The Tale of a Plot Grown Wild
Based on the ABC
Television Series: Combat!
Copyright 2000 by Terry Pierce
Do Not Reprint or Distribute Without the Author’s Permission. All Rights Reserved.
profuse apologies to Beatrix Potter…
The four soldiers sprawled in a sand bank, underneath a very big fir tree, waiting for orders as their squad leader studied the map in his hands. They’d been working their way toward the French village of Pierrelapin all morning and were relieved to be closing in on their objective at last. Saunders had called a halt at the side of a cart path to decide his next move, and the men were relishing the break. A moment of rest in the shade was a coveted luxury.
It wasn’t long before Saunders put the map away and said, "Okay. I’m going on ahead alone to rendezvous with our contact who’ll take me to the bakery in town. That’s where the partisans are hiding the pilot they rescued. Once I hook up with Major McGregor, he and I will make our way back here, then we’ll all head home. Until then, stay put and keep your eyes open for those Krauts we saw earlier. If they show up, though, don’t accidentally tip ‘em off to where you are. With the panzerfaust they’re carrying, they’ll make mincemeat out of you. Just sit tight and keep your heads down. You got it?"
The men nodded, and Saunders lifted his Thompson. Getting to his feet, he moved away from the soldiers under the tree, being careful to stay in the brush at the side of the path. He’d barely been out of sight five minutes when Kirby started griping.
"Stay put, Sarge says, while he heads off to a bakery. And do you think he’ll bring back anything for us to eat? Huh. Not likely."
"Come on, Kirby. The village is probably deserted. There’s not going to be any food in there anyway."
"Well, how’s a man supposed to fight when he’s half starved, Caje?" Kirby asked, indignant. "Nobody issued us rations, and it’s way past lunch time, you know."
Before Caje could answer, Littlejohn pointed into the woods behind them. "Blackberries!" He sprang to his feet. "Come on, you guys!"
Billy and Caje hesitated only a moment before jumping up to follow the bigger man into the tangle of fruit laden bushes nearby. All three soldiers immediately began pulling berries off the plants as fast as they could.
Kirby was less than enthused. "Hey, how do you know that stuff ain’t poisonous? You guys’re all gonna end up dead if you eat those."
His companions laughed at him and continued harvesting the fruit.
"Well, fine," Kirby grumbled, getting up off the ground. "You guys go ahead and kill yourselves. Me? I’m gonna go into town and get some real food."
"Wait a minute, Kirby," Caje called when he realized the BAR man was serious. He scrambled out of the blackberry patch to go after him, with the others close behind.
"You can’t do that!" Caje grabbed Kirby by the arm. "We’re supposed to stay here."
"Yeah, Kirby," Littlejohn added. "You want Sarge to take your head off?"
Kirby pulled away from Caje and retorted, "He’d only be doin’ me a favor, by puttin’ me out of my misery. I’m tellin’ you guys, I gotta have somethin’ to eat or I’m gonna die!"
"Well, say," Billy interrupted. "What’s that over there?" He pointed across the rutted dirt track at a walled-in area opposite them.
Littlejohn was the first to recognize the find. "It’s a garden of some kind! Come on!"
He loped toward it, and Billy and Kirby followed right behind.
Caje looked up the cart path in the direction Saunders had gone, then with a shrug of his shoulders, trailed after them. He figured the squad wouldn’t be that far from where the sergeant had left it. And after the guys found a couple of potatoes or something, he’d make sure they all got back to where they were supposed to be. Sarge would never know the difference.
The hungry soldiers reached the wall and traveled its length until they came to an iron gate. It was chained shut, but they wriggled beneath it and found themselves standing in a wild tangle of foliage stretching off toward a wooded area some distance away.
Looking around, Kirby asked, "Well, where’s the stuff you eat?"
"It’s on the plants, Kirby," Littlejohn told him. "What’d you think? It’d be in cans, hanging from trees? You’ve gotta get down and look for it. Come on!"
He moved farther into the plot and, lowering himself onto his hands and knees, peered into the leaves surrounding him. "Billy! Over here!" he called. "Lettuces and some French beans!"
Billy hurried toward his friend and soon disappeared from view amongst the greenery.
