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Purple Hearts - Combat! Fan Fiction

 

 

Back Up Next

The Last Straw

 

Combat! Fan Fiction
by
Mary Wright "Eagle Lady"
eaglelady80010@netzero.net
 

          The cheerful chirping of birds outside the window did nothing to lighten Hanley's mood as he slammed down the phone.  There were certainly times that he wished he was still a sergeant instead of an officer.  Some orders were much easier to get than to give, and this was definitely one of them.  There was a light knock on the door even as it opened, the creaking hinges grating on Hanley's already strained nerves.

          Saunders entered with his Thomson slung over his shoulder, his usual swagger missing.  He looked exhausted; his uniform was torn and filthy, and carried recent blood stains.  Hanley heaved a silent sigh.  This wasn't going to be easy on either of them.

          "You wounded?"  He asked.

          Saunders looked startled, then glanced down at the blood on his jacket.

          "No, sir."  He replied.  "It isn't mine.  Anderson got it.  So did Crane.  Caje, Littlejohn and Billy are wounded.  Kirby's just beat.  So am I.  We ran into a patrol where they shouldn't have been."

          Hanley studied the man in front of him, idly wondering if he might actually hit him when he heard what Hanley had to say.  Better to get it over with, he decided.

          "You have to go back out, Saunders."

          "What?"  Saunders stared at him in disbelief.

          "I said..."

          "Lieutenant,"  Saunders interrupted, something he rarely did. "I just brought my men back from an extended patrol.  I lost two men, and have three wounded."

          "I realize that, Sergeant."  Hanley snapped.  "HQ just called.  They're ordering a patrol out to identify the Kraut companies to the south and to bring back a prisoner."

          "Don't they know we're barely at half-strength?"  Saunders demanded angrily.

          "That isn't the point, Saunders.  We have our orders.  You will take a patrol out, identify the Kraut units, and obtain a prisoner."

          "Take out a patrol?  With who?  I've got nobody left!"

          Ignoring Saunders' lapse of military protocol, Hanley tapped his pencil on the rickety table in front of him.  His sergeant stared at him, his blue eyes like chips of ice.

          "There are two replacements on their way.  As soon as they arrive, we leave."

          "We?"  Saunders' eyes narrowed.

          "We, Sergeant.  I'm going with you."

          "Can't you tell HQ that we don't have the manpower for a patrol?"

          "No, Sergeant, I can't.  You have your orders.  Get your men ready."

          "Lieutenant..."

          "That's all, Sergeant."  Hanley snapped, his patience exhausted. 

          "Yes, sir."  Saunders turned on his heel and strode out, his boot heels ringing on the floor.

          Hanley watched the door slam behind him, mildly surprised that it didn't fall off, then scrubbed his hands down his face. 

^^^

          Kirby looked up from cleaning the BAR as Saunders stalked into the remains of the shop.   The sergeant's face was lined with fatigue, and dark with anger. 

          "What's up, Sarge?"  He ventured.

          "We're going back out."

          "We're what?  We just got back in, Sarge!  'Sides, there's nobody left to go out but you and me."

          "Knock it off, Kirby."  He growled, jerking the Thompson off his shoulder.

          "But, Sarge..."

          "I said knock it off."  Saunders glared at him.  "We're going out to identify the Kraut outfits to the south and to grab a prisoner."

          "Just the two of us?"  Kirby tried to keep the anger out of his voice.

          "We've got two replacements coming in and Hanley's going with us."

          Wisely, Kirby kept his mouth shut and went back to cleaning his rifle.  Saunders flung his helmet onto a nearby table and lit a cigarette which he handed to Kirby, then lit another for himself.

          "Thanks."  Kirby nodded.

          "What about Caje, Littlejohn, and Billy?"

          "They're at the aid station.  The Doctor says they'll be okay in a couple days."

          "Where's Doc?"

          "Refilling his bag.  Uh, Sarge?"

          "Yeah?"  Saunders ran a hand through his hair, leaving it standing on end.

