Disclaimer: The men of Combat! do not belong to me. The song “Sound the Bugle” does not belong to me either. It belongs to Gavin Greenaway and Trevor Horn and is featured in the motion picture Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. I am not being compensated in any tangible way for this endeavor.
This is my very first attempt at a songfic. Blame Belle and Jester and their blasted challenge.
There is no plot so don’t go looking for one. Thanks to Jester who kept the motivation going.
Saunders sprawled on the cot, shifting restlessly in a vain attempt to find a comfortable position. His leg was bandaged from knee to hip, itching him in places he'd rather not think about. As it happened, he didn't need surgery. One of the field docs had yanked out the shrapnel, cleaned the wound and sent him on to the makeshift hospital. No evacuation for him. Just lie around, ogle the nurses and return to the line in a week or so. He sighed, threw an arm over his eyes and turned as much of his back to the room as he could.
He didn't want to think about anything or anyone. Especially not his squad. They were all here or had been. Nelson had been sent back with an ankle fracture. He'd return in six weeks with any luck. Littlejohn and Kirby escaped with little more than cuts and bruises. Caje had spent a couple of days recovering from a concussion and a perforated eardrum. Doc, well, Doc was still there, silent and brooding, resisting all efforts to send him back to the rear.
I'm a soldier - wounded so I must give up the fight
Saunders knew exactly how he felt.
*** *** ***
Sound the bugle now
The German shells were coming closer now, their observers walking them in at their leisure. The Americans had been caught with their pants down, working off faulty intelligence. Now they were stuck, with a river at their backs and half the German army right smack in front of them and sliding their way around the flanks. Saunders huddled in his foxhole with the radio and his map, desperately trying to call in some artillery of their own.
Caje leapt into the foxhole headfirst, rolling over one shoulder and coming up with his Garand at the ready. He ran the back of one grimy hand over his mouth, panting hard.
"It's no go round the east, Sarge. They've dug in but good. Third squad is already taking a beating. Their medic is dead. Doc went over to help 'em out."
The sergeant looked up sharply, noticing a small trickle of blood wending its way through the dirt caking his scout's face. And something else. Fear. Just how many months had it been since D-Day? Caje was the backbone of Saunders' squad, the man he could always depend on to get the job done. The last time he'd seen this look in the Cajun's eyes was on the beach, a lifetime ago. If Caje was this worried, the rest of the guys must be shaking in their boots.
Sound the bugle now - play it just for me
Saunders reached out, turning Caje's face to the side, and inspected the source of the blood. Just a scratch. He let out the breath he'd been holding and consulted his map again, giving himself a moment to pull his chaotic thoughts together. The radio squawked and he grabbed it, pulling it tightly to his ear.
"No, sir! We've got...no, we can't....no, sir, it's just...." He let his arm drop, the radio falling into his lap. Rolling onto his belly, Saunders worked his way up to the front of the foxhole, peeking over quickly and then dropping back down. The Germans were holding their line, just waiting for the shells to soften up the Americans. He glanced up at Caje, wishing he had better news to impart.
"Everything's already deployed somewhere else. We're stuck here. The lieutenant says we've got to pull back." He shook his head. "We try to cross back over that river the Krauts are gonna cut us to ribbons."
Caje's fingers tightened around the rifle, the knuckles turning white with effort. "We're being cut to ribbons right now, Sarge." He looked up as the distinctive whine of a German 88 filled the air.
"Get down!" Saunders threw himself flat in the foxhole, one hand curling itself into Caje's jacket and pulling him down, too. The concussion shook the earth as the shell blasted into the ground off to their east, a plume of smoke rising rapidly and spreading over the entire area, leaving them coughing and gagging.
Now I can't go on, I can't even start
*** *** ***
Scrambling to his knees, the sergeant pulled his Thompson to his chest, running a practiced eye over it and brushing off the latest layer of dirt. Levering one foot under him, he peered out of the foxhole, preparing himself for a mad dash to the stream bed running perpendicular to the river. It was dry this time of year and providing needed shelter to several of first squad's men. Scooping up the radio, Saunders nudged Caje with his elbow, signaling the man to follow him.
Sound the bugle now...
Listening closely to the distinctive sound of Kirby's B.A.R., the sergeant and scout crouched, muscles tensed and ready. A momentary lull in the weapon's roar was immediately filled by German gunfire. Saunders held up one hand and then was off running as soon as Kirby recommenced fire. Zig-zagging across the grassy marshland, he dove into the gulch, startling Littlejohn who turned toward him with his rifle at the ready. Seconds later, Caje thudded at their feet, wide-eyed and breathing hard.
Tell them I don't care...
"We gotta get outta here! Caje, Littlejohn, spread the word along the western banks of the river. Kirby, we need a lot of cover fire." Saunders propped his elbows on a dead log, staring at the drifting smoke over the eastern edge of the battlefield. Doc's over there...
