Disclaimer: The characters in this story are owned by ABC Television. I am not profiting from this story in any way. It is written strictly for pleasure. Copyright 2005 by Nancy Durgin.
Background Notes: This story is a sequel to the episode "Survival". In that episode, Saunders, Hanley and the squad (but not Doc or Kirby, who don't appear in the episode) are captured by the Germans. They escape, but Saunders is severely burned and is separated from the others. Hanley assumes he must be dead, and doesn't go back to look for him. They all make it back to their lines by the end of the episode, though there is no reunion between Saunders and the others, and Saunders is out of his head. There are lots of loose ends -- this story tries to tie up some of them. Since "Survival" is a 1st season episode, the 'Doc' in this story is the original Steven Rogers. Conlan Carter's Doc would undoubtedly have handled things better, but he wasn't there!
By Nancy Durgin
Saunders jolted awake, grabbing the rifle that had started to slip from his slackened grasp when he dozed off. The pain from his hands as they protested against his tightened grip on the carbine brought him fully out of his light doze. Saunders relaxed his grip and balanced the weapon upright against one knee as he leaned back against the ridged metal on the side of the truck bed. He flexed his right hand, wincing slightly against the tight stiffness of the freshly healed skin.
"Sarge, how can you sleep at a time like this?"
Saunders pulled his focus back to the other men who shared the truck with him. The young private who'd asked the question was sitting directly across from him, and the other GI's -- at least those who were near enough to hear the question over the jolting and rattling of the truck -- were also looking at Saunders curiously.
They were green replacements, all of them. The lighthearted banter of the men had slowly tapered off as the truck took them closer to the front. Saunders summoned up the fašade of the cocky veteran that he hadn't had much occasion to use since he was in England before D-Day, and grinned. "Well, that driver sure is making it tough -- I think he must be aiming to hit every pothole between Paris and the front."
As if on cue, the truck lurched, and all the men grabbed for their balance. Saunders pressed a hand down on his helmet, which threatened to go flying off his head. He didn't have the chin straps on -- he'd always hated them -- and the cursory effort he'd made to adjust the interior webbing of the new helmet after he'd been issued it at the replacement depot had apparently been inadequate. Like the carbine he'd been issued instead of the Thompson he'd requested, the new helmet just didn't feel right. Saunders took the helmet off, turned it upside down on his lap, and went to work at loosening one of the leather straps inside, but his fingers felt clumsy and unresponsive, making a chore out of what should have been a simple task.
"That's not what I mean," the soldier persisted. "I mean, we'll be at the front in a few minutes -- how can you even think about sleeping?"
Saunders shrugged, abandoning his efforts with the helmet straps. "I guess you learn to grab some sleep where you can. After you spend a few nights in a foxhole you'll be able to sleep anywhere." The truth was, Saunders seemed to sleep better on the front then he did when he was behind the lines. He should have been plenty rested after three weeks in the hospital in Paris, but even after the discomfort from the burns on his hands had subsided, the nightmares had persisted. The most restful night of sleep he'd had in recent memory had indeed been in a foxhole, almost a month ago.
"You been in action before, Sarge?" one of the other soldiers asked.
The question caught Saunders off guard. Then he realized that, fully kitted out in brand new government issue right down to his socks, he probably looked even greener than the other men -- their uniforms at least had some wear on them. "Yeah, I been in it a while," he replied.
"With the 361st?" the first man asked.
"Been with them since before D-Day," Saunders said. "It's a good outfit."
"Man, I heard they've seen some action," one of the others broke in. The focus of the talk turned away from Saunders to the exploits of the 361st since D-Day, which was just fine with Saunders.
The chatter of the men died out when the truck pulled into the central square of a small town. Saunders and the other men looked around at the rubble and still fading smoke that indicated a firefight had taken place here -- very recently. The street was mostly deserted; there were no civilians, and only a few GIs, in sight.
The truck pulled to a stop and a young Lieutenant holding a clipboard hopped out of the passenger side of the cab. "This is K Company," the Lieutenant announced. He consulted the clipboard. "Jackson, Marshall, Phillips... Saunders -- you're off here."
Saunders and three of the young privates made their way past the other men, to the back of the truck. Saunders slung his field pack over one shoulder -- his duffel bag had never caught up with him at the hospital, so he had only his newly issued combat kit with him. He hopped off the truck and looked around while he waited for the others to collect their gear. It had probably been a nice little town once, but now every building showed some signs of damage, and many were more rubble than recognizable structures. The Germans hadn't given up this place without a fight.
"Sergeant Saunders, you take these men and find the CP," the Lieutenant ordered after the other men were ready. "Report to Captain Jampel."
"Yes, sir," Saunders acknowledged.
Saunders waited for the truck to leave, and then asked a passing soldier for directions to the CP. It was located halfway down the block, in a solid brick building that looked like it might have been the town hall or the courthouse.
Saunders felt a twinge of anticipation as he entered the building where K Company had set up its headquarters. He didn't enjoy being the center of attention, but expected he was about to be. It was the same kind of embarrassed feeling he used to get when he returned to school after an absence -- everybody would be looking at him, wondering where he had been and how he was. Although, unlike when he was a school boy, there was also concern mixed in -- it had been over three weeks since he'd seen his squad and the other men in his unit -- were they all okay? A lot could happen in three weeks.... He shook off the feeling impatiently, moved far enough inside for the other men to enter behind him, then paused to get his bearings.
There were three men in the room. Two of them were bent over a map that was spread out on a table in the middle of the room. Saunders spotted Captain Jampel immediately; it took him a moment more to realize that the tall dark-haired man next to the Captain was Hanley. Relief washed over him when he realized that his friend and commanding officer, though dirty and unshaven, was obviously in one piece.
The two officers, deep in a discussion about the map, didn't seem to notice their arrival. But the third man, Corporal Watkins, the company clerk, looked up as they entered. He looked over the new arrivals with a disinterested glance, and then did an immediate double-take when he recognized Saunders.
Watkins cleared his throat. "Umm... Captain Jampel?"
"What is it, Corporal?" Jampel asked offhandedly, his attention still focused on the map.
Watkins smiled expectantly at Saunders. "It looks like the replacements are here, sir."
"What?" There was a twinge of irritation in Jampel's voice as he looked up from his map.
Beside Saunders, the new men all snapped to attention, saluting crisply. Saunders, who had never been big on military protocol, straightened out of his slouch and rendered a casual salute.
Jampel's annoyance disappeared, to be replaced by surprise and recognition. "Sergeant!" He returned the salute, smiling.
Hanley had still been looking down at the map, but at Jampel's exclamation, he finally looked up. The expression on his face quickly turned from curiosity to disbelief. "Saunders?"
Okay... obviously they weren't expecting him. And Hanley was staring at him like he was seeing a ghost. Saunders hid his self-consciousness behind a smile. "Hey Lieutenant... Haven't you guys won the war yet?"
Hanley, who still looked stunned, didn't respond to the banter. After a slight pause, Jampel filled in. "Nah, we wouldn't want you to miss out on all the fun, Saunders. We've been taking it easy, waiting for you to get back from your little vacation."
"Hmm... it's a good thing I hurried back, then," Saunders said. "Oh..." he reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out two cigars. "I finally had a chance to restock while I was in Paris." Saunders handed a cigar to Jampel, and then held one out to Hanley.
Hanley took the cigar, muttering a thanks and smiling faintly.
Jampel thanked Saunders, then turned to briefly welcome the other replacements, telling them that Phillips would be going to 1st Platoon, and Jackson and Marshall to Hanley's 2nd Platoon. Hanley acknowledged that, and Jampel nodded dismissively, turning it over to Hanley and returning to his map.
Hanley turned to Saunders and the new men. "Saunders, they'll both be going to your squad. Your men are out on a patrol right now; you can take over from Corporal Stewart when they get back."
"Corporal Stewart?" Saunders looked at Hanley quizzically. He didn't recall anyone by that name in the platoon.
"Oh....Stewart joined us a couple weeks ago," Hanley explained. "He came in as a replacement, but he had some combat experience in Italy. He seems like a good man."
"Ah." Saunders felt a twinge of jealousy at the thought of an outsider taking charge of his men. Why didn't Hanley just leave Caje in charge until he got back? He'd done that the last time Saunders was wounded, and it worked out fine.
Hanley took a step closer to Saunders and made a show of looking him up and down. "Well, I see you got yourself all kitted out in some new government issue. You haven't looked this spit and polished since that last night in England."
Saunders grinned in response, remembering his plans to sneak out and see Hazel -- it seemed like a lifetime ago now. This was more like the Hanley he was expecting. "I guess that's true, sir. You know, those Paris girls don't like a dirty uniform." He looked pointedly at Hanley's dirty, torn field gear and shook his head, making a tsk sound.
"Hmm... I'll keep that in mind, next time I'm in Paris," Hanley said. His expression turned more serious. "Well, those rear area guys always forget something. Check with Sergeant Kurawicz if you need any other equipment."
"Okay," Saunders said. He hefted the carbine he'd been issued. "What I really need is to find a Thompson. This thing won't kill a sick mouse."
Hanley smiled, ignoring the insult to the carbine, which was his own weapon of choice. "I'll see what I can do about that."
"Ah, don't worry, Lieutenant. I'll get Kelly to scrounge one up for me."
Hanley's smile disappeared. Saunders felt a tightness in his chest as he realized what that meant. Hanley confirmed it. "Kelly didn't make it, Saunders."
Saunders shook his head grimly at the news, allowing himself to feel a brief regret over Kelly's death. He'd been a goof-off and a wisecracker, but he was a good soldier when it counted. And Kelly seemed like a survivor.... Saunders had assumed that the others who'd been captured that day -- Kelly, Caje, Littlejohn and Billy -- had gotten back safely. But he didn't actually know it; and obviously he'd been wrong. If he was wrong about Kelly.... Suddenly an explanation for Hanley assigning Stewart to his squad occurred to him.
"What about the others? Caje?" Saunders asked, bracing himself for the answer.
"The rest of us got back alright," Hanley assured him, but his expression was grim, which seemed to belie the good news. There was something he wasn't saying.
Saunders caught Hanley's gaze and cocked his head slightly. What else?
Hanley looked away, dodging the eye contact and the unspoken question. There was a short uncomfortable silence, and then Hanley shrugged. "It's been a rough couple of weeks, Saunders. The men will be glad to have you back."
"Yes, sir." Saunders shrugged off the implied compliment -- wondering vaguely why Hanley even felt it necessary to say it. There was an awkwardness between himself and Hanley that he hadn't expected. The audience -- Jampel, Watkins, and the new replacements -- wasn't helping matters. Saunders suddenly felt tired. This was a puzzle he wasn't up to solving right now. He studied the floor, hoping Hanley would get the hint that he wanted to be dismissed.
Another awkward silence. "Well, Sergeant," Hanley finally said. "Go stow your gear and get the new men settled. Watkins can show you where your squad is bedding down. We'll talk later."
"Yes, sir," Saunders agreed, relieved. He hitched his field pack up on his shoulder and turned away towards the new men.
"Saunders?" Hanley called him back.
"It's good to have you back." Hanley was smiling now, but the expression didn't reach past his eyes.
"Thanks, Lieutenant. It's good to be back," Saunders replied mechanically, not sure at that moment whether he meant it or not.
