their eyes scanned the foggy terrain as the soldiers tramped over the snowy asphalt.  The highway continued to slope up the hogback, weaving its way through canyons of pines.  Soon, though, it leveled out and Saunders, going around a sharp bend, found himself looking into a ravine running alongside its southern shoulder.  He led the men to the other side of the road, and they hugged the hillside towering off to their right, walking a bit more cautiously.  If anyone had taken a wrong step or slipped, he would have fallen to his death.

 

Within seconds, Caje said over Saunders’ shoulder, “Sarge, you smell smoke?”

 

Saunders inhaled deeply.  All the men did.  Something in the area might have been burning recently…or was burning still.  In fact, the fog seemed heavier, more opaque.

 

“Keep your eyes open,” Saunders said, his voice grim.

 

Walking slower now, those with guns raised them.  Caje pulled out his bayonet.  As more of the road became visible in front of them, the soldiers began to see things familiar but out of place with the scenery – downed trees, bomb craters, melted snow icing over, strips of rubber tires, streaks of oil and radiator fluid.  The pungent odor of gasoline hung over the highway, gasoline…and burnt bodies.  And when those bodies came into view, the squad halted, stunned.

 

The men of King Company lay everywhere.  Their convoy, which had left Clervaux at dawn, never made it in to Marnach.  Bracketed in the morning barrage, the vehicles were a line of scorched and blackened wrecks.

 

One deuce-and-a-half, its human cargo spilling out of it, was a twisted, burned-out hulk.  Three other six-by-sixes behind it had swerved out of control and smashed into the hillside.  Corpses were scattered all over, crumpled, bloody, dismembered.  More bodies lay around an overturned jeep at the head of the column, one of them crushed beneath its chassis.  Some of the trees, twisted, splintered, and fallen against the ridge, still burned, illuminating everything.

 

Saunders’ stomach flopped.  He’d seen this kind of carnage a thousand times, but not his own unit wiped out.  Most of the men of the company were raw replacements – rushed into the line to beef up platoons so seriously under strength that two of them had been down to a dozen men each.  Saunders didn’t know the new guys and neither did the veterans in his squad, but some of the dead had been outstanding combat soldiers, men with whom they’d battled the enemy, side by side, since moving inland from Omaha Beach.

 

First Sergeant Avery lay beneath the jeep.  Captain Elsbourne’s driver, he’d been behind its wheel.  The captain had been thrown from the vehicle, obviously killed instantly.  The company’s new executive officer, Lieutenant Douglas, lay behind him, farther away.  From where Saunders was standing, he could also see Davis, Brockmeyer, Kleinschmidt, and Marcus, prone, partially hidden by snow, apparently tossed out of the trucks.  And beyond them, on the left side of the highway, indentations showed where more trucks had skidded out of control and then plummeted into the ravine.

 

Doc was the first man to overcome his horror and move into action.  He stepped around Saunders and instantly went to work, rapidly checking bodies, looking for some sign of life.  Saunders followed him and was soon joined by all his men.  They moved from vehicle to vehicle, shell hole to shell hole, tree to tree, their emotions running the gamut of disbelief, anger, and grief.

 

When it seemed no one was alive, there were no survivors, Saunders began issuing orders.

 

“Kirby, Littlejohn – help me get this jeep turned over.  Caje – start getting these bodies off the road.  Doc – ”  He paused and frowned.  “Doc – just do whatever you can.”

 

“I can collect dog tags, Sergeant.”

 

Saunders looked into the medic’s eyes, saw a sadness that didn’t match the stalwart tone of the man’s voice, and simply nodded.

 

Doc and Caje moved off, and Saunders, Kirby, and Littlejohn carried the corpses of the captain and Lieutenant Douglas to the right shoulder of the road.  They returned to the jeep and aligned themselves along one side of it.  Taking hold of its chassis, they heaved it up onto its side and pushed it over onto the pavement.  The jeep bounced as it touched down, and Saunders peered into it.

 

The vehicle’s windshield and dashboard were flattened, its steering wheel broken, its gear shift levers bent.  Not only were the driver’s and passengers’ seats crumpled, but they were covered in blood.  The engine, crushed beneath the jeep’s mangled hood, made it clear the vehicle was out of action.

 

Disappointed, Saunders stooped to pick up the captain’s stained map case.  Pulling it open, he discovered all the papers inside soggy with blood.  He directed Kirby to check out the jeep’s battered first aid kit and see if the contents were okay and told Littlejohn to find out what was left of the CO’s radio and sound-powered telephones.  As the two men got busy carrying out their tasks, Saunders turned to Avery.  He looped his arms under the dead man and pulled him to the side of the road.  Laying him near the captain, he reached for Avery’s dog tags.

 

And he looked into Avery’s face.

 

He’d known the sergeant for a long time.  Went through hell and back with him too.  But it was over.  Avery’s war was done.  No more looking back, no more looking ahead, no more battles to fight either way.  Saunders shut his eyes and fought off his emotions.

 

Maybe some men’s wars, he thought, could only end this way…

 

Sarge!”

 

Caje’s voice diverted his attention.

 

“Hey, Sarge!  We got a guy alive over here!”

 

Despite having a full-blown backache now, Saunders was energized by the news and rose quickly.  He made his way to the burned-out truck just in time to see Caje and Doc pulling a soldier out from beneath it.  Getting closer, he could see that the GI was Rob Lawson.

 

Lawson had once been a member of Saunders’ squad before being given command of 3rd platoon, made up almost entirely of green recruits.  After a number of units had been wiped out in the Huertgen Forest campaign, he’d been brevetted to officer rank for gallantry in action and had the platoon built around him.  Lawson, a loner by nature but a fearless and highly decorated soldier, had eventually come around, learned to be a team player, and become one of the company’s finest lieutenants.

 

“Wait!” Lawson was gasping.  “Wait a minute!  My arm’s…” he tossed his head back, “my arm’s broken.”

 

Doc let go of the soldier’s wrist and, instead, allowed Caje to ease Lawson out.

 

Caje, carefully pulling on Lawson’s legs and then lifting him into a sitting position, leaned the twenty year old officer against the truck.

 

“Lieutenant, what happened?”

 

“Sergeant,” Lawson said, acknowledging Saunders with his characteristic reserve.  “Kraut arty.  Couldn’t go forward, couldn’t go…” he winced as Doc touched a bloody cut on his head, “back.”

