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USO
by
Eagle Lady

Prologue

          Laine Morris rose to her feet, brushed her blond hair back over her shoulder, and shook down the folds of her blue dress as Colonel Wilson entered the room where she'd been waiting for nearly an hour.  She was tired and more than a little frustrated.  The USO group she was supposed to have met in London had left the day before she arrived; two days before they were supposed to have left for France.  Through a combination of threats, tears, bribery, and feminine wiles, she'd gotten herself from London to Caen, France.  And gotten stuck.  If one more military genius patiently explained to her that there was a war going on, she was going to scream.  Of course there was a war going on; that's why the USO troupe was here, wasn't it?  Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she turned to face the colonel.
          "Good news, Miss Morris."  He beamed.  "I've found you a driver to get you to Paris."
          "Colonel Wilson, do I detect a 'but' in there somewhere?"  She asked warily.
          "Yes, well, there does seem to be one little problem."  He rubbed his chin with one hand, not looking directly at her.
          "Alright, Colonel."  She sighed.  "What is it?"
          "We have a driver.  However, the only vehicle we have is an open jeep."
          "Does it run?"
          "Yes, of course it runs."
          "Then I'll take it."  She smiled.  "Where is the driver and how soon can we leave?"
           "If you'll just come with me, Miss Morris, I'll personally escort you."  He gallantly held out an arm for her.
       Slinging her purse over her shoulder, she accepted his arm and allowed him to lead her outside where she found a jeep parked in front of the building.  A tall, dark-haired captain was standing beside the jeep, apparently waiting for them.
          "Miss Morris, may I present Captain Miller?  Captain Miller, this is Laine Morris."
          "How do you do, Captain?"  Laine smiled at him.
          "Definitely my pleasure, Miss Morris."  He bowed slightly, and lifted her hand to his lips.
          "Captain Miller will be escorting you to Paris, Miss Morris."
          "Thank you very much, Colonel.  I appreciate your help."  Impulsively, she turned and kissed him on the cheek.
          "You are very welcome.  Do you have all of your baggage?"
          "Yes, right there."  She indicated a valise sitting beside the building.
          Captain Miller set it in the jeep, then offered a hand to help her in.  The colonel watched as they wove their way through the debris still littering the streets, then turned back inside, one hand to the cheek she had kissed.
          They rode in silence while the captain picked his way through the rest of the town, deftly avoiding debris, men, and other vehicles.  Once they were out of the town, he relaxed, draping one arm over the back of her seat.
          "I've heard you sing, Miss Morris.  You have a lovely voice."
          "Thank you, Captain."  She shifted slightly away from his arm on the pretext of settling her purse on the floor.
          "As a matter of fact, that's not all that's lovely."
          "What is that over there, Captain?"  She pointed ahead of them.
          "What?"  He looked momentarily confused.  "Oh, that's what's left of a German tank."
          For awhile, she managed to divert him with small talk, but it seemed he had a one track mind.
          "You know, Miss Morris, it's a long way to Paris."
          "So I hear."
          "There are very few women as beautiful as you in this area."
          "Really?"  She answered neutrally.
          "A man gets to missing the things a woman provides."  He commented, his fingers twisting a lock of her hair where it lay on her shoulder.
          "I hear that's one of the hazards of war, Captain."
          "It would make the drive more pleasant if you were to move over a little."
          "In case you hadn't noticed, Captain, there happens to be a gear shift sitting there."
          "Come on, Miss Morris.  What's a little kiss between friends?"
          "I wasn't aware that we were friends, Captain.  Nor am I sure that I would like to be your friend."  She retorted.
          "We could be, Laine.  I'm willing to be friendly."
          "Miss Morris to you, Captain Miller."  Laine said coldly.  "Kindly keep your eyes and your mind on the road.  I am not the least interested."
          "You're refusing me?"  He demanded, half angry, half amazed.
          "Yes, Captain.  That's exactly what I'm doing."  She glared at him.
          "Who do you think you are anyway?"  He slid the jeep to a stop and turned toward her, his hand on her arm.
          Laine jerked her arm free, jumped out of the jeep and snatched up a thick branch lying beside the road, brandishing it in front of her.  Miller stared at her a moment, then started to laugh.
          "Get in the jeep, Laine."
          "I will not."
          "You'd rather stay out here?"  He suggested.
          "If it's a choice between that and you, yes."  She snapped.
          "Have it your way, lady.  Maybe a little walking will change your mind."
           Slamming the jeep into gear, he took off in a cloud of dust, leaving her standing there,  watching as he drove on up the road.  He'd gone a little over a quarter of a mile when she saw him slow down and swing the jeep into the roadside field, apparently turning around.  There was a loud boom and the jeep literally flew into the air, landing on it's side.
          "Oh my God!"  Laine screamed, then started running toward the jeep.
          When she reached it, she found Captain Miller a short distance from the wrecked jeep, trying to get to his feet.  There was blood on his left thigh and several bleeding cuts on his face. He looked up at her in confusion when she knelt at his side.
          "Captain?  What can I do to help you?"  She asked.
          "Laine?  I'm sorry.  We have to get you back to Caen. Help me up."  He mumbled.
          Laine slid her arm around him and helped him to his feet, then pulled his arm over her shoulders.  Together, they staggered back down the road toward Caen. 
          "Cut across there.  The road horseshoes. Save time."  Miller waved toward the trees on their left.
          "Are you sure?"  She asked doubtfully.
          "Yeah. Go."
          Taking a fresh hold on his wrist, she led him off the road and into the trees.  They fought their way through the trees and brush until he slipped out of her grasp and collapsed to the ground while crossing a small clearing.  When she knelt beside him, taking his hand,  he opened his eyes slowly to look up at her.
          "Laine, I'm sorry."  He whispered.
          Then, to her horror, he just stopped breathing.
          Laine gently and regretfully laid his hand across his chest.  He was a jerk, but in the end, he'd done his best for her.  Now he lay dead somewhere in the middle of France and she was completely alone.  She had no idea where they were in relation to Paris, or Caen, and certainly no idea what to do next.  Tired, thirsty, and very frightened, she dropped her head into her hands and burst into tears.