Watkins pointed Saunders towards a building located off the town square, telling him that's where his squad had set up temporary quarters. He also pointed out Hanley's command post, which was located two buildings down on the same block. The buildings in this section of the town were mostly intact, though with most of the windows broken out. The squad's building had been a storefront selling some kind of hardware or other dry goods, with a small living area setup in the back room.
Saunders got Jackson and Marshall situated, telling them to stake out an empty spot in the rooms. He found himself a spot in the back room, near a stove. After giving the new men some quick advice on stripping down their gear to a minimum, so they wouldn't be weighted down in combat, he told them to relax until the rest of the squad returned from patrol. It was late afternoon already, and Hanley had given the impression he expected the men to get back soon. Saunders arranged his blanket and backpack into a makeshift bed and laid down to rest. The new men chattered nervously near the stove, but Saunders closed his eyes, tuning them out.
"That idiot is going to get us all killed!" Kirby's voice wakened Saunders from his light doze. Saunders sat up. The returning members of his squad were still in the front room, but their conversation was loud enough to be heard clearly in both rooms. Jackson and Marshall got up from where they had been sitting near the stove, and looked hesitantly toward the other room.
"Look, Kirby," Littlejohn argued. "Maybe Stewart's plan wasn't the best, but it's better to stick to it than to go off on your own. You were supposed to be covering us. You'll be lucky if Stewart doesn't bring you up on charges for that stunt."
"What, now you're the tactical genius? I took out the machine gun, didn't I?" Kirby sneered. "Get a load of this guy, Caje...."
"Come on guys, we're all just tired." Doc interrupted. "Anybody got some coffee left?"
"Yeah, I got some back here... Hey!" Billy burst through the doorway and stopped short when he saw Jackson and Marshall standing there. "Who are you guys?"
The new men stepped forward into the front room, effectively blocking the doorway before Billy could spot Saunders. As Saunders stood up and headed into the front room, he heard the men introducing themselves, followed by a round of introductions from the squad.
"Corporal Stewart should be back soon," Doc was explaining as Saunders paused in the doorway between the two rooms. "He just went to check in with the Lieutenant..."
"Sarge?" Of course Caje, standing a bit apart from the others, was the first to spot him.
Saunders took another step into the room, smiling self-consciously.
"Hey, it's Sarge!" At Billy's exclamation, the others all turned and finally noticed Saunders. "You're... you're back!" Billy stammered out, tongue-tied but obviously pleased.
"Yeah, well... Paris got a little boring," Saunders gave a casual shrug.
"You gotta be kidding, Sarge!" Kirby exclaimed, grinning.
Then the room erupted into a chorus of greetings as the men all came over to greet him, clapping Saunders on the back, clearly very happy to see him. Saunders smiled and relaxed, returning their banter about what he'd been doing in Paris, passing out the cigars he had bought there, and finally starting to feel like things were normal for the first time in weeks.
The reunion was cut short by the entrance of another soldier, who was barking out his orders as he burst through the doorway.
Stewart, Saunders guessed, seeing the corporal's stripes on the man's shoulders. The non-com was in his mid-twenties, small and wiry, with dark features and a thin wisp of a brown moustache. And at the moment, he looked angry.
"Private Kirby! Get over here -- I want to talk to you!" Stewart pulled up short as he took in the scene in the room, noticing the unfamiliar faces.
"Well, Kirby... I guess some things never change," Saunders said dryly.
The other men were quiet. Saunders easily read their demeanors and the tension in the room -- his men obviously didn't like Stewart.
"What's going on here?" Stewart demanded. "Sergeant?" he looked at Saunders quizzically.
"Err... Sarge," Doc spoke up. "This is Corporal Stewart. Corporal -- this is Sergeant Saunders."
"Ah... Saunders..." Stewart looked at him, recognition of the name evident in his expression.
"Corporal Stewart," Saunders acknowledged. "Did you get a chance to talk to Hanley?"
"No, I couldn't find him."
Saunders glanced at Kirby's face, noting the smug expression there. Kirby was looking forward to watching Saunders break the news to Stewart that he was no longer in command of the squad.
"Let's step outside, Corporal," Saunders said abruptly, brushing past his men.
Stewart nodded, and stepped back out through the door.
Saunders joined him, and paused a moment to take out a pack of cigarettes. He offered one to Stewart, who accepted it, and then both men lit up.
"I guess you're taking the squad back?" Stewart asked after a moment.
"Yeah, I'm sorry for blindsiding you like that, Corporal. It would have been better if you'd talked to the Lieutenant first," Saunders said.
"Well, he'd warned me it might be temporary -- if you came back," Stewart said.
"You'll be my second for now," Saunders told him, wondering briefly if Hanley had really doubted whether he'd be back this time.
Stewart nodded, taking another drag on his cigarette.
"Now... what's this about Kirby?" Saunders asked.
"He disobeyed an order today, pulled another showboat stunt," Stewart explained.
Saunders grinned faintly. "Kirby's an insubordinate goldbrick, but he's a good man when it counts -- the best BAR man in the Company, but don't tell him I said it."
Stewart shook his head. "You know Sergeant, I been hearing that since I got here: 'Saunders' squad is the best squad in the Company, you're lucky to be with them.' Well, I haven't seen it so far. No discipline, always complaining, always arguing, they can't even follow basic tactics...." Stewart shook his head. "I've fought with some good men before, Saunders, and these guys.... Well, we've been lucky to get through it alive so far."
Saunders frowned. Stewart seemed reasonable enough, but Saunders knew his men. And he trusted them. Stewart's description didn't ring true. "Maybe they've been a bit off the last couple weeks. They'll straighten out," he said, trying not to sound too dismissive of Stewart's complaints.
"Hmm... maybe. I heard you guys had a pretty rough time of it."
"Yeah, well... we got through it," Saunders said. All of us except Kelly. He dropped his cigarette butt to the ground and crushed it with his boot. "Well, we'd better get back inside -- I bet you're hungry and tired about now," Saunders said, ending the conversation.
Stewart nodded, dropping his own cigarette butt and grinding it into the ground.
"Oh, Stewart... I'll handle Kirby, okay?" Saunders added as an afterthought. He wasn't sure if Stewart had planned to go to Hanley with his complaint about what Kirby had done today.
"Yeah, you're welcome to him, Saunders," Stewart agreed, shaking his head.
Saunders glanced up at the storm clouds in the darkening sky, and then focused again towards the top of the hill that was their goal. "What do you think?" he asked, directing the question at the men beside him.
"Looks clear...." Hanley's tone was skeptical.
"Well, if I was a Kraut, I'd sure be sightin' in on the side of that hill," Grady said.
"Yeah," Saunders agreed. "Watch yourself, huh?"
"Always, Sarge," Grady assured him with a grin. "See you at the top."
Saunders turned and gestured to the rest of the men in his squad. "Spread out and advance in skirmish formation," he ordered.
Grady shifted his BAR into position and moved out on point, with the rest of the men trailing at his flanks in a flattened V formation. They advanced cautiously up the hill, with Grady widening the gap between himself and the rest of the squad as he reached the ruined building at the top of it.
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning crackled through the sky, followed by the deafening roar of thunder. Saunders watched, transfixed, as Grady's form was silhouetted against the black clouds. He tried to call a warning to his friend, but he couldn't get the words out in time. Another bolt of lightning lanced down like a gunshot, striking Grady head on. The hillside burst into flames.
The world shifted into slow motion. Saunders was frozen in place. He watched helplessly as Grady's helmet came bouncing wildly down the hill towards him, trailing smoke after it. The helmet landed at his feet and rolled over again, momentarily revealing its contents. Saunders stared in morbid fascination at his brother's face staring at him from beneath the helmet, then the helmet rolled over again and all he could see was the top of it, with the two smoldering bullet holes.
Joey? No! This wasn't how it happened... Saunders tried to reach out to pick up the helmet, but suddenly he couldn't move his hands -- they were tied.
Hanley was there. He reached down and picked up the helmet, silently examining the bullet holes.
"Help me! Cut me loose!" Saunders begged him, struggling against the ropes that bound his hands.
Hanley didn't say anything, he just held out the helmet, offering it to Saunders. Saunders looked at the helmet, into the cold dead eyes of his brother, and screamed.
Not what happened. Saunders struggled out of the nightmare, opening his eyes to the quiet blackness of night time. He blinked, trying to clear away the lingering image of the helmet and its gruesome contents. The dream about Grady's death was familiar enough, but the ending....
Saunders lay there, getting his breathing under control, trying to shake off the memory of the dream. He heard the sounds of some of the other men stirring, but he couldn't tell if he'd woken them or not. Going back to sleep right now was out of the question, he decided. Finally, he got up, grabbed his jacket, and padded to the door in his stocking feet, quietly opening it and going outside.
It was chilly outside, and the slight breeze on his clammy skin made him shiver. Saunders shrugged into the field jacket, then felt in its pockets for his cigarettes and lighter.
He was still working on his first cigarette when he heard the door open again beside him, and somebody came outside, silently joining him. Caje. He'd always been a light sleeper.
Neither man said anything. Saunders lit another cigarette and handed it to the scout, and they stood there and smoked for a while, staring out into the darkness.
"Sarge?" Caje finally broke the silence.
"Are you really okay?"
Saunders took a deep drag on his cigarette before answering. "Yeah, I'm fine." It was just a little nightmare -- I can handle that.
Caje stared out into the darkness for a minute, then finally spoke again. "The Lieutenant... he... we thought you...." Caje broke off and turned away. He took another drag from his cigarette and then dropped it to the ground, only half-smoked, crushing it under his boot with a sudden violent gesture. "We let you down, Sarge. I'm sorry."
Saunders wondered at Caje's intensity -- the usually reticent soldier had clearly been worrying at this, probably for weeks. "It's not your fault the Krauts captured us, Caje," he said lightly. "And the rest of it...." What happened, anyway? Caje's stumbling apology raised new questions, but Saunders pushed them aside. It's probably better that I don't remember.
Caje was looking at him, waiting. It was too dark for either man to read the other's expression.
"It's okay, Caje. Not your fault." Saunders said firmly.
"But..." Caje hesitated. "Okay, okay Sarge. Thanks." Caje's tone was lighter now. Relieved. "Hey, we better get some sleep, eh Sarge?"
Saunders crushed the butt of his cigarette against the stone pillar he'd been leaning against and let it drop to the ground. "Yeah."
The two of them headed silently back inside. Saunders crept back to his blankets and lay back down.
Saunders was tired; he felt like he hadn't had a good night's sleep in weeks. But he fought to stay awake, determined not to get caught in another nightmare. Eventually, though, he fell asleep and back into the same nightmare. But this time, it was Caje's face under the bullet-ridden helmet, instead of Joey's. Saunders woke again, drenched in sweat and not sure if he'd cried out loud or not. After that he forced himself to lay awake until it started getting light, finally dozing off just before dawn.
Saunders heard the men stirring, but feeling warm and comfortable in his blanket, the threat of the dreams faded with the darkness, he was reluctant to open his eyes. A familiar smell told him that somebody was making coffee.
"Hey, Sarge?" Billy's voice approached.
"Just let him sleep, Billy." That was Littlejohn, whispering.
"I was just going to see if he wanted some coffee while it's fresh." The voices receded, but remained audible.
"He needs sleep right now more than he needs coffee."
"Do you think they sent him back too soon? After what he went through...."
