missing scene from Bridge at Chalons, after Sergeant Saunders sends Doc
back to camp with the wounded Caje and Littlejohn.
Written in response to the Fill-in the Missing Scene challenge.
While this story is not beta-edited, it has been read in its entirety by
DC, my best friend and reader extraordinaire.
She pointed out a few little things here and there and for that I
am grateful. She also
wishes she had more time to get to know the Combat! characters better! (Don’t we all?) I’d
also like to thank Mr. Martin, who seems to live with JMcG, who read the
initial few pages just to see if it “read like Combat!”.
He seems to think it read just fine and so I continued on my
merry way. Any problems
you, the reader, may have with it, please take it up with him!
And thanks to Bayo for throwing down the gantlet and forcing us
all to mangle Caje.
Combat! and its characters do not belong to me and I am not being
compensated in any tangible way for this story.
Caje bit down hard on his lower lip,
hard enough to draw blood. The
coppery taste filled his mouth instantly and he turned his head,
spitting into the bushes. Tightening his grip around Doc’s neck, he hitched himself a
little closer to the medic, letting the man take just that slightest bit
more of Caje’s weight. The
pain in his leg was building again, just when he’d thought he’d
managed to make himself forget it. He moaned softly, stumbling over the rocky path.
Doc slid to a stop, pebbles bouncing
crazily out from under his skidding boots and skittering down the slope
behind them. He brought his free hand around and grabbed a fistful of
Caje’s shirt, steadying the man as he eased him to the ground, his
other arm around the scout’s slender shoulders.
Free of his burden, the medic shrugged off the Garand, slipping
the strap over his head and laying the weapon across Caje’s lap.
Now he could reach his medical ruck, hauling it around and
opening the flap.
“How’s he doin’, Doc?”
Littlejohn knelt next to his squadmates, cradling his injured
left arm with his right. His
fingers curled around his elbow, splinting the limb close to his chest.
The medic looked up.
“Still bleedin’ pretty good.
I’m gonna hafta slap another bandage on top.”
His face ran with sweat, rivulets sliding down the side of his
neck and soaking into his jacket collar.
He crouched, grimacing as Littlejohn’s weapon shifted on his
back, the butt of the rifle bouncing lightly off the back of his head.
“Gosh darn it!” Doc
reached back, threading one arm through the strap of the second rifle,
and let it slide none-too-gently to the ground.
“Hey, keep it out of the dust, will
Caje glanced up, his dark eyes holding
a warning for the big private. He
wasn’t in so much pain that he couldn’t see all that the medic was
doing to keep them moving. Doc
was carrying both their weapons, his medical pouch, multiple canteens
AND supporting Caje. The job was getting more and more difficult as the
scout tired, the effort required to put one foot in front of the other
slowly eluding him. He
shook his head slightly at Littlejohn.
Leave Doc alone.
Wincing as Doc pulled the new bandage
tight, Caje closed his eyes, letting his head loll drunkenly.
The pain in his leg was nothing compared to the heaviness in his
heart. He knew he hadn’t
deliberately gotten wounded back in the cemetery.
But his injury and Littlejohn’s had seriously depleted the
squad, not to mention removing Doc before the most dangerous part of the
mission. Now Saunders,
Kirby and Billy were risking their lives without backup.
Sergeant Turk, too, although Caje couldn’t muster enough energy
to care one way or the other for the man.
He sighed heavily, earning a questioning glance from the medic.
“Too tight, Caje?
It’s still bleedin’ some, I gotta make it tight.”
Doc met the scout’s gaze, holding it for a moment.
He wasn’t sure he liked what he saw there, aware of Caje’s
inbred Gallic guilt and legendary stoicism. He
looked away before Caje did, his eyes following his hands’ progress as
he snugged the knot.
Littlejohn pulled his canteen from his
webbing and held it up, sloshing what little water was left
disconsolately. His fatigue
was evident in the lines of his face, his expression slack and weary.
He looked up as Doc passed him a full canteen, nodding his thanks
before drinking deeply. A
trickle of water edged around his lips, making a snail’s path through
the grime on his chin before dripping to the dirt between his knees.
He swiped at his mouth with his shirtsleeve as he offered the
canteen to Caje.
The scout took it without drinking and
let it rest on one outstretched thigh.
He could feel the fine tremor in his muscles and forced himself
to take a deep breath, mentally commanding his body to ignore the myriad
signals bombarding his brain. Pain,
exhaustion, dehydration…fear. Shoving
his fingers through his thick dark hair, Caje lifted the canteen and
drank, hoping the simple movement would serve to cover his doubts that
they’d make it back to their own lines.
He blinked as Doc stood, the bright afternoon sun behind the
medic making it difficult to see his face.
Doc dropped his webbing belt and
medical pouches to the ground, shoving them under a bush next to Caje.
The canteens followed, nestled carefully in their canvas pouches.
Kneeling next to the scout, Doc scooped up a handful of dirt and
smeared it across the red crosses on his helmet, tipping it this way and
that to judge the effect. Satisfied,
he plunked it back on his head and climbed back to his feet, his
Littlejohn looked at Caje and back
again at the medic. “Whatcha
“Well, ‘member that Kraut outpost
we saw this mornin’?” Doc
nodded, as much to himself as the two men in front of him.
“It should be just over this here rise.
I’m gonna sneak up there an’ see what’s goin’ on.”
Caje reached out, grabbing
Littlejohn’s good arm as the tall private opened his mouth to protest.
“Good idea, Doc.”
He squeezed Littlejohn’s arm once, releasing it quickly,
careful not to meet the man’s puzzled eyes.
Littlejohn blinked, his gaze flicking
from Caje to the medic and back again.
“Uhh, yeah, Doc, just, well, just keep your head down.”
He shrugged his wide shoulders, not at all comfortable letting
the unarmed medic do what was essentially his job.
But he understood Caje’s unspoken message.
Neither he nor the scout was fit for it. And Doc was a good soldier.
He sighed, settling in next to Caje under the dense bushes.
Backing up slowly, Doc squinted at the
hidey-hole under the leafy foliage.