          "I think the replacements just arrived."

          Turning, Saunders looked at the two men standing just inside the door and sighed.  Neither looked like they should be out of high school yet.  It was a sure bet neither had seen any action.  As he stared at the two men, he felt his heart sink.  The shorter man on the left was the younger brother of his friend Tommy from back home.

          "Sergeant Saunders?"  The one on the right questioned.

          "Yeah, that's me."

          "We're the replacements from St. Mere.  I'm Tate.  Just Tate."

          "Just Tate?"  Saunders glowered at him.

          "Just is my first name, Sergeant."

          "Private Sam Hill."  The shorter man said.

          "Sam Hill?"  Kirby grinned.

          "Yeah.  As in Where in sam hill."  Hill grinned back, then sobered as his gaze returned to Saunders.  "Tommy was killed three weeks ago."

          Saunders' face showed no change in expression, but Kirby could tell the news hit him hard.  Walking to the window, Saunders threw down his cigarette and promptly lit another.

          "Either of you seen any action?"  Saunders asked without turning.

          "No."  Both shook their heads.

          "Great."  Saunders sighed again.  "Kirby, take care of  'em.  I gotta go see Hanley."

          "Sure, Sarge."  Kirby laid the rifle aside and got to his feet as the sergeant strode past the new men and out of the shop.

^^^

          "Lieutenant,  the replacements are here."  Saunders said without preamble.  "They're kids.  Just kids.  I'll be surprised if they know which end of the gun is which."

          "Then you'd better teach them, Sergeant.  We leave in one hour."

          "Isn't there any other way, Lieutenant?"  Saunders leaned on his knuckles on the edge of the flimsy table, his angry gaze on the officer.  "We're beat."

          "I know that, Saunders.  Everyone is short-handed these days.  We have to make do with what we have."  He replied mildly.

          "Lieutenant, we can't keep going!"  Saunders straightened a back aching from carrying a wounded soldier back home.

          "We don't have a choice, Sergeant."

          "Can't we trade the replacements to another squad for experienced men?"  Saunders' almost pleading tone had Hanley staring at him in surprise.

          "Why?  You've taken green men out before."

          "Not on a mission like this."  He shook his head.

          "No trade, Sergeant.  We go with what we have."

          "But, Lieutenant..."  Saunders started to say.

          Resenting the pressure his friend was putting on him, Hanley rose to his feet, towering over the sergeant.  He didn't want to send the men back out anymore than they wanted to go, but he had no choice.  HQ had made it clear what they wanted and when.

          "Sergeant Saunders."  His usually mild tone had turned hard.  "You have your orders.  You will have your squad, including the replacements, ready to leave in one hour.  Is that clear?"

          "Yes, sir."

          Hanley caught a surprising flash of anguish in the sergeant's eyes before he turned away and headed for the door.

          "And don't slam the door!"  Hanley called after him.

          

^^^

          When Hanley stepped outside an hour later, he found Saunders, Kirby, Doc and two strangers waiting for him.

          "Lieutenant Hanley, Privates Tate and Hill."  Saunders' said woodenly.

          "Glad to have you, men."  Hanley nodded.

          "Kirby, you've got the point."  Saunders usurped the officer's authority, drawing surprised looks from both Kirby and Doc.

          At Hanley's nod, Kirby settled the BAR more comfortably and headed out, Hill and Tate behind him, followed by Doc.  Hanley glared at Saunders as they followed.

          "I don't know what your problem is, Sergeant, but you'd better get over it fast.  You got that?" 

          "Yeah, I got it. Sir."

          Snapping his Thompson off of his shoulder, the sergeant moved on ahead, leaving Hanley staring after him.  Something other than tiredness was eating at the man, but he didn't have a clue what it was.  In the sergeant's present mood, Hanley figured he wasn't likely to find out what it was any time soon.  Cursing under his breath, the officer fell in behind the men. 

