Recovery

Based on the ABC Television Series:  Combat!
Fan Fiction Take-Off on the Episode "The Leader"
Copyright 1999 by Terry Pierce
Do Not Reprint or Distribute without the Author’s Permission.  All Rights Reserved.
Bayonet
Part I
 

Sergeant Saunders leaned casually against the stone face of the house at the end of the Rue de Tir.  For once the day had dawned clear and sunny, and he considered it a novelty to be outside without having to endure another downpour.  Idly studying the row of houses across the street from him, he tried to imagine what they’d looked like before they’d been flushed of Germans the week before.  The buildings were mostly intact but all bore mute testimony to the recent fighting.

GIs were billeted among them now, and the French were coping with the soldiers’ intrusions.  They’d adopted a routine of bartering for food, cigarettes, and clothing in exchange for services rendered, and the Americans were getting their meals home-cooked, their souvenirs supplied, and their laundry done.  Things were peaceful, and the company was getting some much needed down time.

Saunders was no exception.  Having managed to get in a little relaxing of his own, he felt better for it.  The headaches that had been plaguing him since last month had finally disappeared.  He’d been creased by a bullet when the Germans were making their move toward Mortain but considered himself lucky to have gotten off with only that.  A lot of guys had received much worse for having been in the enemy’s way.

A cigarette dangling from his lips, he looked at his watch.  He wondered what was keeping the jeep.  He looked up the street and smiled at a dark-haired young woman moving in his direction.  When she noticed his attention, she averted her eyes and quickened her pace to pass.  Saunders enjoyed her retreating figure for a moment before glancing at his watch again.

The roar of an engine caught his attention, and he looked up to see a jeep careening down the narrow street.  Pedestrians flattened themselves against the walls of nearby buildings at its approach, and an enlisted man using some colorful language loudly suggested that the driver of the vehicle slow down.  But Saunders had ridden with Jackson Rawley before and knew the man in the street’s advice would go unheeded.  Rawley was an absolute maniac behind the wheel.

Saunders straightened up, pulled what was left of the cigarette from his mouth, and dropped it on the pavement.  The jeep bounced to a stop a few feet away, and he watched as the soldier sitting in its passenger's seat recovered from being thrown against the dashboard.  The man righted himself, reached for his gear, then clambered over the jeep’s side with an unconvincing, "Thanks, Jack."  Rawley tipped his head, ground the gears for a moment, and roared off in a cloud of exhaust.  His passenger watched the driver's departure before straightening his beret and shaking his head.  Saunders grinned and moved forward to greet him.

"I see you finally made it back in one piece," he said, extending his hand.

Caje reached to shake hands and grinned himself.  "Yeah, except for my stomach.  I think it’s still on the floor in the back of that thing somewhere."  He turned to look after the jeep once more and shrugged his shoulders helplessly.

Saunders laughed and clapped him on the back.  "Well, we’ll scrounge you up another one just as soon as you report in."   He led Caje up the steps to the house’s small entry and put a hand on the door.  Pausing, he turned around and asked, "So, how are you, Caje?  Feeling okay?"

Caje knew by the sergeant’s tone and expression that this wasn’t a social pleasantry.  Saunders wanted to know what kind of condition first squad’s scout was in and whether or not he was still suffering any negative effects of the ordeal he’d been through.  Expecting the inquiry, Caje answered smoothly, "Yeah, Sarge.  I’m doing all right."

Saunders studied him for a moment, then nodded.  "Okay.  Good.  Then after you check in with the lieutenant I’ll show you where we’re set up."  He turned to the door again and said over his shoulder, "It’s good to have you back." 

"Yeah," Caje said, clearing his throat.  "Thanks."  He followed Saunders into the house.

Lieutenant Hanley, sitting in the small front room, summoned the pair silently.  Several maps, along with a stack of papers and the usual communications equipment, lay on a table in front of him.  A mostly empty coffee cup and half eaten sandwich were nestled in the mess and looked as though they’d been discarded some time ago.  He was on the phone and nodding his head along with whoever was talking on the other end of the line.

As they drew up, Hanley looked first at the sergeant, then at Caje, and held up a finger to signal he’d be with them in a minute.  Saunders scratched the side of his nose and leaned forward to get a look at one of the maps nearest him while Caje lowered his gear to the floor and rubbed the back of his neck.

"Yes, sir.  I understand," Hanley finally told the receiver.  "Uh-huh.  Right away.  I’ll get them out as soon as he’s briefed."  He looked meaningfully at Saunders, who removed his helmet and tucked it under his arm.  Hanley turned his attention to a map and continued, "Yes, sir.  I see it.  Mm-hm.  I understand.  Yes, sir.  Out."

He put down the phone, exhaled forcefully, and stood to offer his hand to Caje.  "Welcome back," he said, smiling warmly.

"Thank you, sir."

The two men shook hands, and Caje reached into his jacket to produce the expected papers and extend them forward.

Hanley took the documents and sat down again.  After a moment he spoke.  "I see you weren’t sent stateside on furlough.  Any particular reason for that?"

"I wasn’t in any condition to go anywhere for a while.  Then I was told I’d be returned to duty when I was certified ready, so I figured I’d try to get back here as soon as possible."  Caje paused.  "I didn’t want to end up with another outfit if I didn’t have to."

Hanley raised an eyebrow at that, and with a "Hm…" returned to his reading.  Before long, he had another question.  "Did you receive any counsel?"

"Yes, sir.  A doctor Simmons spoke with me several times.  His notes should be there."

"So, I see."  Hanley continued to shuffle through the papers.  When he finished scanning them he looked up.  "How do you feel?"

"Fine," Caje answered without hesitation.  He nodded once to emphasize the statement.

Hanley eyed him a moment longer, then said, "Okay.  Well, why don’t you wait outside and Sergeant Saunders’ll be with you in a minute to show you where to put your things."

"Yes, sir."  Caje nodded again and glanced at Saunders before stooping to pick up his pack.  With his gear in hand, he hitched his rifle a bit higher on his shoulder and made his way to the door.

Hanley watched him depart, then turned to the sergeant.  "Well?" he said, again raising an eyebrow, this time expectantly.

Saunders straightened up and said, "Sir?"

"What do you think?" Hanley expanded for him.  "Is he ready?"

Saunders looked at the door and unconsciously tugged on his left ear.  He turned back to Hanley, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and answered, "Well, I guess we’ll have to take his word on that, but yeah, I think so.  I’d trust him."

"Good."  Hanley put down the papers.  "Because you’re going to have to."  He extracted a cigarette from a nearby pack and patted around on the tabletop for a lighter.  Saunders reached into a pocket to pull out his own and proffered it forward.  Hanley leaned into its flame, exhaled a cloud of smoke, and nodded his thanks.  "Why don’t you get Caje settled in and report back to me for a briefing on a job S-2 has for you."

Saunders slipped the lighter back into his pocket.  "A big job?"

"A small one, but vital.  And it could be tricky."  Hanley gestured at the map in front of him.  "It’s a recovery operation.  I’ll fill you in on the details when you get back."