Of course, he knew the two men were there, but with any luck at
all, any passing Germans wouldn’t notice a thing.
He turned his wrist and checked his watch.
“Well, okay. Just
a quick look an’ I’ll be right back.”
He crouched in front of Caje, checking his handiwork one last
time. “Ten minutes.
That’s all.” Standing
abruptly, he was gone before the other two could say a word.
Caje reached for his cigarettes,
actually taking one from the pack before he thought better of it.
He placed it between his lips anyway, letting the familiar
routine sooth his jittery nerves. He
tucked the lighter away with no small regret.
But the easing balm of nicotine wasn’t worth the telltale
rising of smoke and the drifting smell of tobacco on the breeze.
It wasn’t worth getting them all killed. He sighed, reaching down to gently message his ankle below
the already reddening bandage.
“You sure you’re okay?”
The words were so soft, Caje wasn’t sure he’d heard them.
Raising his head slowly to avoid
unduly rustling the branches, Caje peered at his squadmate and almost
laughed in reply. Littlejohn
was hunched over, his long legs folded up like a concertina against his
chest, his wounded arm in its sling sandwiched between chest and thighs.
The Cajun hid his smile against his shoulder, ducking his head
down so that only his expressive eyes were visible in the shifting
dappled light penetrating the leaves.
“I’m okay, Littlejohn,” Caje
whispered, lips barely moving. He
reached up and removed the unlit cigarette, rolling it between his
fingers. “Wonder how
Kirby ‘n’ Sergeant Turk are getting along, eh?” Even,
white teeth flashed as Caje grinned, lean muscles jumping in his jaw.
He shook his head, wishing again that he could smoke, just one
cigarette, just a few drags. Dammit!
Littlejohn snorted under his breath.
“I’m hopin’ that Kirby’s killed Turk by now an’
they’re on their way back.” He
tried to straighten one leg, drawing it back when his boot stuck too far
out from under the overhanging branches.
“That guy’s a piece of work, ain’t he?”
The scout’s grin vanished.
voice low, Caje almost growled out the word.
His anger for the arrogant sergeant had been simmering just under
the surface all day long. Now
he found he could barely contain his rage coupled with a growing anxiety
for their situation. Paul
LeMay hated depending on anyone other than himself.
He’d learned to trust his teammates, but even that was tough at
times. Knowing that Turk
would be risking their lives was a difficult pill to swallow.
“Do ya –“
Littlejohn’s mouth snapped closed as his ears caught the
muffled sounds of boots moving their way.
He reached for his M1, wincing and giving up as he realized there
was no way he’d be able to fire it with only one arm.
Caje lifted the Garand from his lap,
cradling it in his arms. His
fingers caressed it, making sure the clip was in place and his thumb
over the safety. Leaning over on his right hip, the scout flattened himself to
the forest floor, his injured leg temporarily forgotten. A minute passed, then another.
In a flurry of dust and tiny pebbles,
Doc threw himself to the ground and rolled under the heavy foliage of
the bushes. He sprawled on his back, chest heaving and mouth open and
sucking air. He reached up
and hauled his helmet from his sweat-slicked hair, leaving it rocking
gently upside down at Caje’s feet.
Eyes closed, the medic was motionless save for the convulsive
Caje and Littlejohn exchanged a look
of confusion and consternation. There
didn’t appear to be anyone following Doc.
The man didn’t have any new holes in him.
What the hell?
Just as Caje opened his mouth to
question him, Doc held up one hand, index finger extended.
He drew in a shuddering breath, holding it for a long moment
before blowing it out again. The
vivid red flush on his cheeks receded a little and he opened his eyes,
lowering the hand to wipe the sheen of sweat from his forehead.
With some effort, the medic propped himself up on his elbows.
“It’s a no-go.” Doc cleared his throat, muffling the sound with his fist. He whispered frantically, his voice hoarse with tension. “There’s a command post there now, at least a platoon an’ a radio setup.” He looked at each man in turn, blue eyes wide with barely disguised anxiety. “We ain’t gettin’ home that way.
**** **** ****
Kirby trudged relentlessly along, the
pain in his leg growing with each step.
For once, he wasn’t thinking about his own discomfort.
The buckles on his boot were on the last hole but the ankle was
swelling rapidly under the worn leather.
Kirby didn’t notice. He
kept on picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down, one foot after the
other, favoring the left a bit, but carrying on nonetheless. He held the
BAR loosely in his hands, letting his suspenders take the weight.
know Doc needed you? You at
least can handle a rifle. You
shoulda gone back with ‘em.
Kirby stopped dead, head hanging.
He’d endangered his friends.
And for what? Trying
to impress some fool sergeant who couldn’t hold a candle to Saunders
on his worst day? What
was the point of that?
Shaking his head, Kirby forced himself
to start walking again. Even
in that brief respite, his ankle had stiffened considerably and his limp
became more pronounced, his left foot almost dragging in the dust.
His hip turned out slightly, compensating for the awkward gait.
an’ catch up with Doc an’ give him a hand.
He wondered how much further the three
could have gotten. Kirby
knew Caje had been lying about how badly his leg hurt.
He’d seen it before, Caje taking a bullet and denying
everything. Kirby himself, though, he could make even a hangnail seem
like a death sentence.
know Doc needed you?
Doc, another guy who never complained.
Kirby couldn’t count the times the man had knelt over him,
competent hands gentle where it mattered, voice calm and reassuring.
Some of those times, the medic had been wounded himself, his own blood
spilling unheeded until he’d helped everyone else.
And now Doc was out there with two wounded men and nobody
watching his back.
Kirby’s hands tightened around the
BAR, his gaze automatically sweeping the woods ahead.
The day was beautiful, sunny and breezy but Kirby found no joy in
it. He’d like nothing
more than to be sitting in some little French café, preferably one not
already blown to bits by German artillery, imbibing some unpronounceable
French wine and nibbling French cheese.
With a nubile French lady sitting on his knee.
Kirby couldn’t even bring himself to enjoy the daydream.