^^^

          Saunders kept his gaze on Doc's back, vainly trying to keep his thoughts from turning to home and Tommy.  They'd gone through school together, played together, argued with each other, vied for the same girl with each other, and enlisted on the same day.  Tommy had joined the Army Air Forces with visions of becoming an Ace, with women flocking around him.  Now, the always optimistic Tommy Hill was gone and his younger brother was likely to join him before the day was over. 

          At least this time it wasn't his responsibility.  The lieutenant was in charge this time; it was on his back.  He had to admit that he deserved the reprimand from the lieutenant.  His mind had been wandering, and he had totally forgotten that Hanley was going along.

          Lord, he was tired.  He wanted to lay down somewhere and sleep for a week.  A sudden sneeze from Doc startled him back to the present and he lifted his head to look around, unaware how much that one action relieved the officer behind him.

          He was surprised to see Kirby in the lead, having expected to see Caje.  He must be more tired than he realized to have forgotten that he himself had sent Kirby to the point.  Hill and Tate were spaced about ten feet apart in a single file behind Kirby, Doc about ten feet behind them.  Noticing that he was practically treading on Doc's heels, he slowed down and backed off. 

          Hanley moved past him and on up towards the front of the column.  Using hand signals, he indicated a ten-minute rest stop.  Gratefully sinking to the ground, Saunders took a swig from his canteen and found his mind wandering again.  He remember when he and Tommy were trying to build a clubhouse and Sam kept getting in the way till they finally sent him home in tears of resentment. Tommy was calling to him and he wondered why he was using his last name instead of his first.

          Squatting down, Hanley spread his map out on a convenient log, and motioned for the men to gather around.  Kirby, Tate, Hill, and Doc crowded in close.  Saunders remained where he was, gazing into the distance.  Doc and Kirby exchanged worried looks when Hanley called him and got no response.  Stifling the urge to throw something at the sergeant, Hanley settled for calling him again.  What was wrong with him today?

          "Saunders!"  It wasn't Tommy calling him, it was Hanley.

          "Sir?"  He dragged himself back to the present.

          "I know you're tired, but if you wouldn't mind joining us?"

          Staggering to his feet, he knew he should resent the lieutenant talking to him like that in front of his men, but right now he was just too tired to care. Dropping to one knee beside the officer, he tried to concentrate as Hanley outlined his plans.

^^^

          

          "We're right here."  Hanley was saying.  "We'll head south along here and then work our way east toward this village.  It's marked as being abandoned, but we'll have to check it out anyway.  If we're lucky, we'll get the information we came for and grab a prisoner soon.  Kirby, you and Hill pair off.  Saunders, you take Tate.  I'll take the point,  Saunders, you and Tate bring up the rear.  Any questions?"

          After receiving negative head shakes, Hanley folded the map and stuck it back inside his jacket.  He waited while Kirby, Doc, and Saunders struggled to their feet, then headed out, glancing behind him as he did so.  Kirby and Hill were walking ten feet behind him, three feet apart.  Doc followed, with Saunders and Tate lagging behind him another ten feet.  Tate was alert, looking around with a combination of interest and apprehension while Saunders appeared lost in thought.  Hanley was beginning to really worry about the man.  There was definitely something bothering him.  The lieutenant hesitated a moment, then motioned the men to keep going while he stepped aside and waited for the sergeant to catch up.

          "Go on, Tate.  We'll catch up in a minute."

          "Yes, sir."  With a curious glance at his two superiors, he moved on to join the others who had slowed their pace.

          "Saunders."  Hanley said quietly.

          "Yes, sir?"

          "Something on your mind?"

          "No, sir."

          "Well, Sergeant, you'd better get something on your mind and I mean fast.  Get yourself together.  This is no place to daydream and you know it.  Straighten up and pay attention to the mission.  When we get home you can daydream all you want, but right now I want your undivided attention.  Do I make myself clear?" 

          Saunders stared at him, wondering how he managed to yell in a whisper.  At least it sounded like Hanley was yelling at him. 

