Acknowledgements: As always I have people to thank for their assistance in this endeavor. Lee – thanks for all things military. I have to admit that I ignored many of his recommendations for this particular story for stylistic reasons, but that all were greatly appreciated and those that I did use have greatly enhanced the feel of the story. Mel – thanks as usual for reading and for hosting the Storynook. Without you we’d have no place to post these little mental meanderings and we’d all be the poorer for it. And to my own Flyboy who actually read one scene at a time as it was written because he couldn’t wait to find out what happened.
Note: <” “> denotes a foreign language being spoken. In this story it will be either French or German as will be apparent.
A haze of smoke drifted lazily through the forest, thick enough to block much of the afternoon sun and turn the day into premature twilight, a no man’s island of frozen time. Tree branches lay everywhere from the shelling, leaving the stark limbless trunks jutting five to ten yards up from the earth, beseeching arms reaching heavenward with no chance of redemption. The smell of hot metal slipped insidiously beneath the earthier odors of loam and decaying leaves, of sweat and blood and fear.
The medic lay facedown in the dirt, chin tucked tight against his chest and his arms wrapped securely around his head. The concussion of the 88s pounding into the lines reverberated through his body, ears popping in the changing pressure and muscles jumping along the length of his legs, making him want to move, to run, to be anywhere but here. He knew the sensation wasn’t entirely due to the artillery. He felt a desperate need to get back to that gully, an aching desire that crawled along his nerves like an unscratchable itch. The gully where they’d left the sergeant. Were forced to leave the sergeant. Soon, soon.
He shifted his elbows slightly and raised his head, the thumb and index finger of his right hand gripping the edge of his helmet as if he expected it to be snatched away by gunfire. When nothing happened, he cautiously eased up a little more, the tendons in his neck screaming at him as he twisted to look down the line.
The corporal stared back at him from a distance of forty feet. Between them lay the prone bodies of the squad, weapons held close at hand as they burrowed deeper into their hastily dug foxholes, all knees and elbows and helmets. It was impossible to tell who was who. Who was there and who wasn’t. The corporal glanced at his watch and then held up one hand, all five fingers extended. Five minutes. Five endlessly long minutes until the bombardment would end. At least from their side.
The medic blinked, his blue eyes awash with smoke provoked tears. He nodded almost imperceptibly and dropped his head within the protective circle of his arms once more.
*** *** ***
The gully was full of dead bodies. And pieces of dead bodies. Doc lay as flat as he could, his nose and mouth tucked into the crook of his elbow in an effort to filter the oxygen he was sucking into his lungs. The stench of death and cordite left a bitter taste in the back of his throat and he swallowed convulsively, choking and gagging until he had to lift his head, gulping in a huge chestful of tainted air. He felt like he had no control over his breathing, panting heavily in fear and apprehension. He could feel the damp earth leaching his body heat and shivered despite the occasional fingers of warm sun on his back.
The barrage seemed to last forever. He knew he needed to move, to haul himself up the steep slope and find the rest of the squad. He also knew that it would be suicidal to do so, the Germans already dug in not forty yards away. The occasional snap of machine gun fire passed over his head and slapped into the very trees he was hoping would give him refuge. He sighed, silently cursing himself for not watching where he’d put his feet, for tripping and falling, rolling all the way back down into the gully unnoticed while the rest of the men raced on, trying to outdistance the Krauts.
Twenty minutes ago, all thoughts of expanding the beachhead had crumbled at the sight of the Tigers lined up, their crewmen sighting carefully on the surprised Americans. Survivors found themselves retreating over the same terrain they’d fought for so hard only moments prior as the 88’s came in. In their haste, it was easy to overlook one medic among the fallen, especially when that medic hadn’t cried out to his buddies, alerting them to his misfortune. It had been instinctive, the desire to protect his own rooted deeply in Doc’s heart and reinforced on a daily basis as he risked his life to save others. Unfortunately, that desire had gotten him into this mess, alone and unarmed between the wavering American lines and the relentless German offensive.
Daring to raise his head, Doc stared along the natural depression in the earth, squinting into the hazy smoke. He thought he could see a slight bend in its path and an increase in the number of spindly shrubs growing like an afterthought at the meeting of the two slopes. If he could only get there, maybe, just maybe he could shelter under the green leaves and inch his way along into the woods. Just maybe.
Shoving his medical bag onto his back, Doc carefully slid his arms out from under his body, wincing at the pins and needles that crept down from his elbows and into his hands. He flexed his fingers, opening and closing his fists to increase the circulation as he looked back over his shoulder, watching the tree line behind which lay the hidden enemy. There was no movement, but Doc knew they were there, patiently waiting for the end of the barrage. He had to go now.
He crawled forward, scant inches at a time, digging the toes of his boots into the loam and pressing his forearms hard against the ground. And against the corpses strewn along the gully. Doc closed his eyes, forcing himself not to think about the soft yielding flesh underneath his body. He held his breath but couldn’t avoid the heavy, coppery smell of blood slipping into his nostrils. His uniform sopped it up, becoming sodden and sticky. Death clutched at the medic with pale hands, palms turned upwards to the sky and clad in uniforms both American and German. He swallowed hard and pushed on.
The clump of shrubs, now taking on the appearance of a dense jungle in the medic’s near-panicked state, was only twenty feet away. Doc refused to look back at the trees, afraid that his eyes would confirm what his ears had finally registered. That the bombardment had stopped and the Germans were coming. He took a deep breath and flung himself over the next few yards, limbs flailing with a lack of grace that would have surprised his squad mates. Fear seemed to rob him of his coordination, pulling him heavily back to earth and draping him over the legs of a dead German soldier.