He’d let them down. No
little French mademoiselle was gonna take away this guilt.
He concentrated on putting one foot in
front of the other. Keep
on movin’. Keep on movin’.
**** **** ****
The path was there, almost two feet
wide and fairly smooth from years of foot passage.
Unfortunately, on one side rose a smooth rocky cliff with no
handholds whatsoever, culminating in the bushy overhang from a riot of
shrubbery at the top of the hill. A
few sparse trees dotted the skyline, casting their gently undulating
shadows down the ravine.
It was the other side of the pathway
that worried Doc the most. It
fell away in a steep bank, not quite vertical but not far off either by
his reckoning. A man who slipped here would roll a long ways, bouncing off
boulders and scrub pines, gravity gradually hauling him faster and
faster until he dropped inevitably into a fast running river far below.
The medic shook his head, knowing there was no other way.
Turning, Doc clambered back up the
trail, the muscles in his calves and thighs already burning from the
morning’s exertion. Slowly rolling his shoulders, he felt the growing ache from
the unaccustomed weight of the weapons and the unwanted burden of
responsibility. He’d done
it before, delivered injured men to the aid station without benefit of
armed escort, but he never got used to it, constantly aware of just how
impotent his noncombatant status made him feel.
But he also knew how it felt to kill a man and Doc knew he’d
never get used to that either.
Deliberately slowing his steps as he
returned to the hiding place where he’d left Caje and Littlejohn, the
medic paused, scanning the woods for any sign they’d been spotted.
The birds he’d noticed earlier, a species not native to
Arkansas, still sang to each other in the brilliant afternoon sunlight.
No unusual sounds intruded on the peace of the glade, no
unexpected shadows fell across the forest floor.
Doc breathed a sigh of relief and ducked under the heavy leaves.
Littlejohn stared back at the medic,
his eyes wide with worry. “Whatdya
find, Doc?” He sat on his
heels, hunched over in the confined space.
The pain of his shoulder was gnawing at him and he wanted to ask
for morphine. One look at
Caje and Littlejohn swallowed down his request.
Doc reached for Caje’s boot,
carefully turning the leg so he could inspect the wound.
“It’s not good. There’s
a trail ‘round the back side of the hill, maybe a goat trail?
It goes in the right direction, though.”
His voice trailed off as he frowned, eyebrows pulling together in
dismay. A faint red stain
was showing through the top bandage.
“Think we can make it?”
Caje’s teeth were tightly clenched together.
He pulled his leg gently but decisively from Doc’s grasp,
sitting up and tucking the flapping ends of his pants into his boot top
as best he could. The scout
hated being the weak link in the chain, hated anybody having to help
him. He and Littlejohn had
been silent during Doc’s reconnaissance, each lost in their own mental
meanderings. Caje had tried
to talk himself into accepting his role in the trio’s retreat.
Accept that the quiet medic was going to be calling the shots.
Accept that his own body was rapidly failing him and he wasn’t
sure he could make it home, even with Doc’s help. A
trail? A GOAT trail?
Doc pulled his helmet from his head,
leaving his unruly hair sweat-slicked and spiky.
“We ain’t got a choice, Caje, we gotta make it.”
He replaced the helmet. “I
think if Littlejohn goes first, then you an’ me, kinda sideways.
If we go slow – “ Doc shrugged, his eyes downcast, staring at the flap of his
medical bag as he flipped it open and closed, over and over.
The scout studied Doc for a moment,
frustration curling his long fingers into loose fists before he caught
himself, and deliberately picked up the Garand, jamming the stock into
the ground as he levered himself to one knee.
What was it the Brits said?
In for a penny as for a pound?
He had to trust Doc’s decision and beyond that, support it.
Caje’s dark eyes met Doc’s as the medic looked up.
Caje nodded, as much to himself as the other two.
Steadying himself against a tree trunk, the Cajun turned his gaze
to Littlejohn, hoping the big private would keep his mouth shut.
“Eh, Littlejohn, we’d better move out, non?”
He deliberately thickened his accent, letting the soft French
vowels hide the tremor in his voice.
Doc continued to stare at Caje, taking
no notice of Littlejohn’s muttered hemming and hawing.
It was impossible to ignore the pallor beneath the grime on the
Cajun’s cheeks, or the slight sway of his slender body.
The medic shivered despite the warm, afternoon breeze, an icy
knife-edge of fear slipping along his neck and down his back.
It hadn’t been that difficult to decide that the trail was
their only option. In fact,
there was no other route. But
that was before this. Before
Doc realized that beneath Caje’s outward display of French bravado,
the scout was afraid. He
shook his head, knowing that giving in to that anxiety himself was one
luxury he didn’t have.
Slipping the medical ruck over his
head, Doc stood, one hand hooked through the sling of Littlejohn’s M1.
With Caje’s help, he reseated both rifles on his back, the
canvas webbing crossed over his chest.
He barely managed to suppress a groan as the ache that had
receded to a dull awareness roared back with a vengeance.
Littlejohn kept watch as Doc pulled Caje’s arm across his shoulders, the two men wobbling unsteadily for a moment before the medic balanced them, knees braced. At the big man’s nod, the three set off again, hobbling silently away from the German outpost.
**** **** ****
Wide-eyed, Kirby lay in the tall
grass, his cheek pressed tightly against the barrel of the BAR.
After a few attempts to count the number of Germans swarming over
the hillside in front of him, he’d given up and just stared in
amazement. He’d almost run smack into them in his haste to catch up
with Caje and the others, and only the fortuitous giving out of his
injured ankle had saved him from discovery.
Now Kirby forced himself to be still and consider his options.
He shook his head.
William G. Kirby considerin’
his options. Up until
now, Kirby really hadn’t HAD a whole lot of options.
Mostly he’d been faced with orders, the majority of which he
chose to carry out, others he’d ignored when it suited him.
But for the most part, Kirby went where he was told and did as
He backhanded the sweat from his
forehead, pushing his helmet up momentarily and then pulling it back
down to shade his eyes. The
late afternoon sun cast its glare directly across his position, making
him itchy and anxious. Kirby’s
biggest worry was that his squad mates had been captured, but so far he
hadn’t seen any evidence of that.
