The Little Room

by Arrenall

 

This story is dedicated to my friend Bayo who wanted a Caje story. Well, this is one, kinda sorta. Merry Christmas, babe. Read it in good health and keep the Bounty (the quicker picker upper) <tm> nearby to clean up the rivulets of sweat.~ Christmas 2003.

 

‘French,’ he thought, ‘is a very beautiful language.’ When it was spoken in hushed, intimate voices, it was poetry. No wonder they called it one of the romance languages.

 

He couldn’t understand the words, but he could hear the voices. They were somewhere nearby, a man and woman speaking in fluent, mellifluous French.

 

He turned his head seeking the source, wanting to see the two who were so nearby yet not speaking to him. It seemed that turning his head made them stop. He didn’t mean to make them stop talking, he just wanted to…Caje! That’s who it was. The man was Caje. He’d certainly heard him speak in French enough to recognize his voice and his tone. He still didn’t know who the woman was, though.

 

A moment after the voices hushed, he felt a warm hand on his forehead. “Sarge?” That was Caje’s voice, too. “Sarge, you with us?”

 

He opened his eyes. It was hard because they felt as if lead weights were holding his eyelids closed. A Herculean effort managed to garner him a small window of orange light, and presently, Caje’s face swam into his rather fluid field of vision.

 

Caje seemed more gaunt than usual, his eyes larger and more shiny than ever before. His beard was…gone. He could swear Caje had been sporting his usual scraggly beard, but now he was clean-shaven. When? When did he have time for that?

 

Simultaneously, his other senses began to kick in. He was cold, especially his feet. Whatever it was on top of him was scratchy and smelled of mothballs. It was heavy and apparently tightly tucked because he couldn’t lift his arms. He moved one foot against his other leg. No pants! Damn!

 

The room, if he was in a house, was bathed in a flickering orange glow. If it wasn’t a house, then whatever it was appeared to be on fire. He turned his head toward the heat and saw a large open fireplace in a wall not four feet from his left side. What he could see of the wall was plain, devoid of any decoration, window or door, only the large fireplace.

 

He slowly turned his head back towards Caje. He knew that if he moved too quickly his head would surely roll off onto the floor. He felt ill, disconnected, his head hurt like a sonofabitch, and dammit, he was cold!

 

“Caje…,” the croak could not possibly have been heard by anyone more than a few inches away. Luckily Caje was right there, hovering over him. “Where are we?”

 

Caje had to lean in close, his ear almost to Saunders’ mouth to hear the raspy whisper. He smiled and nodded back to where the woman waited quietly behind him.

 

Caje’s hand automatically smoothed the cloud of blonde hair that fell over Sarge’s forehead. “It’s okay, Sarge. We’re in a house and you’re gonna be fine. You just need to rest.”

 

“Cold.”

 

“I know, but you’re as close to the fire as we can put you and you’re dry now. Just try to get some rest…”

 

He was so full of questions. He wanted to know everything; when, where, who was the woman he’d heard and most importantly, what the hell happened? The last he could remember was drinking strong black, hot coffee and eating a cold biscuit for breakfast. Kirby was complaining about the chow truck not showing and Hanley was fussing over a table full of maps. Was that this morning?

 

He felt another weight, another layer of something settle over him. Another heavy blanket perhaps? If they kept this up, he wouldn’t be able to breathe. He tried to get the first question out, but whatever energy he had used to open his eyes and get out those few words, had apparently been all he had. His eyes closed of their own accord.

 

The voices began again, that beautiful French. The woman seemed to be asking questions, Caje was speaking softly to her. The blanket was itchy, but he was warmer now and he came to realize it wasn’t just his pants that were missing. He struggled to listen, to make out whatever words he could, but the voices eventually faded. Or he did.

 

***

 

Minutes? Hours? Days? later he struggled awake once again. This time there were no voices to beckon him. He was thirsty. His mouth was cottony dry and he was no longer cold. In fact, he was hot. He rubbed his feet together. Nope, they were still cold, but the rest of him was itchy and hot.

 

He snaked one hand up from the depths of the mountain of blankets and poked it out to rub his eyes. He could see a little more clearly, but was still so deep under the pile that he couldn’t see over it. He tried to lift his head without success. He cleared his throat, trying to muster up what little spit he could. “Caje!”

 

Even to his own ears, it was an ineffective effort. He might as well be outside in a howling wind for all the good that did. Even in this closed room, he couldn’t muster enough sound to carry a few feet. He took a deep breath to try again, but was stopped in mid-breath by a soft hand on his lips.

 

A woman’s face appeared over him, close enough to smell the shampoo in her hair. It was vanilla. The shampoo, that is. The hair was long and spilled in loose waves from a black velvet headband to the front of her shoulders and curtained her face in shadow as she bent over him.

 

She whispered something in French and then disappeared from his line of sight. He struggled to sit up, to call out to her, but the heavy blankets stopped him.

 

She was either a mind reader, or an angel, because she returned a moment later with a cup of cool water. She lifted his head and held the delicate china to his lips. He drank in short draughts dictated by his awkward position. He emptied the cup and looked longingly at her, trying to tell her with his eyes that he wanted more. She left and returned with more water, and they repeated their dance until he had finished that one as well.

 

She lowered his head back to the pillow and then reached behind him and pulled out another pillow. She lifted his head again and slid the new pillow under it.

 

From his new, slightly loftier vantage point, he could see the room a little better. It was very small, no more than six by ten maybe, and completely windowless. Other than the mattress that he was lying on, there was nothing else in it except a small wooden table…and a body lying on the floor near his feet.

 

Caje had apparently flaked out on the floor, using the mattress as a pillow. One arm was flung over Saunders’ legs effectively pinning them to the mattress, not that he had the strength to move them anyway.

 

He looked back up at the angel at his side. She had followed his gaze to Caje and was still watching Caje as Saunders watched her.

 

He spoke to her and her gaze fell back on him. “Parlee voo English?” That’s about all he knew of French.

 

She smiled at him and shook her head, her brown tresses almost tickling him. She took a handful of hair on each side and flung it back over her shoulders, much to his disappointment.

 

She began speaking to him in French while gently stroking the hair back from his damp forehead. He liked hearing her speak, but doubted that even if he knew what to say, that he would be able to. He’d never felt quite so drained in his life. Exhaustion did not come close to describing the feeling.

 

The pounding headache sucked whatever energy he had away and concentrated it on the pain in his head.

 

The woman reached under the blankets and, holding his hand in hers, drew it out. Compared to under the blankets, the room air felt cold. She took his fingers and placed them on the side of his head, parting the hair just above his right ear. She moved his fingers along letting him feel the ridge. It was a more or less straight line, about six inches long from his temple, along the side of his head and ending near the back. The area was raised in a swollen mound and painful to the touch.

 

He understood. It was a wound that had been sewed up with thread. He could feel the tiny stitches. He took his hand away from hers and pointed to her questioningly. She nodded and smiled.