Doc glanced down, noting the enormous entrance wound in the front of the man’s thigh, blood soaking the blue-grey uniform pants and running down into the dirt beneath him. The medic blinked. Running down. He felt his own heart thud painfully against his ribs at the realization that this man was still alive despite the gaping hole in his leg.
A volley of rifle shots split the silence that had settled over the gully after the ear-numbing barrage. Doc ducked instinctively, placing his body over the wounded man and sheltering him without a second thought. It took a moment for him to realize that the shooting was a good distance away and that he was still alone, that he still had a chance to make it to cover before the German line advanced.
Cold fingers closed over Doc’s wrist and he jumped, pulse hammering in his ears. Still had a chance. Doc’s eyes, blue as the Arkansas sky on every summer day of his boyhood, slid closed. He knew now that the only one here who still had a chance was the young man staring up at him from the straggly weeds, his pallor only too evident beneath a thick layer of grime.
The German’s mouth moved, lips opening and closing noiselessly, nothing more than a choked whisper escaping his parched throat. His hand clutched Doc’s arm with desperation and surprising strength. Rain-grey eyes drawn taut with pain pinned the medic in place, the sounds of the guns and the smell of smoke fading away in the face of duty, even if it was the wrong uniform.
Doc suddenly reached behind his back, hauling his med kit around where he could get at it. He shook off the immobilizing fear that had gripped him, made his muscles rigid and trembling. There was no choice. No choice at all. The medic dumped out field dressings and sulfa, tearing their wrappers with his teeth and layering them rapidly over the bloody injury. He slid one hand under the man’s leg, looking quickly for an exit wound and not finding one. Not bothering to tie the bandages off, he pressed both hands over them, hoping to stem the steady flow of blood.
Leaning all his weight on the wound, Doc ignored the German’s moans and closed his eyes, knowing that only time would tell if the pressure would work. The wound was too high up for a tourniquet with no way to place the constricting band above the injury. He was sure the femoral artery was severed, if he could only let go with one hand long enough to reach his forceps, he might be able to clamp off the end of the bleeding vessel. Twisting, hands in place, Doc eyed his bag. Too far! Doc let his chin fall to his chest in frustration as warm blood soaked through the bandages and trickled down his fingers.
*** *** ***
The medic crouched in the woods, his medical ruck held tightly against his chest. He hated having to wait, always staying behind while the others forged ahead, weapons blazing. Not that he really wanted to be carrying a rifle, but he would if they’d let him. I think. Anxiety skated across his nerve endings, making him squirm around, shifting from one knee to the other. The sergeant! The medic had been the last man to see him, trying to balance on a wounded leg and covering their withdrawal. He’d tried to get to him, struggling against the arms of his squad mates who dragged him with them in retreat.
<”He’s hurt! I have to go!”>
<”You’ll die trying, fool.”>
Now they were almost within reach of the area where they’d been earlier that day. It seemed insane. Move forward a few hundred yards, killing the enemy along the way. Meet the enemy in a standoff, killing each other in approximately equal numbers. Then retreat when the enemy gained the advantage and was killing you. Wait for equilibrium, then move forward again. The medic rubbed his chin absently along his sleeve, feeling the rough edge of his brassard and then the smooth coolness of the painted-on red cross.
The corporal moved the squad slowly forward, anticipating that moment when they’d come into range of the American’s weapons. From his crouched position on the flank, the corporal looked over his shoulder and signaled the medic forward, the palm of his hand down.
Creeping forward on his belly, the medic dragged himself over the damp ground. Trampled grass caught in his fingers and tangled in his boot tops. Mud slithered its way down his collar, coating his neck and working its way inside his shirt. He shivered, though the afternoon was warm. Suddenly he realized where they were. The gully was only a few hundred yards to the left and he stared at the corporal with pleading eyes.
Turning just his head, the corporal nodded, repeating his palm down signal over and over again.
Adrenaline sang through the medic’s bloodstream, making his movements awkward and clumsy as he tried to stay low. Right hand and left knee forward, he’s got to be alive. Left hand and right knee, how can he possibly be? Shoving his ruck around to his back, he managed to pick up a little speed. Within minutes he was in the culvert and headed for the spot he’d last seen his sergeant.
Aware now that his own army was on both sides of the gully, the medic allowed himself to rise to a crouch, moving quickly along the old streambed. Here and there flowers still grew, inexplicably surviving the onslaught of two armies and a barrage of artillery. Where once glossy green banks of grass fell gracefully down to form a “V” was now a muddy quagmire, almost impossible to scale. The medic glanced up, wide-eyed a few times, expecting to see enemy faces peering down at him. He shook his head, forcing himself to trust that his squad would be watching his back.
Hurrying, he almost stumbled over the first corpse, an American whose twisted body lay face-up, one eye staring at the sun, the other a bloody hole. The medic merely paused, running his practiced gaze from head to toe, and then moved on. Now he found himself in a killing field, bodies piled on bodies and clouds of flies that dispersed momentarily with his passing then went back to their feeding.
Ignoring the Americans in their green uniforms, the medic scrutinized every German, turning them so he could see their faces. His hands grew slippery with blood and he wiped them mindlessly over and over on his pants leaving dark red patches that covered his legs from hips to knees.
He straightened, stretching his back. The gunfire was far behind him, too far to make him worry about the enemy. He removed his helmet and swiped the back of one hand across his forehead, scrubbing his fingers through his white-blonde hair. With one practiced shrug of his shoulders, he reseated his rucksack into a more comfortable position and then reached for his canteen. The afternoon was heating up. And the bodies were beginning to smell. The odds of finding his sergeant were dropping all the time. Finding him alive, that is.
