A/N: Welcome! Thanks in advance for reading and possibly reviewing and/or favoriting! I really appreciate your feedback. This one is a sequel to a story I wrote a few weeks ago entitled "Farewell". You don't have to read that one to follow this, although it would help explain the very end. MMWood and angelicalkiss asked for a continuation of that one, so here it is. Yeah, I know, it's not exactly what either of you asked for, but I do intend to write a third entry for this little arc, and that might help you to forgive me for the way this one ends.
An Incident in France
Somewhere in France
The company of soldiers halted on the near side of the small footbridge. Though they were tired and footsore, there wasn't a man among them who wasn't looking at the woods all around him, fearing to catch a glimpse of a German uniform and fearing even more not seeing one that was there.
Lieutenant Salver, the commanding officer of this company, hesitated. He was young, no more than twenty-three, and though he'd gained more experience in the war so far than he cared for, there was still a great deal he didn't know. Even so, he couldn't let his men see his uncertainty. Most of them were even younger than him and less experienced, and so they realized even less than he did how much they didn't know.
"Nickerson!" he called, gesturing for his sergeant to come up alongside him.
Sergeant Ned Nickerson did so and gave him a salute. "What is it, sir?"
Salver dropped his voice low. "I'm afraid we might be lost."
Ned did his best not to show his surprise, but he couldn't help his eyebrows rising just a little. "Lost, sir?"
"This bridge isn't even on the map," Salver said, speaking even more quietly.
"Couldn't it have been put up since the map was made?" Ned asked.
"Maybe," Salver admitted. "I don't think the map is very accurate, though, regardless of the bridge."
"Then what do you want to do, sir?" Ned couldn't help being glad that this decision wasn't up to him. Without the map, there was no telling what they might be walking into, no matter which direction they took.
Salver took a few minutes to consider. There was no sense rushing into a hasty decision and getting his men killed. Finally, he made up his mind. "We'll cross the bridge. If we can find the road that we're looking for, we'll be fine. If not, we'll just have to come back across this bridge." He paused and then went on, "It's possible, of course, that while we're gone, the Germans might come back and take the bridge, and then we'll be cut off. I'll need two men to remain behind to hold it."
"I'll do it, sir," Ned offered. The thought of being cut off from the rest of the men didn't appeal to him, but it was even worse to think of leaving a man behind in his place while he went of in comparative safety.
"Good." Salver glanced back over his men to choose the second one. He settled on one, a good, brave, dependable kid. "Hardy," he called him forward, "you and the sergeant are going to stay here and hold the bridge in case we need to cross it again."
"Yes, sir," Hardy replied, and either he didn't realize the danger or he was even braver than Salver had realized, for he accepted the assignment completely calmly.
Salver handed Ned a small radio. "I'll call when we find the road. You and Hardy come after us then."
"Yes, sir," Ned replied.
After the other men had gone on, Ned and Hardy found a spot where they were covered by the trees but had a clear view of the bridge.
"What is the plan if the Germans show up, sir?" Hardy asked.
"Keep them off the bridge, whatever it takes," Ned replied. "I wonder how long a wait this is going to be."
They remained mostly in silence for over an hour. It was a hot day, and between that and the silence and being tired already, Ned found himself growing sleepy despite the danger that that posed. He guessed from Hardy's general demeanor that he, too, was having some difficulty keeping his eyes open. Ned stretched himself to try to wake himself up again, but that would only go so far.
"Where are you from, Hardy?" he asked, figuring that talking was his best bet at the moment.
Hardy shook himself at the unexpected question. "Bayport. It's a little place not too far from New York City." He readily guessed the reason for the sergeant's question. "How about you, sir?"
"The Midwest," Ned told him. "A little town called Mapleton. It's just a short train ride to Chicago from there, at least it would be if there was a train station in Mapleton. You've got to go over to River Heights, which is a little bigger, not much, for that."
Hardy grinned. "Well, I guess even Bayport is bigger than all of that. I've been to Chicago a few times and to the countryside surrounding it. I don't remember if I've ever been through Mapleton."
"You wouldn't remember if you had." Ned chuckled. "It's pretty forgettable."
There was a downbeat, and then Hardy asked, "You have much family back home in Mapleton?"
"Oh, my family's pretty small," Ned told him. "Just my parents and me. I've got a girl over in River Heights, though. What's your family like?"
"They're a little hard to describe." Hardy had a grin on his face that plainly showed that he was very fond of his family. "My dad's a private detective, one of the best in the country. He's working for military intelligence right now, though. My mom does a lot of volunteer work, and there's been more than enough that's needed doing since the War started. Then I have a younger brother, Joe. He enlisted with the Navy, though, and he's over in the Pacific, fighting the Japanese." Hardy shook his head. "It doesn't seem right, the two of us being a world apart."
"You're close, then?" Ned asked.
"Yeah. We're only a year apart in age, and before the War, we always did everything together." Hardy shook himself. Obviously he hadn't intended to show off all his vulnerabilities to his sergeant. "But it's just as well this way. Joe went for the Navy on purpose. You see, we figured this way, there'd be less chance of anything that happened to me happening to him, or the anything that happened to him happening to me. It's not much, but it was the best way we could figure so that at least one of us might get home."
"It's not much insurance," Ned observed.
"Maybe not," Hardy admitted. "We'll both make it, though. We've always made it through anything we got ourselves into."
Ned shook his head. "You can't have gotten into anything like this before."
