This story is set in the summer of 1918, when the United States joined the closing campaigns of the First World War under the command of General Pershing. The US remained an Associated Power from its declaration of war on Germany on 6 April 1917 to the Armistice on 11 November 1918, never joining the Alliance between Great Britain (with its Dominions), France, Italy, Japan, pre-revolutionary Russia and others. As the US had virtually no Army at this time, there was a long delay to conscript, train and equip the men who were to serve. It was not until a year after the US declaration of war that American forces took up position on an active battle front.
By the end of the Great War, France and Germany had each lost 1.5 million men, the British Empire nearly a million and Russia probably more than four million. The US lost 88,000 men. (Source: 'The First World War' by AJP Taylor.) On top of this, millions more men were crippled, mentally or physically, and countries verged on bankruptcy. France's losses were the worst, the deaths a higher proportion of its smaller population and its economy almost ruined. People at the time believed that it was the war to end all wars. Even today, there is barely a town or village in Britain without a memorial to honor the dead of the Great War. The memorials on the battlefields of France must be seen to be believed: the Thiépval Memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens carries the names of 73,000 British and South African men who have no known grave and who fell on the Somme between July 1916 and 20 March 1918 (the author's great uncle among them).
To find out more about the Great War, visit www.firstworldwar.com.
- 1 -
Captain Christopher Larabee had guessed what was coming and he didn't like the look of it. He strode grimly through the scores of tents that formed the largest encampment of the First Division of the US Army in Northern France. For a man who joined up with the express aim of getting killed, he had risen through the ranks a lot quicker than he bargained for. He grunted irritably to himself - in a nation with no standing army to speak of, a rancher who could shoot straight and who had a couple of years' service in Roosevelt's Rough Riders way back at the turn of the century looked like some kind of expert. Little did the brass know that he joined up then solely as part of a plan to seduce as many women as possible during his bachelor years. His best friend had predicted that few pretty girls would be able to resist a man in uniform and their combined tally proved the theory beyond doubt.
The worrying thing was that the same slender selection criteria ran right to the top. Larabee had heard good things about General Pershing but so far he'd seen little evidence that officers closer to his own rank had any more idea of how to fight a war than he did. Most were rolling into Europe with the same blind optimism, confident that they would kick the Hun's ass in days. Optimism did not figure prominently in Larabee's character and he sure as hell had no time for it now. True, it was hard to see how Europe had allowed itself to fall into such an appalling four-year stalemate but, however it came about, Larabee did not fool himself that it would be easily broken.
Seeing an Adjutant leaning over a folding table outside a tent that was larger than its neighbors, he marched briskly up, stood to attention and spoke mechanically.
'Captain Larabee reporting to Major Travis.'
He hated the rigidity of military service but observed the etiquette to make his life easier. The Adjutant was a Captain like himself so there was no need for deference.
'Wait here,' the man said, before disappearing inside.
The tent was designed to take several men standing upright, clearly intended for meetings rather than simple shelter. Larabee heard nothing as his presence was relayed to the senior officer, which was unusual: the army was filled with men barking orders at each other. If nothing else, it suggested that his new commanding officer was not so old that he was deaf, an improvement over some he'd encountered.
The Adjutant reappeared. 'Go in.'
Larabee entered slowly, giving his eyes a moment to become accustomed to the gloom inside. The Major had presumably closed the tent flaps to stop his papers from flying around in the brisk breeze. Perhaps it was also an attempt to ensure privacy for their conversation, although canvas made a poor barrier. The result was a stuffy cocoon, tainted by the body odor that was impossible to shift from the thick serge of army uniforms. Larabee had smelled far worse but still had to stifle the gag reflex that came too readily to a man who'd spent his whole life in the open until just six months before. His voice was thick with phlegm when he introduced himself.
'Captain Larabee reporting for orders, Sir.'
'Good afternoon, Captain.'
The civility in the man's tone, and the intelligence in his penetrating gaze, immediately put Larabee more at ease. The Major's graying hair, watery eyes and liver-spotted hands conspired to put him well past middle-age but he came across as a man who respected his subordinates and was well aware of the potential consequences of his orders. That was a relief.
'Good afternoon, Sir.'
Travis wasted no more time on pleasantries. 'Do you know what the US Army is here to do?'
Larabee weighed up the question. Surely this man did not want to hear the recruiting slogans recited mindlessly back to him. Did he mean here, in France, or here, outside Verdun? Larabee knew only what he'd heard in murmured gossip and there wasn't much of that any more. Experienced men of the line took seriously the warning that careless talk could cost their comrades' lives. No longer was every advance heralded by a massive bombardment. At long last, commanders were using guile and deception to give their men a fighting chance.
'The rumor is that there's to be a combined offensive down the entire line, from the Belgians at Ypres, through the Brits at Arras down to the French at Compiegne. We're here to push the southern section.'
'Hmm,' Travis mused. 'You seem well-informed, Captain. I hope the enemy does not share your sources.'
Larabee said nothing.
'Do you believe we can succeed in such a move?'
Should he sound a note of confidence or realism? What did the Major want to hear? Did he himself want to be accepted or rejected for the mission? With no answers to those questions, Larabee opted for honesty.
'The Germans are exhausted and demoralized after their failed offensive. It should be possible to capitalize on that, with the right strategy and the right intelligence.'
Travis smiled tightly. 'I hope you're right, Captain. Indeed, the last point may rest in your hands.'
So, that was the purpose of the new crack unit that men hardly dared mention. No more blundering blindly onto invincibly defended positions.
'Considerable preparations are required before the combined allied forces will be ready to move as one. That gives us an opportunity and I am looking for a man capable of exploiting it to the full. Are you that man, Captain Larabee?'
There was a twinkle in the older man's eye as he put the question. Chris let his own eyes narrow in shared amusement as he replied in kind.
'Judging from what I've seen, I may be the best you've got.'
Travis gave a soft laugh and lowered himself cautiously into the folding chair behind him.
'I wish I could dispute that assessment but your eyes have served you well. The US Army has done little since the Indian Wars, and those were fought against an adversary with vastly inferior firepower. Virtually no one serving now has combat experience and none of a highly organized, heavily armed enemy such as we face here.'
'So you don't rate our chances.'
Travis looked up sharply. 'I didn't say that, Captain. Kaiser Bill may have started this but you can rest assured that General John J Pershing aims to finish it. It is the responsibility of men like ourselves to ensure that objective is achieved. I ask again, are you the man for the job?'
Larabee cared little for the outcome of a European war, and even less for the views of General John J Pershing, but he was taking money to do a job and he aimed to do it at least until he achieved his own, far more personal, objective.
'I'll give it my best shot.'
'Good. Let us both hope that will suffice.' Travis picked up a manila folder from the desk and handed it over. 'I believe you already know the man at the top of the list.'
Larabee looked at the first damp-curled sheet of vellum and felt his eyes widen in surprise. Buck Wilmington? Why the hell would he join up? And who the hell would assign the philandering scoundrel to a special unit?
'Wilmington? You're kidding.'
Larabee doubted that it would make any difference if he did but, in fact, he did not. 'No, but if he's the best this Army's got, we're in even more trouble than I thought.'
'I understood him to be a friend of yours.'
Chris smiled. 'Did he tell you that? Well, even if he's not lying, that doesn't make a soldier out of him.'
'He has combat experience,' Travis countered, 'From the Spanish-American War, like yourself.'
'A few Cubans is hardly the Hun.'
Travis's gaze suddenly became weary, as if his years were asserting themselves. 'As I said, combat experience is in short supply. You have a choice between men like Sergeant Wilmington and boys who are fresh out of training.'
Larabee snorted and returned to his perusal of the list. The other names were all unfamiliar to him, from Corporal Tanner to Privates Sanchez, Fiegler, Standish and Dunne. He scanned the brief details shown next to each name, stopping at the last.
'And if I'm real lucky I get both?' he asked sardonically. 'Dunne's only just turned 18 - did they even put him through training?'
'He is young, I'll grant you,' Travis admitted. 'However, he is also a genius with modern equipment - wireless, cameras, aircraft, whatever. Believe me when I say that it wasn't easy to secure him.'
Larabee nodded, feeling a surprising degree of trust in the judgment of what appeared to be a singularly knowledgeable Major.
'Corporal Tanner is an even rarer commodity - a seasoned United States officer of any kind, notwithstanding his lack of a commission. He has served with the French and, sporadically, with the British.' Travis paused before adding, 'However, I should perhaps warn you that he is wanted for murder by the French.'
Larabee looked up sharply, wordlessly inviting an explanation for that piece of information.
