Tokens Exchanged

Based on the ABC Television Series:  Combat!
Fan Fiction Take-off on the Episode "The Party"
Copyright 2000 by Terry Pierce
Do Not Reprint or Distribute Without the Author’s Permission.  All Rights Reserved.
Bayonet
 
 
 
Written for the Purple Hearts Memorial Day Challenge
 
 

Caje couldn’t believe how cold it was.  The climate of Louisiana hadn’t prepared him for anything like winter in the Ardennes.  It was hard for him to imagine how Europeans could stomach these conditions.

He wished Sarge would hurry.

The squad leader had been summoned to a briefing regarding the upcoming deployment of the platoon to Marnach, a small but strategic village atop Luxembourg’s Skyline Drive.  Saunders had said he’d only be a few minutes, but that had been at least a half hour ago.  What was keeping him in the CP?

Caje put what was left of his cigarette between his lips, clapped his hands to his upper arms, and hunched lower inside his jacket.  He wished he were still with the rest of the squad at the chateau on the eastern end of town.  First and second platoon had been garrisoned there since the men had been granted leave in Clervaux.  More of a castle than the standard aristocrat’s manor, the twelfth century behemoth offered warmth, plenty of food - compliments of the company’s kitchen housed inside - and a running card game for anyone not sampling the town’s modest night life.  Caje had been on the verge of engaging in a few hands of poker before turning in, when Saunders had come for him.

Saunders wanted a driver and the chance to fill in first squad’s scout on the unit’s next move, so Caje threw on a coat and, in an open jeep, set out with him for the Chateau de Bourscheid.  A more modest mansion situated near the Clerve River on Clervaux’s west side, it served currently as the regimental command post.  Its rooms were filled to capacity with officers and Colonel Fuller’s staff, the grand salon so jammed with people that Caje hadn’t been able to wait inside.  He’d had to settle for leaning against the jeep and coping with the weather.  Eyeing the vehicle’s interior, he knew it wouldn’t be long before it would have to be cleared of snow.  And ice forming on the windshield needed to be chipped off.  But without a bayonet, Caje wondered how he’d manage it.

He closed his eyes against the chill wind and allowed his mind to wander to more pleasant things.  Things like a package or letter from home, sure to arrive soon now that Christmas was near.  Or maybe the holiday would bring something even better, like the end of the war.  Some of the guys seemed to think there was a real possibility of that happening, and a few had even started writing the women they hoped to look up when they got back home.

Caje smiled at the thought of seeing American girls again.  Fresh scrubbed, innocent, starved for male attention…

"Hey, GI.  You will help me?"

Caje’s eyes flew open at the sudden intrusion.  Someone had gotten too close without his hearing anything.  And this small girl standing in front of him…out here alone on a night like this.  Where had she come from?

Pulling the Chesterfield from his mouth, he all but sputtered, "I’m sorry…?"

Unruffled, she asked again, "You will help me, soldier?"

Caje instinctively glanced up and down the empty street, looking for – what?  He wasn’t sure.  Nothing was visible except a row of silent houses, a line of darkened shops, and an ancient church situated on a corner just beyond those, the cross crowning its spire nearly invisible in the swirling snow.

Curious, he looked again at his small inquisitor.  "What’s the matter, little one?"  He flipped aside his cigarette, put his hands on his knees, and leaned forward to better see her face.  Peering into her large, expressive eyes, he couldn’t help smiling.  "Are you in trouble?"

She beamed at him.  "Yes, please.  I have wood I find at the river.  The wood, I carry it to my house, but it is heavy.  I must leave it on a street," she pointed off to her left, "over there.  You will help me to carry it?  I want the wood on a fire, to warm me."

Caje followed the direction of her finger and realized she was pointing to an alley maybe a block or so away.  It wouldn’t take long to help her, and there was no telling when Sarge might finally emerge from the briefing.  Why not give her a hand and see her safely home?

"Okay, Miss."  He brushed a few strands of hair from her cheek and gently tucked them behind her right ear.  "I’d like very much to help such a pretty young lady."

She blushed in pleasure, and he straightened up.

"Let’s get your wood," he said.