Waving the flies away from his nostrils, the medic stepped carefully over a disembodied leg whose owner lay six feet away. As he walked further, he reconsidered, finding yet another body with only a bloody stump above the knee. The medic looked up, trying to find a familiar tree or rock, anything that would tell him he was near the sergeant. The sun was high in the sky, making dark silhouettes of the towering pines. He shook his head, unable to place himself.
The gully curved ahead of him, following the random twists of what had once been a meandering stream. Here the steep banks flattened out a little as the forest grew closer. The medic made the turn and stopped dead in his tracks, mouth hanging open in complete surprise. He recognized a lightning-struck tree, its upper third canted over and supported by its neighbors. It cast a crazy shadow across the gully, drawing his attention to more bodies ahead. One of them very obviously alive.
The medic fell to one knee, trying desperately to find something to hide behind. He looked over his shoulder and caught sight of his minder, an older, experienced infantryman who was idly poking at the bodies with the barrel of his rifle, a bored expression on his face. When the man looked up, the medic signaled to him frantically, not knowing what they were walking into.
*** *** ***
Doc cautiously lifted one hand, grimacing as bright red blood spilled out from under the sodden bandages. With a quick lunge, he grabbed a few more of the gauze pads, tearing them open with his teeth and spitting the remains of the paper wrapping in the mud. Slapping them on top of the original dressings, he once again applied pressure, sweat running down his face and dripping off the end of his nose.
He knew he had to try the hemostat. The man had no chance otherwise. Doc glanced at his bag again, then up to the German’s face. Grey eyes stared back him, white-rimmed with anxiety. Doc felt the fine tremor running through his patient’s body as shock slowly set in. The man needed morphine. And the hemostat. An’ a doctor an’ a hospital while we’re at it! The medic gritted his teeth together, preparing himself mentally for what he had to do.
Cold steel pressed against the back of his neck and blew his thoughts away. Fear ran like water from his head to his belly, drenching him in sweat and spasming his muscles. He forced himself to keep his arms locked and fought the urge to vomit. He felt the pressure of the gun barrel lessen for a moment as his helmet was yanked from his head, wincing as the weapon was repositioned just behind his left ear. The helmet landed ten feet away, rocking gently back and forth upside down.
The harsh voice came from right behind him. Doc knew what the words meant, but hadn’t any intention of obeying them. He stared straight down the length of his shaking arms at the blood-covered dressings. There was no way he was giving up now. He’d sacrificed his own freedom for this man and he’d be damned if he was going to let it be for nothing. He swallowed hard, shaking his head slowly.
“No, I cain’t.” The medic’s voice shook and he coughed, gagging, and tried again.
“No. I. Cain’t.”
Doc squeezed his eyes shut as the gun barrel lifted slightly away and then gasped in sudden pain as a knee shoved its way into the small of his back. Muscles screaming for relief, the medic stubbornly held his post, setting his shoulders against the pressure.
<”Hands up! NOW!”>
He shook his head, waiting for the report of the rifle, and then wondered if he’d even hear it. He felt dizzy, unsure if it was fear or heat or a combination of the two. He could picture the squad’s reactions to his decision, not that they’d ever know of it.
“Just another stinkin’ Kraut, Doc.” Kirby, lighting a cigarette and resting his arms along the top of the BAR.
“Gotta watch out for yourself, Doc.” Saunders, shoving his fingers through his hair and making it stand on end.
“Man has to make his own decisions.” Caje, eyes dark and fathomless, giving nothing away but lending support nevertheless.
With that small knowledge, that at least one of his squad mates would understand, Doc straightened up slightly, inadvertently increasing the pressure on his back but strengthening his resolve. He opened his eyes just in time to see a young German soldier standing in front of him.
Doc stared stupidly at the kid, not comprehending how he happened to arrive there without him knowing, without him hearing. Of course, the GI didn’t take into account the blood pounding in his ears or the fact that a rifle pointed at one’s head tends to draw one’s focus. He didn’t think at all, just stared blankly into the German medic’s baby blue eyes as the rifle settled itself against the back of his head.
*** *** ***
The German medic couldn’t believe their luck! The sergeant, still alive! He’d wanted to run immediately to the man’s side but Nachtmann, the infantryman who’d stayed behind to cover him, had grabbed him by the back of his jacket and forced him to the ground. Lying there in the scrub grass, the medic had watched, fighting his impatience, as Nachtmann had worked his way behind the American.
What was he doing?
The medic rose to his elbows, eyebrows drawing together. He squinted into the bright wash of sun that was just now working its way into the culvert. He could tell the American was also a medic. Despite the dirt and grime coating the man’s helmet, the faded red cross on its white circle was clearly visible, as was the brassard on his left arm. The German medic’s right hand reached over to his own bicep, fingering an almost identical brassard.
Flinching as Nachtmann shoved the rifle into the American’s neck, the medic rose to his feet, throwing his medical ruck over his shoulder. He stood there a moment, frozen with indecision. Nachtmann would kill him if he messed up this capture. But the Sarge! What about the Sarge?
Now, now he could join his comrade and finally do something for his wounded sergeant. Watching his feet so that he didn’t trip over the sprawled limbs of the dead, he was surprised to hear Nachtmann’s repeated command. He looked up, comprehension filling him with dread as he saw what the American was attempting to do…and what Nachtmann was preparing to do.
The word was for his comrade but the medic’s gaze was drawn to the American who slowly raised his head, eyes opening wide in dazed astonishment. He saw Nachtmann angrily shove the Mauser under the angle of the man’s jaw, making him swallow convulsively, but the GI didn’t let go of his grip on the wounded sergeant’s leg.