'He shot his Captain,' Travis said flatly, no trace of humor in his voice but a flicker of irony in his eyes.
'Just what I need,' Larabee muttered equally flatly, feeling the same silent irony but having no need to share his reasons for enlisting.
After a moment's silence, Travis explained. 'The way I hear it, the man's lower body was spread over a hundred-yard radius and Tanner was doing him a favor. His only mistake was being seen.'
Larabee nodded. He'd heard talk of such things, though he had yet to witness such horrors first-hand. A man who could take a decision like that, and live with it, might be worth having around. Before he could say any more, the Adjutant came in and saluted the Major.
'Sergeant Wilmington sends his apologies. He has been detained on the far side of Verdun.'
Chris couldn't quite keep the smile off his face and saw Travis note his expression with irritation. The unspoken exchange confirmed that they both knew more about Wilmington than they were saying.
'Indeed? Well, Captain, he's your friend so perhaps you'd better go and find him, before I put him on a charge.'
'Corporal Tanner is waiting outside, Sir.' The Adjutant offered the unsolicited information respectfully but with the confidence of a man serving a reasonable officer.
'Thank God we have some soldiers who turn up where they're supposed to once in a while,' Travis muttered. 'Send him in.'
The smile faded from Larabee's face, as he waited with interest to meet the Captain-killing Corporal. He had no idea what he expected to see but the man who ducked lithely under the tent flap was no one's idea of a regular soldier. Larabee studied him while he reported to the Major.
Tanner wore an eclectic mixture of equipment, mostly French but topped off with a British Gor Blimey cap, the ear-flaps of which disguised but did not fully conceal the distinctly un-regulation length of his hair. A Franco-British cuirass was buckled over his tunic, its steel breastplate protecting most of his vital organs. Abundant insignia adorned his sleeves, declaring his record to those in the know. Larabee had taken particular care to learn the meaning of the symbols used by all the armies embroiled in the conflict and could now read a soldier's skills as well as any. Tanner's emblems declared his rank, his expertise as a gunner, his service starting in 1914 and the three serious wounds he'd sustained. It looked as if he'd purloined every useful item he'd come across in his four years at the Front and now wore or carried his booty wherever he went.
The glance Travis gave Tanner was pure exasperation. 'I thought you were reporting to stores for a United States uniform, Corporal.'
Tanner shifted his weight uneasily from one leg to the other, and then spoke in a soft and unexpected Texan drawl. 'Reckon I kinda like what I got, Major.' As if for good measure, he added, 'Sir.'
'Do you indeed? And precisely which army do you consider yourself to be serving in that attire.'
The reply brimmed with certainty. 'The Allies, Sir.'
Larabee smiled inwardly. He reckoned he could get to like this unconventional man who was clearly fighting his own war on his own terms. When he looked at Travis, he saw the same respect in the Major's eyes.
'Well,' Travis said gruffly, 'I hope you took the chance to get new underwear at least.'
Tanner flashed a white grin that sliced years from his age. 'Yessir, I surely did that.'
Travis turned his attention back to Larabee. 'Well, Captain,' he said in a tone that heralded the close of their meeting. 'I suggest you take Corporal Tanner and round up the rest of your unit, starting with the Sergeant. Study your orders and report back to me here at the same time on Friday.'
Larabee saluted and led the way outside, tucking his orders into his pocket as he did so. He carried on walking until the Major and his Adjutant were lost in the sea of tents, then paused and turned to the Corporal.
'You wanna serve in this new unit?'
'Them's my orders.'
'Answer the question.'
Tanner looked at him, a flicker of amusement somewhere deep in his world-weary blue eyes.
'Ain't decided yet.'
Truthful as well as useful. 'Fair enough. Well, I'm no regular soldier and I'm damned sure you know it.'
Tanner inclined his head in cautious admission of that fact.
'You're the most experienced man they can give me. If you've got something to say - anything, anywhere - I wanna hear it. Are we clear on that?'
The grin slid back onto Tanner's face. 'Yeah. Hell, you're a breath of fresh air after the Tommy officers, Cap'n.'
'Make it Vin.'
Larabee drew a silent sigh of relief. If the rest of his new crew matched this Tanner, he reckoned they might - just might - make it home some day.
- 2 -
Positioned at the tip of a strategically futile salient and shattered by months of heavy artillery fire, Verdun was nearly a ruin. Once a fortress, it had been stripped of its guns by General Joffre, a commander who did not believe in the value of defensive positions of that type. The French had battled valiantly to hold the town against an intense German offensive, ignorant of its uselessness as a fortification and of the pitiful state of its defenses.
'But you should see the other guy,' Chris muttered ironically under his breath. Knowing that the man at his side had served at Verdun, he fished for an opinion. 'Musta had one hell of a reason to fight so hard for so little.'
Vin only shrugged and said, 'Meant a lot to the French.' A few seconds passed before he permitted himself an equally ironic aside. 'All 'cept the ones who served here.'
Chris found his respect increasing for this man who could retain his balance and humor in the face of such bitter experience. They continued along the street in silence, headed for a house identified by one of Sergeant Wilmington's comrades, after Chris had made a convincing show of threatening a charge.
The shutters hung open above them and a woman's delighted giggles confirmed what Chris already knew.
'You speak French?' he asked Vin.
Chris knew that was an understatement. Even if he hadn't read it in the records, he didn't see Vin as the kind of man who stumbled around a country for nine years without being able to understand what the locals were saying.
'Can you do an outraged French lover?'
The question brought the broad white smile back to Vin's face. Spoiling Buck's day was always worth the effort but doubly so if it lifted this worn man's spirits.
Chris tried the door and, as he expected, found it unlocked. The people of these villages had only one enemy and a locked door wouldn't stop the Hun if the line gave way. He stepped back to give his accomplice room to maneuver. Vin strode boldly up to the door, making ten times as much noise as Chris had yet heard from him, threw it open so that it cracked against the wall and took two heavy paces inside.
'Bonjour, ma chérie! Je suis retourné!' Stamping over to the bottom of the stairs, he called out loudly, 'Où est ma petite femme? Elle n'a pas un baiser pour moi?'
Chris heard Buck's harsh whisper from above, then a puzzled protest in French from his companion. If the woman had no husband or lover, she was doubtless wondering who was shouting up her stairs. He didn't expect Buck to hang around long enough to help her find out. A naked leg threaded its way through the window. Chris ducked into the shadows in front of the house, only to find Vin at his elbow.
The man who dropped down in front of them hit the ground running, a bundle of clothes clasped to his chest and his shirt-tails flapping in the wind as he made good his escape. Chris sauntered after him, with Vin a pace or two behind. He figured the fleeing Casanova would stop running as soon as he was out of sight and was proved right when they turned the corner half a minute later. There was Buck Wilmington, pulling on his pants and muttering petulantly about the 'Goddamned Frogs'.
Wilmington looked up, shock and disbelief chasing each other across his face.
'Chris! What the hell are you doing here?'
Chris twisted sideways and nodded significantly towards his shoulder. 'If you showed up to a briefing once in a while, you'd know I'm your new Captain.'
'Jesus Christ!' The disbelief was back. 'Goddamn '
Before he knew what was happening, Chris found himself drawn into a powerful hug. His ribs groaned in protest. 'Okay, Buck, that's enough. People'll talk.'
'Let 'em,' Buck said defiantly. 'Hell, I thought you said there was no way they'd drag you into this mess?'
Chris shrugged, aware of the emptiness of his reasons for coming compared with men fighting for their homes and families. He knew his friend had seen that when he broke eye contact and looked instead at Vin.
'So, who's your new buddy?'
Trust Buck to show no regard for the chain of command. Chris hoped the unit he was to command would be more efficient than it was polished.
'Vin Tanner,' Chris made the introduction in the same casual vein as the enquiry but then, doubting that any research Buck might have done would match his own, added, 'A Corporal with four years' service over here.'
'You came before you had to? Jesus!'
Vin seemed unfazed by the greeting. 'Matter of fact, I was already here.'
Buck's ears pricked up at that. 'Can you speak the lingo?'
Vin gave a cautious nod, clearly wary of the applications Buck might have in mind for his skills.
Buck snaked an arm around his shoulders. 'Then you and me should get acquainted. With my charm and your talent, we'll be invincible.' Only then did another thought cross his mind. He looked towards the house he'd fled, and then slowly back at Vin. 'Was that ? Christ, have you any idea ? I got to get back to-'
Chris caught his arm. 'The only thing you gotta do, Buck, is get ready for some action - outside the sack.'
'Aw, c'mon Chris. What difference is half an hour gonna make?'
He put enough of a warning into that one word to end the conversation. Buck kept grumbling but followed them back to where they'd left the horses.
