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Purple Hearts - Combat! Fan Fiction

 

 

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TRUST

Combat! Fan Fiction
by
Mary Wright "Eagle Lady"

eaglelady80010@netzero.net

 

          Sgt. Saunders held himself under rigid control, at full attention, his face devoid of expression, although he could not control the angry flush suffusing his face.  His CO, Lieutenant Hanley, was in the process of thoroughly chewing him out - in front of the captain from Item Company. 
          Once again, Kirby had gotten in trouble.  He and a soldier from Item had gotten into a brawl over a woman in one of the villages.  Saunders had been there; the Item Company captain had not.  The Item Company man had insulted Kirby in front of the woman, implying that he couldn't perform.  When Kirby had replied in kind, the Item Company soldier had hit him.  Kirby hit him back and they pretty well tore up the place before Saunders could get it stopped.  The Item Company sergeant had ordered them to stop, and Kirby apparently ignored the order.  He hadn't heard it.  The Item Company man had popped him good on one ear, and the woman was clinging to his back, screaming in the other ear.  Saunders had to physically put him on the floor, and it was a good hour before Kirby could hear properly again.

*  *  *

          "Sergeant Saunders, do you deny that Private Kirby was involved in a fight, again?"  Hanley demanded angrily.
          "No, sir."  Saunders had to answer.
          "Do you deny that he ignored an order from a superior?"  The captain demanded.
          "No, sir, but..."
          "Yes or no, soldier!" 
          "No, sir."
          "Do you deny that you had to physically stop him from fighting?"
          "No, sir."
          "There you have it, Lieutenant.  I'm putting Kirby up for court martial.  I also understand it is not the first time."  The captain turned on Saunders.  "You are his squad leader.  Do you agree that is a court martial offense?"
          "Yes, sir."  He answered reluctantly.
          "Do you have anything to say, Sergeant?"  Hanley asked.  "As his squad leader, you do have the right to attempt to defend him."
          "Sir, I cannot excuse what he did.  However, I don't believe the captain was there, and therefore is not aware of the circumstances."  He replied stiffly.
          "The circumstances were reported to me."  The captain snapped.
          "By whom, sir?"
          "Private Wilson."
          "Private Wilson!"  Hanley stared at the captain.  "Wilson is totally unfamiliar with the meaning of the word truth, sir.  Surely, you are aware of his justified reputation for gossip of the most malicious type."
          "No, I am not."
          "Perhaps we should hear Sergeant Saunders' report."
          Wishing heartily that he was somewhere else, and that they would let him stand down, Saunders started his report.

*  *  *

          "Hey, guys.  Your sergeant is really getting it from the lieutenant."
          Saunders' squad, except for Caje who was on guard duty, looked up their card game at the private standing in the doorway of the bombed out building they were in.
          "What for?"  Littlejohn asked.
          "That fight Kirby was in the other day."  Wilson grinned.
          "Yeah?  What's he saying?"  Kirby asked.
          "Well, I didn't hear all of it.  But Hanley was yelling at Saunders about not being able to control his men, and that he thought Saunders was a better squad leader than that.  Saunders agreed that you were in the fight, that you ignored an order, that he had to physically stop you, and that it was a court martial offense.  Oops, gotta go, my sarge is hollering for me."
          He disappeared and the squad looked at each other in dismay.
          "I can't believe the sarge would do that."  Littlejohn said.
          "Wilson heard him."  Kirby snapped, upset that Saunders hadn't stood up for him.  "He's always been tough, but to not stand up for his own men?"  Kirby conveniently ignored the fact that if he hadn't been fighting again, there would be nothing for Saunders to defend.

*  *  *

          "That's it, Captain."  Saunders finally finished.
          "Do you believe him, Lieutenant?"
          "Why don't you call in Wilson's sergeant and ask him about Wilson before you decide?"
          "I think I'll do that."  The captain stepped outside, grabbed the first soldier he saw, and sent him for the sergeant.
          Saunders remained at attention while the two officers drank coffee and smoked while waiting for the sergeant, who showed up nearly ten minutes later.
          "Sergeant, tell me about Wilson."  The captain said.
          "What do you want to know about him, sir?"  The sergeant asked warily.
          "I've been informed that he is responsible for a certain amount of malicious gossip around camp.  Is that true?"
          "Well, sir, "  He hesitated.
          "Sergeant, a man's career hangs in the balance here.  Can I or can I not trust Wilson to tell the truth?"  The captain snapped impatiently.
          "You can not, Sir."  The sergeant admitted reluctantly.
          "Thank you, Sergeant.  You will not repeat this conversation."
          "No, sir."
          "Dismissed."  When the sergeant was gone, the captain turned to Hanley.  "I'm sorry, Lieutenant.  The matter will be dropped.  I will have a discussion with Private Wilson.  My apologies, Sergeant."
          The captain left and Hanley nodded at Saunders.
          "At ease, Sergeant."
          Saunders relaxed slowly, muscles stiff from over half an hour at attention.
          "Thank you, sir."  He said formally.
          "As I was starting to say before the captain stormed in, I'm sending your squad on a recon mission up north.  There are reports of small groups of Germans moving up.  Check it out and come back.  Do not engage if you can help it.  We don't want them to know we know about them."
          "Yes, sir."  Saunders came to attention and saluted, a telling indication of his anger since he didn't usually do more than nod.  "Is that all, sir?"
          "One more thing, Saunders.  This incident with Kirby will not be discussed with anyone."
          "Yes, sir."

