A Walk Alone
A missing scene from the beginning of “The Walking Wounded”.
“Doc!” Hanley placed a hand on Saunders’ back. He was breathing, but unmoving. “Doc!”, he shouted louder, his volume born on adrenaline and fear, was carried on the wind down the hill, rather than up where the rest of his men were dug in.
He glanced up the hill behind him and saw that Doc was already scrambling down the hill dragging his kit behind him. He could see no one else, which was just what he wanted to see. The others were wisely staying put.
For several moments there was no sound except the wind. Then, as suddenly as the first shot had rung out, a dozen more answered it. If rifles had emotions, these were angry.
They had taken the hill last night after an eight-hour struggle. In the early hours before dawn, a well-placed barrage of company mortars had helped to secure the hill. All that was left was to check for live prisoners and stragglers. They waited until dawn, and then slowly made their way to the top, exhausted, but buoyed by the satisfaction of a mission completed, and the promise of a few days at the rear.
At the crest of the hill was a deep trench, littered with the debris of war, but no bodies and, as Sarge had said, “No one home.” Hanley knew that the stronghold had been farther to the west where the other half of the platoon was scouting. He hadn’t expected to find much, if anything, on this side.
Then the shot rang out from ahead of them and to the right. There was no cover in that direction that Hanley had seen, but Saunders, standing shoulder to shoulder with him on his left, was hurled backwards down the hill. The men instinctively jumped into the trench and surveyed the terrain with trained eyes, most of them unaware that one of them had been hit.
Hanley’s natural instinct too, was to duck into the trench, but he had been so close, he had felt the breeze of the bullet as it flew by, missing him by inches and hitting his friend. Not thinking that the next one might not miss, he was halfway down the hill before he realized he had even followed his friend who had rolled and tumbled down in an uncontrolled fall. Hanley had remained on his feet until the bottom where he sank to the ground beside Saunders, who lay motionless in a tangle of barbed wire.
He felt Doc arrive behind him in a mini-avalanche of dirt and rocks as he skidded to a stop. Hanley reached both hands to Saunders and he and Doc slowly rolled him over. A moan signaled that Saunders had felt the tug of the barbed wire, but despite how bad it looked, it pulled away easily and most of the damage was a few tears in Saunders’ jacket and scratches on his hands and forearms.
Rolling him on his back, Hanley supported Saunders’ head in his lap while Doc did a quick appraisal. Saunders had not opened his eyes and lay slack in Hanley’s arms. Doc felt for bumps and gashes on his head, and finding only a medium sized lump, he moved on. He checked carefully for fractures; ribs, arms, legs. Finding none and eliciting no further moans from Saunders, he concluded that the main problem was the small but unnatural hole in Saunders’ left leg. Doc was used to unnatural holes. He saw them often. Some big and jagged, some small and neat, all painful and all potentially life threatening.
He tore Saunders’ pants leg away from the area, ripping a good deal more than he had intended in his haste. This one was of the small and neat variety. In fact, it was two holes, but so close together was to be taken for one long one. The bullet had hit and immediately exited and glanced off. No bones, no arteries and for an experienced hole receiver like Saunders, no problem.
Sarge was still out from the fall down the hill, but he should be coming around soon. Doc reached up and checked his pupils. All normal. He should be just fine. He smiled reassurance up at Lieutenant Hanley and then began pulling sulfa powder and dressings out of his kit.
“How is he, Doc?”
“I think he’ll be fine, sir,” he said as he sprinkled the sulfa liberally into the wound. “Just a bump on the head and a flesh wound. He was lucky.”
Hanley let out the breath he had been holding. He scanned the crest of the hill. The frequency of the rifle reports was slowing down. As he watched, he saw Caje rise up out of the trench and make his way down the hill, scooting on his butt until he was below the skyline, and then hurrying down in a low crouch. Hanley noticed he was carrying the radio with him.