- 3 -
Their next port of call was behind the French line at the River Aisne crossing. Chris could have sent word, telling Private Sanchez where to report, but he welcomed the chance to see something of the war before he joined it actively. He rode out front for most of their journey, while Buck and Vin followed side-by-side. He had wondered how the two men would take to each other with their disparate characters, Vin's earnest intensity striking a sharp contrast with Buck's casual ease, but was relieved to see them instantly get the measure of each other. Buck was no fool, though he often chose to play one, and Chris was relieved that Vin could see it.
'Got themselves pretty well organized here,' Buck remarked, as his shrewd blue eyes flitted over their surroundings.
'They've had plenty of time,' Vin replied.
The line over the Aisne had barely moved since the British recovered lost ground there in the early months of the War, although it was now held by the French. On a straight stretch between two salients, it would have been strategically insignificant but for the fact that it protected the railroad. That, combined with the river crossing itself, meant that a fair-sized military outpost had grown up. The network of trenches began well back from the Front, where medical and catering facilities were interspersed with rest areas and dug-outs. The chalky landscape made for hard digging but meant that the fortifications were deep and safe.
They dismounted at the edge of the camp, tethered their horses beside some skinny mules and continued on foot. There were no horrors to witness, just the tedium of front-line life. Chris had heard men say that trench warfare was ninety percent boredom and ten percent terror - he had yet to see the terror but the boredom was all around him. The French infantrymen on duty were mostly doing make-work tasks set by their officers to keep them occupied and their trenches as clean and serviceable as possible. Those off duty were engaged in a multitude of mundane pleasures, from cards to books to letters. Most looked up with a vague curiosity as three strangers passed and some stared harder when they saw the remnants of a French uniform on Vin. Before Chris could make it an order, Vin spoke to a man of his own rank who stared a bit longer than the rest.
'Nous cherchons un simple soldat, un Américain appelé Josiah Sanchez. Tu connais lui?'
The man studied Vin for a few seconds more, and then smiled. Clearly, he knew the American they sought and was surprised to meet another who spoke his language.
'Oui, il travaille près du pont.'
Vin nodded his thanks to the man before translating. 'He's down by the bridge.'
They went on their way, finding that the trenches grew narrower as they neared the Front but were quiet and well maintained. When they found Sanchez, he was hefting crates from a drop point to the men awaiting them. The depth by which the crates had sunk into the sticky clay topsoil that coated everything testified to their weight and the ease with which he shifted them testified just as clearly to his strength. Along with the experience listed in his file, such strength might prove useful. He still wore a British uniform and so, since there was no mistaking him, Chris spoke in English.
'I'm looking for Private Sanchez.'
The big man looked him up and down slowly. 'You've found him.'
The casual reply warranted a charge for insubordination and Chris considered making an issue of it. Only his faith in Travis stopped him. The grizzled figure before him had been picked for a reason and it would take more than a breach of military etiquette for Chris to reject him untried. Instead, he surveyed the Private with the same care that he'd appraised his new Corporal. A steel helmet was tipped forward over his brow in the style adopted by men at the Front and the puttees wound around the legs of his pants were caked with mud. Three grubby ribbons sat over his breast pocket. Chris instantly read two of them as service in the Boer War, at around the same time as he'd been fighting the Spanish over Cuba, but it took him longer to place the third as a British Military Medal. If memory served him right, that had been introduced in 1916 to recognize acts of valor and so it must have been awarded during the present conflict. Travis had clearly moved Heaven and Earth to get the best of the largely inexperienced US Army for his crack unit.
'I thought you were supposed to be in reserve,' he said dryly.
Sanchez shrugged. 'Trip down from Arras gave me a rest. Figured I might as well make myself useful.'
'The Brits did a good job up there.'
Sanchez held his eye for a few seconds and then nodded. 'Only place to hold the line against the Germans' spring offensive.'
'How long were you there?'
Chris nodded. That meant that the man had weathered the carnage of 1917, when another 150,000 British casualties had been sacrificed for no strategic gain whatsoever. The records said he had been a Roman Catholic chaplain but was now on active duty. A man might survive the butchery but his faith might be another matter.
'My name's Larabee.'
Sanchez nodded. 'Been expecting my papers.'
Chris took them from his dispatch case and handed them over.
Pale blue eyes twinkled in Sanchez's lined face. 'Wasn't expecting the personal touch.'
Chris passed no comment, only inclining his head towards the others. 'Sergeant Wilmington, Corporal Tanner.'
Chris joined Buck in watching the two experienced men evaluate each other. He knew that soldiers who'd been at the Front recognized their peers, with or without the insignia to prove it. He knew he had the beginnings of a team when they spoke.
'Heard it was hotter than hell up there last year.'
'Heard you was on the Somme in '16.'
'Where'd you hear that?'
Chris caught the question in Vin's raised eyebrow and the sorrow in the slight shake of Josiah's head. Pinky Thompson was no more, living on only in the memories of two Americans united by his friendship in some corner of a foreign field. A verse flickered just outside Chris's memory and he was content to leave it there. This time, he let Sanchez take the lead, heading back to where his kit was stowed and an officer would be awaiting his transfer papers.
- 4 -
Ezra Standish gazed at his reflection in a tarnished looking glass that hung above a filthy hand-basin in a railroad station cloakroom. He had yet to grow used to the sight of himself in the uniform that his Parisian tailor had run up when fate finally caught up with him. It was degrading to be enlisted as a private soldier in an infantry regiment but he could at least ameliorate the abysmal uniform assigned to that lowly rank. A poor choice of mark was to blame for his sudden, unwanted military service: conning a Major in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was not the best idea he'd ever had - the man's retribution had been swift and apposite, instantly reporting a stray American of serviceable age to US Army recruitment.
A resident of Paris since its belle époque, Ezra knew far too much about the War to want to join it. Nonetheless, he had not fled when his presence was discovered. He was not entirely sure of the reason for that but, at a level of which he was scarcely aware, he considered himself a gentleman. For all his many dishonest deeds, he had never violated his central beliefs, that he should show respect for himself and chivalry to a lady. As much as he resented the hiatus in his preferred lifestyle, he intended to complete his tour of duty with whatever honor and dignity circumstances permitted. As Paris receded into the distance and the Front came ever closer, he saw more and more indications of how challenging that ambition might prove.
The utensil into which he had just relieved himself had turned his stomach and the basin in which he would usually wash his hands meticulously was scarcely better. After a brief hesitation, he turned to leave unwashed. Still, he reflected, determined not to be crushed by misfortune, there was a silver lining to even the blackest cloud. He had devoted several years to honing his gaming skills on an endless supply of soldiers and now they were shipping in Americans who were not only raw but rich too. The Canadians and Australians were paid more than the British and French but the Americans did better still. What's more, few had more than a slender grasp of the concept of currency exchange. His prospects seemed far brighter than they had a few weeks earlier.
He returned to the platform just as a huge black steam engine pulled into the station. Every car was already filled with soldiers and several hundred more were waiting with him for transportation. Even the officers were tightly packed and the enlisted men might as well have been cattle. Never mind, he told himself resolutely, more men meant more losers. Shouldering his pack, he let himself be swept aboard by the tide of humanity.
'Jesus!' an East Coast voice beside him cried out in pain. 'Mind what you're doing with that!'
The protest came from a short and very young Private. Without even looking back, the burly man ahead of him growled menacingly. 'You gonna make me, shrimp?'
Apparently undaunted by a difference of several weight classes, the youngster opened his mouth to reply. With his usual lightning reflexes and no conscious thought, Ezra let his foot slip on the slick wood of the step into the car and slid gracefully into the complainant, forcing him lightly back onto the platform. The bully disappeared into the crowd ahead.
'My apologies, young man,' Ezra purred in his rhythmic Southern lilt. 'I fear the step has become somewhat slippery.' His good manners instantly chased the irritation from the boy's face.
'That's okay. It's too darned crowded, that's the trouble.'
As they stepped into the car together, Ezra acknowledged the pleasantry. 'Indeed it is. I fear we shall find that conditions deteriorate from this point onwards.'
He had no idea why he intervened to prevent the young Private from getting a beating. True, he preferred not to be drawn into a brawl, or to face the charge that would likely follow, but those thoughts had not entered his mind when he acted. There just seemed no need for the naïve youngster to be educated in the ways of war sooner than necessary.
'JD Dunne,' the boy introduced himself confidently, trying vainly to extend a hand between their bodies.
'Ezra Standish, at your service.'