Saunders looked at the table as though additional information might be forthcoming there and said, "Okay, Lieutenant," before turning away and heading for the door, bringing up his helmet as he went.

"Be back in fifteen minutes, all right?" Hanley called after him.

"All right, sir."  Saunders reached for the knob again, pulled open the door, and stepped outside.

Caje was leaning against the railing that flanked the building’s stairs, but stooped to grab his gear once more as he waited for the sergeant to lead the way.

"All set?" Saunders asked conversationally as he started down the steps past him.

"Yup," Caje said, following the NCO into the street.  He dodged passersby, keeping his distance from carts and wagons, as he fell in beside Saunders.  "You doing okay after that bullet nearly scalped you?"

"How’d you know I was wounded?" Saunders asked, surprised.

He and Caje rounded a corner to make their way down another short street that ended at a cultivated field lying just beyond it.  It too was congested and narrow and had houses wedged together on both sides, with only an occasional courtyard situated in between.

"Doc wrote," Caje explained.  "I guess he wanted to let me know what happened when we got into trouble."  He shifted his pack and bedroll from one hand to the other, to avoid being jostled by a pair of harried-looking peasants.

Saunders glanced at him from the corner of an eye but figured there wasn’t too big a change in Caje’s demeanor.  "I guess I should’ve known that.  Do you remember much of it?"

"Not much."

Caje didn't expand on it, and after a moment, the sergeant decided not to probe.

"Well, I’m doing all right," Saunders said.  "Thanks for asking."

Caje nodded, and the two of them lapsed into comfortable silence.  They continued along the street until they arrived at the second-to-last house on the right.  There, Saunders slipped into a small dooryard sandwiched between it and the house next door.  Caje followed him through the gate and saw almost a dozen GIs relaxing - some sleeping, some reading, some quietly playing cards.  He didn’t recognize any of the faces nearby but spied three veterans off by themselves.

Saunders headed in their direction but paused briefly to introduce him to some of the replacements.  They offered hellos, and Caje nodded an acknowledgement of each man.  Picking their way over combat packs, helmets, rifles, shattered timbers and scattered rubble, Saunders and Caje drew up to the vets from behind.

"Aw, it’s as hard as a brick, Littlejohn," Billy was complaining.  "I’m not getting anywhere with this thing."  Holding a fist-sized rock in one hand, he was pounding on a D bar lying on a battered tin plate.  Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, and his brows were knitted together in concentration.

Littlejohn continued to scrutinize a piece of paper scrawled with a few lines of writing.  "Well, we’re not gonna be able to make it if you don’t get it into smaller pieces."

"Hey, maybe I could spell you on that a while if you want me to," Doc said, his hands on his knees as he leaned farther forward to study the proceedings.

Saunders and Caje exchanged looks, then Saunders interrupted them.  "Any of you guys want to meet the new replacement?"

The three stopped what they were doing to look up and after a moment broke into wide grins.  With surprised "Well, I’ll be a son-of-a-guns!" and "Would you look who’s heres?" they jumped up to clasp hands and generally back slap all around.  This went on for a few minutes until Saunders asked Doc if the medic would orient Caje in the house.

"Why, it’d be my pleasure!" Doc answered.  He led Caje across the yard to the building’s side entrance, asking how the scout was.  Caje spent a second or two telling him, then asked how everyone else was.  Doc filled him in on that as they both disappeared inside.

Saunders leaned forward over Billy’s shoulder to appraise the two remaining soldiers’ work.  With a bemused expression, he told them to carry on.  He slid his hands into his pockets and ambled away as Littlejohn and Billy traded sheepish grins.

"Well, you’d better get going if you want to finish this today,” Littlejohn said finally.

"Yeah, I guess so," Billy grumbled, sitting down again.  "Boy, me and my bright ideas."   He adjusted his grip on the rock and doggedly resumed his pounding.

Soon Doc and Caje emerged from the house and made their way back to Billy and Littlejohn.  Caje was just about to ask what Billy was doing when a sudden commotion at the yard’s entrance caught everyone’s attention.

"You know what your problem is, Frankie?" a compact, clean-shaven soldier was yelling down the street as he stood leaning out of the confines of the gate.  "You’re a poor loser!"  He waited a moment, obviously enjoying himself before he repeated, "Yeah, you heard what I said - a loser!"   He quieted as Frankie was apparently responding to that, then his mouth dropped open in surprise.  Recovering quickly, he jerked up an arm to deliver an obscene gesture and shouted, "Oh yeah?  Well, the same to you, you sorehead!"

Shaking his head in disgust, he moved through the gate into the yard.  Some of the men nearby called out comments as he passed, and he either laughed or responded with comments of his own.  As he neared the squad’s old men, a self-satisfied expression took shape on his face and he quickened his pace.

"Hey, Littlejohn!" he called out.  "Guess what I just got a hold of?"  He reached inside his jacket and then froze, focusing on the man standing to Doc’s left.  Eyes widening, he said uncertainly, "Caje?"

Caje shrugged, nodded, and grinned at him.

"Why, you old son of a gun, you!" Kirby shouted as he launched himself forward to grab his friend in a bear hug.  "When’d you get back?"

Before Caje could answer, Kirby pulled away and, still grasping him by the arms, exclaimed, "C’mon, you goldbrick!  Let’s get a look at you!"

Embarrassed, Caje allowed Kirby to appraise him, but he couldn’t help looking to Doc for sympathy.

The medic laughed.  "Well, you know how low-key Kirby is about everything.  Besides, you’ve got to admit you have been gone an awfully long time."

Kirby cut in with, "He sure has, but he looks a lot better now than he did the last time we saw him, don’t he, Doc?"  Quickly adding, "Even if he is just as ugly," Kirby released him and forcefully chucked him on the arm.

Caje absently rubbed his arm and laughed.  "Boy, you don’t ever change, do you, Kirby?"

"Hah!" Kirby cackled.  "You wouldn’t have me any other way!  Besides, why mess with perfection?"

At this, Littlejohn breathed an "Oh, brother," and Kirby turned his attention toward him.  Kirby was just about to say something, when he caught sight of Billy’s handiwork on the tin plate.  Looking confused and a bit concerned, Kirby said, "And just what is it that you’re supposed to be doing?"

Irritated, Billy answered, "We’re testing a new kind of artillery shell.  Wanna help?"

Kirby scowled, and Littlejohn looked amused.

"We’re actually making fudge, if you really want to know," Littlejohn said.

"Fudge?" Kirby snorted in disbelief.  "With that?"  He gestured scornfully at the D bar.  "You gotta be kiddin’ me!"

"You know, maybe he’s right."  Billy put down the rock and wiped his face with a sleeve.  "Maybe this really is a stupid idea."

"Well, let me read the recipe to you guys and you can tell us what you think about it then," Littlejohn said diplomatically.  The others nodded their approval of this idea, and he began:  "’D ration fudge.  Ingredients:  1 block D ration chocolate.  1 package sugar.  1 can condensed milk.’"

