No Greater Love
"Sarge!" Littlejohn stared at Saunders in shock. "You can't do that!"
Saunders looked at the men behind the protesting soldier. Caje lay on his back, his left leg almost entirely wrapped in bandages. Kirby sat with his back against a tree, his right shoulder and side covered with bandages, his face pale and lined with pain.
Saunders drew Littlejohn several feet away, out of hearing range of the injured men. "They can't move very fast. If we try to carry them, we'll all be caught. You know what Caje and Kirby can expect from the Krauts. I'll get them to chase me while you, Doc, and Nelson get Caje and Kirby home. I don't care what you hear; you keep going. Got it?"
"But, Sarge..." Littlejohn started to say.
"That's an order, Littlejohn. You're in charge. Get them home. You got that?" Saunders growled.
"Yeah, Sarge, I got it. I don't like it, but I got it."
"Get them ready, Littlejohn." Saunders clapped him on the shoulder.
"Yeah?" Saunders sighed.
"Take care of yourself." Littlejohn said soberly.
"Always. You just make sure you get them home."
Saunders watched his men as they prepared to move out, well aware that he might never see them again. Littlejohn and Nelson squatted at either end of the makeshift litter that Caje lay on. Doc had Kirby's left arm over his shoulder. All four men were looking back at Saunders.
"Give me five minutes, then go." Saunders raised a hand in farewell, then turned and trotted away into the trees.
"All right, let's get these guys home." Littlejohn reluctantly ordered five minutes later.
Saunders checked his ammunition as he moved away from his men, his mind racing ahead as he planned his moves. His men had to head south and west to get back to safety, so he had to lead the Krauts northeast. Right toward the German lines. It wasn't the greatest idea he'd ever had, but it was the only way his men had a chance. His finger on the trigger of his Thompson, he slowed his pace until he was within shooting distance of the German patrol.
Taking cover behind a large tree, he loosed off a burst of fire towards the Germans, pleasantly surprised to see one of them go down. He ducked behind the tree as the Germans returned fire then released another salvo before he turned and ran, making no effort to be quiet as he ran. As he hoped, the patrol gave chase. He paused to fire a few shots more to keep them interested than in hope of actually hitting anyone.
When a couple German bullets cut the leaves above his head, he decided that discretion might be the best way of staying alive and ran. As thick as the trees were in this area, he didn't have to worry about the German bullets hitting him as much as he had to worry about running into one of the trees or tripping over an exposed root. He glanced at his watch to find that nine minutes had passed. The men should have been moving for four now. With the speed they were making heading home and the speed he and the Krauts were making going the opposite direction, he figured that if he could keep ahead of them for another fifteen minutes or so, they'd be far enough away that he could circle around and head for home himself.
With a heavy heart, Littlejohn lifted his end of the litter and waited for Nelson to lift the other. Every fiber of his being screamed to go after the sergeant; it wasn't right for him to sacrifice himself like that. There had to be a way that the two injured men could get back to safety and Sarge could get some backup, but for the life of him, he couldn't think of a thing. Doc and Kirby patiently waited for several minutes while Littlejohn stood there.
"Littlejohn?" Doc finally questioned quietly.
Littlejohn shook himself and started walking. A few minutes later, they all paused when the shooting started then Littlejohn resolutely moved on.
"Wait a minute." Kirby said.
"What's the matter?" Littlejohn asked without stopping.
"Let Doc take the litter and one of you go help Sarge. I can make it without help."
Littlejohn stopped and looked at Doc, who shook his head slightly, then studied Kirby for a long moment. His face was a pasty white, filmed with sweat, and he was swaying despite the support Doc gave him.
"No." Littlejohn shook his head. "Sarge gave me orders to take all of you back. That's what I'm doing. All of you."
"But, Littlejohn..." Kirby started to argue.
"You heard me, Kirby." Littlejohn snapped. "Sarge put me in charge and gave me orders. I don't like it any better than you do, but that's what he said to do and that's what I'm going to do. Now shut up and keep moving."
"I think we oughta vote on it." Kirby persisted.
"Kirby, this isn't an election." Caje said hoarsely. "Don't make it any harder on Littlejohn than it already is."
"Yeah? It's easy for you to talk; all you've gotta do is lay there!"
Doc stared at him in stunned silence; his jaw hanging open, then snapped it shut in anger and disgust. "Kirby!" He barked. "That was way outta line! Caje wants to help the Sarge as much as you do; as much as Littlejohn or Nelson or me. None of us like leaving him back there but we all have to follow orders."
"All of you shut up and start walking!" Littlejohn ordered angrily.
"Caje, I..." Kirby started to apologize, stopping when Caje turned his face away. "Doc..."
"Can it, Kirby." Doc said coldly. "Just walk and don't talk."
They moved on in miserable, strained silence with their ears and hearts attuned to the shooting behind them.