 

She then took his hand again and held it as she pointed with her other hand to a place on the wall to his left. He very carefully turned his head and followed her gaze, having to look slightly behind him. His clothes, all of them, were hanging on a makeshift clothesline above the fireplace and his boots were on the floor.

 

Again he turned to her and pointed with the question in his eyes. This time, much to his relief, she shook her head ‘no’, and then smiled and pointed to Caje.

 

He sighed and relaxed back into the pillows. This time he had managed to stay awake for a total of about two minutes, he thought, as the darkness overtook him again. At the last moment, he felt his hand being returned to the warmth of his chest underneath the blanket.

 

***

 

“Caje! Pull back! Get down! Get down!” He felt hot, sweaty with exertion, and the danger was palpable. Rifle fire came from across the small pond, from the thicket of bushes that ringed it close to the edge. Caje was behind him, he could feel him, but Marks was beside him and the kid was terrified. “Marks, get down, stay down!”

 

“Sarge! Sarge!” He felt cool hands cupping his head. He turned around, but he was no longer in the woods by the pond, he was in the hot little room and someone called to him. His eyes shot open and met the startled brown eyes of Caje.

 

He looked around quickly as he tried to bring his breathing under control. He’d been having a nightmare. Marks was dead, he remembered that now. The kid had been crouched inches from his left shoulder when a bullet found him right in the middle of his forehead. The kid jerked like a marionette on strings, then a second shot found his chest and he plunged to the ground like the strings had been cut. The only sound he made was that made by escaping air, through the hole in his lung. He was dead before he hit the ground.

 

“Caje?”

 

“I’m right here, Sarge. It’s okay, we’re safe now.”

 

“I was dreaming about Marks.”

 

“Do you remember anything after that?”

 

Saunders closed his eyes and thought for a moment. He couldn’t, come to think of it. Marks’ getting hit was the last thing he remembered. That was an improvement over earlier when all he could remember was breakfast.

 

“I remember leaving before dawn, just the three of us. I remember the ambush at the pond, and I remember Marks getting hit.”

 

“That’s all?”

 

Saunders nodded his head weakly.

 

Caje sat on the edge of the mattress and pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around his knees.

 

“Tell me, Caje.” He was ready to hear now. He was determined to stay awake long enough to find out what happened to them, where they were and who the woman was.

 

“That was two days ago.”

 

Saunders was startled, but tried not to show it. He was sure it had been this morning when they had started out from Ouvre to find the Frenchman who would lead them to the ammo depot buried deep in the forest. Marks was in demolitions. He looked like a high school kid, but he was an experienced demolitions expert having worked in the mines of West Virginia since he was fifteen.

 

Saunders had argued that they didn’t need a demolitions man to blow an ammo dump. They usually pretty much blew on their own. In fact, sometimes it was hard to keep them from blowing. He had been assured, however, that this one may prove to be tricky. It was hidden in a very remote and dense forest, possibly scattered and probably booby-trapped.

 

The patrol was supposed to be small, slip in, slip out, don’t engage. They were miles behind the German lines, but they thought they’d bypassed all the Kraut patrols and camps, but no. They were at the rendezvous waiting for Marcel Lavoie when the forest erupted in gunfire.

 

It was freezing cold and the gunfire created smoke that settled over the area. A cold mist rose from the partially frozen pond where they huddled in the bushes along the edge. The fire came from about twenty-five feet away, on the opposite side of the pond. Saunders immediately saw that two Krauts were flanking them, coming around the pond towards their position. Caje was already behind them and Saunders sent him back even further to cover his and Marks’ retreat and hopefully hold off the two Krauts making their way toward them.

 

That’s when Marks was hit.

 

“Two days ago,” Saunders repeated with a sigh.

 

Caje nodded. “After Marks went down, you opened up and got up to head back towards me when you got hit too. Caught you along side the head.”

 

Saunders reached up and felt the ridge of stitches on his head. The swelling had gone down some.

 

“When you fell, you went right into the pond. It was almost frozen, and by the time I got you out, so were you.” Caje pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, extracted two and lit them, putting one between Saunders’ dry lips. “I nailed the two Krauts coming around. I guess they thought when they got you, they were clear, but they didn’t see me. Anyway, I got them and there was only one more across the pond. I guess he thought better of coming over and he high-tailed it.”

 

Saunders puffed gratefully on the cigarette as he listened. “What about Lavoie?”

 

“He heard the gunfire and came running. He helped me pull you out,” he said, savoring the cigarette. “Sarge, I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold in my life, and you…you were blue. We had to thump you a couple of times to get you breathing again.”

 

“How’d we get here?”

 

“This house belongs to Lavoie’s sister, Vivien. He brought us here. Vivien took care of you while Lavoie and I went after the ammo dump.”

 

“You got it?”

 

“You bet,” Caje said with a proud smile. At the time he wrestled with going or staying with Saunders, but he knew what Saunders would say if he could. The mission came first, always.

 

Saunders grinned. He hadn’t expected that bonus, but just as quickly, Caje’s smile turned to a frown. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Well, Sarge, blowing the ammo dump kinda stirred up a hornet’s nest. There was a local collaborator. Anyway, long story short, the Krauts are looking high and low for us. We can’t move right now.”

 

“Where’s Lavoie?”

 

“He left for Ouvre yesterday morning. He wanted to try to reach the American lines and maybe get us some help.” Caje snuffed out his cigarette butt on the stone floor and tossed it into the fire. “I dunno, Sarge. He had a snowball’s chance…”

 

Just then a door opened. He hadn’t been aware of a door in the room but he reasoned there had to be one somewhere. It was in the wall to his right. Caje turned and rose as Vivien entered with a tray. The door was narrow and she had to turn sideways to slip through.

 

Caje took the tray from her as she sat in his place on the edge of the mattress, chattering away in French.

 

“She’s delighted to see you awake and wants you to eat some of her soup. It’ll warm you up,” Caje relayed.

 

Saunders tried unsuccessfully to rise up on his elbows. “I think I’m warm enough. Can we take off some of these blankets?”

 

Caje spoke to Vivien and she nodded. He moved around the mattress and pulled about two layers down, folding them flat across the bottom of the bed. “Some of your toes were frostbitten, Sarge. She’s still worried about your feet.”

 

“Maybe we can pour some of that soup over them,” Saunders said under his breath as he tried to get more comfortable.

 

Saunders had noticed an ache in his feet that he couldn’t explain. Caje pulled the blankets back to look at his toes. They were dusky gray. “Well, they’re better than they were. They’re still kinda gray, but at least they’re not completely white and the skin’s not broken. Vivien rubbed them for hours that first night.”

 

Vivien spoke to Caje and he said “oui” and moved to the head of the bed. “I’m gonna help you sit up so you can eat some.” Caje slipped around behind Sarge and lifted his shoulders, propping him against his chest while Vivien spooned warm soup into his mouth.