He looked up to make sure they were still listening, then continued, "Now here’s how you do it.  ‘Powder chocolate.  Mix chocolate with sugar and milk, and cook over Coleman stove.  Test by dropping samples into canteen cup of cold water.  When sample congeals in water, pour fudge into shallow pan, cool and slice.’"

When he finished, no one said anything until Kirby pronounced, "Are you nuts?  I’d rather eat a can of Spam!"

Caje reluctantly nodded his agreement with Kirby’s assessment, and even Doc looked a bit uncertain now.

"You see?"  Billy’s voice started to rise as he addressed Littlejohn.  "It is a stupid idea!"

Before Littlejohn could respond, Kirby reached into his jacket again.  "Now look, kid.  If you really wanna have somethin’ good, ol’ Kirby’s the guy you need to talk to."  He pulled out a bottle containing an amber-colored liquid and held it up for all to see.

"And just what is that?" Billy asked dubiously.

"Hey, Kirby…" Caje began, but Kirby waved him off.

"This, my friend, is the reason why France exists."  Kirby patted the bottle affectionately.  "It’s the best thing they’ve got going over here…well, besides the dames, I mean.  This here’s somethin’ that’ll make all your troubles go away."

"Yeah.  Right after you pass out," Caje interrupted again.

Kirby fixed him with a disapproving look, and Doc asked suspiciously, "Well, what is it?"

"What is it?" Kirby said in mock disdain at Doc’s apparent ignorance.  "Why, it’s only the finest, the smoothest, the swee…"

"Calvados, Doc," Caje answered before Kirby could finish embellishing it with another glowing endorsement. "It’s Calvados."

"Calvados?"  Billy said, becoming puzzled.  "What’s that?"

"It’s hooch, kid," Kirby told him.  "And it’s good stuff."  He put an accent on the word ‘good’.

"It’s 140 proof stuff and it’ll kill you," Caje corrected.  "But if it doesn’t, you’ll wish it had once you get a taste of its aftereffects."  He gave Kirby an exasperated look and shook his head.

"Aw, Caje, it ain’t that bad," Kirby said.  "Besides, we could have just a little to celebrate your getting back, couldn’t we?"  He looked at him hopefully.

The others watched as Caje considered this proposition, then they smiled as he gave them a guilty grin.

“Well, I guess a little couldn’t hurt, could it?" Caje said.

"’Atta boy!" Kirby whooped as he threw an arm around Caje’s neck.

"What’s it taste like?" Billy asked as he brushed off his pants to stand.

"Well, the French distill it from apples, so it’s…" Caje began, but Saunders’ voice suddenly rang out, interrupting the conversation.

"Okay, you guys, listen up!" he shouted.  Everyone gave him their attention, and Saunders motioned them all forward.  Kirby quickly slipped the bottle back into his jacket and followed the others, toward the sergeant.

When everyone had gathered around, Saunders passed out orders.  "Wiggins, Johnson - the lieutenant wants to see you over at the CP in five minutes.  Bingaman - you’re in charge of outpost rotations."  Saunders extended a sheet of paper to the tall, sandy-haired man.  "Make sure they run the way they’re laid out and don’t let anyone give you any beef."  Bingaman nodded, and Saunders moved on.  "Caje, Kirby - you’re with me.  Get your gear and meet me out front in two minutes.  Everyone else…” he raised a hand in a gesture of dismissal, "you’d better get in as much rest as you can because tomorrow we’re making a push."

A chorus of "All rights" and "Okay, Sarges" filtered into the air as they all fell out.

Kirby looked first at Caje, then over to Littlejohn and asked the taller man in a forlorn voice, "How come I always get picked for these jobs and you manage to get out of ‘em?"

Littlejohn looked thoughtful before giving him a crooked grin.  "Well, I don’t know, Kirby.  Maybe Sarge just appreciates your winning personality."

"Oh, you’re funny," Kirby said, frowning, before he rooted around for his helmet and weapon.

Littlejohn turned to Billy and winked.

Saunders and Caje were already out on the street by the time Kirby caught up to them.  The three men fell into line to walk back to the corner, and Kirby asked, "Hey, Sarge, where’re we goin’?"

Saunders responded in a pleasant voice, "We’re going for a little ride, Kirby."

"Oh, yeah?"  Kirby looked happily over at Caje.

"Yeah," Saunders assured him.  "And then we’re going for a nice long walk."

Kirby looked crestfallen and Caje laughed.  A jeep driven by a GI with an attractive female seated at his side roared past, and Kirby’s gloom only deepened.

"Cheer up, Kirby," Caje said.  "At least this way you won’t wake up with a headache tomorrow morning."

"This way I probably won’t wake up at all tomorrow morning, but thanks for your concern just the same."

"All right.  Knock it off,” Saunders said before their banter could turn into anything.

They rounded the corner and approached a deuce-and-a-half parked in front of Hanley’s CP.  Reaching the back of the truck, Saunders said, “Mount up.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

Caje and Kirby dutifully climbed on board and positioned themselves across from one another on the spare, bench seats.  Caje reached into his jacket for a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Kirby before pulling one out for himself.  Getting them lit, he said, "So I hear you really saved the day back when I got knifed."

The comment caught Kirby off guard, and he was surprised at Caje’s casual tone and reference.  Kirby looked unsure, scratched his neck, and shrugged.  "Well, I don’t know about saving the day, but I guess I did manage to keep from lousing everything up."

"That’s not how Doc tells it."

Kirby noticed Caje was avoiding eye contact and seemed to be studying something on his sleeve.  Flicking an ash off his cigarette, Kirby said, “Aw, you know how Doc is.  He can get sort of sentimental sometimes.  Besides, he had his hands pretty full himself that night." 

Caje didn't respond.  He only shifted his gaze to his rifle.

Kirby felt more than a little confused as to where this all was supposed to be going, and he asked, "Uh, was there anything in particular you wanted to know?"

"No.  I just wanted to say thanks.  Thanks for getting us out of there," Caje said, continuing to look at the M1.

Kirby smiled hesitantly, then ventured, “Well, that’s all right.  I guess it just worked out okay.  But I’ll tell you what - you about had me and Doc scared to death.  How’d the krauts get you, anyway?"

Caje shrugged but said nothing.

"Does your…does it still hurt?"

"No, not so much."  Caje looked out the back of the truck.

"Did you get to go back home for a while?" Kirby pressed.  "It sure seems like you should’ve got a ticket to the States for somethin’ like that."

"I didn’t go."  Caje continued to stare outside.

Kirby was surprised to hear that.  "You didn’t…?  Are you tellin’ me you had a chance to go, but you didn’t take it?  What kind of an …"

Caje turned to look directly at him and said coldly, "Drop it, Kirby."

"I…" Kirby began but stopped when he saw the hardness in the other man’s eyes.  Instead, he simply nodded, and Caje looked away again.

Kirby wasn’t sure what to do next but decided he’d better give Caje a wide berth on the subject.  It was obvious the guy didn’t want to talk about what had happened or anything else having to do with it, and Kirby knew Caje usually did keep the hard things to himself.  Maybe now would be a good time to change the subject.