The girl waited for him to pull the keys from the jeep, then moved forward to lead him along the street.  Snow crunched beneath their feet and continued to whiten their clothing as they walked without speaking.  Jamming his hands into his coat pockets, Caje stepped up beside her and decided to try an easier method of communicating.

"Tu parles francais, petite?"

The girl looked at him in surprise and responded in French.  "Yes, I was born in Aussonce before living in England, then moving here.  Do you speak it too?"

"Yes, it's my family’s language, even though I was born in America."  He grinned down at her.  "And my name is Caje.  What's yours?"

"Mine is Helene."

"Helene," Caje said thoughtfully, seeming to judge the quality of it.  "Helene…"  He reached for her hand, to steady her on their slippery route.  “It's a very beautiful name.  One fit for a princess living in a snowy kingdom."

Again Helene blushed, and she dropped her gaze to her feet, a bashful adolescent now, in the presence of a gallant knight.  "You…" she hesitated, hardly daring to believe he could mean it, "you really like it?"

"Yes, I like it.  Very much."  He squeezed her hand.  "How old are you, Helene?"

"Ten."

"Ten!  You're almost grown up then.  Do you go to school?"

"No.  Not any more."  Briefly her voice wavered as she glanced self-consciously at him, afraid he’d see her now as so many others did – a useless burden on her war-weary countrymen.  "The Boches…they took my parents because my father was English, so I am alone.  I have to find food and try to stay alive.  That takes all of my time."

Caje didn’t know what to say, the by-now-familiar words grieving him as they always did.  How many orphans had he met since landing on this battle-torn continent?  A dozen?  A hundred?   And all of them vulnerable, worldly beyond their years, weighed down with worries and responsibilities that no child should have to bear.  Again he squeezed her hand, and she seemed relieved to receive this token of his understanding and acceptance.

"Then you do not think I am bad?" she asked.

He looked at her again, his eyes reassuring and kind.  "I think you are walking home with a friend."

She smiled hugely, the planes of her face becoming clearly defined in the feeble moonlight.  Caje noticed she really was a beautiful child, and he hoped all the more that the war would be over soon.  Children like Helene deserved better than to live in the ruins of violent men.

The pair approached the alley, and Helene quickened her pace.  Caje stayed with her, rounding the corner past the silent church and entering a narrow, forbidding lane.  It became darker as the gray stone structures rising on both sides of the slippery cobblestones blocked out much of the moon’s wavering illumination.

Farther down the street a small fire blazed in a receptacle of some kind.  Caje wondered if he and Helene would run into vagrants or DPs.  If so, Helene might need to find a safer route to travel at night.  And he could help her with that once he found out where she lived.

They drew closer to the end of the alley and reached the fire.  Helene stopped, and Caje looked around, puzzled not to see any locals warming themselves near the flames crackling merrily inside the metal drum opposite him.  Nor could he see the wood Helene had mentioned earlier.  He turned to ask her about it but caught sight of a hulking figure stepping out of a shadowy doorway a dozen paces away.

Instantly alert, Caje pulled Helene back to tuck her safely behind him and asked gruffly in French, "Who are you?"

He was fully conscious of being unarmed and regretted venturing into the alley without a weapon.  Being in Clervaux for rest and refitting he hadn’t expected to need one.  But maybe he should’ve borrowed a rifle from the CP before taking off on his own.

Helene squirmed out from behind him and, in English, announced brightly, "They are friends of you, Caje!  They say to me to help, to bring you to this place.  You are surprised?"

Fully alarmed now, Caje began backing up, groping blindly for Helene somewhere off to his left, his eyes never leaving the man in front of him.  "I said, who are you?" he demanded again, this time in English.

"It’s like the girl said," came the sarcastic reply.  "An old friend."  Then the voice snapped, "Get him!"

Caje whirled at the words, stunned by the sudden ambush, and something crashed into his jaw to send him staggering backward.  Helene shrieked, and Caje turned toward her.  Another blow slammed into his stomach, driving the air from his lungs and dropping him onto the pavement.  He heard Helene scream again, but someone cut off her cry, clapping a hand over her mouth.

"Helene…" he croaked, desperately trying to rise, wanting to protect her, to reassure her he’d keep her safe.  "Helene…"

A boot caught him in the side of his skull, and he fell heavily into the snow.