Ezra brushed the proffered hand lightly and then began to worm his way forward, trying to find some corner in the crush. Dunne followed, uninvited, in his wake. Eventually, they managed to slide into a spot by a window, rashly vacated by a man who'd spotted a friend further along the car. Ezra thrust his face into the draft coming through the opening, relieved to breathe air untainted by the stench of men's bodies.
'Good spot, Ezra,' Dunne said informally.
Ezra debated insisting on 'Mr Standish' but then realized that his rank would make it 'Private Standish' or plain 'Standish'. Perhaps 'Ezra' was not so bad, after all. He leaned back against the wooden partition, relieved to have caught his train and be on his way to a proper assignment after weeks of menial duties and endless drills. He was traveling alone, without even the debatable pleasure of his unit's company, because he was being transferred. The transfer papers tucked safely in his pocket were frustratingly vague about the nature of his new assignment. All he knew was the interview that preceded the transfer had focused on his knowledge of France and its language. He hoped, though he repeatedly tried to deny himself such a foolish luxury as hope, that he was about to adopt a role that drew more on his intellect than his ability to peel potatoes or polish buckles.
His reverie was interrupted by the train lurching into life. Its jolting departure threw man against man, sparking off a dozen arguments in the cramped car, but Ezra passed no comment when Dunne bounced off him with a conciliatory grin. They chugged out of the station and slowly built up speed as they crossed the countryside beyond. They were still well behind the Front but, although the landscape bore no scars of battle, it told its own sad story of refugees trickling westwards while soldiers flooded eastwards. Farms were unworked and everything worth taking had long since found legs.
'Bit of a dump, isn't it?' Dunne remarked.
Ezra could not dispute the assessment. It was a few seconds before he replied sadly, 'It was not always so.'
'You been here long then?'
'I have resided in Paris since just before la fin du siècle, as the turn of the century is known in this vicinity.'
'Wow! I hear it was pretty wild back then.'
'A most sophisticated and cosmopolitan city,' Ezra agreed.
'And now you've joined up to help save it?'
There's was admiration in the young voice that Ezra knew he did not deserve. He could have joined up years earlier. Many of the Americans he'd met in Paris before the War had joined the French troops in '14 and '15. He had not actively evaded service, as he might have done, but he had not volunteered to die. He did nothing to correct Dunne's misapprehension, deciding instead on a change of subject.
'And what brings you in this direction yourself, son? It is somewhat unusual to be traveling alone, as you appear to be doing.'
A quick glance through the train would have confirmed the truth of the observation. Everywhere men were in groups - units, brigades and even battalions traveling to their stations - with few obviously alone.
'Going to join my new unit.'
'Ah, in that case like myself.'
Ezra was usually happiest alone, maximizing his flexibility to make new acquaintances and quick escapes as his plans dictated, but took comfort from the prospect of a companion for his present journey, uncertain and unwelcome as its destination was. The gauche youngster would not normally be an associate of choice but now, looking around at the coarseness of the other company on offer, he thought he might do worse.
It was not long before that impression was confirmed. An opening window was a boon in that it admitted fresh air but it served another purpose, as a disposal chute for anything not wanted inside the car. The first projectile to fly past them was an apple core that passed precisely through the center of the opening. The beer bottle that followed it was less successful, thudding against the door and falling to the floor.
'Hell,' Dunne muttered, but seemed this time to decide against making an issue of it.
Things went from bad to worse as time passed. Minutes gave way to hours and, with no facilities and no rest stops, it didn't take a genius to work out what would follow. Ezra averted his eyes resolutely when the first man pushed past them to relieve himself out of the window. It was as if everyone else had been awaiting his example because, after that, men made for the nearest opening window every few minutes. Ezra was beginning to regret their location when a Private who had been sleeping soundly ever since they boarded the train stirred; he groaned for a second or two, clearly drunk, then lurched forward to deposit a pool of vomit on the floor. As if that weren't bad enough, there was no clear floor space so his offering ran down the legs of the men standing in front of him. They were surprisingly casual about it, one landing a light punch that the offender could scarcely have felt since he was already sliding back into his stupor and the others doing no more than curse him.
'Nice,' Dunne muttered again.
'Welcome to the Army,' Ezra murmured sardonically.
Mile after mile of Northern France flickered past Ezra's eyes as he fought the urge to consult his pocket watch. Checking the time would do nothing to speed its passage but the temptation was almost overwhelming. According to the unpublished schedule that he had bought from a condescending but greedy railroad guard, their first stop was Reims and they were due there at four that afternoon. After that, they would pass over the Aisne valley and straight into Verdun without another halt. Reims was at the tip of a critical salient in the section of the French line closest to Paris; many of the soldiers on the train would be destined there and Ezra could only hope that not too many others would board in their place. He wished fervently that the last few hours of their journey would see them traveling more like men and less like animals; so much the better if the chance arose to turn a profit from his fellow passengers but space to move and breathe freely again would suffice.
In spite of the cramped conditions, the rhythmic jolting of the train on the track slowly lulled Ezra into a restless doze. Not only had he played poker far into the previous night but he had yet to become accustomed to military time-keeping. His journey that day had started before the sun even deigned to make an appearance, at an hour that he had no memory of ever having experienced but with which he was resigned to becoming far better acquainted in the coming months. It was impossible for him to fall over, given that there was no free space to fall into, so he let himself sink into oblivion and hoped that time might pass more quickly that way.
The first he knew of their approach into Reims was the hissing of steam being released when the train slowed before the station. Almost as controlled in sleep as in wakefulness, he opened his eyes calmly and surveyed his surroundings. One or two men had changed places but Dunne still stood on the other side of the window, his deep brown eyes flitting from one point in the landscape to another. A few seconds passed before he glanced across.
'Hey, you're awake!'
The observation seemed to Ezra to be singularly redundant but he passed no comment to that effect, instead making another that was perhaps almost as obvious. 'We appear to be slowing down.'
'Yeah. These fellas says it's someplace called Reims.'
After a careful study of the countryside, which he had not seen since before the War and which had changed almost beyond recognition, he cautiously agreed. 'I believe the gentl'men may well be correct.'
'They'll be disembarking there.'
The military term sat uneasily in the youngster's casual speech, a reminder that he was a soldier and not the fresh-faced boy he could so easily be taken for. Ezra did not voice his relief or his hope that the second half of the journey might prove more agreeable than the first. Even if he had, his voice would have been drowned by the noise of their arrival. More steam was vented, while the whistle screamed. Surveying the station from the window, he saw men in every direction. There were soldiers loading crates from earlier trains onto trucks and carts, while others unloaded more trucks and carts that were probably destined for their train. Soldiers were assembling to march out and others were waiting, though for what Ezra could not tell. Railroad men were everywhere, loading and unloading, swarming over a locomotive at a platform on the far side of the station and coming forward to meet the one pulling their train. Every one of them was shouting, fighting to be heard.
It was a moment or two before Ezra realized why they needed to shout but then he caught a sound that he'd occasionally heard in Paris. Then it had been muted by distance, transformed into mere background by remoteness. Now there were only a few miles of mud between him and the field guns that were spitting angry fire across No Man's Land and into Allied trenches. His stomach tightened into a sickening knot, as the reality of what he was soon to experience forced its way into his consciousness. The last time he had been so close to the Front was on the Somme in late '16, when the guns had fallen silent after three months of heavy bombardment. In the time since, he had refused to let the memories of what he had seen surface. He knew he was not alone, that France was filled with men playing at being alive because reality had become too appalling to contemplate.
'You all right?'
Dunne's question brought him back to the present.
'Just a little off-color from the journey,' he lied.
'Yeah,' Dunne agreed with feeling. 'It stinks in here.'
One of the men bound for Reims laughed loudly. His uniform identified him as a Corporal in the US Army and, when he spoke, his accent placed him squarely from Louisiana to a fellow Southerner like Ezra. His words, despite his light-hearted manner, hinted at harsh personal experience of what lay ahead.
'You wait till you've spent six months in a trench, then you'll know what a stink is.'
The taunt intensified Ezra's misgivings. Like most sane and intelligent men, he was apprehensive about the injuries or death that might lie in his future but, more than most, he dreaded the close confines and filthy conditions that he expected to encounter. He could still bring the stench to mind, eighteen months after he smelled it, and then he had spent only days in its envelope, not the months or years that stretched ahead now.
There was no time for more talking, or thinking, because the train screeched to a halt. Ezra found that he and Dunne moved as one to open their door and hop down onto the platform, standing against the car on either side and letting the flood of men pour unimpeded from it. It was soon clear that the hundreds of men disembarking outnumbered those waiting to take their place by easily ten to one.
'Should get a seat, at least,' Dunne shouted through the stampede passing between them.
