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
Fear was overtaking him, but Caje was fighting desperately to pace himself, to resist the urge to flee in blind panic. If he didn’t, he’d run too fast, too hard, then burn out long before he reached his destination. And he’d told the sarge that he’d reach it, given his word that he would.
He’d been spooked before but not like this…it had never been like this. He’d been badly shaken on Omaha, scared when they’d been trying to take the bunker on that hill, anxious during countless patrols when things had gotten out of hand. But those times had been different. He’d known what he was facing, seen what he was up against…or at the very least had been with the others. But not that night.
Krauts jumped me…
And definitely not now.
Caje tried to push away the images that were tormenting him – the sudden figure looming in front of him, the shadowy face under the helmet, the unexpected flash of metal – but he had nothing to focus on to distract himself, nothing to look at to give him relief, nothing to view…except the trees.
The trees that were encircling him, surrounding him…
His chest was tight and his mouth was dry. He was pushing too hard, going too fast again. He had to slow down or he’d never make it.
Trees…they were only trees. There was nothing behind them. There was no one around. He was all right…he was alone.
They left me out there for dead…
He’d been alone when he was dying. They’d come at him when he wasn’t ready, when he didn’t know they were there, when he’d been by himself. The pain had been excruciating, fiery, unimaginable. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t take in air. There wasn’t any room for it with the agony filling him inside.
Air. Slow down…he had to slow down and control his breathing. Take it in, let it out…find a steady rhythm. Pace himself.
He’d lain in his blood in the dirt, struggling for air, alone – except for the ones who’d done this to him. No, don’t fight…hold still…had to stop moving or they might do it again. He’d be stabbed somewhere else…in the back? In his side? He’d cringed at the thought and tried to shrink into his clothes. In his side. There was something in his side…something hard, pushing at him…the end of a rifle? The toe of a boot? Lie still, don’t move. Whispered voices, far away…could barely hear them over his thudding heart. A hand grasping his shoulder, turning him…let them see. Don’t react…let them see what they’d done. The pain…unbelievable that it could hurt so much…try not to react. Then he was pushed face down again, discarded, left to die in the darkness, alone.
Does it still hurt?
Caje unconsciously pressed a hand against his abdomen. What was that? The papers…he’d been given papers to carry. And under them, the wound…no longer crippling, no longer consuming him, but it ached…it was aching now. He’d made a mistake. He should’ve stayed away longer. Sarge shouldn’t have given the papers to him. He wasn’t ready for this.
You could’ve gone home. You could’ve had more time to recover…
No! He couldn’t do that…he’d been afraid of what he might do. It would’ve been worse than this. The krauts would’ve finally succeeded in killing him that way. No. He had to do what was right, what he could live with. He was here because he couldn’t risk anything that might keep him from that.
What direction had it been? Yeah, this was the way…he and the others had passed that stand of trees not too long after their break. He recognized the three standing near the one that had fallen. Keep going, push on…all he had to do was make it to the road. Then he’d be out of here.
He’d had to get out of there, too. Had to get up. The krauts might’ve come back, maybe even more of them. He’d needed help…someone to help him. But who? No one knew where he was, what had happened to him. He’d begun to panic. No, be quiet…had to stay quiet. The krauts would hear him. Think…he had to think.
Caje, take the security…
Sarge. The sergeant knew where he’d detailed him. Saunders had told him to take security…he was on security. He was supposed to keep watch…report in. Had to tell him…tell the sarge there were krauts out there. Sarge would get him aid, get him back. Had to find him, get to him, tell him.
The thought had driven Caje to his feet, unsteady, wobbling. He’d held his hands against his middle, trying to keep the blood in. He would turn around, go back. Find the sarge…Sarge would know what to do. He’d keep him from dying…from dying in the woods, alone.
Keep your mind on what you’re doing now. What happened before is over…
That’s right…it was over. He was somewhere else now. The papers…that’s what he was supposed to be thinking about. He was supposed to keep going until he made it through…all the way through. He’d said that he would, given his word.
The krauts wouldn’t get him this time. He’d pass them, leave them all behind. He was running…they wouldn’t catch him. He'd run and stay safe.
He looked behind him and saw nothing. Facing forward again, he darted his eyes back and forth, looking for Germans. The trees were quiet, their leaves still, the forest silent. Sunlight dappled the foliage wherever it managed to filter through into the undergrowth, and the air was thick with the cloying scent of decaying vegetation and earth. The atmosphere was close, oppressive to him, and the trees seemed to be pressing in on all sides. He wanted out…to be out of the woods with its shadows and hidden dangers.
The M1 was heavy. Maybe it was slowing him down. He could get rid of it, throw it away…and the radio, too. Then he’d be free, his arms would be empty, he could run faster. But fear suddenly stabbed at him again. No! He wasn’t thinking clearly. He had to have the rifle, had to keep it with him. He hugged it closer to himself. And the radio…what was the matter with him?
For a brief moment, he felt lightheaded, disoriented…and thought he might laugh. The stupidity of it…what was he thinking? What would Kirby say if he knew? Caje could only imagine, and worse, knew he’d probably have to agree with the guy. Hell, he’d better get a grip on himself.
The way…which way to go now? He looked from side to side. That way…that was where they’d sat…over there. Go through there. It wouldn’t be much longer. The road had only been about twenty minutes from here when they’d been walking. He’d make it in a lot less time than that.
