- 2 -
Although the First Division's camp was less than twenty miles behind the line, it seemed to JD that it took an eternity to make the journey. The roads, if you could call them roads, were deeply rutted by the constant traffic of war and the surrounding country was so pitted by shell craters that leaving the roads wasn't too smart either. He grew more and more impatient as the top of each rise revealed only another empty valley but slowly noticed that each was more battle-scarred than the last. Eventually, he felt his stomach churn in excitement when he scanned the horizon. Jagged stumps of scorched trees punctuated the skyline: at long last, he was about to see the Front that he'd heard so much about. Men spoke of it with fear and dread, hate and resentment, but, stranger still, were those whose voices went flat and lifeless, or those who refused to speak of it at all.
Turning in his saddle, he asked Vin, 'How much further? Till we reach the Front?'
Vin glanced around. 'Few hours. Reckon it'll be dark afore we get there.'
JD slouched back, disappointed to find his moment of revelation so distant. Vin pursed his lips, as if to go on, but then seemed to decide against it. JD was relieved by his silence; he was getting tired of being told by every man he met what he should expect and how he was going to feel about it. Looking at the devastation ahead, he soon wanted another answer.
'Have we gained all this ground already then?'
Vin snorted. 'The line around Verdun ain't moved but a few hundred yards in more'an three years.'
'Then how ?'
'How'd it get like this? Bombardment, kid. Fourteen-inch shell took out the Bishop's Palace back at the start o' '16 and the Hun's artillery didn't stop till June.' His intense blue gaze turned on JD. 'This strip o' dirt cost over three hundred thousand French casualties. Kinda high rental, wouldn't you say?'
JD said nothing, having little interest in how many men had died in this offensive or that defensive. Those were French and British troops who clearly had no idea what they were doing. It would all be different now that the Americans had arrived. Besides, men always died in war: it was to be expected.
He was not prepared for the vista that opened up in front of them when they reached the top of the stump-spotted ridge. Tents dotted the barren valley and, in between them, row upon row of men slept in the open air. The campsite stretched as far as he could see in all directions. He nudged his horse's girth gently, overcoming its reluctance to follow Ezra's gelding down the formless road through the landscape of broken chalk and heavy clay. They clattered and slithered down the hillside, JD squinting as they drew nearer to the encampment. It took his inexperienced eyes some time to realize that the men ahead were not fellow Americans.
'They're French,' he said in surprised dismay.
'What d'ya expect?' Vin asked casually. 'Most of our boys ain't got here yet. Somebody's gotta hold the line till they do.'
'Why're they camped way back here?'
He felt that disconcerting gaze again for a few seconds, before Vin said softly, 'They ain't camped, kid. It's a dressing station.'
JD scanned the vast expanse of humanity again, found his throat parched and swallowed apprehensively. Vin nudged his mount closer and leaned across to speak in a voice so low that JD could barely hear him and their companions would stand no chance.
'Best thing you can do is look ahead and keep lookin' there till we reach that ridge.' He nodded towards the far horizon. 'Ain't nothin' y'need t'see here.'
'Hell, Corporal, I ain't a kid.'
Vin turned his mount away sharply. 'Have it your own way but don't say I didn't warn ya.'
As they drew nearer, JD wrestled with his emotions. A part of him knew that Vin was speaking the truth, extending friendship to a raw recruit out of kindness, but another part of him bridled at being constantly singled out for guidance and reassurance. From what he'd heard, the two officers leading the unit had little combat experience between them and Ezra didn't exactly look like a professional soldier. That left an ex-Chaplain and a medical orderly who wasn't even supposed to be there. Nobody ever tried to tell them how things were.
They reached the outer edge of the rows of resting casualties. JD looked down and felt a chill run through him. Even he knew that orderlies didn't pull blankets over the faces of living men. He began to count but stopped at few minutes later at three hundred. There was no one to bury the fallen, their comrades too busy facing death and the orderlies too busy fighting it. Vin was once more at his side. This time the Corporal said nothing but his solid presence helped to hold the horror at bay: hundreds of men were dead and yet he, who had been in France since the beginning, still lived.
Eventually, the rows of corpses came to an end. What followed was worse still: there, furthest from the doctors, were the men who could not be saved. They were more mistakes, men that the stretcher-bearers might as well have left on the battlefield so that they could help others who stood a chance. Most of the uniforms were dark with blood and many of the bodies were curiously truncated, some short a limb or two and a few little more than torsos. JD wanted to take Vin's advice but his eyes sought out each new horror as if of their own accord.
The mortally wounded men were surprisingly quiet in their torment. There was a low undercurrent of wretched moaning, punctuated with a few delirious cries, but they mostly awaited their fate with subdued resignation. Between two bodies that were either unconscious or already dead, one man watched them approach with pained eyes. When they were almost alongside, he ran a dry tongue over cracked lips and tried to speak. Vin reined back and looked down pityingly. A moment later, he swung down from his saddle and took his water bottle from the pommel. Crouching beside the dying man, he trickled a few drops between his lips.
JD watched, taking in the flattened, blood-soaked blanket where the man's legs should have been.
'Merci,' the man whispered. 'Une cigarette dans ma poche '
'Un moment,' Vin replied.
JD knew no French but recognized cigarette well enough. He watched Vin reach into the man's breast pocket, draw out a crumpled packet and shake a cigarette from it. Taking a vesta case from his own pocket, Vin struck a flame and then sucked lightly on the cigarette as he lit it. He put it between the Frenchman's lips and held it while he inhaled deeply.
'Merci beaucoup, mon ami. Es-tu Américain?'
Vin held the cigarette to the man's lips again.
'Oui un Américain ami de la France.'
'A-tu visité Paris?'
'Oui, et le Midi. C'est un pays ensorcelant. D'où viens tu?'