 

He had to admit, it was very good. The warmth seemed to travel through him and the salty flavor was welcome. After a dozen or so spoonfuls he waved off Vivien’s next offering. “Enough,” he rasped. “Thanks,” he sighed, all energy leaving him in a rush. He sagged against his temporary human pillow. “Caje?”

 

Caje had to bend close to hear him. “Yeah, Sarge?”

 

“The Krauts…”

 

“Don’t worry, Sarge,” Caje slid out and lowered Saunders back to the pillows, “they haven’t come here yet, but even if they do, we’re in a secret room. It can’t be seen from the outside or even from inside the house.”

 

“But, the girl. She’s in danger if we stay.”

 

Caje nodded and looked at Vivien. Saunders, even through half-closed eyes could see the affection that passed between the two. As he allowed his eyes to close and relaxed into sleep, he thought of his friend. Caje was the most capable, and the most lethal man he knew. She would be safe with him, no doubt.

 

***

 

The next time he awoke, he felt stronger. Some of the oppressive blanket of exhaustion had lifted along with some of the woolen blankets that had covered him. He found himself in a cotton nightshirt and covered by only two gray wool blankets. He wondered how long it had been this time.

 

He stiffly, and painfully rolled over on his side and watched the fire. Caje and Vivien were nowhere around. The fire was lower than it had been, and he noticed for the first time, that if he rose up and looked through the opening, he could see a living room on the other side. The wood, the flames and the andirons partially hid it, but the opening went all the way through from his room to the outer living room. There was a metal fire screen on the other side, but not on his side. Had the flames been higher, the living room would have been obscured completely.

 

The small room that he was in must lie behind the living room wall, and between it and another room behind it. It was small enough to not be noticed in the overall dimensions of the house from the outside.

 

After a short time punctuated mainly by boredom, he swung his legs around and reached over for his pants. It took about fifteen minutes, but he managed to pull them on and get them buttoned. He had to lie back panting for a few minutes before he felt up to tackling his undershirt. He managed to get the nightshirt off and pull the undershirt over his head, but that was the extent of his energy for a time. He lay down and pulled the blanket back over him, disgusted with his weakness.

 

The flames were hypnotizing and he found himself drifting off again when the front door in the outer room opened and two people came in talking and laughing. He rose up on one elbow and peered through the opening. It was Caje and Vivien. Caje was dressed in civilian clothing and carried an armload of firewood, and Vivien had an apron full of kindling.

 

They continued chattering in French as they unloaded their burdens beside the fireplace and Caje built up the fire. Saunders lay back down and waited. As much as he’d like to, he didn’t think he could stand just yet.

 

He and Caje had to get out of here as fast as possible. Every day they stayed meant more danger for Vivien. He wasn’t sure how long they’d been here, but if Marcel left even yesterday, he should certainly be back today, if he were coming back. The reality was that he probably wasn’t coming back.

 

After a few minutes the small door behind him opened quietly and he heard someone enter. He turned to see.

 

“You’re awake! How do you feel, Sarge?”

 

Saunders rolled to his back. “Better. What day is it, Caje?”

 

“It’s Thursday.”

 

“We’ve been here since Monday?”

 

“Right.” Caje came over and sat beside the mattress.

 

“Where does that door lead to?”

 

“It goes through a pantry and into the kitchen.”

 

Saunders nodded silently, watching his friend carefully. The silence between them was deafening.

 

After a few moments, Saunders spoke first. “Caje.” Caje’s eyes failed to meet his. “Caje, look at me.”

 

Caje fidgeted with the bedding, but finally raised his eyes to meet his sergeant’s gaze. “You know we have to get out of here. Marcel’s not coming back and word of our being here is bound to leak out.”

 

“But, Sarge…”

 

“No buts, Caje. You know it’s true. Every minute we’re here puts Vivien in more danger and you know it.” He held Caje’s gaze with steely blue eyes. “You could be shot if you’re caught in those clothes.”

 

“I had to help Vivien…”

 

“I know, Caje, but you can’t let yourself…” He reached out a hand to his friend’s arm. “You can’t let yourself fall in love with her, Caje. We have to go.”

 

Caje nodded silently. “It’s too late, Sarge.”

 

“I know.” He let himself fall back to the bedding. “Where’s my Thompson?”

 

Caje cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. “It’s at the bottom of that pond.”

 

“Your rifle?”

 

Caje silently pointed to the corner of the room behind Saunders’ head. Saunders didn’t look, just nodded.

 

“What time is it?”

 

“It’s almost dusk. Vivien’s cooking dinner.”

 

They both turned as one when a loud knock sounded at the front door. Saunders held up a hand, a habitual signal for silence. Caje moved quickly, first to the corner to snag his rifle, then to the far side of the fireplace to position himself where he could see around the corner of the wall and through to the other room.

 

Saunders drew his legs up, hoping to take himself out of the line of sight if someone should be able to see through the fireplace opening. He leaned forward to see what he could through the flames.

 

Vivien reached the door just as it burst open. She stepped back, her back straight and her head high. She showed no fear.

 

A German officer, and two foot soldiers entered and spread out around the room, their jack-boots resounded loudly and gouged the thin rug. The officer, an SS officer from his insignia, spoke French to Vivien. His voice was raised in a tone meant to intimidate. She replied calmly and politely. Saunders could tell that she was pleading ignorance of whatever they were seeking.

 

As the officer interrogated her, the other soldiers strode around the room, looking at furniture, pulling pieces out from the wall, lifting the rug. One of them seemed to be circling behind Vivien, scrutinizing her from head to toe, brushing past her closely several times.

 

A second soldier came and stood directly in front of the fireplace and warmed his hands. Caje pulled back and flattened himself against the wall. Finally the soldier moved on and left the room, apparently searching other rooms in the house.

 

Saunders could hear him rummaging around in the kitchen, even opening the outer pantry door. Caje slowly raised his weapon, aiming it at the door to their hiding place.

 

Finally the noises from the kitchen ceased and they turned to see the

soldier had returned to the living room. Both soldiers reported to the

officer in German. The officer touched the brim of his cap and bowed

to Vivien and they left, closing the door loudly behind them.

 

Vivien went to the door and bolted it, leaning heavily on it for a few moments before moving to the window to watch the staff car leave.

 

Saunders rose up on an elbow again and called quietly to Vivien. She came to the fireplace and stooped in front.

 

“Caje, tell her to stay out there, or in the kitchen. Don’t make any moves to come in here or do anything unusual. They might be watching. It’s an old trick to leave and then come right back.”

 

Caje quickly told Vivien in French and she pretended to stoke the fire as they conversed quietly. Finally she stood and went back to the kitchen. Dinner would have to wait.

 

“What were they asking her, Caje?”

 

Caje sighed heavily. “They’re looking for us. The officer knows she has a man here with her. She told him it’s her brother Marcel and he will be home again soon.”