He knew that somebody would have to cover the retreat. And he knew that it would fall to his squad. It always did. As Kirby began firing the B.A.R., Saunders took off running, so hunched over he almost caught himself in the chin with his knees. Spreading the word in each foxhole he came to, he felt gratified to see the men respond to command, even if the command was to pull back. Runners ran forward into the teeth of the German attack, hoping to find someone they could rescue, somebody to drag home from what had ended up a turkey shoot.
There's not a road I know, that leads to anywhere...
Eventually Saunders arrived at the eastern edge of the battle, coughing continuously in the acrid smoke. He could no longer tell the foxholes from the shell holes. Both were filled with bodies both living and dead. Whole squads were wiped out, their corpses strung out at proper intervals that didn't help against multiple shells slamming into the earth one after another.
He found Doc working furiously over a kid no older than eighteen, whose freckles stood out in a face as white as writing paper. The medic glanced up, catching sight of Saunders, and shook his head, his blood-covered hands falling in frustrated fists to his thighs.
"We're fightin' a losin' battle here, Sarge. There's just too many..."
Saunders jumped in the foxhole, throwing both the medic and a dazed private with vacant eyes to the dirt, covering their bodies with his own. The shell struck not fifty feet from them, showering them with clumps of dirt and debris. Another thundered down, and then another. The soldiers huddled in the ground, forcing themselves flatter and flatter. Over the sound of his own heart pounding in his ears, the sergeant could hear nothing beyond the devastating howl of the 88s. Under him, the private trembled, his entire body shaking with terror. Saunders could feel him burrowing into the earth, the kid's pointy elbows digging into the sergeant's belly from time to time.
Without a light I fear that I will stumble in the dark...
Doc didn't so much as twitch a muscle. Saunders tried to turn his neck to visualize the medic but the smoke had turned what was left of the late afternoon to premature night. He waited a moment longer and then rolled to one side, coming up on one knee, and managed to get the Thompson in some semblance of readiness. Squinting at the shifting shadows drifting across the grassy riverbank, the sergeant saw no movement whatsoever, German or American. He turned back to the foxhole just in time to see the young private take a swing at Doc, knocking the man back on his rear just as he was climbing to his feet.
"You have to save him! You...Have...To!"
The medic flinched away, hands raised high in astonishment as the kid brought his M1 to his shoulder, trembling but managing to keep it pointed in Doc's vicinity. Saunders was too far away to do anything but shoot the man. Just yet the thought hadn't crossed his mind.
Doc looked up, blue eyes wide with incomprehension. He shook his head slowly back and forth, pleading with the kid. "He's dead, he was bleeding too much, he's too far gone..." He closed his eyes as the private leveled the rifle, finger tightening on the trigger.
None of the three of them heard the whistling of the incoming shell.
Lay right down and decide not to go on
*** *** ***
At first he thought his leg was on fire as exquisite pain crawled along his nerve endings, starting somewhere just below his knee and ending up deep in his hip. For a few seconds Saunders just breathed through it, wanting to believe it was just a dream, just a momentary lapse in his grip on reality. But the agony grew exponentially, expanding until it eclipsed everything and he groaned aloud, tears flooding his eyes and spilling unheeded down his cheeks.
I'm a soldier...
Saunders didn't recognize the voice. He kept his eyes closed, trying to keep his awareness in a place somewhere deep inside himself, somewhere nobody else could ever go. Someplace where there was no pain.
The voice was more insistent now, carrying an edge of desperation that tugged at Saunders' innate sense of duty. He allowed his level of consciousness to rise, just a little. He became aware of the evening chill and a breeze blowing across his face. He didn't feel cold, didn't feel anything but the white hot pain. But somebody else did, somebody shivering uncontrollably under Saunders' body.
Lifting his head, an act that seemed to require more energy than he possessed, Saunders found himself staring at an American dog tag, slung around the grimy neck of an American GI. The same GI on whom Saunders was sprawled and on whom Saunders bled freely from any number of wounds. A GI whose name the sergeant recognized.
"Doc..." Saunders breathed the nickname out, unaware that he'd spoken aloud. He levered himself up on one elbow, immediately rolling awkwardly to one side at the moan of pain from the medic.
The corpsman drew in a deep breath, stopping suddenly as his muscles complained and spasmed around his chest. Blue eyes snapped open and fixated on Saunders, pinning him in place. Doc opened his mouth, coughing hard and then spoke in the raspy, smoke-filled voice the sergeant hadn't recognized.
"Sarge, where ya hurt?" He struggled to sit up, his right arm hugging his rib cage and his left hanging at an odd angle from his shoulder. Biting his lower lip hard to stifle a cry of pain, Doc managed to get to his knees, swaying slightly over his sergeant's prone body.
Small lacerations from flying shrapnel dotted his exposed skin here and there, the largest an inch in length along his left cheekbone. A thin sheen of blood covered his face, but none of it looked too serious. Saunders sucked in a sigh of relief, staring up into Doc's concerned blue eyes.
"I think...I think it's my leg, my right leg." He continued to stare up at the medic, the adrenaline rush initiated by the young private's behavior and fueled by the exploding shell rapidly dissipating and leaving him tired and trembling.