Nearly senseless he lay face down, bleeding onto the white-blanketed cobblestones.  Hands took hold of him to roll him over onto his back, and he saw shadowy forms moving in on him.  Choking on the blood filling his mouth, he tried to raise a hand to protect himself.

His wrist was grabbed and his arm flung out from his side.  Someone began pawing through his clothing, and he felt his wallet being pulled from his trousers.  His coat was unzipped and jerked open, and the pockets of his shirt were searched too.

A hand clamped itself around his jaw to turn his face toward the fire, and a voice said, "Get the beret off."  It was yanked from him, and Caje heard, "It’s him."  The words sounded flat and bitter.  "I’d recognize him anywhere.  Get him up."

His arms were seized and he was hauled to his feet.  Groggy and seeing double, Caje had a tough time standing, much less making out the person opposite him, on the other side of the fire.  But he knew who it was.  And worse, he could hear Helene sobbing in the grip of another man a few feet away.

“Sergeant…let the girl go."  Caje was having trouble catching his breath.  "She’s not…part of this."

Supply Sergeant Hector Rafferty laughed coldly.  "Well, well, well…still interested in the ladies, aren’t you, Romeo?  You and your buddies had a good idea there, using one of these little street vultures to do your dirty work.  I kind of like the way it gets things done."

Caje blinked and shook his head to clear his vision.  Rafferty was referring to Jeannine, the orphan he, Kirby, and Billy had paid to get the beefy sergeant out of their way when they’d wanted to connect with several women in Pontgouin a couple of months ago.  Obviously Rafferty was still holding a grudge.

“Let her go,” Caje said, unable to bear him taking it out on Helene.  “You don’t need her any more.  You’ve got me here.  That’s what you wanted."

The man holding Helene addressed the sergeant while keeping his hand clamped over the whimpering girl’s mouth.  "Whattaya want me to do, Raff?"

Rafferty looked from Helene to Caje and back again.  "I don’t know, Roscoe.  Maybe she should stick around and see what happens to guys who think they’re hotshots."

Helene’s frightened eyes widened.

"You don’t want to do that."  Caje passed a hand over his mouth, wiping away the blood staining his lips and hoping the girl hadn’t seen it.  "She’d be in the way.  Besides, when her father comes looking for her - like she told me he will if she doesn’t get home pretty soon - you’ll have another problem on your hands."

"Uh, hey, Raff.  Maybe he’s right," Roscoe spoke up.  "We don’t need her any more.  Why not let her go?"

"Yeah," a voice behind Caje added.  "We don’t want any civilians snooping around."

Rafferty remained unconvinced.  "Oh yeah, bright guys?  And if we let her go, what happens when she collars the first MP she finds and tells him what’s goin’ on over here?"

Caje interrupted them.  "She won’t do that."  He shifted his eyes to Helene.  "Why would she?  She knows we’re all friends.  We’ve just had a little misunderstanding we’ve got to work out."  He looked meaningfully at her to make sure she knew to play along with him now.  "Besides, she also knows she’s supposed to go home to her mama and papa.  Right, kid?"

Helene hesitated, then timidly moved her head up and down to confirm Caje’s words.

Rafferty still didn’t like the idea of turning her loose, but knew his associates were getting antsy.

"Aw, let’s let her go, Raff.  She ain’t gonna say anything."

"Yeah.  And we are just gonna talk to this guy to get some stuff straightened out.  She doesn’t need to be here for that."

Rafferty scratched his head, then smiled and came around the fire to stand next to Caje.  Draping an arm across the unsteady man’s shoulders, he drawled, "I think you’re right, fellas.  She had better be getting home to her parents."  He winked at Helene and added, "After all, we soldiers are planning to go have a beer somewhere and do us a little talking.  And we can’t have a little girl tagging along after us, now can we, hon?"

This time Helene meekly shook her head after seeing Caje subtly move his own.

"So you just be on your way, sweetheart," Rafferty crooned, signaling Roscoe to let her go.  "Run along and don’t keep your folks waiting."

Helene looked uncertainly at Caje, afraid of leaving him.