The man licked his lips again. 'Toulou '
He blinked, as if in surprise, then moved no more. His eyes still looked up at Vin, connected in a fleeting moment of camaraderie. Vin ran a hand slowly over them, leaving them closed, and then stood up. After crushing the cigarette deliberately into the mud, he mounted and moved on without a word. JD followed, his confidence suddenly seeming crass next to the Corporal's forbearance, and noted how the brief encounter had subdued their companions as well as himself.
At first, it seemed as if their journey through the nearly dead would never end but, gradually, JD realized that the men they were passing were a little less bloody and little more lively. Orderlies worked their way up and down the rows, far too few but better than nothing, changing dressings and giving water. As they approached the center of the station, the injuries became fresher and more serious again: it was there that men received the emergency treatment that decided whether they joined the ranks of the living or the dying. Muffled screams came from inside the tents, testifying to the desperate field surgery that sought to save men's lives by hacking off their damaged limbs.
Just when it seemed that it could get no worse, they passed a long line of burn and blast casualties. Raw tissue, unprotected by skin, was covered in grease for protection. The men seemed only half-conscious, whether from morphine or shock JD could not tell, but mumbled their misery in a purgatory somewhere between death or lifelong pain and disfigurement. Over them hung the stench of scorched flesh. JD felt his gorge rising but resolutely swallowed the bile: he did not want to give the others the satisfaction of seeing him overwhelmed but, beneath his longing to make an impression, a more sensitive part of him did not want to foreshadow to these burned scraps of humanity the years of revulsion and embarrassment that lay ahead of them if they lived.
He stared wretchedly at the horizon, hearing again Vin's well-meant words of warning. Best thing you can do is look ahead and keep lookin' there till we reach that ridge. Ain't nothin' y'need t'see here. He kept his eyes fixed on that distant spot until a commotion on their right drew his attention back to their surroundings. The men there looked intact, with nothing more than an occasional blood-stained bandage, and yet they made more noise than any group JD had yet seen. He squinted to get a better view but could still see nothing to explain the furor. Reluctantly, he turned to Vin for an explanation.
'Shell shock,' the man said succinctly.
JD had never heard the term. 'What's that?'
'Well,' Vin said thoughtfully. 'If y'ask the fellas at the top, it's something soldiers make up so's they can go home. If y'ask the fellas who've spent months under heavy bombardment, they'll tell ya another story.'
Sometimes Vin's explanations were about as clear as mud.
'I'm asking you,' JD pointed out, with what he saw as admirable restraint.
'I guess it's when the noise gets s'loud that a man cain't hear hisself think no more.'
The words would have sounded ridiculous had JD heard them in isolation but, as he surveyed the staggering, shaking wretches and listened to their terrified shouts and rants, he had the feeling that Vin's explanation was not so far from the truth. It did indeed look as if the men could no longer communicate with their own minds or bodies, much less with their companions.
'Do they get better?'
'Can do. I seen men come back off leave right as rain but I hear there are plentya others ain't got better yet. Mebbe it's just a matter of time.' Something in Vin's tone suggested that he was not convinced, that he believed many men would never be able to put their experiences behind them.
They rode on, JD stealing glances back at the shell-shocked men for as long as he could distinguish them in the sea of suffering. Even in his youthful enthusiasm, he'd given some thought to the fact that he might be crippled or killed. It had never occurred to him that he might return from France with his body intact but his mind gone for ever. For the first time in his life, he was glad that his mother was dead. At least there was no one to pass sorrowful years in wasted visits to sit with his mindless shell.
He was glad when they began to pass men returning from the fighting ahead, giving him new horrors to witness but loosening the grip of the last desperate vision. The walking wounded trailed along, the more mobile supporting the more badly wounded, the sighted guiding the blinded. All sagged with exhaustion and some looked up at them with haunted, hopeless eyes.
JD pulled alongside Vin. 'Is it a bad battle ahead?'
Vin shook his head sadly. 'Ain't rightly a battle at all. There's talk of a German push at Reims. This is just a sideshow so's they can't move enough men up there to break through the line.'
'A sideshow?' JD echoed, any pretense of experience evaporating in his realization that this was just another day on the Western Front.
Vin came close alongside again, settling his restless gelding with a firm hand. 'There's gotta be another way t'skin this rabbit, kid, an' that's what we're here for. Mebbe, if we get the right commanding officers and we can give 'em the right information, we can put an end to all this, once and for all. Ain't much left out here for a man to believe in but we gotta believe in that - somehow we gotta make it happen.'
In the urgent assurance, JD heard the pain and death that Vin had witnessed and understood his desperation to find some purpose in all that had been sacrificed. They were not simply riding to the Front to die, like countless others had done and were still doing. No, they had a mission that might save hundreds, or even thousands, of lives on both sides. If nothing else, they had to hold on to that. He nodded to Vin and sat straighter in his saddle. His heart had sunk when he realized what they were about to ride through but now he was glad that he had seen some small measure of what men like the Corporal already knew. He began to understand the value of a man like Private Jackson who, though no soldier, had kept his sanity while treating countless men like those they had just passed. That in itself spoke of courage far beyond what was demanded of men in most times and places.
- 3 -
Chris settled himself comfortably in the straw. Looking around, he could see that the barn was a regular shelter for soldiers passing to and from the Front. Cigarette butts littered the floor, piles of cans and wrappers had accumulated in the corners, and blood stained the straw in places. That afternoon it was empty, with every available man already engaged in the skirmish that thundered on ahead of them. Their own stop would be brief, just time to eat and rest while they waited for dusk to approach.