^^^

           Sergeant Saunders waved his men down to rest and sprawled on the ground himself, tired, hungry, and heartily sick of walking.  Kirby lay on his stomach, his BAR beside him, his head pillowed on his arms, and his eyes closed while Caje lay on his back, one hand on the M-1 beside him.
          "I swear my feet are gonna fall right off, Sarge."  Kirby complained.  "How long are we gonna keep walking?"
          "Till we reach Paris."  Caje grinned over at him.
          "We keep walking till we get home, Kirby." Saunders told him.  "Unless you want to go back that way and run right into the Krauts?"
          "Think there's anything to eat around here?"  Kirby asked.
          "Sure, Kirby.  There's a tree over there with steaks hanging on it."  Caje chuckled.
           "Funny, Caje.  Real funny."  He said sarcastically.  "We been walkin' for hours, missed two meals, we're running low on water, my feet are killing me, we're lost...I swear, I ain't goin' to no more wars."
          "Kirby, have you ever gone a whole day without complaining about something?"  Caje propped himself up on one elbow and lit a cigarette.
          "Caje, it's in the Rules of War.  You gotta complain."
          Saunders took a drink from his canteen to hide his grin as he listened to his men.  Anyone listening to their banter might think that they didn't like each other, but he knew they were a tightly-knit fighting unit.            
          "Hey, Caje, you wanna trade with me for awhile?"
          "Trade what?  Feet?"
           "That would be great, if we could.  I meant the BAR."
          "No."
          "Why not?"
          "You're the BAR man, Kirby.  I'm the scout, remember?  I can't move fast with that thing hung around my neck.  Sorry, pal, you're stuck with it."  He grinned suddenly.  "Maybe you can get Sarge to trade you for the Thompson?"
          Kirby glanced over to where Saunders was capping his canteen, looked at the expression on his sergeant's face, and shook his head.
          "I don't think I wanna try that.  Hey, Caje?"
          "Yeah?"
          "If you could have anything you wanted to eat right now, what would you pick?"
          "Get your mind off food, Kirby, and you'll feel better."  Saunders advised.
          "Get your mind off food.  Get your mind off women."  Kirby complained.  "The only things you can have in this stupid country are the things you don't want, like Krauts and sore feet.  We gotta win this war and get back home."
          "Glad you feel that way, Kirby."  Saunders nodded in satisfaction.  "The sooner you get on your feet, the sooner we get home, and the sooner we win this war."
          "We ain't never gonna win this war, Sarge.  We're still gonna be here fighting in 1980." He paused, and looked over at the sergeant.  "You do know where home is, don't you?"
          Saunders started to reply, stopping when Caje suddenly lifted a hand for silence.  Rolling over next to the scout, the sergeant picked up his Thompson while Kirby brought his BAR into firing position.
          "What is it?"  Saunders asked quietly.
          "I think I hear a woman crying."  Caje replied hesitantly.
          "A woman?"  Kirby asked eagerly.
          "Shut up, Kirby."  Saunders told him.  "Where?" 
          Caje tilted his head one way, then the other, finally pointing back over his left shoulder.
          "Alright, let's check it out."  Saunders rose to his feet, checked his weapon then started through the trees, his men  a few feet behind him.
          They'd only gone a short distance when Saunders stopped and motioned his men down.  Peering through the undergrowth, they looked into the clearing, then at each other, then back at the clearing.  A woman, young, blond, and beautiful,  was kneeling beside  an Army Officer lying on his back in the middle of the clearing.  He wasn't moving, and she had her face in her hands, sobbing quietly.  Signaling his men to wait, Saunders quietly moved toward her.

^^^

          "Miss?  Are you hurt?"  Laine  nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of a voice, too frightened to even scream, her first thought being that Miller had spoken.  Looking up, she saw a soldier standing over her.  He wore a filthy uniform, held a nasty-looking gun in his hands, and his helmet was tipped down over his eyes, shading his face.  Trembling violently, she scooted backwards away from him, her eyes wide with fear.
          "Are you hurt?"  He repeated impatiently.
          "Are...are you American?"  She hated the way her voice shook, but couldn't help it.
          He slowly surveyed his uniform, then looked back at her.
          "Yeah.  I asked if you were hurt."
          "No.  No, I'm not hurt."  She got to her feet, feeling a distinct disadvantage being on the ground at his feet.  Standing up didn't help much, since he was still several inches taller than she.
          "Who are you and what are you doing out here?"  He demanded.
          "I'm Laine Morris.  I don't know where 'out here' is, but I don't think we're where we're supposed to be."
          "You got that right, Lady."  He growled.  "Caje!  Kirby!"  He called over his shoulder.
          She whirled around as two men stepped out of the bushes behind her.  They were both just as dirty and mean-looking at this man, both carried huge guns and neither looked very friendly.  Wondering whether she was worse off than when she was alone, she didn't realize she was backing away from them until she bumped into the first man, almost losing her balance when she jumped away from the contact.  He grabbed her arm to steady her, letting go as soon as she had regained her balance.
          "Relax."  He grinned.  "They're with me."
          "Well, that certainly puts my mind at ease!"  She snapped.  "And who might you be?"
          "Sergeant Saunders. Caje and  Kirby.  Now, would you mind telling me what you're doing here?"
           "I'm here in France with the USO tour.  I was late joining them in London.  Well, I was on time,  but they left early.  I made it to Caen and Captain Miller was assigned to drive me to Paris to join the tour.  The jeep hit something that Captain Miller said was a mine, and was wrecked.  He was trying to get me back to Caen.  We got this far, then he fell and and died."
          "Why weren't you injured?"  The sergeant asked skeptically.
          "I wasn't in the jeep at the time."  She didn't want to tell him why.
          "Why not?" 
          "Does it matter?"  Laine snapped.
          "Lady, you're in the middle of France, in the middle of a war, where you have no business being, and you expect me to believe a wild story?  Yes, it matters.  Why weren't you in the jeep?"
           She had never seen blue eyes turn so cold, and she shivered involuntarily.
          "Sarge, you're scaring her."  One of the men behind her said.
          "Shut up, Kirby."  The other said, his voice strongly accented.
          Wrapping her arms around herself in a vain attempt to stave off a nervous chill, she turned slightly so she didn't have to look at any of them.
          "Captain Miller tried to get ...friendly.  When he stopped the jeep,  I jumped out.  He drove off and hit a mine."
          Since she wasn't looking at them, she missed the look of disgust and fury that the men exchanged.
          "Can you prove any of this?"  Saunders asked quietly.
          Fury and disbelief surged through her and she turned on him, her eyes flashing, and shoved up the sleeve on her dress, revealing a bruise on her forearm that looked exactly like a man's hand.
          "Is that enough for you?"  She hissed at him.  "All of my papers are in what's left of the jeep.  Maybe you want to go find the jeep and look?"
          The sergeant didn't answer, squatting down beside Captain Miller.  He reached into the neck of his uniform, then started going through his pockets. 
          "What are you doing?"  She demanded.  "Isn't robbing the dead a bit much, even for you?"
          She couldn't imagine why she'd said that, and was immediately sorry, even more so when he slowly rose to his feet and pushed his helmet back on his head.  He stepped so close to her that she could feel his breath on her face, his eyes as cold and angry as his voice.
          "I don't know what that crack was supposed to mean, lady, and I don't care.  For your information, Miss Morris, I was looking for his identification papers so Graves Registration can inform his family.  I'm sure there's someone stateside who cares about him."  He growled, his face dark with fury.  He stuffed some papers into his pocket as he turned away from her.
          Stunned into silence by his words and anger, she stumbled over to a log and sat down with her back to them, wiping away tears.  She'd never met a man who treated her like that.  All the other men she'd met since arriving in London had practically fallen over themselves to talk to her, to be near her, and this filthy, wretched soldier acted like she'd killed his best friend.
          "Want me to look for the jeep, Sarge?"  The accented voice asked.
          "No."
          "What do we do now, Sarge?"  The other one asked.
          "Shut up, Kirby, and let me think."  The sergeant said irritably.
          A moment later a touch on her shoulder made her jump.
          "I'm sorry, Miss Morris.  Didn't mean to scare you.  You want some water?"            The slimmer of the two men was holding out a canteen.
          "Thank you."  She said gratefully, taking a long drink.  She handed it back, managing a smile.
          He took the canteen and returned to the others.
          "She's gorgeous."  Laine heard him say.
          "She's trouble, that's what she is."  The sergeant replied. 
          "Don't  you know who she is, Sarge?"
          "Yeah, Kirby, I know who she is.  We're going to have to take her with us and she could just get us all killed."
          "How's she gonna do that, Sarge?"  Kirby sounded angry.
          "Get your head outta the clouds, soldier."  Saunders snapped.  "She has to be protected.  She doesn't know how to move quietly.  Her hair and that blue dress stick out like a sore thumb.  She's going to slow us down, demand special treatment, and probably not do a thing she's told to.  You got any more questions, Kirby?"
          "No, Sarge."  Kirby said quietly.
          Managing to compose herself somewhat, Laine got up and walked over to them.
          "If I'm going to be that much trouble, why don't you go on your merry way and forget you saw me?"  She asked.
          "Unfortunately, Miss Morris, I don't have that choice."  He glared at her.
          "May I borrow that?"  She pointed to a black beret Private Caje had stuffed under the epaulet on his shoulder.
          When he handed it to her, she gathered her shoulder length hair, twisted it up on top of her head, and stuffed it under the beret, which she pulled down to hide most of her hair.
          "If one of you gentlemen will remove the captain's jacket, it should cover at least part of my dress."  She said quietly.
          Glancing down at the captain, Kirby shook his head and pulled off his own jacket, offering it to her.
          "You can't wear his, Miss Morris.  The officer insignia would make you a target."
          "Thank you, Private Kirby."  She accepted his jacket and slipped it on.
          "Just 'Kirby' is fine."  He grinned.
          "Please call me Laine."  She smiled back.
          "If you two are finished?"  Saunders said acidly.  "Let's get moving.  Caje, take the point.  Kirby, you're next.  Miss Morris, if you see them duck down, or I tell you to, you hit the ground on your face and stay put and stay quiet, till I tell you otherwise.  Got it?"
          "Yes, Sergeant.  I got it."  She glared after him as he walked back over to Martin. Caje turned, but not before she saw his grin.  "What did I do to him?"  Laine whispered, half to herself.
          "Nothing, Laine.  He's Sarge, that's all."  Caje answered.
          "I can see he's a sergeant."  She pointed out.
          "It's not just his rank.  It's his job to complete the mission and take care of his men.  We were supposed to go on a quick recon, but the Krauts broke through the line behind us.  Now we're in enemy territory, with no food, little water, and a non-combatant.  He isn't mad at you, he's mad at the situation."
          "Could have fooled me."  She commented.
          "Let's go."  Saunders ordered as he rejoined them.

