The Calm Before
a missing scene from The Walking Wounded
He had lain down to rest his eyes for just a few minutes. It was still storming outside and the noise was enough to keep most people awake, but not tonight, not for Saunders. Keeping watch from the loft door had been his first priority, but as the stormed worsened, keeping watch seemed less and less important. No self-respecting German soldier would be out in this weather. That was his reasoning anyway as he lowered himself carefully, painfully into the soft hay and closed his eyes.
He was only one man, and it had been a bad day. It began with an early morning tumble down a rocky hill after taking a bullet graze to the leg. The fall knocked him out and the residual headache was still with him. Later, his proximity to an exploding mortar had resulted in his second black-out of the day, and another headache on top of the first.
His leg ached from the deep trough caused by the bullet, north to his thigh and south to his ankle. Pain radiated out like the spokes of a wheel, and all of the activity today had not helped it.
Sitting back for a day or two with his leg up, a cigarette in one hand, and Stars and Stripes in the other, was probably out of the question. He couldn’t stay at the door holding the war at bay all night, being pelted by rain and wind and expect to be able to stay awake.
The doctor and Anne were downstairs tending to the patient, or not, and Jones was keeping watch at the barn door, or not. He was close to not caring.
Anne cared. She was a nurse doing her best in a harsh and unforgiving environment. The doctor, it seemed, had given up and resigned himself to accepting the death around him making no effort to forestall it.
As he drifted off to sleep, he thought of Anne and what it would be like if the situation were different…
“Will,” she called to the dozing doctor near the fire. “Will, he needs some more Morphine. Where did we put it?”
August struggled up from where he had collapsed against the forge. “I think it’s in this box over here,” he said as he shuffled to the one box of medical supplies that they had with them. Pulling out a pre-filled syringe of Morphine, he went over to where Anne bent over Private Lee. “Here, I’ll do this, you go get some rest.”
Anne gazed affectionately at the craggy face beside her. “Thanks, Will. I’ll go up and check on the sergeant first; see if he needs anything.“
August watched her go. He surprised himself by feeling no jealousy toward the gruff sergeant who had taken over their fates this morning. August knew Anne was devoted to him and their work, and had been at his side for years. She was loyal to a fault, but she did seem to have an admiration for this war-weary sergeant. Perhaps his lack of jealousy was simply a symptom of his greater lack of any kind of feeling at all.
His face was an impassive, apathetic mask as he watched her ascend the ladder to the loft.
He injected the ampoule of Morphine into the injured private and checked under his bandages. There was nothing more to be done for him now. Not until they could get him to a hospital, and perhaps not even then.
‘No,’ he thought, ‘Not no feelings.’ He admitted a grudging admiration for the sergeant himself. ‘Admiration may be too strong a word’, he thought ruefully. Perhaps it was more respect. Respect for a man with the courage of his convictions. Whether he agreed with him or not, the sergeant did back up his righteous indignation with action; flying in the face of military protocol and an ineffectual officer of higher rank.
August grinned. He never wanted to be a captain. They made him one on commission in respect of his status as a physician. He never felt like a captain and never used the rank for anything other than to decorate his fatigues.
As he eased himself back down to the warm spot he’d made for himself by the forge, he thought about the trouble he could make for one lowly sergeant if he really wanted to. This sergeant who had ordered him around all day, who had kidnapped them to go to Lael instead of to Jerone which was their original destination, who was risking his own life and four others on his conviction that one gravely injured private might be saved. He just couldn’t muster the indignation.
Anne reached the top of the ladder and looked toward the open loft door where she expected the sergeant would be. It was where he had posted himself when they had arrived.
The door was closed and the sergeant was not there. The small white dog that he had picked up earlier was lying below the door with the sergeant’s jacket draped over him. The sergeant himself was lying on a pile of hay in the corner of the loft apparently asleep.
She started to back down the ladder, not wanting to disturb him, when she noted he was breathing unusually fast. She pulled herself up the last step and walked quietly over to where the sergeant lay.
His face was flushed and shiny with perspiration. She knelt down and placed a hand over his forehead, pushing back the cloud of blond hair. He was hot. She turned her hand and felt his cheek with the back of her hand. He opened his eyes at her touch. Fever-bright blue eyes gazed at her.
“You have a fever,” she said matter-of-factly.
He nodded wordlessly and closed his eyes. She moved around to his left side and pulled up the bandage that covered the wound on his leg. “I should have insisted on looking at this sooner. I’m sorry.”
She untied the field dressing and pulled it away from the wound. It stuck to the dried blood and Saunders’ breath hitched as she pulled it away. The wound was fiery red, as expected, and also swollen. She pushed on the swollen area with her finger. It gave way, a soft spongy abscess just under the surface. She glanced up at Saunders’ face. His eyes were squeezed tightly, his jaw clenched.
Anne stood, stepped over the sergeant and walked to the top of the ladder. “Will. I need you up here, please.” She heard a grunt from below. “And bring your kit with you,” she added.
After a moment, August was pulling himself tiredly up the ladder, the medikit slung over his shoulder. He had forgotten about the sergeant’s wound and assumed that it was probably the source of Anne’s concern. He remembered offering to look at it earlier and being brushed off. ‘Typical of the sanctimonious self-sacrificing type’, he thought. ‘Don’t worry about trivial things like bullet holes when you have a captain to harangue.’