Most men in his position would have passed the time in edgy chatter or repeated checks on their weapons but he was motionless, his mind as controlled as his body. The prospect of his own death did not trouble him and even the added weight of responsibility for his men could not break down his self-discipline. Still, he did not intend to sacrifice any of their lives lightly. They had come thousands of miles to put an end to a war that had spread to encompass the entire world and that was precisely what he aimed to do. With no strong feelings about whether his country should maintain its neutrality or answer the Allies' pleas for help, he believed that the Germans had made the decision when they persisted in their submarine warfare. Sinking American ships was an act of war that could not easily be ignored. Chris would not tolerate a man desecrating his family or his land, and he saw no difference in what the Germans had chosen to do - if anything, the scale of the destruction made it worse, not better.
Vin, Buck and Ezra had gone in search of food some half an hour earlier. Ezra had been inspecting their dried and canned provisions disdainfully when Vin speculated that there might still be rabbits thereabouts. Chris couldn't be sure whether their prompt disappearance, while JD had gone to relieve himself, was accidental or deliberate but the youngster's irritation on discovering their absence was plain for anyone to see. It turned into impatience over the next half an hour, as he awaited their return. Constantly on the move, he cleaned and checked his weapons then he paced the barn then he went outside then he came back in again. He tried to engage Josiah in conversation but the former preacher seemed determined to take a nap before they moved on. Nathan proved just as poor company, passing his break in re-packing his kit to balance the load better.
JD was looking at Vin's pack when Chris heard a soft footfall outside. He rested a hand automatically on his Colt but doubted that they had anything to fear on the Allied side of the line. He considered drawing attention to their comrades' return but then decided to let JD get caught out for his curiosity. He saw the boy jump when Vin spoke from the doorway.
'Leave it be, kid.'
Vin's voice was as low as always but there was a threatening note that stopped JD's hand in mid-motion. Chris smiled inwardly. He already knew that the Corporal would never harm the young Private but JD was clearly not so sure about that.
'I was just-'
'I don't care what you was just. You touch a man's kit out here and you'll get took for a thief, or worse.'
JD opened his mouth to reply but then seemed to think better of it. As if to show there were no hard feelings, Vin reached into his pocket and tossed an apple to him. JD rolled the fruit in his hand and stared at the scabs and bruises that marred its rosy surface, eliciting a soft laugh from Vin.
'Make the most of it, kid. It'll look pretty good after you bin out here a while. Even the rabbits have quit.'
JD took a bite, kept the grimace from his face and spoke through the mouthful. 'Thanks, Corporal.'
Vin reached for the canvas-covered weapon stuck into the side of his knapsack. 'Vin. This what you was after lookin' at?'
Chris followed the exchange, without making it obvious he was doing so. He needed to know his men inside out and listening to what they said to each other could tell him more than a direct conversation ever would.
'They don't tell you in training but the real enemy out here is the mud. Darned stuff gets in everything. You're lucky comin' in late - least the kit's better than it was. You go into a trench, there'll be waders in the fixed stores so you can take right over from the boys comin' back. Mind, waders'll help when it comes to trench-foot but they won't stop you drownin' in the stuff.' He looked up and caught JD's incredulous expression. 'Oh, yeah, you can drown in it all right. The Somme's full o' bodies and a good many of 'em never saw no bullets.'
He removed the breech cover and ran a tender hand over the oiled steel.
'That's not a French rifle,' JD protested.
'Ain't that the truth,' Vin smiled. '1897 Winchester pump-action shotgun. Don't often need a second shot with this baby.'
'Wouldn't the Browning be better though?'
Vin did not reply at once. Chris knew that even the seasoned soldier had been impressed when he saw the contents of the First Division stores, selecting for their arsenal the first batch of automatic rifles among other things, but he hadn't changed his personal armory. Chris saw his scrutiny of the shotgun and guessed that he was wondering whether he had let his heart influence the decision unwisely. Soldiers were inclined to be superstitious and Chris suspected that Vin was no exception. He was probably apprehensive about changing any detail of a strategy that had kept him alive for four years and Chris wasn't about to blame him for that.
If Vin had doubts, he conveyed none of them to JD when he gave a casual shrug. 'The BAR's a fine piece of equipment but it's a rapid-fire weapon. Wouldn't have the same control as I got with this.'
JD nodded. 'Buck says you're a crack-shot.'
'That so?' Vin mused, before muttering under his breath. 'Hell, I joined in this circus afore I had to - reckon that makes me more of a crack-pot.'
JD's frustration at the sentiment surfaced immediately. 'But it'll be over in no time, now the good ole US of A is here,' he declared boldly. 'I don't know what these Limeys and Frogs have been doing for the last four years. Looks like they spent more time digging holes in the mud than fighting the Hun.'
His words met with silence from Vin. In his peripheral vision, Chris watched the emotions fighting in the tiny movements of the Corporal's facial muscles. He saw frustration that the sights of the day had done nothing to quash JD's naivety, and anger at the criticism of men who'd fallen in their hundreds of thousands to protect their homes and keep their freedom. A few seconds later, Vin headed back out of the door through which he had only just entered.
'What did I say?' JD protested. 'It's true.'
'Reckon Vin's got a soft spot for the Frogs,' Buck said lightly. 'But you just wait till they see our guys in action.'
Buck was no more naive than Vin but his character, as well as his lack of personal involvement in the conflict, made it easier for him to deflect JD's ill-advised remarks. There was a balance to be achieved: JD needed to understand the risks if he was to stay alive and play his part in their assignment but there was no sense in trying to scare the kid witless before he even saw a German. Chris knew that JD would get a sharp shock from Buck anytime it was needed but he also knew that Buck had spotted something Vin hadn't. JD had been shaken by the dressing station and it was because of it, not in spite of it, that he was trying now to persuade himself how different the future would be from the past.