None of the Krauts seemed particularly on edge, in fact, they
were fairly lax in their security, in Kirby’s professional opinion.
At the very least, nobody was patrolling the perimeter where he
lay hidden and for that, Kirby was grateful.
Scooting slowly backwards, the BAR man
let himself slide down the gentle incline, finally rolling over several
times before coming to a stop in a stand of tall weeds.
He clutched his weapon tightly against his chest, eyes squeezed
shut as if he could will himself into invisibility.
A long moment passed while Kirby waited, sure that he would be
discovered and hauled dry-mouthed from his hiding place.
He tried desperately to control his breathing, as his lungs
attempted to keep up with his adrenaline-fueled bloodstream.
Holding his breath, Kirby concentrated on listening, but heard
nothing more than the pounding of his own heart.
The growing ache in his ankle finally
broke through the private’s reverie.
Kirby had kept his boot buckled as tightly as he could, but the
swelling had finally won out in the battle between flesh and leather.
With a quick glance up the hill, Kirby scrambled on hands and
knees for the shadowy protection of the trees, the BAR slung under one
arm in apparent readiness. In
reality, he knew he barely had enough strength left to carry the big
rifle, let alone bring it up, aim and fire.
Kirby massaged the joint through the worn leather.
He couldn’t risk removing the boot, well aware that he’d
never get it back on and without boots, he might as well limp back up
the hill and surrender right now. Dammit!
With the support of a slender fir, Kirby made it to his feet, wincing as he tentatively put weight onto his left ankle. It held, barely, although the BAR man nearly put his front teeth through his bottom lip in the effort. He squinted through the woods, convincing himself that he could see a vague pathway that looped behind the hill. Assuming that Doc and Caje and Littlejohn were still on the move, it was the only way they could have gone. Kirby sighed, hefting the BAR in his arms again, and set off, intent on catching them if only so the medic could render him some well-deserved first aid.
**** **** ****
Caje leaned heavily against the rock
wall of the canyon, sweat streaming down his face.
He clutched his wounded leg by the knee, desperate to keep his
weight off it after a disastrous attempt at navigating Doc’s goat
trail. He swallowed hard,
frantically trying to control his breathing before he passed out.
At his feet, the medic sat in the dirt, fighting hard to do the
Littlejohn rested one large hand
between the scout’s shoulder blades.
“You sure you’re alright, Caje?”
He felt like asking himself the same question.
The big man had been absolutely certain that his own heart had
stopped when Caje’s leg had given out, dropping him perilously close
to the edge. Only Doc’s
lightning reflexes had saved them both from going over, as the medic’s
hand had been securely looped under Caje’s belt.
Littlejohn had only been able to watch, hugging his useless arm
to his chest.
I’m okay.” He
coughed raggedly, clearing his throat several times before finally
managing to draw in a deep breath.
“Listen, you’ve got to leave me here.”
Dark eyes flickered from the top of Doc’s helmet to the
incredulous expression spreading over Littlejohn’s face.
He shook his head, forcing himself to stand straighter.
“I can’t walk, there’s only two of you, and you,” he
indicated Littlejohn with a slight nod, raising his chin defiantly,
“you can’t carry a stretcher. Leave
Littlejohn spluttered, words failing
Doc fought his way to his knees,
pausing to let the rifles slide across his shoulders and find their own
balance. He looked up at
the Cajun, blue eyes red-rimmed with fatigue, and repeated the word.
“No, Caje, I ain’t leavin’ you behind.”
Managing to get one booted foot underneath him, he braced both
hands flat across his knee and shoved himself upright.
“You gotta be kiddin’ me, Doc.
Whatcha gonna do? Carry
me?” Caje felt an
uncontrollable desire to laugh bubbling up in his chest.
Along with the anxiety brought on by blood loss, he sensed
himself teetering on the very edge of sanity, clinging to his own
self-awareness by the slenderest of threads.
Caje remembered that terrifying sensation only once before, not
so long ago by the calendar but a lifetime all the same.
When Theo died.
His world had fallen away from him then and he felt it slipping
The medic ducked his head under the
webbing of Littlejohn’s M1, untangling it from the multiple straps
crisscrossing his body. With
careful steps, he moved past Caje on the path, brushing chest to chest
before fetching himself up against the smooth rock next to Littlejohn.
Only then did Doc look back and meet the Cajun’s shadowy gaze.
“Tha’s just what I aim to do.”
**** **** ****
The sun moved steadily across the sky,
ticking slowly away the endless afternoon.
The young German privates, the bulk of their work finished now
that the radio link had been established, enjoyed the rare opportunity
to bask in the warmth, stretching their jack-booted legs in the long
grass and dozing fitfully.
The hillside was covered in blue-grey
uniforms, almost a full company in strength.
The bulk of them would move on in the morning, leaving the
communications unit in place to control the troop movement.
The infantry would march on into the woods, pushing the German
line ahead of them relentlessly.
Relentlessly on to Chalons.
**** **** ****
Littlejohn watched his feet, feeling
mildly detached from them as if they belonged to some other soldier
slogging slowly along a goat trail in the failing afternoon light.
The pain in his shoulder was talking to him now, whispering
mostly, but at times yelling in a voice he couldn’t ignore.
The aspirin he’d swallowed before weren’t helping at all.
He wanted to ask for more, but couldn’t bring himself to do so
as he listened to Caje’s muffled groans and Doc’s ragged panting
behind him on the path.
The Cajun tucked his right cheek hard
against Doc’s shoulder blade, trying to ease the terrible aches
creeping into every joint in his body.
The medic’s other shoulder was digging into a very personal
part of his anatomy but no amount of shifting seemed to make a
difference. Caje closed his
eyes, forcing himself not to think about the drop off only inches from
Doc’s boots and focused instead on nothing at all.
It couldn’t have happened at a more
inopportune time. Littlejohn
stumbled, the loose gravel sending him staggering against the rock face.
He cried out in pain as he tried to move his injured left arm to
catch himself and fell forward onto his knees.
