"Crossroads" Copyright 1995 By Nancy Durgin [ This story occurs immediately after the end of the 5th season episode "The Chapel at Abel-Five". In this episode, Saunders, who knows vital information about a German counterattack, is blinded by an explosion in a minefield. Posing as a British officer, a German Chaplian rescues Saunders and tricks him into helping to carry a wounded German Captain back towards the German lines. Eventually, Saunders figures out the identity of the two men, but not before he has blurted out his vital information -- causing the wounded Captain to be determined to kill him. In the final scene, the Chaplain -- who has been struggling to save the lives of both men from artillery barrages, attacking German soldiers, and each other -- jumps on a German grenade, successfully saving them both. Hanley and the rest of the squad arrive on the scene (an old abandoned bunker) to witness the aftermath of this event. ] "Are you hit, Sarge?" Doc asked with concern, distracting Saunders from his brief conversation with the wounded German whose voice -- the wrong voice -- had come from out of the darkness. Disoriented, ears still ringing from the explosion of the grenade in the close confines of the bunker, Saunders shook his head. Even that small gesture seemed to aggravate his headache, which certainly hadn't been helped by all the bombs exploding around him all day. But that seemed to be the only damage. "No, I'm okay...." Surprised at the shakiness in his voice, Saunders sagged back against the bunker's cool stone wall. With his precious information safely delivered and rescue at hand, he felt his adrenalin-maintained energy fading away. He coughed, trying to clear the still-settling dust and the acrid smoke of gunpowder from his mouth and throat. "What about your side here?" Doc persisted. Hands pulled at his shirt, down low on his right side. "No..." There was no pain there. Saunders moved his own hands down to where Doc was poking. "I don't think...." Then he felt it -- something warm, wet and slimy, right where Doc had indicated. His hand came away sticky, and covered with the salty smell of fresh blood. Saunders felt a surge of panic. He was hit, and he couldn't even feel it? "Let me see..." Hands pulled at his shirt, lifting it up, and exposing his bare flesh to the chill of the cool, clammy air. "Huh..." Doc muttered, surprised. Then the shirt was gently pulled back down into place. "What is it?" Saunders asked, trying to keep his voice calm. "It's.... it's okay, Sarge. It's not your blood," Doc said quietly, his own voice a little shaky. Suddenly, Saunders knew whose blood it was. He hastily wiped his hand on his pants, while, unbidden, his mind conjured up vivid images of what a grenade could do to a man when it exploded at close range. He'd seen it before -- the bloody stumps of limbs, the hunks of shrapnel-torn flesh. But, the Chaplain had *jumped on* the grenade, muffling its explosion with his own body. The fact that Saunders was sitting there, only a few feet away and yet unscathed, was a testament to how effective the Chaplain's sacrifice had been. Gagging at the bile rising in his throat, Saunders tried to force his mind away from the grim pictures it painted for him. He was successful, at least, in fighting back his body's threatened physical reaction. He coughed again, trying to clear away the sourness that burned at the back of his throat. "Take it easy," Hanley's voice knelt down beside him, familiar and comforting. "Here...." The metal of a canteen was shoved against his hand. Saunders clumsily accepted the object. It was heavy, and his hand shook as he lifted the canteen to his mouth. Even lukewarm and metallic tasting, the water felt good against his throat. He took a long drink, trying to wash away the unpleasant images along with the taste. "Let me check your eyes, Sarge" Doc said when he was through drinking. Someone -- Hanley again -- took the canteen from his hand. Saunders nodded and leaned his head back again. He strained to see the patch of brightness that should mark the bunker's doorway. But as they'd been doing all day, the patches of light and dark just danced frustratingly in front of him. "What happened?" Doc asked, as his gentle fingers probed around Saunders face and lifted his eyelids. "A mine. Knocked me out. Cochran must have stepped on it." Saunders winced as Doc's fingers, continuing their examination, located a tender area on the back of his head. "Sorry," Doc said. The probing hands withdrew, and Saunders heard the sound of Doc rummaging around in his knapsack. "Well, Doc?" It was Hanley's voice, still nearby. "I don't know, Lieutenant...." The hands returned, gently pulling Saunders forward. "Here, Sarge. Close your eyes. Let me put this on...". Saunders felt something being pressed against his forehead. He put his hand up and encountered the thin, rough material of a bandage. "What are you doing?" He brushed the bandage