Chris let their banter wash over him for a few minutes more before nonchalantly following Vin outside. He felt no need to account for his action and he made sure that his manner put off anyone who might have considered asking where he was going. He paused outside the door to light a cheroot, shielding the flame with a cupped hand, and glanced casually to his left and then to his right. Vin was leaning on a gate, staring into the darkness. Chris walked deliberately towards him and leaned on the top rail, a yard or so from the still-silent man.
'He's just a kid.'
'They all are,' Vin said flatly.
Chris considered the reply. Drained and cynical, Vin sounded a good decade older than the twenty-eight years recorded in his file. Although he already knew the answer, Chris replied with a question.
'How long have you been in France?'
Vin glanced sideways at him, as if considering whether to reply. Eventually he reached his decision.
'Since afore it started.' A pause. 'Came over in nineteen-oh-nine.'
That provoked an even longer stare, betraying a reluctance to answer that made Chris wonder what had brought this man five thousand miles around the world. He knew before Vin spoke that he was not going to get an answer, at least not yet.
'Had my reasons.'
Chris returned to the reason for his recent exit. 'JD'll learn.'
'If he lives long enough,' Vin said bitterly.
'Give him a chance to understand how things are.'
He was surprised to hear a sniff of laughter from Vin.
'Be on his own if he manages that. It don't look any saner when you get up close.'
'You sound like one of them.' Chris put no inflection on the words but it was the truth. Here was one of their own speaking more like the disillusioned French and British troops who took every opportunity to mock the raw recruits from across the Atlantic.
Vin turned to face him. 'They ain't makin' it up. This ain't like any war you ever seen 'cause it ain't like any war any man's ever seen. Take my word on it.'
Chris studied him. There was no trace of bravado or superiority in the man's face, just deadly earnestness. He had no intention of arguing. Instead, he wanted to know everything that Vin knew, a man who had survived four years of trench warfare in some of the hottest spots on the Front. 'I'm listening.'
The keen blue eyes studied him a little longer, and then Vin gave a slight nod. It was as if he had only then made the decision to accept his new Captain's authority. 'Yeah, well, mind ya do. Lot o' new recruits don't survive their first week at the Front. Seems a waste t'come s'far f'nothin'.'
Chris nodded and turned to go back inside, leaving the man to decide for himself whether to follow. Soft footsteps echoed his own and then an equally soft voice harked back to JD's proud boast.
'Y'know, back in '14, this lot thought it'd be over by Christmas. Been three more Christmases since then and it ain't over yet.'
Without turning around, Chris asked, 'You see there being another?'
The footsteps stopped.
Chris looked over his shoulder at the pensive figure behind him.
'Ain't so sure I'll see another.'
Just for an instant, Chris saw something that was not in Vin's file. He might have survived but he had not done so unscathed. So far, there were no outward signs of the nervous damage that incapacitated almost as many men as were physically disabled but that didn't mean there was no damage inside. Chris could reject him as unfit but, then again, a man who could hold himself together through so much might be better than one who was untried. He went back inside without comment, suppressing a shudder at what might lie ahead.
- 4 -
Having moved on as soon as the sun approached the horizon, the seven men walked in single-file along the supply trench linking the reserve line to the Front. There was no room to do otherwise. It was the closest JD had come to action and he craned his neck impatiently, trying to get a glimpse around Buck's tall figure. Chris strode purposefully forward in front of them and Vin followed close behind JD, only the squelch of his boots marking his steady passage. Behind Vin were Ezra and Nathan, with Josiah at the rear. JD rose on tip-toe, mid-stride, becoming ever more frustrated as hours passed and he saw nothing but high mud-caked chalk walls and Buck's mud-spattered back. Inside the trench, bays were cut into the sides for stores at intervals, so as not to block the passage, and men passed to and fro with loads and messages. From time to time, one would flatten himself into a recess to let them pass. Most gave a grudging salute to Chris, although one or two decided against it for an American, and some grunted acknowledgement to Vin or Josiah.
JD felt as if he were invisible, treated like just another kid to fill a gap left by a dead man and not at all like the deliverer of victory and salvation that he wanted to be. He was getting fed up with being overlooked by strangers and condescended to by his comrades. When his foot caught in a particularly sticky patch of clay, he yanked hard and cursed under his breath. The boot made a disgusting sucking sound as it slowly came free.
'Told you the mud's a bastard,' came Vin's quiet voice from behind.
Being reminded of the man's greater experience just inflamed JD's resentment. He tried again to see past Buck and this time caught a glimpse of the trench ahead, with a stack of crates against one side. Chris dog-legged to miss it and Buck matched his fluid movement but JD, seeing his chance for a view, hopped lightly onto the lowest level of the pile.
He couldn't be sure what happened next. His boot landed solidly enough on the wood but suddenly all the air left his lungs. He gasped painfully, trying to draw air into a chest that no longer seemed to be working. The mud wall span through a hundred and eighty degrees, slowly coming to a halt above him. Vin leaned over him, a mixture of concern and annoyance on his face. He held out a hand.
JD stared at it, confused, only gradually piecing together what had happened. He gasped again and this time some air reached his convulsing lungs.
'What the hell d'you hit me for, Vin?'
'Didn't,' Vin replied. 'Just gave you a shove. Mebbe a bit on the hard side but ya took me by surprise.'
'I took you by surprise?'
'Darn it, kid, you're at the Front now. You don't ever stick your head above that parapet.' He nodded towards the top of the trench. 'Not ever. You hear me?'
JD stared up at him and felt the blood begin to fill his cheeks. Embarrassment made him argue.
'But we're only in a supply trench.'
'Yeah, an' only a coupla hundred yards from the line.'
JD swallowed. 'They can't be watching all the time.'
'You wanna bet ya life on when they're lookin'?' Vin's reply was filled with disbelief. 'Suit yourself then.'
JD struggled to his feet, trying vainly to wipe the mud from his pants. 'I'm all wet now.'