'Indeed,' Ezra concurred, adding more for his own consolation than for Dunne's benefit, 'And perhaps a hand or two of poker.'
Ten minutes later, they were seated in comparative luxury, facing two Privates whom Ezra judged clearly older than Dunne but probably younger than himself. Their packs were stacked between their feet, making a fairly level surface at a respectable playing height. He drew a pack of cards from his breast pocket and held it up inquiringly.
'You betcha,' the darker of the two men replied.
This time the accent was pure mid-West and it conspired with callused hands to suggest an agricultural heritage. Ezra permitted himself a moment's satisfaction: in his experience, few card sharps came from the sod-busting grind that he suspected this man had left behind. His fair-haired friend had finer hands but vacant blue eyes suggested that the brain beyond rarely troubled itself with complex thought processes. Ezra shuffled the cards, letting his fingers fumble the edges once or twice. There was no need to advertise his own prowess.
An hour of play confirmed his assessment of his opponents. Most of their cash was piled on his side of the pack. He began to deal another hand but was cut off by the darker man.
'T'hell with that. You already got everythin' I plan on losin'.'
Ezra had to catch his winnings quickly when the man snatched his pack and left, his friend on his heels.
'My, my,' Ezra said softly, 'Aren't we the sore losers, gentl'men.'
'You cleaned 'em out, Ezra!'
Ezra smiled at Dunne's astonishment. 'I should hope so. They were scarcely worthy adversaries.'
'Where'd you learn to play like that?'
Ezra hesitated, considering his reply, and then settled on something close to the truth. 'At my Mother's breast, you might say.'
Dunne was counting his small reserve. 'Lucky I didn't lose more.'
This time Ezra kept the smile off his face. There was no luck involved. He had cheated the two strangers and, out of deference to a new friendship, he had turned some of their misfortune Dunne's way. Not much, but enough to leave him only a few dollars down, instead of empty-handed as he might have been. He was saved any pressure to reply when another pair took the seat opposite, this time signaling their willingness to play only by nods and grunts. Ezra appeared to deliberate for a moment before acquiescing with a resigned sigh.
Over the next few hours, he barely noticed the passage of time or distance. Carefully manipulating a series of guests into their bay, he always gave them the impression that they were about to recover all their losses but always came out ahead in the end. He didn't clean everyone out, partly to avoid antagonizing the more obviously brutal players and partly to give the growing crowd of on-lookers the idea that they might be able to do better. By the time a lull in the stream of willing lambs to the slaughter eventually came, even his remarkable concentration was beginning to falter and he welcomed a chance to assess his success. The pile of winnings in front of him was substantial but not so very much larger than it had been after the first pair of Privates moved on. With a swiftness and subtlety that deceived all but the most attentive eye, he had steadily siphoned bills and coins into pockets all over his uniform. Later he would pack the proceeds into the money belt buckled snugly around his waist. It served a dual purpose, hiding his riches of course but also making him look far less slim and agile than he actually was, an illusion that had served him well in several past escapades.
'Well, son. I think that will suffice for now. Perhaps we might make our way along to whatever passes for a dining car on this transport and seek refreshment.'
'But my luck's just turned,' Dunne protested. 'You gotta give me a chance to win some back.'
That was the danger of helping out the young, Ezra reflected. It gave them ideas above their station. He had his Mother's firm belief in that tenet to thank for his own skill and independence. 'There is no such thing as luck, only percentages and skill. Given that the percentages have not changed, and it is unlikely that your skill has increased in the past few hours, there is no reason to expect future games to yield more success.'
'But I held my ow-'
'Did you?' Ezra held the young Private's eye challengingly, letting the significance of the question sink in.
'Yeah, I I You mean?... Did you ? Were you .?'
'Now that, Private Dunne, is a question that you should never put to a gentl'man.'
Dunne's eyes opened wider. 'You're one hell of a card player.'
'Indeed I am. But that is a piece of information that I would prefer you to keep to yourself.'
He caught Dunne's hungry gaze following the money that he was pushing into the side of his pack.
'Don't even think about it,' he gave a friendly warning. 'Blackmail is such a sordid crime and I can guarantee that you would regret it.'
The envy disappeared from the young man's face as the temptation passed. 'S'only money, anyhow. That's what my Ma used to say.'
'Did she?' Ezra inquired thoughtfully. 'Somehow, I cannot imagine that particular sentiment coming from the lips of my own dear Mother.'
With no wish to pursue the conversation further, he rose to lead the way in search of the urn of vile tea or coffee that was the best they could hope to find. If nothing else, the chance to stretch his legs and answer the call of nature in a slightly less public spot would be welcome. A glance from the car window confirmed that their destination lay not far ahead and so it was an opportune moment to prepare himself for the next stage of his journey.
Their search yielded a quiet corridor with - wonder of wonders - a restroom, a tepid drink and a stale doorstep of bread, topped by something that might have borne a faint resemblance to butter but only for a diner able to ignore its color, taste and texture. It was a measure of Ezra's hunger that he tried it, and with only a murmur of complaint. Long after his companion had swallowed an equally formidable slab in three huge mouthfuls, his own attempts to persuade the glutinous mass to pass through his esophagus were interrupted by the hissing of steam that heralded their imminent arrival in Verdun.
Now that the town was so close, Ezra found his eagerness to leave the train begin to ebb. While Dunne stared eagerly out of a window and tapped his foot impatiently on the floor, Ezra felt only cold dread of what lay ahead. The station was much like Reims, the same smoke and soot, and the same military and civilian personnel bustling about the activities that fueled the war machine. They juddered to a halt with the same commotion of whistles, steam valves and men shouting. Although the train was far emptier than it had been at Reims, it felt crowded as men gathered around the doors. As he had when boarding, Ezra relaxed and let the masses carry him forward, watching his footing but otherwise going with the flow. Seconds later, he and Dunne were standing alone on the platform while all the other men gathered in their groups.
'Well, I believe this is where we must part,' Ezra said gently, mindful that the youngster might be daunted by the prospect of being suddenly alone so far from home.
'Where're you headed?'
The question was casual, with no sign that Dunne was afraid to go on alone but more an indication that he would welcome Ezra's company. Ezra knew the foolishness of getting even slightly attached to anyone in the situation they were about to enter but found himself unable to resist the hope and optimism that he saw in Dunne and had so long lacked himself.
'My orders are to report to a Captain in the First Division encamped outside the town.'
'Mine too. What's your Captain's name?'
'Larabee,' Ezra answered, effortlessly recalling the detail from the papers that he had not reviewed since he left Paris.
'Yours too?' Ezra replied placidly, his surprise dampened by longer experience of the strange coincidences that life was apt to throw at a man. He wondered why this youngster had been singled out for transfer, when there were thousands of others just like him scattered along the line. He guessed that there was more to the boy than met the eye but suspected that all would become clear as time went on.
'Yeah. We can stay together then.'
The delight in that declaration lifted Ezra's plummeting spirits. It was a rare experience for someone to seek out his companionship so enthusiastically. He was so startled that he could not think of reply but Dunne was already too busy taking in their surroundings to notice.
'So, we're here,' the youngster muttered almost to himself. 'This is The War.'
The blend of awe and uncertainty in his voice pulled even harder at Ezra's heart. He could have given a dozen different answers, some informative and others bitter, but instead opted for a common coping mechanism when men drew close to the Front: ironic humor.
'Indeed. My sainted Mother would turn in her grave. It is difficult to predict which would cause her most distress - my serving in this profitless fiasco or my doing so from the lowly station of an enlisted man.'
There was no bitterness in his tone. He would gladly be out of the whole affair but had no interest in serving at a higher rank. True, Generals were comparatively safe, given they never got within range of the Front, but he did not covet the burden of countless squandered lives. Greedy he might be but never heartless. Having seen the sad nobility of poets like Brooke corroded by harsh experience into the savage bitterness of successors like Sassoon, he knew that a generation of men would never cast off the shadow that had fallen across them. No, he had no wish to take a larger part in the barbaric atrocity they were witnessing - or, in truth, any part at all.
- 5 -
To his surprise, Chris enjoyed the journey back from the Aisne to Verdun. They rode well behind the lines, through landscape held securely by the Allies since they drove the Germans back in the early days of the War. It was elevated and heavily wooded country, revealed in vistas between the gently undulating hills. His two new acquaintances said little but their dry responses to Buck's inconsequential chatter carried quiet humor rather than irritation. Buck put people at ease in a way that Chris had never been able to do, even if he had wanted to, which in truth he didn't. That affability had served them well in the past and might make the difference between a cohesive unit and an unruly gang in the coming weeks or months. Chris's silence sprang from a desire to give his men space to get to know each other and form the bonds that might save their lives in a tight corner. There was no need for talk between Buck and himself, given the years of shared history that bound them inextricably together, and he intended to let the others warm to him in their own way and at their own pace. He was already confident, certain in fact, that would happen.