And when he got there, he’d be okay. He’d be able to stop, to take a break, to calm down. He’d feel better out in the open. He’d be able to think and breathe, to take in some air. He was gasping for it now, and it was little wonder – he hadn’t paced himself at all. But he was almost there and closer to keeping his word, so he drove himself harder.
When he saw the road, he stumbled forward to crash through the last of brush and collapsed in the grass off to its side. He lay there, his body shuddering, his throat burning, raw, and dry. It was painful to draw air into his starved lungs, but he gulped it in as fast as he could. It was good to be on the ground, stretched out, with nothing around him. He would stay here a while…just a little while. To rest and calm down.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. In and out, in and out…slow down. His heart was thundering in his chest, but given time it would settle down too. He’d wait…take the time…feel better. The grass was scratchy under his face and smelled good…familiar. He wished he were home. In Louisiana. It was quiet there…and safe.
Water. He needed some. It would help his throat. He opened his eyes and twisted to reach it, then caught sight of the sky. He turned his face toward it, toward the open space above him. Miles of space that you could see into…where nothing was hidden. Pulling the canteen off his hip, he turned back around, propped himself up on his elbows, and twisted off its cap. He took a long drink and let his eyes roam along the length of road as it cut through the trees and stretched away before him into the distance.
The road. If only he could travel on it, he’d save a lot of time. And it was open – there was a lot of space there, too. For miles and miles, with the trees held back on either side. If someone came at him from the trees while he was traveling on the road, he'd see them in time. He could defend himself. Or run.
Yeah, the road…
Don’t shortcut your way back. Stay under cover, Caje…
No. He wasn’t supposed to do that. He had to go the way they’d come. Sarge had made that clear. The sergeant knew what he was doing and his orders had to be followed. Caje closed his eyes and laid his head down again. He’d have to go back into the woods. But not yet…not quite yet.
He lay there and
let the breeze play over him, the grasses comfort him with their quiet
rustling. He wouldn’t stay very long. Just a few minutes.
Then he’d do what he was supposed to. He would prove he could be trusted
by doing the right thing.
The right thing…he shouldn’t be out here in the open like this. He should be under cover. The thought jarred him and he opened his eyes. Where was his rifle? Anxiety rising, he quickly looked around and saw he’d left it in the grass, off to his side. He grabbed for it, then suddenly thought he heard something. What was that? He froze and listened. There…there it was again. The faint but unmistakable sound of voices coming from the road, from somewhere off to his right.
Turning in that direction, he strained to see until he could make out a group of men…on bicycles. German soldiers, five of them with their rifles slung around their backs, coming toward him on bicycles. They were talking to one another, and one of them was laughing. They didn’t seem to know he was there.
Adrenaline coursing through him, Caje considered what to do. He couldn’t cross now – they’d see him. He could lie still where he was and hope they wouldn’t spot him, but that would be risky – he wasn’t that far from where they’d pass. Or he could move back under cover, into the trees, which was probably his safest bet.
The irony of that thought suddenly struck him, and for a moment he felt a wild urge to laugh. He’d be safe…in the trees? Not out here in the open? He couldn’t seem to figure out where he wanted to be! And what made him think he’d be safe anywhere?
His pulse pounding, his breath short, he shut his eyes and shook his head. What was wrong with him? If he didn’t pull himself together, he’d fall right into their hands.
The voices were coming nearer, becoming louder. He had to get moving. Now.
He sidled into the weeds edging the forest and eased his way between the shrubs and saplings there. Camouflaged, his heart racing, he watched the Germans pedal by, the krauts engaged in careless conversation.
"Ich glaube kein Wort davon! Er ist dumm wie Bohnenstroh!" one of them called out to his companions.
The other men laughed.
A corporal puffed, "Muller, du gehst zu schnell."
A sergeant turned and barked, "Du gehst zu langsam!"
The corporal groaned and attempted to increase his speed.
Another man also lagging behind asked, "Ist es weit?"
"Nein," the sergeant said, "es ist nur…" but the rest of it was lost as they passed beyond Caje’s range of hearing.
Caje turned and watched as they disappeared from view, then he loosened his white-knuckled grip on the M1. He’d made a stupid mistake, lying out there in the open like that. If the krauts hadn’t been talking or he’d just been any less lucky, they would’ve stumbled right onto him.
He wasn’t going to be able to keep on this way – being driven by fear. If he did, he’d only wind up getting himself killed. Where he was – whether in the woods or out in the open – obviously wasn’t the issue. What he was doing was…and he hadn’t been doing the things he should. He hadn’t been thinking clearly, hadn’t been using caution, hadn’t been evaluating and judging what was going on around him. Saunders was right – he wasn’t going to be of much use to anyone this way. Things were going to have to change…now.
Caje took a deep breath and concentrated. He was almost halfway to his destination. He had the radio, his rifle – he reached up to double check – and the papers. What was it that the sarge had said? That a lot of guys would be going into an attack blind without them? Caje thought about that…going in blind. He hadn’t known what was in front of him that night he was on security, and he’d paid a big price for it. If he could keep that from happening to someone else, then he had to get himself back…and let it be the krauts’ turn to be surprised.
He hoisted his rifle and moved forward to get a better look at the road. After seeing no one else was coming, he got up and ran in a crouch to the other side. When he was in the trees, he took a moment to get his bearings. He knew he was pretty close to where he and the other guys had come through before. There had to be something nearby that he’d be able to recognize to get started in the right direction. He looked around, then spotted a stump he’d seen Kirby dodge earlier. That was the way to go, over there.