"So, Caje," he said then in a lighter tone.  "Did I ever tell you about Joe Patowski’s girl over there in, uh…well, in one of them little French villages we were in a while ago?"

Caje turned to him and smiled gamely.  "No, but I have a feeling you will."

"Well," Kirby leaned forward and began in a confidential tone, "he told me that she…"

Saunders appeared and, sliding his Thompson in first, hoisted himself up into the back of the truck.  He retrieved his weapon and made his way forward to drop onto one of the benches, then put down a radio and pulled out a map.  With a thumb, he pushed his helmet higher on his forehead as he began studying their route.  He asked without looking up, "You two had some chow?"

Caje and Kirby confirmed they had, and Saunders nodded his approval. 

The truck roared into life and, backfiring a couple times, began to move forward in jerking fits and starts.  The three men shifted and adjusted themselves as necessary to maintain their balance.  Saunders put out a hand to secure the radio, and as the ride evened out and became progressively smoother, each man settled into his own thoughts.  Only the noise of the truck offered resistance to the silence.

Saunders mulled over the background of the job they were getting into.  He’d been told that members of the underground had been swept up in an SS raid two days earlier in an area just north of Nancy.  They’d been surprised at a meeting in an abandoned cottage, and as they’d attempted to flee, three of them had been killed.  Two more were wounded and captured a short distance away.

One of them, though, had managed to conceal a satchel before he’d been taken prisoner.  It contained several stolen Nazi documents, including blueprints of Fort Driant, a German occupied stronghold on the Moselle river, outside of Metz.  The papers detailed the underground facilities and tunnels of the fort and would be invaluable to those planning the upcoming assault there.

Word about the documents had filtered back to Army Intelligence through another branch of the resistance, and S-2 wanted the information secured immediately.  That was what he was supposed to do and in the shortest amount of time possible.  But the area where the papers were hidden was still in German hands, so Saunders knew it wasn’t likely to be an easy job to pull.

He felt his stomach muscles tighten and the familiar flow of adrenaline at the thought, but he immediately clamped down on his emotions to steady himself.  Saunders wouldn’t allow his private fears to determine his reaction to duty.  Instead, he consoled himself with the thought that the men accompanying him were seasoned veterans who wouldn’t require babysitting.  Feeling reassured, he continued to look at the map.

The ride lasted over an hour, although a good portion of that time was spent sitting in traffic on the eastbound road just outside of town.  It was littered with debris from the intense fighting and subsequent German retreat of the previous few days and still in the process of being cleared.  Abandoned vehicles, discarded equipment, dead horses, and broken artillery pieces, along with an occasional corpse that hadn’t yet been recovered by Graves Registration, were strewn everywhere.  American trucks and armor trying to get through had turned it into a clogged, chaotic nightmare.

The truck crept forward until it finally reached a junction where a narrow, unpaved road branched off the main thoroughfare in a southeastern direction.  Merging onto the road, the truck picked up speed until it was traveling at a good clip through gently rolling farmland.  Occasionally the truck passed uncultivated, wooded areas, but for the most part the landscape was a patchwork of fields, orchards, and pastures.

Saunders folded the map and slid it back into his jacket.  After a while he looked at his watch, then reached for the radio at his side.  Looping it over an arm, he closed his eyes and waited, swaying with the rocking motion of the truck.  He knew they’d be at the drop-off point within minutes.

Soon the truck slowed and jolted to a stop.  Caje and Kirby jumped out, and Saunders followed them.  He approached the driver’s side door to signal his thanks for the ride.  Stepping back as the truck turned around and drove away, he briefed the others on the route they were to take and warned them not to engage the enemy.

He assigned Caje the point and told him to move out.  Caje started forward, and Saunders and Kirby fell in behind.  They walked in silence, their eyes watching, their senses alert, as they traveled the side of the road.  Saunders knew they were approaching a crossroads a short distance away but that they’d avoid it and head farther east.  The crossroads was a German possession and marked a boundary of sorts.

Saunders eventually increased his pace, and Caje turned to see him tilt his head to the right.  Caje veered into a tree line serving as a boundary between fields.  The three men kept to the trees bisecting the farmland until, advancing far into enemy territory, they reached a blacktopped road.  They made sure it was clear, then Saunders ran in a crouch to the other side and dropped into a muddy ditch.

He waved Caje forward, and Caje briefly looked in both directions before sprinting across.  He landed next to Saunders, breathing heavily with nervous energy.  Saunders continued to watch the road and signaled Kirby to come ahead.  Kirby rose but suddenly heard the rumble of a vehicle rapidly approaching.  He threw himself backward into the weeds as Saunders and Caje pressed themselves into the earth and waited, motionless.  After a German troop carrier roared past, Kirby lifted himself and dashed across the road.  He collapsed into the ditch, and Saunders gave him a moment to catch his breath.

“Hey, Sarge," Kirby wheezed, trying to keep his voice down, "where’re our lines, anyway?"  He reached for his canteen and brought it forward to take a drink.

"A few miles back," Saunders said quietly, keeping his eye on the road.

Kirby pulled the canteen away from his mouth and looked uneasily at Caje.  "You mean we’re goin’ even deeper…?"

"That’s right, Kirby," Saunders answered.  "So, let’s get moving, huh?"

Kirby looked stricken, returned the canteen to his belt, and rose along with his companions to head for another line of trees.  Caje resumed his position on the point, and they managed to travel another half mile before he dropped suddenly and signaled a warning.  Saunders and Kirby lowered themselves and cautiously worked their way forward.  When they reached him, Caje pointed out the danger.

The tree line shielding them bisected another one running at an angle five yards ahead.  On the other side of it lay an orchard enclosed by a low stone wall.  Past the orchard the land fell away in a gradual slope.  A tarred road, cutting through the low-lying area beyond, could be seen in the distance.  Germans were dug in along the far side of the orchard facing it, and Saunders could see two .50 caliber machineguns, one set up at each of the orchard’s ends.  He spotted several men working over a couple of mortars and knew at least a few Germans would be armed with panzerfausts.  A stone farmhouse stood to the right of the breastworks, and Saunders figured it was also occupied by krauts.  Any allied vehicle or column trying to use that road was going to be in for a hell of a surprise.

Saunders turned his attention back to the tree line directly ahead.  He saw the Germans had prepared dug in positions along its length to fall back on in case they were driven from the house and orchard.  The tree line stretched into a forest that appeared to arc toward the southeast, and that too would offer the krauts potential cover.  Considering the set up, he motioned to Caje and Kirby that they were turning around.  The two men nodded their understanding, and he led them back the way they’d come.

When they’d put a bit of distance between themselves and the orchard, Saunders stopped and pulled out his map.  Kirby and Caje huddled in the weeds next to him and kept watch.  No one spoke until Kirby leaned forward with a question.

"We gonna call in a fire mission, Sarge?" he whispered.  He’d positioned himself next to Saunders and sounded as if he’d like to get on the radio himself.