'Kinda spooky here.'
Chris had not been thinking along those lines but, looking around, he saw what Buck meant. The sun had been swallowed by rolling grey clouds a mile or so earlier and now a blustery wind tugged at the treetops. What had seemed a peaceful pastoral landscape suddenly adopted an eerie presence.
'You ain't the only one t'think so,' Vin replied.
'How's that?' Buck asked.
Vin nodded towards a long mound visible between two smaller hills. 'Le Mort-Homme, the locals call it.'
'The Dead Man,' Vin translated.
Buck stared at it for a moment, then shuddered. 'Thanks, Vin. Like I needed to know that.'
Vin just grinned, apparently setting little store by local superstition.
They rode on, headed towards a camp to the west of Verdun where several hundred US troops were assembling in preparation to take over another section of the line from the French. Handing over miles of trenches from the experienced but exhausted French to the green but keen Americans was proving as difficult and slow as many among the Allies had predicted but, little by little, the new configuration was coming together.
Some time later, it was Buck who again broke the silence.
'What the hell ?'
His words echoed Chris's thoughts. They were not far from the planned rendezvous with Private Fiegler, with the camp lying a mile or two ahead. Having just topped a rise, they saw that the road ahead sank into a dip and, at the bottom, some men were thrashing about in the mud. They were too distant for Chris to make out the cause of the confusion and he instinctively looked to his new Corporal for an interpretation. Vin was standing in his stirrups, peering at the melee through a spyglass.
'Brawl, I guess,' he offered in reply to the unasked question.
Of course, wherever men were forced together in such numbers, disagreements were inevitable but brawling in broad daylight seemed to stretch military discipline to its limit so Chris questioned the assessment.
'That go on a lot around here?'
Vin shook his head. 'Cain't say I seen much of it. Problems enough without pickin' on your own. Anyhow, Tommy discipline's too tight and the French like lovin' better than fightin'. Cain't speak for our fellas.'
'Could it be the enemy?' It was the first time Chris had referred to the men they had come to fight in conversation and it felt awkward.
Vin gave a little sniff of a laugh. 'Come over for single combat? Who knows?' He sobered. 'Could be prisoners. We mostly play by the rules but some go missing now and then.' He paused before adding, 'Ain't so easy t'hate 'em enough to kill 'em and then treat 'em nice after.'
There was resignation in the observation, an acceptance that men's feelings could only be pushed this way and that so many times, but regret too, at the way that war could turn decent men into animals. Chris understood those complexities, probably better than most of the men in the reconstructed US Army, but he did not intend to let such behavior go unpunished for one simple reason: if their own men were captured, he wanted their captors to play by the rules too. He rode decisively forward, letting his men fall in behind him.
As they drew closer, Chris saw that the group was gathered around one bedraggled figure in the mud. Perhaps it was an unfortunate lone prisoner after all, who could conveniently disappear during a move. It was as much a sense of fair play as anything else that drove him forward. Five men setting about one was not the kind of odds that he was inclined to let stand. Seeing his companions riding in close formation behind him, he sensed that he was not alone in holding that view.
The aggressors did not see them until they were within fifty yards. One, a heavy set man standing well over six feet in height, clenched his fists and eyed them resentfully. A chill of bitter amusement ran through Chris, as he wondered whether the Private planned to make a brawl of it after all - with a Captain, a Sergeant and a Corporal. Even as he closed the distance, he met the man's belligerent gaze unflinchingly, opening a door deep within his soul to let a flicker of the wrath that he kept in there warn the man of what he could expect if he pursued that course. He felt the tension in the air but did not let it affect him, sending his horse casually onward, still facing the man down. The fixed gaze endured another ten seconds before the Private looked away.
Chris studied the beaten man in the mud. He was covered, literally, from head to toe in the sticky clay. Only his large brown eyes were free of its stain. If he was relieved to be rescued, he wasn't letting it show. The eyes smoldered with anger and resentment. Given the thick coating of filth, it was impossible to make out anything else about him - except for the rope around his neck. That had been pulled so tight that it took several seconds for him to work a finger under the noose and loosen its grip on his windpipe. The deep, wracking breaths that he drew into his lungs confirmed that they had stumbled onto the scene none too soon.
Turning back to the ringleader, Chris let him stew for a few seconds before breaking the silence.
'And this had better be good.'
The man tried again to face him down. More long seconds dragged by before he gave up the attempt.
The reply, spoken with a clipped New York twang, was as sullen as it was inadequate.
'I ordered you to report, Private.' Chris emphasized the lowly rank. 'One more word in that tone and you're on a charge.'
Still the man would not respond. Chris examined him contemptuously and then returned his attention to the victim of the assault.
'You,' he prompted. 'You speak English?'
The brown eyes skipped from one to another of them, confusion slowly giving way to disbelief. Then they dropped to inspect the mud-encrusted tunic and indistinguishable insignia. The answer, when it came, was as insubordinate as the assailant's had been.
'Of course I speak English. What the hell else would I speak?'
The voice told Chris two things. The man came from one of the Southern States, probably Alabama, and he was a Negro, a fact that the mud had thoroughly concealed. In an instant, the whole picture came sharply into focus.
'Name and rank,' Chris ordered in a neutral tone.
The suspicion in the eyes sharpened back into resentment. There was a moment of silence before the man replied as sullenly as his tormentor.
'Jackson. Private. Sir.'
With the discovery of Jackson's nationality, the assault took on an entirely different character. Ill-treating a prisoner would incur disciplinary action for sound practical reasons but was understandable to anyone who had seen the warped world into which men were being thrust. Lynching a comrade-in-arms for the color of his skin, which was what Chris suspected they had interrupted, was just as much of a disciplinary matter but far more offensive to him personally. His family had fought proudly for the North more than half a century earlier to build a country where every man was free and equal. His anger was fanned by the fact that the aggressor was not even a Southerner, whose upbringing might perhaps have offered some excuse for his bigotry. When he returned to questioning the first Private, there was an edge of menace to his voice.
'I'm still waiting.'
The man chewed his lip for a second or two, then finally answered.
'Fiegler. Private. Sir.'
The man's identity came as a surprise, although no one looking at Chris would have known it. He sat rock-solid in his saddle, his gaze hard and challenging.
'Tell me there's more to this than I'm seeing.'
It was an invitation, a chance for the man and his four silent companions to offer some explanation or reason beyond the obvious one. They looked at each other but, whether through lack of imagination or refusal to cooperate, came up with nothing. Chris considered the telling silence. He could march the men into camp and put them on a charge. The trouble with that idea was the penalty would depend entirely on their officers, whose views on a matter like this he was not in a position to judge. His duty as a Captain in the US Army was to uphold its rules and procedures but he'd never let that unduly influence his decisions in the past. Besides, it would take time he hadn't got. One thing was sure: there was no way that he wanted this Fiegler in his unit.
He glanced at the men that he had accepted under his command and saw his own reactions mirrored in them: loathing of what had been going on and a willingness to set it straight. He nodded at a copse not more than a hundred yards to the north of the road and made to drive the men on foot towards it. Clearly confused, they milled about indecisively.
'Let's see how you like it now the odds are even.'
More surprised even than his attackers, Private Jackson gaped up in disbelief. Chris let a smile flicker through his eyes. The brown eyes narrowed in reply, conveying mostly determination but also a trace of amusement. Hopelessly outnumbered before, the man had no fear of using his fists now that things were fairer.
When they reached the copse, the riders dismounted and tethered their horses. Chris faced their captives and rested his hand on his Colt New Service revolver. Devastating, especially at close quarters, its .455 bullets were not to be courted lightly.
'Throw your weapons over there.'
When the men did not respond immediately, he heard a shotgun being pumped behind him. He didn't need to look to know that it was Vin's - he had noted the canvas-covered long-arm in the Corporal's pack. The formidable weapon solicited an instant response: pistols and revolvers thudded onto the grass.
Chris let his men gather around him, facing their opponents man to man. There was a comic aspect to a group of men supposedly on the same side facing off at the edge of the most savage arena of war that the world had ever seen but it was a long time since he'd been in a fist-fight and the idea was not entirely unappealing. More to the point, it was an opportunity to gauge the skills and character of the men he would be leading behind enemy lines. There might be occasions that demanded unarmed combat and he needed to know what he could expect from whom.