^^^

           She fell in behind Kirby, glad she was wearing her low-heeled pumps and not her usual high heels.  A short distance ahead, they came upon a narrow trickle of muddy water.
          "Hey, water!"  Kirby grinned happily.
          "You drink that stuff, you'll be sick."  Caje told him.
          "Can we stop for a moment, Sergeant?"  Laine asked.
          "Tired already?"  He sighed.  "Yeah, we can stop."
          Laine took Kirby's jacket off and carefully laid it over a tree branch.
          "Would the three of you please turn your backs for a moment?"
          Caje and Kirby did so immediately.  The sergeant simply stood there watching her.  Laine shrugged and decided to ignore him.  Getting down on her knees by the water, she lowered herself to the ground and proceeded to roll back and forth in the muddy water until the bright blue of her dress was completely covered in mud.  She got back to her feet, knelt down and rinsed her hands, then retrieved Kirby's jacket, careful not to get it against her dress.
          "Here's your jacket, Kirby.  Thank you."  She held it out to him.
          He turned around and his mouth dropped open as he stared at her.
          "Jeez!  What'd you do, fall in?"  He demanded.
          "No, I didn't fall in.  Now my dress does not stick out like a sore thumb.  I'm ready to go, Sergeant Saunders."  She gave him a very sweet, very insincere smile.
          "Move out, Caje."  He said impassively.
          Caje didn't bother to hide his grin this time as he turned and started walking.  Over an hour later, she was thinking of risking Saunders' ire by asking for a rest.
          Suddenly, Caje moved his hand in a downward and back motion, Kirby immediately dropping to the ground.  Saunders opened his mouth to tell Laine to get down when he realized that she was already down, her hands covering her bright hair where it showed at the back of her neck.  She lay absolutely still, as flat as she could get.  He belly-crawled up next to her, dropping a hand on her shoulder.  Much as she wanted to slap his hand away, she lay still like he had told her to do.  She watched as he moved on up to Caje who pointed ahead then held up five fingers,  then made another signal with his hand. Glancing around, Saunders saw that there was better cover about ten feet away on the left.  He got Kirby's attention, pointed to Laine, then indicated the area he wanted them to move to.  Kirby squirmed backwards till he was beside her, then leaned close to whisper in her ear.
          "We gotta move over there.  Follow me and stay as low as you can."
          He took her hand, and started moving sideways, tugging her along with him.  Caje and Saunders very slowly and carefully edged back to join them, Caje ending up on Laine's other side, Saunders next to Caje.  Saunders leaned close to Caje, whispering something, then Caje leaned over and whispered to her, his breath tickling her ear.
          "Sarge said to tell you the Germans are fixing their truck.  We have to wait till they're done.  He says to stay still."
          "Tell the big lug I AM being still."  She whispered back.
          He did so, Laine regretting it when she saw his jaw tighten with anger.  Again.  They lay there for what seemed hours, both Caje and Kirby resting their hands lightly on her back in silent reassurance.  Finally, she heard an engine start up then move off into the distance.  Caje got to his feet without a sound and disappeared into the bushes, returning a few minutes later, equally soundlessly.
          "All clear, Sarge."  He grinned.
          Kirby got to his feet, then turned and extended a hand to help Laine up.  Grateful for the assistance, she accepted his hand and got to her feet, absently rubbing her hipbone.
          "You okay?"  Kirby asked, concerned.
          "What?  Oh, yes, I'm fine.  I was lying on a rock or something."
          "Why didn't you move?"  He stared at her.
          "I was doing what I was told."  She answered, not daring to look at Saunders.
          "Move out, Caje."  Saunders growled.
           "On my way."  He answered cheerfully.