<”Nachtmann, he is holding pressure on Sarge’s leg! Keeping him from bleeding, he’s helping, Nachtmann!”>
The medic had seen the infantryman in action before, knew he had an itchy trigger finger. He pulled his gaze away from the American and glared at Nachtmann with every bit of defiance he could muster. He held the posture until his comrade took a deep breath, easing the rifle away from the GI’s head.
<”He’s HELPING, Nachtmann!”>
Turning away from the infantryman, the medic dropped to his knees and leaned over the wounded man. There didn’t seem to be any injuries other than the one under the American’s hands, but judging from the amount of blood that had spilled onto the sergeant’s pants and soaked into the ground it must be horrendous. He glanced at the man’s face, but his eyes were closed, his skin pale.
“Do ya…do ya speak English?”
The medic peered up at the GI, really looking at him for the first time. His light brown hair, sweat-curled at his temples, his clear blue eyes and the brush of sunburn across his cheeks. Just change the uniform and he could have been a German medic. He shook his head, neither he nor Nachtmann spoke English. The only man in the platoon who did had been killed that morning.
<”Reiter, is he going to die?”>
Nachtmann crouched at the sergeant’s head, his rifle balanced across his thighs. He no longer had his finger curled under the trigger guard, but still held the weapon close, ready. Reaching his other hand down, he gently touched the man’s cheek.
*** *** ***
“I gotta get a hemostat on that artery! He’s bleedin’ to death!”
Doc leaned across the German’s body, shoving the medic with his shoulder. He was on the verge of hyperventilating, amazed that the amount of adrenaline flowing through his system hadn’t blown his head off. He stared at the medic and then down at his hands and back again.
“Ya gotta take over this!”
He lifted his hands slightly, the blood welling out from under his fingers. Leaning his weight down again, Doc demonstrated what he needed the medic to do, hoping the man would catch on quickly.
“See? Ya gotta take this!”
The German medic finally understood and placed his own hands over the bloody dressing. He grimaced, pressing down as hard as he could. Turning his head, he stared up at Nachtmann, shaking his head in despair.
Doc tried to sit back but his legs, numb from maintaining his position over the sergeant’s leg, refused to cooperate, dumping him on his rear. He sprawled in the mud, the impact knocking him breathless.
Instantly the German rifleman was over him, one big fist grabbing the front of his jacket and lifting him bodily off the ground.
Doc flung his arms in the air, wincing as the blood flow resumed in his hands.
“It’s okay! Hands up, hands up! My legs are asleep, tha’s all!”
He struggled a moment longer as the infantryman stared at him, evidently trying to decide if he was a threat or not. Doc tried to hold his gaze, but couldn’t, unnerved by the man’s almost colorless eyes.
<“Nachtmann, I think his muscles are stiff. Let him go.”>
The big man dropped him, turning to resume his position at the sergeant’s head where he laid one hand protectively on the man’s shoulder, but kept a watchful gaze on the American.
Doc rolled up on one hip, massaging his painful wrists. Dragging in a ragged breath, he coughed it out, carefully drawing another. After a moment, he looked up and nodded gratefully at the medic, who watched him closely.
“Thanks.” He reached out one hand for his medical bag, barely suppressing a groan at the pain that movement caused. “I think.”
Fumbling through the bag, Doc finally just dumped it upside down, his equipment and supplies tumbling to the muddy ground. He pawed through the pile with increasing anxiety, tossing dressings to one side, morphine and aspirin to the other.
The man with the rifle picked up a syrette, displaying it to his own medic and then thrusting it under Doc’s nose.
<”Won’t he need this?”>
Doc shook his head, shoving the man’s hand away from his face. He found what he was looking for, a pair of gleaming hemostatic forceps and snatched them up. Turning to face the German medic he held them out, opening and closing the tips and then locking them together.
The medic grinned, nodding. He looked over at the rifleman who was still watching Doc closely.
<”He can stop the bleeding with that thing. Help me hold the Sarge down.”>
Doc sighed as he watched the two get in position. He had hoped the German medic would take the instrument from him and do it himself. There was nothing fun about digging in a hole in somebody’s body looking for a spurting artery. On the other hand, there was a whole lot of satisfaction in finding it and clamping it off. And, as was proving to be the case for everything happening this day, he had no choice.
With his scissors, Doc deftly slit the German sergeant’s pants leg from the hole made by the bullet upward to the groin. He grabbed the edges of the rough fabric, yanking them wide open to expose the area. Blood welled in the hole rhythmically, spilling over the torn skin and dripping down ruined clothing to the ground.
Doc pressed the bloody fingers of his right hand into the crease at the top of the man’s leg, seeking the pulsating femoral artery. With his other hand he applied a fresh dressing to the wound, sopping up the pooling blood. He shook his head in frustration, knowing that the pulse would be weak due to blood loss but undeniably there because he could see the results running out of the gaping hole. He just couldn’t trust his shaking hands to find the racing beats. He pressed harder, the weight of the German medic’s gaze heavy on him. The sergeant writhed, moaning in agony as his comrades gripped him harder. Dammit!
THERE! Under his fingers, Doc finally felt the flickering heartbeat of the wounded sergeant’s femoral pulse. He ducked his head, swiping the sweat out of his eyes with his shoulder and then moved his attention to the wound. Slowly lifting the dressing, he watched for further bleeding. Just a trickle. He leaned harder on his right hand and the leaking fluid dribbled to a stop. Thank God.
“Danken Sie Gott!”