It was Fiegler who moved first, seeming almost eager once he realized that a Captain was inviting him to throw a punch. Chris dodged the first blow, easily but not effortlessly - the Private was both fit and skilled - and boxed defensively to start with, letting the exertion wear his heavier opponent down before beginning to slip through his guard with a jab here and a hook there. His own bout was not so demanding that he could not monitor his men in his peripheral vision. Buck engaged his man in much the same way, demonstrating a knowledge of boxing and a head that was far cooler in a fight than it was in romantic clinch. Vin fought a lot dirtier, his technique suggesting that he had learned how to fight when more than the outcome of a contest was at stake. Josiah was a revelation for a former chaplain, embedding his knuckles with a power and frequency that proclaimed his man would lose consciousness first. Beyond him, Jackson fought with the passion of a wronged man and not bad technique either. Chris expected that he would need to be pulled off his man before he killed him and hoped that Josiah would be free by that point.
A few minutes later and Chris was toying with Fiegler, only allowing him to stay conscious so that he could feel more pain and witness the total annihilation of his miserable band. Chris knew that he had lied when he said the odds were even: numerically perhaps but he and his men represented the best that Major Travis had been able to pull together and he doubted there were another five men in the vicinity to match them. When Buck's man finally collapsed, Chris sent Fiegler after him with a well-placed right to the jaw.
'Took your time,' Buck remarked. 'Feeling your age?'
'I was waiting on you.'
'Sure you were.'
Chris strode over to Private Jackson, recognizably black now that some of the mud had fallen away, and held out his hand.
'Chris Larabee. Captain in this circus.'
Jackson only hesitated for a moment before taking his hand.
'Nathan Jackson. Medical orderly.'
It was a lowly rank, filled with men who couldn't, or wouldn't, fight for some reason but many of those who wouldn't fight had volunteered to dodge the shells and pick up those who would. The two wound stripes on the man's arm suggested that he'd been over well before the rest of the US Army. In any case, not many Negroes were awarded anything but a lowly rank. Chris knew too much to make snap judgments. Before he could speak again, he found Josiah at his right side, looking thoughtfully at Jackson.
'Nathan ?' He paused, still thinking. 'Haven't we met someplace?'
Jackson studied him for a few seconds, then recognition spread across his face. 'Josiah? At Major Powers' hospital?'
The two men shook hands firmly, clearly pleased by the renewed acquaintance. Chris let his eyes invite an explanation.
'Major Charles Powers,' Nathan began. 'One of the best surgeons there was in the old days out West. He was on a ship in no time when he heard how bad it was here. No telling how many lives he's saved.'
'Mine among 'em,' Josiah admitted.
'Yeah, but you more than paid it back, with all the nursin' and readin' you done for the men, even afore you was meant to be outta bed yourself.'
Josiah gave a modest shrug. 'Thought I might as well make myself useful.'
Chris smiled. The man seemed to use the same gruff excuse for all his good deeds. Now, before he decided on his plan of action, he wanted to know more about Jackson.
'Where were you headed?'
'Back to the dressing station behind the line on the Aisne. That's where I'm stationed. I had a 48-pass for Verdun.'
So he might well have run into Josiah anyway, had he not been on leave. Chris nodded at the wound stripes. 'How long you been out here?'
'A couple of years.'
So the man had to be a volunteer, come over to try to help his fellow men in the grip of a nightmare. 'You done any soldiering?'
A trace of suspicion returned to Jackson's face. 'No. Like I said, I'm a medic.'
'Know the lingo?' Chris prompted, repeating Buck's earlier question to Vin.
'French? No. I can get by in German but that's not much use except for nursin' POWs.'
'German?' Chris pondered. That was one of the skills that had put Fiegler forward for the unit.
'Yeah. Spent six months as a POW myself, 'fore they made an exchange. Picked it up then.'
'Where? Where were you held?'
Jackson nodded vaguely in a northeasterly direction. 'Jus' over there. Ain't been much change since late '14.'
'Care to join us?' Chris made it a question because he suspected an order would do no good with this man, especially since he had no authority to requisition men without orders of his own. He also expected that the presentation would pique the man's curiosity.
'Goin' where?' Jackson tried for casual too, but couldn't quite hide his interest.
Chris gave the same vague northeasterly nod. 'Jus' over there. Thought we'd take a look at what Fritz is up to.'
'Behind their line?' came the hushed whisper, although the men crumpled around them were in no condition to eavesdrop.
Chris nodded. 'German could be useful.'
'You can fix it with my CO?'
'I can get it fixed.'
Jackson pondered the offer, nodding slowly as if to himself, then reached his decision. 'I'm in.'
When they remounted their horses, Vin reached down unbidden to help the muddy man swing up behind him. At a couple of inches under six feet tall, the Corporal was the shortest man among them and, as he rode a feisty black gelding that had to be over sixteen hands, it made sense for him to offer to share his ride. Still, Chris was pleased to see that he did not shy away from either filth or color.
They rode off briskly, leaving the beaten men on the ground just starting to stir. Chris doubted they'd be complaining after getting off as lightly as they had. Although he would have liked to make them pay a higher price, on balance, he was satisfied with the outcome. He had shed a man who could only have been a liability in favor of one who seemed much more in tune with their group. It was only a matter of an hour or two before he would meet the last two men in his command. If they were the match of the four riding with him, he might almost manage to convince himself that their mission was achievable.
- 6 -
The camp had spread in the two days that it had taken to ride out to the Aisne and back. Chris was unsure that he could find his tent in the sea of canvas before them, or that it would still be his if he found it. It contained what few possessions he'd brought to France, practical everyday items that could be replaced if lost or stolen. There was little that he valued in the world and, what there was, he had left at home. He had only one keepsake and that nestled in a breast pocket as it had for four years. He never took it out of its tissue paper wrapping because he couldn't stand the pain of seeing it but he had to have it with him. Other than that, whatever he needed was provided for him by the Army. One advantage of being chosen to head an elite unit was that Travis would get whatever was needed to make it a success.
He was unprepared for the sight that greeted him when he finally identified his tent. His folding campaign table was set up out front, with his matching chair and his clothes chest on either side of it. A Corporal and a Private of the 28th Infantry Regiment were perched on the chest, facing a man whose insignia identified as a Private but whose tailored uniform looked better than that of any officer Chris had yet seen. In the center of the table was a substantial pile of cash, the pot in what was clearly a high-stakes game of poker.
He knew that the well-dressed man had already seen him but the insolent devil carried on to play out the hand regardless. Chris was unsure whether to admire his poise or charge him for insubordination in helping himself to an officer's tent and furniture. In the end, he minutely slowed his approach to let the hand finish before he interrupted the game. He reined back his horse just as the man set down the winning hand, an impressive full house.
'Good afternoon, Captain,' the man said civilly before dismissing his opponents with an equally courteous farewell. 'Well, gentl'men, I regret that time appears to have run out for now.'
The muttered response was good deal less courteous but the men seem grateful to escape an officer's arrival without a reprimand and saluted before leaving. Only one, a very young Private, stayed put. A suspicion worked itself into Chris's mind as he appraised the two men. The older one stood, leaving his winnings on the table, and gave a slight bow.
'Private Standish reporting for duty, Sir. And my young companion here is Private Dunne.'
Chris did not reply immediately, letting his gaze linger. The files that he had read about the two men were impressive. Standish's accomplishments included fluent French and a host of unproven allegations, from forgery to fraud. Dunne's talents were more legitimate but just as useful, his background as a budding inventor giving him mastery over the newfangled devices that remained a mystery to a man like Chris, who had spent the past decade riding open country where even automobiles were as yet a rarity. There seemed little reason to get off to a bad start with an argument over a poker game to pass the time.
'Chris Larabee,' he introduced himself informally. He still didn't really see himself as a Captain of the US Army and did not feel obliged to force his rank on others. His epaulets made it clear enough and any man who gave him trouble would find out soon enough how seriously he took his job. Nodding curtly to each of his companions, he introduced them. 'Buck Wilmington, Vin Tanner, Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson.'
The young Private nodded enthusiastically at each greeting, while his debonair elder surveyed them with a thoroughness that his casual manner belied. His scrutiny of the last man named was markedly closer than that of the others. Chris noted it, wondering whether he had another man who would let color stand in the way of comradeship. The Southern accent only compounded his doubts but he found no proof either way in the taunt with which Standish concluded his examination.
'I realize that circumstances are less than ideal but standards of military dress appear to have slipped somewhat since my, admittedly rather cursory, training.'