^^^

           Determined to make friends with the sergeant, Laine fell into step beside him. He paid no attention to her, his eyes moving constantly.
          "Where are you from, Sergeant?"
          "Illinois."
          "Oh?  What part?"
          "North."
          "Really?"  She exclaimed excitedly.
          She turned to look at him, promptly tripping over a half-buried stick, only his quick grasp on her arm preventing her from falling.
          "Yeah. Really."
          "I'm from Illinois, too."  She flashed him a smile known to melt icebergs.
          "Yeah?"  He said indifferently. Apparently, this iceberg wasn't going to melt.
          "Yeah, Sarge.  I'm from Rockford."
          "Yeah?"  He said again.
          "Gee, Sergeant, your record's stuck."  She grinned.  "How long have you been here?"
          "Quite awhile."
          "How long is quite awhile?"
          "Long enough."
          "Boy, I bet you're a hit at all the parties, Saunders."  Laine wrinkled her nose at him.
          "Lady, this is a war, not a tea party."  He said, exasperated with her chatter.
          "I swore if one more person said that to me, I'd scream."  She snapped.
          "Don't."  He snapped back.
          "Do I look like a fool?  On second thought, don't answer that."  Giving him a disgusted look, she moved up to walk with Kirby.  "Can you talk more than grumpy back there?"
          "What do you want to talk about?"  Kirby grinned at her.
          "Anything.  Where are you from?"
          "Chicago."
          "You mean all three of us are from Illinois?  What about Caje?"
          "He's from New Orleans."
          "How long have you been here?"
          "Since D-Day.  How'd you get here from London?"  He asked curiously.
          "It wasn't easy."  She laughed.  "Bus, train, car, bicycle, you name it, I used it."
          "Aren't they supposed to give you an escort or something?"
          "They were supposed to be in London when I got there.  I guess the escort went with them.  They told me to go back home, but I wanted to join the tour, so I just started hitching rides."
          "In the middle of a war?  You hitched rides?  Alone?"  He stared at her.
          "I didn't have a choice.  It was fun, actually.  I met some really nice people."
          "Hit it!"  Caje called softly but urgently.
          Kirby grabbed her arm and jerked her down to lay on the ground beside him. Saunders appeared suddenly, crouched on her other side, his hand on her shoulder.   Caje crawled back to them on his stomach, his rifle cradled in his arms.
          "Kraut patrol.  If we're quiet, and lucky, they'll miss us."  He whispered.
          Laine buried her face in her folded arms, not wanting them to see how terrified she was, but try as she would, she couldn't stop trembling.  She felt Saunders' hand move from her shoulder to the back of her neck, his fingers stroking gently and rhythmically.  Gradually, the trembling eased and she relaxed, concentrating on his touch instead of the soldiers she could hear moving through the trees ahead of them.  She felt safe and protected in spite of the tension she could sense in the three men surrounding her.  Finally, Saunders shifted his hand to her arm, tugging gently.
          "They're gone, Miss Morris."  He said quietly.  "You can get up now."
          "That's what you think, Sergeant."  Laine turned her head to look up at him.
          "What do you mean?"
          "Someone stole my legs and replaced them with jelly."  She tried to smile, but it didn't come off very well.
          "Yeah?  What happened to that spitfire I met in the clearing back there?  Turning chicken on me?"  He paused, his voice taking on a hint of contempt.  "I guess I was right, after all.  Nothing but trouble.  Without your beauty parlor and maids, there's nothin' to you, is there?"
          Laine felt every bit of her Irish grandmother flow through her veins and was up on her knees in an instant, nose to nose with him.  "Trouble!  What trouble, Sergeant?  I've done everything you told me to.  I haven't complained once.  You are an arrogant, obnoxious, overbearing..."  She sputtered.
          "Yeah, yeah."  He said, then grinned.  "Got you on your feet, didn't it?"
          Laine stopped with her mouth open, only then realizing that she was indeed on her feet, still nose to nose with him.
          "You're still obnoxious."  She muttered, her anger gone.
          "So I've been told.  Move out, Caje."

^^^

          Caje and Kirby exchanged a grin, both having been on the receiving end of Sarge's verbal prods at one time or another.  Caje headed out again, Kirby following him after settling the heavy BAR more comfortably on his shoulders.  Laine glanced over at Saunders, who was waiting for her to follow the men.
          "May I walk with you?"  She asked.
          "I'm not in the mood for chatter."  He told her.
          "Fine.  I won't say a word."  Laine shrugged.
          True to her word, she walked beside him without saying a word, her hands shoved down into the pockets of her dress.