 

“Lieutenant,” Doc interrupted, “can you see?”

 

Lawson blinked a couple times.  “No.  Not really.  I guess not since the shelling.”

 

“Just what I thought.”  Doc nodded and lowered his hand.  “I’ve seen this kinda thing before.  You got nicked by a piece of shrapnel that probably cut your optic nerve, and you’ve got bleedin’ in your eyes goin’ on.”

 

Saunders had also known Lawson couldn’t see.  Not only were the lieutenant’s eyes red and swollen, but Lawson was looking right past him.

 

“My arm’s a mess.”  Lawson tried to straighten up.  “Been hurting like hell since I fell out of the jeep.”

 

Doc had already turned his attention to the swollen limb inside Lawson’s bulging coat sleeve.  “I don’t doubt it…not with it bein’ in this shape.”

 

Lawson snapped his head back again as Doc examined the broken limb.

 

“Sorry, Lieutenant.  I’ll try not to move it much.”  He turned to Saunders.  Sarge, I’m gonna have trouble treatin’ this without my…”

 

Saunders was already ahead of the medic.  “Kirby!  Get over here with the med kit!”

 

Kirby waved an acknowledgement, and Saunders turned back to Lawson.

 

“How’d you wind up beneath the truck, sir?”

 

Lawson, tight lines forming around his eyes and lips as Doc worked his arm into a position to splint it, said, “Corporal Prescott turned our jeep to keep from crashing into the truck in front of us.  I think I went airborne.  Woke up on the road and could tell a lot of stuff was burning.  I crawled over to the hill and called for Prescott, but he didn’t answer.”

 

Caje and Saunders exchanged looks.  Corporal Prescott probably ended up – along with Lawson’s jeep – in the ravine.

 

“Nobody answered,” Lawson said.  “Maybe the rest of the convoy went on and my men made it in.”

 

Now Saunders and Caje looked away from each other and averted their eyes from the dead of 3rd platoon lying nearby.

 

“After a while it got cold,” Lawson continued.  “The fires started going out once it began snowing.  When this truck cooled off enough, though, I got underneath it.  As long as I didn’t touch anything under there, it was a good way to keep warm.”

 

Saunder figured that explained the soot all over the officer and why he hadn’t frozen to death.

 

“I think I might’ve fallen asleep at some point.  I’m not sure,” Lawson murmured before cocking his head.  “I’d appreciate it, Sergeant, if you’d let me know where my men and the rest of the company are.”

 

Kirby arrived with the medical supplies.

 

“Sir, if you’ll just stay quiet,” Doc said, opening the first aid kit and quickly running his eyes over the boric acid, iodine swabs, compresses, ammonia and morphine syrettes jumbled up inside, “I can get you…” he spotted the roll of gauze he’d been looking for and snatched it out, “I can get you patched up.”  He reached for the broken pieces of an M1’s stock that Caje was holding out to him and, hoping to stave off the inevitable answer Lawson would receive, began splinting the officer’s arm.

 

“Sergeant Saunders?”

 

Saunders rubbed his mouth, looked at the trees swaying as though mourning over the men of K Company, and finally answered, “They’re casualties, sir.”

 

Lawson said nothing as Doc, looking pained now, rigged him up with a sling.  Finally the officer asked quietly, “How many wounded?”

 

Saunders dropped his gaze to his hands.  “None, sir.”

 

Lawson stared sightlessly ahead as Doc pulled the eye dressing set out of the med kit, applied ointment to his patient’s eyes, and covered them with pads.

 

Saunders brushed snow away from his face and sat back.  “Kirby, check out the trucks and see if any of them’ll run.  Caje…”

 

Caje already knew what Saunders wanted him to do and got up to return to his tasks.

 

Saunders spoke to Lawson again.  “Sir, I think it’d be best for you and Doc to get yourselves up to Reuler.  Since Doc says shock’s a problem in this weather, you both probably oughta get in out of the cold.”

 

“You’re wounded, Doc?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Doc said, relieved at the opportunity to distract him.  “A bullet clipped my arm a little while ago.”

 

“How bad is it?”

 

“It just sorta smarts.  Nothin’ that a few stitches won’t fix up.”

 

Lawson seemed to consider things, then he nodded.  Reuler’s the couple of houses on the bluff above Clervaux?”

 

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Saunders said.  “At its eastern end.  There’s a trail that leads to it, not too far from here.”

 

Doc spoke up.  “I know the trail you mean, Sarge.  A couple of us guys’ve been deer huntin’ around Reuler for the past week”

 

Lawson asked Saunders, “And you and your squad are heading…?”

 

“Into Clervaux,” Saunders answered.  “I have to report in to Lieutenant Hanley, but I’ll send a jeep for you.”

 

“You’re the reconnaissance patrol that went out at 0400.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“No radio to make contact?”

 

“We didn’t draw one.  And we haven’t found one that works yet.”  Saunders didn’t add that everything in the area was crushed, in pieces, or burned.

 

“It’s pretty bad out here?”

 

Saunders filled him in on the morning’s events.

 

“With all the shelling, the Krauts probably knocked out all our lines of communication…” Lawson mused when Saunders finished.

 

“That would be my guess.  Excuse me, Lieutenant…”  Saunders turned around.  “Kirby!”

 

Yo!”  The soldier’s head appeared from beneath the hood of one of the trucks.

 

“What’s the word?”

 

“Not a chance, Sarge!  I seen better heaps in demolition derbies!”

 

“That’s what I thought…” Saunders muttered to himself.

 

“Looks like we better get walkin’ to where we’re goin’.”

 

“Looks like it, Doc,” Saunders said, turning back around.

 

Lawson spoke.  “You know the colonel’s CP has been moved from the Chateau de Bourscheid to the Claravallis Hotel?”

 

“Yes, sir.  Lieutenant Hanley said that’s where he’d be.”

 

“Okay.  Well, we’d better not slow you up…”  Lawson struggled to rise, and Doc and Saunders helped him to stand.

 

Lawson swayed but stayed on his feet as Saunders steadied him and Doc stooped to pocket some of the medical supplies.

 

“I’m leavin’ you everything, Sarge, but the eye ointment and an extra compress,” Doc said, straightening up and pulling out the dog tags he’d collected so far.  He lowered his voice.  “And here are the…”

 

Lawson heard the tell-tale clinking and interrupted him.  “Those are K Company men’s tags?”