aside, knocking Doc's hands away in the process. "The Chaplain said there was nothing wrong with..." Saunders trailed off lamely -- had the German lied to him about his eyes, too? He'd said it was only temporary blindness from the concussion. "Easy, Sarge.... I can't see any damage, but this'll keep you from straining your eyes. Just until we can get you back to the aid station and have a doctor check you out." Doc's voice was steady and reassuring, but he'd taken the bandages away when Saunders resisted. Saunders felt a resurgence of the panic from this morning when he'd regained consciousness in the minefield. With the German Chaplain's assurance that the blindness was only temporary, and then the other distractions of the day, he hadn't had much time to dwell on his eyesight. Now he was dismayed at his lack of control as his mind, finding nothing else to focus on, turned back to the Blindness. He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry again. Doc's hand was on his shoulder.... "Okay, Sarge?" "Yeah, go ahead." He managed to keep his voice steady. Doc made short work of the bandaging, wrapping a gauze strip around Saunders head, to hold in place two pads over his eyes. Now he could see only blackness, but he realized with some surprise that it was a relief not to be constantly straining to focus on the fuzzy patches of light. "Want a smoke, Saunders?" Hanley offered after Doc had finished. Suddenly aware of the tantalizing odor of freshly lit tobacco, Saunders nodded gratefully. "It's lit," Hanley warned him, unnecessarily, as the proffered object was placed between his lips. Saunders secured it between his fingers and took a deep drag. The simple familiarity of it made him feel more relaxed almost immediately. "You'd better go check out that German, Doc," Hanley said. "Right," Doc agreed, giving Saunders a departing pat on the shoulder before he stood up. "What do you know about those two?" Hanley asked, after Doc had gone. "That wounded one's a Captain -- I think with the Panzers." He took another drag on the cigarette. "The Chaplain said he was a Major...." "That fits. We found their uniforms near where we found Cochran." Hanley said. "Hmmm.... G-2 will want to talk to that guy...." He was interrupted by Doc's voice, coming from across the room. "Quit pointing that gun at him, Littlejohn," Doc scolded. "He's not going anywhere." "Yeah, well he was lively enough a few minutes ago when he was doing all that yelling," Littlejohn grumbled. Hanley's voice came from above Saunders now. "How about it, Doc?" "He's in rough shape -- lost a lot of blood. But I think he'll make it if he gets treatment soon." "We'll have to rig a stretcher," Hanley said. "Littlejohn, go out and tell Kirby and Caje...." "What?!" Kirby's indignent voice came from the doorway. "I'm not carrying some damn Kraut anywhere!" "Cool it, Kirby," Hanley responded. "Did you get through to Company?" "Yeah...they said we should clear out of here, Lieutenant. That crossroads isn't very far from here -- they might have to call in more artillery." Kirby paused, then added, "Carrying that Kraut around will just slow us down." "Come on, Kirby," Doc objected. "We can't just leave him here to die. The war's over for him anyway...." "Go find some poles or something, Kirby," Hanley said firmly. "You go with him, Littlejohn. Tell Caje to keep watch -- we're moving out in 10 minutes." "Huh?" A hand was gently shaking Saunders' shoulder. Somehow, he'd managed to doze off, still sitting against the wall of the bunker. "We're ready to go." It was Littlejohn. "Can you make it, Sarge?" "Yeah." There was nothing wrong with his legs -- other than that they, like the rest of his body, felt like lead weights right now. What he really wanted to do was crawl into a hole somewhere and sleep for a couple days.... Saunders struggled ungracefully to his feet, grabbing the larger man's arm as he fought off a wave of vertigo. "Littlejohn, give me a hand with this guy," Doc called from across the room. "Just a minute.... You okay, Sarge? Just wait right here...." Littlejohn maneuvered him back against the wall. Saunders released his grip on Littlejohn's arm. "Go ahead." A moment later, he heard the German groan and cough painfully as Doc and Littlejohn moved him across the bunker toward the door. They brushed against him as they moved past. Abruptly, there was silence. Saunders realized that he was alone in the bunker. As he stood waiting, leaning against the cold stone wall, he became conscious of an odor that seemed vaguely familiar -- familiar, but out of place here. No, he wasn't quite alone, he realized as he suddenly recognized it. Back when he was a kid, he'd worked for almost a year in a butcher shop. What he smelled now was, unmistakeably, the odor of raw, freshly butchered meat. Saunders grabbed at the wall to steady himself, surprised by the intensity of his reaction. The air seemed heavy, the odor overpowering. Overwhelmed by the