Saunders clambered up the slope, hoping to get over the ridge before they spotted him. As he topped the ridge, a burning stab of pain in his side, just above his belt, made him stumble and he fell, rolling down the slope to crash into the base of a tree. Gasping for breath, he sat up, gingerly feeling his side. Relieved to find a minor flesh wound, he used the tree to pull himself to his feet. Taking cover behind a larger tree, he waited until the first two Krauts crossed the ridge then opened fire. When the rest ducked for cover, he ran again. Fifty feet further on, he suddenly burst out of the sheltering trees into an open meadow-like area. Grabbing a grenade off of his belt, he pulled the pin and threw it as far as he could, following it with a quick burst of bullets. With the metallic taste of fear in his mouth, he sprinted across the meadow; managing to make it all the way across before the enemy cleared the trees.
Throwing himself down into a coulee, he took a quick drink of water then checked his watch. His men had been on the move for twenty minutes now and should be well on their way. Now all he had to do was lose the Krauts and make his way home. Twisting around, he took at good look at the area. That tree over there might work, he thought. It had a branch low enough to reach and good thick leaves a little higher up. If he could get up there without leaving any tell-tale signs before they caught up with him, he could wait till they passed by or gave up, then head for home.
Slinging his Thompson over his shoulder, he ripped the first aid kit off of his belt and stuffed a wad of bandage inside his shirt then lifted and tightened his belt to secure it. Taking one last look behind him, he ran for the tree and jumped up to grab the branch, gasping at the pain in his side. Gritting his teeth, he swung himself up and over the branch then scrambled higher into the tree. He sat on a branch halfway up and wedged himself against the trunk with his feet braced on a lower branch with his Thompson ready in his lap. A few minutes later, he heard them coming and concentrated on controlling his breathing.
To his dismay, the German sergeant waved his men to the ground for a rest directly underneath him. Sweat ran into his eyes making them sting but he didn't dare move while the inaction after the burst of adrenalin had his leg muscles cramping and the wound in his side was beginning to throb. One of the Germans below him stopped suddenly with his canteen halfway to his mouth. To his horror, Saunders saw a red droplet on the soldier's hand. Dropping the canteen, the soldier snatched up his rifle and threw himself over on his back with the rifle aimed up at Saunders. Realizing that he had no chance of survival if he tried to shoot the German, Saunders raised his hands, holding the Thompson by the barrel. The German sergeant moved over to stand below the tree, looking up at him.
"Drop your weapon, American." He said in perfect English.
Moving slowly, Saunders dropped the gun down to the sergeant's waiting hands.
"Come down. Slowly."
Saunders carefully climbed down to the lowest branch; the Germans backing out of his way. He grasped the branch and swung himself to the ground, landed heavily and sprawled on his injured side with a gasp of pain.
"Stand up, Sergeant." The German sergeant ordered.
He pushed himself to his knees, then to his feet. When he put his weight on his left foot, a shot of red-hot pain shot through his ankle and he staggered against the tree. The sergeant grabbed the shoulder of his jacket and shoved his back against the tree. After taking his sidearm, the German jerked his jacket open and glanced at the bloody wound in his side before searching his pockets.
"Where are your men?" He asked conversationally.
"Saunders. Sergeant. 2270622."
"Come now, Sergeant. We know that you had at least three men with you. Where are they?"
"Saunders. Sergeant 2270622." Saunders repeated.
"Your wound needs care, and you appear to have injured your leg. We would be happy to take care of your injuries. After you tell me what I want to know."
"Saunders. Sergeant." He broke off with a grunt of pain when the sergeant backhanded him against the tree.
"You have one more chance, Sergeant. Where are your men?"
Saunders remained silent, leaning against the tree to take the weight off of his left foot.
"Very well. Have it your way." He twisted his hand in Saunders' jacket and pulled him away from the tree. "Start walking, American."
One hand clutching his side and limping heavily, Saunders moved off with the Krauts ranged behind him. To his surprise, they were heading back the way they'd come.
Littlejohn stopped abruptly, lowering the litter to the ground a little less gently than Caje would have preferred, then motioned the others down. They waited tensely; unable to see whatever he was looking at.
"Stay here." Littlejohn told them as he cautiously moved forward.
A few minutes later, he came back on the run, followed by three American soldiers.
"These guys will take Caje and Kirby to the aid station. Nelson, Doc and me are going back for the Sarge." He grinned.
"I'm coming too." Kirby declared.
"Like hell you are." One of the newcomers said. "You're going to the aid station."
Kirby opened his mouth then realized that the man was a lieutenant and quickly shut it again. Littlejohn knelt by Caje and clasped his shoulder.
"They'll take care of you guys." He assured him.
"You take care of yourselves." Caje managed a weak smile. "And bring back the Sarge."
"We will." Nelson promised, shifting from foot to foot in his eagerness to get going.
"Let's go." Littlejohn led off at a trot, the other two at his heels. He didn't stop to rest until they were almost back where they'd started, then called a two- minute break.