*  *  *

          Saunders did a precise, parade-ground about face and left.  He was furious with Kirby, furious with Wilson, furious with the captain, and furious with Hanley for dressing him down in front of the captain.  He had to admit, though, that he was equally hurt and disappointed by Hanley.  They'd known each other for a long time, hit the beach together, and worked with and trusted each other - or so he'd thought.  The least Hanley could have done was ask for his report before he let the captain chew him out.  He could also have apologized.
          Clenched fists thrust deep in his pockets, he headed for the squad.  He could hear them laughing and talking as he approached; laughter and talk which ceased abruptly as he came in. Caje, who'd obviously recently arrived, was eating a short distance from the others who were gathered around a card game.  Kirby looked up, his eyes hard, cold, and accusing. Obviously, someone, probably Wilson, had told them about the meeting he'd just left.
          "Saddle up.  We're moving out in five minutes."  Saunders said.
          "We heard that the Lieutenant was chewing you out.  And you agreed with him.  You didn't stick up for me, Sarge!  Just let Hanley send me to a court martial!"  Kirby accused angrily.
          There was an echoing chorus from the other men, except Caje, who sat listening with his mouth open.  Disappointment and hurt flooded Saunders again and he suddenly felt cold and alone.  Even his men, whom he'd led for so long, believed the worst of him without bothering to ask if it was true.
          "I said saddle up!"  He snapped, his voice cold and hard.  "Five minutes."
          Turning on his heel, he stepped back outside to wait, to try to control his emotions, to clear his mind for the mission.  Usually, it was no problem, but this time, it was next to impossible.  He was checking his ammo belt when Caje joined him.
          "What was that all about?"  Caje asked in bewilderment.
          "Forget it."  Saunders said bitterly.  " Just forget it."
          "But, Sarge..."
          "I said, forget it."  Saunders snapped.
          With thirty seconds to spare, the rest of the squad came out, refusing to look at Saunders.
          "We're moving north on a recon.  There're reports of small groups of Germans moving around up there.  Do not engage unless we have to.  If we do, disengage and head home as soon as possible.  Doc, you stay here.  The rest of you move out.  Caje, you take the point."  Saunders voice was hard, flat, and brooked no argument.

          *  *  *

          Doc started to open his mouth then thought better of it, and watched in silence as the men trooped out; Caje in the lead, Kirby, Littlejohn and Billy in the middle, Saunders bringing up the rear.  They'd been gone nearly ten minutes when the lieutenant came in.
          "Doc?  What are you doing here?"
          "Sarge told me to stay put."  He hesitated.  "Lieutenant?  Can I ask what happened?"
          "What do you mean?"
          "Well, sir, Sarge came in loaded for bear.  Kirby jumped him about not standing up for him and Sarge, well, he got mad and gave them five minutes to move out."
          "Sorry, Doc.  I can't discuss it."
          "Yes, sir."  Doc accepted the rebuff easily, wandering outside.
          Hanley stood still for a long minute then headed back for his office. He sighed and sat down, wiping a hand down his face.
          "What's wrong, Hanley?"  Captain Jempel asked, startling him.
           "I'm afraid that I destroyed a friendship and a trust, and I might not ever get either back.  And I'll have nobody to blame but myself."  He stopped, looking at his hands.
          Jempel hitched a hip on the corner of a table and studied his young lieutenant.
          "Want to talk about it?"
          The captain listened without interruption while Hanley told him the whole story.
          "I should have apologized immediately, Captain."
          "We all do things we either wish we hadn't or don't do things we should have. It's part of being human.  But it's not too late, Lieutenant.  By the time they get back, he'll have cooled off and you can talk to him then."
          "If they get back."  Hanley said morosely.
          "What do you mean?"  The captain looked at him sharply.  "It's just a recon, right?"
          "It is a recon, sir.  But from what Doc said, the squad doesn't trust him anymore.  A squad that doesn't have trust is in trouble.  Thanks for listening, sir."  He stood up the captain rose to leave.
          "Any time, Lieutenant.  They'll be okay, I'm sure."
          "I wish I was." 