Doc glanced at the medic gripping the patient’s trembling legs. The kid couldn’t be more than nineteen, he thought with a sigh, picking up the forceps in his left hand and turning back to the wound again. Drying the hole with the gauze dressing, he watched intently as he slowly let off the pressure of his right hand. Blood instantly filled the cavity and Doc swore, bearing down on the artery again.
<”What is he doing?”>
<”Shut up, Nachtmann, it’s not easy.”>
Ignoring the Germans conversing over his head, Doc willed the fingers of his right hand to release only a feather’s weight of pressure. There! He saw for a mere fraction of a second the place where the blood started spurting. Applying the forceps to the tissue there, he lifted his right hand, flexing the stiff fingers. For a moment nothing happened. Then the wound filled again, slowly but surely.
“Dammit!” Could nothing go right today? Doc opened the forceps again, shoving them cruelly further up into the cavity, and grabbed a larger hunk of tissue, squeezing the instrument closed again and locking them at the handle. He mopped frantically at the blood and then sat back again. This time the wound remained dry.
Doc fell back on his rump, bloody hands dangling over his knees, his head hanging and eyes closed. Sweat darkened his hair and ran down his face and neck, soaking into his jacket and shirt. He was aware of the German medic picking up the discard syrette and injecting the sergeant with morphine, the man’s moans slowly trailing off into muttering. He was also aware of the infantryman, Nachtmann?, patting him gently on the head, but couldn’t bring himself to look up or even speak. Too much adrenaline pumped its way around his system, making him dizzy and nauseous, and Doc didn’t trust his body to hold him in any position other than the one he was already in.
Reiter sprinkled sulfa powder over the bullet hole, now mercifully no longer spilling the sergeant’s blood everywhere. He reached into his own bag, pulling out several field dressings and applied them to the leg, careful to not dislodge the hemostat but instead incorporated it into the final bandaging. Searching his bag for his scissors, he remembered that he’d lost them earlier that day in their rapid retreat. Reiter turned to the American.
Doc opened his eyes, blinking slowly. When he could finally lift his head, he brought his gaze to bear on the other medic, feeling that he was looking as if from a very long distance. The kid seemed so far away. And what was he doing? Doc’s brain suddenly ground into gear as he realized the medic was asking him for scissors, opening and closing two fingers in an imitation of the tool. He nodded, reaching for his own bag.
What happened next he would never remember. Doc picked up the scissors, closing his fingers around the thumb loops and held them out, the bright afternoon sun glinting brilliantly off the sharp metal blades.
The echoing blast of a shot roared in his ears as the sound bounced off the steep walls of the gully. Doc found himself flat on his back, staring at the blue sky, arms outstretched. He could no longer feel the scissors in his hand and tried to turn his head to look for them. He couldn’t feel anything at all. His body didn’t seem to be listening to him as he continued staring straight up into the blazing orb of the sun. Night seemed to be falling, as the light faded, draining away into smoky darkness. Doc’s clenched hand fell open, empty.
*** *** ***
Reiter stared in horrified disbelief as the American toppled over backward, the scissors flying from his hand and a splash of bright red blood appearing over his left shoulder. The German jumped to his feet, whirling around to see his squad’s young marksman, Klein, rifle snugged to his shoulder, standing at the bend in the culvert. The rest of the squad appeared around him, bristling with weapons at the ready, like a nest of mad hornets.
Nachtmann stood, feet apart, straddling the GI’s body, his own weapon in his arms and aimed at his countrymen. Anger drew his brows together, his cheeks almost purple with rage. He screamed down the gully, his voice strained in anguish.
<”You fucking idiot! Don’t you know what you’ve done?”>
Stunned silence filled the forest. The shot and subsequent shouting had frightened off the birds and the fighting had moved off over the hill. Only distant artillery rounds were audible, but so muffled as to be dismissed. The two groups stared at each other for several seconds, uncomprehending the situation. At last, Nachtmann lowered his arms, panting as though he’d run a marathon.
<”Reiter…Reiter, see to him.”>
He stepped away from the American toward his own sergeant, kneeling there and resting one hand on the unconscious man’s shoulder. His head drooped to his chest, his other hand swiping quickly across his eyes.
Reiter hastily scrambled over the mud to the GI’s side, shoving aside the man’s jacket to examine the ugly wound in his left shoulder. A quick look confirmed his suspicion – the bullet had gone right through and exited just above the man’s scapula. Blood ran freely, spilling over his hands and pooling on the ground. Casting his gaze around frantically, Reiter spied the scissors near Nachtmann’s feet. He lunged across and grabbed them, returning to the American and rapidly cutting his shirt from the injury.
The squad approached, Klein reluctantly following several paces behind. When the men in front recognized the man at Nachtmann’s side, they hustled forward, expressing their amazement. Questions rose and fell around the big infantryman but he had no words for anyone but Klein. As the young man drew near, Nachtmann rose from his crouch, towering over the marksman. He cleared his throat and addressed him, voice low and deceptively calm.
<”I asked you, Klein, do you know what you’ve done?”>
Klein’s cheeks flushed red instantly and his fingers tightened around his rifle, holding it stiffly in front of him. He stared at the other men, trying to gather support. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to meet Nachtmann’s eyes.
<”He was going to stab Reiter. I saw him.”>
He took a step back from the intensity of the infantryman’s glare, stumbling over his own feet.
<”I saw him, old man, we all did.”>
The others were silent, gathered around their sergeant. They refused to meet his eyes, instead staring at the ground in confusion.
Reiter could stand it no longer. He spun around, still crouching low, hands dripping. He held out the blood-coated scissors in one upturned palm.