'Least you're alive to complain about it.'
'You're like all the others,' JD muttered. 'Just trying to scare the new boys.'
Vin studied him for perhaps ten seconds, and then reached out and whipped the cap off his head. Before JD could protest, he had stuck it over his trenching tool and then raised it above the parapet. Only a second or two passed before a shot echoed across No Man's Land. The cap span around on the handle of the tool. Vin lowered the tool, retrieved it and then handed it back to JD. Two neat holes ventilated the crown.
'Still jus' 'nuff light for snipin'. An' I wouldn't stick m'head up without a darn good reason, even after dark.'
'Goddamn ' JD exclaimed as he poked a finger through one of the holes. He looked up at Vin in astonishment.
Vin smiled reassuringly. 'Don't sweat it, kid. We all had to learn. Jus' don't take too long over it.'
The others said nothing, resuming their march in subdued silence.
JD looked over his shoulder. 'Thanks, Vin.'
'No problem. An' put ya helmet on.'
JD did as he was told, settling the heavy steel helmet over his cap and adjusting the chin-strap carefully. He suddenly saw his life as fragile as a thread in a spider's web, aware as never before how easily it could be ended by a momentary lapse in judgment. It was not that he was afraid of dying, for he was not, but he had no intention of doing so in a pointless accident before he'd had a chance to make a difference.
- 5 -
Vin's estimate of their proximity to the Front proved accurate. Even with their slow, mud-laden strides, little more than a quarter of an hour could have passed before they reached it. Long experience had acquainted him with the reek of unburied bodies and overflowing latrines. Those smells were strong in the reserve trenches, slightly better in the supply trenches through which men passed quickly, and then almost overpowering in areas where the front-line trenches had moved little in years. He'd seen JD's obvious shock at the stench and the fixed expressions on Chris and Buck's faces. He noted without surprise that Ezra was worst affected; although his self-control was as rigid as their officers', a green cast to his complexion revealed how nauseating the miasma was for him. He would probably lose his last meal at some point during the night and Vin would be the last to judge him for that - learning to live in a way that few animals would tolerate was not an achievement of which he was particularly proud.
The US section of the line was even worse than he had feared. He knew that bringing American troops in under their own flag, with officers as inexperienced as the European ones had been in 1914, carried a huge risk but he'd tried to convince himself that they would learn from their predecessors' losses. What he saw rapidly undermined those hopes. The trenches were sparsely manned and he had a good idea where the missing men had ended up, their lifeless bodies littered across No Man's Land doing nothing but feed the rats. The German artillery thundered incessantly, only to be met by a half-hearted clatter from the US troops. More sustained fire from the east and west marked the French battalions on either side of them.
Infantrymen were firing over the parapet but the closing darkness made sniping increasingly futile. They'd be lucky to pick out individual targets with only the flash of enemy fire for light. As attached as he was to his Winchester, which had saved his life countless times since he shipped it over from the US when war began to look inevitable, he was dispassionate in his choice of weapon - if you couldn't see your target, only big shells with a wide blast radius stood any chance of doing real damage.
'Hold up,' he shouted forward as they reached a spot between two clusters of men.
His companions turned back to see what had caught his attention. He peered into a device fitted to the north side of the trench and surveyed a familiar scene. A wasteland separated them from the German front-line, several hundred yards away. In the flashes from the bombardment overhead, he saw scores of bodies scattered across the barren landscape. Experience told him that some had lain there for a while, loose bundles of filthy clothing from which the rats had extracted most of the flesh; others were more recent casualties, their recognizable body parts twisted into unrecognizable poses. Worst of all, resurrecting memories he had tried so hard to forget, were those entangled in the thick coils of barbed wire that protected each line of trenches. Without thinking, he rubbed his right arm, recalling the fierce metal teeth ripping through his own flesh as he waited to die. Forcing the horrors from his mind, he drew away from the scene.
'Trench periscope,' he offered by way of explanation. 'Take a look, JD, but don't blame me for the view.'
The youngster stepped forward, resolute but less keen with harsh reality all around them. He looked through the periscope for most of a minute and none of them made any effort to hurry him. When he turned silently away, Buck gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze before taking turns with Chris to assess the threat they faced. After they had studied the enemy's strength, Josiah, Ezra and Nathan repeated their scrutiny. Knowing the lie of the land might make the difference between life and death.
Vin looked around to find Chris's gaze flitting between him and Josiah. He guessed that only now was it fully registering how incredible it was that they remained alive, intact and, as far as anybody could see, sane. Vin sometimes wondered about his sanity, suspecting that no man who could witness - and inflict - such appalling brutality could truly be sane. If he was so insensitive that he could shake off such horrors, perhaps he had never been quite right in the head to start with. He tried to shut out the doubts, knowing that they would only get him killed, but feared that he would not be able to live with himself after the war, when there would be time and space to dwell on things that could be ignored in its heat.
For the present, he was glad when they resumed their progress. He followed Chris along the front-line trench, knowing that they must go through the chain of command while yearning to dive straight in. Any man who died between their arrival and deployment was a life that might have been saved. They reached a young Sergeant, tall and probably good-looking somewhere under the filth that coated him. The top half of his uniform was splashed with blood, while the bottom was caked in mud, but he appeared uninjured. He saluted wearily.
'Where's your superior officer?' Chris asked him.
'Dead, Sir. I sent for reinforcements.'
The man spoke with a well-educated New England accent. Underneath the fatigue and despair, Vin heard intelligence and dedication. The man was doing his darnedest to make the best of a bad situation. If he was the wrong man for the job, or if he had not been given the training and men needed to do it, the fault lay with the Army and not him.
'I know. We're them. My name's Larabee.'
Chris's voice was level, carrying a note of conviction that silenced any protest that the man might have been considering but failed to keep the incredulous look from his face. He said only, 'Robinson, Sir.'