urge to get away from it, he turned and stumbled over to the door. Outside, he paused for a moment, drinking in the fresh air and waiting for his pulse to quit racing. Now that he was outside, he felt rather silly about it. But, he wasn't about to turn around and go back inside. He started to feel his way down the steps, still keeping his bearings with his right hand on the rough stone wall. He'd managed this much by himself before, and this time he didn't have to worry about somebody shooting at him.... "Hey, Sarge!" A voice -- Kirby -- called out to him after he'd come down a couple steps. Saunders paused, turning towards the sounds below him. "I told him to wait..." Littlejohn chimed in. But it was Caje who was suddenly, silently, at his side, startling him. "Be careful, Sarge. There's no railing here." "I thought we were in a hurry to get outta here," Saunders offered by way of explanation. But he didn't argue, taking hold of Caje's arm as they both started down the steps again. A moment later, when he almost lost his footing on an uneven step, Saunders was kind of glad the Cajun was there. "Thanks," Saunders muttered as Caje steadied him. They continued down at a more cautious pace, and reached the bottom without further incident. "Okay, let's go," Hanley said, not giving Saunders much of a chance to savor being on level ground again. "Company says there might be some Germans headed this way. Caje, you take the point. Kirby, you take Saunders." "I knew we shouldn't bring the Kraut," Kirby muttered, as he grabbed Saunders arm and started pushing him forward. "One minute they're trying to kill you, and the next minute we're carrying them around. Just slowing us down...." Saunders was too busy trying to maintain his footing at the pace Kirby was setting to worry about the fate of the German. The ground, covered with rubble and other obstacles, was hardly smooth going. And Kirby's steering technique left something to be desired, as well.... "Left...no, right...this way..." Saunders tripped on something and Kirby pulled him back onto his feet. "Sorry, Sarge. I didn't see that." He'd never make it at this rate, Saunders realized after they'd gone another twenty stumbling paces, with Kirby shoving him around one obstacle after another, accidentally whacking him at least twice with the awkward BAR. Already, Saunders was sweating from the exertion -- whatever energy he'd regained during the short rest in the bunker was gone. "Hey, wait up..." Kirby called. Saunders stumbled again, as Kirby urged him forward. "Not like *that*, Kirby," Doc said from in front of them. "Here, stop," he grunted. "Now," Doc had come over to them. "Kirby, you walk in front, like this. And Sarge, you take his elbow and let him lead you." Doc maneuvered them into position, putting Saunders' right hand on Kirby's left arm. "And warn him when you come to any obstacles. Okay?" "Alright, we'll try that," Kirby said. "Sorry, I've never *done* this before." Saunders was too busy trying to catch his breath to mention that it was all new to him, too. And, he hoped, being led around blindfolded was not a skill that would be of much practical use to him in the future. The new technique was much more successful, but still it seemed like Kirby was deliberately seeking out the rocks to trip him, and the branches to slap in his face. After they must have been traveling for miles, Saunders heard the noise of running water, and felt a faint spray of moisture -- they'd finally reached the small stream that he remembered crossing earlier. He sank gratefully to the ground, back against a tree. The sounds of the water drowned out the voices of Doc and the others as they maneuvered the stretcher across the small footbridge. "How are you holding up, Saunders?" Hanley asked, crouching down beside him. Saunders took the canteen that nudged his hand and drank from it greedily. "How much farther?" He returned the canteen, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "A little over a mile to our lines -- how did you get way out here from that minefield, anyway?" "That Chaplain back there. He said he was British -- said he was taking me to our lines. He needed someone to help carry the wounded man." Saunders wasn't willing to spend the energy on a longer explanation. "Ah.... And what about Muller and Stevens?" He hadn't even thought about his other men -- the night patrol seemed so long ago now. Had it really been only a few hours since he and Cochran had begun the exhausting flight that had ended so disastrously in the minefield? He shook his head. "We spotted the tanks -- tried to move in closer to ID them, and a patrol spotted us. They both got hit -- I saw them go down. No time to go back and check them." He'd hated leaving his men behind like that, but he knew it had been the only choice. He and Cochran had barely escaped themselves, and returning with the information had to be the first priority. "Okay, Saunders," Hanley stood