Kirby looked at Caje. "You think he knows what he’s talkin’ about?"
"Beats me. But you’re the one who wouldn’t settle for the blackberries, so you’d better do what he says if you want to find us something to eat."
"Well, somebody’s got to be the lookout."
"Oh, yeah. Krauts."
"Krauts, hell. I’m worried about the sergeant."
"Oh, yeah. Sarge."
"Just bring me back something good, will you?" Caje asked.
"Sure thing, pal."
Kirby left Caje standing at the wall and made his way to where Billy and Littlejohn were crawling around, cramming vegetables into their mouths. Hunkering down to examine things, Kirby decided it all looked pretty weedy to him. He scratched his chin, then poking the nearest soldier in the arm, he asked, "So what is it I’m supposed to do now?"
Littlejohn grinned around a mouthful of radishes and pointed at a row of small plants near him. "You pull ‘em out of the ground and eat up."
Unsure that Littlejohn truly had his best interests at heart, Kirby reached for a clump of greenery and gave it a forceful tug. A cluster of radishes popped out of the soil, and Kirby tumbled backward. He righted himself, peered suspiciously at the vegetables in his hand, then squinted at the tall private.
Littlejohn laughed. "Just scrub ‘em across the front of your jacket to get the dirt off. They’re great."
Kirby protested at once. "But I just got this jacket from Supply! It’s quite new. What’s it gonna look like with a bunch of dirt on it?"
Billy stopped chewing and stared at him. "It’ll look just like everybody else’s. Who cares? You’re gettin’ to be a real oddball, Kirby. You know that?" He shook his head and reached for more beans.
"And you’re gettin’ to be mouthy, Nelson." Kirby shook the cluster of radishes still in his hand at the younger man. "You been hanging around him too long." Kirby jabbed the radishes in Littlejohn’s direction.
"Kirby," Littlejohn spoke up. "Are you gonna gripe or are you gonna eat? Because if you’re gonna gripe, I’m gonna relieve you of those radishes."
Kirby yanked the radishes back in toward himself and began rubbing them across his jacket. "You touch my chow and I’ll bust you one."
Turning toward one another, Littlejohn and Billy brought up their hands in mock horror and chorused, "Ooooooo…!"
"You guys make me sick." Kirby took a tentative bite of radish. After chewing for a few seconds, he swallowed, then grinned. "Hey, they’re not half-bad. A little gritty, maybe…but not bad." He crammed the rest of the vegetables into his mouth and reached to pull up more.
"You eat ‘em that fast and it won’t be us that makes you sick," Littlejohn observed just before stuffing what looked to be nearly a whole head of lettuce into his own mouth.
"Aaah…" Kirby dismissed him and set about eating as much as he could.
Within a relatively short time, the three soldiers managed to work their way through several rows of vegetables. As they moved into a patch of rutabagas, Billy suddenly sat upright. Clutching his stomach, he grimaced and groaned.
"Ohhh…I think I ate too much,” he said. “I don’t feel too good."
Littlejohn also sat up and rubbed his own belly. "Me too. If that wasn’t a cramp just now, I’m my Aunt Minnie." He looked over to Kirby. "What about you, Farmer Brown?"
Kirby crawled closer to the others and, yawning, reported, "My gut’s okay. But I think all that lettuce I ate is havin’ a soporific effect on me."
Billy scrunched up his face in total bewilderment and mouthed, "Soporific?"
Littlejohn eyed Kirby as though the man were an escapee from Bedlam, then he turned to Billy. "Well, we’d better look for some parsley to settle our stomachs."
"Okay," Billy replied, and he and Littlejohn got to their feet to move out. "You comin’, Kirb?"
Kirby squinted up at the soldier standing over him. "Nah. I promised Caje I’d get him some chow. You guys go on ahead and I’ll be with you in a minute."
Littlejohn and Billy shuffled off, and Kirby reached for a nearby plant. Yanking it from the ground, he discovered it was an onion. Considering the pungent bulb for a moment he shrugged, then tucked it into the crook of his right arm. Turning to harvest more of the vegetables, he gathered all the onions he could carry before carefully rising. He’d just managed to gain his feet without dropping anything when Caje appeared from round the end of a cucumber frame.