 

Caje relayed this with reluctance, looking sheepishly at his boots. “I’m sorry, Sarge, it’s my fault…”

 

“Forget it. These villages are small, everyone knows everyone else’s business.”

 

“But if I hadn’t gone outside…”

 

“I said forget it,” Saunders cut him off. “Here,” he said, reaching an arm out to Caje, “help me get up. I’ve got to start trying to walk.”

 

***

 

For an hour and a half, Vivien sat in the living room near the window pretending to read and occasionally speaking quietly with Caje.

 

Caje was able to get Saunders on his feet and they walked around the small room with Saunders leaning heavily on him. Neither one said it, but Saunders was depending much more on Caje to keep him on his feet than either one of them would have liked. Almost four days on his back had sapped his strength and obliterated his stamina. His feet ached, his head pounded and the weakness was like a leech, sucking all the energy from him quickly.

 

After only a few minutes, Caje had to lower him back to the mattress where Saunders lay down, too weak to even sit upright.

 

“It’s okay, Sarge. You’ll get better every day. We’ll keep at it until you’re back…”

 

“We don’t have time to wait, Caje. We have to move soon. How long do you think she can feed us and keep us here without someone noticing that she never leaves, or that’s she’s buying three times the supplies she usually does? It’s pure luck that her neighbors haven’t already noticed. Or, maybe they have. Maybe they saw you and knew that you weren’t Marcel.” He lay silently for a minute.

 

“Caje, does Marcel live here?”

 

Caje shook his head. “No, he only visits occasionally. He doesn’t want his work with the resistance to put Vivien in danger. He was very reluctant to bring us here. Her husband was killed…”

“Her husband?”

 

Caje nodded, “They were only married for six months. He was only twenty-two when he was executed. He was Marcel’s best friend.”

 

Saunders sighed heavily. “So Marcel is known as a resistance fighter, so was Vivien’s husband. Caje, she’s going to be watched.”

 

Caje nodded silently. “I’m surprised it took them this long to come here.”

 

“I think they’re disorganized in this sector. Their force is concentrated north of here.”

 

Vivien came in with a tray of food and spoke to both of them in French. Caje interpreted. “She says it’s dark now and she bolted the doors and the windows and pulled all the curtains. She doesn’t see any sign of them coming back tonight.”

 

“Caje, tell her what we talked about. They’ve been here now, and they’ll be back. Tell her we have to be extra careful.”

 

Caje spoke to her for several minutes and she nodded, speaking occasionally.

 

“Sarge, she says she agrees that we need to leave, and when we do, she wants to go with us.”

 

Saunders’ blue eyes flickered between the two of them. Taking her with them would be…

 

Caje interrupted his thoughts. “Sarge, she knows how dangerous it is, and she doesn’t want to leave her home, but she says she can get us out and maybe some day she can come back. Until then, she has a sister who lives near Paris. She can go there.”

 

“Does she have a car?”

 

Caje turned to Vivien and asked her. The negative shake of her head told Saunders the answer to that one, but she continued on.

 

“She has a hay wagon and two horses. Her husband and father were hay farmers and sold hay all over this area. She has continued it on a small scale when she can get help. She says she won’t be questioned. It is time for winter stockpiling and seeing her on the road in the wagon will not be unusual.”

 

“Does she have any hay?” Saunders asked with a grin.

 

Caje asked. She nodded. “She says the barn loft is full of it.”

 

Saunders smiled for the first time in days. A look of excitement passed between Caje and Vivien and they all three started laughing.

 

***

Dinner was stew and biscuits, and Saunders surprised himself, and delighted Vivien by eating two helpings. Shortly afterwards, he was sound asleep and Caje and Vivien talked quietly by the fire until after midnight. Finally Caje retired to the floor and Vivien went to her room.

 

Something woke him. The room was dark except for the firelight. Caje was stretched out on the floor in front of the fire, one arm flung over his head, the other resting on the edge of the mattress.

 

He listened. Something had awakened him. Normally when he was at the front, he slept very lightly, until recently that is. When he did, the least little sound, a twig breaking, the click of a weapon, brought him instantly awake. Behind the lines, and far from danger, he slept like a log.

 

Here, now, in this little room, he was attuned to danger and his subconscious reacted immediately. He found himself sitting up, his hand automatically reaching for his Thompson. Frustrated, he propped up on both hands behind him, listening for any little sound, any clue.

 

Then he heard it again. Someone was rattling the front doorknob. He reached over and shook Caje awake. Caje startled, but woke instantly. Saunders held a hand over Caje’s mouth until he was sure he wouldn’t make a sound.

 

With cat-like quickness, Caje was hunched on his heels, peering around the corner of the wall and through the fireplace. He motioned for Saunders to back away from the mattress; he was too exposed. The fire had died down and the flames no longer offered a veil.

 

Saunders pulled himself back, drew his legs up and pressed himself against the wall on the opposite side of the opening from Caje. He saw Caje look for his rifle, and his face fall when he saw it across the room, out of reach. He didn’t dare make a move for it for fear of making a noise in the quiet house.

 

As if in slow motion, several things happened at once. Saunders saw Vivien enter the living room, dressed in a white gown and blue robe, her hair in one long braid down her back. The door exploded inwardly and splinters of wood and the bolt went flying across the room. A large man in a German uniform, his leg still poised in the air where he had kicked in the door, appeared from the darkness outside. It was one of the soldiers who had been there earlier.

 

The man wasted no time coming in and slamming what was left of the door behind him. Vivien turned to run but he was on her in an instant, grabbing her shoulders and pulling her down to the floor, the sleeve of her robe ripping at the shoulder.

 

Saunders’ gaze was torn from the horror in the living room to movement in the corner of his eye. He saw Caje, his face twisted with a rage he had never seen, crouch tightly on the floor and then instantly propel his body through the fire, over the logs and into the room beyond.

 

Caje was unarmed, but Saunders had a feeling that the adrenaline pumping in him was more than a match for the big German. Saunders, never feeling more helpless, pulled himself up from the mattress using every ounce of effort in him and lunged for the pantry door.

 

The sounds of a monumental struggle followed him as he pushed through the door and ran headlong into a shelf of canned fruits along one side of the small pantry. He used the walls, the table, the stove, anything he could reach to keep himself on his feet. His head swam, his vision was blurred and his own breathing sounded like a locomotive.

 

On the table, a large knife protruded from a wheel of cheese. He grabbed it and held it tightly, afraid it would slip from his sweaty grasp.

 

He pulled himself through the kitchen and down the short hallway that lead to the front room. The sounds of furniture crashing and walls shaking greeted him as he lunged around the corner.

 

Caje was on top of the German, both arms around the man’s neck, but the German was standing and about to fling Caje off like a gnat.

 

“Caje! Knife!” Saunders called to him. Caje hit the floor and rolled instantly back to his feet like a cat.