He smiled at her.  "I’ll be all right, petite.  You go on home now."

She swallowed and began backing away, careful to keep her distance from Roscoe before turning around to scramble off into the darkness.  Her footsteps soon faded, and Rafferty grinned.  With a sudden twist sideways, he viciously sucker-punched Caje.

Caje grunted and, folding forward, nearly fell again.  The two men at his back grabbed and yanked him upright.

Rafferty got into his face and snarled, "On the other hand, I’ve got a better idea than buying you a drink."  He smiled cruelly.  "Me, Roscoe, Dukey, and Blunt here are gonna rearrange your face, loverboy, so that no doll’ll give you a second look next time."

"Come on, Sergeant, why not let it go?"  Caje struggled to push out the words, over the pain.  “The girls weren’t interested in us anyway.  They just used me and my pals to get to your supplies.  You didn’t miss out on anything.  Besides, you know what they say," he tried for a bit of levity - although he couldn’t manage a smile, "‘All’s fair in love and war.’”

Rafferty hesitated, unsure whether he was hearing the truth about the women.  But he quickly decided it didn’t matter.  This was one of the guys who’d made a fool of him, and the rotten creep was going to pay for it.  He leered.  “I’m glad you think so, buddy.  Because you know what?"  He moved in even closer.  "This is war."

Caje slammed a knee into Rafferty’s groin.  Rafferty folded like an accordion.  His breath leaving him in a violent whoosh, his face a mask of surprised horror, he dropped like a stone.

Caje pivoted and threw himself at Dukey.  Dukey yelped and, knocked backward, thudded to the ground.  Caje landed a few feet away and scissored his legs to cut down Blunt.  Blunt toppled over, an olive drab imitation of a shelled evergreen.  Caje clawed for traction, getting his feet under him, and scrambled up to make his escape.

Roscoe tackled him and dragged him back into the snow.  Caje twisted to kick him in the chest and, following it with a powerful left cross, successfully freed himself.  Dukey threw himself forward to nail Caje with a roundhouse right.  Caje paid him back with two vicious right jabs and a crushing left hook.  As Caje tried again to rise, Blunt dove into him, knocking him over and nearly getting him into a headlock.  Caje ducked and shoved him off, then stopped him cold with a solid uppercut to the jaw.  Roscoe and Dukey attempted to flank him while Caje battled in silent desperation, parrying and trading their blows.

Rafferty, finally getting his wind back, rose shakily to his hands and knees.  Looking around for a weapon, he noticed debris heaped up alongside a building nearby.  He crawled toward the pile and grabbed a sizeable chunk of stone.  Grasping it tightly in one hand, he made his way back to the writhing mound of combatants, raised his find overhead, and shouted, "LeMay!"

Startled at the sound of his name, Caje looked the sergeant’s way, and Rafferty swung the rock at the scout’s head.  The stone struck Caje’s right cheek, and instantly the fight was over.  Caje fell backward and lay still.

In the gloom of the alley, nothing could be heard but the sound of men gasping and wheezing for breath.

Roscoe finally blurted, "Damn, Rafferty!  This guy’s a wildcat!  You’re gonna owe us big, come payday."  He wiped the blood and snow from his face before pushing the glasses he wore back up to the bridge of his nose.  Leaning over the felled man, he scrutinized Caje’s features.  "But that oughta just about do it.  The chump’s gonna look like hell tomorrow morning."

Rafferty moved in closer to get a better look at his handiwork too.  Admiring the ugly gash he’d opened up along Caje’s cheek and temple, he smiled in satisfaction.  "Yeah.  And that’ll be somethin’ he can take back to show his two friends, so they’ll all know what kind of guy they were messin’ with when they tangled with Hec Rafferty!"  He dropped the rock and rubbed his hand across his chest.  "But now we’ve gotta get out of here.  Get his clothes so we can go."

"His clothes?" Dukey asked, incredulous.  "What the hell do you want with his clothes?"

Rafferty’s anger rose again, and he turned viciously on his underling.  "I want him to go through what I did!  He paid some kid to swipe my clothes so I had to walk through a whole village without ‘em.  Now he can do the same damned thing!"