up. "You can fill in the details later. We'd better get across," he said. "We don't want to run into a patrol while we're split up like this." Hanley gave him a hand as Saunders struggled to his feet again. He and Hanley made their way across the narrow bridge without incident. Saunders was glad Kirby hadn't been entrusted with the task -- he had a feeling he would have ended up taking an unexpected swim in the rapids he could hear swirling below them. When they were across, Hanley skillfully parked him on a convenient (and familiar) dead tree trunk. Saunders could hear the German muttering deliriously from the ground to his left. "Is he going to make it, Doc?" Hanley asked. "Well, this bouncing around isn't helping things, but he's still hanging in there," Doc said. "Bouncing around?" Kirby snorted from the right. "That's just too damn ba....uh..." He stopped abruptly. Saunders pictured the glare from Hanley that must have been required in order to shut him up that quickly. "Maybe *you* should try carrying him for a while, Kirby," Littlejohn said. The tree trunk creaked and shifted as the large man settled down next to him. There was a crinkling sound that Saunders couldn't immediately identify. "Sure, I'll show him some bouncing..." Kirby muttered from behind them. "You hungry, Sarge? All I've got is this chocolate," As the enticing odor of the candy drifted into his awareness, Saunders suddenly realized he *was* hungry -- he hadn't eaten since yesterday, before he and the others had left on the patrol. And he also realized that he had no idea just exactly how long ago that was. "Yeah, thanks." The half-unwrapped object was placed in his hand. "What time is it?" "Just after noon." Was that all? Saunders took a bite of the sweet bar, which was warm and soft from the mid-day heat. He'd thought it was later than that. Saunders concentrated on getting the second half of the candy bar unwrapped -- without getting too much of it on himself in the process. He didn't realize that Caje had returned until the scout spoke up from a few feet away. "All clear, Lieutenant." Beside him, Littlejohn was getting up. Saunders quickly finished with the candy bar, cramming the rest of it into his mouth and wiping his hands on his pants leg. "Okay," Hanley said. "Let's move out. Kirby, you take the point. Caje, you help Doc with the stretcher." Kirby's griping had saved him from stretcher detail for now, tho the dangerous scout duty was not a task most men would have preferred. Kirby, however, offered no complaint. It was quite possibly the longest mile he'd ever walked. Littlejohn proved a more considerate guide than Kirby, but Saunders still stumbled frequently on the uneven ground, and the constant tension of not knowing where his next step would land quickly sapped whatever energy he'd regained from the brief rest at the river. The terrain seemed more difficult than it had been when the German had led him over it earlier in the day, and the rolling hills and slopes seemed to transform themselves into mountains. They were in the middle of climbing one of those mountains when Saunders stumbled, losing his grip on Littlejohn's arm. He lost his balance and fell, sliding several feet down the grassy hill before he could stop himself. Littlejohn was at his side almost immediately, accompanied by a mini-avalanche of loose rock and dirt that slid down the hill below them. "You okay, Sarge?" Saunders nodded, breathing heavily -- just a few new bruises to add to his collection. He made no effort to get up. "We're falling behind," Littlejohn said worriedly. "Come on, Sarge.... You can rest after we get to the top of this hill." Strong hands took hold of his arm and pulled him up. Ignoring his body's protests, Saunders struggled back to his feet. Littlejohn moved behind him, wrapped one arm around the smaller man's waist, and half-carried Saunders up the hill. But they'd only gone a half-dozen steps when Littlejohn suddenly pushed Saunders roughly to the ground, landing beside him, half on top of him. Saunders grunted, too surprised to protest as he landed painfully on his stomach, a rock digging into his shin. "Stay down," Littlejohn hissed in his ear, reinforcing the order with a hand on his back. "Kirby spotted something." Saunders obediently flattened down, pressing his cheek against the grassy ground. The blades tickling at his nose were short and thin -- they would offer little cover. They lay there for a long moment. The only sound besides Saunders' own ragged breathing was a creak and rustle as Littlejohn shifted his M-1 into position. Suddenly the calm was shattered by the burp of a German gun. The sound came from in front of them -- uphill and to the left. It was answered almost immediately from the right by the deep-throated ratchet of Kirby's BAR. A hand grabbed hold of Saunders' field jacket at the shoulder, pulling. "They haven't spotted us yet," Littlejohn whispered urgently, "but we have to get to