*  *  *

          Saunders followed his squad, trying to keep his mind on the job at hand.  Up ahead, he could hear Kirby whining and complaining.  Littlejohn and Billy were listening, occasionally agreeing with something Kirby said, none of them paying much attention to their jobs.  Saunders' temper finally snapped and he increased his pace to catch up with Kirby, catching him by the arm and spinning the startled man around.
          "Listen, Private."  He ground out, his face inches from Kirby's.  "I don't give a damn what you think of me, but you are on a mission and you will damn well act like it!  Keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open.  Your big mouth is endangering the whole squad.  One more word from you that doesn't concern the mission, and you'll wish you'd never met me."
          "Too late."  Kirby snapped without thinking, also thoroughly angry.
          Saunders stared at him for a moment, his face going white, then red with fury while the rest of them held their breath.  "Put in for a transfer when we get back.  In the meantime, keep your mouth shut and do your job. That goes for the rest of you, too. You got that?"  He growled.
          "Yeah.  I got it, Sergeant."  He emphasized the title sarcastically.
          Barely controlling his urge to slug the man, Saunders gave him a shove instead.
          "Move out."  He ordered.
          The men moved on in silence, and Saunders dropped back to the rear, shaking his head.  He had to get a grip on it.  He usually had better control than that.  A short time later, Caje gave the signal to hit the ground.  Kirby, the last man in line at the time, didn't bother to pass it on; half assuming the sergeant would see them drop, and half not caring whether he did or not.  Kirby figured he deserved what he got, the lousy so and so.            
          Saunders, who had turned to check behind them, did not see the signal or the squad drop.  When he turned around, he had just enough time to realize the squad wasn't there before something slammed into his right shoulder with the force of a pile driver.  As his body spun in response to the force of the blow, he vaguely felt another bullet slam into his leg.  He went down hard, his Tommy gun bouncing several feet away.  Trying to ignore the overwhelming pain, he dragged himself to the shelter of a fallen log, wincing at the bullets hitting around him. 
          "Where's Sarge?"  He heard Littlejohn ask from up ahead.
          "Who cares?"  Kirby snapped.  "He's got a gun, don't he?"
          Saunders looked longingly at his gun laying several feet away.  Even if he were physically able to get to it, he'd get cut down before he ever reached it.  He lay there in the rotting leaves, unable to move, shivering with shock.  Normally, he knew his men would be back for him as soon as they could, but today, he wouldn't bet on it.  Today, he was on his own. The Germans were a lot closer to the American lines than anyone thought, and he had to stop this patrol and get the information back to the lieutenant right away.  If there was one patrol, there were bound to be more.  
          He fumbled for his first aid kit, but it dropped from his hand and rolled away from him down the slight slope he lay on.  He stared at it a moment, then shrugged.  No men, no bandages, no gun. He still had his grenades, though, so he started crawling, figuring he could flank the Germans. He made it all of three feet before his foot caught on something, sending waves of red-hot pain through his leg. His last conscious thought before the blackness took the pain away was that he never expected to make it home from this war anyway.

 *  *  *

          Up ahead, Caje was so enraged that he was shaking as he squirmed back through the bushes, past Littlejohn and Billy till he reached Kirby.  He grabbed Kirby by the front of the jacket, exactly the way that Saunders had been known to, and shook the smaller man violently.
          "What the hell is the matter with you, Kirby?"  He whispered furiously.            "That's Saunders out there, maybe wounded."
          "I don't care."  Kirby retorted defiantly.  "He didn't stand up for me to the Lieutenant.  Why should I stick my neck out for him?"
          "What are you talking about?"  Caje demanded.
          "The Lieutenant was chewing him out and he didn't stand up for me.  He just agreed with him, and agreed that I should be court martialed."
          "Were you there?"
          "No."  He admitted.
          "So someone had to tell you, right?  Who?"
          "Wilson.  He heard them."
          "Wilson!  You know damn well he couldn't tell the truth to save his own life, Kirby!  If it was because of that fight in the village a few days ago, you know what you did was wrong.  You weren't even supposed to be in town.  I heard Saunders tell you to stay in camp.  You were AWOL, and you were in a fight.  You were wrong from the get-go.  Did you even bother to ask Saunders his side of it?  I bet not.  Remember what he said to you back there?  About putting in for a transfer?  If you are being court martialed, you don't get transferred.  Maybe, just maybe, you got lucky and they weren't going to court martial you."  He stopped, horrified by the thought that just struck him.  "You didn't bother to pass on the signal, did you?"
          "He was right behind us.  He could see us drop."  Kirby defended himself.
          "Kirby!"  Littlejohn stared at him in disbelief.
          "If he's wounded or dead, Kirby, it's your fault."  Billy told him furiously.
          "There's only a couple Krauts left.  You guys take care of 'em."  Caje ordered.
          "Where you going?"  Littlejohn asked.
          "Where do you think?  To find the Sarge."  Caje snapped, disgusted with all of them.
          A few seconds later, he had slipped soundlessly away.