Caje set off at a moderate pace, jogging, and holding his rifle at high port. Taking measured breaths, he concentrated on the rhythm of his gait, being careful to step lightly, land quietly. He methodically scanned the area around him, looking for markers that would indicate he was on the right track – and for trouble.
After traveling a while, he noticed he was on an incline. From there the land would rise as he made his way north. Eventually he would draw abreast of the orchard off to the west, and he’d have to keep an eye out for stray Germans in the woods. He slowed down but moved steadily forward, keeping a tight rein on his thoughts. As long as he focused on what he was doing, he’d be all right.
He wound his way through a particularly thick patch of brambles, then stopped. There was something ahead of him…something he couldn’t see but that he vaguely sensed was there. He ducked behind a tree to listen for any sound that might indicate what it was, but hearing nothing, he cautiously peered around the tree trunk. He scanned the surrounding forest and finally spotted a doe…silent, suspicious, and alert…trying to confirm his own presence.
Relieved, he stepped out from behind the tree and watched as the startled deer turned and bounded away. It was a beautiful sight and he stood momentarily transfixed. He wondered what it would be like to be able to run that way, to have that speed and agility. Within seconds, the animal was gone, safe, vanished into the woods.
Safe…the thought lingered, mesmerizing him, until another less pleasant one took its place. Deer were a favorite prey of hunters – he’d hunted them himself, in fact – and, sure, they could run, but they were also frequently caught – stalked, ambushed, taken. Spooked, he looked around and got his legs moving under him again.
Stalked, ambushed, taken.
The words taunted him, chased him, but he managed to push them away and forced himself to think about what he was doing. There were Germans nearby; he couldn’t afford to become distracted and start making stupid mistakes again. He had to keep his mind on what he was looking at, what he was watching for, where the signs he recognized were directing him to go.
Nearing the top of the rise, he slowed his pace and began to maneuver himself through the brush as quietly as he could. He wasn’t certain how close he was to the orchard, since he was too deep into the trees to see it, but he knew he had to be nearby. He strained to hear anything that would warn him of danger and carefully watched the landscape.
At one point, a sudden rustling off to his right startled him, and he stumbled. Catching himself, he swung his rifle around and darted his eyes back and forth, but he couldn’t see anyone.
They jumped me…
He hadn’t seen anyone before they’d grabbed him that night either. Someone had clamped a hand over his mouth and pulled his head back…arched him backward…
No! No…that wasn’t happening here. He was only hearing the sound of a rodent trying to get away from him. He was all right…was still alone. It was only an animal. That was all…an animal.
Caje wiped his face, then leaned forward, putting a hand on one knee, as a wave of nausea rolled over him. He breathed deeply until it passed, telling himself he’d be all right if he’d just stop letting his imagination run away with him.
He moved his hand up to his stomach and felt for the documents through the front of his jacket. They’d slipped a bit when he’d twisted around. He straightened up, then reached inside his jacket and shirt to get them back into position. When he felt they were secure, he made himself move on.
He soon realized he was veering west and knew he’d made it past the orchard. A little farther and he’d enter the drift of trees beyond the grain field. He stopped to listen again, then knelt down and pulled the radio off his shoulder. Raising the antenna, he cupped his hand around the mouthpiece and called in. As per Saunders’ instructions, Caje requested that the truck be dispatched and briefly communicated the status of the operation. When his request was confirmed, he signed off and quickly re-shouldered the handy-talkie before rising to head for the rendezvous point.
His thoughts turned to Saunders and Kirby. Caje had relayed what he’d been told – that the other guys would be coming along behind, that they’d catch up to him – but he felt uneasy about that. What if Sarge still hadn’t managed to get Kirby out of the well? The squad leader was alone back there, for all practical purposes. There was no one around to cover him, to watch his back. The krauts could’ve stumbled across him, maybe surprised him, taken him…or maybe they’d discovered Kirby. Caje had seen the kraut uniforms, knew they were SS. Both Saunders and Kirby could be in a lot of trouble right now. What if they needed help?
He turned and looked behind him, half in the hope that he’d see them coming, but there was nothing there…only the woods with its endless secrets and silence. For a fleeting moment he considered going back to see if he could give them a hand, but he knew he couldn’t. He had his orders. Frustrated, he readjusted his hold on his rifle and moved on.
Then he heard something out of the ordinary, and he skidded to a stop. Crouching lower, he listened intently until the sound was repeated. It seemed to be coming from a cluster of trees ahead of him, off to his left. And this time he knew it wasn’t the noise of an animal. It sounded like someone engaging in some quiet activity, someone who was…doing what? Caje briefly looked around, then crept forward until he was near enough to see what was going on.
Twenty or so feet away, a German soldier was sitting against a tree. He had his helmet off and the top few buttons of his uniform’s tunic unfastened. One of his legs was drawn up as he casually rested an arm across his knee. He was holding a bottle that obviously contained some kind of liquor, and putting it to his mouth, he took a long, slow drink.
Caje peered past the German and off to either side of him, trying to determine whether or not the soldier was alone. As far as he could tell, no one else was around, and Caje wondered what the kraut was doing out here by himself. It seemed to be pretty obvious the guy didn’t want to be discovered enjoying himself this way. Maybe he’d slipped away from his post over there in the orchard and was hoping nobody would miss him.