"Kirby! Krauts! Where’re Billy and Littlejohn?"
Kirby looked around. "I dunno. They wandered off that way," he tilted his head toward a riot of vines, shrubs, and fruit trees, "to find some medicine."
"Medi…? Never mind. C’mon! We’ve got to find ‘em and take cover."
"Okay, but give me your beret, will you?" Kirby asked.
"My…?" Caje reached for his beret tucked under an epaulet and, pulling it out, held it close to himself. "What for?"
Kirby became exasperated. "For cryin’ out loud, Caje. I ain’t gonna hurt it. Just give it to me and go find the other guys, huh? I thought we were in a hurry here."
Caje handed over the prized possession, then with a "Don’t take too long," stepped past him to catch up to Littlejohn and Billy.
Kirby dumped the onions into the beret to more easily carry them and had just begun pulling his BAR out from behind a rusted watering can when he heard voices - German voices. Dreadfully frightened, he dropped half the vegetables as he ducked his head under the rifle’s sling. Clutching what remained of the onions, he rushed off after Caje.
Kirby traveled half a dozen yards, then tripped and lost his helmet among the cabbages. As he frantically searched for it, a pack of cigarettes slipped from his jacket pocket and fell amongst the potatoes.
Cursing now, Kirby gave up his search for the lost articles and began to run in the direction the others had gone. He might have had no further trouble reaching safety had he not unfortunately run into a fence woven of very thin wire, and hung himself up by the buttons on his jacket.
He could hear the Germans moving through the front of the plot, fast approaching his position, and he began to panic. It looked like he was a goner for sure. But seemingly out of nowhere, Caje appeared suddenly and grabbed for him.
"What the hell are you doing? Trying to let the Krauts know we’re here? You’re making enough noise to wake the dead – which is what we’ll be if you don’t come on!"
"I’m stuck, Caje! It’s my coat…" Kirby jerked from side to side, desperately trying to extricate himself from the wire holding him.
Caje tugged at him too but soon realized the coat wasn’t going anywhere. “Just leave the jacket behind. Leave it! You can pick it up later."
"Later?" Kirby’s expression changed from one of fear into one of complete disbelief. "The Krauts’ll find it. It’s brand new. They’ll swipe it for sure."
"Well, unless you’re planning to bleed all over the thing, you’d better haul out of it pronto, pal."
Hesitating only a moment longer, Kirby thrust the Browning into Caje’s hands and quickly wriggled out of the coat to free himself.
"Now, move it!" Caje urged, thrusting the BAR back at him and taking off in a different direction.
Kirby followed at a full gallop, close behind. Within minutes, the two men skidded into a clearing dotted with cold frames, rain barrels, and several unusually large tubs. In the center of the scattered garden implements stood a good-sized tool shed.
"What now?" Kirby puffed, his face red, his heart racing, as he glanced wildly about.
"We’re gonna have to hide. I couldn’t find a way out of here that wasn’t blocked by thorn bushes. They go all the way to the woods. The Krauts would have us in sight before we made it fifty feet past the shed."
"Well, where are Littlejohn and Billy?" Kirby gestured at the tool shed. "Inside?"
"No – the Krauts’ll flush that out, for sure. The other guys are inside those." Caje pointed at two tubs standing near the rear of the building. "Since the things are overturned, the Krauts ought to leave ‘em alone. Come on! We’ll get underneath this one here."
"Are you kiddin’?" Kirby exclaimed. "What if there’re snakes under there?"
"And what if there aren’t? You’re wasting time." Caje leaned forward and, grasping the rim of the tub, lifted it high enough for Kirby to crawl underneath. "Get in there!"
"All right, all right. But I ain’t gonna forget this."
"Kirby," Caje wheezed, "I’m not gonna let you."
Kirby muttered something under his breath and, dropping down on all fours, slipped beneath the tub. Still holding it aloft, Caje slid his rifle in after his partner before maneuvering his own way inside. Then in half a minute less than no time, he lowered the tub to the ground just as the Germans arrived on the scene.