"No, not exactly," Hardy said, "but we've gotten into some pretty bad scrapes. We're sort of amateur detectives, you see, and that's not always the safest hobby."
"I know," Ned replied.
"Well, I suppose it's not too hard to imagine," Hardy said.
"I don't have to imagine," Ned told him. "My girl, Nancy, is an amateur sleuth, too. We've certainly had some adventures because of it."
Hardy chuckled. "Is she very good at it?"
"Very," Ned affirmed. "She's better than the whole River Heights Police Department, though she wouldn't like me saying it. She has a lot of respect for the police."
"She sounds like quite a girl," Hardy replied.
"Do you have a girl back home?" Ned asked.
Hardy nodded. "Yeah. It doesn't seem right talking about her here, though. I don't like to think about even the possibility that she could get caught up in all of this."
"She won't," Ned told him. "These Nazis aren't going to get over to the U.S. They ought to know already that they're losing the War."
"I wish they'd hurry up and realize," Hardy said.
Ned let his head sink into his hands. Maybe it would be better to try not to think about all of this. It wouldn't get them home any sooner. He had to just focus on the task at hand.
Hardy must have come to the same conclusion. He stretched his arms and looked down toward the bridge. "How long do you think it will take the lieutenant and the others to get to that road?"
Ned looked at his watch. "They should be getting there any minute, provided the map is right."
"It's going to be dark by the time we catch up to them at this rate," Hardy observed.
The minutes passed much more slowly than either of the young men liked. Finally, Ned's radio crackled to life, and Lieutenant Salver's voice came over it.
"All's clear. Proceed as planned."
"Yes, sir," Ned replied, and with a grateful sigh, both he and Hardy got to their feet.
They proceeded with a little less caution than perhaps they should have, confident as they were because of Salver's transmission and in a hurry to catch up with the others. It was growing dusk when Hardy suddenly stopped.
"What is it?" Ned asked.
"I thought I heard something."
They both kept completely still other than to make sure their rifles were at the ready. There was no repeat of the sound. The men were about to continue on when there was a burst of gunfire from the left. They both the ground immediately, although Hardy did so with a cry of pain. Ned returned fire. He couldn't see what he was aiming at, but that was just as well.
After a minute or two, the return fire stopped, though Ned didn't lower his gun right away. It wasn't likely that there was just one or two Germans hiding in the woods, and the gunshots would bring the rest in a hurry. Ned and Hardy had to get out of here.
Ned crawled over to where Hardy was still lying facedown. There was no sign of a wound on his back, and so Ned carefully turned him over. Hardy groaned as he did so, and Ned couldn't help breathing a small sigh of relief. At least Hardy was still alive. There was only one wound that Ned could see, in Hardy's shoulder.
"It doesn't look bad," Ned told him, although he didn't have any idea what a not-so-bad wound would look like. "Come on. We've got to get to cover."
Hardy nodded and with Ned's help got to his feet. He wavered as he stood, and it was only by leaning on Ned's shoulder that he was able to proceed at all. Even so, they didn't make it far before Hardy pleaded for a rest.
They took cover behind a stand of trees. Trying to watch in all directions, Ned called over his radio for help from Lieutenant Salver, but the only response he got was static. Then he noticed that Hardy, who was sitting with his back against a tree, had closed his eyes and his head was sinking down. His wound was bleeding badly.
Ned shook his opposite arm. "Frank, stay with me here," he said, not realizing that he had unconsciously switched to using his companion's first name. "We're going to be all right. We don't have much farther to go before we get to that road. Just hang in there. I'll see if I can stop the bleeding at all." He pressed his handkerchief to Hardy's wound, and that seemed to wake him up more than anything.
"How many are there?" Hardy asked.
"I don't know," Ned admitted. "Maybe just the ones that shot at us."
Hardy gave him a look that clearly said, "You don't really believe that, do you?" but all he said aloud was, "Is the radio broken?"
"Somebody's radio is," Ned said. "We'll get to that road and we'll be fine. We've got to keep going, though."
Hardy gritted his teeth against the pain for a moment, and then he said, "I'm just slowing you down, sarge. I'll never make it, but you've got a chance. You've got to take it."
The handkerchief was already soaked through, and Ned tried to find something else to use as a compress. "What was her name?" he asked as he did so.
"That girl back in Bayport who's waiting for you." Ned found another handkerchief and placed it over the first one.
Hardy almost smiled. "Callie."
"Well, what would Callie think if she knew you'd given up over a minor wound like this?"
"She'll never know if you don't get out of here."
"And your brother and your parents. I'm going to get you back to them. Just hold on."
"What about your people?" Hardy asked. "Your parents and Nancy?"
Ned set his jaw in determination. "They don't have to worry about anything, because we're both getting out of here, okay? Come on. We've got to get moving."
He didn't give Hardy a chance to argue. He pulled him to his feet and then half-dragged him in the direction of the road. Every minute they expected another burst of gunfire to bring them up short.
Then there was a crackle behind them and someone shouted an order that Ned didn't understand. The suddenness of it drove any thought save that of fighting back from Ned's mind. He let Hardy slip to the ground and tried to bring his rifle up to his shoulder. Had he had the time to think, he would have realized that there wasn't time for that. Almost as swiftly as thought, there were two shots. Ned gave a great gasp of pain as he felt his knees buckle underneath him. As consciousness drifted away, the last thing he heard was a few rough words of German, but the last thing he saw was a few stars that were just coming out over the tops of the trees, and he thought even in those few moments that one of them was the North Star.