No infringement upon the rightful owners of "Combat!" and the characters
thereof is intended. This piece of fan fiction is for enjoyment only,
and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from its existence.
Author's Note: This story is a response to the 11-27-04 fanfic challenge to write about a character who thinks Saunders is dead.
by White Queen
There were things he should be thinking about. Plans he should make. He couldn't even remember what he'd been doing before Cranston, Third Platoon's runner, had entered his tent-HQ. The only thing looping through his mind was a constant replay of Cranston's words:
"Your first squad just made its way to our lines. They hit some mines. Most of them are okay -- they'll be back here within the hour. But Summers has a bad leg wound, and Saunders is dead."
Saunders is dead. The runner Cranston said the words so casually, so unaffectedly. He'd reported many casualties to many officers. Lt. Hanley had almost gotten used to receiving casualty reports too. He'd thought he'd hardened himself by now.
Saunders is dead. Hanley blinked rapidly several times, then nodded to Cranston, who figured he'd been dismissed, and left the tent.
Hanley sat stiffly, his hands spread out over the map-covered table in front of him. He slowly looked down at the maps as if he had no idea what they were or why they confronted him. He realized he'd been clenching his stomach muscles, and tried slowly relaxing them. His mouth tasted stale, and he opened his lips, curling them under against his teeth and taking a deep breath. That tasted stale too.
How could Saunders die? Other men, sure. Hanley was used to the deaths of others under his command. As used as he could make himself. Not Saunders. Saunders was indestructible -- you could shoot him, stab him, knock him unconscious, and even burn him, and he always healed up. Always.
The runner said it was a land mine. A lousy, stinking land mine. Not a sniper or a machine gun or a tank -- a land mine. Why, Saunders must have spotted and defused hundreds of them! Hanley grew angry, his hands curling into tight fists. What'd they been doing in a minefield, anyway? They were just supposed to make sure some road was still open.
Saunders' voice came to him, a memory from D-Day Plus One. Back when Hanley was still a sergeant too. They'd found themselves surrounded by mines, and Saunders had led the way out, crawling carefully along, inch by inch. He'd laughed at Hanley's fears every time they had encountered a mine. "Don't worry, you never see the one that gets you." Hanley wished now he could somehow ask Saunders if that held true.
Voices outside the tent's door flap interrupted his anguish. That undoubtedly was Saunders' squad, returning from Third Platoon's position to the north. He may have lost a friend, but they'd lost their leader. They'd been there when he died, Doc maybe frantically trying to bandage his wounds. The last thing they needed now was a grieving CO... he had to pull himself together for the men. Saunders' men.
A subdued Kirby entered the tent, followed by the quiet Cajun. Kirby forgot to salute, which Hanley was used to by now. But Caje failed to salute as well, which surprised Hanley vaguely.
"I heard what happened," he told them. They nodded. "I've decided," he continued, deciding as he spoke, "to make you acting squad leader, Caje."
Caje nodded, his dark eyes shifting restlessly around the makeshift HQ.
Lt. Hanley nodded at Kirby. "And I'm making you acting corporal."
Kirby shrugged. "Okay by me." The bent cigarette dangling from his lips barely moved when he spoke.
Hanley stood up and walked around the table toward the others. "You understand this is only temporary."
"Just until I can assign you to a different squad, or get you a new squad leader."
Caje and Kirby looked at each other, then back at Hanley, obviously confused. "New squad leader?" Caje echoed.
"Jeez, I didn't think he was that bad off," Kirby protested. "I mean, Doc said it was badů it looked bad." He frowned. "But I didn't think it was bad bad."
Now Hanley looked confused. "At such time as Summers recovers, he'll be reassigned as well."
Kirby pulled the cigarette from his mouth and waved it in the air. "Summers? Who said anything about him? He's toast! We were lucky to find his dog tags. I mean the Sarge. You don't think he'll be gone permanent, do you?"
Hanley swallowed. He suddenly needed to sit back down. After unsteadily returning to his chair, he said, "I think there's been a mistake."
"You bet there has, if you think you're gonna just pawn us off on some other squad. We don't none of us want that."
"He's right, Lieutenant," Caje agreed. "We'd all like to stay together, at least until we find out for sure about the sergeant."
Hanley took a deep breath. "Do you mean," he said slowly, looking Caje and Kirby in the eye in turn, "that it was Summers who died, and Saunders has the leg wound?"
Caje nodded. "Doc's taking him to an evac hospital right now."
Hanley closed his eyes. Saunders had not died. The runner must have mixed up the names. He could hear the men moving and reopened his eyes to find Kirby's grimy face about ten inches from his own.
"You okay, Lieutenant?" the acting Corporal asked.
Hanley smiled. "I'm fine." His smile stretched into a grin, and he nodded. "I'm just fine."
THE END (or the beginning, depending on how you look at it)