Nathan scowled at him but Chris forestalled any reply he might have planned. 'Yeah, well, you won't look so dandy once you've spent some time in a trench. Now I wanna get cleaned up before I check in with the Major so you can all get lost for now. Report back here at 7am in full kit and ready to move. Stores have requisitions for the best they've got in horses, guns and rations. Take what you're easiest with but I want sidearms, long-arms and grenades on every man.' He glanced at Vin. 'The Corporal will advise on what's most useful in the field. Dismissed.'
His orders were brusque but that had more to do with fatigue than rank. The aide assigned to him while he was in camp had got off pretty lightly so far but Chris planned to make him do some work on fixing a bath and a decent meal before the morning forced him to abandon any pretense that the world was a civilized place.
- 7 -
'Fiegler was the man assigned to you,' Travis's normally calm voice made no secret of his irritation. 'He speaks German and knows something of the area.'
Prepared for the objection but determined to stand his ground, Chris met his superior officer's glare with an even stare of his own. 'He's the wrong man for the job.'
'As much as I respect your judgment, Captain, this is the Army and I expect you to follow orders.'
Chris realized that his insubordination was putting the Major in a difficult position but that knowledge did nothing to make Fiegler more suitable for a delicate mission in which his men needed to flow as a single organism. He was still considering that when Travis spoke again.
'I'm hoping this has nothing to do with the man's heritage. He's an American, born and bred. His family left Germany three generations ago.'
A bitter smile spread over Chris's face as he absorbed the irony of the accusation leveled against him. 'No, it's got nothing to do with that,' he said truthfully.
'Then what? You'll give me an explanation or you'll take Fiegler as ordered.'
Chris was surprised by the ultimatum, knowing how crucial accurate intelligence was to Travis and confident that he had few officers capable of leading a mission to obtain it. Of course, there had to be trust on both sides and Travis could not afford to be held to ransom by one of his Captains. Finally reaching a decision, he spoke frankly.
'I went to pick up Fiegler as ordered. I found him at the head of a bunch of shits trying to lynch Jackson. We've got miles of Front stretchin' down through France, most of it held by the Brits and the French. I need men who understand that we're all in this together. I got no room for one who sees one of our own as a Nigger.'
The declaration stunned the Major's protest but didn't kill it stone-dead.
'But Jackson's got no combat experience. He's a medical orderly.'
'He knows some German and he's been behind the lines in this area.'
Travis wavered but countered, 'He didn't come here to fight. He'll be no use in a front-line special unit.'
'Let me be the judge of that.'
'I'm the ranking officer here.'
'Yeah, but I'm the guy putting his life on the line. Trust me.'
There was a long, tense pause before Travis eventually nodded. 'All right. Have it your own way. But you had better be right.'
He did not expand on the consequences of being wrong, probably recognizing that nothing he could threaten compared with the risks inherent in the mission itself. Chris expected to die - expected them all to die - and he was more than ready to meet that fate. Even if he survived, he had no interest in a career in the Army or any other reward that Travis had within his power. At least he now had a team of men he felt he could rely on: they might fail but, if they did, he doubted that anyone else would have been able to do better.
- 1 -
For a man headed directly for the Front, Buck was in remarkably good spirits. He was pleased to be riding with Chris again and even more pleased to see him in such good shape. Yes, the anger and pain were still there, and not far beneath the surface, but his friend was sober and, if his physical condition was anything to go by, had been that way much of the time since their last meeting a couple of years earlier. The separation had not been Buck's choice - he would have stood by his friend through a thousand bottles of whiskey, and the fights that usually followed them - but becoming the focus of Chris's anger had left him with few options. He'd willingly served as a punch-bag on more than one occasion but, as the man's wrath steadily blazed brighter, he realized that it was only a matter of time before it got out of hand. He wasn't keen to die, and couldn't see how his dying in such a way would help Chris, so he moved on.
On top of the renewed friendship, he was buoyed up by meeting the members of their team. He and Chris had ridden with some solid guys down in Cuba and he judged these new comrades to be made from the same stuff. He accepted Vin, Josiah and Nathan instantly, valuing their experience and respecting their self-possessed personalities. In Ezra, he suspected he might find the kind of rapport that lasted a lifetime, once he broke down the man's defenses and made him see how alike they were. And JD? Well, he was just a kid but Buck reckoned that they'd make a man of him yet.
Whistling cheerfully, he took in every detail of the scenery they passed. It was ordinary country, with no spectacular geology and the simple architecture of an agrarian population. For him, that made the locals' determined resistance to the Hun more, rather than less, understandable. These were people who had farmed the same piece of land for centuries and knew, or more than likely were related to, all their neighbors. Although he had never felt that sense of belonging, he was an empathetic and imaginative man who had no difficulty in understanding it. No one looking at him, except perhaps a man who knew him as well as Chris did, would have been able to tell but those same character traits meant that he knew precisely what they were taking on in France. He had seen death and injury, even torture and madness, on a small scale in Cuba and he was fully capable of multiplying that up a thousand-fold. He'd met enough Frenchmen, and Frenchwomen, to know precisely what they had suffered. He knew that the odds were heavily stacked against him surviving any attempt to turn the tide and, if he lived through it, he knew that he might not recognize himself in the survivor.
None of those things, however, could dampen his mood in the brilliant morning sunshine. He would not let them. Whether his life was to be long or short, he intended to make the most of every moment given him. They had ridden out of camp with no briefing and only the vaguest idea of their mission. He had total trust in Chris's judgment, and it seemed the others were equally at ease with it, but he figured it was about time to unveil their first objective. There was a broad smile on his face when he twisted in his saddle to challenge Chris.
'So, what comes first? Turning water into wine or just walking on it?'
Chris grinned back and, Buck was pleased to see, the smile reached his eyes.
'First, we take a look at the view from our side.' He glanced at the three experienced men. 'Won't be anything you haven't seen before but the rest of us are new to these parts. We need to know what our boys'll be facing before we go making plans for 'em.'
Josiah nodded, clearly in support of careful preparation before they stuck their necks out.
'And I know how you like big guns, Buck.'
Buck laughed. 'Hell, yes. The bigger the better.' He glanced back at the mules they had in tow. 'Ammo?'
Chris nodded. 'Line's looking pretty thin up ahead and a bunch of our boys are struggling to hold it. Not sure what they're most short of - ammo, guns or the men to fire 'em. Can't help with the guns but bullets and men we got. Least until their permanent reinforcements get here.'
The seven of them were mere drops in a vast ocean but Buck saw no need to point that out. Instead, he looked over at Vin and revealed a better understanding of military insignia than Chris had given him credit for.
'So, Vin, you gonna show us how it's done? Musta done something to get all those pretty badges.'
The experienced gunner in their midst said nothing to that but the corners of his eyes crinkled in amusement.
'We had big guns back in Cuba too,' Buck baited him good-naturedly.
'That so? Mebbe I'll let you do the showin' then.'
More seriously, although still with his customary ease, Buck followed up with a technical question. 'We gonna be any use to 'em? I heard it takes weeks to train up a gunner on these new-fangled machine guns.'
'Can do,' Vin conceded. 'The ole guns weigh a ton and y'want six men working together t'make a team but the new light'uns are a good bit easier t'fire and a hell of a lot easier t'move.' He shifted his attention to Chris. 'What cartridges we got?'
Hearing the tension in the question, Buck wondered what problem Vin foresaw with their cargo. He knew Chris had picked up on it from the matching tension in his reply.
The single word confirmed that there was a problem.
'What?' Chris asked him.
'Point-three-oh is US standard ammo. The French Chauchats don't take it unmodified. It'll be useless, 'less they got US Chauchats on the line and I don't think they do. Hell, somebody shoulda known that.'
There was a long silence. Buck doubted that Vin had intended to criticize their Captain's leadership but was certain that Chris would blame himself for the oversight. If only they had more experience if only he'd asked his Corporal Buck knew exactly how the man's mind worked and what impossible standards he insisted on setting for himself. When Chris spoke, it was neither to reprimand Vin for the implied criticism nor to chastise himself. Instead, he moved the matter straight on.
'Well, we'll deliver 'em anyhow - maybe they've got the modified model. And don't forget, we've got the BARs as well.'
That was true. Air-cooled, gas-operated and magazine-fed, the new Browning Automatic Rifles matched the speed of any light machine gun but could be fired by one man like an ordinary rifle. They'd caused a sensation when they first arrived and, like every American soldier, Buck was proud of the quality of the weapons coming into France from the US. Three BARs could make a lot of difference to a hard-pressed infantry battalion.
Buck watched Vin accept the point with a characteristic silent nod. If US stores had no French ammunition, which they probably didn't, knowing about the problem might have saved them a couple of mules but would have made no difference in the long run. There was nothing to be gained by lamenting the oversight now and, Buck judged, his new companions were not the kind of men to complain about what couldn't be changed.