Caje and Kirby listened to the enemy securing the area around the shed. As the Germans relaxed and began talking back and forth, it became obvious to the trapped GIs that the Krauts planned to stay a while. Neither Caje nor Kirby could see one another since it was quite dark underneath the tub, but they both were thinking the same thing.
"I ought to kill you for bringing those onions in here," Caje whispered fiercely. "You don’t have the brains of a jackass."
Kirby was rubbing his eyes and trying hard not to sneeze. "Well, how did I know they’d smell so bad? It was your stupid idea to hide under the tub. And it’s wet in here!"
Caje had to hand it to Kirby. The scout wasn’t sure if anyone else alive could grumble so quietly. "Well, I didn’t know you were planning to gas us out of the place."
"I wasn’t! But what do I know about onions? Do I look like Littlejohn?"
"What are you doing with them anyway?"
"You told me to get you somethin’ to eat!"
"And those are what you…?" Caje said nothing further but fingered the trigger of his rifle while repeating to himself, "It’s not worth being hanged…it’s not worth being hanged…"
Meanwhile, the Germans took advantage of their surroundings. While several went off to gather vegetables, the others grouped themselves around Caje and Kirby’s tub to play cards. The hapless soldiers inside the makeshift table silently cursed their predicament and each other but, helpless to do anything beyond that, resigned themselves to being imprisoned.
At length, the sun got round behind the wood and it became late in the afternoon. At the fir tree, Saunders wondered what on earth had happened to his men. He’d long ago returned from Pierrelapin - although without Major McGregor since the officer had caught a ride back to the American lines with a sympathetic Frenchman driving a gig. Saunders had expected to collect his squad and return to Benjabunnez, but the soldiers turned out to be gone.
Looking at his watch Saunders frowned, then made a decision. Earlier, he’d seen Krauts moving around behind the wall on the other side of the cart path. Maybe they’d had something to do with the squad’s disappearance. Saunders figured he’d check it out, then if nothing turned up, he’d head back to Benjabunnez alone.
He emerged from the bushes behind the fir tree and sprinted across the path. Upon reaching the wall, he slung the Thompson over his shoulder, hoisted himself up, and dropped into the garden on the other side. Wasting no time, he worked his way into the plants to shield himself from view. Then he crept through the thick vegetation, searching for anything that might reveal the squad’s fate.
It wasn’t long before he found something. Kirby’s helmet lay wedged between several cabbages off to Saunder’s right. The GI pot blended in with its surroundings so well it was nearly invisible. But Saunders knew his vegetables, and the helmet was definitely an impostor.
Raising his Tommygun a bit higher, Saunders grimly moved on, all his senses alert. Presently, he spotted a pack of American cigarettes peeking out from beneath a cluster of low-growing vines. Saunders squinted at it and wondered where its owner could be.
He continued forward and soon heard voices. The Krauts were ahead of him somewhere, laughing and obviously taking it easy. They didn’t seem to know they had company. Saunders couldn’t tell if they had captives. He became increasingly worried when he nearly ran into an olive drab field jacket hanging from what appeared to be some kind of fence. Like the helmet, it belonged to Kirby.
Now what had the BAR man gotten himself into? And where were the others?
Saunders traveled for another few minutes, then cautiously parted a tangle of black-currant bushes to see a small clearing directly ahead. The Germans were there, lounging around, playing cards. They were arguing back and forth and appeared to be enjoying several bottles of wine. Saunders was surprised no one was standing watch but was grateful for their stupidity.
He took in the shed behind them and wondered if Kirby and the others were inside. Saunders knew he’d have to get closer to see. Looking off to the right, he spied a few tubs and barrels near the structure. If he could work his way over to them, he’d have enough cover to get to the other side of the building without being spotted. Saunders backed out of the bushes and headed their way.
When he reached the first of the tubs, he crouched behind it to catch his breath. He rose to move on to the next one but heard a low moan. Stunned, he froze, then listened carefully to hear whether the sound would repeat itself. Sure enough it did and Saunders, astonished, realized it had come from inside the tub!
"Kirby?" he ventured, quickly deciding it was unlikely a Kraut was moaning under there. "Kirby, is that you?"