He pulled his tired body up to the loft floor. Anne was kneeling beside the sergeant and she rose as he approached. “I’ll go down and bring up some water. His wound has an abscess. It’ll have to be lanced.”
He nodded and watched her until her head disappeared down the ladder, and then turned to the sergeant. “You should’ve let me look at this earlier.”
Saunders’ eyes opened and followed him as he stepped around his legs and sat on his left side. “It was fine earlier,” he said simply.
August pulled the ripped pants leg apart for a better view. “Well, it’s not fine now. I’m going to have to open it up and let it drain.
Saunders nodded wordlessly. Anne returned with a bucket of water and a box of bandages stuck under her arm. August removed a small blade from his kit and took a stack of gauze pads from Anne. “I’m going to just make a small cut…”
Before he said the word ‘cut’, it was already done. Saunders’ face screwed up with the sharp pain, then he relaxed and let his breath out as the pain subsided just as fast as it had come. “Tricky,” he croaked.
“Experienced,” August replied with a grin.
Saunders struggled to control his breathing. Slow deep breaths helped, but his instinct was to hold his breath first and then pant. He knew that would only serve to make him lightheaded so he concentrated fiercely on the slow deep breaths while he just as fiercely tried to ignore the fire in his leg.
Anne cleaned the area and then took a clean dressing out of the box and began to wrap it around the leg. “I’ll pack this loosely so it can absorb the drainage. We’ll change it again in the morning.”
August dug a brown glass bottle out of his kit. “Here, take these.” He shoved two aspirin tablets into Saunders’ hand along with a metal cup of water.
Saunders rose up on his elbow and tossed the tablets down and chased them with water. “Thanks.”
“Get some sleep, Saunders. You still have to try your best to get us killed tomorrow.”
Saunders sighed and lay back down, too tired to spar with the surly doctor. “I’ll do my best,” he whispered.
Anne smiled as she busied herself putting away the supplies. “You two should have met before the war. You’re more alike than you think.”
August cast a skeptical look in her direction. She smiled a knowing smile and then continued with her task. He turned and headed toward the ladder. “Go to sleep, sergeant. That’s an order.”
Anne rose and went over to the dog that Saunders had covered with his jacket. Stooping down, she pulled the jacket away from him and scratched behind his ears. “Sorry little fella. He needs this tonight more than you do.” Giving him a final pat, she moved back over to where Saunders lay. “Put this on. You’ll get chilled when that fever breaks and we don’t have any more blankets.”
He rose up again and took the jacket from her. He shrugged tiredly into it and then lay back down. “Why are you here, Anne?”
“Here? In this barn?” she asked coyly.
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
She smiled. Her face glowed when she smiled and he liked it. He watched her closely as she formulated her answer. “I followed Will into the army. I’ve been with him for fifteen years and I didn’t see any reason to let a war change that.”
“You love him?”
“Yes,” she answered quickly, busying herself with buttoning Saunders’ jacket. “It’s complicated,” she added after a moment.
“It usually is,” Saunders sighed.
Anne sat next to him and crossed her legs at the ankles. “Yes, isn’t it though.” She glanced down at him not knowing why she felt compelled to confide in this virtual stranger. “He’s married, sergeant. Oh, it’s a marriage in name only, has been for years.” She eyed his face carefully for signs of reaction. “Are you shocked?”
“Should I be?” he replied without a twitch.
“You always answer a question with a question?”
They both laughed and then silence fell for several minutes. He lay with his eyes closed, and she sat with him. Without a word, he reached over and took her left hand, brought it to his lips and kissed it, and then held it by his side wrapped in his.
After awhile, Saunders breathing evened out and deepened. Anne reached over with her other hand, and felt his forehead. Without a thermometer, she couldn’t be sure, but he felt a little less hot. She watched him sleep for a minute. Perhaps in another time and another place, things would have been different.
He reminded her of the way Will used to be. Before the bitterness, and the disappointments, and the weariness had worn on him. She had fallen in love with the idealistic young doctor, the one who took risks, the one who knew he was right and everyone else was probably not. The one who fought death with all of his talents, and, more often than not, won.
This sergeant, so confident in himself, so sure of his righteousness, so determined to right the wrongs, is the man Will once was, and the man she was so sure he could be again.
Saunders, if he accomplished nothing else, would stir up some kind of fire in Will. Will would either have him court martialed, or he would stand up and fight for himself, for his patient and for his soul. If, of course, they all lived through tomorrow.
Whatever tomorrow’s outcome, she would say a little prayer for this soldier who limped into their lives this morning, and who would probably leave tomorrow.
She pulled her hand out of his curled fingers, wrapped hers around his and gave his hand a squeeze. She would miss him. The three of them could have been great friends. She leaned over and kissed him lightly on the brow and then rose, brushed the hay off her pants, and walked quietly back towards the ladder.
As she descended, back to Private Lee, and back to Will, she spared a final glance for her knight in olive drab. The one who would, by bent of character, by coercion, and by sheer force of will, unwittingly alter the course of their lives.