"You know Sarge; they'd have to tie him down to keep him back there." Kirby had joined in. "Now if I was laid up in Paris...."
"Yeah, yeah we know, Kirby," Littlejohn interrupted him. "Don't give him any trouble, okay?"
Kirby snorted. "You kidding? Me? I'm just glad things will finally be back to normal around here. That Stewart... he almost got us all killed yesterday."
"He's no Saunders, but if you'd follow his orders, Kirby, instead of..."
"It was a stupid plan! Stupid orders. And unlike some people, I don't follow stupid orders!" Kirby wasn't whispering now.
"What's that crack supposed to mean?"
Saunders recognized the threat behind Littlejohn's tone. If he hadn't already been awake, this argument would certainly have wakened him, so Saunders gave up on sleeping and stood up, prepared to break up the argument before Littlejohn and Kirby came to blows. Kirby, Littlejohn and Billy were standing about 15 feet away, near the stove. They didn't immediately notice him, and none of the other men seemed to be around.
"I think you know what it means," Kirby said, glaring at Littlejohn who was towering over him. "If I'd been there, you can bet I wouldn't have let Hanley's stupid order stop me --" Kirby stopped abruptly because Billy poked him in the ribs. He spun around glaring, but stopped when he saw that Billy was looking at Saunders.
"Err... Hey, Sarge." Billy said.
Kirby's demeanor immediately changed from anger to nonchalance. "Mornin', Sarge." He grinned sheepishly and gestured towards a metal cup on the stove. "Want some coffee?"
Saunders moved closer. "Sounds good."
"Sorry, Sarge. We woke you up." Littlejohn glared at Kirby.
Saunders shrugged. "It was time to be getting up anyway." He took the cup from Billy, who had grabbed it from the stovetop. He winced slightly as the warmth of the metal handle penetrated the tender, still-healing, skin on his hand. "You want to tell me what that was about?"
"Nothing, Sarge," Billy said a bit too hastily. "You know those two are always arguing."
"Yeah, it was nothing. Sorry, Sarge." Kirby agreed quickly.
"That was a lot of yelling about 'nothing'," Saunders grumbled. He was distracted from pursuing it further by a growing realization that the discomfort in his hand from the warmth of the cup was rapidly growing from a minor annoyance to pain. He juggled the cup to his other hand, the motion setting the hot liquid sloshing up against the rim -- fortunately the cup wasn't too full, and it didn't spill over. His left hand was no happier about the situation than the right, though. Saunders stepped forward to the stove, and hastily set the cup down.
Acutely aware of his men watching him, Saunders resisted the urge to flex his complaining hands. He turned back to face the others, noting that all three of them were half-dressed, still wearing socks and t-shirts, just as Saunders was.
"You men better get dressed," Saunders said. "We're taking over security from 2nd Squad this morning, and you three just volunteered for the first watch."
"Aw, man...." Kirby groaned.
Littlejohn and Billy echoed the sentiment, with Littlejohn giving Kirby one more glare before he turned away and set to following the order.
Saunders suppressed a grin and, satisfied that things were under control for the moment, headed back over to his own gear to get dressed.
A few minutes later, Saunders cursed quietly as he struggled with the laces on his boots. The leather was stiff and new, making it difficult to pull the laces tight; there were twinges of pain from his fingers when he pulled too hard against them. He paused, flexing his fingers to work some of the stiffness out of them. Worn out as they'd been, at this moment Saunders would have gladly swapped these new boots for his soft old pair.
"Need a hand, Sarge?"
Saunders looked up to see Doc standing there. He'd been so focused on his boots he hadn't noticed the young medic's approach. "No..." Saunders stopped halfway through the automatic denial. He did need a hand. Better yet, two of them. He glanced around -- the others had finished dressing and gone out, so he and Doc were alone in the room. Saunders sat all the way back up on his chair, sighed in resignation, and stuck his left foot with its half-tied boot out towards Doc.
Doc knelt down and easily finished the job Saunders had been laboring over, tightening the laces on the first boot and then going to work on the other one.
"I haven't needed help tying my shoes since I was four years old," Saunders complained.
"Give it some time, Sarge. You just have to break 'em in some," Doc said. He finished and gave the new boots an appraising look. "I bet ol' Lovelace would make you a good trade for these."
Or Kelly. Saunders pushed that thought away and forced a grin. "Nah, Lovelace had his chance." It seemed like a lifetime ago, since Saunders had tried to talk the good-natured Southerner -- who was now a corporal in 1st platoon -- out of his new boots.
Doc stood up, expression serious now. "Sarge, are you going to be able to handle a gun okay?" he asked.
"Sure, Doc," Saunders displayed his open hands in front of him, briefly studying them. The newly healed tissue looked pale compared to his normal tan, and the fingers were overly sensitive to pressure and heat. But he could certainly pull a trigger. "That's what they sent me back up here to do, right?"
"Yeah, but...." Doc frowned uncertainly.
Saunders shrugged off the concern and stood up, pulling his field jacket on. "That reminds me." He scooped up the carbine. "I gotta go scrounge up a real weapon." He turned to leave.
"Hey, don't forget this," Doc called out.
Saunders looked back, and saw Doc holding out the new green helmet with its jarringly perfect netting.
"Thanks, Doc." Saunders took the helmet and put it on, trying to set it at a comfortable angle, with only partial success. "I guess I gotta break this in, too," he muttered.
"Sorry, Saunders. No can do." Sergeant Kurawicz fidgeted with an unlit, but well-chewed cigar, swishing it from side to side in his mouth -- a habit Saunders had always found annoying. "I ain't got a spare Thompson. Best I can do is an M-1. Beats that pea-shooter you got there, though."
Saunders sighed and nodded, cursing again the military genius who had decided that a carbine should be the standard issue weapon for an infantry squad leader.
Kurawicz poked around in some boxes, bringing out a cartridge belt and a box of cartridges, which he set on the top of a crate that he was using as a makeshift desk. "Need anything else? Grenades?"
"I'm set on those." Saunders set his helmet down on the crate while he quickly checked out the gear Kurawicz had offered.
"Hey..." Kurawicz said suddenly. "I just remembered...." He started looking through some of the other boxes.
"Ah here we go...." Kurawicz turned around, holding something behind his back. "I see they gave you some nice fresh GI issue there, Saunders," Kurawicz had a smirk on his face. "You haven't even had a chance to get it dirty, yet..."
"Yeah, what about it?" Saunders, well aware of Kurawicz' reputation for bartering -- he'd been a worthy challenge for Kelly -- was immediately suspicious of where this conversation was going.
"Well, I got a little item here you might be interested in. See, a couple weeks ago we moved through this little village. We had to chase the Krauts out of that one twice, as I recall. And guess what I found there, buried in the rubble of some building that those Krauts had driven a tank through?"
Saunders was losing patience. "What?" he asked.
"Well, it's a little bit worse for wear, but..." Kurawicz brought his hand from behind his back with a flourish, and set a battered helmet covered in camouflage material on top of the crate. "I know I'm getting the bad end of this deal, but I'll trade you straight up for that new one you got there."
Saunders picked up the helmet and quickly confirmed that, though it was a bit more dusty and battered than the last time he'd seen it -- on the day he and the squad had been captured -- it was still serviceable.
"We got a deal, then?" Kurawicz prompted.
"Yeah, yeah thanks," Saunders put the helmet on and leaned the carbine against the crate, picking up the M-1 that Kurawicz had brought out earlier. As an afterthought, he dug inside his field jacket and pulled out one of the last of the cigars he'd brought from Paris, handing it to Kurawicz. "You let me know if you run across a stray Tommy Gun, okay?"
"Sure, Saunders." Kurawicz sniffed appreciatively at the new cigar. "Thanks. I'll have to break this in...."
Saunders rolled his eyes; that one cigar would probably last Kurawicz a month or more.
Satisfied with his gear for now, Saunders headed out to some ruins near the edge of town, on the side farthest away from the German lines. He'd sent Caje and Stewart out there to work with Jackson and Marshall on hand signals and general tactics. He spotted the men in a small field with a ruined house nearby. There was also a large barn that appeared to have been converted into a garage, though the whole property looked like it hadn't been inhabited recently.
Caje spotted Saunders approaching, and waved him over. They watched as Jackson counted off and threw a grenade into the field. It was a weak throw, but an adequate one. Everybody ducked as the grenade exploded and clods of dirt and debris flew into the air harmlessly.
"How's it going?" Saunders asked.
"Okay, Sarge. They'll do..." Caje replied. "Hey.... I see you got your helmet back." He grinned.
Saunders nodded, "Yeah, Kurawicz found it," he explained.
The conversation was interrupted by a sudden high pitched whistling sound that Saunders immediately recognized as an incoming artillery round. "Get down!" he yelled.
There was no time to do anything except hit the dirt, before the shell landed, exploding not far from where the grenade had just gone off, but kicking up a much larger cloud of debris.
Caje and Stewart also had ducked, each one pulling one of the new men down with him.
Where there was one shell, there would soon be more. "Get to cover!" Saunders yelled at them, pointing to the barn. Caje, Stewart and Marshall ran towards safety, but Jackson stayed where he was, cowering on the ground with his head covered and whimpering.
Saunders grabbed the terrified man's arm. "Come on!" he urged. He pulled Jackson to his feet and hustled him towards the relative safety of the barn.
They reached the barn just as the next shell came in and blasted the spot where they'd all been standing moments before. Saunders let go of Jackson and looked around at the others, breathing a sigh of relief at their close call.
The relief was short-lived, though. Another shell landed outside, and Saunders watched in horror as the walls of the barn shook, shaking loose bits of straw and dust. The barn might collapse any minute, he realized. He was going to be trapped in here if he didn't get outside right now!
Oblivious to the others, Saunders ran blindly back outside, diving into the nearest newly-formed crater and covering his head, just as another shell landed nearby. He felt rocks pelt his arms and legs as the debris from the near miss splattered him. Saunders curled up in the hole, trying to make himself as small a target as possible.
"Sarge! What are you doing?" Caje landed in the shell hole next to him and pulled at his arm. "We have to get back inside!"
"No!" Saunders pulled back, unable to articulate his fear. Going back into the barn was certain death.
There was a whistle of another incoming shell and Caje dove down half on top of Saunders, riding out another near miss.
Saunders was vaguely aware of Caje pulling on his arm again, but he couldn't hear him over the sounds of shells. It didn't matter, he wasn't going anywhere. He curled up in the shell hole, and finally Caje gave up and curled up next to him.
The shelling continued; it pounded at Saunders senses as he anticipated each incoming shell and then felt the ground shake as it landed -- sometimes nearby, sometimes farther into the town. Finally, Saunders realized that the next shell he was waiting for wasn't coming; the barrage was over. He breathed a sigh of relief and just lay there, feeling his pulse pounding in his ears.
Beside him, Caje moved again. "Sarge?"
Caje shook his arm again, but Saunders pulled away. He wasn't going back into that barn.
"It's over, Sarge?" Caje prompted. "Are you okay?"
"Gimme a minute," Saunders muttered. He sat up and looked towards the barn, surprised to see through the swirling dust and smoke that it was still standing there, intact. Stewart and the new men came out the door and headed towards them.
Saunders shook his head, but the gesture did nothing to clear away his confusion. What just happened? I knew that barn was going to collapse...
"Come on," Caje, persistent, tried again to pull Saunders to his feet, and Saunders finally let him.