"Where's, where's that...kid..." Saunders tried to get up, looking wildly around. He flinched away from Doc's firm right hand on his chest, shoving him back down.
Doc's eyes darkened, his face sagging in abject misery. He looked beyond Saunders at something, something that pulled him as surely as it repelled him. Turning suddenly away, he vomited into the scant grass, his already shivering body wracked with tremors. After a moment he turned back and began rummaging through his medical ruck with his good hand.
The medic shook his head, opening sulfa packets and bandages with his teeth.
"He's dead, Sarge. That shell did him a favor."
There's nothing more for me...lead me away
Saunders stared at Doc as he sprinkled the powder over the expansive shrapnel wounds, the medic's eyes as faraway as home and just as illusive.
He wouldn't meet Saunders' gaze, keeping his attention on the task at hand. It was only when it became apparent that he couldn't tie the bandage off that he sat back on his heels with a sigh, rubbing hard at his eyes with his good hand. He seemed surprised at the fresh blood on his fingers, apparently only just realizing that he was bleeding himself.
"Sarge, I need some help." His eyes wandered back to the dead private, lighting there for a long moment and then moving on.
Saunders reached down to the bandage but surprised the medic by grabbing his wrist instead. "Doc, it's not your fault."
The medic yanked his arm away, dropping his chin to his chest, and pressed hard on his forehead with the palm of his hand. For a moment he didn't even seem to breathe, then he took a deep shuddering breath that caused him to yelp in pain and clutch at his injured ribs. A single tear tracked through the blood on each cheek, leaving a snail's trail that glistened in the waning light.
"The hell it's not, Sarge." He sniffed loudly, cuffing his nose with the back of his sleeve.
Saunders pressed the bandage to his leg. "He was gonna kill you, Doc. There was nothing you could do." He winced, let up on the pressure a little.
The medic stared at the dressing, the anguish in his face clearly visible in his unfocused eyes and the set of his thin lips. Very slowly he reached out and took the end of the dressing, sliding it under Saunders' leg and bringing it out the other side. With the sergeant's help, they managed to tie a snug knot, tucking the ends under, and added a second bandage.
Doc sat back on his rump, easing the pressure on his tensed legs. Pain shot up his arm, ping-ponging between elbow and neck before settling in his shoulder. He tentatively turned his head toward the injured limb but stopped with a hiss of pain.
"I'm sorry, Sarge." His blue eyes slid closed, the lashes lying thickly on his cheeks, damp with tears. "I couldn't save his buddy, I couldn't save him an' I don't know how in hell I'm gonna get you outta here."
Lay right down and decide not to go on...
Leg throbbing in time to his heartbeat, Saunders struggled to find the words. He knew the men talked about his patented pep talks, made jokes about them, but the sergeant had decided long ago that it was an effective tool of leadership. Trouble was, just right now he needed one himself. And there was nobody to deliver it.
An unexpected burst of flares right over their heads caused them both to duck down, shading their eyes from the unexpected light. All of a sudden it seemed to be raining munitions as the skies filled with Allied aircraft, all intent on blowing this particular piece of real estate off the map.
The medic rolled to his feet, reaching with his good arm to haul Saunders up.
Saunders flung his arm around Doc's neck, knowing he was hurting him but unable to do anything else. They staggered against each other and then found their balance, first one leaning and then the other as they made their way back to the river.
Then from on high - somewhere in the distance
*** *** ***
Saunders blinked, not realizing that he'd actually dozed off. In the three days he'd been in the little hospital, in reality a bombed out church in some God-forsaken French village, he'd hardly slept at all. He carefully turned over, coming face to face with his medic who perched gingerly on the stool that sat between Saunders' bed and the next.
Doc's torso was wrapped securely from waist to armpits and his shoulder was in an elaborate sling. Apparently the impact from his flying sergeant had fractured not only his collarbone but also three ribs. The doctors said it would be a good four weeks before he could even consider going back out in the field. Doc had refused evacuation, saying he'd be able to work in the hospital and the aid stations. Said he could do just as much one-handed as most did with two.
Remember who you are...
"How ya feelin'?"
The dark circles under Doc's eyes made him look much older than he was, just as the tousled hair normally hid under a helmet made him look younger. Saunders stared at him a moment, never sure which "Doc" he was talking to. The older one who'd seen enough blood and death to last a lifetime or the younger one who was so traumatized by it all that he'd just about shut down. It didn't matter, of course, both of them were Doc, a fact for which Saunders was truly grateful. He owed one of them his life and the other his perspective.
He couldn't understand how they'd all been spared that night. Third squad - entirely wiped out. Another fifteen men dead from other units. But first squad, they were all going to be fine. Until the next time.
With a sigh, Saunders made himself comfortable on his pillow and lay back. He glanced over at the medic, who gave him a ghost of his usual grin. But a grin all the same. He relaxed, running his fingers through his hair.
"I'm okay, Doc, I'm okay." And for the first time in days, Saunders thought it might be true.
You're a soldier now, fighting in a battle