<”He was handing me the scissors, idiot! He saved the Sarge’s life, IDIOT!>”
The emphasis Reiter placed on the final word, an implied threat from a non-combatant, forced Klein into silence. He stood there awkwardly, his rifle now dangling from his fingers.
Reiter turned back to the American, slapping a field dressing on both sides of the wound and applying firm pressure. The man’s eyelids flickered and he groaned, his head lolling from side to side. The German medic sighed, glad to know that his patient wasn’t completely out of it, but wishing that he didn’t have to cause him pain. He looked up at Nachtmann, who stood over him, brow furrowed.
<”Morphine, one of those syrettes.”>
Reiter pointed with his chin at the piles of gear on the ground.
The infantryman nodded, scooping up a vial of morphine from the American’s kit. It wasn’t so different from those he’d seen his own medic use almost daily. He broke the seal and screwed on the needle, handing it gingerly to Reiter.
The medic took it, momentarily letting up on the pressure over the wound, and injected it into the American’s right bicep. He hooked the needle into the GI’s lapel, bending it over to secure it.
<”Nachtmann, can you hold this dressing for a minute? You must keep it tight.”>
The big man nodded, kneeling down and placing one hand behind the American’s shoulder blade and the other on top.
Reiter shoved through the knot of men crowded around the wounded German. Checking the bandage, he was relieved to discover that the clamp was holding and there had been minimal additional bleeding. He slid his fingers around the man’s wrist and assessed his pulse, frowning slightly. Still too fast, but not as bad as before. Forcing his way up to the man’s head, Reiter was surprised to find the sergeant’s eyes open and watching him.
<”Where is he?”>
His voice was barely a whisper. Reiter leaned in closer, his ear close to the man’s mouth.
<”Where is he?”>
The sergeant coughed, grimacing in pain. He tried to lift one arm to his medic but hadn’t the energy. His fingers drummed agitatedly in the dirt instead.
Reiter winced, not quite sure what to say. He reached for the man’s wrist again, holding it comfortingly while counting the rapid pulse. Finally, with a sigh and a warning scowl at the marksman, he spoke.
<”Klein shot him.”>
Klein’s voice rose in protest, squeaking off into rumbling mutters as the men closest to him glared fiercely.
The sergeant’s eyes closed in pain. His body tensed, as if he were about to rise, trembling. His head rolled back and forth in the mud, the thick sludge matting his hair.
As Reiter got up to return to the American, the sergeant gripped him by the wrist, forcing him to look back in alarm.
<”He could have left. Could have left me alone. To die alone.”>
His eyes closed again and this time his muscles relaxed as his breathing evened out.
Reiter stood, returning the stares of the squad. It wasn’t often that they looked to him for anything, let alone orders. He glanced over at Nachtmann, who was concentrating on his task, then back at the men.
<”Make a litter, we need to get him back to a hospital quickly.”>
He knelt once again at the American’s side. He lifted one of Nachtmann’s hands and checked the bleeding. While not spurting as the sergeant’s wound had, the GI had lost and was still losing a considerable amount of blood. He replaced the big man’s hand and indicated that he should continue holding pressure.
Sitting back on his heels, Reiter was startled to find the American looking at him, those blue eyes blurred by morphine and pain, but still staring at him all the same. He tried to remember any English whatsoever and failed, ending up smiling foolishly down at his patient.
“Waz goin’ on?”
The American’s words were hardly audible, not that it mattered. No one understood them anyway. Reiter stared at him, the first living American he’d ever met. It still struck him how German the GI looked, with his strong features and clear blue eyes. In fact, the man looked quite a lot like his uncle Marko. Marko, who used to give him rides on the huge draft horses on his farm. Marko, who despised the Nazis openly to anyone. Marko, who vanished one night after a knock on the door of the family farmhouse. Reiter laid a gentle hand on the American’s shoulder, wishing to comfort the man in a way he would never be able to for his beloved uncle. He cleared his throat and glared warningly at Nachtmann.
“Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, Dormez vous? Dormez vous? Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines, din, din, don. Din, din, don.”
He’d been sung to sleep by uncle Marko many nights with that very tune. Today, however, it only seemed to amuse the American, the corners of his lips turning up in a small grin.
“Gonna hafta tell Caje ‘bout that. German singin’ to me in French. Oh boy!”
The American floated off in a haze of morphine, mumbling to himself as his blue eyes slowly closed.
Nachtmann lifted his hands obligingly as Reiter added another field dressing on top of the sodden ones.
<”What are we going to do with him? Take him back, too?”>
Nachtmann’s skeptical tone wasn’t lost on the medic as he scrubbed his knuckles into his eye sockets. They both knew that the American probably wouldn’t live to see a POW camp. Not that the camps were any picnic, either. Drugs and medicine were for the Fuhrer’s soldiers. Prisoners were far down the list. Reiter dropped his hands, looking at the American. Looking at Marko’s ghost.
<”We’re going to give him back.”>
The infantryman blinked, lifting his head to stare directly into Reiter’s thoughtful eyes.
<”We’re gonna do what?”>
Reiter looked over at the squad who were busily loading the sergeant on the makeshift litter. He sought out Klein, standing by himself studiously looking nowhere, the marksman’s unwanted ostracism palpable all the way across the clearing. He smiled and turned back to Nachtmann.
<”We’re going to give him back.”>
*** *** ***
Klein’s hands were getting sore, the rough branches clutched in his fists slowly peeling the skin off his palms, and his back was killing him. Stepping in yet another hole, he stumbled, his ankle complaining again. He looked over his shoulder at Reiter, at the other end of the litter.