Caje tried to figure out what, if anything, to do about him. He’d been told not to use his rifle unless he absolutely had to and knew he was too close to the German position to risk such a thing anyway. He’d have every kraut in the area down on him in a minute if he did that. He supposed he could take care of the guy, using his knife, but that might lead to problems for the sarge and Kirby. What if the man’s absence were noticed and the other krauts decided to look for him? Then Saunders and Kirby would have to deal with a forest full of Germans searching for their missing buddy.
Caje reached up to brush an insect away from his face and decided he’d probably better just avoid the guy altogether. Maybe the kraut would finish his little break and go back to wherever he came from. Then no one would have to deal with him…or his nosy friends later on.
His decision made, Caje slowly backed away and was just turning around when he suddenly realized the German with the bottle wasn’t the only one in the area. Another one was casually approaching, buttoning his pants. He’d been relieving himself behind a nearby tree and was now making a beeline for his friend.
With Caje caught in the middle.
Gulping air, Caje quickly lowered his rifle and the radio to the ground in order to free his arms. He reached to unsheathe his bayonet just as the German spotted him. Gasping in shock, the kraut grabbed for the Mauser on his back. Caje launched himself forward to slam into him and hit the soldier dead center, knocking him off his feet.
Both men went down in a tangle of arms and legs, and Caje tried desperately to stay on top. Again he reached for the bayonet as the other man flailed at him, kicking and bucking, trying to get him off. Twice Caje missed the handle as he was knocked off balance. He winced in pain as he was twisted sharply back and forth. But on the third try, he grabbed the knife, arced it forward, and put it to the German's chest.
Then he hesitated.
The man had stopped fighting and looked terrified. His eyes were wide with fright, and as Caje stared into them, he was overwhelmed by the memory of what it had been like to be stabbed himself. Repulsed by what he was about to do, he turned his face away to get some air.
He couldn’t do this any more…didn’t want to do it. To kill someone this way was too horrific, too close to home. He didn’t want to be here, didn’t know how to be here in this place, this situation, this hell. He was sickened and confused and alone. Somebody had to help him…to tell him what he was supposed to do now.
Caje heard something and, without even turning around, knew the kraut’s partner had arrived on the scene. The German would have to be deaf not to have heard the noise of the fight. Caje shifted his eyes to see the soldier was pointing a rifle at him from only a few feet away. Moving slowly, Caje raised his hands.
The rifleman blurted an order, and Caje stood while the kraut he’d bested scuttled out from beneath him. Caje heard the soldier behind him exclaim, "Er ist ein Amerikaner!" as the other German leaned forward to confiscate the knife. The kraut in front grimly confirmed his partner’s observation before going on to say something else. That set off an argument between the two men, and Caje’s pulse picked up.
He knew the kraut he’d battled wanted to exact some revenge. The guy sounded mad as hell and kept waving the bayonet around. The soldier behind him seemed more interested in hustling him over to their CO but was becoming less and less vocal about it as the minutes passed. As Caje listened, he stared at the bayonet and, without thinking, moved a hand toward his stomach.
The kraut with the knife backhanded him, hard, across the face. Caje staggered, and the German grabbed him by the front of his jacket. Looking past him, the knifeman barked an order at his partner. The other kraut complied instantly and scurried off to stow their rifles.
Caje suddenly felt his arms being seized from behind, and adrenaline flooding him, he began to struggle. The kraut in front yanked him forward and raised the knife to his throat. Caje tilted his head back as the blade pricked the underside of his jaw, and he forced himself to hold still as the German behind him got a better grip on his arms.
The one in front put his face in close and said carefully, "Sei so gut. Dieses Messer schneidet wie Gift."
Caje didn’t understand the kraut’s words but knew the guy wouldn’t hesitate to kill him. He met his captor’s eyes to convey his understanding of that, and satisfied, the kraut lowered the knife. Caje’s heart hammered in his chest as the knifeman let go of his jacket and took a step backward. With a mocking bow and a click of his heels, the German introduced himself as Oberschutze Loewe and his partner as Oberschutze Roth. Caje watched him tuck the bayonet into his belt before Loewe grabbed him again to begin a rough shakedown.
Caje's mind reeled as he considered what this would cost. Not only would he have to endure whatever Loewe had in mind, but he’d also be responsible for the failure of the mission. In a few more minutes the papers would be discovered, a whole lot of other GIs would be left in the lurch, and all of Saunders’ and Kirby’s efforts – plus whatever they might be going through now – would be for nothing. Worse, the other guys would be in even greater danger when, thanks to him, the krauts in the orchard found out there were Americans running around in the woods back here.
Yet he could’ve prevented it. He’d had the advantage over Loewe and should’ve taken him out of the way when he’d had the chance. Then he could’ve dealt with Roth and carried out Saunders’ orders. But Caje knew he’d choked because he’d been thinking about himself instead of what was necessary for the success of the operation. As a result, he’d opened the way for these two to put an end to it.
And if Saunders and Kirby ended up dead…
Caje became angry with himself. Whatever it cost, he had to try to turn the situation around. He was part of a unit, a group of people who were depending on each other to stay alive. It was his job to think about them, to do what he could for them.
And that was his duty to himself.
Roth spoke to Loewe, and Loewe reached around to pull Caje’s watch off his wrist. As Loewe examined, then pocketed it, Caje forced himself to relax and made sure he wasn’t offering any resistance.
Roth noticed the shift in Caje’s stance and said, "Der Amerikaner ist abgewohnend."
"Es beruhigt mich, das zu horen,” Loewe cracked sarcastically. “So ein Feigling!"