Saunders remained absorbed in his map.  "No, we don’t want the krauts to think there’re spotters around.  We’ll report their position when we get home."

"Well, what’re we doin’ out here like a bunch of sittin’ ducks?"  Kirby sounded as if he were dangerously close to issuing a complaint.

Saunders lifted his head and saw that Caje also appeared confused.  Both he and Kirby had been behind enemy lines before but always after being briefed in regard to an objective.  This time though they’d been told nothing, and they obviously didn’t like working blind.

Saunders couldn’t give them any information though – at least not yet.  If one or both soldiers were to be captured, Saunders had no doubt they’d be interrogated as to why they were wandering the countryside alone.  And the less they knew, the greater the chance the mission wouldn’t be compromised.

"Look, just do what I tell you to and we’ll get out of here as soon as possible," he said calmly, knowing that being direct and in control was the best way to keep them steady and focused.  They were going to have to trust him as they’d done so many times before - which was exactly why he’d chosen them for this particular job.

Kirby said nothing further but kept his BAR up and ready and looked unhappy.  Caje looked from Saunders to Kirby and wordlessly went back to keeping watch over the orchard.  Saunders returned his attention to the map.

In moments, Saunders lifted his eyes again to look out over the landscape.  Bordering the narrow line of trees camouflaging them was a field of grain, not yet harvested.  North of it ran a stretch of woods.  And those woods emptied into the same forest that arced southeast and merged into timbered lands beyond – which was where the cottage was located.

Saunders had planned to cross the valley ahead of them to reach it but, with the krauts on hand, decided to detour around through the woods instead.  The additional distance was going to cost them time, so he knew they’d better get moving, and he put the map away.

With a quiet, "Let’s go," to the others, Saunders cautiously left the safety of the border to ease his way into the grain.  Caje and Kirby followed and spaced themselves apart once they were out in the open.  All three men kept their heads down and attempted to fade into the straw-colored sea around them.

They soon passed from the field into the woods.  Pushing deeper into the trees, they were able to put a thick screen of vegetation between themselves and the Germans on the ridge.  Saunders considered it a relief to be under better cover, and his breathing began to even out.  He glanced at the others and could see that Kirby was easing up too.  But oddly enough, Caje continued to appear apprehensive.  In fact, even more so than when they’d been close to the German position.  He seemed edgy and anxious, and rather than decreasing, his rate of breathing had accelerated.

"Caje," Saunders said quietly.

Caje started at the sound of Saunders’ voice and turned toward him.

Uncertain that Caje was actually seeing him, Saunders began to feel uneasy.  “Hold up,” he said.

Kirby and Caje halted.

"What’s going on?" Saunders said, addressing Caje again.

Caje stared at him but said nothing.

Saunders took a few steps in his direction, and Caje took an uncertain step backward. 

Wide-eyed, Kirby looked from one man to the other but remained silent.

Saunders stopped and, in as calm a voice as he could manage, asked, "What’s wrong?"

Caje looked confused but still said nothing.

"Caje!"  Saunders said, his voice sharpened to an edge now.  He was growing impatient and increasingly worried and wanted to know what was the matter with the guy.

"They ju…" Caje began but stopped as he focused on the squad leader. Suddenly his face reddened and he looked self-conscious.  He lowered his rifle and said stiffly, "Nothing’s wrong."

Saunders knew that wasn’t true but had very little time to deal with it.  He took another step toward him and said, "You’d better give it to me straight right now if there’s something I should know about."

Caje remained in place, looking levelly at Saunders, but didn’t say anything until he finally offered, "I guess I’ve just been out of the field a while."

Saunders wasn’t sure whether to accept that or not.  Caje had been fine - his mannerisms and reactions were as they’d always been, and he’d seemed confident and self-possessed - right up until they’d entered the woods.  But Saunders supposed it could be something as simple as first day jitters.  Considering where they were, maybe that wasn’t such an unreasonable explanation.  After all, being in the middle of kraut territory wasn’t exactly what anyone would call easing back into the job.

Saunders decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.  "Okay.  Well, just take it easy, huh?  We’ve still got a ways to go."  Directing himself to Kirby, he ordered, "Take the point."

Kirby adjusted the BAR to get it into a more comfortable position and, looking curiously at Caje, made his way past him.

Caje, although trying to contain it, looked embarrassed and angry.

"Forget it, Caje," Saunders said firmly.  He didn’t want the guy any more distracted than he was already.  "Keep your eyes open and get moving."

Caje tipped his head to acknowledge the order and turned to follow Kirby.  Saunders fell in behind and kept an eye on the scout for a while but eventually decided that Caje had regained control of himself.  Whatever had happened back there seemed to be over, and Saunders hoped it wouldn’t be repeated.

He had enough to worry about.

Kirby led them through a maze of trees and shrubs that seemed to stretch on interminably, but the woods were passable and the ground fairly level, so they made good time.  When the three men worked their way far enough south to bypass the orchard’s location, the forest floor began to slope and they increased their pace.  Soon they drew up to the tarred road that intersected the forest as it headed northeast out of the valley.  Lowering themselves into the weeds, they surveyed it.

Finally Saunders said, "Okay, Kirby, you’re up."

"Right," Kirby murmured.  He rose and raced across to slip into the trees beyond.

"Caje," Saunders said, "you’re next."

Caje drew himself up to make his run, but squeezing his rifle, he simply stared at the woods.

Saunders looked his way and repeated, "You’re next."

Caje followed Kirby’s lead.

Again Saunders felt uneasy, but he told himself Caje wasn’t the first guy he’d had to repeat himself to and probably wouldn’t be the last.  Besides, they’d come too far to do much about anything that might be bothering him now.  It would have to wait until they got back.  Saunders rose and sprinted across the road, then pushed his way into the trees as the others had done.

He couldn’t see anyone until Kirby waved at him to get his attention.  Saunders nodded and signaled the BAR man to continue forward.  Kirby moved out and Caje followed.  Saunders acted as rear guard, glancing backward to make sure no one approached from behind.  When he felt they’d put enough distance between themselves and the road, he worked his way up to tell the others to take five.

Looking grateful, Kirby immediately sank to the ground and, with his back to a tree, lifted the BAR overhead to remove its sling from his shoulder.  Caje sat down and reached for his canteen, taking a drink from it before splashing a bit of water over his face.  Saunders found a tree of his own to sit against, sprawled his legs out in front of him, and held his Thompson loosely across his lap.

Sizing up Caje, he said, "Okay?"

Caje screwed the cap back onto his canteen and raised his head briefly to say, "Fine."

Saunders watched him another second or two, then pulled off the radio to set it down next to himself.  He stretched out his arm and reached up to rub first one eye, then the other.  Dismissing his final misgivings about the scout’s behavior, he knew a break would do Caje good.  After all, they’d all been pushing pretty hard.

Kirby said with not a little indignation, "I’m okay too, Sarge, just in case you wanted to know."

Both Saunders and Caje looked up to see Kirby frowning at them, and they traded amused looks.