'Looks like you've taken quite a beating,' Chris continued.
The Sergeant nodded, apparently too tired to argue, and said dejectedly, 'They never prepared us for this. The instructors back home have got no idea what it's like out here.'
'Want some tips from someone who does?'
'You, Sir?' There was no challenge in the question, Robinson seeming quite ready to believe that Chris had such knowledge.
'Nope, but my Corporal here has lasted four years of it so I figure he must be doing something right.'
A faint glimmer of hope ignited in the eyes that turned on Vin. 'That true?'
The desperation tore at Vin's heart but he kept his voice as matter-of-fact as always. 'Don't know 'bout doin' somethin' right but I bin here since '14 sure enough.'
The Sergeant showed no reaction to the backwoods drawl that betrayed Vin's education had been considerably shorter than his own. 'Any help you can give us anything '
Vin knew they would be lucky if the politics of future missions remained so uncomplicated but the gentle start was welcome. He glanced at Chris for permission to deal direct and got a nod to proceed. 'Give me the tour. What have ya got and what's Fritz throwin' at ya?'
Ten minutes later, Vin had a full picture of the defenses that they were to shore up - and a pitiful picture it was too. The battalion had taken over a French line that was already equipped. They had unmodified Chauchats, as Vin expected, but several were out of service. They had enough ammunition for the week, and there was also a stack of cartridges that didn't fit anything. When a shaven-headed Private whose sleeves were stretched tight over bulging biceps held up a 249-cartridge belt, Vin realized just how little the American troops knew.
'They're Hotchkiss rounds,' he said calmly. 'Ya got a Hotchkiss here?'
'I thought they were obsolete,' Robinson protested.
Fuckin' obsolete, Vin thought. They'll make a fuckin' great hole in a German, don't you worry. Keeping those opinions to himself, he said, 'Only 'cause they're heavy. You got less recoil than with a Chauchat and better range than with a BAR. If there's one here, we need to find it.' He turned back to his companions. 'Josiah, Nathan, take a look around, see if you can find the darned thing.'
The two men set off purposefully. If there was a Hotchkiss around, Vin had no doubt that they would find it. He glanced at Chris, uncertain about telling his Captain what to do. The reply was as constructive as promised.
'What d'you need?'
'T'get the BARs firin'. We don't get some cover here, Fritz might figure it's worth comin' over for a look.'
'You got it. Buck, you're with me.' Chris hesitated for a fraction of a second, assessing the two least experienced men in their midst. 'Ezra, you too.'
Vin gave JD no chance to launch into the protest he was undoubtedly planning, immediately moving on to the next problem. 'You only got half the Chauchats firin',' he said to Robinson. 'Why's that?'
'The men haven't been trained to fire them. The recoil's a bastard and a man with a busted arm's not good for much,' the man admitted miserably, before adding, 'And some of 'em have jammed.'
Vin grinned at JD. 'I heard you're kinda handy with machines, kid.' It wasn't the recognition of bravery that the Private wanted but Vin guessed, rightly, that he'd be happy to be noticed for anything. 'See if you can get the jammed ones goin' agin. Y'often can if y'can get the shell out.'
JD hesitated, as if about to challenge the assignment.
'A machine gun's worth about eighty rifles, JD. You fix one and you earned your keep this week.'
The youngster grinned at him, half in apology, half in promise that he would indeed fix one, if not more. He followed the Private with the biceps, headed for the first of the jammed Chauchats.
'An' JD,' Vin called after him, 'Don't you fire any of 'em till I git there.' Catching the resentment before it could get far across the youngster's face, he cut it off sharp. 'Don't be going on the worry now - you'll get your chance but only after I'm sure they ain't gonna blow up in ya face.'
There was some truth in the reassurance, given that he was as concerned about the condition of the weapons as about the inexperience of the man trying to operate them. Even if he'd had time for it, any further discussion would have been drowned by the first volleys from the three BARs. Chris, Buck and Ezra had spread out along the trench, their weapons braced against sandbags and spewing lead into the night. Vin had expected the two officers to show their mettle, new to France or not, but he was pleasantly surprised by the efficiency with which the dapper Private threw himself into action. He suspected that Ezra Standish would be surprising them all plenty of times before they finished getting to know each other.
Just as satisfying was the renewed enthusiasm that he saw in the men they had come to help. In place of the sporadic shots that had greeted their arrival, scores of men were now firing steadily over the parapet. Some had only revolvers, which were unlikely to hit anything on the far side of No Man's Land, but all were trying to do their bit. He returned his attention to Robinson.
'Let's go see about trainin' up some new gunners.'
'But gunnery training takes weeks.'
'Takes the Army weeks t'teach a man t'peel potatoes. Don't mean it cain't be done no faster.'
Robinson came close to a smile. 'You don't seem to rate the Army very highly, Corporal.'
'You think as much of it as y'did?'
Vin matched the smile. 'See, men can learn real fast when they have to.'
Robinson fell in beside him. 'Truth is, our gunners trained with the Brits. These Chauchats are bloody temperamental compared with the Lewis.'
Vin inclined his head to acknowledge the point. Prior to the arrival of the BARs, the Lewis was widely considered the best light machine gun around. It certainly lacked the kick of an angry Chauchat and was less inclined to jam as well. 'What d'ya expect? The Chauchats are French - lot hotter-blooded than a Tommy gun. Jus' gotta learn t'treat 'em right.'
The next half an hour saw him assemble teams for three sound but unused Chauchats, compressing six weeks of training into a few precise instructions. Some well-chosen expletives moved the men out of the way before their mistakes cost them dearly and they were soon firing freely at their targets, confident if far from accurate. Vin squinted over one man's shoulder at the machine gun emplacement in his sights.