Straightening up, Loewe pulled out the bayonet, positioned it near Caje’s throat again, and unfastened Caje’s jacket.
Caje hated being handled this way, but he remained compliant. He turned his head slightly and dropped his eyes in a show of submission. Loewe noticed it and sneered as he reached inside the jacket. He located a wallet, drew it out, and stepped back to examine its contents.
Watching from the corner of his eye as Loewe extracted a small sheaf of francs, Caje felt Roth shift positions to get a better look at what Loewe was doing. Loewe pulled out a picture of Caje’s family, and it was harder for Caje to remain still, but he willed himself to do nothing. He had to concentrate…to pay attention to what he was doing.
"Seine Schwester!" Loewe exclaimed. "Sie hat Wahnsinnstitten.”
"Mensch!" Roth said eagerly. Caje felt Roth’s grip on him loosen as the German leaned forward, attempting to see the photo. "Gib mir…"
Caje twisted suddenly and, wrenching free of Roth’s grasp, threw himself shoulder-first into the German’s midsection. Roth stumbled, then fell on his back, and Caje landed heavily on top of him. As Caje slammed the heel of his left hand into Roth’s neck, Roth gagged, writhing. Caje rolled off him just in time to miss being tackled by Loewe and reared back up.
Loewe’s drinking had affected his reflexes and he couldn’t stop his forward momentum. He crashed into Roth, and Caje grabbed Loewe’s arm to force him to stab his friend. Horrified, Loewe let go of the bayonet. Caje, seeing his chance, jumped him.
The two combatants fell off the dying man, pushing and pummeling one another, struggling and rolling in the dirt. They grunted and cursed and kicked and soon came to a stop, landing side by side. Loewe took a wild swing at Caje’s head and missed. Caje rammed a knee into Loewe’s groin.
Howling with pain, Loewe jackknifed forward. Caje struggled up to clamp his hands around the German’s neck. Fishtailing wildly, Loewe nearly knocked him off, but Caje tightened his grip and grimly held on. Loewe became more and more desperate to breathe and, with the last of his strength, managed to punch Caje in the face. Caje twisted to the side, recoiling, and lost his grip.
Loewe heaved himself up off the ground, and Caje tumbled off him. Grabbing him by the hair, Loewe yanked Caje's head back and brutally struck him again. Caje arched backward, then floundered, and Loewe slammed him into the dirt.
Groaning, Caje lay still, his head ringing, his eyes watering. He wondered if his cheekbone was broken and gingerly touched his face. Blood was in his mouth, and he turned to spit it out. Then holding his hand to his cheek, he tried to focus on his opponent.
Loewe was clawing for a bayonet in a scabbard on Roth’s belt. Alarmed, Caje shakily pushed himself up to stop him. Loewe saw Caje’s intent and paused long enough to deliver a vicious kick to Caje’s stomach. Caje doubled over in pain and fell away, gasping for breath.
Loewe pulled out the knife and turned to attack.
Lifting his head barely in time to see him coming, Caje kept a protective arm around his belly and clumsily pushed himself backward. Loewe leaped at him but, misjudging Caje's course, landed just short of his target. Enraged, Loewe began slashing and stabbing wildly with the bayonet, trying to gash Caje’s legs. Caje swung them out of the way and scuttled farther back.
He hit a thick wall of shrubs and came to a stop. Looking from side to side, he realized his escape was blocked from behind. Trapped, he shrank helplessly back into the foliage.
Loewe saw Caje’s predicament and, leering in triumph, moved in for the kill. Caje ducked to the right and lashed out in a last-ditch effort to save himself. With a well-placed kicked to Loewe’s jaw, he managed to snap the German’s head back.
Loewe blanched, then wobbled, and Caje lunged forward. He clamped a hand around Loewe’s wrist to stay his weapon. Bringing his weight to bear, Caje strained to force him to the ground. Loewe teetered, trying his best to stave him off, but soon toppled over, pinning his free arm beneath himself. Caje took instant advantage of Loewe’s sudden handicap and moved in to hold him down. Mercilessly twisting Loewe’s other arm, he forced him to drop the bayonet.
Scooping it up, Caje swung the bayonet around to bury its blade deep into Loewe’s chest. Caje felt the German stiffen, then shudder as the knife did its work, and half in shock, he looked into Loewe’s face. Staring into Loewe’s eyes, gasping for breath, Caje blurted, "Je suis un soldat."
Loewe gaped at him. Struggling to speak, he rasped, "Et le vainqueur." Turning his face away, he began coughing and choking horribly. He convulsed for a minute or two, blood frothing at his mouth, until death silenced, then claimed him.
Caje became dizzy with an odd mixture of disbelief, pity, and vindication. He hadn’t really expected that what he’d said would be understood and, in fact, wondered why he’d even said it at all. As an apology? An explanation? Justification? Or was he just surprised at what he'd done? That he’d actually managed to move beyond his fears to fulfill his obligations…and survived? Caje wasn’t sure, but Loewe’s words were oddly reassuring. The German had lost and he had won…won against him, against his fear, against the odds. Somehow, he’d beaten them all.
You made it through. It’s done…
Yeah. Yeah, it was done. Maybe, just maybe, he was going to make it through this whole damned mess after all.
Still trying to recover his breath, Caje pushed himself up to gauge the scene he'd be leaving behind, knowing he'd have to do something about it.