Saunders told Kirby in a long-suffering voice, "Kirby, if you weren’t fine, I’d have heard about it before now."

"Huh," was all Kirby offered in response to that, and he went back to rubbing his shoulder.

They sat in silence until Saunders signaled the break was over by standing and waiting for the other men to follow suit.  Raising the Tommygun, he issued a brief, "Stay close," and led the way as they set off again, weaving through the trees and watching for Germans.  Eventually he looked at his watch and was pleased to see they were making good time.  Saunders knew the cottage was located just a bit farther away, near another road running parallel to the last one they’d crossed.

Soon he spotted a stone wall that marked the perimeter of the abandoned homestead.  Hung with vines and choked with weeds, large sections of it had long ago crumbled into scattered piles of rubble.  In some places it was entirely obscured by the undergrowth.  Saunders felt a rush of adrenaline as he realized they were closing in on their objective, and he led his men along the wall’s length.

In moments Saunders caught sight of a portion of roof through the trees.  He dropped to the ground and, half turning, saw Caje and Kirby follow him down.  Saunders waved at the two to come up, and the soldiers crawled forward.

When they were in close, he issued orders.  "All right, we’re going to check out the house.  Kirby, you move up with us until we go over the wall, then stay put and give us cover.  Caje, you’re on me."

Kirby and Caje nodded, and Saunders briefly checked his Thompson.  With a whispered "Let’s go," he crawled forward with his men elbowing along at his sides.  They positioned themselves directly across from the house and raised their heads to size up the situation.

The area around the cottage had fewer trees but was overgrown with brambles and brush that would probably completely engulf the house someday.  A broken farm wagon stood off to the side, one of its wheels missing, its wooden undercarriage rotting and warped.  A well lacking a bucket to retrieve water sat in the center of what must have once served as the backyard of the dwelling.  Like everything else, it too had seen better days.

The cottage itself was a dilapidated stone building.  Very small, it had walls that were stained and cracked and a roof that was sagging noticeably.  Although the two tiny windows on the back of it were intact, they were covered with grime.  Whoever had once lived there had apparently abandoned it long ago.

Saunders rose and quickly scaled the wall to drop into the weeds on the other side.  Caje followed, landing silently off to the sergeant’s left.  Kirby brought up the BAR and, kneeling, rested its barrel across the wall as he pointed the rifle toward the house.

Saunders picked himself up and sprinted through the brush to reach the cottage’s rear wall.  Flattening himself against it, he listened for any sound that would warn of danger, and hearing nothing, he signaled Caje to come ahead.  Caje raced forward, and Kirby tensed, watching everything, looking for any sudden movement at the windows or along the sides of the house.  Caje reached Saunders and positioned himself off to the sergeant’s right.  Kirby took a moment to breathe and readjust his grip on the BAR.

Saunders made his way to the corner of the house and cautiously looked around it.  Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he slipped past it and hugged the cottage’s wall as he traveled along the building’s side.  Caje stayed with him, guarding Saunders’ back.  Halfway toward the front of the house, Saunders stopped when he reached a broken window.  Shards of glass littered the ground beneath it, and he noticed dried blood smeared across its frame and spattered on the wall below.

He grimly recalled what he’d been told - two more partisans were wounded and captured a short distance away.  Wondering how badly they’d been hit, Saunders lowered himself to pass under it and continued forward.  Caje did the same, stepping gingerly so as not to make too much noise on the glass.  When they reached the next corner, Saunders eased himself around it, then crept toward the cottage’s front door, ducking another window along the way.

He positioned himself to one side of the entrance and waited for Caje to take the side opposite him.  When Caje was in place, Saunders gave him a questioning look, and the scout nodded to confirm he was ready.  Saunders carefully reached to take hold of the latch and, lifting it, kicked open the door while jerking the Thompson into a firing position.  Caje had his rifle to his shoulder and dropped to one knee just inside the entry.  Both men quickly scanned the room for trouble and, seeing none, immediately moved into the dwelling.

Spotting another doorway to the rear of the room, Saunders motioned with the Thompson to bring the find to Caje’s attention.  Caje nodded his understanding and approached the entry to stand off to one side.  Saunders took the other side and listened intently before swinging himself through the doorway to enter a long, narrow, empty room.  Glancing around, he decided it had probably once served as sleeping quarters.

He lowered the Thompson and saw that this was where the two windows were located that looked out onto the yard from the back of the house.  They were so streaked with dirt that they were nearly opaque.  Saunders rubbed his jaw as he considered that, then taking a last look around he turned to leave.

Caje was still in the main room, keeping watch over the front door.  As Saunders passed, Caje gestured with his rifle and commented quietly, "Looks like there’s been trouble here."

Saunders observed the few jumbled sticks of furniture scattered around and noted the amount of dark stains on the floor.  "Yeah," he said dryly as the thought ‘three of them had been killed’ came unbidden to mind.  Wanting to get out of the room and on with their business, he said, "Come on," and made his way toward the door.  Caje, skirting the bloodstains, silently followed him outside.

In front of the cottage Saunders spotted an overgrown dirt track that he knew probably led to the road south.  The homestead, set back into the forest, was totally isolated.  He allowed his eyes to roam over the woods on each side of the track, then told Caje to stay put.  As Caje stood watch, Saunders returned to the rear of the house.

Kirby, spotting the sergeant and lowering the BAR, watched Saunders cross to the well, peer into it, and wave him up.  Rising, Kirby put a hand on the wall, vaulted over it, and trotted forward.

Saunders glanced up and said, "All right.  Put the rifle down and get your helmet off."

Kirby looked at him quizzically but did as he was told.  Saunders reached to take hold of the rope that was coiled around a beam mounted over the well and began to unwind it.  As Kirby watched, he became even more puzzled until an unpleasant thought occurred to him, and he frowned.

"Uh, Sarge?"  He looked over the side of the well and into the darkness below.

"Yeah?"  Saunders continued to feed the rope into the well’s depths, occasionally pulling on the cord to test it against his weight.

"Are you planning…to get a drink?"  Kirby knew better, but he couldn't resist the question.

"There’s nothing on the end of the rope, Kirby," Saunders reminded him matter-of-factly.  Again he pulled on the cord, then let some more of it out until the rope was nearly unwound.

"Well, hell," Kirby said, looking glum.  "I knew it.  And suppose I drown while I’m down there?"

Saunders looked around before stooping to pick up a good-sized rock.  He dropped it into the well, and both men heard it thud as it hit bottom.  "You won’t drown.  The well’s dry."

Kirby looked less than reassured but reached for the rope anyway.  "And what is it that I’m supposed to do once I get down there?"  He couldn't quite manage to conceal his nervousness and irritation as he threw a leg over the side of the well and straddled it.

"You’re supposed to retrieve a small leather case or bag that’s down there.  But don’t open it - I don’t want anything dropping out of it."  Saunders watched as Kirby tested the rope against his own weight.  "When you find the bag, tie the rope to it so I can pull it up.  Then I’ll send the rope back down for you.  You climb up and it’ll all be over."