He got up shakily, brushing the dust off his uniform and assessing a few new bumps and bruises, as Stewart ran up, with the other men trailing behind.
"Umm... What were you doing, Saunders? Trying to demonstrate to these new guys what not to do during an artillery barrage?" Stewart's tone was somewhere between joking and scornful.
"I..." Saunders trailed off, shaking his head, unable to explain.
"Just leave him alone!" Caje said angrily before Stewart could say anything else.
"Hey, Sarge!" The confrontation was interrupted as they all turned to see Doc running up to them. "Are you guys okay?"
"Yeah, we're fine Doc," Caje said, throwing a warning glance at Stewart.
"Well, Sarge," Doc looked at him skeptically, which reminded Saunders that he was still thoroughly covered in dirt. "The Lieutenant was looking for you."
"Okay...." Saunders looked around for his rifle and found it half-buried in the dirt nearby. He picked it up and brushed it off. "Is he at his CP?"
"Yeah, last I saw him," Doc said.
Saunders settled his helmet onto his head and turned towards town.
He realized that Caje had stepped up right behind him, following on his heels. Saunders spun back around; the others were still standing where they'd been, looking at him. "You men get back to the shop and stay put. I'll check in with Hanley," Saunders ordered. He stared at Caje, leaving no doubt that the order included him.
"Okay, Sarge," Caje agreed reluctantly.
As Saunders headed back to town, he could hear Doc behind him, just before he got out of earshot, asking Caje what was wrong.
Saunders reported to Hanley, who ordered him to take his squad out on a short recon towards the Kraut lines, to check for a possible counterattack. They were to avoid contact, and report back as soon as they knew anything. Third squad would take over security duty.
Saunders picked up his squad and briefed them on the mission. They headed out of town, with Caje on point and Saunders following behind him about ten paces, with the rest of the squad spaced out behind him.
They moved slowly and cautiously, heading about a quarter mile out of town towards the German lines, then sweeping across in an arc. After about two hours, they'd almost completed their search pattern without seeing any sign of German activity. As they approached a dirt road that led back to the village, Saunders was thinking about checking in with Hanley for permission to turn back. Suddenly, Caje dropped to the ground and made a made a hand signal that meant he'd spotted something. Saunders dropped down, signaling to the men behind him to do the same.
"Is it Germans?" Jackson, who had been following behind Saunders, whispered nervously.
"Shhh..." Billy, next in line, warned him, before Saunders got a chance.
Saunders repeated his gesture to both of them to stay where they were, then he crawled up to where Caje was hidden. The scout was looking out of the woods down the road. Even before he reached Caje, Saunders could hear the mechanical sound of an engine up ahead, around a bend in the road.
"Tank?" He asked Caje when he got close enough.
"Halftrack," Caje whispered. "He has some infantry with him; looks like about 10 of them," Caje pointed towards some movement at the edge of the trees, about 50 feet away, that could have been a brown-clad German soldier.
"Keep an eye on them. See if they got anything else. I'll call it in," Saunders ordered. He turned back towards the rest of the squad, crawling about halfway back and then motioning to Billy to bring the handy-talkie.
Suddenly, Saunders heard a rustling sound coming from much closer, only about twenty feet away. He waved at Billy to stop, and ducked down lower, scanning the brush and trees for the source of the noise. Then he spotted it, a single soldier who was moving on a course off to the sides of the road, parallel to the squad's position -- probably the patrol's flank scout. From the path of his movement and his careless attitude, the German obviously hadn't spotted the Americans. And if he kept on the same course, he wasn't likely to spot them. Saunders hunkered down to wait for the German to move past.
"A Kraut!" Saunders heard an excited exclamation from nearby, and turned just in time to see Jackson aiming his rifle towards the German scout. Billy, who was closer, reacted; he made a futile effort to get to Jackson before he could fire.
Jackson fired a single shot.
The German dropped to the ground, alerted, as the bullet smacked into a tree trunk above his head.
Saunders cursed; the other Germans couldn't have missed the sound of the shot and would be on their way soon. A fight seemed unavoidable. He quickly took aim at the German scout, who had turned to face towards Jackson's position, with his flank exposed to Saunders. Saunders fired two careful shots; the German collapsed.
With the closest threat eliminated, Saunders quickly moved to organize his men against the German patrol. Even if there was just the halftrack and the ten men Caje had spotted, this would be a tough fight, but at least for the moment they had the element of surprise.
Saunders turned back towards the bulk of the squad, and quickly indicated with hand signals where the main group of the enemy was, and approximately how many. He signaled to Stewart to take the men in back -- Kirby, Littlejohn, Marshall and Doc, and head to the other side of the road, to hopefully get on the Germans' other flank. Then Saunders signaled to Billy and Jackson to stay down where they were. They would wait for the Germans to come closer. He couldn't see Caje, but he knew he could count on him to stay in cover and jump into the fight when it was time.
Within seconds, Saunders heard the rumble of the halftrack, and then he spotted it coming down the road, with the Germans arrayed behind it and into the cover of the brush beside the road.
Stewart and the others didn't quite have time to get into position before one of the Germans spotted them, shouting a warning and firing some shots in their direction. The other Germans reacted; the halftrack stopped and the machine gun on top rotated towards Stewart and his men.
Saunders opened fire on the nearest Germans on his side of the road. Billy and Jackson took the signal and fired also. Saunders heard Caje open up from his position closer to the Germans. They were able to quickly take down five of the Germans who were exposed on their side of the road, before the Germans could react to the deadly crossfire and get to cover.
Across the road, Stewart and his men had taken cover and also opened fire. From their vantage point, and with the Germans alerted, they couldn't do much damage.
The halftrack brought its machine gun to bear and started spraying Stewart's position, effectively suppressing them.
Saunders knew his men wouldn't be able to stand up to the sustained machine gun fire for long. He reached inside his jacket for a grenade and motioned to Billy. "Cover me!" he ordered.
Saunders scrambled forward, trying to get as close to the halftrack as possible before the remaining Germans realized that their men on that side were down, and the halftrack was vulnerable.
He got within twenty feet, still too far away for an accurate throw, but then a German came around from the back side of the halftrack and spotted him. Saunders dropped down, but before the German could call out or fire a shot, some well-aimed shots from Caje took him out.
Saunders took his chance and sprinted up quickly to the halftrack, pulling the pin out of the grenade as he ran. He dropped the grenade into the open turret, right behind the German machine-gunner, and quickly dove head-first back off the side of the road into cover.
Seconds later, the blast of the grenade blew over Saunders; he covered his head reflexively and lay there, briefly stunned, as the sounds of gunfire -- no longer including the machine gun fire -- washed over him.
A few moments later, Saunders could hear the gunfire dying out. He looked up and quickly evaluated: the fight was won. The halftrack turret was smoking, the machine-gunner hanging over the edge of it, obviously dead. From the lack of motion inside the vehicle's armored cab, the driver was probably dead also. Most of the Germans were on the road, dead or wounded. Two of them had turned to run. Across the road, Saunders saw Stewart's men start to chase down the fleeing Germans. He quickly stood up and called them off -- their mission definitely didn't include running off into the woods in pursuit of stragglers.
Saunders stepped cautiously out of the brush onto the road, checking the nearest German to make sure he was dead, then moving towards the next one.
Suddenly, there was a swooshing sound; the smoldering halftrack in front of him burst into flames. A wave of heat washed over Saunders, staggering him. The men inside are trapped and burning! he realized. He wanted to help them get out, but he couldn't move.
Vaguely, in the distance, Saunders heard a voice call out, and then there were rifle shots and some motion behind him. It wasn't important. He focused on the burning halftrack and the men trapped inside. The odor of burning flesh almost overwhelmed him. He took a step toward the halftrack, but he was forced back by the pain in his hands as the flames licked towards him.
Saunders turned and saw Kirby.
"What are you doing? That Kraut almost plugged you!" Kirby exclaimed, pointing back towards a dead German a few feet away.
"Help them," Saunders croaked out.
Kirby looked around, confused. "Who?"
"They're trapped! Help them!" Saunders repeated, pointing towards the halftrack. How could Kirby not have noticed the trapped, burning men?
Kirby looked at the halftrack but didn't move. "You want me to help dead Krauts?"
Doc had run up to them. Saunders turned to him, increasingly desperate. "Doc!"
Doc took a few steps closer to the flames, studying them for a moment before turning back towards Saunders. "They're dead, Sarge," Doc confirmed, looking at Saunders quizzically.
"You got 'em with the grenade, Sarge" Kirby added.
Saunders shook his head, absorbing the words, confused. They were trapped. I heard them screaming for help. Didn't I? He looked again at the halftrack. Nothing was moving now. He could see the blackened corpse of the German machine-gunner hanging there still, with the orange flames licking around it. The Krauts were lucky to be dead, considering the alternative -- being trapped in the burning halftrack, with the hot flames searing into their flesh.... Saunders flexed his hands as they twinged sympathetically at the image.
"Are you okay, Sarge?" Doc asked.
Saunders tore his eyes away from the halftrack and back to the men next to him. "Yeah, yeah... I'm fine, Doc." He noticed his M-1 was on the ground at his feet. Saunders bent down and picked it up; he didn't remember dropping it.
Saunders looked around, focusing in on the aftermath of the firefight. Beyond the halftrack, a half-dozen Germans lay on the ground where they'd fallen. "Check them out, Kirby," Saunders ordered, gesturing towards the Germans.
"Sure, Sarge," Kirby said. He headed over to the nearest German.
Saunders looked around for the rest of the squad. Billy and Jackson were just heading towards him, and Stewart was headed over from the other side of the road.
"Any casualties?" Saunders asked Stewart when he got near.
"I don't think so," Stewart answered. "I haven't seen Caje -- and you were about to become one if Kirby hadn't nailed that Kraut." Stewart pointed at a dead German nearby. "Didn't you check him?"
Saunders remembered Kirby saying something about that German when he came up, too. He looked at the now-dead German and frowned. He didn't remember if he'd checked to make sure he was dead, before the halftrack exploded. He put it together, and realized the German hadn't been dead, and had been about to shoot him in the back. Apparently Kirby had spotted it and shot the German before he could fire at Saunders. His gut wrenched at the close call, but he brushed it off. "I guess I missed it," he shrugged.
Stewart frowned, but didn't pursue it. "Well, those Krauts that ran off might bring back friends. Maybe we should have stopped them from getting away."
"We weren't supposed to have engaged them in the first place," Saunders said. He glared at Jackson.
"I'm sorry, Sarge," Jackson stammered. "Billy already told me I screwed up. I thought that guy saw us!"
"Later," Saunders cut him off with a gesture. A wave of weariness swept over him, and suddenly he was too tired to deal with lecturing the green soldier right now. He turned back to Stewart. "Set up a perimeter, make sure there aren't any stragglers, and find Caje -- he was over there," Saunders pointed. "I gotta check in with Hanley and then we'll clear out."
"Okay, Littlejohn and Marshall are already on security. And there's Caje now. Come on, Jackson," Stewart started to head down the road towards where Caje was coming trotting out of the woods, then paused and turned back. "Thanks for taking out that halftrack, Saunders. He had us pinned down good."
Saunders shrugged an acknowledgement. He looked around for Billy. "Nelson, where's that radio?"