^^^

          Half a mile further on, all hell broke loose.  Caje came back on the run, motioning frantically.  Before anyone could react, bullets were zipping around them.  Caje dove for the cover of a log,  Kirby cried out in pain and fell, quickly squirming around to bring the BAR into use.  Laine dropped to the ground, gasping when the sergeant landed on top of her.
          "Keep your head down."  He ordered, crawling over her, firing his Tommy gun.
          Laine covered her head with her hands, trying to press herself into the ground, quivering, as the shooting all around her seemed to go on forever.  Finally, all was quiet.  Laine stayed where she was, too terrified to move.
          "Kirby?  How bad is it?"  Saunders deep voice rumbled.
          "It's my leg. Not bad."  Kirby answered, his voice controlled and steady.
          "Caje?"
          "Okay, Sarge."
          Saunders and Caje moved away through the bushes while Kirby pulled something from his belt, fumbling with it.
           "Sarge is checking it out."  Caje was suddenly back beside Kirby, taking the object which turned out to be a bandage.  He poured a white powder on the wound, then quickly bandaged it while Kirby sat still, his face white with pain.
          "They're dead." Saunders said as he rejoined them. He stopped, surprised to see the woman still laying on the ground. "Miss Morris?  You okay?"  He asked, concerned.
          "Yes.  Just scared."
          "Aren't we all."  He said wryly, reaching down to help her up.
          "Thank you, Sergeant."  She said, suddenly very tired.
          "Ok, Caje, take the point again.  I'll help Kirby.  Miss Morris, you stay right on our heels."
          Saunders and Caje helped Kirby to his feet, Saunders pulling one of Kirby's arms over his shoulders, trying to sling Kirby's heavy gun over his other shoulder while still keeping his own gun ready.  Laine bit her lip, then shrugged.  He could only get mad at her again.
          "Sergeant?"  She said softly.
          "Yes, Miss Morris?"  He replied absently.
          "The weapon Kirby carries is very heavy, isn't it?"
          "Your point, Miss Morris?"
          "If you're helping Kirby, that only leaves Caje to fight, right?  Why don't I help Kirby?  You can take his weapon, and I'll carry yours.  That way, if we meet any more Germans, you and Caje will both be ready."
          "You're not strong enough, Miss Morris."  He replied, although he was clearly considering the idea.
          "We can try it, Sarge."  Kirby put in.  "It does make sense.  It's my leg, not my arm.  Give me the Thompson, and you take the BAR.  That way we have two and a half men."
          "You just want to put your arm around a pretty girl, Kirby."  Caje grinned.
          "Aw, you just wish it was you got shot."  He retorted.
          Paying no attention to either of them, Saunders was lost in thought, part of his mind considering the problem, the other part thinking that in spite of the filthy dress, dirt-smeared face, and the beret pulled down over her ears, she was still beautiful.
          "Alright, we'll try it that way."  He said finally. 
          Laine moved in to Kirby's side, grasping his wrist when he laid his arm over her shoulder.  Saunders slipped the shoulder strap to his Thompson over Kirby's other shoulder, helping him get it into a comfortable ready position, then got the BAR positioned over his own shoulder.
          "Everybody ready?"  He asked.  "Ok, Caje, let's go."
          Laine took two steps and stopped.
          "Sergeant?"
          "Now what?"  He sighed.
          "Do you have something you can knock the heels off these shoes with?"
          Saunders looked from her obviously expensive shoes to her green eyes and back to the shoes.  He wasn't sure he'd heard right.  She was asking him to destroy her shoes?  Before he could say anything, Caje was beside her, bayonet in hand.  Putting one hand on Caje's shoulder to steady herself, she lifted a foot.  Caje slid the shoe off, struck the heel off with his bayonet and slipped the shoe back on her foot, then did the same with the other.
          "Thank you.  That's much better.  Okay, Kirby, onward and upward."  She grinned.
          They started off again, Caje in the lead, Saunders following Laine and Kirby.  She could tell he was trying not to lean on her and sighed in exasperation.
          "Kirby, you're supposed to be leaning on me, not using your leg."  She said quietly.
          "I'm too heavy for a pretty little thing like you."  He protested.
          "Kirby, if you ever say that to me again, you'll find yourself sitting in the dirt in the middle of France, wondering what hit you."  She snapped at him.
          "What did I say?"  He looked over at her, taken aback at her tone.
          "I am thoroughly sick of being called, and treated like, a 'pretty little thing'.  A pretty little thing is something you set on a shelf and dust once a week.  I am a young, strong, woman with more than blond hair and a figure, mister, and you'd better remember it."
          "Yes, ma'am.  I'm sorry, Miss Morris."
          "Laine, Kirby, Laine.  Lean on me so that you have something left if we meet more of those Germans."  She ordered.
          Despite his best intentions, Kirby was soon doing just that and discovered that she really was stronger than she looked.  His leg was giving him fits, he was hungry, thirsty, and developing a headache. 
          Glancing sideways at him, Laine found that his face was pale and covered with sweat, his eyes half-closed.  She started talking to him, telling him stories of different places she had performed, and different performers she'd known.  Some of the stories were true, some were not, but it didn't matter.  It was keeping him awake and giving him something besides his leg to concentrate on. 
          Saunders followed them, finding he once again had to revise his opinion of the woman.  He knew she was dog-tired, but she was supporting Kirby well, and he could hear her voice, though not the words, as she talked to the injured man.  Her tone was calm and soothing, but with just the right touch to keep him awake and alert, keeping his mind off his wound.  He called a halt about forty-five minutes later to let both of them rest.  He came up on Kirby's other side, took his arm and helped lower him to a convenient log.  Caje joined them, offering Kirby a drink from his canteen.  Kirby accepted it with a nod of thanks and took a long drink, then offered it to Laine, who shook her head.  She rolled her shoulders and arched her back, stretching, but said nothing.  Saunders checked the bandage on Kirby's leg, pleased to find little new bleeding.  Laine wrapped her arms around her middle, twisting from side to side, then suddenly stopped in mid-twist.
          "Sergeant?  May I go over there?"  She pointed to a clump of bushes.
          "Sorry.  Not alone."  He couldn't help the slight blush that colored his face.
          Laine stared at him a moment, then giggled.
          "Not for that, Sergeant.  Would you come with me, then, if I need a babysitter?"
          "Caje?"
          "Yeah, Sarge."  He nodded in response to the unspoken order.
          Puzzled, Saunders followed Laine over to the bushes, understanding dawning when she started stripping berries off the bush.  She started to give him a handful, then realized he would need both hands for the gun. Instead, she caught up the front hem of her skirt, making a basket into which she dropped the berries. When she had a fair amount, she turned to go back to the others, not realizing Saunders had moved, and almost walked right into him.  Blue eyes met green for a moment, then he stepped aside.  She'd gone three steps before the look in his eyes registered.  Bemused, she tripped over a root and would have fallen had his strong hand not caught her arm.
          "Careful."  Was all he said.
          "Thank you, Sergeant."  She said softly, not looking at him.
          She returned to Kirby, stopping in front of him, grinning.
          "Look at what's in the skirt, not under it, Kirby."  She teased.
          Blushing, Kirby did as he was told, eagerly reaching in for a handful of berries, which he crammed into his mouth.  Caje took a few, as did Saunders, leaving the rest for Kirby.  Caje gave Kirby another drink, again offering it to Laine, who again refused.
          "Ok, let's get moving."  Saunders ordered.