*  *  *

          He found the unconscious sergeant simply enough by crawling around the log and running into his legs.  Saunders lay on half on his side, his head pillowed on his left arm. Ripping the first-aid kit off his own belt, he hastily dressed and bandaged the leg wound, then gently rolled him onto his back, silently cursing Kirby when he discovered the second wound.  Saunders came to as he was working on his shoulder. 
          "Leave me be."  He tried to push Caje's hands away.
          "Sarge, be quiet."  Caje whispered, clapping a hand over Saunders' mouth. "Lay still."
          "Caje?"  He mumbled when Caje moved his hand.
          "Yeah, Sarge.  It's me."
          "Leave me here.  You can come back for me later.  Get the information back to Hanley."
          "We'll make it with you and the information."
          "I said, leave me!"  He was tired of fighting, tired of the war, tired of being responsible for other lives.  All he wanted to do was sleep.  "Leave me here."
          "Come on, Sarge."  Caje stared at him in shock.  In all the months he'd been with Saunders, this was the first time he'd ever seen the sergeant give up.  He was always the one encouraging others, reassuring soldiers they were going to be okay even though he knew they were dying.  He'd like to throttle Kirby for doing this to him.  "You're going to make it back okay."
          "Why bother?"  Saunders whispered.  "Leave me alone."
          He laid his arm across his eyes to shut Caje out, refusing to respond to anything he said.  Caje suddenly realized it was quiet up ahead, then he heard someone trying to move quietly through the bushes.  Crouching protectively over the injured man, Caje rested his rifle on the tree trunk, waiting.  That bulk could only belong to Littlejohn and he could see the other two following him.  He called to them softly and they joined him, staring down at Saunders.
          "How is he?"  Kirby asked miserably.
          "What do you care?"  Caje snapped at him.  "Stay away from him.  Did you get all the Krauts?"
          "Yeah."  Billy answered absently.
          "Did you check?"
          "Yeah, Caje.  We checked.  There were four of 'em.  We got 'em all."
           "Okay.  Billy, find something to rig a stretcher."
          "Sarge?"  Littlejohn knelt beside him, placing a gentle hand on his good shoulder.
          "Leave me be, I said."  Saunders tried to shrug off the hand, groaning at the resulting pain.  "Go back and leave me be."
          Billy and Littlejohn looked at each other in dismay, then glared at Kirby who was standing several feet away.  Littlejohn looked around at the tangle of bushes and trees they'd come through, and handed Billy his rifle.
          "It's too close in here for a stretcher.  I'll carry him."
          Caje nodded and stood up.  When Littlejohn started to slide his hands under him, Saunders grabbed his wrist to stop him.
          "I said leave me be. Get back to the lieutenant.  That's an order."  His grip on Littlejohn's wrist fell away as his voice faded.
          "So report me."  Littlejohn shrugged.
          He continued to slide his arms under the injured man, picking him up as though he was a child.  Saunders moaned, lying limp in his arms, his head resting against Littlejohn's shoulder.
          Caje headed out, trying to find the quickest way back as well as the easiest for Littlejohn, which wasn't easy.  Billy walked beside Littlejohn, occasionally glancing at the still body of the sergeant, wishing he hadn't done what he'd done; what they'd all done.  Saunders was the best sarge anyone could ask for, tough and demanding, but fair.  He never hesitated to encourage you or just throw an arm around a soldier when he needed it.  Billy remembered several times when Saunders had pulled him out of a tough spot, risking his own life then shrugging off his thanks as though it were nothing.  They stopped a couple times to rest, Littlejohn gently laying the injured man on the ground.  Littlejohn motioned to Billy and Caje, noticeably ignoring Kirby, to step away with him.
          "With those two wounds, Sarge has lost a lot of blood, but I think he's conscious.  He's not completely dead weight.  I'm really worried about him. He won't respond to anything I say."  He said quietly.
          "What do you expect?"  Caje shrugged.  "He came off a long patrol with the rest of the squad, got chewed by the lieutenant, and you guys cut him cold.  What's he got to fight for?  None of you trust him anymore.  He just may not make it this time, because he doesn't want to.  We have to get him back to Doc and hope for the best."
          Turning his back on them, Caje knelt beside Saunders, pulled another bandage out, wet it with his canteen, and gently sponged the sergeant's sweaty face, getting absolutely no reaction.
          "Hang in there, Sarge.  You're gonna be okay.  Don't give up."  He whispered.

