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