Saunders checked in on the radio with Hanley, who ordered them to head back as soon as possible. They made it back to town uneventfully, but by the time they'd reached the hardware shop, Saunders was exhausted. His M-1 felt like it weighed about fifty pounds. He sent the rest of the squad into the shop while he went to report to Hanley.
Hanley was sitting alone at a makeshift desk, looking over a pile of papers, when Saunders came into the command post. Saunders lit a cigarette and waited while Hanley finished signing the document he was looking at and then shoved it aside.
"Saunders..." Hanley pushed back his chair and paused to light his own cigarette. "What happened out there?"
Saunders told him about Caje spotting the German patrol. "I thought we could avoid contact, but their scout got too close, and Jackson got trigger-happy. After that a fight was inevitable"
"So you took out a dozen Krauts and a halftrack, with no casualties?" Hanley asked, hiding a smile.
Saunders shrugged. "Well, they weren't the Wehrmacht's brightest Krauts. They let us catch them in a crossfire." He took a drag on his cigarette. "And two of them got away. I didn't think it was worth the risk to chase after them."
Hanley nodded. "Sounds like the right call." He looked at Saunders critically. "What about you, Saunders? How are you holding up?"
"I'm okay, Lieutenant," Saunders said. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Just a little tired."
"Well, your squad can stand down for the rest of the day. But keep them on alert in case that Kraut patrol was a probe for a counterattack."
"Okay, Lieutenant." Saunders turned to leave.
"Saunders, wait a minute," Hanley called him back.
Saunders turned back around. "What is it, Lieutenant?"
"Sit down...." Hanley gestured at the empty chair by the table and waited for Saunders to comply. "I tried to talk to you before they sent you back to the evac hospital, but I doubt you remember?"
Saunders shrugged. "No, I guess I was pretty out of it. I don't really remember much."
Hanley nodded grimly. "Well anyway, I wanted to apologize. I should have gone back and checked. If I'd known you were...."
"Apologize?" Saunders interrupted, shaking his head. "First Caje, now you? There's nothing to apologize for, Lieutenant. You got us out, didn't you? Blame the Krauts for the rest of it. Hell, blame Hitler if you want!"
"I got us out?" Hanley repeated. "Just how much do you remember about what happened, Saunders?"
Saunders frowned. "I said: Not much."
"That's not an answer."
Saunders sighed. "We took that village, but the German's counterattacked and overran us. We got captured. The Krauts brought us to that farm -- probably their command post. They tied us up in the barn...." He trailed off, looking at Hanley for confirmation.
Hanley nodded. "And...?"
"One of the Krauts took Kelly's boots." This was where it got hazy. "I guess I got hurt then? Got knocked out or something?"
"They started shelling us -- our own stuff. We got caught in the middle of it," Hanley said.
"Oh? Well, I must have got hit. I don't remember much after that -- nothing that makes sense, anyway." After three weeks in the hospital with little else to think about, Saunders had finally concluded that he must have been unconscious or delirious during their escape -- it was the most plausible explanation he could come up with for his lack of memory about what happened. And also, given the pain from his burned hands when he did come out of it, he figured it was just as well he'd been spared a few days of it -- there likely wasn't much in those missing days that he wanted to remember. "That was on a Friday? I woke up in the hospital and it was Monday. They said I'd been delirious with a fever since I got there, so I guess that's why I don't remember it."
"I guess that could be why," Hanley said slowly.
"Well, that's it. Why the third degree, Lieutenant? We got away. You'd have to tell me how we did it. Obviously I wasn't much help."
"That's the thing, Saunders," Hanley said. "We didn't get away -- not together. You got separated from the rest of us and made it back somehow on your own."
"Huh?" Hanley's statement shattered the scenario that Saunders had constructed. "How could I have escaped from the Krauts and made it back to our lines by myself, and not remember any of it?"
"I don't know, Saunders," Hanley said.
"Well, you must know more than I do. How did we get separated?" Saunders asked. At least Hanley could fill in some of the gaps for him.
"The shelling started -- it was heavy. The barn took a direct hit; all that straw in there started burning. The Krauts cut us loose and took us outside -- started loading us into a truck. But then another shell took out the guards. So we ran for it." Hanley took a drag on his cigarette, looking grim. "Saunders, I thought the other Krauts would be right on our tail. I didn't even let Kelly stop to get his boots back. We didn't notice you weren't with us until we got across the river. And then...."
Hanley pressed forward, getting the words out without giving Saunders a chance to say anything. "When we realized you hadn't made it.... I figured the Krauts got you. Caje and Billy... all of them... they wanted to go back for you. But I wouldn't let them. I thought it was too risky. I'm sorry -- I was wrong. I let you down."
Saunders struggled to assimilate it all. Suddenly other things made sense -- Caje's apology, the argument between Littlejohn and Kirby about following orders, even Stewart's comments about the squad's recent behavior that hadn't rung true. Saunders frowned. They'd all been blaming themselves and Hanley, feeling guilty for weeks now. Now he understood how he must have burned his hands, but.... Saunders thought back to the last thing he remembered in the barn. That Kraut smirking after he took Kelly's boots. What happened next? His heart pounded; he was suddenly drenched in sweat. Saunders shook his head, trying to snap the fragmented images into order, fighting the irrational wave of panic that swept through him for the third time that day. Flames... heat... pain... screaming. Trapped in the burning halftrack.... No, not a halftrack....
A hand touched his shoulder and Saunders' world snapped back into focus.
Hanley was looking down at him, a grim expression on his face. "I let you down. I'm sorry," Hanley repeated.
"Look, whatever happened, Lieutenant -- it worked out. I'm fine." Even as he said it, Saunders realized how unconvincing his words must seem. His hesitation and confusion at Hanley's revelation belied his words -- just more fuel to feed the guilt that had obviously been burning away at Hanley's gut for weeks now. "You can't second guess...."
"Yeah, I know -- I can't second guess my decisions," Hanley cut him off. "Spare me the pep talk, Saunders. I've heard it."
Saunders scowled, frustrated. Hanley was determined to wallow in this. Saunders felt like there was something he should say to shake him out of it, but the words wouldn't come to him.
Hanley didn't give him a chance. He crushed out his cigarette butt and stood up. "Look, you're beat, Saunders. Go ahead and get back to your squad. Get some rest."
"Lieutenant --" Saunders tried again.
"Go on. That's an order."
"Yes, sir." Hanley's tone made it clear the conversation was over, and Saunders was just as glad for the excuse to get out of there.
As Saunders walked back to the squad, he found he couldn't help but replay the conversation he'd just had with Hanley. Up until now, he hadn't really been bothered about his lack of memory of what had happened in the barn, but now he couldn't stop thinking about it. The shelling, being trapped in the barn, the fire... well, that could explain his reactions to the shelling and the burning halftrack earlier. But he still couldn't remember it. Saunders couldn't remember it, and apparently Hanley and the men in his squad couldn't forget it.
Well, unconvincing efforts to tell them he didn't blame them for something he couldn't even remember weren't going to help. The best way to make them all forget it was to just get things back to normal. The patrol today had been a good start -- at least until the incident with the halftrack. His reaction to the fire had taken him by surprise, but now that Saunders understood more about what had happened to him, he could only hope he'd be able to handle it better next time.
But right now... Saunders just knew he was exhausted. He dragged himself tiredly into the abandoned storefront and relayed Hanley's orders to his men. It was just after 5pm, so Saunders sat down with the other men to eat, making a half-hearted effort to show enthusiasm for his K-rations.
The men were subdued. Even through his exhaustion Saunders couldn't miss the tension between Stewart and the other men -- particularly Caje and Kirby. Apparently there'd been some kind of argument between them, but they'd dropped it when Saunders got back. More than once, Saunders caught one of the men watching him -- wondering if he was going to start babbling about dead Germans again? Things were definitely not normal, but Saunders felt helpless to do anything to fix it now.
Finally, Kirby suggested a card game, and Jackson and Marshall took him up on it. Soon the men were distracted by the poker game, with most of them playing, and the others looking on. Saunders took advantage of the distraction to go into the back room and crawl into his bedroll. He took off his field jacket and other gear, but taking his boots off was too much effort. What he needed more than anything right now was sleep.
"Gentlemen... Read 'em and weep. Full house: Queens and Tens!" Kirby crowed triumphantly, sweeping the pile of tattered bills towards him.
"Oh man, I don't believe it!" Billy threw his cards down in disgust.
"Some people just don't deserve this much luck," Littlejohn agreed, giving Kirby a suspicious look.
"Hey, I didn't even deal that one!" Kirby protested. "Ask Sarge, he was watching." Kirby turned back to look up at Saunders, who was leaning over the rail of the stall, watching the men play cards on top of a blanket that was laid on a bed of straw.
"Hey, I'm a neutral observer," Saunders protested with a grin.
Suddenly, the quiet scene was shattered by a distant booming followed by the familiar whine of an artillery shell.
"Incoming!" Kirby yelled. The men scattered, sending money and cards flying as the building shook and the roof came tumbling down on them.
Saunders tried to follow his men to safety, but he suddenly realized his hands were tied to the rail of the stall. He pulled against the ropes but it was useless. "Hey! Come back, cut me loose!" he yelled.
The dry straw caught fire, and the flames raced towards him. Saunders could feel the heat as the hot orange flames licked towards him. He pulled harder on the ropes; they dug painfully into his flesh, but it was no use.
Saunders looked wildly around the barn. There was Hanley, standing in the doorway. "Help me! Cut me loose!" Saunders begged, but Hanley didn't seem to hear him; he just turned away. Why won't he help? The flames had almost reached him; Saunders pulled wildly at the ropes, begging for help.
That was Kirby's voice. What was he doing here? It didn't matter. "Cut me loose!" Saunders begged.
Instead of freeing his hands, Kirby grabbed his shoulders and shook him. "Sarge! Wake up!" Kirby said. "You're dreaming!"
Dreaming? But his hands were tied.... Saunders opened his eyes and looked up into Kirby's worried face. It took him a moment to realize he wasn't trapped in a barn, he was lying on his bedroll on the floor in the abandoned store. And his hands weren't tied, they were just tangled up in his blanket. Another damn nightmare. Saunders uttered an expletive as he disentangled his hands -- a simple enough task when he was awake.
Kirby, still kneeling down beside him, pulled back a bit, giving him some space. "You okay, Sarge?" he asked.
Saunders just breathed for a moment, letting his racing pulse slow as he calmed down. He looked around and saw they had an audience. Caje, Doc, Stewart -- it seemed the whole squad had just witnessed his performance. From the looks of them, they hadn't even gone to bed yet; it had probably only been an hour or so since Saunders had fallen asleep. Hell of a job you're doing convincing them you're okay, Saunders berated himself silently.
"Yeah. Just a nightmare," Saunders muttered. He grabbed his field jacket and got to his feet. He needed some air.
The others stood aside to let him through the doorway, but Saunders could feel them all looking at him as he brushed past them into the outer room and made his way outside into the chilly twilight of an early fall evening.
"What are you all staring at? Let's get back to the game," Kirby's voice carried clearly to Saunders outside, but the answering voices were too quiet to make out the words.
Saunders lit a cigarette with shaking hands and tried to put together the pieces of his fading nightmare. Had he unconsciously incorporated the details Hanley had told him tonight, or was he actually remembering what had happened? Whatever was going on, that had been the most intense dream yet....