Doc’s voice was hoarse with exhaustion.
He tightened his grip on Caje’s wrist and locked his elbow
further under the man’s knee, ignoring for the moment the scout’s
cry of agony. His own muscles shuddered under the strain of Caje’s
weight, pain gnawing at him like smoldering fire.
The sun chose that moment to slip over
the hill, leaving the cliff in sudden darkness just as Doc dared to lift
his gaze from the path. The
afterimage burned on his retinas, Littlejohn, down on the path and
precariously close to the edge, his hunched back to the medic.
And something else, something that didn’t register immediately
in the midst of Doc’s panic. The
trail was crumbling, finally giving way after years of peasant
farmers’ passage on the way to and from market, succumbing to the
erosion of time. And Doc
didn’t see it.
The combined weight of the two men
conspired to complete the job begun by Littlejohn’s huge boots.
Doc felt the earth shift under him just as he began to plant his
left foot and lunged sideways, pinning Caje against the cliff.
Scrabbling madly for footing as the path dissolved in a torrent
of loose dirt and pebbles, the medic fought to keep his balance.
His eyes darted frantically from the crevasse to the smooth rock
overhead to Littlejohn’s disbelieving face, the big man’s jaw slack
“I can’t – I can’t –“
Doc’s voice was no more than a strangled whisper.
He knew he was losing ground, hope sliding away with the falling
earth. Sorrow filled his
heart, blurring his vision and muffling his ears.
Caje clung desperately to him, the fingers of the Cajun’s hand
digging deeply into his left bicep and yet Doc was barely aware of the
pain. He knew also that
Littlejohn was calling to him, lips moving but saying what?
The medic could only hear the racing beat of his own heart, the
humming anxiety of fear. He
redoubled his efforts, legs churning in the dirt and stretched his free
hand toward Littlejohn, a distance he’d never close.
Caje gulped at the dusty air,
struggling to refill his lungs after the brutal collision with the rock
face. The edges of his
vision seemed rounded, like he was looking through a pair of binoculars.
He could see Doc’s boots, sliding and catching, then sliding
away again but couldn’t quite comprehend why they seemed so much
closer to the river. The
river? Sacre Bleu!
Turn me loose!” Doc
let himself fall sideways, bracing one knee desperately against a small
scrub pine. Ducking his
head under the steady stream of debris, he hitched his shoulders up,
rolling the Cajun over his neck, and shoved him hard away, hoping it was
enough to get Caje onto the remains of the path.
Almost immediately, the little pine gave way, sliding Doc’s
legs out from under him.
Feeling the solid ground beneath him,
Caje rolled onto his belly, his left arm twisting awkwardly as he
maintained his grip on Doc’s sleeve.
He had no intention of letting go, despite the medic’s plea.
But it seemed to be a losing proposition, anyway.
Doc had nothing to grab hold of and gravity was winning the
battle. Caje felt himself
hauled from the path, his left leg dragging uselessly behind him.
Littlejohn shook off his immobility,
the shock giving way to a flood of adrenaline.
He lunged at Caje’s disappearing feet, landing heavily on his
wounded shoulder and crying out in pain.
His right hand closed around Caje’s boot, numb fingers slipping
over the worn leather. In
an instant, he was left holding nothing, as Doc and the Cajun fell over
the edge, vanishing from Littlejohn’s view.
**** **** ****
The young German sat up abruptly,
blades of grass clinging to the back of his uniform and sliding down the
back of his neck. He’d dozed off in the afternoon sun, lulled by the
monotonous buzz of radio traffic and the conversations of his buddies.
Looking first to his right, and then to the left, he realized
that whatever it was that had awoken him had also disturbed the others.
One of them walked slowly toward the
crest of the hill, his rifle held at the ready.
He seemed to have forgotten that he wasn’t wearing his helmet
and the breeze ruffled his blonde hair, making him look like a
schoolboy, playing at soldiers. Stopping
just short of the peak, the private turned his head on one side,
Was falsch ist?” A
stocky man, really no more than a boy, rolled over on his ample belly
and propped his chin on his elbows.
He grinned up at his friend.
He repeated his words, allowing a ludicrously fake tremor into
his voice and making the others laugh.
Dieter frowned, holding one hand out
to shush the men. He inched
closer to the top, standing almost on tiptoe to look over.
The sun was already far to the west by now, leaving the hillside
bathed in fading warmth, but darkness beyond the crest.
Another step. Dieter
paused, shaking his head as he caught the distinctive sound of a
landslide. Curious, he took one more step and almost fell as the turf
dropped out from under him. He
lunged backwards, landing on his rear in the grass and rolled
gracelessly down the hill, fetching up against the man who had spoken.
Laughter rose in waves among the men,
immediately hushed as a lieutenant turned their way.
A few of the more diligent privates picked up their weapons and
began to disassemble them for cleaning, keeping a close watch on their
Dieter sat up, shoving off the overly
dramatic attentions of his friend, who was nearly choking on his mirth.
Finally he grinned himself, realizing that he must have looked
quite the fool.
“Es war nur eine Landslide.”
Just a landslide. “Nichts,
sich ungefähr zu sorgen.” Nothing
to worry about.
The men settled back into their
musings, content with the afternoon’s unexpected entertainment.
**** **** ****
Kirby flattened himself against the
cliff, the BAR clutched to his chest and one hand firmly planted on top
of his helmet. Ten minutes earlier, he’d caught a glimpse of his three
squadmates far ahead of him on the path.
He’d almost bitten through his lip to stop himself calling out
to them, satisfying himself with muttered oaths with each step of his
injured ankle. He knew
he’d catch them, or die trying.
Now they were all in trouble.
The break in the trail had opened like a mouth, swallowing up Doc
and Caje. Kirby watched the
medic’s efforts to save Caje and then, in turn, Caje’s refusal to
let go of Doc. He stood
there on the path, panting, unable to catch his breath and unable to
help, impotent as they both slipped away down the slope.
And the German.