"Yeah, it’ll all be over," Kirby muttered.  "It’ll all be over for me."  He looked pointedly at Saunders and said, "You know somebody's gonna owe me a beer for this."

"It’ll be on me," Saunders said as he reached to take hold of the rope and tried to keep it steady while Kirby swung out and began his descent.

Within moments Saunders heard him curse, then Kirby’s voice came echoing hollowly up the sides of the well.

"Sarge?"

"What is it?"  Saunders leaned forward to make himself heard.

"Make that two beers," came the faint reply.

Saunders rolled his eyes.  "Kirby, will you just hurry up?"

"Okay, okay."  Kirby’s reply was barely audible now.

Saunders kept his hand on the rope to keep informed of Kirby’s progress.  When the rope stopped moving, Saunders knew Kirby had landed on the bottom.  The sergeant glanced at the woods to see all was still quiet, and he idly studied the back of the house.  As the minutes passed, he grew impatient and wondered what was taking so long.  He leaned into the well in a futile attempt to see what was going on, then looked at his watch.  As he was about to call down to see what was the matter, the rope was suddenly jerked.

Relieved, Saunders pulled up on it, using his hands rather than the crank, in an effort to save time.  By the slight resistance he encountered, he could tell that Kirby had indeed placed something on the end of it.  It wasn’t too much longer before Saunders could make out what it was - a small, dark satchel streaked with mud, that didn’t look too much the worse for wear.  Now all he had to do was get Kirby out, and they could all go home.

Saunders hauled the bag over the side of the well and untied it.  With the satchel free, he set it at his feet, then coiled the rope to throw it back down.

"Kirby!" he called as he leaned over the well.  "Heads up!" 

He allowed the rope to drop, and reaching to take hold of it again, he soon felt the BAR man climbing.

Suddenly Caje skidded around the corner of the house with an anxious expression on his face.  "Sarge!  Krauts!"

"How many?" Saunders asked, his pulse quickening, his mind beginning to race.

Caje shrugged.  "I don’t know.  I couldn’t see all of them!"

"How far?"  Saunders let go of the rope and reached for the Thompson.

"Coming up the road.  They’ll be here in a minute!"

"Damn," Saunders breathed.  He quickly gathered his thoughts and said, "Here.  Take the BAR and Kirby’s helmet, and get to the other side of that wall.  Now!"

Caje hustled to collect the gear and conceal himself.

Saunders leaned into the well and called, "Kirby!  Krauts!  Get off the rope and don’t touch it.  I’ll be back for you.  You got it?"

The faint reply "Got it!" came back, and Saunders stilled the rope as soon as Kirby was off it.  Saunders felt a mixture of frustration and fear, and wondered if there was something he could’ve done to get Kirby out sooner.  Realistically, he knew there wasn’t, but it grieved him to leave the stranded man behind.

Still, he had no other choice, so he picked up the satchel and looked around to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything.  When he thought he hadn’t, he turned and ran toward the wall.  Saunders threw out a hand to launch himself over it and landed a few yards from Caje.  Hearing vehicles pulling in at the front of the house, Saunders decided they’d better retreat farther into the woods.

"Come on," he said as he scrambled up.

Caje followed him, and the two men concealed themselves in the trees a half-dozen yards back from the wall.

Looking worried, Caje whispered, "Where’s Kirby?"

"He’s in the well," Saunders said, keeping his eyes on the back of the house and hoping to hell Kirby wouldn’t touch that rope.

"In the…?"  Caje looked surprised, but said nothing else as he wiped sweat from his eyes.

In seconds a pair of German soldiers began working their way down the side of the cottage.  They cautiously entered the back yard and moved toward the wall.  After looking over it, they seemed to relax, and one of the two returned to the side of the house to call something out.  They were soon joined by four more men, one a captain, all garbed in uniforms of the SS.  The  officer ordered his underlings to fan out.

Caje turned to Saunders and asked, "Are we going to take them?"

Saunders had been given orders not to arouse German suspicions that American activity was going on in the area.  S-2 hadn’t been able to determine whether the enemy knew the papers had been stolen and subsequently stashed, but if the Germans did, Americans behind their lines would only serve to tip them off as to where the documents might be hidden - and catching three GIs who knew something about it would become a top priority.

"No," Saunders answered.  "Not unless they find Kirby."

He gripped the Thompson tighter and watched as two men examined the wagon in the yard.  They peered under it, pulled at the weathered boards still attached to its frame, and felt through the weeds surrounding it.  Two others were sweeping through the general area around the cottage, kicking at rocks, looking around and up into trees, and poking into shrubs.  One soldier began working his way along the cottage’s walls, studying its stones and examining the cracks between them.  Every now and then he would stoop to push aside weeds before groping along the building’s foundation.

At one point the captain spoke sharply and, pointing to the wall behind the yard, directed several men toward it.  They went over and explored its length along both sides, poking into gaps between stones, pulling away crumbling rocks, and combing through the vegetation lining it.

Saunders noticed that the soldier who’d been near the cottage was now moving toward the well, and he slowly lifted the Thompson.  Caje followed suit, carefully bringing up his rifle.  Both men watched as the German stooped to look through the grasses and thistles surrounding the well before he straightened up to peer into it.  The kraut took hold of the rope, and Saunders and Caje were readying themselves to fire, when the captain called out, waving him forward.  The German left the well to speak to the officer, then accompanied him back around the side of the house.

Saunders briefly closed his eyes, exhaled the breath he’d been holding, and lowered his weapon.  Caje eased up on the M1 and gave Saunders a ‘that was too close for comfort’ look.

Saunders nodded his agreement with Caje’s unspoken sentiment and wondered if the krauts thought the well still had water in it.  That seemed to be the only reasonable explanation for their lack of real interest in the thing.  But he also wondered how long it would be before another of them would decide to pull up on the rope.  And when they figured out the well was dry…

Caje interrupted the sergeant’s thoughts with a whispered, "What now?"

Saunders was silent as he considered that.  He knew the only reason the krauts could be here was because they’d found out about the papers.  Maybe the guy who’d hidden them had broken under interrogation and told of their existence.  But it was obvious he hadn’t revealed their exact location.  Maybe he’d died before the krauts were able to get that information out of him.  Whatever the case, they didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave, and Kirby was trapped.  And as long as he was, waiting around to rescue him was putting the documents at risk.

Saunders decided it would be best to start Caje back with them, so he reached for the satchel and said, “I want you to get this information back to battalion on the double.  We can’t wait until we get Kirby out to get it moving.  I’ll stay here until they take off, then we’ll catch up to you."

Caje looked stunned.  "I can’t do that!" he said, his voice suddenly tense, his eyes widening.

Saunders looked at him blankly.  What was going on now?  He hadn’t expected this and there was no time for it.  After a moment, all he could manage was, "Say again?’

Caje’s words came out in a panicky rush.  "Sarge, I can’t do it.  I can’t go through those woods!"