Saunders was distracted from his thoughts by the sound of raised voices inside the building. Kirby was arguing with somebody -- Stewart? He couldn't make out the words, but Kirby's anger was unmistakable. And when Kirby got mad....
Saunders stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette, tossed it to the ground, and headed back inside, determined to save Kirby from another court martial.
Inside, Saunders found just about what he was expecting -- Littlejohn held Kirby by the arms from the back. Kirby was struggling to reach Stewart, who faced him angrily. The rest of the men were arrayed around the confrontation, with various expressions, mainly surprise, on their faces.
"What's going on in here? Kirby, cut it out!" Saunders ordered.
"Sarge! This guy's a backstabbing traitor! He's just been looking for an excuse to get the squad back!"
"What are you talking about?" Saunders asked.
"He was..." Kirby broke off and turned to glare at Littlejohn, who still had a grip on his arms.
Kirby no longer seemed intent on immediate violence. Littlejohn released him with a silent shrug.
"He was gonna go running to Hanley and tell him...." Kirby paused and rubbed at one of his shoulders.
"Tell him what?" Saunders demanded.
The piercing sound of an incoming artillery round put an abrupt end to the conversation.
"Incoming!" Stewart yelled, grabbing for his helmet.
There wasn't really time to react before the shell hit, but the ground only shook slightly -- it had hit towards the edge of town, where 3rd squad was on watch.
Saunders fought off a momentary surge of panic, silently berating himself. This isn't the barn, and that wasn't even close, damnit!
"We'll deal with this later," he said, recovering. "You men get your gear together and be ready. This might be a counterattack."
Saunders didn't wait for an acknowledgement. He quickly headed to the back room to get his gear, only flinching a little when the next shell came in, also landing several blocks away.
The other men were also grabbing their gear, as ordered. "Stay here and be ready to move out. I'm going to check with Hanley," Saunders said.
"I'll go with you, Sarge." Caje stepped forward.
It's a block away... Saunders opened his mouth to object.
"You might need a runner," Caje said quickly.
Or a babysitter. This wasn't the time to argue. "Alright, let's go," Saunders agreed.
A wave of relief swept over Saunders when he stepped out of the building into the open. Stay focused. There was nobody in sight nearby, so he headed down the street towards the building where Hanley had setup the platoon's command post, with Caje on his heels.
They reached the command post and looked inside. It was empty.
"Saunders!" Hanley called out to him from down the street where he was just rounding the corner. The Lieutenant and his radioman, Jones, jogged up to Saunders and Caje.
"Good, I was just coming to find you," Hanley said. "Company says a patrol spotted infantry with some armored support -- it looks like a counterattack. Second and Third squads are headed to sectors Able and Charlie. You cover sector Baker sector. I was just heading there now."
"Okay, Lieutenant." Saunders turned to Caje. "Caje, go get the rest of the squad and bring them up to Baker sector. I'll head over with the Lieutenant and meet you at the edge of town."
Caje hesitated a beat, glancing from Saunders to Hanley.
Saunders hadn't even thought about it -- it just made sense to head straight there with Hanley rather than backtracking to get the squad -- but his orders would inadvertently divert Caje from his self-imposed bodyguard duty. Well, good; it was a stupid idea anyway. "Get moving, Caje," he prompted brusquely.
Caje couldn't object to the totally reasonable order. "Okay," he finally said. "Be careful, Sarge."
"Let's go," Hanley said. If he had noticed the byplay, he didn't comment.
It was fully dusk by the time they reached the edge of town. Saunders noticed the shelling had stopped. He strained to look out towards the German lines, but in the fading light he didn't see any movement yet. If the Germans really were mounting a counterattack, they would time their assault to come in under the last wave of artillery fire.
Hanley, in front, paused behind a crumbling wall that had once marked the yard of a now half-ruined building, and motioned for them to stop. "See anything?" he asked.
"Not yet," Saunders said. "The Krauts don't usually attack at dusk; maybe they're just trying to keep us off balance."
"Well, if those reports from the scouts are right, then the Krauts are up to something more than just a goodnight serenade. Keep your eyes open --"
Just then, the air was pierced by the whistling sound of another shell. "Here comes Act Two," Hanley yelled over the noise. "Let's get to cover!" He gestured towards the half-ruined building.
Saunders felt his guts twist in another surge of panic. They were on the front line now -- and right in the middle of the target. But if I go into that building... He took a deep gulping breath, trying to calm himself. Come on, hold it together, damnit! You made it through Salerno and Omaha Beach; you can handle a little shelling!
The whistling of the incoming shell crescendoed to a high-pitched squeal, then abruptly ended with an ear-shattering explosion as the shell landed in the street in front of Saunders. The shock of it knocked Saunders to the ground; debris pelted him, stinging his arms and back in a dozen spots. Galvanized into action by the near miss, Saunders scrambled to his feet and followed Hanley and Jones into the building.
"You okay?" Hanley grabbed Saunders' arm and pulled him down to the floor of the half-ruined building.
"Yeah," Saunders gritted out. It's safer inside than outside.... There was no defense against a direct hit, but the walls and roof would protect them from most of the flying shrapnel and debris. Saunders tried to ignore the way the walls shook as another shell hit the ground outside.
Almost immediately the sound of another incoming round pierced the air. Suddenly the world exploded. Saunders was transfixed as his nightmares suddenly became reality. The wall and ceiling imploded. Flaming debris rained down. Saunders called out for help. The German Sergeant moved forward to help him, and Saunders watched in horror as the soldier was impaled by a chunk of burning debris. The room burst into flame and hot orange flames burned through the dry straw, gaining strength as they raced across the wood and down the ropes that bound his hands. Saunders screamed.
Suddenly Hanley was there. He grabbed Saunders by the shoulders and shook him. He said something, but Saunders couldn't make out the words over the roar of the fire.
"Help me! Cut me loose!" Saunders begged, crying.
Hanley grabbed Saunders' wrist and pulled on it, holding it up to Saunders' face and forcing him to look at it. "You're okay, Saunders. Snap out of it!"
Saunders blinked, focusing on the pale, unburned hand. Suddenly, the ropes that bound his hands were gone. The flames that consumed the building receded, replaced by a few smoldering chunks of debris that lay on top of a khaki-clad body a few feet away. The body... Saunders struggled to separate reality from nightmare -- no, from memory.
"The Kraut sergeant," he said, almost a whisper. "He tried to help me...."
"What Kraut?" Hanley asked, ducking reflexively when a piece of debris broke lose from the ceiling and landed behind him with a crash. The building wasn't on fire, but it still wasn't very safe.
"There's no time for this," Hanley said. He picked up Saunders' M-1 and shoved it into his hands. "There's going to be plenty of Krauts here in a minute. We need to get out of here. You with me, Sergeant?"
Saunders took the rifle and nodded.
"Come on," Hanley headed back outside towards the wall where they'd stopped earlier. Saunders followed, more than content to let somebody else do the thinking for now.
When they got to the wall, Hanley shoved Saunders down behind it, keeping one hand on his arm. "Saunders, are you alright?" he asked.
His pulse was still racing and his heart was pounding, but the feeling of blind terror was gone. Saunders wiped wet tears from his cheek with the back of his hand, leaving a smear of dirt. "Yeah," he said. "I'm okay now."
"Wait here. I'm going back for the radio." Hanley said.
Saunders nodded, simultaneously grateful for a chance to compose himself, and glad that Hanley had gotten him out of the building. There was a man lying dead back there, but it was Private Jones, not the Sergeant who had led the Germans who captured them. Odd that he hadn't remembered the German Sergeant until now....
Saunders shifted his thoughts away from the memories that had been stirred up, and turned to look out towards the enemy lines. The shelling was continuing, but the focus had moved away towards Able sector, and it sounded like it might be slowing down. Saunders searched for any sign of movement towards the edge of town. If the Krauts were going to attack tonight, it would be soon.
There was a rustle of motion and Saunders glanced back to see Hanley returning with the battered blood-stained radio.
"I probably shouldn't have bothered; it's pretty beat up," Hanley grunted as he slid down beside Saunders and looked at him appraisingly. "See anything?" he asked.
"Nah...." Saunders cut off his response mid-sentence as he spotted some movement several hundred feet away. "There," he said, pointing. "Looks like they're making their move."
"Yeah... looks like the Krauts are serious about this," Hanley muttered. "We're too exposed out here, let's pull back and find your squad."
Hanley and Saunders pulled back a block to the position in Baker sector where they'd previously scouted out a defensive perimeter. The men of Saunders' squad were already in position, scattered along behind a brick wall and in buildings at either end of it. By the time Hanley and Saunders reached the street, they could already hear some small arms fire. Saunders spotted Caje across the street in a building at one end of the wall. He signaled to Caje and then waited for the squad to start some cover fire, before he and Hanley dashed across the open street. A few shots stray shots from the Germans chased after them. Saunders dove into the cover of the building, with Hanley on his heels.
Hanley shoved the radio at Billy, who happened to be nearest to where they'd landed. "See if you can get Company on that," he ordered, breathing heavily.
Billy grabbed the radio and started working at it.
Saunders quickly looked around for his men -- it was hard to be sure in the fading light, but the headcount seemed right. He crawled over to Caje who was a few feet away behind a crumbling stone wall. "Report."
"We spotted some Krauts right after the shelling stopped, but it's just some small arms fire, maybe their scouts."
"It's more than just a patrol," Saunders said.
Caje nodded grimly.
"Lieutenant, this radio's shot," Billy said. He gestured to a ragged hole torn through the metal. Broken wires poked out of the hole.
Hanley cursed. "Where's your squad's handy-talkie?"
"I think Stewart's got it, Lieutenant." Caje pointed towards the building at the far end of the wall, where several of the men had taken up positions.
"Saunders, hold this position," Hanley said. "Keep an eye out to see if they're bringing in any heavy stuff. I'm going to see if I can get Company on that radio, then I'll check the other squads."
"Okay, Lieutenant," Saunders acknowledged. He turned away and focused out across the rubble-strewn shell hole-marred field that marked the edge of the town, looking for any movement.
Hanley wasn't done yet, though. He belly-crawled over next to Caje and Saunders and spoke in a low voice that couldn't be heard by the other men. "Caje, you're on Saunders. I want you to stick with him."
Saunders scowled. "Lieutenant, I'm --"
"That's an order, Sergeant," Hanley cut him off. "You got it, Caje?"
Caje looked from Hanley to Saunders, met Saunders' gaze for a brief unreadable moment, then looked away. "Yes sir."
Hanley didn't trust him, Saunders realized. And who could blame him, after what had happened in the building? Caje's response -- the lack of surprise at the unusual order -- could only confirm Hanley's concerns. But I'm okay now! Saunders wanted to argue, but if he did, Hanley would probably pull him off the line. Besides, this wasn't the time for it. Emotions seething, frustrated at his own weakness, Saunders silently focused his anger out across to the German lines, noting Hanley's departure without acknowledging it.
Moments later, Saunders found something else to distract him. He heard it first, the rumble of an engine and the mechanical grinding of a large vehicle, coming closer. He strained his eyes, looking for the source, with a growing certainty about what it was.
Beside Saunders, Caje had also heard it. "Tank!" Caje hissed a warning to Billy and Jackson, the two men who were nearest to their position.
Saunders motioned to the others to keep down, then scooted down the wall a few feet, waving to catch the attention of Kirby, who was about twenty feet away with the next group of men. Saunders quickly flashed him a signal, and saw Kirby pass the warning down the line to the rest of the squad and Hanley.