          "I said, do I make myself clear?"  Hanley repeated furiously.

          "Yes, sir." 

          "This is the third time.  There will not be a fourth, will there?"

          "No, sir."

          Baffled at the behavior of his best sergeant, Hanley studied him for another moment, then nodded and returned to the head of the column.  Tate rejoined him, making no effort to talk to him. 

          With a concerted effort, Saunders closed away thoughts of home and old friends, forcing himself back into the present.  Quietly, he instructed Tate in the various duties involved in bringing up the rear.  Tate listened closely, asking few questions.

          Glancing over his shoulder to check on Saunders, Hanley found Kirby and Doc doing the same thing.  Great, he thought, now everyone was distracted by the sergeant's odd behavior.

^^^

          They had reached the southernmost point of the patrol and were swinging east when a single shot rang out and Tate crumpled to the ground.  Grabbing Hill's shoulder, Kirby thrust him to the ground behind a log, dropping beside him. Doc was under a bush, flat out on his stomach.  Saunders was facing the way they'd come, and Doc could hear a faint but steady stream of curses coming from his direction.   Hanley was scanning the trees for a sniper when Kirby's BAR chattered to life and a Kraut tumbled out of a tree behind them on the left. 

          "Kirby, Saunders, check it out."  Hanley called softly.

          Kirby jumped over Doc's legs, reaching Saunders just as he came off the ground, and the two vanished into the trees.  The others remained where they were, waiting.  A few minutes later, they returned and Saunders knelt at Tate's side.  Doc looked over at him and shook his head slowly.  Saunders removed Tate's dog tags and handed them to Hanley, who'd just joined them. 

          "Here, Lieutenant.  You'll need these."  His voice was taut with anger.

          "Did you check the Kraut's unit?"

          "Yeah.  241st, Lieutenant."  Kirby answered.

          "Let's move out."  Hanley turned and strode back to the head of the group.

          Kirby caught Doc's eye and raised an eyebrow, with a slight nod toward the sergeant.  Doc shrugged, picking his bag up from beside the dead soldier.  The small group moved on cautiously, Hill nervously scanning the area, subconsciously moving closer to Kirby. 

^^^

          

          A sudden burst of gunfire sent the group to the ground, scrambling for whatever cover they could find.  Hanley raised his head, quickly ducking back down when another burst tore into the leaves beside him.  Kirby opened up with his BAR and Hill's lighter M-1 was also firing.  Hearing nothing from Saunders' Thompson, Hanley twisted around to find the sergeant squirming into the bushes to the left, obviously intending to flank the Germans.  As a veteran soldier, he should know better than to move off without saying anything, Hanley thought.  Rolling to his right to better cover, Hanley started firing, hoping the sergeant kept his mind on what he was doing.  He heard a grunt of pain behind him, then heard Doc moving forward.  A grenade exploded ahead of them, then there was silence. Kirby rose slowly, moving forward past the lieutenant to check on the Germans.  A few minutes later, he and Saunders returned.

          "241st again, Lieutenant."  Kirby said, reaching for his canteen.

          Saunders walked slowly to where Doc was bending over Hill.  He stared down at the young soldier in silence, his expression bleak.

          "Doc?"  Hanley questioned.

          "He's dead, Lieutenant."  Doc answered quietly.

          "Damn it, Hanley!"  Saunders burst out.  "I told you to leave them behind and now they're both dead."

          "Take it easy, Sarge."  Doc urged.

          His face twisted with anger and something else, Saunders slammed the palm of his hand against Hanley's chest, knocking back a step.

          "That's four men dead today!"  Saunders shouted.  "Four kids!  I asked you to take someone else, but you had to bring these two and now they're dead!"

          Both Kirby and Doc stared in disbelief.  The sergeant was yelling at the lieutenant?  The sergeant actually struck the lieutenant?  Saunders?

          "Sergeant!"  The astounded officer finally found his voice.  "Be quiet!"

          "Are the next ones you kill gonna be in grade school?"  Saunders demanded.