He leaned forward to retrieve his cigarettes, lighter, money, and watch from Loewe. Getting to his feet, he lurched toward Roth and stooped to retrieve his bayonet. He pulled it out of Roth’s body, wiped the knife on his sleeve, and put it back into its scabbard. Studying the corpses, he stooped again to rearrange them.
Satisfied with the krauts’ positions, Caje looked around, picked up his wallet and family photo, and stumbled to where Roth had sat, drinking. He found Roth’s helmet and bottle and carried them back to where the Germans now lay. He looked around for their rifles and placed the helmet near them. Still holding the bottle, he approached the corpses. Curious, he tasted the bottle’s contents, and deciding the schnapps was good and strong, he took another short drink. Dropping what was left of it near them, he stepped back to survey everything and, reasonably satisfied, turned to gather up his gear.
He found his rifle and the radio where he’d left them. Looking a bit farther on, he located his helmet where it had fallen when he’d tackled Loewe. He put it on and reached into his shirt to rearrange the papers. Considering what a good thing it was that Saunders hadn’t specified what kind of condition they had to be in upon delivery, he smoothed out the documents as best as he could and centered them again before closing his jacket. He took a last look around, and deciding he’d recovered everything he needed to, he moved on.
Caje didn’t really know if the other krauts would buy the set up he’d left behind, but he figured it was worth a try. If he'd hidden the two bodies, it would only serve to prolong any search the krauts might decide to get started – plus raise an alarm once the corpses were found. But by leaving the corpses the way he had, maybe the krauts would just figure Loewe and Roth had a little disagreement and that would be the end of it. They’d collect what was left of them and go on home. Either way, it didn’t really matter. He was pretty sore and didn’t think he could’ve done too much of anything with them anyway. Whatever the krauts thought, it would have to suffice.
His confidence shored up, he moved through the trees feeling a bit more steady and a lot more determined. It wasn’t long before he reached the area where Saunders had confronted him about his reaction to being in the woods. As Caje slowed down and changed directions to approach the grain field, he wondered again about the two men he’d left behind at the cottage.
Why hadn’t they appeared? He’d certainly been delayed long enough. If they were coming along behind him, shouldn’t they have shown up by now? Something was wrong. Even if it were only that the krauts were hanging around too long, the other guys were still in trouble. How long could Kirby stay in that well before he ran out of air? And could he keep from giving himself away if the confinement got to be too much? And if he couldn’t, what would Saunders do? The sergeant would get himself killed if he tried to move against that many krauts.
Damn. Things could sure go wrong in a hurry…
Caje drew up to the woods’ edge and swept his eyes over the field they’d all crossed earlier. To the east was the tree line that bordered the orchard. As far as he could tell, it was clear. To the west lay staggered fields, empty as far as he could see. In front of him was the border of trees he needed to reach. He peered at it to confirm all was quiet, then satisfied, he lowered himself and moved into the grain.
He waded through the rippling stalks, being sure to keep his head down, and continued to scan the areas around him – particularly the ridge to the east. Once, he heard someone calling to someone else from that direction, and he froze, listening and watching intently. But when nothing came of it, he continued forward.
Grasshoppers skittered out from beneath him, frantically springing up to get out of his way, and soon became a nuisance as some of them collided with his battered face. He couldn’t help flinching, and he began to worry that his jerky movements were going to attract someone’s attention. Nearly tripping over a large stone embedded between the crop rows, he realized the swelling under his right eye was interfering with his range of vision. He cocked his head to better see any more obstacles underfoot and slowed his pace. It seemed the farther he advanced, the longer the field stretched before him, but he finally made it to the tree line and retreated rapidly down its length.
He worked his way along several more borders between fields before he spotted the first road he, Saunders, and Kirby had crossed earlier. He was relieved to see it, knowing it was the last major obstacle he’d have to face before he reached the rendezvous point. All he had to do was get to the other side, and as long as he didn’t run into any kraut patrols, he’d be pretty much home-free.
He neared the end of the line of trees and stopped to size up the situation. After several moments, he located the ditch they’d been in earlier, and he dashed from cover to reach it. Dropping into its protection, he listened for the sounds of any approaching vehicles, then eased himself up to peer over the ditch's side.
The roadway looked clear to his left, but off to his right he could see three people – male civilians from the look of them – traveling along its shoulder. Pulling a cart loaded with sticks and branches, they looked like a French peasant and his sons. Whoever they were, they didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry and were still a ways off.
Caje hesitated, wondering whether or not he ought to wait for them to pass before he crossed. Looking at his watch, he decided he’d better go ahead. He didn’t have the time to waste. Besides, better the three of them see him now than a truck full of krauts see him later.
Keeping an eye on them, he pushed himself up to scramble out of his hiding place and darted across the pavement. He dove into the tallest weeds he could see lining the road’s opposite side. Fixing his helmet back into place, he turned to see what, if any, reaction the civilians had to his crossing.
Sure enough they’d spotted him and stopped, and one of the three was pointing in the weeds’ direction. The Frenchman shook his head and slapped down his son’s arm while prodding the boys to resume their unhurried journey. Caje sighed. It looked as though he had at least one friend in the area.
Or so he hoped as the motorcycles rumbled into view. His heart in his mouth, he dropped lower to the ground and pulled his rifle forward. Using it to track the two riders, he fervently hoped the weeds would be adequate cover. If the Germans saw him, he’d have no protection in the event of a firefight and would be hard pressed to make it to the next tree line without getting hit.
He tensed as they flew past, then turned his head to follow their progress. Within seconds he was disheartened to see the Germans slow down to approach the civilians. Knowing he’d never fire when the krauts were so close to noncombatants, he swore silently and wondered what else could possibly go wrong today.