 

“Uh,” Doc looked uncomfortable, “yes, sir.  From some of the soldiers.”

 

“Some from my platoon?”

 

Doc looked at Saunders, but the sergeant said nothing.

 

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Doc said.

 

Lawson’s tone of voice, as always, betrayed none of his emotions.  “I’ll take them.”

 

Doc handed over the tags and Lawson put them into his coat.

 

Lawson looked Saunders’ way and put out his hand.  “Be sure you get back, Sergeant.”

 

Saunders shook the officer’s hand and said quietly, “Be sure you get back too, Lieutenant.”

 

Lawson understood Saunders meant more than simply making it into Reuler, and he tipped his head.  He allowed Doc to take him by the arm as Saunders stepped back and gave him a salute.  Lawson didn’t see the military courtesy, but he glanced over his shoulder as Doc led him into the mists.  “Thanks, Saunders.”

 

A few moments later, he and Doc vanished.

 

Saunders turned back to the convoy.  Careful not to look into the faces of any more of the dead, he joined Caje in his work.  Kirby rummaged through the trucks, looking for anything salvageable, and Littlejohn took care of the corpses and body parts scattered across the eastern end of the road.

 

When they were finishing up their grim tasks a short time later, Littlejohn heard the sound of a vehicle approaching.  He paused, then straightened up and yanked his rifle off his back.  Sarge!  Someone’s coming!”

 

Saunders, his Thompson loaded now with one of the magazines he’d taken off the body of a fellow sergeant, also straightened up and pulled his weapon off his back.  Caje readied the Garand he’d found and Kirby raised his BAR.

 

“Krauts?” Saunders shouted.

 

Littlejohn was already moving to the bend in the road to see.  After a moment, he called, “I think it’s a jeep!”

 

All the men relaxed, glad to hear some good news.

 

“Come on, Caje.  Help me get this man out of the way,” Saunders directed.  “And Kirby, go get that helmet over there, then give us a hand.”

 

As Caje stooped to take the legs of the corpse Saunders was standing over, Kirby fetched the helmet.  The men hurried to get the last body off the road so it wouldn’t get run over.  The highway was still in bad shape, pocked as it was by bomb craters, but Littlejohn was already in place to flag down the jeep.

 

Standing on the shoulder of the road opposite the dead lined up on its other side, Littlejohn raised his arm and stuck out his thumb, hopeful that he and the other guys could hitch a ride.  The jeep became easier to see as it drew near, and Littlejohn was finally able to read the markings on the vehicle’s front bumper:  28-110-I  B-9.

 

Littlejohn grinned.  It was great to see B Company men!

 

He lifted his rifle to warn the driver about the ravine.  As the jeep slowed, Littlejohn could make out its two occupants reconnoitering the highway route ahead of their unit – soldiers wearing netted M1 steel pots, drab woolen scarves, GI cartridge belts, and field gray overcoats.

 

It only took a moment for Littlejohn to realize the overcoats were German, but it was enough time for the German in the passenger seat to toss a grenade his way.  As Littlejohn shouted, “Krauts!” and the jeep sped by, the grenade exploded behind him.

 

Kirby, Caje, and Saunders, alerted by his warning, poured lead into the jeep as it swerved wildly around shell holes and the burned out truck.  The Germans returned fire and threw another grenade, but within seconds lost control of the jeep and crashed into a tree.  As Saunders and Caje ran toward it, riddling its passengers with bullets, Kirby turned and raced in the opposite direction.

 

Sarge!” he screamed.  “They got Littlejohn!”

 

Saunders dashed for the med kit, scooped it up, and followed Caje to his own worst nightmare.

 

Littlejohn, his right arm blown off, lay in the middle of the road.

 

Saunders dropped to his knees opposite Kirby.  He yanked up the lid of the med kit and pulled out sulfa.  Putting his hand over the bandage Kirby was trying to tie in place over what there was of a stump, Saunders told him, “Get some morphine.  Let me do this.”

 

Kirby nodded, frantic, and reached over Littlejohn to scrabble in the med kit for a morphine syrette.  Caje, now also on his knees, got busy loosening Littlejohn’s scarf.  Saunders tore open the sulfa packet, lifted Kirby’s bandage, and immediately pressed it back into place.  With so much blood pouring out of the wound, he couldn’t disinfect it.

 

Instead, he reached for a compress as Kirby fumbled with the syrette’s cap.  Caje finished pulling off Littlejohn’s scarf and began unbuttoning the soldier’s collar.  Saunders readied the compress, pressed it over Kirby’s bandage, and reached for the bandage in his own first aid packet.

 

Sarge,” Littlejohn murmured, “Sarge, I tried to warn you.”

 

“I know you did.  And we’re all here.”

 

“I didn’t know they were Krauts…not ‘til the last minute.”

 

“It’s okay,” Saunders soothed.  “No one did.”

 

“Must’ve…must’ve got helmets…M1s…from PWs…”

 

“It’s all right, Littlejohn.  Don’t worry about it.”

 

“Hate to leave you…” Littlejohn’s words were beginning to slur, “hate to leave you this way.”

 

“We won’t have trouble carrying you back.”

 

Gonna see Gran’ma Morris soon…Cousin Homer…all of ‘em.  Been so long…”

 

“Sure, Littlejohn.  You’ll be home for Christmas.  It’ll be great.”

 

Saunders worked desperately to slow the bleeding from the stump as Kirby, with shaking hands, grasped and depressed the syrette’s wire loop to pierce its inner seal.  Caje pushed his left thumb deep into the hollow just above Littlejohn’s collarbone, putting pressure on the artery, and reached into the soldier’s coat for his belt.

 

“Billy too, Sarge.”  Littlejohn’s eyes took on a faraway look as Caje pulled off the belt and looped it around the bloody shoulder.  “See ‘im soon…”

 

Saunders looked up and into the faces of the others.  They’d all been with Billy Nelson in the Huertgen Forest when he’d stepped on a Schu mine, then maimed and helpless, been picked off by a sniper.

 

“He’ll be there,” Littlejohn mumbled, staring now into the smoke-shrouded trees.  “Him an’ Booker an’ the rest of ‘em…”

 

The belt Caje was twisting around Littlejohn’s shoulder slipped and blood spurted over Saunders’ hands.