*  *  *

          He wanted to protest when Littlejohn moved in and lifted him to his arms again. He wanted to protest when Billy gently lifted his injured arm and laid it across his chest, but it was just too much effort.  He resented the connection kept with the war by their touch.  It was better to just drift along with his thoughts as they took him back to Illinois, home, and family.
          Littlejohn moved out at a pace the others were hard put to keep up with. Saunders remained semi-conscious; aware of it when one of them sponged his sweaty face; when someone trickled cool water into his mouth; when Littlejohn's arms began to tremble with the strain.  He heard the determination in Littlejohn's voice when he refused to let anyone else carry him and  the worry in their voices when they couldn't stop the bleeding from the shoulder wound.
          When they came in sight of the camp, Littlejohn stopped for a moment in relief, gently shifting the injured man a little higher in his arms.  Saunders moaned softly, his head falling back over Littlejohn's arm.  He felt someone, Caje, he thought, lift his head and pillow it against the big man's shoulder again.
          "Billy, go find the lieutenant.  Littlejohn, take him straight to the aid station."
          "I'll go get Doc."  Kirby offered.
          "Don't bother."  Caje told him.  "From what you told me, Sarge probably doesn't want to see him anymore than he wants to see the rest of us."
          By the time Littlejohn reached the aid station, Billy was already there with Hanley.  The lieutenant stared for a long minute at the quiet form resting in Littlejohn's trembling arms, then stepped forward slowly, reaching out as though to touch Saunders head then drew back his hand.
          "Saunders?  Can you hear me?"

*  *  *

          Hanley's voice reached him from a long ways away, and Saunders suddenly wished his friend would clasp his shoulder as he had done so often before.  When the contact didn't come, Saunders let his thoughts sweep him away again.
          "I think he can hear you, Lieutenant."  Caje said sadly.  "He just doesn't seem to want to."
          A spasm of pain crossed the lieutenant's face, just as quickly gone.
          "Get him settled then I want to see all of you in my tent."  He told them, turning on his heel, only Caje seeing the gathering moisture in the officer's eyes.
          Littlejohn very gently lowered his burden to an empty cot, stepping back reluctantly.
          "You guys go on.  I'll be there in a minute."  Caje told them.
          When they were gone, the Cajun knelt beside the cot, one hand on Saunders good arm, the other cradling his head.
          "Sarge, listen to me.  They know they were wrong.  Littlejohn carried you all the way back, Billy is miserable, and the lieutenant is almost crying.  But you didn't hear that from me.  Don't give up, Sarge.  You're a fighter.  Come back to us, please, Sarge."
          Saunders tried to open his eyes, tried to reach for him, but his body refused to respond.  He was thinking about the odd sensation that his mind and his body were separate things when the blackness finally slipped across his mind.

*  *  *

          Caje waited a moment then slowly rose to his feet and spoke briefly to the doctor before following the rest of the squad.  They were waiting for him in Hanley's tent, all of them looking woebegone.  He slipped in and leaned against the wall, crossing his arms.
          "How is he?"  Hanley asked.
          "No change."  Caje replied.
          "Alright, I want to know exactly what happened.  From the time he left me."
          Billy, Littlejohn, Doc and Caje all looked at Kirby, who for once didn't try to defend himself.  Quietly, looking at the floor, he told him, including the part about not passing on the signal.  When he finished, Hanley was silent for a long moment.
          "I can't yell at you for doing the same thing I did.  None of us bothered to ask him his side of it.  Now, let me tell you something, Kirby."  He said quietly, and his voice turned cold and hard.   "What Wilson didn't tell you is that Saunders reported what the guy from Baker said, that he hit you first, that he had to take you down physically because you couldn't hear the desist order.  Saunders also did not tell the captain that you were AWOL at the time. The captain called in Wilson's sergeant, verified that Wilson is a liar, and dropped the charges.  You were not going to be court martialed - for that.  However, for the criminally negligent act of refusing to pass on a warning signal, endangering another's life, I will be filing charges.  There is no excuse for what you did, or for refusing to help him after he went down.  You are restricted to your bedroll until further notice.  You will be given rations, you are not to speak to anyone, and no one is to speak to you, or come near you until further notice.  Is that clear?"
          "Yes, sir."  Kirby's voice was barely audible.
          "You are dismissed, Kirby."  He said coldly.  "The rest of you stay here."
          When Kirby was gone, Hanley sighed and dropped into his chair, wiping a hand down his face.
          "So he's decided to give up.  Anybody got any ideas?"
          When nobody else said anything, Caje cleared his throat.
          "Can I speak freely, Sir?"
          "Go ahead, Caje."
          "An apology would be a start.  I wasn't there when Wilson came in, so I didn't know what happened till Kirby told me.  I'm kinda looking at it from the outside, so to speak.  Maybe one of you should be with him all the time, talking to him.  He's trying to hide inside himself and if he goes inside too far, he'll never come back."  He said quietly.
          "You mean he could die?"  Littlejohn asked, aghast.
          "Or worse.  The doctor said Sarge lost a lot of blood, but that's not the real problem.  The doctor said he could just stay like that for the rest of his life."
          "We can at least try."  Billy said sadly.  "I'll go now."
          "He's probably being worked on right now."  Caje pointed out.
          "So I'll wait."  Billy shrugged.