 

Caje glanced over at him as Saunders held up the big kitchen knife. “No thanks, Sarge, I’m doin’ just fine.” Saunders saw a smile on the Cajun’s face as he lit into the big German with both fists.

 

The German was drunk and his responses were slow. Caje pummeled him with flying fists, and just as the German was about to go down, Caje kneed him with all his might in an area guaranteed to bring down the biggest man. Saunders suspected that was what Caje had in mind all along. A knife would have been too quick.

 

The man paled. He sucked in his breath, but was not able to release it as if his lungs had imploded. Apparently determined to stand his ground, the man lashed out at Caje with one arm. Too late Caje saw the knife in his hand and the blade slashed him in his side, just above the belt line. Caje turned aside, but the blade went deep. He rounded, bringing up a booted foot and slammed that boot into the side of the German’s head.

 

This time, the German fell, hard. Caje dropped to his knees, holding his side and gasping for breath.

 

Saunders, unsure if he could cover the open area to the center of the room, pushed off the wall he was holding for support, and lurched to where Caje was bent double. He dropped to his knees with an arm around Caje’s shoulders.

 

“You okay?”

 

Caje didn’t answer, just nodded his head, sweat running down his face and chest in rivulets. Saunders sat on the floor, which he figured was better than falling, and scooted over to where the German laid. He gave a mighty push, using what he was sure was the last ounce of strength he had, and the German rolled over. The knife that he had lashed out with was now embedded, hilt-deep in the center of the Kraut’s chest. Saunders put a hand over the man’s nose and mouth. No movement. He was dead.

 

“Sarge.” Caje’s voice was no more than a whisper.

 

Saunders moved back over to him. “Help Vivien,” Caje managed to push out through clenched teeth.

 

Saunders quickly scanned the room. He hadn’t seen Vivien when he came into the room, focused as he was on the two combatants.

 

She was lying in a heap under a table as if she’d been flung there. Saunders tried to stand, found that he couldn’t, so he crawled. Caje was beginning to recover his breath and Saunders could feel him inching his way behind him. They reached her at the same time.

 

Caje began quietly talking to her in French as he pulled her by the arm from under the table and into his arms. Her head lolled against his shoulder, her face pale and her eyes closed.

 

Saunders saw the large stain of blood on Caje’s undershirt as it spread to Vivien’s white nightgown.

 

Caje murmured in French and rocked her. He didn’t see when her eyes fluttered open and her hand left his shoulder and came to rest on his cheek.

 

“Caje, I think she’s trying to tell you she’s okay,” Saunders whispered, letting out the breath he’d been holding.

 

Vivien put both arms around Caje’s neck and hugged him hard for a minute. Then she whispered something to him, and began to extricate herself from his embrace. Seeing the blood on herself and on him, she flew into action. Seemingly recovered from being stunned, she pulled herself up and surveyed the damage.

 

She instantly assessed the dead German in the middle of the floor, the dead-on-his-feet sergeant, also in the middle of the floor, and the bleeding man at her feet.

 

Choosing which was the immediate priority, she turned and stepped over Saunders and left the room, coming back quickly with a box, and settling on the floor next to Caje. She pulled out bandages and pressed a handful of gauze into the gash on Caje’s side, putting his hand over it to hold it in place. She looked at his face and immediately took hold of both of his shoulders and forced him to lie down on the floor.

 

She spoke to him in French as she began to pull supplies from the box, needle and thread among them. She cleaned off the blood around the wound with liquid from a bottle. The worst of the bleeding had stopped, leaving only some seepage at the edges. She continued to have Caje hold packing to the wound while she threaded a needle and set out her supplies.

 

As she set to work, Caje clenched his teeth, but continued to talk to her and nod as she spoke to him. Saunders watched incredulously.

 

“Sarge, are you okay?”

 

Saunders startled, not expecting Caje to be able to speak to him. “Uh, yeah, I’m okay.

 

“Vivien says it’s not too deep and as soon as she gets it sewn up and bandaged, we better start getting ready to leave.”

 

Saunders continued to watch, mesmerized as the needle and thread flew through the eight-inch gash. “She’s right. We have to vacate tonight. They’ll come looking for him when they find him missing by morning. This’ll be one of the first places they’ll check.”

 

Summoning strength he didn’t know he possessed anymore, Saunders used the table to pull himself to his feet. He swayed for a minute, fighting the urge to lie down or vomit, and not knowing which to do first. He stood for a minute, leaning heavily on the table until the dizziness passed and the nausea settled from monstrous to just severe.

 

He noticed the gash on his head was throbbing. He reached up and pressed the flat of his hand to it, willing it to calm down.

 

After a minute, he took some tentative steps. “Caje, ask her if she has a cellar.”

 

Caje asked and received a distracted reply as she continued with her stitchery.

 

“She said ‘yes’, the door is off the kitchen.”

 

Saunders made his way back to the kitchen, more determined with each step to get Vivien, and themselves out of this disaster. The door to the cellar was on the back wall of the kitchen, partially hidden by a low sideboard. The kitchen was small and obviously Vivien didn’t mind blocking the door and then moving the sideboard when she needed to. It was on wheels and he was able to easily push it out of the way. Opening the door, he looked down the steep wooden steps, seeing nothing in the dank darkness. Perfect.

 

He made his unsteady way back to the living room where Caje was now sitting up while Vivien wrapped a bandage around his middle while he held his undershirt up out of the way. When she finished, she stood and reached down to help Caje to his feet and then she picked up her box and set it on the table.

 

“How does it feel?”

 

“It’s okay. I think the adrenaline is still pumping; I hardly feel it. Okay, what do we do first?”

 

“First we get that Kraut down in the cellar. I want to make it as hard to find him as we can. There’re some rickety wooded stairs. I want to throw him down and then knock down the stairs if we can, then block the door with the icebox. Maybe they won’t even find the cellar. We’ve got enough trouble with them looking for the ones who blew the ammo dump without them looking for murderers too.”

 

Both men moved over to the body. “Maybe we better wrap him in the rug. It has blood all over it,” Caje said.

 

Saunders reached down and lifted a corner of the rug. “Good idea.”

 

Between the two of them, with Vivien clearing the way, they managed to pull the body, wrapped in the rug to the cellar steps and roll it over the edge. Then Caje went to the barn and brought back a sledgehammer with which he proceeded to dismantle as many of the stairs as he could reach. He then tossed the hammer down into the cellar and closed the door. He and Vivian together pushed the heavy icebox in front of the door, effectively hiding it from a casual observer.

 

Meanwhile Saunders had returned to the little room off the kitchen and dressed in the rest of his dried and stiff uniform. He tossed Caje’s shirt and jacket out to him and then sat on the mattress to put on his boots. Finally, hefting Caje’s Garand, he gave the little room one final look.