Blunt protested, "But without his clothes, he’ll freeze to death.  Don’t you think he’s had enough?"

"He’s not gonna freeze, you meathead," Rafferty growled, getting to his feet.  "The cold’ll revive him, and he’ll go back to that jeep he has.  It’s not that far away.  He can drive to wherever he’s billeted."  He straightened his own clothing and adjusted his garrison cap before gesturing angrily at the downed man.  "So get ‘em off him!"

His henchmen eyed one another in disbelief but, not wanting to argue with the sergeant, moved to do Rafferty’s bidding.  While Roscoe took hold of Caje by the lapels of his jacket to pull him into a sitting position, Dukey and Blunt moved in to strip him.  Still stunned by the blow to his head, Caje offered little resistance as they tugged and yanked at his coat and the shirts underneath.  Laying him back into the snow, Roscoe reached for the shivering soldier’s belt but, gasping, pulled up short when he noticed Caje’s bare chest.

"Hell, you guys!” he exclaimed.  “This ain’t no rear echelon schmoozer.  You see what I see?"

Dukey and Blunt peered at Caje and also saw the jagged scars tracked across his torso and down his arms, their shapes and depths clearly outlined in the firelight flickering over him.  There could be no doubt as to how he’d gotten them either.  They were obviously the tokens of knife and bullet wounds he’d received in battle.  One of them, a fresh furrow in his left shoulder, had even torn open during the free-for-all, smearing his neck and chest with blood.

As though seeing a nightmare, Rafferty’s men scrabbled backward, away from the GI, then sprang to their feet.  Facing the sergeant, they confronted him angrily.

"This guy’s a combat vet!  You had us do a job on a combat vet!"

"You’re worthless, Rafferty!  I can’t believe I got involved with this.  I oughta give you a taste of what we just gave him!"

"I’m not gonna be involved in killin’ no hero!  You creep, Rafferty!  From here on in, you’re on your own."

The three soldiers pushed their way past the NCO and, uttering curses, disappeared into the darkness.

Rafferty stared after them, shaken by the unexpected turn of events.  Twisting his hands together, he returned his attention to the man at his feet.  Caje had begun stirring in the snow, clumsily trying to rise from it, and Rafferty stepped back from him.

He knew he had to take off.  If a couple of dogfaces came along and caught him standing around, without a good explanation for what was going on, there was no telling what they'd think about the joker getting what he deserved…and he had deserved it, no matter what the other guys had said.

Hadn’t he?

Rafferty stooped to gather up the clothing scattered nearby but for some reason no longer felt quite so triumphant.  His mouth tasted sour and he wondered if he should find a quiet place to get drunk.  He moved toward the doorway where he’d concealed himself earlier and hid the coat and shirts among its shadows.  He figured he’d better slow the guy down but maybe not the way he’d originally planned, by throwing the clothes into the Clerve River.  Giving Caje a last guilty look, Rafferty also vanished into the night.

Caje, dizzy and shaking uncontrollably, continued to struggle for a sitting position.  He gasped at the frigid air knifing through him as he fought to find purchase for his hands on the slippery cobblestones.  Slush coated most of his upper body, and his pants were caked with snow.  If he didn’t get up soon, he knew he’d never make it back to the Chateau Clervaux - and Doc, for a lecture and a bandage or two.  Mustering what strength he could, he pivoted on his elbows and managed to sit upright.

Buffeted unmercifully by the wind, he hunched forward and wrapped his arms tightly around himself.  Pain shot through his neck and shoulder, robbing him of breath.  He looked around for his coat, trying to make out the alley’s nooks and crannies, but he closed his eyes as nausea overcame him.

He waited for the vertigo to pass and pressed a hand against his lacerated cheek, hoping to slow the blood flow.  He didn’t see a diminutive shadow slipping along the alleyway.  When he opened his eyes once more, he flinched at the sight of a figure bending toward him.  Thinking his attackers had returned, he jerked up his arm to protect himself and ducked his head.

"Caje…Caje it is me."  The words were French, the voice childish and urgent.  Small hands lit on his raised arm, touching him lightly.  "Helene.  Helene.  Please, Caje.  It is Helene…"

Confused, Caje lowered his arm and peered at the tiny form kneeling in front of him.  Helene’s face swam into focus, and recognizing her, he smiled in spite of the pain pulsing through his cheek.  Then reading her expression, he turned his face away.