 

Saunders grimaced, pushing the saturated bandages deeper into the gore.  “Hold on, hold on, hold on…”

 

Littlejohn groaned and Saunders looked up.  “Kirby!  Get with it!”

 

Kirby leaned over the wounded man’s legs, picked a spot, and jabbed the needle into Littlejohn’s thigh.  His stomach turned at the sight of the blood everywhere, the pallor of Littlejohn’s face, the spastic shuddering of the big man’s body, but he kept his voice level as he said, “C’mon, Littlejohn.  Stay with us now, y’hear?  You can’t be goin’ nowhere just yet ‘cause, you an’ me, we got us some talkin’ to do.”

 

He withdrew the needle and threw it away, then began talking faster, over his fear.  “I gotta brief you on them nurses you’re gonna see once they evac you to Coventry.  You remember what I was tellin’ you about that place?  Those skirts that took care of me after I got nailed at the winery?  Wait’ll you see how this one named Margare…”

 

Littlejohn coughed up blood, and Kirby threw Saunders a panicked look.

 

“Get the top of his coat open!”

 

Kirby yanked it open, and he, Saunders, and Caje blanched.

 

Another piece of shrapnel had punched a hole through Littlejohn’s back and chest.  There was so much blood from the severed arm everywhere that Saunders, Kirby, and Caje had missed it.

 

“What’ll we do, Sarge?” Kirby cried.  “What’ll we do?”

 

Littlejohn gurgled, seeming to deflate.  His chest sank lower as he shuddered, his legs twitched, and his eyelids drooped.

 

“The gauze,” Saunders gasped.  “Get the gauze out of the kit!”

 

His hands shaking badly, Kirby grabbed what Doc had left of the roll.  He desperately wadded it into a compress as Caje tightened the belt and pushed harder on the artery, urging him to hurry.

 

Saunders leaned forward, pleading, “Hold on, hold on, hold on…”

 

Littlejohn, looking at him as though from a long distance, dreamily repeated, “Hold on…hold on…hold on…” until, his voice growing weak, he murmured, “…you, Sarge,” and then he quietly let go.  On a windswept highway in Luxembourg, the closest of his surviving brothers hovering over him, the farmboy from Nebraska finally went home.

 

Saunders stared at him, stunned.  This couldn’t be happening…it wasn’t supposed to end this way.  Littlejohn was a veteran…an accomplished combat soldier…one of the squad’s old men.  And the old men were supposed to survive…supposed to live.

 

But how could you live except by…

 

Saunders lifted his head, his face going blank.

 

“Littlejohn?” Kirby blurted. He noticed Saunders’ reaction and dropped the bloody gauze.  “Littlejohn?  What are you doin’?”  He leaned forward and took hold of the dead soldier by the lapels of his coat.  “You can’t die now.  You can’t!”

 

Caje waited a moment, stricken, then reached for the BAR man, his face ashen.  “Come on, Kirby,” he said in a low voice.  “Come on…let go of him.”

 

Kirby shook him off.  “Littlejohn…” he continued to plead, “you can’t cash in!  We ain’t done with the war yet.  Remember how we was gonna go to Paris once we got this thing licked?  Have us a time?  See us some sights?” 

 

Looking tortured, Caje turned to Saunders for help, but he saw the sergeant staring past him, at the trees green with life in the dead winter landscape.

 

Caje swallowed the lump in his throat and tried again to pull Kirby off.  “Kirby…”  He put both hands on the soldier’s arms and began tugging at him.  “Kirby, come on…”

 

Kirby jerked his head up.  “That’s it, huh?” he sputtered, trembling, his face turning red.  “We go on and leave him here…business as usual…no big deal.”

 

Caje flinched as though he’d been slapped.

 

Kirby’s voice rose.  “Yeah, leave him behind too, just another dead GI,” he jabbed a finger at the corpses lining the roadside, “just like all the rest of ‘em…”

 

“Come on, Kirby,” Caje said under his breath.  “Take it easy.”

 

“…just like us.”  Kirby pushed up, swiping at his eyes and looking around wildly.

 

“What are you doing?” Caje asked, alarmed and glancing once more at Saunders.        

 

“What do you care?” Kirby snapped as he stooped to pick up the BAR.

 

Caje lunged forward to grab Kirby’s sleeve.  “You can’t go anywhere.  You’ve got to stay here!”

 

“The hell I will!” Kirby shouted.

 

He pushed Caje and the scout lost his balance.  Still hanging on to Kirby’s coat, Caje dragged Kirby down with him.  Furious, Kirby shoved him, hard, a second time and, losing his grip, Caje fell on his back.

 

“Keep your meat hooks outta me, Frenchman!”  Kirby jabbed a finger into Caje’s chest.  “I’m through with you, and I’m through with all this!”

 

He grabbed the BAR, got to his feet, and stomped off.

 

Panicked, Caje turned to Saunders.  Sarge, you got to do something…”  He almost got up, but slipped on Littlejohn’s blood and fell a second time.  Clutching his left arm, he wheezed, “Kirby’s going for the Krauts.  He’s out of his head!”

 

Saunders sat silent, unmoving.

 

Broken, ruined, and dead…

 

Caje shivered at the memory of the words he’d once heard Saunders use to describe a battlefield, and he dropped back, casting his eyes in Kirby’s direction.  Finally giving in to frustration and grief, his voice cracked with emotion.  “Maybe Kirby’s right.  Maybe we’d all be better off dead.”

 

Saunders swung his head around.  His eyes narrowing, he snarled, “Knock off that kind of talk.”  Then his hands began shaking, and the color suddenly drained from his face.

 

Caje froze, his own face going white.

 

A rumbling noise sounded, faint but unmistakable in the distance.  Snow began falling in shimmering puffs off the trembling pines.  Again Saunders felt the ground vibrate and more tremors – stronger now – run though his legs.  He knew he’d felt them…a warning that heavy vehicles were on the move.  German vehicles – halftracks and troop carriers – were grinding up the highway toward the disappearing BAR man.

 

Adrenaline surged through him and Saunders wiped his bloody hands on his pants.  “Get Littlejohn squared away, catch up any more supplies and ammo you can, and hide yourself in the woods.”  He grabbed his Thompson.  “I’ll get Kirby, then pick you up.”

 

Caje tried again to stand.  “You don’t think it’s too late?”