*  *  *

          Saunders slowly became aware of the sounds around him and identified them as the usual aid station sounds.  The pain was considerably less - at least the physical pain - but he didn't bother to open his eyes.  He lay still and let his mind wander.  He thought about home and his family and how nice it would be to get back to them.  He was thinking about cold lemonade on a hot summer day when a familiar voice intruded.
          "Sarge?  It's me, Billy.  I don't know if you can hear me, and I know you probably don't want me around.  But I got something to say.  And I'm gonna keep saying it till I know you've heard me.  I was wrong, real wrong.  I haven't been with the squad as long as the other guys, but I've been here long enough.  You're tough, Sarge, but you've always been fair.  I know you've looked the other way at a lot of things other sergeants wouldn't.  Like when we had that bottle of wine last week.  Other sergeants would have gotten real mad and thrown it away.  You went for a walk.
          I've always looked up to you, Sarge.  Kinda like a father, a big brother, a friend and yeah, a hero.  You get scared like we do, but you do the job anyway.  You saved my life several times.  You kept us going when it was hard, and let us blow off steam.  I was wrong, puredee wrong, to listen to Wilson and Kirby.  I'm sorry, Sarge.  I know I hurt you and disappointed you, and I'm so sorry I can't think of the right words to tell you that.  You can't just give up, Sarge.  We need you back.  I need you back.  I'm gonna sit right here with you and keep telling you over and over again."  He paused, then spoke again, gripping Saunders' good hand where it lay at his side.  "Don't give up, Sarge.  I need you."  He said softly, his voice breaking.
          Billy watched the sergeant, heedless of the tears streaming down his face.  Saunders was lying so still, he couldn't tell if he was sleeping or unconscious.  He hoped he was awake and listening.  The sergeant heard his words but he couldn't acknowledge them. 
          Saunders drifted in and out of sleep, waking each time to find Billy still beside him, repeating variations of what he had already said.  The young soldier's strong hand was always touching him, either on the hand, the shoulder or on his head.  He wished Billy would go away and leave him alone with his thoughts, but it seemed the only way he would do that was if Saunders told him to.  Trying to get his thoughts back to the lemonade, Saunders let him drone on and drifted back to sleep.

          *  *  *

          A different voice was talking when he woke again.  This time it was Littlejohn, his deep voice husky with emotion.
          "Sarge, don't give up on us."  He pleaded.  "We're sorry excuses for men, and you have every right to hate us and not want to see us.  I was wrong.  I am so sorry for what I did.  I know better than to listen to gossip, let alone believe it.  You've always been fair and honest with us, Sarge.  I know you won't be able to trust us anymore and as soon as I know you're gonna be okay, I'm going to ask Hanley for a transfer so you won't have to see me anymore.  You never got mad about me having two left feet or being clumsy.  You never dropped me from a mission cause you thought my size would screw it up.  I hate seeing you just lying there, lost somewhere."
          Saunders felt Littlejohn's huge hand caressing his head with amazing gentleness, then that deep voice whispered close to his ear.
          "Come back from wherever you are, Sarge.  We need you, but more than that, we want you to come back and yell at us, and laugh with us, and just be with us.  Don't give up, Sarge."
          Unbelievably, as he drifted back into sleep, Saunders heard the huge man actually break down and sob, right in front of everyone in the aid station.

*  *  *

          "Sarge, it's me, Doc.  I know you're awake and I'm pretty sure you can hear me.  The guys are really busted up about what they did.  The lieutenant, too. What they did, what we did was unfair, and totally wrong.  Do you know that Littlejohn carried you all the way back home in his arms?  He refused to let anyone else carry you.  You know how Billy is always grinning,  always happy? Neither he nor Littlejohn have cracked a smile since they brought you back.  If the guys aren't out on patrol, they're either here with you or asleep.  They're worried about you, Sarge.  And the lieutenant, well, he's not himself at all.  He does his job, and does it well, but thethe heart's gone out of him.  He's put Kirby up on charges himself.  He's got Kirby restricted to his bedroll, Sarge.  He gets only rations, no hot chow, he's not allowed to speak to anyone, and nobody goes near him.  Nobody even looks at him.
You can't go on like this, Sarge.  You're gonna end up back at the evac hospital in the mental ward.  I know you've been hurt, both body and spirit.  I know how much you care about your men.  To have them, to have us, do what we did is unforgivable.  But that's what we're asking you to do, Sarge.  Please forgive us.  Give us another chance, please."
          Saunders lay still, letting the Doc's soft Arkansas voice wash over him.  He wanted to say something, anything, but he couldn't.  He just couldn't.  He felt the medic changing the dressing on his wounds while he continued to talk, but even the pain couldn't bring him back far enough.