better cover." "Where?" More guns had opened up -- it sounded like a half dozen of them, but all small arms fire so far. Up the hill, an M-1 had also joined the BAR. "10 yards. Behind us," Littlejohn said. Saunders nodded. That would put them even farther away from the rest of the squad, but he had to trust Littlejohn's judgement. He reached out to Littlejohn with his right arm, finding and grabbing hold of the webbing of the other man's equipment belt. "Go ahead -- crawl. I'll follow you," he instructed, hoping that Doc's technique would work as effectively under these circumstances. "Okay, keep your head down," Littlejohn warned him, and he started moving. They awkwardly turned around and belly-crawled in tandem, back down the hill. They made good progress, but Saunders had added a half-dozen new bruises and a mouth full of dirt to his personal inventory by the time Littlejohn finally stopped and helped him move into position, facing back up the hill with his legs stretched out behind. The firefight continued -- the nearest rifle fire coming from an M-1 maybe 20 yards away. The rough, stubbly branches of some underbrush poked at Saunders' face and arms. He allowed himself a sigh of relief -- this was much better than cowering on the ground in the middle of a clearing. He heard Littlejohn shifting around next to him, but so far no shots had come near them. "What's happening?" Saunders asked, spitting the dirt out. "Looks like about eight of them," Littlejohn reported. "They haven't spotted us. Hanley and Caje are pinned down behind some trees. I can't see Kirby...." "He's okay," Saunders said. The BAR rattled off another series of shots. "He's way up there, off to the right." "Yeah, I see where he must be...." Littlejohn said after a moment. "He's got good cover, but the Krauts are keeping him pinned down, too." It was just a matter of time before the Germans tried some kind of flanking maneuver, Saunders realized. And with their numerical advantage, such a tactic was very likely to succeed. "I think I can get a shot at one of them..." Littlejohn muttered, rustling the bushes as he shifted the position of his rifle. "No, wait!" Saunders hissed urgently. The rustling stopped. "I can't just *sit* here, Sarge..." Littlejohn objected. "You can't hit anything from here -- you'll just be telling them where we are," Saunders explained quickly, mind racing for a solution. "You got any grenades?" "Yeah... But..." Saunders felt a surge of frustration. It was so obvious to him -- why was Littlejohn being so slow? "Then you've got to try to get in closer -- should be easy since they don't even know you're down here. Get in close and use the grenade. *Before* they get a chance to flank Caje and Hanley." "I can't leave you alone here, Sarge" Littlejohn objected. "They're sure to spot you if they come over this way...." "I'll be fine." Saunders said firmly. "Just stop them before they decide to come down here." Littlejohn didn't move. "But, Sarge...." "Go *on*. That's an order." "Okay," Littlejohn acquiesced. Saunders heard him fumbling with his equipment belt, getting ready. "Here, Sarge. Take this." A cold metallic object was shoved into his hand. Saunders grasped the blade, welcoming the sharpness of the blade's edge as he heard Littlejohn crawl away, back up the hill. If it came to it, maybe the Krauts would be so amused at the sight of a blind man facing them down with a bayonet that they'd forget to shoot him.... Saunders lay motionless, his body pressed as far into the ground as it would go, his senses totally focused on the fight around him. But he found that, as quickly as it had come to him, the calm control with which he'd issued the orders to Littlejohn was gone. Alone, he was suddenly overwhelmed with a terrifying feeling of helplessness. It was a new kind of fear -- different from the panic he'd felt when he regained consciousness in the minefield and realized he was blind. And different from the sheer mind-numbing terror of being caught in the artillery barrage. This time, the circumstances, though deadly, were also familiar. This was a situation he'd faced many times before -- sometimes the odds had been worse, and sometimes he'd faced it alone, or backed up by green men he couldn't rely on. But ever since the first time, several lifetimes ago on a beach in Italy, he'd always faced it calmly and cooly -- in control. The fear was supposed to come later, after it was over. This was different, though. He was an observer, not a participant. The fear was for his friends; the helplessness stemmed from his frustration over not being able to help them. Saunders tried to push aside his swirling emotions, to concentrate on what he was hearing. Were all of the Germans still firing, or had some of them already started a deadly flanking maneuever? If they chose to approach from the other direction, Kirby would be totally exposed to an attack from above. And what if they spotted Littlejohn, and