 

This humble little hovel had sheltered them, warmed them, protected them and hidden them. He couldn’t say he’d miss it, but he sure was grateful it was there when they’d needed it. He quietly closed the door and backed out through the pantry, avoiding the glass jars rolling around on the floor at his feet. On second thought, he reached down and picked up several jars of peaches and stuffed them inside his jacket. Looking around, he found several more small items, tins of meat, and vegetables in mason jars. He gathered as many as he could and took them out and laid them out on the kitchen table.

 

Vivien saw what he was doing and immediately stood and went to a drawer in the sideboard. She pulled out a canvas bag and began filling it with the food, adding cheese and bread to the collection.

“Caje, tell her to go get dressed and get whatever she wants to take with her, but keep it light. We have to move fast. You and I need to get out to the barn and get the wagon loaded. I want to be far away from this place by dawn.”

 

“You think you’re up to that, Sarge?”

 

“I am if you are,” he said with a grin.

 

Caje spoke to Vivien and she nodded and was out the door, heading for her bedroom as the two men were making their slow, painful way out to the barn.

 

***

 

It took over two hours, but between the three of them, they had harnessed up the horses, hitched them to the wagon and piled a load of hay on the back of the large flat bed. They had planted blankets under the hay to protect them from the bitter cold and stacked more blankets on the seat for Vivien to keep over her lap. Caje’s rifle, and the Kraut’s were both hidden in the hay as well.

 

They hid the bag of food and Vivien’s small suitcase under the seat and covered them with a blanket as well.

 

Saunders was amused as Caje and Vivien bickered affectionately about his wound. She insisted he sit and rest, he refused and pushed on. By the time their task was completed, both Caje and Saunders were pale and drenched in sweat despite the cold.

 

It was still a few hours before dawn when Saunders sat on a feed bin waiting as Vivien and Caje made one last inspection of the house. If possible, they wanted it to look as though she had just left for a day or two and was planning an imminent return. They couldn’t repair the front door, but Caje had nailed some old wooden planks on to disguise the fresh damage.

 

Saunders’ eyes drifted closed, his head swam in a pool of mist and fog. He had that detached feeling again, as though he were floating somewhere above his body. The next thing he knew, Caje was shaking him with a hand on each shoulder. Saunders opened his eyes and found himself leaning forward into Caje’s chest.

 

“You okay, Sarge?”

 

“Yeah, just tired. Let’s get going.” Caje hooked his arm through Sarge’s and helped him to stand and walk the few steps to the back of the wagon. The fact that Saunders didn’t pull away told Caje everything he needed to know.

 

Caje helped Saunders up to the wagon bed and together they burrowed under the hay and found the nest of blankets they had each made.

 

Saunders felt a jolt as the horses tightened the slack in their harness and moved forward. He could hear Vivien cooing and coaxing them in French. He could feel Caje, the warmth of his body next to his, both of them between layers of blankets.

 

“Caje?”

 

“Yeah, Sarge?”

 

“You got your rifle?”

 

He heard Caje tap the wooden stock. “Right here, Sarge.”

 

“Your bayonet?”

 

“Yup.”

 

“You bring the knife?”

 

“Yup.”

 

Saunders lay silent for a few minutes; the wagon swayed and lulled him. After several silent minutes, he said, “Caje?”

 

“Yeah, Sarge?”

 

“Let me have the knife, huh?”

 

“Right.” Caje pushed the wooden handle into his hand and he grasped it as his lifeline, his weapon should he have to defend his little squad in hand-to-hand. The Kraut’s rifle was right beside him, but it would be useless in close quarters.

 

He was so tired. Everything ached, his head, his feet, and most places in between.

 

For several hours he lay still, clutching the knife and listening for sounds in the outside world. Occasionally Vivien would speak to Caje and Caje would relay what she said. Once they stopped on a deserted stretch of road and Vivien handed them food. They ate their lunch together, but separately; the men shrouded in their bed of hay.

 

Throughout the day, they encountered farmers, a few tradesmen, a funeral procession and three squads of bedraggled Germans obviously returning from the fight.

 

None of them questioned Vivien and she politely nodded and moved on, each time giving Caje a full accounting of what she saw.

 

Saunders was stunned by her cool. She was the calmest, smartest and most capable woman he had ever met. She was tough, brave and sensible. When she had packed to leave her home, perhaps forever, she had not brought her dresses, her jewelry, or her silver. She had packed a few changes of clothes, mostly pants and work shirts, and a few photographs of her husband and family. She wore a flannel shirt, overalls and a coat.

 

She had a physical beauty, no doubt, but she was no delicate flower. She was agile, quick and much stronger than she looked, but with a grace that sometimes took his breath away when he watched her.

 

She barely rose to Saunders’ shoulder, yet he had no doubt she could do a lot of damage if she really wanted to lay into him. She reminded him of Caje, if Caje had been a woman.

 

Now that was an interesting thought. No, there was nothing womanly about Caje. Still, he could see why Caje had fallen so utterly in love. They were two of a kind, kindred spirits. Anyone could see it.

 

The wagon ground to a halt and interrupted his thoughts. He realized he had been musing, as he forced himself to stay awake. They were far from out of danger and if trouble came, they’d need all of them.

 

He felt Caje stiffen beside him and heard Vivien speaking to someone. There was some shouting and the sound of people running. Saunders could both hear and feel the restless horses, stamping and pulling against their harnesses nervously.

 

This was different. The patrols had ignored them, had not even stopped them, but this. This must be a roadblock or a checkpoint of some sort. They must be approaching the lines, but they could not be sure. In four days, the lines could have shifted miles in either direction.

 

In his darkest imaginings, he could see the Germans calling all over the countryside by radio alerting all troops that there were murderers abroad. If the soldier had been found in Vivien’s house, it was just a matter of time.

 

He concentrated on controlling his breathing, making it shallow. He was afraid he would cause the hay pile to rise and fall with his chest if he wasn’t careful. Moving or changing position was out of the question, although that’s exactly what he had been contemplating doing only moments ago.

 

He heard Vivien whisper frantically to Caje. After a few moments, Caje turned to him. He was inches away, but they could not see each other.

 

“Sarge, there’s a checkpoint about two hundred yards ahead. A squad just passed us in double-time going to it.”

 

“How many?”

 

Caje asked Vivien and the reply came back instantly. “Five.”

 

“How many at the checkpoint?”

 

“She can’t see everything, but she guesses about three.”

 

“Ask her if she can pull off on a side road.”

 

“I already did. There’s nothing to do but either go forward, or turn around and go back.”

 

“That would be too conspicuous. They’d be sure to come after us.” Saunders thought for a minute, trying desperately to ignore the pounding in his head. “Ask her if she thinks she can bluff her way through it.”

 

Caje did so and a quiet conversation with periods of silence followed. Finally Caje spoke directly to Saunders. “She’ll do good, Sarge. I have complete faith in her.”

 

“Okay, let’s go. Don’t open up unless we absolutely have to.”

 

After a moment, the wagon rumbled forward. Saunders reached for the Kraut’s rifle with one hand and held the kitchen knife in the other.