'It's big enough, ain't it? You plannin' on hittin' it some time tonight?'
The man cursed under his breath, then stood theatrically to one side. 'If you're so damned good '
He left the challenge unspoken. Vin took his place without comment, sighted and then fired. A spray of mud twenty yards in front of the emplacement declared that their bullets were falling short. He adjusted the sight and squinted again. One more adjustment and a satisfying burst of fire found its way into the mountain of sandbags. In reality, he doubted that it would make much difference, given how deep the Germans usually dug themselves in, but it felt better to score a hit and it would sure as hell worry the gunners inside the shelter a lot more than bullets flying wildly to either side.
Leaving the loud-mouth to try to match his aim, he took Robinson to one side. 'You okay with this lot? Watch what they're doing and try an' get them all up to the same standard. Pick out some more, case we get some of the other guns up 'n' runnin'.'
Robinson nodded gravely and went back to supervising the new gunnery teams. With no chance to draw breath, Vin found his next challenge awaiting him around a bend in the trench. Josiah and Nathan were manhandling a battle-scarred Hotchkiss out of a half-collapsed dug-out. At fifty pounds, it was a substantial and awkward burden but the two men made short work of extricating it. Josiah immediately threaded himself back inside.
'Does it look okay?' Vin asked.
Nathan shrugged. 'Don't know much about them but it was buried under a loada sacks in the back corner. Looks like it mighta been shoved in there when the Chauchats came and bin forgotten ever since.'
Vin ran his hands over the weapon systematically, checking that the mechanism was not jammed and that all components were present and correct. He'd spent a good part of 1915 in a Hotchkiss crew and its contours were as familiar as the shape of his own face. He reached into the side of his pack for gun-oil and rag and began to clean the heavy gun. When Josiah reappeared, he had the mounting in his left hand - most of forty pounds by itself - and some sacking in his right. Seeing Vin was already tending to the gun, he wiped the mounting down, paying particular attention to the platform that needed to engage with the underside of the gun.
Nathan walked off purposefully, only to return a few seconds later with an armful of the cartridge belts. He studied a shell while they finished, looking up curiously.
'What caliber are these then?'
'Eight-mil,' Vin told him.
Josiah laughed softly.
'What?' Nathan asked.
'Eight-mil for the French. Point-three-oh-three inches for the Brits. Point-three-oh for us. Woulda been nice if somebody'd planned ahead.'
'Yeah, but that'd make life way too easy, wouldn't it?' Vin said, thrusting a cleaning pole down the barrel of the Hotchkiss. He looked up at Josiah. 'Can you handle one of these, Josiah?'
Josiah gave a slow grin, exposing a row of large but perfectly matched white teeth. 'If I can handle the Queen of the Battlefield, I reckon I can get the measure of one of these French missies.'
Vin gave a relieved smile. Josiah meant the Vickers heavy machine guns that preceded the more maneuverable Lewis model. They were demanding of their operators, usually manned by a team of six and requiring a fair bit of maintenance in the field to stay safe and accurate. He'd guessed on meeting Josiah that the man would prove useful and was glad not to be disappointed.
'Let's see if she'll sing then.'
He took one of the cartridge belts and fed it through the breech. Gesturing to Nathan to stay well back, he and Josiah seated their steel helmets firmly on their heads and wrapped strips of sacking around their faces and hands. The coarse cloth might provide some protection against a misfire and made a man feel better as he reached for the trigger. The Hotchkiss did not let them down. A flood of bullets poured from its barrel as the mechanism rattled steadily on. Vin released the trigger and pulled the dusty hessian from his face.
'Looks like we got a new recruit, boys.'
He could hear the satisfaction in his own voice. Each small success took the men in the trench a step or two closer to safety. The one thing they could not afford to do was look weak, just when the Hun was so desperately seeking an opportunity to break through before American reinforcements made absolute victory - that Holy Grail of the German High Command - impossible.
'Keep at it for a while, then see if you can train some of these boys up on it. No sense in snipin' if they got the firepower to blow Fritz out of his hole.'
Leaving the two men to capitalize on their find, he went in search of JD. He doubted that his warning would stop the boy from testing any Chauchats he thought he'd fixed and Vin knew such experimentation could be fatal for a raw recruit.
- 6 -
Buck concentrated all his thoughts on the enemy line. He made a policy not to advertise the fact, but he could show the same single-mindedness as Chris when the situation demanded it. So tight was his focus that he knew nothing of the changes in the line around him, as he devoted all his skill to delivering what Vin had asked of them: a convincing show of force that would deter the Germans from making any unexpected moves that night and buy them time to regroup during the quieter hours of daylight. Hours dragged by as he tried to make his ammunition count, slicing down the men sent to lay more wire and penalizing any careless move that exposed a target. He had no illusions about matching Vin's aim, especially at the limits of the BAR's range, but skillfully swept the weapon to cover any area in which he spotted movement.
When he eventually permitted himself a short break, he was surprised by the change in the men around him. Where the line had been close to breaking-point, the troops now seemed to have new purpose. When the rattle of the BAR began to fade from his ears, he realized that something like a dozen other automatic weapons were now firing systematically. Against the odds, they had made a difference. Experience, combined with fresh resolve from rested men, had brought weapons back into service and given untrained men the confidence to fire them. Fifty yards either side of him, Chris and Ezra were still engaging the enemy but they were no longer alone. A couple of the faulty Chauchats were back in service and he could hear more fire from further along the trench, beyond where a turn took it out of sight. A closer look revealed JD in one of the Chauchat crews and Vin showing a group of men how to use discharger cups to launch grenades from their rifles.