Kirby glanced up, just as the top of the kid’s head came into
view again. A chunk of dirt
detached itself from the cliff face, falling not five feet in front of
Kirby’s position. He
squinted his eyes tightly, fully expecting to see the Kraut plummeting
along behind. It didn’t happen. He
waited a second longer, listening, and then hurried to catch up with
**** **** ****
Doc felt himself hanging, dangling
almost weightless, and had just enough time to wonder why.
His cheek was pressed hard into the crumbling rock, his arms
splayed above him where they’d remained after heaving Caje up toward
the path. He was afraid to
move his legs, scared that any movement at all would send him tumbling
into the ravine and the river far below.
Hang on, I’ve got you.”
Caje’s voice came from somewhere
above him, husky and raw. Doc
wasn’t sure what he heard there, fear and pain definitely, and almost
as certainly a gritty determination.
He realized now that it was Caje’s firm grip holding him in
place and felt dizzy with both gratitude and despair.
He’d hoped that he’d been able to save his squadmate.
Now it looked as though they both might be lost anyway.
Littlejohn rolled onto his right side,
wincing as he pulled his injured arm closer to his chest.
He managed to get his knees under him and inched closer to the
edge, peering down at his buddies.
Caje’s lean body lay almost vertically on the surface of loose
gravel, the worn soles of his boots tantalizingly out of reach.
Littlejohn could see the raveled edge of the Cajun’s sock
peeking through a hole and couldn’t help but think of Kirby, who would
have been complaining to beat the band.
Kirby, who was instead near the front lines with Sergeant Turk
preparing to blow a bridge.
Ignoring the rising bile in his
throat, the big private forced himself to look past Caje at the hapless
medic. Immediately he saw
what Caje must have seen and what Doc, flattened out and covered in dirt
and rocks, his eyes squeezed shut against the debris, could not.
Just beyond Doc’s feet yawned a chasm, its jagged edges
attesting to the newness of its creation.
Over the sound of his own breath rasping in his ears, Littlejohn
imagined he could hear boulders crashing into the river far below.
Caje tightened his grip on the
medic’s sleeve, ignoring the burning pain that shot from his aching
fingers and spread up his arm like fire.
Fear danced along his nerve endings, racing with adrenaline
through his bloodstream. He
had no idea what he was going to do, no idea whatsoever.
Gravity was exerting its inexorable pull and Doc was a good deal
heavier than he was. And
the Cajun had no leverage, nothing at all to check their fall.
With a rush, the rocks beneath Doc
began to slide and he felt a sudden rush of air over his legs as they
shot out into the abyss. He
twisted his neck up to stare at Caje, knowing that there was no chance
now of saving either of them. For
an instant, he stared into those dark eyes and saw his emotions mirrored
there. Then Doc felt
himself caught up, his body slammed to a halt so rapid he automatically
threw his hands up, legs bicycling in the dark emptiness of the arching
vault under the trail.
Caje rammed into the medic, one hand
still clenched in the man’s sleeve, the other wildly grasping for
purchase in the rock slide. Astonishingly,
he watched Doc raise both arms, both arms?, and catch him,
blocking him from flying over the edge.
bent nearly in half, reaching his good arm in a gesture that was both
desperate and useless.
Doc fought for breath, his
oxygen-starved lungs wheezing helplessly.
He felt the pressure on his lower back and slowly realized what
had happened. Glancing down, he saw the stout little remainder of a pine,
its thick trunk caught under his webbing and holding him firmly in
place. Only the buckle and
the fact that he’d requisitioned this particular belt only a week ago,
replacing one worn almost through in places, were preventing him and
Caje from plummeting several hundred feet.
He managed a ragged inhalation, then another, puffing out little
clouds of chalky dust.
Doc spoke directly into Caje’s ear, positioned as they were
almost cheek-to-cheek. The
medic could feel the man’s warm breath on his skin, much too fast for
Doc’s liking. He
swallowed hard and shifted his grip on Caje’s shoulders, only too
aware that he was the center of this action instead of waiting around in
the background. “Caje?
Ya gotta hold still here, whilse I figure out what we gotta
**** **** ****
Kirby limped along, favoring his ankle
more and more, finally resorting to leaning on the BAR, his fingers
gripped tightly around the bipod legs.
He could see Littlejohn kneeling on the path, sitting back on his
heels in abject defeat. Of Doc and Caje there was no sign at all.
The gap in the trail was about ten
feet wide and shaped like a wedge of pie.
Kirby sidled up to it, his gaze flickering anxiously from his
feet to Littlejohn. The big private looked up, eyes widening in shock at the BAR
man’s approach, but didn’t speak, his lips moving slightly, but not
forming words. Kirby
swallowed hard, scared to death of what he might see down the slide if
Littlejohn’s demeanor was any indication.
He leaned the rifle against a rock still solidly attached to the
cliff and eased himself warily to hands and knees.
That you? Ya got
Sarge with ya?” Doc’s
voice sounded decidedly casual, as if he were sitting around camp
repacking his medical kit. “Kirby?”
The words from the shadows below the
edge startled Kirby so badly that he almost fell headfirst into the
crevasse. He threw himself
backward, landing solidly on his rear.
Littlejohn recovered first, a wide
grin spreading across his face. He
leaned slightly forward, clutching his injured arm tightly, and peered
over at Caje’s feet. “Yeah, it’s the bad penny, comin’ back to haunt us.”
He straightened to address Kirby.
Where’s the rest of ‘em?”
Kirby blinked, leaning back on his
elbows. “They’re not, I mean, Caje an’ Doc, they’re not–“
He shook his head, hauling one hand out of the dirt and scrubbing it
over his eyes. “They’re
Can ya get us outta here?”
A note of desperation tinged the medic’s words.
“I’m kinda just hangin’ here an’ Caje ain’t lookin’
**** **** ****
Doc twisted his neck as far as he
could and stared at the Cajun, shocked into momentary silence by the
man’s pallor. He dropped
his gaze to Caje’s neck, where the carotid artery pulsed visibly and
way too fast. Doc tightened
his grip on his squadmate, shaking him as much as he dared.