 

After several very long minutes, Saunders felt the wagon come to a halt and heard German voices. He heard Vivien speak to someone and then a conversation commenced in French. A German was speaking to her in halting French.

 

As the conversation continued, a couple of soldiers circled the wagon, poking at the haystack with their rifles. They seemed to be very blasé about their task, not really jabbing in very deep. Saunders could hear a rifle butt thunk against the floorboards several times. He realized he was holding his breath, but realizing it, and releasing it were separate and distinct tasks, both of which he could not accomplish at the same time.

 

He thought they had finished searching the wagon when he heard a third soldier approach inches from his head. This one seemed to be a bit more enthusiastic. He jabbed deeply with his rifle. The first time he hit Saunders’ shoulder, there was no reaction. The second time he hit it, there was a hand that followed it in, seeking the solid mass that his rifle had hit. The hand was met with the point of a cheese knife, followed shortly by a gasp as his chest met that same knife.

 

“Caje! Don’t let them get to their radio!”

 

Instantly, both Saunders and Caje were up, and out of the straw. Caje fired, hitting two stunned German soldiers immediately. Caje leapt down from the wagon and ran, crouching low to the small guardhouse at the crossing arm that spanned the width of the road. He zigzagged and avoided the shots coming from a Kraut who was running to see what the commotion was. On the run, Caje took that one out, and a final one sitting in the guardhouse in the process of cranking the radio.

 

Saunders meanwhile was busy with the German lieutenant who had been interrogating Vivien. He had drawn a Luger and fired several shots at Saunders who had managed to avoid them by ducking under the wagon. He had fired the Kraut’s rifle and hit a German soldier coming up on his left, and luckily, another one who was close on that one’s heels. His luck ran out as a round from the Luger found him in his left outer thigh.

 

He was bringing the confiscated rifle to bear when the German lieutenant in the front of the wagon suddenly clutched his chest, and with a surprised look, turned to Vivien. In what looked to Saunders like slow motion, the officer sank quietly to the ground, still staring wide-eyed at the innocent girl he had just been speaking with.

 

Saunders dragged himself from beneath the wagon. The officer was dead, no doubt about it. Saunders looked up at Vivien. The blanket that she had placed over her lap now had a smoking hole in it. Her face was flushed with what Saunders saw as fear, mixed with excitement.

 

All firing had ceased and silence reigned. Saunders saw Vivien gather the blanket and push it aside revealing an old revolver, still smoking. He grinned up at her as she carefully climbed down from her perch.

 

“Caje!”

 

“Right here, Sarge.” Caje ran up, pale and breathless and with fresh blood on his shirt.

 

“You alright? You’re bleeding.”

 

Caje looked down and pulled up his shirt. The dressing underneath was saturated with new blood. “I musta pulled some stitches out.”

 

Saunders winced as a new pain shot through his left leg. Feeling suddenly lightheaded, he laid back in the dirt as Vivien stooped at his side, all the while speaking rapidly to Caje.

 

Caje leapt up on the seat of the wagon and pulled down the familiar sewing box that Vivien had used on both of them before.

 

Saunders wiped sweat from his brow, “We don’t have time for that. We have to get out of here. Did they get to the radio, Caje?”

 

Vivien ripped the pants leg around the new wound. “No, he was trying, but I persuaded him otherwise.”

 

Vivien spoke forcefully directly to Saunders. Her vehemence got his attention. Although he understood not a word, he understood the intent. He didn’t need Caje to translate.

 

He lay quietly as Vivien very quickly tied a tight dressing around his leg. Then he watched as she did the same around Caje’s middle and tied it off. She then tossed the box back up to the seat and barked what sounded like an order to Caje.

 

Caje bent and put an arm around Saunders’ shoulder and another under his arm. “C’mon, Sarge, we have our orders.” He hoisted Saunders up to the wagon and covered him quickly with hay. Then he jumped down and retrieved both of their rifles from the ground, the Luger from the officer and one other rifle from one of the dead soldiers. He tossed them all up beside Saunders and then dove under the hay himself.

 

The wagon took off with a lurch and moved at a quick clip down the deserted road. Saunders looked out of his nest back to the carnage at the checkpoint. They had to move and move fast, hoping against hope that there were American troops somewhere nearby. His greatest hope was that they were still in Ouvre. They were less than three miles from there.

 

“Sarge.” Caje was at his side, turned on his side and facing Saunders. “I heard some of what the lieutenant was saying to Vivien. They had been alerted to be on the lookout for a woman and a man. The SS wanted them for questioning. He was flirting with her, which was his downfall, of course, but they know, Sarge. They’ll be coming.”

 

“Not if we can get through these woods and into Ouvre.” He tried to convey a reassurance that he didn’t quite feel.

 

“We don’t know if Ouvre is still ours, and even if it is, there are probably a lot of Germans between here and there. It’ll be like running a blockade.”

 

“We’ve come this far, Caje. We’ll make it.” He lay back. The rough ride not helping his head, but he ignored it as he found a new distraction in the pain in his leg. The bullet was still in there and the sharp burn was enough to distract him from a mule kick.

 

“How’s your side?”

 

Caje lifted his shirt. The new bandage was spotless. “Looks okay. How ‘bout you?”

 

“I’ll live,” he replied simply and closed his eyes.

 

He wasn’t sure if he had dozed off or passed out, but he came awake in a hurry at the sound of gunfire coming from behind them. He bolted up, his head emerging from the hay and flinching as a bullet narrowly missed him.

 

“Caje, tell Vivien to get as low as she can!” He raised one of the rifles and began firing back at the two motorcycles with sidecars that were closing rapidly from their rear.

 

He heard Caje shout and then begin firing. Saunders could see Caje out of the corner of his eye as he stood and backed toward the front of the wagon, placing himself between the Krauts and Vivien’s back.

 

Saunders’ rifle was empty. He thrust it away and fished around in the hay for one of the others. The motorcycles were gaining on them, not more than twenty feet back, zigzagging madly and making it difficult to hit. They parted and one came up to each side of the wagon. Both the drivers and the occupants of the sidecars were firing. The drivers each had a handgun, but at this range, it was enough.

 

The next thing that happened failed to register in Saunders’ brain until it was all over. Simultaneously, two explosions rocked the wagon near the rear, and the four Germans were suddenly propelled into the air, coming to land in the ditches to either side of the road with their motorcycles in crumpled heaps nearby. The wagon ground to a lurching stop, and Saunders was knocked on his backside, his head smacking smartly on the back of the seat.

 

Saunders tilted his head back and saw Vivien struggling to control the two frantic horses and Caje sprawled amid the hay with a red stain spreading across his chest and down his arm.