Breathless, Caje settled on Saunders’ left side opposite Doc and surveyed the scene while he caught his breath. Doc was working on a leg wound, Hanley was holding Sarge’s head, and Sarge didn’t seem to know that any one of them was there.
“What’s the situation up there, Caje?”
Caje gulped a few more breaths in. “We can’t see him, sir. There’s a small outcropping of rocks and that’s probably where he his, but we can’t tell ‘til we move up there. He hasn’t fired any in about five minutes.” Caje continued to watch Doc’s hands work as he gave report. Finally he tore his gaze away and worried dark brown eyes met worried green ones. “Uh, sir, I almost forgot. The captain is on the radio.” He shoved the radio to Hanley who took it and placed it to his ear.
“Checkmate King Six, this is King Two, over.”
“King Six, report.”
“We have a sniper that has us pinned down. One casualty. Would like to flank out and get the bastard, sir.”
“You’re gonna have to, King Two. I need you to move north and fast. Love Company is pinned down by two machine-gun nests about three-quarters of a mile north of your position. Everyone else is too far away. The rest of the battalion is moving up on your six and that hill needs to be secure for them. Get that damned sniper and get him quick. King Six, out.”
Hanley dropped the radio in the grass and glanced up at Caje. Caje was sitting close enough to have heard both sides of the conversation. He nodded his acknowledgement.
“Get up there and get the men back down here. Be careful. Stay off the skyline.”
Caje gave a quick nod, glanced back down at Sarge, and hesitated. Doc noted the pause and said, “It’s okay, Caje, he’s going to be just fine. Not serious at all.”
Caje nodded again to both Doc and the lieutenant and then made his way back up the hill from which he’d just descended.
“You okay here with him, Doc? We need to move out quickly.”
“You go ahead, we’ll be fine. When he comes to we’ll make our way back to the main road and hitch a ride to the aid station. Shouldn’t be too…”
As if on cue, Saunders twisted in Hanley’s lap, grimaced and reached instinctively for his upper leg with a moan.
Hanley grabbed his shoulders to steady him. “Shhh, it’s okay, Saunders, it’s not bad.”
Saunders, instantly awake, glanced up at Doc who nodded his agreement.
“It may not be bad but it hurts like a son of a…”
“I know, but once I get this bandage on it nice and tight, it’ll feel better. There’s no bullet in there.”
Saunders relaxed back against his human pillow and sighed. He looked up into the face hovering over him. “Anybody else hit?”
“No, just you.”
Saunders sighed and closed his eyes. “My head hurts,” he muttered under his breath.
Hanley grinned, relieved that Saunders was with them to complain. “You took a big tumble down that hill.”
Doc tied off the field dressing just above Saunders’ left knee. Hanley looked up the hill and watched as his men descended, crouching, butt walking, walking backwards so they could watch the horizon.
“Take a look up there.” Hanley gestured up the hill and Saunders’s eyes followed his arm as it pointed. “Now that’s the way you should come down a hill.”
Saunders sighed loudly refusing to give his lieutenant the satisfaction of laughing at his little joke. Besides, laughing makes you shake and right now he felt as if his head would roll off if he did.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. He was feeling lightheaded. Dizziness brought on nausea and nausea brought on…No, he refused to let that happen out here in front of Lieutenant Hanley, Doc and…
“Hey, Sarge! You think you’ll live? You look like crap!”
…Kirby. Saunders got the feeling he had passed out for a few minutes. Last time his eyes were open, the men were half-way down the hill. Now they were all around him, hanging over him like gargoyles, lounging in the grass, some had lit up smokes. He must have dozed off.
“Nice to see you too, Kirby.”
“Yeah, I’m just sayin’…”
“Shut up, Kirby,” Hanley barked, not entirely without humor in his voice.
“Shutting up, sir.” Kirby leaned over Doc’s shoulder and gave Sarge a light punch in the arm, then he backed off and went to sit nearby.
“You feel like you can sit up?”