managed to get him pinned down as well? He didn't hear the BAR any more -- was Kirby hit? If the Krauts had gotten past Kirby, then they'd be on Hanley and the others -- Littlejohn's grenade would be too late to stop them. If Littlejohn hadn't been so busy trying to protect *him* then maybe he could have gotten there in time.... Then, finally, there was an explosion. Saunders covered his head, cowering reflexively, even though some rational part of his mind told him that, this time, it was too far away to hurt him. The explosion was followed almost immediately by a volley of gunfire, but Saunders, ears ringing and mind reeling, couldn't identify the shots, or the direction they'd come from. The firing had stopped. Numbly, Saunders realized it was over. He gripped the bayonet tightly in his hand, holding it hidden against his chest. If the Krauts had won, then maybe they wouldn't find him. If they did find him... he'd be ready. He heard muffled voices, the rustle of underbrush -- but no clues to who was approaching. Saunders tensed. A hand touched his shoulder, and he rolled, grabbing for his attacker's arm. As he thrust the blade, he heard a familiar voice calling out from nearby: "Did you find him, Doc?" And simultaneously, a surprised "Hey!" from whoever he was about to stab. Saunders' momentum had already caused him to complete his roll. But fortunately for the hapless medic, Saunders reacted in time to turn the blade aside. The aborted attack left him off balance, and he ended up sprawled on top of his former victim. "Doc?" Mixed emotions flowed through him -- relief that it *was* Doc, and horror at what he'd almost done. "Yeah...." Doc sounded amazingly calm, considering what had just happened. "Umm... Could you get off of me now?" Saunders rolled off, landing in a half-sitting position next to the medic. "Sorry -- I thought..." "It's okay," Doc was sitting up, brushing himself off. "I shouldn't have startled you...." It occurred to Saunders that he was still holding the bayonet. He fumbled at his equipment belt, trying without success to locate the loop where his own knife belonged. With the excitement over, his fear-induced adrenalin rapidly faded away, and suddenly the simple task of putting the blade away was beyond him. He gave up, content to just sit there and catch his breath. Gentle fingers took the bayonet from his hand, exchanging it for a canteen. It seemed like a fair trade to Saunders, who fumbled the half-full container in his eagerness to bring it to his lips, almost dropping it. "Easy, Sarge..." Doc soothed. He steadied the canteen while Saunders took a gulping drink from it. "You about ready, Doc?" It was Hanley's voice, standing over them. "We've got to move out...." "Can't you give him a minute?" Doc asked. "We can't stay here," Hanley explained. "If there are any other Krauts in the area, they'll be on their way. Kirby's out of ammo, and Caje and I are running low -- we can't risk running into another patrol." Saunders had finished drinking, and Doc silently took the canteen away. "How about you, Doc? Do you need Kirby to spell you on the stretcher? It's not that much farther." "No, I can make it," Doc said, standing up. "Kirby's the last thing that guy needs right now, anyway...." "Okay. Let's get him on his feet, then. Come on, Sergeant...." Two pairs of hands grabbed his upper arms, lifting as Saunders struggled to his feet. He wanted to tell them to just leave him there -- he didn't care about the Krauts, he just wanted to rest. But the effort of speaking the words was too much, so he went along without protest as Doc and Hanley half-carried him up the hill. The last leg of their journey took on the unreality of a dream sequence. Saunders leaned heavily on Hanley, so focused on staying on his feet that he was oblivious to anything else. He stumbled and fell once, and after that there was someone else supporting him from the other side. Voices spoke, but the words bounced away uninterpreted -- the only important thing was that he keep moving.... The sharp smell of antiseptic snapped Saunders' world back into focus. He carefully processed the information that they'd finally stopped. Only one arm supported him now, and its owner seemed satisfied to just let him just stand there for the moment. "Okay, I got him." A new voice intruded on his peace. A hand grasped Saunders arm and gently disengaged his fingers from their grip on his guide. "Here you go, Sergeant. Just lay down right here...." The new arms guided him back until his legs bumped into a low obstacle. Saunders groped to confirm that it was indeed a cot, and collapsed onto it. The medic was bent over him, checking his pulse. "Is he hit anywhere -- besides the eyes?" "No, I don't think so," Caje's voice replied. "I thought he was going to pass out on us before we got here, though." "'m just tired..." Saunders tried to explain. It came out as a mumble. The medic gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder and stood up. "Okay, soldier. You can get back to your unit -- we'll take care of him." "Alright," Caje replied. "Take it easy, Sarge. We'll come by and check on you later." "'kay. Thanks, Caje." At least, that's what he tried to say. The medic, still beside him, was checking his dogtags. Then he offered Saunders some water, lifting his head so he could drink the refreshingly cool liquid from a wide-lipped metal container. "Okay, Saunders. It'll take a few minutes before the Doc can get to you. Just call out if you need anything." Saunders muttered an acknowledgement. Then he was left alone. Voices drifted over to him. "Man, this guy's had it... I don't know why you even bothered to bring him in. We're busy enough without taking time to patch up Krauts." Doc's voice responded, indignant, "Look, he's lasted this long. We didn't carry him all this way so you could let him die!" "Alright, alright! I just don't know why you bothered..." the other man replied. "Get out of here -- we'll take care of him." "Come on, Doc." It was LittleJohn. "Let's go." "I don't believe that guy," Doc muttered a moment later, much closer now. "Never mind, Doc. They'll take care of him now." They were standing over Saunders. "You all set, Sarge?" Littlejohn asked. "That medic says the 1st Platoon ran into a Kraut patrol and got all shot up, so The Doctor's going to busy for a while...." Yeah, that was okay. Saunders told Littlejohn. At this point, he didn't really care, as long as nobody made him walk any more today. But the words got lost somewhere on the way out of his tired brain. He wasn't sure, but he might have drifted off to sleep before he actually spoke them. Saunders woke up abruptly, realizing a voice was speaking nearby -- not Littlejohn or Doc, though he hadn't heard them leave. It was dark, and he was disoriented for a moment, until he put his hand up to his eyes, felt the bandage there, and remembered where he was. A hand took hold of his other arm, taking his pulse again. "Okay, Sergeant." It was yet another new voice -- brusque and businesslike. "Why don't you sit up here, so I can take a look at you." Saunders took stock of himself while the doctor helped him sit up on the edge of the cot. He had no idea how long he'd been asleep, but at least the deadening fatigue had lifted somewhat. His head still ached -- a low-grade pain that had been with him since he'd regained consciousness that morning. He fought off a wave of vertigo as he sat up, but it passed fairly quickly. "I'm going to take this bandage off now, Sergeant. Keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them, okay?" "Okay," Saunders agreed, suddenly not so sure he really wanted it removed. In a strange way, the blackness provided by the bandage seemed safe and comforting -- especially when compared to the prospect of facing what the doctor might find when he removed it. He wasn't held in suspense for long. The doctor removed the bandage quickly -- after all, it was little more than a swath of gauze, with its purpose merely to keep the two eye patches in place. "Try to relax, Sergeant." Saunders realized that he had fastened both of his hands to the edge of the bed in a death-grip. He forced himself to unclench his fists. "Keep the eyes shut," the doctor reminded him. The man's fingers probed around the front of Saunders' face, then pressed lightly on the back of his eyelids. "Does that hurt?" "No." But if he kept trying, Saunders was sure he'd find something to poke at that did... "Hmmm...." the doctor muttered. Saunders was beginning to remember why he didn't like doctors. "Okay, now you can open your eyes," the doctor finally instructed. Saunders opened his eyes slowly, blinking involuntarily. But any hopes that Doc's blindfold had worked some kind of miracle cure were quickly dashed, as he was greeted by the all-too-familiar fuzzy darkness. There was a wavering patch of light off to the right. Saunders squinted, trying without success to bring it into focus. "Now, tell me what you see...." Saunders couldn't keep the disappointment out of his voice. "Nothing.... Some patches of light, but that's all." "How did this happen?" the doctor asked. Saunders told him, briefly, about the explosion in the minefield. "Where was the explosion? Were you facing it?" "No.... I'm not sure. I don't think so." Saunders replied. "And how long were you unconscious?" His time sense wasn't working a whole lot better than his eyes, lately. "I really don't know. I don't think it was very long, though." "Hmmm...okay, hold your head still, and look straight ahead." The doctor continued with the examination for several more minutes -- poking and prodding and "hmmm"ing, and eventually locating the tender spot on the back of Saunders' head. "Hmmm...that hurt?" The doctor didn't wait for a response. "Head ache?" "Yeah...." "Any dizziness or nausea?" "Only right after I stand or sit up." "How do you feel otherwise?" How did it look like he