          The enraged sergeant would bring the whole German Army down on them if he didn't do something, Hanley thought.  Dropping his carbine, Hanley seized the sergeant's jacket and shook him so hard that the camo helmet tumbled off.

          "Keep your voice down!"  He ordered.  "Shut your mouth and take the point."

          Snatching up the fallen helmet, he thrust it into Saunders' hands then gave him a shove in the right direction, watching as the man stumbled away.  Surely that couldn't have been tears he'd seen? 

          "Lieutenant?"  Kirby, at his shoulder, said quietly as he handed him the carbine.

          "What is it?"  Hanley said absently, still watching Saunders.

          "Hill was the younger brother of Saunders' friend from home.  The friend, Tommy, was killed a few weeks ago."

          "What?"  Hanley stared at Kirby, then down at the dead soldier.

          Nervously, Kirby repeated himself. 

          "I see."  Hanley shook his head.  "Let's go."

          That certainly explained the sergeant's behavior.  If Saunders had just told him....it wouldn't have made any difference.  He would still have had to go with the men he had.  He would have to see that Saunders got a rest when they got home, one way or another.   Without asking, he knew that neither Kirby nor Doc would mention what they'd just witnessed. 

^^^

          

          Saunders pushed his way through the bushes, his emotions plunging from fury to despair to sadness and back to anger.  He was fed up with war, with watching young kids die, with watching friends die.  The brass sat at the rear, nice and safe, while ordering other men to die.  He nearly fell over a log  as he suddenly realized what he had just done.  He couldn't believe he'd just yelled at the lieutenant.  My God, he'd struck the lieutenant!  He'd accused him of killing the men!  Well, he wanted rest.  He just hadn't planned to get it in the stockade.

          Ahead of him, he saw three Krauts standing close together, smoking and talking, apparently unaware of his approach.  The lieutenant said he wanted a prisoner, hadn't he? Alright, he'd get him his prisoner.  Swinging his Thompson around, he cut loose, sending one of the Krauts spinning down to the ground.  The other two whirled around, returning fire.  He felt something hit him, but felt no pain as he continued to fire.  Running forward through a hail of bullets that miraculously missed him, he fired at the German on the left, experiencing a sense of satisfaction as his bullets tore into the man's chest.  Turning his attention to the remaining Kraut, he found him on his knees, his hands in the air, shaking with terror.  Hell, he thought, he isn't any older than Sammy is.  Was, he amended.

          Motioning the Kraut to his feet, Saunders jerked the man's belt off and threw it to the side, then pushed the young soldier back toward the rest of the squad.  The lieutenant stopped, Doc and Kirby on either side of him, as Saunders herded the German toward them.

          "Here's your prisoner, Lieutenant."  Saunders said, surprised to suddenly find himself on his knees.

          "Sergeant?"  Doc's voice came from a great distance.

          He saw Hanley's hand reaching toward him and wondered if he was going to actually hit him this time instead of just shaking him.  With mild interest, he watched the trees start to spin and Hanley's face dissolve into Sammy's dead face, then he tasted dirt and realized he was lying on his face.  He could hear Doc's and Kirby's voices, but couldn't make out what they were saying, then there was nothing.

^^^

          

          Hanley shoved the German at Kirby and knelt by the sergeant, gently turning him onto his back.  Doc nudged him aside to examine the bloody wound just above Saunders' belt.  Hanley rose and backed out of the way.  Arriving just in time to see Saunders' foolhardy run at the Germans, he'd heard him shouting that this one was for Sammy.  Many times, he'd been told that once a man lost it, he rarely made it back.  He didn't want to believe it about this man.  He didn't want to believe he was partly responsible.

          "Doc?"  Holding the Kraut's arm firmly, Kirby glanced at the lieutenant silently staring down at Saunders, then at the medic.  "How is he?"

          "It's not too bad.  Mostly shock and exhaustion.  Help me rig a litter when I get this bandaged, will you?"