^^^

          Caje helped Kirby to his feet, then turned to lead the way again.  Laine slid one arm around Kirby, her other hand holding onto his wrist over her shoulder, and started after Caje.  They hadn't gone very far when Caje stopped and motioned them down.  Laine quickly helped Kirby to the ground and flattened herself beside him while Saunders took a position just behind them.  Caje signaled four men ahead and to the right, fifty feet away.  Saunders quickly exchanged weapons with Kirby, then pushed Laine against the side of a fallen tree, helping Kirby into position on his good leg so that she was between Kirby and the log.  Catching sight of the sergeant's sidearm, she caught his arm.
          "May I have your pistol, Sergeant?"  She whispered.
          "What for?"
          "I don't want to be taken prisoner by them."  She said simply.
          Knowing what the Germans were likely to do with such a pretty young woman, and again surprised at her courage, he knelt beside her and handed her the pistol. After showing her how to work the dual safety mechanisms, he returned to his position.  A moment later, he moved back beside Kirby, softy calling Caje to join them.
          "They're coming right for us.  There isn't enough cover here or enough time to move."
          "What have you got in mind, Sarge?"
          "I'm going to lead them off.  You two get Miss Morris back home."
          "Let me do it, Sarge."  Caje suggested.
          "No. They shoot privates.  I'm going to move over to the right and start from there.  Ok?"
          "They don't shoot sergeants?"  Laine asked.  "What do they do with them?"
          "Take them prisoner."  Kirby answered when Saunders didn't.
          "Sergeant, you can't risk your life like that for me."  Laine protested.
          "It's not just for you, Miss Morris.  There's Kirby, too."  Saunders pointed out.
          Saunders handed his mission map to Caje, clapped each man on the shoulder, then slipped away into the bushes.  Caje and Kirby peered over the log, watching the Germans.  Unable to stand the suspense, Laine got to her knees between the two men.
          A few minutes later, one of the Germans yelled, firing into the trees.  Laine gasped; Caje immediately clapped a hand over her mouth and pulled her against his shoulder.  The three of them watched as one of the Germans went into the trees, returning with Saunders and another German soldier.  Once out in the open, they searched him and tied his hands behind his back.  One of the Germans moved up close to him, and a moment later they saw the German hit Saunders in the face.  He staggered, and one of the Germans behind him pushed him back into position.  The German in front of him hit him again.  Saunders fell against one of the men behind him, then to the ground.  They pulled him back to his feet and pushed him north along the edge of the woods, away from their position.  Saunders staggered and stumbled as the Germans shoved and prodded him along.
          "Kirby, I'm going after him.  You wait here with Laine."
          "Wait how long, Caje?"  Kirby asked.
          "As long as you think."  Caje shrugged.
          "He told both of us to take Laine back."  Kirby argued.
          "Well, he didn't say that we had to stay together, did he?  You take her and we'll catch up, then both of us will be taking her, right?"
          "Mmmmm. Mmmm."  Laine twisted against Caje's hand.
          "Sorry, Laine."  Caje let go of her quickly.
          "How are you going to rescue the sergeant?  Against five men?  Kirby's injured and can't help."  She asked, her voice shaking.
          "Don't worry, Laine.  I'm not hurt that bad, I'll get you back."  Kirby assured her.
          She turned and stared at him, her face burning with anger, her green eyes flashing.  "I am not worried about me, soldier.  I am thinking about the sergeant.  And Caje.  He's alone against five men!"
          "Caje can take care of himself, Laine.  We've done this sort of thing before.  It'll be okay."
          "Take care of her, Kirby.  See you in awhile."  Caje disappeared silently.
          "How does he do that?"  Laine demanded.
          "Do what?"  Kirby asked absently.
          "Move without a sound."
          "Beats me, but it makes me crazy.  I guess he learned how to do that since Sarge made him the scout.  A noisy scout ain't much good.  He's nearly given me a heart attack more than once coming up behind me like that."  He grinned.
          "Kirby, I've been meaning to ask you...just what is a BAR?"
          "This thing.  A Browning Automatic Rifle.  BAR, for short."

^^^

          
          Saunders made it about a hundred yards before he was spotted.  He heard a gunshot as one of the Germans yelled, and had just started to bring up the Thompson when he heard a voice behind him, ordering him to put his hands up. 
Now where had he come from?  As he placed his hands on his head, he heard the sound of a zipper and had to grin.  That's where the Kraut came from.  Just his luck.  Another German came crashing through the bushes and they shoved him back out of the trees towards the other Germans.  They searched his pockets, then tied his hands tightly behind his back as the German sergeant walked up to him.
          "What are you doing here?  Where are your men?"
          Hoping that his men were on their way, Saunders didn't answer him.  The sergeant backhanded him, knocking him into the soldier behind him, who roughly shoved him back in front of the sergeant.
          "Where are your men?"  He demanded.
          "I'm alone."  Saunders told him.
          "Americans do not travel alone.  Where are your men?"
          He hit Saunders with a closed fist this time, sending him crashing into the same soldier, who stepped aside and let him fall heavily to the ground, dazed.  The two soldiers behind him grabbed his arms, hauling him back to his feet, the rope biting painfully into his wrists.
          "We will take you back with us.  You will tell us what we want to know."
          He was shoved forward, away from where he'd left the others.  Still dazed, he stumbled in the tangling weeds, his captors shoving him and prodding him along.  He knew there would be nobody to rescue him this time, and just hoped he'd be able to stall them long enough for Caje and Kirby to get the woman to safety before they killed him.  His foot caught on yet another weed and he took a quick sidestep to try to catch his balance.  One of the men behind him shoved him roughly and he fell hard, his head thumping painfully on the ground.  As he lay there, trying to catch his breath, he was kicked in the side, then they jerked him back up and shoved him onward.  Dizzy, and having trouble seeing, he stumbled again.  Jerking him by the arm, one of the Germans yelled something at him, then hit him in the back with his rifle butt.  He went to his knees, desperately trying not to fall again.  He thought he heard an American M-1 rifle open up, then he felt the red-hot burn of a bullet slam into his arm and he crashed to the ground on his back, the sound of gunfire fading as the blackness washed over him.

^^^

          Caje moved through the trees quickly and soundlessly, his M-1 held in both hands, ready to fire.  Up ahead of him, he could hear the German yelling at Saunders, then it stopped.  He came up even with them, hidden in the trees, just as the German behind the sergeant gave him a hard shove and the bound man fell, his head striking the ground.  He had to force his finger off the trigger when the soldier kicked Saunders, hoping for a better chance when the sergeant was further out of the line of fire.  When the sergeant stumbled again, the German hit him in the back with the rifle butt, driving him to his knees. 
          Realizing they would beat him to death if he didn't do something soon, Caje brought his rifle up and fired.  The soldier who had just struck Saunders went down, then the Germans were returning fire.  Even as the last man, the German sergeant, was going down, he turned and fired at Saunders, who crashed to the ground on his back and lay still.  Angry, and afraid the sergeant was dead, Caje fired again, and the German sprawled on the ground, motionless. 
          Cautiously, Caje moved from German to German, checking them before he knelt by Saunders.  He didn't look too bad despite the beating he'd received, but there was a bloody wound in his upper arm.  He didn't make a sound as Caje gently rolled him onto his side and cut the ropes that bound his wrists. 

^^^

          The feel of cool water on his face brought Saunders back to the surface and he opened his eyes, expecting to see Germans.  It was Caje bending over him.
          "Sarge?  How you doin'?"  He asked.
          "Caje?"  He asked in disbelief.
          "Yeah, Sarge, it's me."
          "What the hell are..."  His fury propelled him upright, then he broke off with a gasp of pain.  "Let's get out of here."
          "I think I'm in big trouble."  Caje muttered under his breath as he got to his feet. Grasping Sarge's good arm, he pulled him to his feet and they headed back toward Kirby.