*  *  *

          "Sarge?  It's Caje."  The voice and gentle hand on his forehead woke Saunders from a pleasant dream about the county fair and a pretty redhead.  "How ya doin'?  They tell me they're feeding you through a tube 'cause you won't wake up to eat.  I know Army chow isn't anything to write home about, but it's gotta be better than a tube.
          Where are you?  I bet you're back home, maybe with a pretty girl.  You can't stay there forever, Sarge.  You gotta come back sometime; either here or back home in a mental hospital.  You an' me, we seen this war break a lot of men, but I never thought you'd  be one of them.  It's been hell sometimes, a lot of times, but there's been some good times, some fun times, too.  Think about them, Sarge.  Remember the time we"
          Saunders felt the Cajun's strong fingers stroking his head in a hypnotic rhythm, over and over again as the richly accented voice flowed through his mind.  He could feel himself starting to come back and resisted.  It hurt too much.  He didn't want to come back to the war and the death and the pain.  He turned his thoughts back to the redhead, what was her name, anyway?

*  *  *

          "Saunders?"  The familiar sound of his friend's voice brought Saunders back to the surface again.  "It's Hanley.  They've got this one doctor here, a head doc, who thinks you might be able to hear us, at least most of the time.
          I was flat out wrong to chew you out in front of the captain. When you left, I was so angry at myself that I just sat there cursing.  I went to find you, to apologize.  You had already left.  I was afraid that you wouldn't come back at all.  Then when I saw you lying so still in Littlejohn's arms, my heart about stopped.  I thought you were dead, and I'd never get the chance to tell you how sorry I am.  I'm afraid I've destroyed in half an hour a friendship and trust that was built over such a long, hard time, and there is nothing I can do or say to restore either.  Doc, Billy, and Littlejohn have all put in for transfers.  They're just waiting to see if you're going to make it before they go.  They told me they figure you won't want to see them before they go; for me to just to tell them when the docs say you'll be okay.  They told me to tell you again how sorry they are, and they wish there was a way to undo it.
          I can't stay long this time; I've got to take out a patrol to knock out an OP as soon as Doc gets here. I will be back later to see you, I promise.  Don't stay away too long, my friend.  I don't know what I'd do without you backing me up."
          Hanley gripped his good shoulder for a long minute, then Saunders heard Doc's soft voice again, starting to read a him a letter from home.  He wished Hanley had stayed longer, he wanted to come back, but he didn't think he could do it alone.

*  *  *

          Kirby lay facing the wall, listening to the squad talking quietly behind him.  Nobody had spoken to him since he left the lieutenant's tent   Nobody had looked at him.  In his whole life, he had never felt so alone and so miserable.  A good man lay injured and maybe dying because of him.  From what he could hear behind him, somebody had to do something and fast or the sarge was going to check out, if not physically, mentally.
          "It's been two and a half days, Doc."  Littlejohn said, his voice thick with worry.  "He just lays there.  He won't eat or drink or nothin'."
          "There's gotta be something we can do.  Isn't there?"  Billy pleaded.
          "I don't know, Billy.  We've done everything I can think of; everything the docs say we can do.  He has to want to come back, and I'm not sure that he does.  Wherever he is in his mind, I'm sure there isn't any pain, any war, any dying.  He's seen so many of his men die in horrible ways.  He cares about his men, very much.  Every time one dies, I think a little of the sarge dies too.  He's been fighting this damn war longer than any of us. There comes a time when you just can't take anymore and I guess he's hit that point."
          Kirby felt Doc's words stab like a knife.  It was his fault and he had to try to fix things, even if it meant disobeying orders again. 
          "Doc?"  His voice was rusty from disuse and his throat was clogged with emotion.  "Will you please tell the lieutenant I need to talk to him.  Please?"  He asked without moving.
          He didn't get an answer, but he heard someone get up and leave.  He lay still, waiting, with his arms wrapped around his middle, almost physically sick from guilt.  A few minutes later, he heard footsteps and waited without turning to look.
          "What do you want?"  Hanley asked coldly.
          "Lieutenant?  Sir?"  He spoke quietly, without moving, not wanting to face the others.  "I've heard the guys talking.  Saunders may not make it, and I know it's my fault.  The others have all been there talking to him, trying to help him.  I did it to him, sir, and I would like to try to talk to him.  Please, sir?"
          Hanley looked at the others, raising one eyebrow in query.  One by one, they nodded.
          "Alright, Kirby.  Let's go."
          It took two tries for his stiff muscles to respond, but he finally made it to his feet and followed the lieutenant out, avoiding looking at the rest of the squad.  Hanley led him to the aid station, stopping him just outside.
          "I've had it with you, soldier."  He growled.   "You listen and you listen good.  You go in there and you talk to him.  When you're finished you get right back to your bedroll, got it?"
          "Yes, sir."  He said quietly.