 

Saunders loaded a fresh magazine into the submachine gun, lurched to his feet, and hoisted Caje up.  “It better not be.  He’s designated man to report in, so I gave him the Kraut map.”

 

Caje took hold of Littlejohn and watched the sergeant disappear around the bend in the road.

 

Saunders spotted Kirby and, increasing his speed, aimed himself at him.

 

Kirby heard him coming and twisted around.  “I ain’t goin’ back with you, Sarge!” he shouted.  “I ain’t goin’ back!”

 

Saunders didn’t respond, but simply threw himself forward and tackled him.

 

Both soldiers dropped in a flurry of snow.  Sliding across the pavement, they wound up without weapons and helmets, breathless and stunned.  But Saunders pushed up, yanked Kirby over onto his stomach, and flung himself on top of him.

 

Kirby, spitting and snarling, began fighting like a crazed tiger.

 

Saunders, straddling him, grabbed Kirby’s right arm.

 

Dammit, Sarge!” Kirby yelped and tried to hit him with his left.  “Get off me!”

 

Saunders grabbed for that arm and held it down too.  “Why?” he panted.  “So you can fight the war by yourself?”

 

Kirby, trying to wriggle free, thrashed and kicked wildly.  “The Krauts killed Littlejohn!”

 

“That’s the nature of the business, Kirby,” Saunders tightened his grip on the struggling soldier, “the nature of the beast!”  He pressed his weight forward, pinning Kirby to the ground.  “It’s what we’ve known since we got over here – that any one of us could wind up dead!  What happened to Littlejohn could’ve happened to you or me or Caje or anyone else, at any time.  Nothing’s changed!”

 

“But, Sarge!” Kirby wailed.  “It’s my fault he got it…my fault about the jeep!  He would’ve never tried to hitch a ride if I hadn’t…”  He arched his back, trying to throw Saunders off.  “I’m through runnin’.  Lemme up.  We been runnin’ all day!”

 

Saunders bore down so hard that Kirby moaned.  “You wanna make a stand?  Good!  ‘Cause that’s what we’re here for!  But we’re gonna do it my way, a way that won’t get us killed!”

 

“I don’t care if I get killed!”

 

Incensed, Saunders wrenched Kirby’s right arm behind his back.  “You don’t, huh?” he snarled into the now whining man’s ear.  “Well, you’d better, because you don’t have that luxury.”

 

Kirby howled as Saunders continued to force the arm up higher.  If it took breaking it to rein Kirby in, that was what Saunders intended to do.  But when he saw Kirby’s hand clamped in his own, he suddenly thought of another man he had tried to hold on to that day – a man who had struggled to live.

 

“Kirby…”  He faltered, then he resorted to pleading.  “Kirby, you can’t go anywhere, because you don’t want to lose this war.”

 

Kirby groaned, his face a fiery red.

 

“If you end it this way…if you go off like this, a hundred more GIs like McCall and Littlejohn’ll get it since you didn’t stay up here and make a real stand.”

 

Kirby shuddered, still resisting, but turned his head.

 

“And you didn’t have anything to do with Littlejohn’s death any more than I did with McCall’s.  We were there for ‘emwithem…right to the end.  Right to the end, Kirby!”  Saunders tightened his grip once more.  “Right to the end!”

 

Kirby closed his eyes, trembling, beginning to waver.

 

Saunders realized he was getting through to him and urged, “So you hang on to that…” he remembered Littlejohn’s last words and swallowed thickly, “…you hold on to that…right to the end.”

 

Kirby sagged and, with another groan, at last gave in.  “All right, Sarge.”  He sank heavily into the snow, gasping and wheezing for breath.  “All right.  You win.”

 

Saunders, near his emotional breaking point, loosened his grip, shaken and completely drained.  He heard the Germans rumbling closer and tried to calm down.  Still holding on to Kirby, he rolled off him, got to his knees, and pulled him up.  Then standing, he pointed at the BAR and said, “Grab that and your helmet so we can pick up Caje.”

 

Kirby nodded, rubbing his arm, and stooped to do what he was told.  Saunders, his hands shaking badly now, tried to hide it from Kirby as he retrieved his own helmet and gun.  He’d lost McCall, lost Littlejohn, and nearly lost this man beside him.  He tilted his head, signifying Kirby was to move out ahead of him, and wiping the sweat off his face, followed him up the road.

 

In minutes, the wreckage of the convoy again loomed out of the smoke.  Although Caje wasn’t anywhere to be seen, Littlejohn’s body had been pulled off the road and covered with what was left of a blanket from a bedroll.  Kirby made a strange sound deep in his throat, and Saunders took him by the arm to keep him from getting too close.

 

Caje,” Saunders called softly, scanning the woods.

 

A dark form appeared from between the trees on the hillside opposite Littlejohn, and Saunders steered Kirby toward the shadowy figure.  Kirby continued to struggle for his composure but allowed himself to be pulled along.  When Saunders reached Caje after a short climb, he put Kirby out in front and ordered him to go on.  He and Caje followed the BAR man farther up the hill until Saunders called a halt, deciding they’d put enough distance between themselves and the highway.

 

He looked Caje over and panted, “Supplies?”

 

“Grenades from the case in the jeep and more ammo for you and me.  None for Kirby, though.”

 

Saunders nodded, not surprised.  “Banks, Jeffreys, and Carpone weren’t around.”

 

Caje confirmed the statement.  “Never did find their bodies.”

 

Saunders hadn’t seen any corpses wearing automatic riflemen’s belts, so he’d guessed that the last of the company’s BAR men had either burned to ashes or died in the ravine.  He rubbed his forehead.  “You find any food?”

 

“Nothing not burned or ruined.”

 

“What about water?”

 

Caje wordlessly passed the sergeant and Kirby each a canteen filled with warm water.  He’d discovered both on dead men near the smoldering truck that Lawson had been under.

 

Saunders replaced his empty canteen with the full one and said, “Anything else?”

 

Caje said nothing, but Saunders saw a question in his eyes – should he hand over Littlejohn’s dog tag and personal effects?

 

In front of Kirby?

 

Saunders answered the question with a slight shake of his head and said, “Okay.  Let’s go.”

 

He turned and, moving parallel to the highway, began trudging west.

 

Kirby took a step to follow him but paused and looked back.

 

Caje, you need some help with that gear?”