<”How much further, Reiter? Pretty soon we’ll be crossing the Channel.”>
Reiter’s lips parted in a thin smile. He nodded to the man to set down the litter, going down on one knee to check on his patient.
Nachtmann moved out ahead, looking for contacts.
The medic peeled the American’s jacket back from the dressing, biting his lip in consternation at the amount of blood that had seeped through. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out his last field dressing and tied it securely over the others. Taking care not to disturb his handiwork, Reiter slid the jacket back over the man’s chest, tucking it under his right arm.
The American jerked suddenly, his face contorting in anguish. The sweat beaded across his forehead and rolled down his temples into his hair, and then down into his collar. He twitched, tried to move his shoulders and was rewarded with a white-hot burn that spread from his chest down his left arm, into his belly, everywhere. He groaned, twisting his neck away from the pain and opened his eyes, looking straight up into the baby blues belonging to medic Reiter.
“Holy cow, I’m still on th’ wrong side.”
He started to reach for his shoulder with his good hand but Reiter stopped him, carefully easing his arm back down on the litter. The GI relaxed, eyes drooping.
<”Almost there, my friend, almost there.”>
Not looking up, Klein snorted and concentrated on messaging his sore ankles. His boots lay abandoned in the dust, socks on top of them. He reached for one, flapping it in the air before pulling it back on. A small cloud of sand and dirt billowed out and, inexplicably, a small grey feather. Klein batted it away as he glanced up at his medic.
<”’Almost there.’ You’ve been saying that for hours.”>
Reiter used the cuff of his jacket to wipe the sweat from the American’s forehead. He checked the man’s pulse before replying to Klein.
<”Yes, Klein, but this time I mean it. And it’s been about fifteen minutes.”>
Klein snorted again and was about to comment further when they heard a shot, quickly answered by several bursts from an American BAR. The marksman hauled his boots on and jumped to his feet. A moment later Nachtmann exploded through the bushes, out of breath and smiling.
<”I think I’ve got some. Come on, Klein, we gotta hide.”>
As Klein headed for cover, Nachtmann paused at the American’s side, leaning over and ruffling his hair. As the man opened his eyes and looked up at him, blinking, the infantryman smiled.
<”Good luck, my friend, and thank you.”>
Nachtmann disappeared after Klein into the forest.
Reiter made himself ready, trying to ignore the fear that was gnawing in his stomach. He made sure his helmet was on square, his medic’s brassard pinned neatly in place on his left sleeve. In his hands he held the American’s helmet, hoping that it would be enough to keep them from killing him on sight. The enemy, who were even now approaching. He heard their stealthy movements and closed his eyes briefly. He’d never been much for praying, but he thought of his uncle Marko.
“Don’t move! Hande hoch!”
An American stepped out of the trees, his rifle trained on Reiter’s chest. Another, five yards to his left, materialized and quickly moved even further left, looking for an enemy with a weapon. Several others appeared and spread out in the clearing, their eyes wide and unblinking as they searched the area.
Reiter held the injured man’s helmet high in one hand, his other in the air. He could feel the trembling pass from his shoulders down his arm to his fingers. The GI’s helmet bobbled slightly and he clenched his fist to still it, tightening his jaw at the same time to keep his teeth from clattering together.
A long moment passed, while the Americans stared at him.
“I think it’s Doc!”
The first man, dark and wiry and oddly accented, moved quickly to the litter, hauling Reiter to his feet and frisking him for weapons. He grabbed the helmet from the German’s hand and hugged it to his chest, staring with black eyes at the enemy medic. As the other men came out of the trees, he turned away and dropped to his knees by the litter, reaching out one careful hand to inspect the wounded man’s shoulder.
“It IS Doc, he’s been shot, Sarge!”
Another of the Americans, wearing a sergeant’s stripes, moved forward, slowly, sauntering as if he were out for an afternoon stroll. He met the German’s gaze and held it for a long appraising moment, then moved to the litter, his composure falling away at the sight of the American medic.
The GI sergeant crouched at the side of the wounded man, stretching a hand out toward the bloody bandage but stopping just short and letting it rest on the man’s chest. He glanced over at the smaller GI and saw his relief mirrored in the angular face, although tempered there by something else.
“How’s it look, Caje?”
The dark haired man shrugged, his nimble hands unrolling his own field dressing and replacing the top bandage with the dry one. He slid one end under the medic’s shoulder and tied it securely across his chest.
“He’s bleeding pretty bad, Sarge. We gotta get him to the aid station.”
The sergeant nodded, looking back over his shoulder at the German, still standing there with his hands up. He shoved his helmet back off his forehead and wiped one weary arm across his damp face.
“Hey! You speak any English?”
The German shrugged, shaking his head.
The croaking voice from the litter drew everyone’s attention to the wounded medic. His eyes were still closed, but he licked his dry lips and spoke again.
“Try French, Caje.”
Caje blinked and addressed the Kraut.
It was Reiter’s turn to blink and he dropped his hands as he took a step towards the men gathered around the litter. He stopped as an American BAR appeared in his face, followed by the fierce glare of a sharp-featured GI. The shorter man leaned close, addressing the medic.
“Hold it, Fritzie. You can speak your parlez-vous from right here.”
The sergeant climbed to his feet, slinging his Thompson over one shoulder. He stared down at his wounded medic a moment longer than turned to the German and his American guard.
“Leave him, Kirby, I wanna know what happened. Caje?”