"What do you have in mind, Littlejohn?" Nelson panted, fumbling with his canteen.
"Well, I'm pretty sure that Sarge headed northeast since we went southwest. From the sound of the shooting, I'd guess that the Krauts followed him. I figured to follow them. Hopefully, we'll find Saunders before the Krauts do. With luck, we'll run into each other without meeting any of the Krauts. Doc, you stay behind us and both of you keep your eyes and ears open."
He led off, moving cautiously, alert for any indication of the missing sergeant or the Germans. A short time later, he motioned the others down and crouched behind a berry bush, listening.
"On your feet, American." The voice carried faintly through the trees.
Using hand signals, Littlejohn ordered the others to move forward quietly and slowly. A moment later, the three of them bellied down behind a log. About thirty feet away, Saunders was just pulling himself to his feet with the aid of a small tree. A German sergeant and four others surrounded him, waiting. Saunders lurched forward, clinging to trees to support himself as he hobbled along. Nelson started to lift his rifle but Littlejohn made a quick chopping motion with his hand to stop him.
"We have to wait. Might hit Saunders." Littlejohn breathed in Nelson's ear, receiving an acknowledging nod in return. Looking past Nelson, Littlejohn saw that Doc had his hands so tightly fisted in the grass that his knuckles were white, his gaze intent on the injured sergeant.
Waiting until they had moved on, Littlejohn rose to his feet and motioned the others to follow him.
"What are you planning?" Nelson asked.
"We'll try to get ahead of them. If we can get Sarge's attention without the Krauts noticing, we'll signal him to get down, then get the Krauts."
"And if we can't get his attention?" Doc asked.
"The way he looks, he's gonna fall down again soon. We can get them then. I hope." He glanced at the other two. "Got any better ideas?"
"No." Nelson shook his head.
"Me either." Doc admitted.
"Okay, let's go."
Saunders closed his eyes and shook his head to clear it, nearly falling in the process. When the sergeant had hit him back there, his head had slammed into the tree trunk and he had a massive headache. His side throbbed as sweat ran into the wound, his ankle felt like it was on fire and he was incredibly thirsty. In the process of grabbing onto a tree trunk, he managed a look at his watch. Unless they had run into trouble, his men should be home by now. That was one thing he didn't have to worry about.
Trying to ignore his discomfort, he concentrated on trying to figure out why they were headed back toward the American lines instead of toward the German lines. Maybe the lines had shifted again. Maybe they had a observation post or a command post that the Americans didn't know about.
He shook his head again, certain that he had just caught a glimpse of Littlejohn moving through the trees on the right. He must be hallucinating or something. Littlejohn was back home with the rest of the squad. He was alone out here. Nobody knew he'd been captured. Nobody had any idea where he was. Nobody was going to rescue him. He was going to end up in a prisoner of war camp - if they didn't kill him. With a bum ankle, a bleeding hole in his side and no weapon, there was no chance of escape.
He wondered vaguely who would replace him as squad leader. Maybe they'd promote one of the squad members. No, they'd probably bring in some replacement. He hoped the squad would accept him and make as good a team as they had been.
The lieutenant would have to write a letter to his family. Would he be listed as MIA or dead? He hoped Hanley would be able to break the news gently. His sister was young enough that she would get over it soon, but his mom would take the news hard. He wished he could send one last letter to tell them how much he loved them.
His eyes widened as he realized that he was looking at Nelson, standing against a tree trunk in deep shade. Nelson was staring at him, and Saunders slowly registered the fact that his hand was moving, but he couldn't get his eyes to focus on the young soldier's hand. Watching Nlson, Saunders stepped on a rock and his left ankle buckled, throwing him to the ground on his face. He instinctively burrowed into the ground as gunfire erupted above his head. A heavy weight crashed onto his legs then a hand closed on his shoulder.
"Take it easy, Sarge." Littlejohn said. "I'll be right back."
The weight was lifted off of his legs and he heard Littlejohn yell for Doc as he closed his eyes in relief. He felt someone roll him onto his back and opened his eyes to see Doc's concerned face hovering above him.
"Doc?" He asked, not sure if he was really seeing him.
"Yeah, Sarge, it's me. Take it easy while I check you out." Doc said reassuringly.
Saunders lay still, staring at the leaves above him dancing in the slight breeze. Doc cleaned and bandaged his side, then eased his boot off and wrapped his ankle firmly before replacing the boot. Littlejohn suddenly loomed above him, grinning.
"What are you doing here?" Saunders demanded, then coughed as his dry throat closed up.
"Here, Sarge, take a drink." Doc lifted his head and shoulders to give him a welcome drink of cool water.
"We met up with a lieutenant and his men. They took Caje and Kirby back, and the lieutenant gave us permission to come back for you. So here we are." Littlejohn shrugged.
"Guess Hanley won't have to write that letter after all." Saunders muttered.
"What was that?" Doc asked, puzzled.
"Nothing. Get me out of here, will you?" Saunders asked with a grin.