 

Caje, sagging under the weight of the three bandoliers looped around his neck, the charred musette bag stuffed with grenades hanging off his right shoulder, and the M1 he’d scavenged, said nothing.  His eyes became cold, his face impassive, but he did lean his rifle against a tree and reach up to pull off one of the bandoliers.

 

Kirby, glad to have a way to make amends for what had happened on the road, gave him a tentative smile and said, “Yeah, you oughta let me carry that.”  He took the bandolier and looped it around his neck before turning to cut across the slope.  When he’d gone just a couple of feet, he heard Caje clear his throat, and he stopped again, knowing what that meant.

 

“Okay, Caje,” he said, turning back.  “You’re right.  I can carry more stuff.”

 

Caje’s face remained stony as he took off another bandolier.

 

Kirby accepted and situated it around his own chest.  Hopeful now that Caje would let bygones be bygones, he said, “Ready?”

 

Caje, continuing to look grim, only held out the musette bag next.

 

Kirby frowned.  “Come on, Caje.  You know how heavy my rifle is.”  He resisted the urge to scowl in Saunders’ direction.  “Besides, one of my arms hurts.”

 

Caje only extended his own arm farther and waggled the bag back and forth.

 

Kirby sighed.  “Okay.  But I never figured you were one to hold a grudge.”  He took the bag and slung it over his shoulder.  Unable to keep a note of sarcasm out of his voice, he asked, “Anything else?”

 

Caje seemed to think for a moment before he reached into a pocket of his coat.

 

Kirby rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything until he saw what Caje pulled out next.

 

A gleaming, black Luger nestled cold and deadly in the palm of Caje’s hand.  The pistol’s grip, polished to a high sheen, magnificently offset the dazzling luster of the weapon’s silvery blue-black barrel.  Kirby thought it was the most fantastic gun he’d ever seen, and he wondered how Caje had such luck to find it on the Kraut with the map.  Everyone else would’ve given his eyeteeth to have such a beauty, but here was Caje – just to show he had no hard feelings – ready to give it away…

 

“Thanks, Caje,” Kirby breathed, overwhelmed by such generosity and reaching eagerly for the gun.  “I ain’t never gonna forget thi...”

 

Caje yanked the Luger back in toward himself with a “You’re right.  I shouldn’t saddle you with too much.”  He dropped the pistol into his pocket again and stooped to retrieve the M1.

 

Kirby gaped, his mouth hanging open.  He’d been had, and he finally knew it.  Caje,” he sputtered, “you got no heart.”

 

Caje clapped him on the cheek and, carrying his Garand at sling arms, stepped past Kirby to follow Saunders.

 

Kirby, stumbling under his burdens, trailed after him, uttering a few choice curse words.

 

The two soldiers didn’t walk far before they caught up to their commander.  Saunders hadn’t been moving any faster than he had all afternoon.  As the three men continued to trek along the ridge, they listened to the lead elements of the German advance column rumbling forward below.  Night was falling over the mountain ridge and fast descending on Clervaux; Hitler’s armies were pouring through the Ardennes.

 

Saunders looped an arm around a tree trunk and pulled out his binoculars to try and make a unit identification, but with the smoke, the fog, the darkness, and the pines obstructing his view, he could barely see anything beyond a few feet.  Frustrated, he listened to a German shouting orders – undoubtedly some Kraut commander ordering his men to get the road repaired and cleared – then he slid the binoculars back into its case.

 

He knew that Marnach must’ve fallen.  Reconnaissance units moving up and troops being deployed along the highway in defensive positions could only mean the roadblock had been knocked out and the Krauts had taken the village.  Why hadn’t the colonel committed his reserves and displaced them forward in support of Company B?

 

“Wish our engineers had had time to rig up an abatis down there,” Caje commented quietly beside him.

 

Saunders thought about the type of roadblock Caje was referring to and silently agreed.  The engineers could’ve hewn notches into the trees lining both sides of the highway, fastened TNT blocks and primacord to some of the trunks, then felled the whole kit and kaboodle just as the enemy approached.  It would’ve given the 110th in Clervaux more prep time to fight a delaying action, and might’ve even completely stopped the Krauts in their tracks.  Saunders rubbed his jaw.  For some reason, the brass hadn’t had the foresight to put any adequate defensive measures in place.

 

“Well, they’d better get something rigged up outside the fuel dump near Stavelot,” Saunders murmured to himself.

 

“They’d better, Sarge,” Caje said, overhearing him, “or the Krauts are going to be able to carve out one hell of a salient.”

 

“Even if we could just rig some daisy chains it’d be better than letting the Krauts roll into Clervaux like they were some kinda Easter parade,” Kirby chimed in.

 

“Easter’s got nothing to do with this, Kirby.  And where would we get anti-tank mines to tie together, let alone the luck to pull them across the road?  Come on,” Saunders slapped him on the back, “let’s get going.  Maybe we can still work our way into town and at least get HQ to warn some of the forces farther north.”

 

The three men resumed their journey along the ridge as German units continued working on and traveling the road below, the sound of their shouts and vehicles’ engines carrying up the hillside.  Saunders wove his way around the many bomb craters pocking the hill but eventually lost his balance and fell into one.  Biting his lip to keep from groaning and no longer able to see his hand in front of his face, he realized he had to make a decision.

 

“Hold up,” he gasped, so that Caje and Kirby wouldn’t fall into the hole, on top of him.  “We’re gonna have to hold up.”

 

“You mean ‘til mornin’?” Kirby whispered, looking around and wondering where Saunders’ voice was coming from.

 

Saunders didn’t answer right away, trying to catch his breath.  He hated the idea of socking in for the night, but what else could he do?  He and the others had a better chance of running into downed trees, breaking legs by falling into more shell holes, or even walking into the enemy than they did finding their way into Clervaux in the pitch dark.  Sure, he had his compass and map, but holding a flashlight over them, to see the damned needle and contour lines, while sitting right smack in the middle of a major Kraut advance?

 

None of them would make it into Clervaux then.

 

“Yeah, Kirby.  ‘Til morning.”  He felt around, wincing since he’d wrenched his back again, and extending his legs, he tried to ascertain the size of the hole. 

 

Caje leaned forward.  Sarge, you need a hand out of there?”

 

Saunders pushed himself backward a good ten feet.  The crater was big, probably made by the shell from a railroad gun, its floor steeply pitched.  It was large enough to accommodate three men, with room to spare – a ready-made dugout.