*  *  *

          Saunders could hear and feel someone sitting on the edge of his cot, but no one was saying anything.  He was vaguely curious, but not enough to open his eyes.  When the hesitant voice finally came, his insides clenched.  Kirby, the last person on earth he wanted to hear or see.
          "Sarge?  It's Kirby.  I know I'm the last person on earth you want to see or hear from, but I gotta talk to you, Sarge.  I mess up everything, Sarge.  Have ever since I was a kid and probably always will.  You've hauled me outta trouble more times than I can count.  You've saved my life who knows how many times.
          You've shared your water with me, your food, your ammo.  You've patched up my wounds, you've put up with my BS all this time.  Out on patrol, sometimes I was so scared. You knew it, but never said a word.  You just told me it was going to be okay.  And it always was.  This time, I'm not sure it's ever gonna be okay again for any of us in the squad.  I know it's my fault.  All my fault.  And I gotta try to do something about it." He paused, and Saunders could hear him swallow.  
          "I was wrong before the mission.  I should have asked you what happened.  I should have known better than to listen to Wilson.  I could try to make excuses like usual, but there just isn't any excuse for what I did.  What's even worse, I turned the others against you.  On the mission, when I said I wished I'd never met you, Sarge, it was a lie.  You trusted me.  You gave me a chance when nobody else would.  You made me better than I ever thought I could be, Sarge.  I've admired you, I've envied you, I've...I've loved you, Sarge."
          "I should be shot for not making sure you got the warning signal.  I probably will be after the court martial.  But that's okay, Sarge.  I deserve whatever I get, and probably more.  You won't ever have to see me again, Sarge.  It's better for both us that way, but, Sarge, the rest of the squad needs you.  They want you.  It isn't fair to punish them for something I did, Sarge.  I'll be outta your hair, Sarge.  Come back from wherever you are in your mind.  Doc says you're probably back home.  I gotta go now, Sarge.  I just wanted to tell you I know I was wrong, and how sorry I am for what I did to you and the guys."  Saunders felt him stand up, then his voice came very softly.  "You're the best, Sarge.  You always were and you always will be."
          The cot jolted Saunders painfully as the Kirby stumbled into it on his way out.  Half-blinded by tears, Kirby headed straight back to where the squad was gathered, not even noticing Hanley standing nearby in the darkness.  He had heard it all, and tears were streaming down his face as well.  Tears for Saunders, for Kirby, for all the young men forever changed by the war.  Inside, Saunders cried his own silent tears.

*  *  *

          "Saunders.  It's me again.  Hanley.  I wish you'd wake up.  These one- sided conversations are tough.  Doc and I have managed to keep the doctors from sending you to evac so far, but they said we've done all we can for you.  They're sending you back in the morning.  I need to send a letter to your mother and sister, but I just don't know what to say.  You aren't dead, but you aren't alive either.  What can I say to them to help them understand the war?  I'm here and I don't understand it so how can they?"  His voice broke off.
          Saunders slowly opened his eyes to find Hanley sitting beside his cot, his face buried in his hands. 
          "Lieutenant?"  He whispered.
          Hanley's head snapped up, his mouth dropping open.  A huge grin split his face and he grabbed his friend by the shoulders, completely forgetting about the shoulder wound. 
          "Oww!"  Saunders cried out.
          "Saunders!"  He quickly released him, settling for grasping his arm instead.
          "What happened?  Why am I here?"  Saunders asked, looking around.
          "You got shot.  Don't you remember?"  Hanley stared at him.
          "What?  How?  Last I remember, I was coming off patrol this morning."
          "This morning?  Saunders, that was three days ago!"
     "Three days?"
          "You don't remember anything?"  Hanley looked at him suspiciously.
          Saunders blue eyes met and held the lieutenant's dark eyes for a long moment.
          "That's right, Lieutenant.  I - don't - remember - anything after that patrol."
          "I see."  The lieutenant finally understood.  "Alright.  We'll call it battle fatigue."
          "Umm, Lieutenant?"
          "Yes, Sergeant?"
          "You know, I heard somewhere that a month or so of latrine duty can be as bad as a court martial."
          "You have, huh?"  The lieutenant tried hard not to grin.  "I gotcha, Saunders."
          "I was hoping you would.  You got a cigarette on you?"
          "Sure."  He fumbled one out, lit it, and handed it to his friend.
          "Thanks."
          "If you're up to it, the guys have been real worried.  You want to see them?"
          "Sure.  Send 'em in."
          "Good to have you back, Saunders."  He grinned, clapped him on the good shoulder, and hurried out.
          Saunders took a deep drag off the cigarette and smiled.  It was good to be back.
 

Copyright 2000 by Mary Wright. All Rights Reserved.

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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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