"What are we going to do now, Sarge?" Billy asked anxiously. "We haven't got a bazooka...."
"They can't expect us to stay here if that tank starts firing at us, can they?" Jackson asked, his voice shaking. "That's crazy!"
Infantry against a tank -- there weren't many options. Without a bazooka or any other anti-tank weapons, the only hope was to get close enough to it to disable it with a grenade. That was easier said than done, especially if the tank had its own infantry cover.
"Just keep down and hold your fire," Saunders ordered, even as he scanned the terrain again, evaluating the available cover. "Let's see what they got, first."
They didn't have long to wait before the tank came into view. It rolled up across the street and pulled into a hull down position behind some rubble about fifty yards away. Saunders could hear the metallic grinding of the tanks main gun maneuvering into position. He could also see that the tank was accompanied by about a dozen German infantry.
"Looks like a Mark IV," Caje commented from beside Saunders. "Could be worse."
Saunders nodded. At least it was only a medium tank. Even a bazooka wouldn't be much use against a Panther or a Tiger, but there was a chance to take this one out with a lucky grenade at close range, and a good chance of taking it out with a bazooka if they could get one brought up.
The tank had swiveled its gun around to aim to the left of their position, towards Able sector, where second squad was deployed. Suddenly the tank shuddered as it fired its main gun at a stone building. The round fell short, but the blast still blew up a cloud of dust and debris. The shot was followed by a cacophony of sound from the tank's machine guns, rifle fire from the German infantry, and return fire from the American positions. The German infantry stayed in cover on the flanks of the tank. They weren't much of a threat at that distance, but they were there to protect the tank. And the tank could just sit there and pound away at the American positions with the high explosives from its main gun. It would quickly reduce the buildings and other cover in that area to rubble.
"They aren't going to last long with that tank pounding on them!" Caje yelled over the gunfire and explosions.
Saunders' mind raced for a plan. "We've got to try to take it out," he said. "I'm going to try to get close enough for a grenade."
Caje frowned. "That's a long shot, Sarge. He's all buttoned up -- that grenade has to land just right or it will bounce off...." The end of Caje's sentence was lost in the explosion of another round from the tank. This one blasted a chunk out of the wall, sending the GI's who had been behind it scattering for better cover.
"We've got to try something. That tank's going to chew them up, and then we'll be next," Saunders slung his M-1 over his shoulder and called to Billy and Jackson. "Cover us! We're going to try to get in close on the left flank. Keep those Kraut infantry distracted."
Saunders waited for the next shot from the tank's main gun. Then he dashed across the street during the gunfire that accompanied it, taking cover behind some barely-adequate rubble. Caje followed a few seconds behind.
So far so good. The fading light was working in their favor; the Germans hadn't spotted them yet. Saunders pointed towards another pile of rubble about twenty feet closer to the tank.
Caje nodded and levered his M-1 into position, ready to cover Saunders' advance.
The Germans' attention still seemed to be focused on the Americans who were behind the wall, so Saunders took a deep breath and made a dash for the next position.
He was about halfway there when he heard a voice yell something in German. Saunders dove instinctively to the ground, still five feet short of the rubble. A burst of gunfire hit the dirt behind him, and Saunders scrambled frantically for cover. He hugged the ground behind the rubble, wincing as bullets struck it and sent chunks of stone flying.
"Sarge!" Caje called out to him, barely audible over the gunfire.
Saunders risked a glance back at Caje, gesturing for him to stay put. Another spray of bullets hit the rocks in front of him and he ducked down farther, cursing. The Germans really had him pinned down. At least they didn't seem to have spotted Caje.
The fusillade seemed to go on for an eternity. There was nothing Saunders could do but hunker down behind the rubble and ride it out. If he played possum, the Germans might turn their attention to a more threatening target.
The tank fired its main gun again. The men of second squad were really taking a pounding. Saunders dug one of his grenades out of his jacket, knowing even as he did it that he wasn't close enough. He had to do something...
Suddenly Saunders saw movement out of the corner of his eye, to his right. He turned and saw that Caje had left cover and was making a dash towards his position. Bullets tracked the scout's movements as the focus of the German infantry shifted away from Saunders to the scout. Saunders cursed. He dropped the grenade, grabbed up his rifle, and fired some wild shots to try to cover Caje's advance.
Caje dove in beside him with a painful grunt. Bullets riddled their position with renewed vigor. So much for playing possum...
"Damnit Caje, what are you doing? I told you to stay put!" Saunders growled out his frustration at Caje's uncharacteristically foolhardy maneuver. Now they were both pinned down!
Caje's labored breathing was the only immediate response. Saunders looked at him, noticing bright blood on Caje's left sleeve, above his elbow. "Are you hit?" he asked, concern quickly replacing his anger.
"Eh?" Caje pulled at his shirtsleeve to look at the blood. "Nah, just a crease," he panted, flexing the arm.
"Good," Saunders said. "Then what the hell do you think you're doing?" Realization suddenly dawned. "Is this about Hanley's order?" he demanded. "That order didn't include getting yourself pinned down here with me...."
"No, Sarge," Caje shook his head emphatically, still struggling to get his breath back. "I saw you with the grenade and...had to tell you..." He gestured back towards their lines with his chin. "They're... I saw them bringing up a bazooka!"
"You could have signaled that to me," Saunders scowled. He looked past Caje to where he'd pointed, and could see some GI's moving behind the cover of the wall. If those men had a bazooka, that was definitely a safer and better chance than he had against the tank with his grenades.
"I wanted to make sure...." Caje said. "I'm not going to let you down again, Sarge."
Saunders turned back to meet Caje's gaze. "If you don't want to let me down, Caje.... Then I need to be able to trust you to follow orders. That means if I tell you to stay back and cover me, soldier, then you damn well better stay back and cover me!"
Renewed gunfire from the American lines distracted Saunders from Caje's response. He heard one of the Germans yell "Bazooka", and then the German infantry turned their focus away from Saunders and Caje towards the bazooka team.
Then there was a whumping sound followed by an explosion as the bazooka team fired a round at the tank, sending the nearby German infantry scattering away from the area where it landed. Clouds of smoke and dust blew up, obscuring the tank.
Time was suspended for a moment, then Saunders heard a grinding sound. He expelled a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, as he identified the sound. Then the smoke cleared and he saw the tank's turret swinging around towards the bazooka team. The bazooka round had missed, bouncing off harmlessly. The German infantry took the cue and resumed their firing, focusing on the newly identified threat of the bazooka team.
Caje swore softly beside him. "Those Krauts aren't going to let them take another shot now," he said.
"Yeah, but here's our chance," Saunders said. He found the grenade he'd dropped, and picked it up, simultaneously setting down his M-1. He quickly checked his jacket for the other two grenades he carried. Now that the Germans were distracted by the bazooka, he could get in close enough to use them.
Saunders spotted some sparse cover about twenty-five feet away from the tank -- close enough, he hoped. "Caje -- Cover me!" he ordered. He paused and turned back to Caje, acutely aware that he was wasting precious seconds waiting for an acknowledgement.
For an instant, Saunders thought Caje was going to argue with him. Then Caje met his gaze and gave a quick nod, shifting his rifle into position. "Good luck, Sarge," he said.
Saunders nodded -- he could count on Caje to back him up. He shifted his attention back to the tank, which was still maneuvering its gun to bring it to bear on the bazooka team. Saunders measured the distances, planning his throw. Then he took a deep breath and launched out into a running dive towards the scrap of cover he'd chosen.
Reality shifted into slow motion. Saunders was still in mid-leap, committed to his action, when he heard voices call out in German. Something brushed across his right shoulder, and there was a burning sensation, and then he landed in the dirt behind the barely adequate rubble. Bullets whizzed past overhead while Saunders flexed his shoulder -- no pain, it must have missed him.
Saunders heard a man cry out a few feet in front of him. The gunfire let up. Thanks, Caje.
It was now or never. He pulled the pin out of his first grenade, clutching it firmly in his right hand. One. He pictured where the tank was sitting. There wouldn't be time to orient before his throw. Two. He was so close he could smell the exhaust fumes from the tank. Saunders could hear the metallic grinding as it laboriously swung its gun around. Three!
Saunders popped up from behind the rubble. He found and focused on the tank, on the front of the turret under the main gun, which was still in motion even as it spit bullets from its turret machine gun, swinging past the bazooka team towards Saunders. Out of the corner of his eye, Saunders noticed the movement of the German infantry, some of them barely ten feet away. They weren't important in this moment -- they wouldn't be able to react in time to stop his throw -- but he automatically took note of their positions. Then Saunders threw the grenade in an arcing path aimed right at the base of the turret. He ducked back down immediately, knowing without seeing the grenade land, that it had been a good throw.
Six... Saunders braced himself, covering his head. Seven. The blast from the explosion buffeted him. Debris flew over his head, pelting his neck and shoulders. Men screamed.
But other voices were nearby, and they were yelling, not in pain but in anger -- and in German. Saunders took out his second grenade and pulled the pin. The aim wouldn't be so important for this one; he just wanted to give the nearest German infantry something to think about besides coming after him. Saunders counted to three again, then popped up and arced the grenade blindly into the middle of where he had seen the German infantry. He risked a moment to look at the tank, noting that the turret had stopped moving, but the tank was still very much intact. The turret machine gun was still firing, even though it was aimed midway between Saunders and the bazooka team, not a threat to either target.
Saunders ducked back down and tried to bury himself behind the rubble, bracing himself for the next explosion; he was going to be awfully close to this one -- hopefully not too close. Then the sound and force of the explosion overwhelmed his senses and Saunders just lay there for several heartbeats, unable to think about anything except whether or not he was still in one piece.
The next sound he heard was gunfire -- most of it was coming from the American lines, and none of it seemed to be aimed directly at him. Then over the gunfire, there was a harsh metallic shriek, like fingernails scratching a blackboard, coming from the direction of the tank. The tank was still trying to swing its turret. And not succeeding! Saunders felt his pulse quicken. Destroying the tank with a single grenade had always been a long shot, but he had managed to cripple it!
Saunders clutched his last grenade, contemplating his next move. The cover fire from Caje and the squad seemed to be keeping the pressure off him for now, but any second now the surviving Germans -- and there were still plenty of them -- would gather their wits and come after him. He needed to finish off the tank and get out of there! Saunders tried to picture where the most vulnerable spot on the tank would be. He might have a clear shot at where the gas tank was located, but could the grenade penetrate the armor there, even if he managed to throw it in close enough?
Well, he'd never have a better chance at it than right now.... Saunders took a deep breath and poked his head up, risking a few seconds of exposure to get a better idea of the situation before he committed himself. The dozen or so Germans nearest to him were all dead or incapacitated -- they'd suffered the brunt of the second grenade, and the American fire support had finished them off. But past the tank, there were at least a dozen more Germans who were very much alive. Saunders didn't get a good look at the tank itself, before one of the Germans spotted him and called out. There was a burst of gunfire. Hot lead brushed against Saunders cheek. He ducked back down behind the rubble, which had been barely adequate cover in the first place, and had now taken the punishment from two close grenade detonations and hundreds of rounds of bullets. Saunders rubbed at his stinging cheek and his hand came away bloody. This was not looking good.