Saunders had forgotten that Hanley was behind him acting as a field pillow. He had to sit up, as much for his own dignity as to release the lieutenant from his bondage. “Sure,” he said as he struggled to raise himself. Doc pulled from the front, Hanley pushed from the rear, and in a moment, Saunders was sitting with only a hand on his back for support from Doc who was stooped at his side.
Hanley rose to his feet. “Okay, here’s the deal. The captain says battalion is right behind us, moving up. I want Caje, Kirby and Anderson to flank out to the east and get that sniper. Find him and eliminate him. If you can’t find him, scout the entire area, be sure it’s safe. The rest of you are coming with me. We’re heading north to that line of trees. There are two machine gun nests keeping Love Company pinned down. We’ll be back-up, eliminate the machine guns and hold there. Caje, you and your team rendezvous with us there. Doc, you stay here with Saunders. You should be safe this far back. When he’s able, get back to the main road and head for the aid station. With battalion moving up, there should be plenty of rides.”
“Lieutenant.” Sarge’s voice was stronger as he reached out to Doc for a hand getting up.
“Sarge, I don’t think you should…”
“Just help me up, Doc.” He got shakily to his feet with a hand from Doc. Not gracefully, but just standing was a feat not possible just a few minutes ago. “Lieutenant, take Doc with you. You may need him more than I do. I can make it back to the road on my own.”
“Sure I’m sure. It’s only a quarter mile back, and like you said, should be plenty of rides.”
“What do you say, Doc?”
Doc glanced at the sarge and found hard determination there. In his best judgment, he knew the wound was not serious, he seemed to have recovered from the fall, there was no bleeding. In all honesty, he had to agree that the risk was minimal. “He should be okay, Lieutenant.”
“Alright, take off now so we can watch and be sure you don’t fall over as soon as you take a few steps.”
Saunders grinned. Caje approached and handed him his helmet and Thompson that he’d retrieved from the hill. “Here ya go, Sarge. You take it real easy.”
Saunders settled the helmet on his head, hefted the Thompson by its strap onto his shoulder and turned toward the road where they had crossed to get here less than an hour ago.
As soon as he began walking, he felt a painful lump in his shoe. He had picked up a rock but he knew if he limped too much, the lieutenant would change his mind, and he wasn’t feeling entirely confident in his ability to sit down, take out the rock and get back up again. Maybe later.
He turned and saw Hanley watching. They all were. He gave a little wave and started off again, trying not to limp any more than he absolutely had to. His head pounded. The truth was, he would have welcomed Doc’s company, but he wanted more for his men to have Doc with them. They were the ones heading off in pursuit of snipers and machine guns.
“You think he’ll be okay?” Kirby said to no one in particular.
Hanley picked up his own gear and retrieved the radio from where he’d left it on the ground. Handing it to Caje, he turned to Kirby. “He’ll be fine. You know the sarge, “
“Yeah, I do. That’s why I’m worried he’s not lettin’ on…”
Caje interrupted, “He’s right about one thing. We need Doc with us. He’s thinking of us like he always does.”
Kirby swung his helmet on his head and hefted the BAR. “Yeah, I guess.”
Hanley turned to look one last time at his sergeant making slow progress, but already a hundred yards away. “Alright, let’s move out! We’ll rendezvous in two hours. Good luck.”
Saunders paused at the edge of the road and watched his squad, little black dots in the distance now, move up and over the hill, a piece of the whole breaking off and moving to the right.
As much as he could use a rest, he wished he were going with them. He’d made it to the road with no trouble. His leg ached, his head ached, and there wasn’t a truck, ambulance or half-track in sight. If battalion was moving up, they hadn’t made it this far yet. In this area, the only danger he was in was from terminal boredom, so he continued walking in the general direction of Orre.
The rock in his shoe finally announced itself again, and this time it could not be ignored. Boredom, rocks in the shoe, a hole in the leg and a headache to beat all. As he sat down in the road and began pulling his boot off, he cursed his luck and spoke aloud to no one there, “It’s just gonna be one of those damn days…”