Saunders frowned and, with a terse, "Come on," turned around to lead Caje farther away from the cottage.  It was obvious that whatever problem Caje was having needed to be dealt with right now after all, and Saunders couldn’t do it in a place where they might be overheard.  He hoped Kirby would be all right for the next few minutes and tried to quell his irritation at this new development.

As soon as they were under better cover, Saunders turned and said, "What are you talking about?  You just spent all afternoon going through the woods!"  He would’ve continued, but he was out of words and out of comprehension.

Caje pressed his fingers against his temples, and after a moment he started to explain.  "When I was in England, I went to a park near the hospital after I got back on my feet."

Saunders stared at him.

"I tried to walk through it.  Three different times," Caje continued in an uncomfortable voice.  "But I couldn’t make it."

Saunders had no idea what Caje was talking about.  "A park," was all he could say.

"Yeah," Caje said, looking humiliated now.  "Sarge, I got jumped in the woods.  Every time I went into the park I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think…couldn’t stand being in there.  The trees…they just came at me from the trees.  My God, it hurt…"  His voice trailed off and his eyes fixed themselves in a look of horror as he retreated into his mind somewhere to recall what had happened to him.

Saunders felt a rush of conflicting emotions - compassion, anger, pity, revulsion.  He was sickened that Caje had been so badly damaged and hated to see him in trouble this way.  But he also felt betrayed that he’d been led to believe Caje was over it.  Why would the guy wait until now to reveal he wasn’t ready for duty?

"Caje..." Saunders said, wanting some answers.  "Caje!"  He reached over to shake the scout to get his attention.  "If you knew you were still having problems, why did you tell us you were all right?"

Caje looked miserable.  "I don’t know…I had to come back and I guess I just thought I could force myself to get over it.  What other choice did I have?"

"What other…?"  Saunders was confused.  "You could’ve gone home.  You could’ve had more time to recover, but you turned it down.  Why?"

Caje’s tone was suddenly full of resentment.  "Because I’m sick of all this!"  He pulled contemptuously at the front of his fatigues and thrust the M1 forward to indicate he meant soldiering.  "If I’d have gone home, I would’ve stayed there!"

Saunders blinked, then said in a flat voice, "What you’re telling me is that you would’ve deserted."

Caje looked at him but said nothing, and it hung between them in its ugliness.

Finally, Saunders looked away.  "Well, you’re here now and I want you to carry out my orders."

Caje shifted his gaze to his hands.  "Maybe I could stay with Kirby…"

Saunders turned his head.  "I don’t want you to stay with Kirby!  I want you to follow orders!  You can move fast and you’ve got a sense for the woods."

"A sense for the woods," Caje repeated with bitterness.  "Hell, I let them walk right up and shove a knife into me."  He looked directly into Saunders’ eyes, his voice filled with scorn.  "I can’t even make it through a park by myself now."

"Caje, this isn’t England," Saunders argued back, his temper beginning to rise.  "You didn’t have anything to do over there but think too much.  And there’re a lot of guys who are depending on that information to stay alive over here.  Without it, they’ll be going into an attack blind - which means a lot more of them’ll wind up dead for it.  Your job is to get it to them.  That’s what you’ve got to think about."

"I can’t…"

"You can," Saunders was insistent now, "just like everyone else can.  Just like," he gestured in the general direction of the cottage and the well, "Kirby could!  You think he wanted to go down there?  Of course he didn’t, but he had a job to do.  You’ve got one too.  You don’t sit around and think about how you got wounded and how you might get wounded again.  You do that and you won’t be of any use to anyone.  You might as well go ahead and run."

"That’s chickenshit," Caje murmured, his face darkening with anger.

Saunders grabbed him by the shirtfront.  "Shut up!   You think you’ve come back because you’re here?  You haven’t come back - you won’t do your job.  You’re a deserter right where you’re sitting!"
 
Caje flinched.  He tried to pull back, but with no escape, he quickly became hostile.  He stiffened in resistance to the sergeant’s grip, and after a moment Saunders let him go.

Saunders wasn’t sure what to do next.  He knew he could threaten to bring Caje up on charges, but what would be the point of that?  If the guy had lost his nerve, he might start out all right, but end up falling apart and giving up somewhere along the way.  How could Caje be forced to obey orders if he were no longer capable of it?

"I thought I could trust you, Caje," Saunders said, his voice a mix of anger and disappointment.  "I’ve asked you to trust me a hundred times over and you have.  But I can’t trust you."  He looked away from him, defeated.  "This is a hell of a time to find that out."

Silence descended over them, and Saunders wondered what he was going to do.  He hated to leave Kirby behind, but he couldn’t wait to get him out before transporting the papers.   Frustrated, Saunders dropped his head forward and tried to clear his mind to think.

"All right, Sarge.  I’ll do it."

Saunders flicked his gaze at Caje but didn’t say anything.

Caje appeared shaken, as though he were afraid it might be too late, and he tried again.  "Look, everything you said is true, but you’ve got to give me a chance to set it right.  After all this time, haven’t I earned that?"

Saunders gave him another look.  He searched the soldier’s face, trying to decide what to do.  Maybe Caje had a point - maybe he had earned the right to receive what he was asking for.  But wasn’t it a risk to give it to him?  What if the guy didn’t get the information all the way through?

Who’d really be responsible for the failure of the mission then?

On the other hand, Caje had proven himself to be reliable in the past.  Maybe the risk only seemed bigger than it actually was.  Maybe the guy would be all right once he got focused and going.

Saunders made a decision.  "Okay, you’ve got your chance."  He gripped Caje by the shoulder and warned, "But you’d better keep your mind on what you’re doing now.  What happened before is over.  You made it through.  It’s done."

Caje looked relieved.  "I will, Sarge."  Strengthening his voice with resolve he echoed, "I will."

"All right, then here…"  Saunders took the radio and passed it to him.  "Do you know where you’re going?"

Caje nodded.

"Go the way we came,” Saunders said.  “Don’t shortcut your way back.  Stay under cover, Caje."

Caje understood him and nodded again.

"As soon as you’re in range, radio for the truck to meet you, then head for where we were dropped off."  Saunders brought up the satchel and drew out the papers, folding them before extending the information forward.  "Here.  Put these inside your shirt, over your undershirt, and don’t lose them."

Caje reached for the documents. 

Saunders locked eyes with him.  "Keep your mind on your job and get yourself all the way back."

"Okay," Caje said, all business now as he arranged himself for the journey.  He slipped the papers inside his shirt, buttoned his jacket, then slung the radio over his shoulder.  After checking to make sure the safety on his Garand was snapped off, he lifted the rifle and added, "I will."

"You damn well better," Saunders said and slapped him on the helmet.

Caje backed into the weeds behind him, then turned to slip silently into the woods.

Saunders watched him go and quietly repeated, "You’d damn well better,” before he concealed the BAR and Kirby’s helmet under some nearby brush.  He cautiously rose to move closer to the cottage, and when he could see the back of it again, he took a deep breath to calm himself.  He knew there was nothing he could do now, but watch the well and wait.

And hope that Caje would do what he’d said…

***