^^^

          Kirby and Laine waited and watched in silence, leaning against  the log, even though there was nothing to see.  Kirby glanced at his watch, and shifted position to ease his leg, accidentally bumping into Laine. 
          "Sorry."
          "Kirby, I'm so scared."  She whispered.
          He shifted again, sliding an arm around her shoulders to hold her close against his side.
          "Better?"
          "Yes, thank you."
          A moment later, Kirby tensed at the sound of gunfire.
          "That's Caje."  He said quietly, listening intently.  "Germans.  Caje.  Germans.  Caje and Germans.  Caje."
          The gunfire stopped and Kirby looked at his watch again. 
          "Laine, help me stand up."  He said a few minutes later.
          "We aren't leaving?"  She stared at him, aghast.
          "No, I just want to be able to see better."  He assured her. 
          He figured to give Caje and the sarge an hour before leaving.  He wanted desperately to go after them, but with his injured leg and Laine to protect, he couldn't.  Laine got to her feet and helped him up to lean against a tree, standing close by his side.  After fifteen minutes, he eased himself back to the ground at the base of the tree, where he had a pretty good field of view.  Laine remained standing for a few minutes, then sat down beside him, silent tears running down her face. Kirby glanced at her, and did a double-take.
          "Laine?"  He asked softly.
          "They're both dead, and it's my fault."  She whispered.
          "How in he...how do you figure that?"
           "If I hadn't been there, you guys wouldn't have been here.  If  he didn't have to protect me, he wouldn't have had to go out there.  Sergeant Saunders was right.  I got them killed."
          "No, Laine.  If they're dead, and that's a big 'if',  it was the war that killed them, not you.  It was the Germans, not you."  He told her firmly.
          "How he must have hated me when he went out there."  She wiped her eyes.
          "No, Laine.  He doesn't hate you.  He doesn't even hate the Germans.  He just has a job to do, and he does it the best way he can.  He's been here since D-Day and he knows what he's doing.  Caje, too."
          Kirby figured it sounded right; he almost had himself convinced.  He kept watch while thinking about the best way to get them both back alive. Hearing something moving in the bushes, he surged to his knees, totally forgetting about his leg wound.  He lifted the heavy BAR onto the log and waited, reminding himself to breathe.
          "Kirby.  It's me."  Kirby nearly collapsed with relief when he heard Caje's voice.
          "Come on in."  He called back.
          Caje came into view, supporting Saunders with an arm around his waist.  When they reached Kirby, Caje eased Saunders to the ground where he sat leaning against the log, clutching his injured arm, his eyes closed.  While Caje knelt beside him, bandaging his arm, Laine edged nearer, gasping at the sight of his face.  His face was smeared with dirt and blood and he had a bleeding cut on his cheekbone and a split lip.  When he finished, Caje went to stand watch while Kirby sat down beside Saunders.  Laine moved to his other side, gently smoothing the sweaty blond hair from his forehead. 
          "Hey, I forgot.  I brought back a couple of their canteens."  Caje tossed them to Kirby.
          Laine reached under her skirt and tore off a relatively clean piece of her slip.  Wetting it, she gently cleaned Saunders face.  She glanced  up at Kirby, then back at Saunders, breaking into a wide smile when his eyes slowly opened.
          "Welcome back, Sarge."  Kirby said.  "How do you feel?"
          "Where's Caje?"  He whispered hoarsely.
          "Right here, Sarge."  Caje stepped into his sight.
          "I gave you an order.  You disobeyed it."  Even in a whisper, his fury was evident.
          "Well, not exactly, Sarge."  Kirby said.
          "Shut up, Kirby."  Saunders told him.
          "You said 'The two of you take her back'.  You didn't say I had to stay here.  I'm back, so the two of us are taking her back."  Caje pointed out.
          "And if you'd gotten yourself killed trying to rescue me?"
          "If I had any doubts about it, Sarge, I would have come back here.  I wouldn't have liked it, but I would have left you and come back."  Caje told him.
          Saunders continued to glare at him for a moment, then closed his eyes with a groan.  "Ok, smart guy.  Now what?"  He asked without opening his eyes.
          "Well, I figured to give you a little while to rest.  Then Laine could help Kirby, and I'd help you.  It will take awhile, but we'll make it back."
          "Gimme some water."  Saunders muttered.
          Kirby held the canteen for him while he drank greedily, then capped it, looking up at Caje for direction.
          "The shots might bring more Krauts.  Let's move."  Saunders straightened.
          "Okay, Sarge."  Caje answered reluctantly.
          "Caje, you help Sarge.  I can use that stick to walk."  Kirby said, indicating a fairly straight, stout branch laying nearby. "Laine, can you carry the BAR?"
          "Yes, of course."
          "Okay, I'll take Sarge."  Caje agreed. "Laine, you follow us and Kirby will bring up the rear.  And Kirby?"
          "Yeah?"
          "When you need to rest, be sure to tell me."
           "Count on it, pal."
          It took all three of them to get Saunders on his feet and settled against Caje, then Laine picked up the BAR, determined to carry the heavy weapon.  Kirby helped her settle the strap over her shoulder, easing the weight in her arms.  They started walking, stopping frequently to rest.  Saunders was leaning more and more on Caje, till he finally started to slide to the ground. 
   Caje eased him down on his back, and sprawled beside him, breathing hard.  Kirby lay down with a sigh of relief, reaching for his canteen.  Laine sat down beside Saunders, the BAR in her lap, and sponged his face with the damp rag she'd stuffed in her pocket.  He moved restlessly under her touch, but didn't open his eyes.  Caje leaned over and tightened the bandage which showed fresh blood.  Waiting as long as he dared, Caje glanced over at Kirby.
          "Kirby?"
           "Yeah?"
          "Can you go on?"
          "Yeah.  Let's go."
          Caje handed his rifle to Laine, then bent and started to lift Saunders into his arms. The sergeant's eyes snapped open and he waved Caje back.
          "I can walk.  Just give me a hand up."
          Caje and Kirby helped him up again, supporting him while Caje pulled Saunders' arm over his shoulders, then reached for his rifle.
          "Do you know where we're going, Caje?"  Laine managed a smile. 
          "More or less."  He grinned and started walking.