The Cajun opened his eyes and quickly
shut them again at the dizzying sight of the river beyond Doc’s
shoulder. He ran his tongue
over dry lips, clearing his throat.
He knew the medic was talking to him, cajoling him, but the words
just ran together in his mind, very lulling, soothing.
He forced his eyes open again, sliding
his gaze drunkenly away from the abyss to Doc’s worried face.
Caje knew the medic was the only thing between him and certain
death but oddly he felt no fear, no anxiety.
There didn’t seem to be any room in his mind at all for
emotions, just for raw, physical pain.
His leg had settled into a bone-deep ache that spread numbness to
his foot and hot shrieks of agony up through his knee and hip and
straight into his head. He
could no longer feel his left hand although he could see his fingers,
still twisted in Doc’s sleeve.
“Caje, listen to me!”
Doc was growling now, his vocal cords raw and tense as he
struggled not to scream. “Kirby’s
sending a line down, ya gotta grab it.”
His blue eyes signaled frantically, looking from Caje’s empty
expression to somewhere behind the wounded Cajun and back again, over
and over. Come ON Caje!
Something gently bumped Caje’s elbow
and he flinched, gasping aloud and almost pulling out of Doc’s grasp.
He turned his head, surprised to see the clip end of a Garand
sling lying in the gravel. Caje
blinked as it moved slightly, like a lure on the end of a fishing line. Pressure light as a breeze on his shoulder dragged his
attention back to the medic.
“Kirby’s got ahold of th’ other
end of that. Ya gotta-” Doc paused, trying to catch his breath, sweat
beading along the chinstrap of his helmet.
For once he’d fastened it, before hauling Caje onto his back, a
gesture that at the time seemed a bit overboard, but for which he was
now grateful. “Ya gotta
grab that an’ tie it on my webbin’ here.”
Caje frowned, his dark eyes only
inches from Doc’s. “I
can’t move my hand, Doc!”
Doc bit his lip and stared back at his
friend. His back was screaming at him, the belt digging into his
lumbar muscles. He knew the
broken trunk of the scrub pine couldn’t hold him forever and that his
own arms were tiring from holding Caje in place.
Caje was the only answer.
**** **** ****
Kirby lay on his stomach, his arms
reaching down the slide as far as he could, guiding the makeshift rifle
sling rope. Already his
legs were growing numb from Littlejohn’s bulk sitting on them, but
there had been no other option. No
nearby trees grew strong enough to support even Caje, let alone both him
and Doc together. Littlejohn
would have to be the anchor for them all.
Ya think you could get that tied off before the Krauts come
Doc glared at Kirby over the top of
the Cajun’s head. “Hang
on a minute.”
The BAR man snorted, shaking his head
slightly. “I think
YOU’RE the one’s gotta hang on, Doc.”
He squirmed under Littlejohn’s weight, oddly grateful that his
circulation was impaired enough that he could no longer feel the pain of
his twisted ankle.
The medic looked back at Caje,
swallowing down his flare of anger at the irreverent Kirby.
Later, later… He
squeezed his fingers slightly tighter on the man’s shoulders.
“Caje, listen, ya gotta turn loose ‘a me an’ grab that
clip. If you can get it
around my web belt, right there-“ Doc pointed with his chin.
To his great surprise, he felt Caje nod and turned his head to
look at the man.
Caje’s eyes burned with a dark
determination. Somehow the scout had managed to summon up a final reserve of
energy, from where and at what price Doc would never know.
A faint hint of hope swept through him, giving the medic a fresh
rush of adrenaline-fueled strength.
He glanced up at Kirby and managed a watery grin.
“Just another minute here, Kirby,
an’ we’ll be good ta go.”
The BAR man sighed, readjusting his
grip on the topmost of the three rifle slings he’d buckled together.
He wasn’t at all sure this was going to work but it was all he
could think of. They had
nothing to lose and he wasn’t about to let Caje and Doc slip over
without at least trying to rescue them.
Even if it meant he and Littlejohn went over, too.
an’ catch up with Doc an’ give him a hand.
that Sarge is always right! Kirby
was fairly certain that this wasn’t what Saunders had in mind. He rubbed his cheek on one shoulder, hiding his nervous
expression from the medic below. He
suddenly understood how much his selfishness in not reporting his
sprained ankle earlier could have cost them.
WAS costing them, even now.
at the curled fingers of his left hand.
Somehow he’d managed to uncurl them enough to release Doc’s
sleeve, earning him a hoarsely whispered “thank God” from the medic.
Now shocks of pain from the returning circulation ping-ponged
their way from his fingertips to his elbows.
He lifted his head, meeting Doc’s anxious blue eyes.
gonna do it.”
slowly once, not daring even to nod now.
He concentrated on letting his legs hang motionless, resisting
the breezes wanting to swing him to and fro.
His hands were fisted in the shoulders of Caje’s jacket,
trembling slightly with tension and fear and he clenched them even
tighter, in the hope of stilling not only his muscles but also the dread
in his heart.
picked up the clip and dropped it again, the sensation in his fingers
almost nonexistent. He set
his teeth and tried again, this time watching his hand close completely
around the webbing and drag it toward the medic’s belt.
With infinite precision, Caje slipped the end of the line under
the band and around it, gently tugging the line taut and clipping it
back on itself. As he let
go, his hand went into a spasm of movement, the fingers stretching out
in a grotesque claw and then flexing so tightly his nails cut shallow
grooves in his palm. He
pulled the arm tightly to his chest, panting heavily.
Doc let out
the breath he’d been holding. “Nice
job, Caje, ya did it! You
raised up on his elbows, ignoring the sharp gravel that poked through
his jacket. “Yeah!
Now Caje, listen up! I’m
gonna grab your ankle, the GOOD ankle, that is, an’ start to haul ya
up. You grab hold of the
slings an’ just keep workin’ your way up, okay?
When we get ya high enough, Littlejohn is gonna pull you out.”
Doc squarely in the eye. “Kirby’s
shrugged as much as his position allowed.
“Jus’ right at the moment I don’t much care.
You get safely out of here, Caje.