<”My sergeant wants to know what happened to our medic.”>
Caje’s dark eyes shifted from the German standing nervously in the face of Kirby’s weapon to Doc’s still form, the sweat pooling around the collar of the medic’s ruined jacket and the edges of the white bandage. As he watched, a faint tinge of red appeared under the gauze. Caje didn’t hesitate, sliding a hand under Doc’s shoulder blade and applying pressure with the other hand over the dressing.
Reiter gulped, wide blue eyes staring at Kirby.
<”I…I found him. Back there. In the culvert.”>
Caje didn’t look up.
“He says he found him back in the gully, Sarge.”
Saunders shook his head, removing his helmet and running the fingers of one hand through his hair. Replacing the helmet he moved nearer the German, eyes narrowing skeptically.
“Ask him why he stopped to help an injured American.”
<”He wasn’t…injured when I found him. He was helping my sergeant. My sergeant was badly wounded. This man saved his life.”>
Reiter tried to take a step closer to the medic’s litter, only to be stopped by Kirby’s BAR against his chest.
Kirby snarled at Caje’s translation, almost spitting in the man’s face. His cheeks flushed in anger, a dull red that crept down his neck and under his collar.
“So ya rewarded him by shootin’ him?”
Laying one hand over Kirby’s shoulder, Saunders peeled him away from the hapless German medic. Holding up the other hand in the face of Kirby’s protests, he placed himself between the two men.
“Ask him what happened then.”
Reiter listened closely to Caje, and then dropped his gaze to the ground. He was silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts. He hadn’t wanted to be there when it happened, now he was going to relive it with the telling of the story.
Saunders stood there, arms crossed across his chest, the Thompson now cradled in the crook of one elbow. His expression remained impassive as the German told his tale and Caje translated it every few moments. He flinched only once, when Caje’s voice tightened, telling of Doc’s shooting.
When the German fell silent and Caje had finished translating, Saunders stood there a moment, staring at his wounded medic. With a sigh, he turned his back and walked over to Caje, meeting the scout’s questioning gaze with a shrug.
“Tell him to get his men out here, the ones that were carrying the stretcher.”
Caje nodded, repeating the command in French.
Reiter stiffened, suddenly unsure of the situation. If these men realized that Klein was the man who’d shot their medic…He cleared his throat and called out to them.
<”Klein! Nachtmann! Come out, but keep your rifles down. Slowly.”>
Both Germans stood, Mausers in one hand and the other in the air. Not quite a surrender, but it got the point across. They walked into the clearing, two Americans right behind them. Realizing that the GIs had been there all along, aware of their presence, Klein panicked, rifle wavering wildly. Nachtmann reached calmly over, snatching the weapon from his arms and slinging it over his shoulder.
The American sergeant motioned his men to watch them, then turned back to the litter.
“Doc, where the hell have you been?”
At that voice, one he’d never thought he’d hear again, Doc dredged his eyes open again. Despite the pain and the morphine and the blood loss, the medic had to affirm to himself that he was back in the right hands.
“Hey, Sarge. I was wonderin’ the same ‘bout y’all.”
He smiled, then grimaced as a fresh wave of pain swept through him.
Saunders leaned over and patted him on the head before straightening. He walked over to Reiter. Behind him he could hear Doc muttering as Caje checked his dressings.
“Why is ev’ryone always pattin’ me on the head?”
Saunders and Reiter stared at each other a long moment, sizing each other up. Behind Reiter, his squad mates waited, muscles tense. To each side stood an American, apparently in the same mode of high alert. The silence spun out between them.
“Go. Just go.”
Saunders waved the Germans off, his Thompson draped casually over one arm.
Klein and Nachtmann wasted no time moving out, fading into the trees and vanishing. Reiter stood there a moment longer, his gaze on the wounded GI. He muttered a few words before turning, and then followed his squad mates into the forest, leafy branches springing back into place behind him.
“Sarge! Are you out of your mind? Those guys are gonna be back with all their friends in about five minutes!”
“Kirby, shut up.”
“But Sarge, I just-“
Saunders returned to the litter and crouched beside the scout, once more pulling his helmet off and raking his hair with curled fingers.
“Whaddya think? Is he ready to go?”
Caje held up an unused vial of morphine he’d found tucked into Doc’s jacket.
“Jus’ let me give him this.”
Saunders nodded, picking up the medic’s helmet and running his fingers over the red crosses. He looked back at the trees where the Germans had gone, knowing there was a story there, but knowing also that he’d probably only get part of it out of his wounded medic.
“Okay, let’s move out. Caje, take the point. Kirby, you an’ Littlejohn carry Doc.”
Kirby rolled his eyes and shoved his weapon onto his back. Positioning himself at the litter’s foot, he waited for Littlejohn to move into place.
“I tell ya, Littlejohn, that guy was bigger than you!”
Littlejohn sighed, shifting his hands on the makeshift litter poles.
“No, Kirby, he wasn’t. He was standing by that little tree, made him look bigger.”
Kirby shook his head.
“No, I think he was bigger. Lots bigger.”
Doc lay there, eyelids only slightly parted, giving him an oddly distorted swirling view of the world, mostly blues and greens blending into each other until neither color existed as it once was. The morphine was slowly dragging him down and he allowed it to pull him to a place where the pain was manageable and he could pretend the entire day never happened. Except for the rain-grey eyes of the wounded sergeant. And the young German medic and his tall sidekick, what’s-his-name, Nachtmann, yeah, Nachtmann And the glint of the warm summer sun on the polished blades of his scissors. He frowned then, aware even in his narcotic-induced haze that there was a point beyond which he couldn’t remember, a gap in his memory that he must have hurdled to find himself here, among his friends. Doc wondered about that for all of two seconds. And then slid into blessed oblivion.