felt? "I dunno...tired, hungry, sore...." He added ruefully, "I think I've had my fill of cross-country hikes and people throwing explosives at me." "Well, I don't think you'll have to worry about *that* for a while," the doctor responded. For a while, or forever? The doctor seemed to have finished his examination for the moment, but didn't make any further comment. "So, what's the verdict, Doc?" he asked, impatient. "Well, Sergeant, I don't see any evidence of flash burns, or damage to your eyes." Saunders was relieved to hear it. "What's wrong, then?" "I'm not a specialist -- I can't say for certain. The bump you took on the head probably caused some minor hemmorhaging near the optic nerve. If that's the problem, there's a good chance it will clear up in a few days." "And if it doesn't clear up?" "Well, this kind of injury can be tricky. Sometimes full vision returns in hours, sometimes weeks...and sometimes never. But you can already see some light, and that's a good sign." Saunders was silent, digesting the information. He thought of asking the doctor to quote some odds, but he wasn't sure he wanted to hear them. "I'll have you sent back to the Evac Hospital in the morning. They'll have better equipment there, and they can have a specialist take a look at you. Meanwhile, just try to get some rest. And don't keep straining your eyes, trying to focus -- it won't help anything." Saunders realized he had been doing just that, even as he was sitting there. He closed his eyes and reopened them, trying to relax. "Okay, Doc." He managed to make his voice come out sounding steadier than he felt. With the examination concluded, the doctor called over a medic, who gave Saunders a bitter-tasting pill for his headache. Then he helped Saunders take off his boots, field jacket, and equipment belt, and got him settled back onto the cot. The medic also lit a cigarette for him and promised that they'd be bringing dinner soon. After the medic had gone, Saunders lay on his back smoking, staring at the ceiling, and trying to find something to think about besides what color it should have been. He was still puffing on the last stub of the cigarette when a familiar voice greeted him from nearby. "Well, Sergeant, you're certainly looking better." It was Hanley. Saunders turned towards the voice. "Hi, Lieutenant," he said, grateful for the distraction. He propped himself up on his elbows. "Captain Johnson tells me he's shipping you out of here tomorrow," Hanley said. "It looks like you've earned yourself a little vacation." Saunders wondered if the Doctor had told Hanley anything more than the vague diagnosis he'd gotten. He took another drag on the dwindling stub of cigarette and opted for a change of subject: "Did you check in with Company?" "Yeah." Saunders heard a click and sniffed a whiff of butane. "Here you go." Hanley exchanged the stub for a freshly lit cigarette. "Thanks." He took a deep drag on it, waiting for Hanley to go on. "They confirmed your report. Batallion is moving units up all along the front to reinforce our position. I think the Krauts will be in for a little surprise." Saunders nodded approvingly. Three men had died for that information -- no *four* men, Saunders corrected himself, mind flashing unbidden to the smell of death in the bunker. In the silence, Saunders heard the distant booming of artillery fire. He turned his head towards it, listening. "That's our stuff," Hanley confirmed. "Captain Jampel said Batallion was going to wait until the German armor was finished assembling at the crossroads. They must be pounding the hell out of those tanks right now." That meant the German counterattack would be shattered, Saunders realized with satisfaction. But he couldn't help wondering if the Chaplain had realized this would be the result, when he'd made that split-second decision to save Saunders' life back in the bunker. "Oh, I almost forgot," Hanley continued. "Captain Johnson told me he thinks that German Captain is going to make it. They got some plasma into him, and he's stabilized. They'll be shipping him back to the Evac Hospital with you in the morning." "Doc will be glad to hear that," Saunders said, remembering the confrontation between Doc and the nameless medic. But he realized that *he* was glad to hear it, too, and he was surprised at his feelings about the fate of this enemy soldier. Just hours before, the man had been trying to kill him. Saunders sighed tiredly, not in the mood for further conversation. He settled back down onto the cot and closed his eyes. At this distance, the booming of the guns -- the same guns that had played a part in his hellish nightmare just hours before -- had a lulling effect. Somehow, he and the German Captain had both survived. And as he dropped off to sleep, Saunders realized with a sudden certainty that the Chaplain, who had balanced the lives of two soldiers against the success of the German attack, would have approved of the outcome.