 

“No.  You and Kirby see if you can collect some pine branches, then get yourselves in here.  But don’t go far and don’t fall down the hill.”

 

Caje and Kirby cautiously moved off, and Saunders used his helmet to scoop snow out of the shallow end of the crater.  It would be the best place to sit or lie down.  The deeper side of the hole – maybe five feet deep   would protect a man on sentry duty overlooking the highway.

 

Just as he finished clearing out the snow, Caje and Kirby returned.  Their arms were laden with the branches they’d found nearby, blown off the trees during the German barrage.  Saunders took enough boughs to carpet nearly half the shell hole’s floor.  He then ordered Caje and Kirby to eat what was left of their K-rations and get some sleep, and blanketed them with the rest of the branches once they got settled in.  He moved to the deep end of the crater, pulled his coat in tight around himself, and stood the night’s first watch.

 

And he refused to relive the day’s losses.

 

 

 

 

Some hours later Caje, hunched over the rim of the bomb crater, miserable, and pulling guard the second time that night, put his gloved right hand between his teeth to quiet their chattering.  His eyes were ringed by exhaustion and he’d lost most of the feeling in his lower legs a half hour ago.  Had the same been true of his left shoulder, he would've considered it an advantage.  More stiff and sore than he remembered ever being, he wanted desperately to stop shivering.

 

He knew Doc would have had him in Reuler by now had the medic known about the amount of blood staining his shirts.  A quick exam and he would’ve been out of action.  But Saunders wasn’t in the best shape himself, and the last thing the sergeant needed was to be minus another rifleman.

 

Caje pushed away his regret over missing out on the modest comfort of some local family’s parlor, and standing in the icy slush flooring the deep end of the crater, he carefully laid the M1 on the shell hole’s rim.  He bit down on the glove in his mouth and pulled his hand free but kept the leather between his teeth to muffle any sounds he might make as he examined himself.  He reached into the collars of his shirts, probed gingerly at the area around the sodden bandage just above his collarbone, and nearly sighed in relief.

 

The bleeding seemed to have stopped.  Grateful, he wondered if the raw tissue would scab over again so he wouldn’t have to be stitched up a third time.  If he got some extra padding in place, maybe the M1 wouldn’t keep tearing the wound open.

 

Glancing at the men sleeping nearby, he fumbled at his belt and got hold of a bandage.  He moved as quietly as he could to slip it inside his collars, but he didn’t know how to secure it on his shoulder.  With his coat and shirts on, he couldn’t tie the bandage around himself.  And he sure couldn’t ask Saunders or Kirby for help either.  If the sarge found out he hadn’t been up front about the shape he was in, he’d probably catch hell for...

 

Saunders’ voice startled him.  “How long have you been messed up?”

 

Caje felt his face grow hot as he slowly withdrew his hand from his coat, pulled the glove from his mouth, and answered, “I don’t know.  A little while, I guess.”

 

Saunders frowned, climbed to his feet, and limped across the shell hole.  Reaching Caje, he turned him so they were facing one another and slid a hand into the soldier’s coat.  Saunders discovered the sticky shirtfront that told him everything he needed to know, and feeling a pang of guilt over detailing Caje to the reconnaissance patrol, he said, “You’ve been having a pretty rough time of it, haven’t you?”

 

Caje said nothing, knowing the sergeant didn’t expect an answer.  Instead, he struggled to keep quiet as the squad leader continued his examination.

 

When Saunders felt the lump of gauze Caje had left in place – and a growing lump in his own throat – he asked, “You want some help with this thing?”

 

Surprised that he wasn’t going to be chewed out, Caje accepted the offer.  “Yeah, Sarge.  I could use a little cushioning against the rifle.”

 

“And you might start bleeding again too.  Come on.”  Saunders pulled him forward, out of the slush, to the side of the hole where they could kneel without getting wet.  Turning his head, he whispered, “Kirby,” and nudged the sleeping man sitting slumped over nearby.  “Get up.  You’ve got the watch.”

 

Kirby flinched, looked around, and grunted a sleepy, “Okay,” before picking up his BAR and staggering to the deep end of the hole.

 

Saunders helped Caje to the crater floor and set aside the soldier’s M1.  Caje took off his scarf and began unfastening more of his coat buttons, but Saunders silently moved the man’s hand out of the way and took over the task himself.  In moments, he had the coat and wool shirt underneath open to Caje’s waist.  Getting him to lean forward, he eased the clothing off the scout’s left shoulder.  He maneuvered Caje’s left arm out of his turtleneck and left the shirt in a tangle around Caje’s neck.

 

Caje began gasping for breath as his bare skin came into contact with the bitter night air.  Sarge,” he wheezed, agitated at the sudden increase in pain and because he couldn’t keep quiet.  “I…my glove.  By…by Kirby…”

 

“Kirby!”  Saunders twisted sideways.  “Get the…!”

 

Kirby was already ahead of him and leaning forward to hand over the glove Caje had left lying in the snow above the shell hole.  Saunders grabbed it and passed it on to Caje who immediately jammed it into his mouth.  As Caje clung to the side of the crater, trying desperately to hold himself steady, Saunders fixed the bandage.

 

He folded it over Caje’s shoulder and threaded the gauze ends under Caje’s arm, back up under the turtleneck, and around the soldier’s neck.  Tying it off, he worked Caje back into his shirts, grabbed the scarf at his own neck, and knotted it around the shivering man in the same fashion as the bandage.  He pulled up Caje’s coat, guided the soldier’s arm into it, and buttoned it shut.

 

Caje slumped backward, weakened by pain and fatigue, and no longer able to fight it.

 

Saunders helped the exhausted man with his scarf, arranged his legs in front of him, and pulled the impromptu gag from his mouth.  “Think this’ll work better on your hand now?” he asked.

 

Caje managed a faint smile and murmured, “Thanks.”

 

Saunders put the glove on him as Caje sank lower inside his coat, his eyes slid shut, and he quickly fell asleep.

 

Kirby, hearing the scout’s slowed breathing, asked, “You figure he’s gonna hold up much longer?”

 

Saunders said nothing, but arranged the pine boughs over Caje.  When he finished, he settled in next to him, listened to long range fire pounding targets farther north, and finally answered, “He’ll have to.”  He looked up at the starless night, knowing that it probably meant another overcast day ahead of them tomorrow and no planes would be appearing out of nowhere to pull off a second rescue.  Tugging closed his open pant leg, he also noticed he’d been bleeding since Doc patched him up, and he added, "We’ll all have to.”