He glanced at the trees behind him once more to confirm he’d never make it to them, then turned his attention back to the little group at the side of the road. One of the Germans dismounted and made his way over to the peasants. Caje watched the Frenchman rest a hand on the shoulder of the boy who’d been pointing a few minutes ago. As the German began speaking, the Frenchman listened attentively, nodding and shrugging at intervals. When he shook his head, his questioner turned and said something to his partner. The other rider shrugged, and the German turned back to address the two boys. They also shook their heads, and that ended the conversation. The German returned to his bike, climbed on, and kicked it into life. He and his companion roared off without a backward glance.
Neither did Caje look back as he turned and raced for the tree line. A few more fields, a few more pastures, and he’d be at the pick-up point. He wasn’t about to risk any more delays or disasters by hanging around to see what else might happen. It was time to go, to get the job done.
He criss-crossed the fields using the same route he, Sarge, and Kirby had used earlier. Mercifully, he didn’t encounter any more problems. The farther he traveled, the more Caje increased his speed until, finally, he hit the dirt road at a dead run. Pounding up its rutted surface, he soon spotted the truck and another, smaller vehicle parked nearby. A jeep. Hanley’s jeep. Buoyed by the sight, Caje summoned the last of his energy to charge toward it, not slowing again until he pulled up to its side, winded and unsteady, his face flushed with exhilaration and exhaustion.
"Lieutenant…" was all he was able to get out as he swayed in place at the side of the road. Completely spent, he looked to be on the verge of collapse.
Hanley leaped out of the jeep. "Caje," he began as he took him by the arm to steady him, "you’d better…" Peering at the scout’s face, Hanley became alarmed. "Saunders and Kirby…were the three of you attacked at the house?"
Caje shook his head, still trying to get a handle on his breathing. "No…no…" he stammered, swallowing a few times and taking several deep breaths. "No, I was alone for that…not too far from here…in the woods." He knew his injuries were what had prompted Hanley’s question. "The krauts at the house…didn’t know we were there when I left."
He moved his hand to catch up the sling on his rifle and twisted a bit to drape it over his shoulder. Hanley released him and stepped back to allow Caje room to maneuver. Caje nodded his thanks for the gesture and continued, "Kirby got…trapped in a well," this was said as though he still couldn’t quite understand how that had happened, "and Sarge…Sarge was waiting in the woods to get him out."
Hanley’s expression changed from one of concern for Caje to one of grim contemplation. After a short pause he said, "And Saunders was supposed to follow you when he got Kirby out?"
Caje nodded. "Yes, sir. That’s what he said, but…"
"Okay." Hanley didn’t wait for him to finish but, frowning, turned to look east.
Caje quieted as he realized he no longer had the other man’s attention. Instead, he watched as the struggle over what to do or not do about Saunders and Kirby’s plight played itself out on the lieutenant’s face.
Hanley eventually looked at his watch and repeated, "Okay," before he turned back to him and said in a resolute tone, "Saunders gave you papers to carry?"
"Yes, sir." Caje opened his jacket to retrieve them. He fumbled in his shirt and drew out the documents. "I’m sorry for the condition they’re in, but the krauts…"
"I understand," Hanley said in a hurry now as he reached for them. He scanned the papers and slipped them into his own jacket. "They’ll be all right. The radio?
Caje shrugged it off and Hanley put the handy-talkie into the jeep. Checking the time again, the lieutenant strode toward the truck.
Caje watched his back for a moment, then followed. "Lieutenant, about the sarge and Kirby, I was …"
"Just a minute, Caje," Hanley said without turning around. Raising his voice he called, "Wiggins! Johnson!"
The two men he’d addressed could be seen sitting in the back of the truck. As they gave the officer their attention, Wiggins responded for them both. “Yo!"
"There’s been a change in plans. Out!" Hanley passed them by and, with Caje still in tow, headed for the driver’s side door. He leaned into the cab and said without ceremony, "Garcia. Wiggins and Johnson are going with me. I don’t know when Saunders is going to make it in, but if he does within the allotted time, you’ll have three to transport, all right?"
"All right, sir," Garcia said. "I kind of thought this might happen when I saw you pull up back there."
"Yeah," Hanley said in a subdued voice laced with frustration. "Things change." After the truck and escort had already been dispatched, S-2 decided Hanley should intercept the papers and personally see to their delivery. While the lieutenant knew the decision was reasonable and based upon S-2’s understanding of the operation’s status, he found the implication that Saunders was going to be a complete no-show disturbing, to say the least. More to convince himself that the powers-that-be were wrong than to instruct Garcia, Hanley impulsively added, "But I’m expecting Saunders to be along soon, so watch for him, okay?"
Hanley wheeled around and nearly ran into the soldier who, up until then, had been standing behind him.
"Sorry, sir," Caje apologized, quickly stepping aside to let the lieutenant pass.
"Caje, you won’t be coming along with me." Hanley moved beyond the scout once more. "So, why don’t you…"
He reached Wiggins and Johnson again and stopped to speak. Caje stood off to the side, listening while the two squad members he’d been introduced to that morning received orders. He fell in behind as Hanley and the replacements proceeded to the jeep.
As the three soldiers climbed on board, Caje gave it another try. "Lieutenant, I think I ought…"
A preoccupied Hanley dropped into the driver’s seat and, leaning forward to reach the ignition, said with a bit of irritation now, "Caje, you did a great job. Why don’t you just settle down and try to get some rest or have a smoke or something, okay?"