Go on.” He
swallowed hard and shoved at Caje’s shoulders as Kirby began to pull.
“Go on, grab the line!”
the debris beneath his belly give way, raining down on Doc.
He thrust backwards with his palms, trying hard not to dislodge
any more dirt and rocks and failing miserably.
In less than a minute, he found himself draped across Kirby’s
back as Littlejohn dragged him up onto the path.
okay, Caje?” Littlejohn patted him down anxiously, looking for new
injuries and inadvertently releasing clouds of dust.
nodded his head, waving one hand in front of his face to disperse the
fine particles that obscured his view.
“I’m okay, I’m okay. Let’s
get Doc up here now.” He
scooted over to Kirby, positioning himself just above the BAR man’s
feet, and picked up the slack in the sling rope.
his squadmates with growing trepidation.
He had never been so relieved in his life as when Littlejohn had
literally plucked Caje from Kirby’s supporting arms and hauled him to
safety. And he could
certainly say that he had never been more afraid than he was at this
moment. The cascading
gravel in the wake of Caje’s rescue had caused ominous creaking sounds
in the pine stump and filled his lungs with thick, cough-inducing dust.
He swallowed convulsively, praying silently that the ledge
wouldn’t suddenly split and drop him straight down the ravine, yanking
Kirby, Littlejohn and Caje right after him.
remained prone in the dirt, outstretched hands looped in the webbing.
“Okay, Doc. I want
you to grab hold of the line with both hands ABOVE the clip. Can you get your feet on anything at all?”
tentatively circled his legs, encountering nothing.
He shook his head, not trusting his voice.
As Doc reached forward to grip the line, the muscle fibers of his
shoulders complained bitterly, joining the waves of pain from his lower
back. He felt his body
shaking and closed his eyes briefly, willing himself to stillness.
I’m gonna take up the slack now.
You just hang on an’ let yourself slide.”
Kirby looked over his shoulder.
“You guys ready? Slow
now, just go slow.”
reached down six inches and gripped the webbing, hauling in the slack.
He felt Littlejohn behind him mirror the motion, wrapping the
excess around his massive forearm.
In three pulls the line was taut and they were ready for the real
work to begin. Kirby settled himself into the dirt, his legs still secure
under Littlejohn’s, and his elbows propped against a ridge of small
rocks. He stared down the
rockslide, his brown eyes meeting Doc’s.
The medic’s face was chalk-white save for a wash of hectic red
across each cheekbone. Kirby
held his gaze for a moment, wondering just what Doc saw in him, and then
looked down at his hands, preparing for the next pull.
The edge of
the drop-off dug into Doc’s chest as the line began tightening,
stretching between him and Kirby’s hands.
He inched forward frantically on his elbows, hoping that he’d
at least have most of his weight above the ledge when the line broke and
not below. For he was sure
that it would break and that not only would he fall, but they all would.
For some reason Doc suddenly had a vision of himself trying to
explain to Saunders just how he’d ended up killing the entire squad
and felt laughter bubbling up from his belly.
grinned as he hauled in the next few inches of webbing.
“So glad you think this is funny, Doc.
Next time, YOU can be doin’ all the work instead of just hangin’
around enjoyin’ the scenery.” He
pulled for all he was worth, grunting with effort.
When he saw the medic’s knee appear over the lip of the chasm,
Kirby knew they were home free. Well,
at least home.
minutes, Doc’s hands were within reach and Kirby grabbed him securely
by the wrists, letting Littlejohn haul them both to safety.
**** **** ****
another long pull from the canteen, letting a little of the tepid water
spill across his cheeks and down his neck.
He didn’t bother to wipe it off, savoring the feel of the fluid
as it tracked through the dirt on his skin.
Such a little thing, but he wasn’t taking anything for granted
at this moment, as the four squadmates sprawled on the trail, recovering
from their ordeal. Speakin’
gimme your leg.” He
opened his medical bag, happy to have retrieved it from Littlejohn.
one eye and peered at the medic. “What,
don’t you have two of your own?”
looked up from Caje’s Garand. He’d
just reattached the sling and set the rifle aside with the other two,
dusting his hands off on his pants.
He’d not said a word since Doc’s deliverance to terra firma,
instead passing out canteens and pulling together their gear.
He shook his head now at Caje’s banter and took a deep breath,
trying not to think how close they’d come to no longer being around to
enjoy these innocuous little moments.
know Doc needed you?
how, Sarge, and how.
Kirby picked up his own canteen and lifted it to his lips.
as Doc expertly rewound a clean bandage around the wound, securing it
with a neat knot. “Merci,
Doc. Not for this-“ Caje gestured at his leg with a negative
shake of his head, the sweaty hair shoved back off his forehead
threatening to fall in his eyes. He
reached out and laid one hand on Doc’s shoulder, making the medic look
up with a questioning expression.
this.” Caje patted his chest. “Pour
ma vie, for my life.” He
smiled as Doc looked down at his hands, fumbling the bandage he held
think maybe I should be thankin’ you.
You stopped me from flyin’ off that ledge in the first
place.” The medic
grinned, suddenly looking like the young man he was, younger then all of
them. Something about
dealing with all that death, the docs and the medics seemed so much
older most of the time. But
just at that moment, Doc saw a newness to life instead of an ending.
And it felt so good.
rearranged his arm in the sling and looked up, clearing his throat.
When the others looked at him, he blushed, not intending to draw
their attention. But now
that he had it-
just thinkin’ that it’s Kirby we should be thankin’.
If it hadn’t been for him an’ his sprained ankle.
An’ his damn pride for not tellin’ Doc about it in the first
place. An’ he linked the
slings together. Well,
without Kirby, we’d all be down in that river right now.”
Littlejohn abruptly quit talking, having quite run out of words.
looked up to find them all staring at him.
He waved them off, puffing an exasperated burst of air between
his pursed lips. “It’s nothin’. I
was just here, that’s all. It’s
But it was
something. It was much more
than something and Kirby felt it build in his chest until he could
hardly breath with the joy of it. He
closed his eyes briefly, savoring the moment.