 

The horses calmed, the wagon ceased to violently lurch and Saunders found himself on his back looking up at the cloudless blue sky. He saw familiar American uniforms, and a few familiar faces coming towards him from several different directions but he was too tired to care. He saw Hanley’s face hover over him. A big smile was on his lean face and he was speaking, but Saunders couldn’t hear. He tried to smile back, but the effort was too much and a black curtain descended.

 

***

 

He surfaced from the black depths when he felt a hand on his brow. It stroked him a few times and then settled on his shoulder. He opened his eyes; a slit was all he could manage, to see a blur beside him. He blinked a few times and the blur coalesced into a person. It was Vivien. She was smiling, her eyes were shining, and she was speaking to him. He couldn’t hear her; only a ringing that was more annoying than any fly buzzing around his head.

 

She turned her head and looked back over her shoulder. He followed her gaze and was rewarded with the vision of Caje in a bed, not three feet away. His face was turned away and he saw a lot of bandages in more than one place, but to his relief, he must be alive or they would not have bothered bandaging him. He felt himself smile, but whether it actually reached his lips was up for debate.

 

***

 

This time he heard voices before he opened his eyes. The voices were many and hushed, like he was in a church…or a hospital. He’d been there enough times to recognize the sounds. An instant later the smells arrived and he was sure now. It was a hospital. Alcohol, chemicals, clean sheets, all familiar and after the dream he’d just had, all very welcome. The ringing in his ears was still there, but the voices over-shadowed it and he listened to them for a moment, savoring the sound again.

 

He carefully opened his eyes. The aching in his head told him that any movement made in haste, he would pay for dearly, so he silently promised himself he would take it easy.

 

The moment the daylight hit his eyes, he remembered. It was no dream. He hadn’t been able to hear, but now he could. Caje had been hit. Vivien…

 

He looked around frantically for Caje, forgetting his promise to himself about sudden movements. His head swam and he clenched his eyes tightly shut for a few moments until the room stopped spinning.

 

“Caje,” he said to anyone who would listen. Caje had been at his side for days; hopefully he still remained so.

 

There was no answer. None at all. No one had noticed that he was awake. He lay still, willing the spinning to stop and his stomach to remain where it was. He didn’t notice when someone stood beside his bed and then pulled a chair close by and sat in it.

 

“Hey, welcome back.”

 

Saunders opened his eyes. Hanley smiled down at him, his green eyes alight. “It’s about damn time. I sit here for hours and as soon as I go to the john, you wake up.”

 

“Sorry,” he said, rubbing his eyes.

 

Hanley chuckled. “It’s okay, I’m just glad you’re in one piece…more or less.”

 

“Caje?” He spoke clearly, the effort taking its toll so brevity was essential.

 

“They released him yesterday. He’s fine, a few stitches here and there. He’s off spending some time with his lady.” Hanley sat back in his chair. “She’s a remarkable woman, Saunders. Never quite met anyone like her.”

 

“You noticed that too, huh?”

 

“Hard not to. She’s quite fond of you, too. She sat here for almost two days off and on until Caje was on his feet and made her get some rest.”

 

“How’d you…?”

 

“…find you?” Hanley finished for him.

 

Saunders nodded silently.

 

“Her brother made it back. He was wounded…a head wound. Took him a coupla days before he could tell us anything. He was leading us back to his sister’s house when we literally ran into you on the road. You almost ran us down, by the way.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“You’re forgiven.” Hanley suppressed a smile.

 

“I wasn’t driving.”

 

“Good thing in the condition you were in,” Hanley shot back. “You need to get some rest. I’ll tell you all about the reports on the SS colonel that was after you and the rogue unit he had scouring the countryside for you, unbeknownst to his superiors, and…well…that can all wait. You get some rest. The doc said you got a good dose of those two grenades, not to mention a few other dents and holes.”

 

Saunders closed his eyes and nodded, keeping the nodding to a minimum lest he shake something loose. It was all very interesting, he was sure, but all he wanted to know, he now knew. Caje and Vivien were both all right, even Marcel was all right, and he could relax and let the war float by him for a little while. He never heard Hanley tell him he’d see him later, or push the chair back and leave.

 

***

 

The next time he awoke, he felt almost human again. It had been awhile, he knew. He had an IV in his arm, probably to keep him hydrated. He felt like he had slept for days. His eyes felt swollen, his muscles were sore and stiff and his throat was dry as sand.

 

The headache was now a dull ache somewhere behind his eyes and his leg was a minor throb. He rose up on one elbow and surveyed his surroundings. A nurse noticed him and came over to ask how he felt. She gave him some water and promised to have the doctor come over to see him soon.

 

By late that afternoon he was in a wheelchair with Hanley pushing him out to the courtyard in front of the 325th Evac Hospital in Tealon, near Ouvre. Vivien had stayed until she was sure her charges were going to be alright, but now S2 was pressing for her presence at battalion. Marcel had already interviewed with them and was already back with his friends in the resistance. From battalion Vivien would be escorted far behind the lines to her sister’s house in a small town on the outskirts of Paris.

 

Saunders winced at the bright sunshine outside. He shaded his eyes as he saw Vivien walking slowly towards him, her arm looped through Caje’s good arm, his other being in a sling, and her eyes shining. She wore pants and a flannel shirt tucked in and a heavy coat. Her hair was loose and hung in great waves beside her face and over her shoulders. She couldn’t have looked any better if she had been in a formal evening gown.

 

When she saw Saunders waiting for her, she broke away from Caje and rushed to him, bending to hug him fiercely around the neck. She whispered some words in French and continued to cling to him for a long moment. Finally she released him and smoothed the hair back from his forehead in a gesture that had become familiar.

 

A jeep with a star on the door roared up just behind Caje, stopped and waited with the motor running. Caje turned and spoke to the driver.

 

Vivien stepped around the wheelchair and shook hands with and curtsied politely to Hanley. He smiled at the old-fashioned gesture. “Caje, tell her she must meet us all in Paris to show us the town someday.”

 

Caje relayed the message to Vivien and she nodded and laughed. She stood on her tiptoes and gave Hanley a peck on the cheek and then turned back to Saunders. She said something to him that only he could hear and then gave him a quick kiss on the lips.

 

Whatever she said, she obviously intended only for him, so he did not ask Caje to find out what it was. He watched as she turned back to Caje and spoke to him briefly. Her voice became more strained and Saunders could see Caje’s eyes brimming with tears.

 

Vivien reached around Caje’s shoulders and held him, kissing him deeply. His good arm came around her small waist and pulled her to him, bringing her up on her tiptoes again. Finally they parted and Vivien strode to the jeep without looking back until she was settled in.

 

The jeep roared off in a cloud of dust and Vivien turned in her seat and waved to them all.

 

Caje came over to stand by Saunders’ chair, watching her go. “I’m going to marry that woman someday, Sarge.”

 

“Not if I get her first,” came the reply from both Saunders and Hanley in unison. They laughed and Saunders reached a hand up to Caje’s shoulder.

 

“I’ll be your best man.”

 

“It’s a deal.”

The End





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