"But, Lieutenant, the sarge and…"
"Caje!" Hanley’s temper flared. He was struggling under the pressure of having to follow orders and being forced to leave part of his command behind in possible jeopardy to preserve operational security. To fully exploit the resource Saunders had provided, the enemy would have to be kept ignorant of the fact that its positional strengths were now compromised. That meant leaving the men at the cottage to fend for themselves since sending in troops after them would only attract unwanted attention and stir up German concern over the sudden American activity in the area. Hanley didn’t like it, but it was the way things had to be, and Caje’s pestering him about Saunders’ predicament was only making things worse. "Sergeant Saunders knows what he’s doing and will be coming along shortly!"
Caje all but flinched at the rebuke, and Hanley immediately regretted issuing it. He dropped his eyes, raised a hand to his forehead, and tried again. "All right, all right. Look, I know you’re worried about Saunders and Kirby, but you’ve got to understand that my hands are tied." Hanley glanced up to see that Caje looked confused, so he hurriedly continued, "What I’m trying to say is that there’s nothing I can do to help them. It’s a lousy situation and I wish things were different, but they’re not. It’s just the nature of the business we’re in. I’m sorry, Caje."
Caje said nothing, but nodded an acknowledgment of the lieutenant’s words and stepped back as Hanley put the jeep into drive.
Hanley gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Saunders is capable, though. I’m sure we’ll both see them soon."
Caje nodded again and, reaching for his canteen, watched as the jeep pulled out and started up the road. He kept his eyes on it as he took a good, long drink, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and headed for the truck. Trotting toward the cab, he called, "Hey, Garcia!"
Garcia leaned out with folded arms resting on the door to support himself. "Hey, LeMay! I heard you just got back. How ya doi…?" He stopped in mid-sentence as he caught sight of Caje’s face and couldn’t help finishing, "Holy cow! What the hell happened to you?"
"Huh?" Caje said absently, still thinking about the jeep. He figured it would be completely out of sight in another couple of seconds.
"Your face!" Garcia exclaimed. "What happened?"
Caje lifted a hand to it, then realized what Garcia was referring to. Dropping his hand again, he said, "Oh, yeah. Nothing. I’m all right."
He’d known Garcia ever since the two of them had met up over one of Kirby’s more riotous poker games. Garcia had cleaned up the first time he’d played but handled his victory with class. Caje had liked him ever since and always exchanged pleasantries with the driver whenever it was Garcia’s turn to ferry the squad around. At the moment, Caje considered Garcia’s presence to be something of a windfall, and he intended to take advantage of it.
"Nothing!" Garcia retorted. "You look like…"
Caje interrupted him. "You got any water?"
"Water?" Garcia was distracted instantly. "Well, yeah. Sure. I’ve got some. You out?"
"Almost." Caje lifted his canteen to hold it out to the driver. "Will you swap?"
Garcia looked a bit uncertain at this odd request but, reaching for his own canteen, passed it forward and took Caje’s in return.
Caje glanced backward again as he slipped Garcia’s into his belt, and the driver’s expression changed into one of open confusion. Not intending to offer his acquaintance any explanations though, Caje reached for his Chesterfields and offered a cigarette instead. He put one into his own mouth, shoved the rest back into a pocket, and brought out his lighter to attend first to Garcia’s, then his own. Then he said conversationally, "You got any rations?"
Now Garcia looked perplexed. Caje guessed the driver wondered why a GI wouldn’t rather wait for the hot chow that would be available when he got back to town.
"Uh, no. No rations. Sorry," Garcia said. He seemed to remember something and added, "But I do have…" he twisted to look for an item on the seat near him, "…I do have this. Littlejohn asked me to bring it up for you guys. I’m guessing it could be something to eat?" He held out a small bundle composed of a fist-sized lump tied up in a clean handkerchief.
Now Caje appeared confused, but he accepted the offering and stuffed it into another pocket. With a final look past the back of the truck he said, "You got a handy-talkie maybe?" He sounded casual as he asked for the radio but not particularly hopeful.
That was the last straw for Garcia. "All right, LeMay, let’s have it! Just what are you up to? Even if did have one I…"
"What about aspirin? I could really use some."
Garcia gaped at him but, without another word, rummaged around in one of his pockets to pull out a couple and hand them over.
Caje smiled gratefully and, putting them into his mouth, tilted his head back to swallow them dry. Then he said, "How long were you told to wait for Saunders?"
Garcia sounded numb. "A half-hour. We’re awfully close to kraut territory."
"Okay. Well, I wouldn’t wait any longer than that."
Garcia stared at him blankly.
Caje dropped his cigarette and, with a "Thanks, pal. I owe you one," stepped back, unshouldered his rifle, and moved forward to get around the truck. When he was clear of it, he broke into a run, heading east again.
Garcia nodded dumbly at the retreating figure and decided they didn’t come any crazier than Hanley’s second platoon, first squad. He knew LeMay would get himself killed – whether by krauts or the lieutenant, Garcia wasn’t certain – but he’d get himself killed sure as hell. The driver sighed and shook his head.
“And to think all this time I thought that Kirby fella was the nuttiest one I’d met,” he muttered. “Brother, what an outfit.”
Garcia pulled his head back into the cab and reached for the battered copy of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men that was lying by his side, then keeping an eye out for trouble, he settled in to give the GIs their thirty minutes.