She realized instantly that he didn’t want her to see the results of the beating he’d taken.  Although heartbroken, she’d already known she couldn’t speak of it to him.  She had sensed earlier that it would only hurt him more if he found out she’d witnessed everything. 

Glad she’d scrubbed her face of tears before approaching, she now stood.  "I am going to help you, Caje.  I went to my house, but I came back here to see if you are all right."  She hoped her voice sounded truthful and steady.  "You must have your clothes right away.  Wait here, and I will return in a moment."  Whirling abruptly, she dashed off into the gloom.

Caje could hear her a short distance away, doing what, he didn’t know, but before he could even attempt to investigate, Helene reappeared.

She had his clothes draped over her arms, and kneeling, she laid them over her lap.  Working with deft hands, she pulled his T-shirt from the pile and leaned forward to wipe him down with it.  She removed all the snow she could from his back, shoulders and arms.  Dropping the soggy shirt beside her, she pulled up the wool one.

"Can you put out your arms now, Caje?" she urged, indicating with the shirt that she intended to help him into it.

He did as she asked, still being careful to turn his face away from her as she moved around him on both sides.  Continuing to shiver, he pulled the shirt closed in front and held it that way as she buttoned it for him.  But in the firelight, she’d already seen the blood streaking his chest, and she struggled not to break down again.

Silently then she raised the coat, and without being asked this time, Caje extended his arms.  She stood to work it around him, its heavy bulk harder for her to handle.  Despite her small size and being malnourished, she got it on him and heard him groan in relief at having protection again from the bitter cold.

She retrieved the beret lying nearby and shook off the snow.  Not wanting to make him uncomfortable, she handed the beret to him and stepped a few feet away.  He donned it, fumbling to get his battered, half-frozen fingers to work, and she approached him once more, holding out her hands.

“Can you get up?" she asked.  "We need to leave here."

"I…think so," he said, now that his shivering had subsided enough for him to speak.  He tried not to slur his words, although it was painful to move his jaw.  "It might take me a minute, though."

He reached for her, and as she stepped closer to counterbalance his weight, he arranged his legs underneath himself.  After a few false starts, he got to his feet.  Upon taking his first step, he slipped, and Helene feared he might fall.  She darted in under his left arm and, taking hold of his hand, carefully pulled it forward over her shoulder.  Wrapping her arm around his waist, she steadied him.

"Thank you," he told her, getting his balance.  "I’ll be…able to make it now."

"With me," Helene said quietly, still grieved that she’d led him into the alley.  "I will help you."

"You’re a good girl, Helene."

Her eyes welled up with tears, and she was glad it was too dark for him to see her as they slipped down her cheeks.  He took a second step forward, and she stayed with him, supporting him when he stumbled, guiding him when he seemed confused.  It was difficult going as they navigated the slick, uneven street, but eventually they emerged from the alley’s gloom.

Coming into the weak, winter moonlight once more, Helene briefly released Caje’s hand to wipe her cheeks.  Concerned, Caje stopped and turned his face toward her.

"Are you okay, little one?" he asked.  "Am I becoming too heavy for you?"

She smiled and took his hand once more.  "I am fine, Caje.  You are not too heavy."

"Well, if you begin to…"  The realization that Helene could clearly see his features dawned on him, and he brought up his other hand to cover the wound on his cheek.  Knowing she’d probably spotted it, he said huskily, "I’m sorry, Helene, that you had to see that."

Helene quickly reassured him.  "I am all right.  I see nothing but someone I care about.  Can you go on?"

Surprised by her response and composure, Caje nodded and moved forward.  He tried to shift some of his weight off her, troubled by being a burden.  When he spoke again, he sounded chagrined.

"I guess sometimes we can get ourselves involved in some pretty dumb things.  Do you think it’ll be okay for a princess to be seen walking with a guy like me?"

Helene blushed and lowered her eyes, but with a certainty she hadn’t felt about anything in a long time, she answered, "I think you are walking home with a friend."

Then with a shy glance up at him, she squeezed his hand.

***