Suddenly, there was a whumping sound. Saunders just had enough time to register where the sound had come from and what it must be, and no time to brace for another explosion, before the bazooka round hit home. Saunders' next thought was somewhat incongruous -- the effect of a bazooka round penetrating a tank and going off inside it was somehow a lot less impressive than the effect of a grenade exploding on the outside of the tank. At least if you were lucky enough to be on the outside of the tank when the bazooka round hit it. He'd barely processed that thought, when a flaming orange and red fireball erupted from the middle of the tank, followed by the whoosh of a secondary explosion and a wave of heat. I guess they found the gas tank, was Saunders' next thought.
And if the tank had any high explosive ammo left... Saunders was galvanized into action. He rolled back away from the fiery inferno of the burning tank and scrambled to his feet, diving back towards where he'd left Caje. He landed on the ground beside Caje with a painful grunt as he came down on a sharp piece of debris. But the pain of the rock scraping his ribs was quickly forgotten when he was buffeted by a series of blast waves from the tank. The flames had reached the tank's ammo, and it went off in a sequence of massive explosions. Saunders turned back to watch the impressive display of pyrotechnics, noting that the spot he'd been using for cover moments before was completely engulfed in it.
Saunders lay there for a moment catching his breath, waiting for the adrenalin to stop pumping, just happy to be alive.
There was a light touch on his shoulder. "Sarge? You okay?" Caje asked.
Saunders noticed that he still had the last grenade clutched in his hand in a death grip. He looked back at the still-burning remains of the tank -- the contribution from this minor explosive would have been completely lost in that conflagration. He shrugged, stuck the grenade back in his jacket, then turned back to Caje, barely able to make out his features in the fading light. "I'm fine, Caje. I'm fine." And for the first time in a long time, he was sure of it.
The destruction of the German tank and the decimation of its supporting infantry platoon turned the tide of the battle in favor of the Americans, especially in the center of the line where 2nd Platoon was fighting. But the Germans pressed the assault on the flanks and the battle went on into the night, until finally reinforcements from L Company arrived to press at the right flank. The Germans finally retreated.
Casualties were light, considering the ferocity of the fighting. The men from Saunders' squad made it through without any serious damage. L Company took over security at the perimeter of the town, and Saunders and his squad headed back to their bivouac for a well-earned rest. They were all tired, but their spirits were high, adrenalin still pumping from the fight.
"Did you see how the Sarge took out that tank?" Jackson exclaimed for at least the third time. "He was so close he could have spit on those Krauts!"
"Jackson, maybe if you ask Sarge tomorrow he'll give you spitting lessons," Littlejohn said. "But how about you shut up about it now so we can get some sleep?"
Saunders found the energy for a faint smile at the banter. He'd been tired before the firefight started; he was exhausted now. He staggered toward the back room, thinking only about sleep.
There was no electricity in this part of the town -- the shelling from both sides had seen to that -- but somebody had found a lantern and some oil and set it up in the center of the front room. Doc had come in before Saunders and was sitting in the light near the lamp, with his aid kit out. He glanced up as Saunders trudged past and then did a double take. "Hey Sarge, wait!" he called out.
Saunders turned around tiredly. "What is it, Doc?" he asked.
"You've got blood all over your face. You'd better let me clean that up, Sarge." Doc said. He started to dig through his bag.
Saunders unconsciously started to raise his hand to touch his cheek, then stopped himself. The cut didn't even hurt any more -- he'd forgotten about it. "Nah, it's just a scratch, Doc." He turned away.
"Come on, Sarge," Doc insisted, pointing to an empty wooden chair nearby. "It'll only take a minute...."
Saunders sighed. It wasn't worth it -- it would take less effort to just let Doc have his way than to argue with him. "Alright, just hurry up then," he said. He came back over to Doc and sat down heavily on the chair next to him.
He was tired enough to fall asleep upright in the chair, except it turned out that Doc's 'cleaning up' process hurt worse than the initial burn of the bullet brushing past. Saunders winced as Doc probed at the tender spots with a wet cloth.
"Sorry...." Doc pulled the cloth away and took out a bottle of peroxide. "This is going to sting. Try to hold still, Sarge."
"Just get on with it," Saunders muttered, bracing himself.
"Hey, has anybody seen Stewart?" Kirby burst into the room from outside.
"Haven't seen him in a while," Littlejohn who was stripping out of his combat gear in the corner of the room, answered.
"I think I saw him heading down the street a couple minutes ago," Doc said, pausing with the cloth poised over Saunders' cheek.
"Towards the CP?" Kirby demanded. He didn't wait for an answer. "That little backstabber! I swear I'll kill him!" Kirby whirled back to the door.
"Hold it, Kirby!" Saunders said. He brushed Doc's hand aside and stood up. "What's this about?" he asked, pretty sure he knew the answer.
The other men stopped what they were doing to watch the exchange.
"He...." Kirby stammered.... "I told you, he's going to go tell Hanley. He wants the squad back."
"What are you worried about, Kirby?" Caje spoke up casually from his makeshift bed in the far corner of the room. "You really think the Lieutenant would take Stewart over Sarge?"
"Of course not!" Kirby scoffed. "Err... not normally, but..." he looked at Saunders. "I dunno what Hanley might do any more!"
Saunders sighed and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. It had been a long day -- but it seemed he had unfinished business with Hanley. "Just calm down, Kirby. I'll go talk to Hanley," he said.
"Okay, Sarge," Kirby agreed. "You tell him Stewart is full of it --".
"Wait, Sarge -- let me finish..." Doc protested.
"Later, Doc," Saunders waved him off impatiently. He looked over at Caje who was relaxing in the corner, finally content to let Saunders fight his own battles. At least that much had been settled between them. Saunders noted Caje's bloody sleeve -- they'd both had their share of close calls today.... "Hey, if you want to patch somebody up, Doc, then you should take a look at Caje's arm."
"Sarge...." Caje groaned. "It's fine, it's just a --"
"Just a scratch," Doc finished for him. "Yeah sure, Caje. Let me see it...." The young medic got up and headed over to Caje's corner, bag in hand.
Across the room, Billy giggled and Littlejohn stifled a laugh. Saunders grinned back at them. Suddenly he felt a lot less tired than he had a moment ago. Now if he could just settle things with Hanley.... He picked up his helmet and rifle and headed out the door.
When Saunders arrived at the CP, Stewart was already on the way out the door. Saunders gave him a curt nod, which Stewart acknowledged. He'd deal with Stewart later. He couldn't really blame him for going to Hanley -- he probably would have done the same thing himself. But, right now his business was with the Lieutenant.
"Saunders...." Hanley looked him over appraisingly when he came into the CP. "You look like hell."
"I'm just tired, Lieutenant," Saunders replied. Hanley looked pretty beat himself.
"Well....This could have waited until morning," Hanley said. He took a drag on a half-smoked cigarette. "But since you're here...."
"What's up, Lieutenant?" Saunders asked.
"Corporal Stewart was just here," Hanley said. "He told me what happened earlier today -- during the shelling this morning, and when you were out on patrol. What happened tonight in the house with Jones -- that wasn't the first time you froze up like that, was it?"
"I... had some trouble," Saunders admitted. "It caught me off guard. But I'm okay now, Lieutenant."
Hanley shook his head. "Look, you've been saying you're 'okay' since you got back, Saunders. And you probably believe it. But if I'd known what was going on...." Hanley took a drag on his cigarette. "I think maybe they sent you back too soon this time, Saunders. You need more time to... deal with this thing. If it happens again.... if you freeze up like that under fire again, you're going to get yourself -- or your men -- killed. I can't risk it. I'm going to send you back tomorrow."
"It's not going to happen again, Lieutenant," Saunders said firmly.
"How can you be so sure?" Hanley asked.
"Well... for one thing.... I haven't got it all figured out, but I do know that if I was going to freeze up like that again, it would have happened tonight, when that tank blew up...." Saunders thought back to the inferno of the tank -- he'd been scared, sure. But he'd been in control. It hadn't been like when he was trapped in the barn.
"That tank... That was close, Saunders. Too close...." Hanley said, shaking his head. "That tank was going to rip our lines apart. I'm going to have to put you in for another medal for that stunt."
"For what? The bazooka team took out the tank, Lieutenant," Saunders protested. "If it hadn't been for them...."
Hanley put up a hand, and shook his head, gesturing for silence, "I know how you feel about medals, Sergeant. We'll argue that one later."
Saunders shrugged. He paused to take out a cigarette and light it, offering a fresh one to Hanley while he was at it.
"Anyway, Saunders," Hanley went on. "That's not enough. You said the tank tonight was one reason you didn't think it would happen again. What else?"
"Well...." Saunders hesitated, taking a long drag on his cigarette. "I didn't remember what happened back in the barn...when I got hurt. I think maybe that was why those fires and the shelling today affected me like that, because they reminded me of it but I didn't understand what was going on...." 'Reminded' him of it was an understatement, but he wasn't ready to tell anybody the details of those waking nightmares -- and it certainly wouldn't help his case.
"And that's changed now?" Hanley prompted.
"Yeah," Saunders said. "Because I know what happened in the barn now."
"You remember what happened?" Hanley asked.
"Some of it... Most of it I think," Saunders said. "I was still tied to the rail when the Krauts took the rest of you out. Then the Kraut Sergeant came to cut me loose and a beam fell on him...." Saunders paused for another drag on his cigarette and noticed his hand was shaking. There was more, but Hanley didn't need to hear it. "It guess I got away when the fire burned through the ropes."
Hanley cursed. "I'm sorry Saunders. This whole thing you've been through is my fault."
Not this guilt trip again. "We've been over that already, Lieutenant. Nothing's changed just because I remembered a few details. It's not your fault. By the time you noticed I wasn't with you, it was too late anyway."
Hanley wasn't buying it. "Saunders, you weren't dead, and you needed our help. You somehow got out on your own, but you were hurt. If we'd gone back...."
"If you'd gone back, Lieutenant, you might have walked right into a nest of Krauts. Sure, it turns out maybe it would have been easier for me if you'd come back -- but I made it okay. Five men's lives against one.... You had to make a decision, and you made it. Your duty was to escape -- to survive. And you did it. You can't be second guessing yourself now."
Hanley shook his head. "You know damn well, Saunders. If the situation had been reversed. If I had turned up missing -- or any of the men -- and you were in charge: You'd have gone back. Hell, if somebody had ordered you not to go back, you'd have gone back anyway. If you had a man missing and there was any chance they were alive, you'd have gone back and made sure."
Saunders considered for a moment. "Yeah, maybe you're right, Lieutenant. Maybe I would have gone back. And maybe I would have gotten lucky and not gotten killed or captured when I went back. But maybe not. Maybe if you'd gone back, you just would have been killed for your trouble, and it wouldn't have helped me at all. Maybe.... Maybe. This damn war is full of maybes."
Hanley looked skeptical. "Maybe...." He smiled faintly. "Maybe you're right, Saunders."
Saunders smiled back. "Maybe," he agreed.
"Well.... I'm glad you made it, Saunders. There's no 'maybe' about that."
"Me too, Lieutenant."
Hanley stubbed out his cigarette and a hand tiredly through his hair. "Well, if you're done arguing with your commanding officer, do you think you could follow one of my orders tonight? Go get some sleep."
"Yes, sir." That was one order he was happy to follow. Saunders grinned and turned to leave. But the smile faded as the thought came unbidden: If the nightmares cooperate....