A weak voice croaked, "Sarge?"
Saunders recognized Billy Nelson’s voice immediately. What the…?
"Yeah, it’s me, Billy,” he said. “Where are the other guys?"
Billy paused, then groaned, "The tubs…hidden…"
"Okay. Take it easy."
Saunders’ mind raced as he considered the situation. Three tubs stood in the area. Billy, possibly wounded, was hiding under one, and someone else was probably occupying the one standing nearby. But was someone else concealed inside the tub being used as a poker table by the Krauts? Saunders hoped not but knew the chances of Caje, Kirby, and Littlejohn all fitting under the tub next to Billy’s were pretty slim.
"Billy," he whispered again. "Keep quiet until you hear me firing. Then get out of there and behind some cover as fast as you can. You hear me?"
Saunders briefly laid a hand on the tub, took a deep breath, then cautiously moved on to the next one. Putting his face in close to it, he queried, "Kirby?"
Almost immediately he heard rustling and Littlejohn’s muffled voice. "Sarge? Is that you?"
"Yeah. Is someone else in there with you?"
"No, but Billy’s next to me, and Caje told us he and Kirby would be inside the other tub farther away."
Damn. Saunders knew it.
"Okay. Well, here’s what I want you to do…" Saunders said and explained how he wanted Littlejohn to give Billy a hand, getting to cover.
Littlejohn acknowledged the order, then Saunders moved on to the barrels. He squatted behind them and made sure Caje and Kirby weren’t hidden inside. Disappointed they weren’t, he advanced to the back of the tool shed.
He’d have to get the Krauts on their feet or, better yet, away from the other tub altogether if he were going to take them on. Firing into the Germans the way they were situated now almost guaranteed that Caje or Kirby - or both - would get hit. Saunders wondered what he could use to lure the Krauts off.
Glancing around, he noticed a rubbish heap at the corner of the building leading to the other side of the shed. Saunders crept toward it and spied a moldy canvas sack among the decaying vegetation, jam pots, rusty wire, and broken tools that made up the pile. He reached for the bag, then selected three rotten vegetable marrows, an old blacking brush, and two decayed turnips to put into it. Tying the sack shut, he slunk toward a broken window centered on the side of the shed.
Careful not to cut himself on the jagged shards of glass still embedded in the window’s frame, Saunders slipped his arm through the window while clutching the sack. He waited for a lull in the Krauts’ boisterous conversation, his arm cocked to throw the garbage. When just the right moment arrived, Saunders lobbed the bag as hard as he could at the shed’s interior wall opposite him.
The sack thumped loudly against the wood and raised a clatter among the flower pots, watering cans, and sieves littering the floor below.
The Germans reacted immediately, dropping cards, bottles, and money, and springing to their feet. Their surprised sergeant choked out orders as his men frantically caught up weapons and helmets. Four of the Germans fell over themselves rushing to the shed to flush out the intruder. The sergeant and a sixth man tripped along behind.
When the Krauts in front had burst into the tool shed and the sergeant was nearly at its door, Saunders swung around the corner of the building, firing the Thompson. He mowed down the German sergeant and riddled the Kraut following him.
Shouting, "Go! Go! Go! Go!" at his own men, Saunders twisted toward the open doorway of the shed and hurled two grenades into the structure. He dove for safety, and a tremendous explosion rocked the building, sending pieces of wood, pottery, and shrapnel in all directions. A second blast brought down the shed’s roof.
Then it was quiet.
Lifting his head Saunders pulled up the submachine gun, just in case, by some miracle, a Kraut emerged from the shed’s ruins. Nothing stirred, and Saunders climbed to his feet. Confirming the two men lying in the weeds a few yards away were dead, he turned his attention to the opposite side of the clearing. There, his four lost sheep were rising from behind an overgrown clump of tomatoes.
Saunders hefted the weapon into a more comfortable position for traveling and, signaling his men to move out, retreated from the garden with them, post haste. After traveling long enough to put a decent amount of distance between the squad and the garden plot, he called a halt to the soldiers’ flight.