^^^

          After a couple hours, and several more rest stops,  Caje stopped suddenly, then stepped behind the cover of thick berry bushes, lowering the barely-conscious sergeant to the ground.  Laine and Kirby quickly followed, crouching beside the injured man. Kirby took the BAR from Laine, one hand gently pushing her flat on the ground next to Saunders.
          "Kirby."  Caje whispered.  "Am I seeing things?"
          Kirby cautiously rose to his feet, moving up beside the Cajun.
          "If you are, I am, too.  That's Littlejohn."
          "That's what I thought.  Wait here."
          Caje slipped away without a sound.  Laine and Kirby looked at each other and grinned. A few moments later, he was back with three men.  One wore a white armband with a red cross on it; another, taller, man had a helmet with a white stripe painted on it.  It was the third man that Laine was staring at.  She'd
never seen such a big man.  When he and the red cross man hurried toward the now unconscious sergeant, she scrambled backward, stopping when she ran into Kirby's leg.  He reached down and helped her to her feet, where she clung to his arm, staring at the new arrivals.
          "Where'd you come from, Lieutenant?"  Kirby asked in delight.
          "Looking for lost sheep.  How is he, Doc?"
          "He'll be okay."  Doc was busy changing the dressing as he answered.
          "When you get done, Doc, Kirby has a leg wound."  Caje commented.
          "I do?  Oh, yeah, I forgot about it."  Kirby laughed.
          "Would one of you mind telling me who the lady masquerading as a mud puddle is?" Lieutenant Hanley asked with great restraint.
          "This is Laine Morris.  Laine, Lieutenant Hanley, our CO.  That's Doc, and Littlejohn."
          "Does this mean we're safe?"  Laine asked hesitantly.
          "Yes, Laine.  We're safe now."  Caje assured her.
          She turned, buried her face in Kirby's shoulder and burst into tears.  Momentarily startled, Kirby recovered quickly, handing Littlejohn the BAR and putting his arms around her.  He tried patting her shoulder, then settled for just holding her while she cried.  Caje motioned with his head for the lieutenant to follow him a short distance away, where he explained what had happened.  By the time they returned, Laine had regained her composure, washed her face, and was helping Kirby balance while Doc worked on his leg wound.
          "Littlejohn, rig up a stretcher for Saunders."  Hanley ordered.
          In short order, they were on the move again, Littlejohn in the lead, Caje and Doc carrying the sergeant,  Kirby and Hanley walking on either side of Laine. 
          "Hold it, Littlejohn."  Doc called a short time later.  "Sarge is awake."
          Hanley moved up beside the stretcher, laying a hand on Saunders' good shoulder and grinning at the bewildered man.
          "How you doing, Saunders?"  He asked.
          "I'm okay."  He answered automatically.  "Where'd you come from?"
          "Just out for a walk, Sergeant.  Take it easy, you're on the way home."
          "Caje?  Kirby?"  He tried to lift his head.
          "Lay still.  They're fine."  Hanley assured him.
          Laine moved up beside Hanley, reaching out to lay her hand on Saunders head.
          "You clean up nice."  He whispered with a faint grin.
          "Gee, thanks.  You, on the other hand, don't look too great."  She smiled.
          "I feel great."  He replied as his eyes drifted shut again.
          "Let's go."  Hanley chuckled.
          They reached camp a short time later, Saunders and Kirby, despite his protests, being dropped off at the aid station.  Lieutenant Hanley took Laine off for a bath of sorts and clean clothes, while Caje disappeared with Littlejohn and Doc.

^^^

           When Saunders opened his eyes again, Laine was sitting beside him, sipping a cup of coffee.  He lay still for a minute, just watching her.
          "Hi."  He said finally, making her jump and nearly drop the cup.
          "Lieutenant?  He's awake."  She called softly.
          "Good."  Hanley appeared, lit a cigarette and handed it to him with a grin.  "You constantly amaze me, Sergeant.  I send you out on a simple recon patrol, and you come back with a beautiful woman.  Maybe I'll go with you next time."
          "Tell you what, Lieutenant.  Next time you go, and I'll stay here."  He grinned.
          "How do you feel?"
          "A lot better than I did a couple hours ago."
          "A couple hours ago was yesterday."  Hanley chuckled.
          "Yesterday?"  Saunders repeated in disbelief.
          "Yesterday.  When you sleep, you put your heart into it.  You up to seeing the men?"
          "Sure."
          Laine slipped out of the chair and moved back, watching as the men crowded around their sergeant, obviously thrilled to see him.  Watching him laugh and joke with his men, she saw a whole new side of him.  Gone was the growling, obnoxious, demanding sergeant.  In his place was a happy, carefree young man.

^^^

           The next morning, Hanley appeared at Saunders' side just after breakfast.
          "How is it today?"  Hanley asked.
          "Better, Lieutenant."
          "Miss Morris is going to do a few songs for the men before we send her off to Paris. Wanna come listen?"          
          "Yes, sir."  He answered with a grin.
          Hanley offered him a hand up, which he accepted gratefully.  Once on his feet, he swayed alarmingly and Hanley grabbed his arm.
          "You sure you're up to this, Saunders?"
          "I'm fine, Lieutenant." Saunders assured him.  "I don't want to miss this."
          Hanley gave him a minute to collect himself, then they walked out of the aid station, arriving just as Laine started her first song. Standing on the hood of a truck, dressed in a donated uniform, she sang several songs, then stopped and looked at the men surrounding her.
          "This is a very special song to the men of King Company.  To three very special, very wonderful men. Sergeant Saunders, Private LeMay, and last but certainly not least, Private Kirby."
          The crowd of men were absolutely silent as she sang "We'll Meet Again".  When she saw  that several of the men standing below her had tears running unashamedly down their faces, she choked up herself, and finished the song with tears running down her own face.  She managed a shaky smile, then launched into "The Beer Barrel Polka".  She followed that with "God Bless America", then jumped off the truck into Littlejohn's arms.  She gave him a big hug before he set her on her feet, then worked her way through the crowd to where Saunders stood with Hanley.
          Hanley looked at her, then at Saunders, and quietly moved away, neither of them noticing his departure.  Laine took his good hand in both of hers and clasped it to her heart, smiling at him through fresh tears.
          "Sergeant Saunders. Sarge.  I don't think the words have been invented for me to tell you how I feel.   Thank you for taking such good care of me.  You yelled at me when I needed yelled at.  You comforted me when I needed that, too.  You risked your life for me. You are a very, very special man and I am so happy that I met you.  You take good care of yourself, Sarge, and when you come home, you write to me.  I will come to you, and we'll have a wonderul evening together.  Promise me?"
          Saunders gently freed his hand and lifted it to run his fingers through her soft hair, ending with his hand on the back of her neck.
          "I promise, Laine.  When I get back, I'll write to you.  You're a brave, beautiful woman."
          He fell silent, looking into her green eyes.  She leaned forward against his chest, tipping her face up to meet his kiss, wrapping both arms around his neck.  When they finally broke apart, neither of them heard the entire company cheer.  She gently laid her hand against his bruised cheek, tears streaming down her face, then turned and walked away to the truck waiting to take her to Paris.    Saunders stood alone, watching the truck till it was out of sight.
September 2000, 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.