          "Sure." 

          They built a litter using their jackets while the still-silent officer watched the prisoner, then they had the German carry the front of the litter while Doc took the back.  Hanley took the point while Kirby walked beside  Doc, his BAR covering the prisoner.

          "Doc?"  Kirby said softly.

          "Is he okay?"

          "Sure.  It's really just a flesh wound."

          "Not the sarge.  The lieutenant.  He hasn't said a word since Saunders got it."

          "I don't know, Kirby."  Doc said soberly.

^^^

          It wasn't until they reached home that the lieutenant finally spoke.

          "Kirby, Doc, take him to the aid station.  I'll take the prisoner."

          "Yes, sir."  Kirby answered, taking the German's place on the litter.

          They watched Hanley lead the prisoner away, then headed for the aid station.  Caje, Littlejohn, and Billy, their cots lined up side by side, all raised up when Kirby and Doc came in with their burden.

          "The sarge?"  Caje was the first to speak.  "How bad?"

          "He'll be alright.  I think."  Doc answered as the doctor hurried over.

          "I'm gonna find someplace to sleep for a week, Doc."  Kirby sighed, rubbing a weary hand over his face.

          "Yeah, me too."  Doc agreed.

          Twelve hours later, the two of them returned to the aid station.  Caje was smoking a cigarette while Littlejohn and Billy were talking quietly.

          "Hey, where's Saunders?"  Doc asked, looking around.

          "Over there, in the corner."  Caje answered.

          "How is he?"

          "The doctor says he's okay.  He's still sleeping."

          "What about you guys?"  Kirby asked.

          "We get out of here tomorrow."  Littlejohn grinned.

^^^

          

          Saunders lay still, listening to the voices around him.  He picked out Hanley's deep voice, Doc's soft drawl, and the voice of someone he didn't know.

          "He's been asleep for over twenty-four hours, doctor."  Hanley was saying.  "Are you sure he's alright?"

          "Yes, Lieutenant."  The unknown voice replied patiently.  "For the fourth time, he's fine. He was worn out on top of losing blood.  All he needs is rest."

          "I'll go tell the others, Lieutenant."  Doc said, and Saunders heard him walking  away.

          "Lieutenant?"  The doctor asked.

          "I'll sit with him for awhile."

          "He's asleep.  He won't know you're here."

          "I know."

          The doctor walked away and Hanley settled down on the edge of the cot.  Might as well get it over with, Saunders thought resignedly and opened his eyes.  Hanley was gazing into the distance, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.

          "Lieutenant?"  Saunders said quietly.  Apparently not quietly enough, for the lieutenant jumped, nearly falling off the cot.

          "Welcome back, Sergeant.  How do you feel?" 

          He had his inscrutable face on and Saunders couldn't tell what he was thinking.

          "Am I up on charges, sir?"

          "Charges?  For what?"  Hanley looked surprised.

          "Insubordination, for a start."

          "No, Sergeant.  You are not up on charges.  I don't recall any instance of insubordination."

          "What about striking an officer?"

          "You were angry.  You were gesturing and I got in your way."  Hanley shrugged.

          Saunders opened his mouth, thought better of it, and shut it again, causing Hanley to grin.

          "I asked how you're feeling, Sergeant?"

          "I'm okay, sir."

          "Uh-huh.  Sure you are.  As soon as you get yourself kicked out of here, you and your squad are due for a week's furlough."

          "A week?"  Saunders repeated, not sure he'd heard right.

          "That's right.  A week's furlough.  You get some rest and get that side healed up.  I'll be back later."

          With a slight feeling of unreality, Saunders watched him walk away, whistling.  A week's furlough, huh?  He sure wasn't going to argue with that, he thought as he lay back with a sigh.

Copyright 2001

 

Story Copyright Mary Wright. All Rights Reserved.

Read more Dogface Tales by Mary:
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The CombatFan web site thanks Mary (aka "EagleLady") for letting us share these fan fiction stories on this web site.

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