The men assembled around him, and Saunders decided they had to be about the sorriest looking bunch of GIs he’d ever laid eyes on. He said nothing for a few moments but simply took them in, noting both Littlejohn and Billy were perspiring and pale, and their faces were twisted in grimaces, as though they were in some kind of pain. Billy, in particular, appeared to be faring poorly.
Caje and Kirby, on the other hand, were obviously well enough but seemed irritated and sullen. Kirby had Caje’s beret hanging from a shirt pocket, and both men looked as though they’d been…crying? Why that would be the case, Saunders couldn’t even hazard a guess. He’d just begun to ask what was going on, when an overpowering odor emanating from the two soldiers assailed his nostrils. Saunders took an involuntary step backward and saw Billy and Littlejohn turn their heads away as well.
Brushing a hand across his nose, Saunders asked "Okay, which one of you wants to tell me what happened?" He waited impatiently as the four men exchanged uneasy glances and fidgeted. "Well?"
"You won’t like it, Sarge," Caje confessed.
Saunders frowned. "I won’t." It wasn’t a question.
The soldiers hesitated again, then Kirby said, "Well, you see, Sarge, Littlejohn saw this garden, see, and we was all hungry, so," Kirby took a deep breath, "we went in there just to grab us a little bite to eat…"
"Yeah," Billy groaned, rubbing a hand across his stomach.
"…and then the Krauts showed up," Littlejohn continued, picking up the story. "But we did just like you told us, Sarge, and didn’t let ‘em know we were around..."
"Yeah," Billy repeated, managing to look both squeamish and hopeful at the same time.
"…by hiding near that shed," Caje said, taking over the narrative. "We figured we’d get back to the fir tree right after the Krauts withdrew. But the problem was, they didn’t." Caje raised his eyes to meet the sergeant’s gaze and, on behalf of them all, threw himself on the mercy of the court. "I don’t know, Sarge…we just didn’t think digging up a couple of potatoes would turn into such a big problem."
"Yeah." Billy sounded positively forlorn now.
Saunders scrutinized each of them in turn as they squirmed and awaited his judgment. Then he said gravely, "I see. Maybe the real problem was that you didn’t dig up lunch fast enough so that you could’ve gotten out of there quicker. Maybe what you need is some practice digging, so you’ll get better at it."
"But, Sarge…!" Kirby’s affinity for protesting immediately kicked in.
Caje thumped him on the arm. "Shut up, Kirby. Haven’t you caused enough trouble today?"
Kirby scowled and rubbed his arm but quieted.
"Uh huh," Saunders continued, "I think you need to do more digging. So when we get back, you four’ll have the privilege of excavating a line of foxholes around the perimeter of Benjabunnez tonight."
The men traded looks again before Littlejohn meekly spoke up. "But Sarge, Benjabunnez is three miles behind the front lines, and the Krauts are withdrawing to Beatreux as it is."
"Yeah?" Saunders inquired, both his eyebrows raised in exaggerated concern. "And your point is…?"
Littlejohn glanced at the others, then at his feet. "Um…I don’t remember."
"Good. Then we won’t waste any more time here. You’ve all got a lot to do before the company jumps off for Floppces at 0500 tomorrow morning." Saunders jerked a thumb sideways. "Caje, take the…" Wrinkling his nose, he reconsidered that order and said, "On second thought, Littlejohn, you take the point. Caje and Kirby, you’re in the rear."
Caje glared at Kirby as Littlejohn, Billy, and Saunders moved out. Kirby hesitated before attempting a peace offering.
"Here, Caje," he said, pulling the beret from his pocket, "you want this back?"
Caje snatched the beret from him and, bringing it up to his shoulder, realized it absolutely reeked of onions. He gaped at his friend in disbelief, then announced, "Kirby? I’m going to kill you."
Kirby hopped backward, out of reach, then scrambled after the others, with Caje right on his tail. While the scout wouldn’t get the chance to lay hands on his friend, it would be a fortnight before he would speak civilly to him once more. In fact, all four of Saunders’ men said little to one another while digging holes throughout the night.
But after reporting in to Lt. Hanley, Saunders relaxed over a couple of beers with a few other sergeants and amused them with a rundown of the day’s events while enjoying Major McGregor’s gift of freshly baked bread for supper.