 

Kirby hugged the BAR closer, his eyes narrowing.  “Yeah,” he said to the darkness.  “We will.”

 

Saunders heard more in the other man’s response than the simple words that had been spoken and he shut his eyes.

 

…the nature of the business…

 

“Wake me up in two hours, Kirby.”

 

It grew colder after that and no more words passed between them.

 

 

 

 

 

Kirby jerked his head up when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

 

“Come on, Kirby,” a voice said, just before the hand shook him roughly a second time.  “Get the lead out.”

 

Kirby snapped his eyes open and looked into Saunders’ grizzled face.

 

It’s dawn – time to saddle up.”

 

Woozy and stiff with cold, Kirby coughed, wiped his nose on his scarf, and turned his head.  Caje was still sitting beside him and also blinking himself awake.

 

Saunders’ tone was insistent.  “The Krauts are dug in along the highway.  Sounds like heavy stuff’s just beginning to move up from Marnach.  You two pull yourselves together, then follow my tracks up the hill.  I’m going higher to see if I can fix our position.  If I can, maybe we can find a better route into town.”

 

“Okay, Sarge.”  Kirby tried to sit up straighter and discovered the lower part of his coat was not only frozen solid but also stuck to the crater floor.

 

“No cigarettes.  And make sure your guns are operational.  Kirby, give me the Kraut map so I can figure out where any other units might be moving.”

 

Kirby, all for staying out of the Germans’ way, handed it over.  “You got it, Sarge.”

 

Saunders took the map.  “All right.  See you farther up.  But watch yourselves – this hill is lousy with Krauts.”

 

He gave Caje a quick pat on the arm, raised his Thompson, and got to his feet.  He pulled up his coat collar and hoisted himself out of the shell hole.  Hanging on to whatever trees he could reach, he began scaling the hogback’s heights.

 

Kirby shrugged off the evergreen branches covering him and scratched himself before stretching his legs.  He still had feeling in them and was grateful he’d been careful to move around during his watches and then swapped out his socks.  He reached for his BAR but scowled when he realized he still hadn’t tugged his coat loose.  Looking over at Caje who was examining his Garand, he asked, “You stuck to this hole?”

 

“Not anymore.”  Caje didn’t look up.

 

Spendin’ the night in weather like this…” Kirby pulled on his coattails and then gave them a mighty yank, “oughta get us a increase in combat pay.”  He frowned at the amount of snow that fell off his helmet and shoulders and into his lap.

 

Caje said nothing, but continued examining the M1.

 

Kirby gestured at it.  “You figure that thing’s gonna work?”

 

Caje shrugged.  “Doesn’t look like condensation’s iced up the trigger mechanism or fouled the gas cylinder.”  He finally raised his head.  “Yours?”

 

“Are you kiddin’?  I take care of ol’ Bertha here.”

 

Kirby picked up his weapon and took stock of it again – how the bolt group was traveling, whether there was any fouling in the gas cylinder, and whether the regulator was set to the smallest port.  He turned the regulator knob clockwise as far as it would go, then made sure the selector lever on the left side of the trigger housing was in the S position.  After all, he didn’t want to risk leaving the safety off and wasting precious bullets if he fell down the hill.

 

He creaked his way to his feet, ducked under the BAR’s sling, and put what gear they had on the bomb crater’s rim.  Then he glanced at Caje.  “Ready?”

 

Caje was picking at a corner of the tape on his cheek and soon pulled off the bandage it secured.  Tossing the gauze aside, he raked his fingers over the ugly cut on his face and said, “I feel like hell, Kirby.  Just give me a second.”

 

“To do what?  Make a bigger mess outta yourself?”  Kirby stooped and clamped a hand around the scout’s arm.  “You keep scratchin’ at that, and I’m tellin’ Doc you ain’t been followin’ orders.”

 

“Traitor.”

 

“Goldbrick.”

 

Kirby tugged at him and Caje rose, but when he was nearly three quarters of the way to his feet, he twisted suddenly, lost his hold on the Garand, and nearly fell.

 

Kirby pulled him forward, grunting, Your legs?”

 

“Yeah,” Caje said between gritted teeth.

 

“You’ll be okay once you start walkin’."  Kirby struggled to brace him up.  “You just slept in one spot too long and now you gotta get your blood movin’ again.”

 

Caje battled to straighten up, his face contorted in pain.  His legs felt as though fiery nails were being pushed through them.  He clung to Kirby as the soldier pulled him up and over the shell hole’s rim, then he tried to stay standing as Kirby retrieved the M1.

 

“You could use this as a crutch.”

 

Caje looked at the rifle and nearly lost his balance.

 

“You better, ‘cause I ain’t carryin’ you.”  Kirby gave him the M1, put on the bandoliers, and stooped to pick up the musette bag.  “I got enough to carry as it is.”

 

“That’s right…” Caje said, putting a hand into his coat pocket.

 

“Oh, no…” Kirby shook his head, “not again.”  He saw Caje pull out the same Luger and proffer it forward.  “You ain’t makin’ a fool outta me twice’t.”

 

“It’s yours, Kirby.”  Caje tried to keep his voice even despite the pain in his legs.  “I mean it.”

 

Kirby’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the gun.  “What for?  You tryin to bribe me to carry you?”  He made no attempt to accept the gift.

 

Caje’s expression changed and his voice became quiet.  “It’s the gun of one of the Krauts who killed Littlejohn.

 

Surprised, Kirby looked into Caje’s eyes and saw something he well understood.  And more – Caje understood him.  He dipped his head, took the pistol, and pocketed it with an equally quiet, “Thanks.”

 

Caje slung the Garand forward over his shoulder and put an arm around his friend.

 

Kirby adjusted Caje’s arm higher on his shoulders, put the BAR into a more comfortable position, and took a last look around.

 

“All set?”

 

Caje nodded, and the two men set out.

 

Once they had gone a dozen yards, Caje no longer needed Kirby’s help to walk.  He pulled away, fell back a step, and moved in an unsteady gait behind him.  But when Kirby entered a shadowy row of trees, Caje suddenly yanked on the BAR man’s sleeve.

 

“What the…?”

 

They heard the bolt of a gun being drawn back.