The grenades proved a great success, once the men had found their range, and Buck watched through his sight as they plunged into the opposing trench. Whenever a man fleeing the explosions appeared in the open, Buck cut him down. He did not dwell on the nature of the men whose lives he was ending, knowing the self-doubt that lay down that route. Instead, he translated it into a simple equation: each one of them left alive might mean death for tens of American or Allied troops. That didn't make the killing right but it made it bearable.
Few nights had ever seemed as long to Buck as that one did but, eventually, the eastern horizon began to glimmer with the light of the returning sun. The firing from both sides had slowed in the darkness before the dawn and gradually it began to fade on their flanks. Long after the worst of the noise had faded, Buck could still hear its echoes in his ears, like the colored blotches that a man might see after staring too long at a light. By the time the rising sun had cleared the land, all firing had stopped.
'Breakfast,' came Vin's explanation from just behind him.
JD stared at him open-mouthed, apparently lost for words.
'Well,' Vin grinned. 'You wanna eat, don'tcha? Don't guess Fritz is any different on that score.'
Chris was leaning against the side of the trench, his BAR shouldered casually. 'So the truce stories are for real?'
Josiah and Nathan joined them from further along the line.
'Soldiers are only human,' Josiah said in his deep voice. 'Even if Generals sometimes seem to think otherwise.'
Buck's stomach growled loudly, as if to offer its support for breakfast if nothing else.
'Where do we get fed?' he asked.
He got his answer from Sergeant Robinson who was making his way unsteadily along the trench, almost asleep on his feet but still putting his men above himself. 'It's on its way. Sit yourselves down - you deserve a break after what you've done. I doubt most of us would have made it through the night without your help.'
'No problem,' Chris replied but accepted the invitation to make themselves comfortable.
When the food came, it was better than Buck had expected. They were probably eating the best of the men's rations but the food might well have gone into German stomachs without them. Setting about it enthusiastically, he saw JD do the same and the others not far behind - a day's traveling and a night's fighting had built up a powerful hunger. Only Ezra held back, grimacing when the food arrived and not even touching his plate. The sight of JD sucking in a stringy piece of fatty bacon proved too much for him and he hastened away to one of the bays in the trench wall.
'Poor ole Ezra,' Buck said sympathetically. 'Don't reckon he's cut out for this shit-hole.'
'He'll get used to it.'
Chris's reply was curt but Buck doubted that was in judgment of Ezra. The man had surprised them both by playing his part convincingly in the fight. Unfazed by the nightmare they had ridden into, he spent the hours of darkness matching their tenacity and not falling far behind Buck in accuracy. Buck had to look closely to see past the unflappable façade but his remarkable intuition told him that Ezra was profoundly afraid; however, there was almost no trace of that on the surface. Buck was inclined to feel more admiration for a man who could master such fear than for one who had never felt its icy touch.
When Ezra returned, his complexion remained jaundiced but there was no trace of the reason for his hurried departure. He sipped experimentally at a tin cup containing something faintly reminiscent of coffee and then addressed Chris.
'What is our plan of action now? We appear to have neutralized the immediate threat here.'
Chris's slight nod acknowledged their success but he said, 'Maybe. But it'll be a week before the relief forces get here. We'll stick around until then, do what we can to repair the defenses here, then move on.'
Ezra raised an inquiring eyebrow but Chris declined to be drawn on where they would be moving to. Buck grinned, knowing that Chris preferred to keep his plans to himself and probably felt real comfortable with the military concept of need-to-know. He studied their companions to get an idea of their reaction to the schedule.
JD was still eating, clearing up even the most unpalatable items in the meal that the others had left on their plates. He nodded intently, satisfied for the present with their engagement at the Front and not yet looking for more excitement elsewhere. Josiah and Nathan nodded too, more circumspectly but with clear commitment to helping the acquaintances they'd made overnight. They had a dozen men willing to operate the Hotchkiss and had unearthed a supply of ammunition for it that would last weeks, even under heavy bombardment.
Vin was harder to read. He had cleared his plate, without relish but with the commitment of a man who had learned that you did not turn down food when it was available for fear that it would soon become scarce. He was now rolling a slender cigarette, impressively manipulating the flimsy paper and few strands of tobacco with only his right hand. The fingers twisted the ingredients dexterously and he touched the edge of the paper to his tongue to moisten the gum before pressing the edge down. Buck watched as he struck a vesta and lit the tip, sucking to make it flare, then let the smoke trickle from his lips. It was the first time Buck had seen him smoke and he seemed to lose interest after lighting the cigarette, staring at it until it went out - as hand-rolled smokes tended to do - and then dropping it to the ground between his boots. The stare shifted to his hands and only then did Buck notice a faint tremble in the fingers of the hand that had rolled the cigarette. He glanced at Chris and saw that he had noted it too. Their most experienced man, the one on whom their success might often depend, was on the edge of shell shock. Buck lifted his gaze from Vin's hands to his face and found the clear blue eyes looking right back at him. They spoke as loudly as any words.
Yeah. So what? I've lived through hundreds of nights like that one and I ain't quittin' now.
Buck let his eyes reply with respect and reassurance. He would put his life on the line beside Vin, anytime and anywhere. If the atrocities ever succeeded in overwhelming their Corporal, Buck would pick him up and carry him if necessary. They could all depend on that from him, Vin no more and no less than the others. The blue eyes softened and looked sadly away. No one left France unchanged and this man already knew the price that the war had exacted from him. For an instant, Buck wondered if Vin was the lucky one - the four of them new to the conflict had yet to discover how it would affect them - but he pushed the unproductive doubt away. He'd found the strength of character to overcome everything that life had thrown at him in forty, often hard, years and he wasn't about to let the Hun spoil his record.
'Sounds good,' he said confidently, returning to Chris's brief. 'You gonna get us all trained up on these guns, Vin? Seems like we gotta be ready to take what comes over here.'
Vin's firm nod cemented their mood: the war might be hell on earth but they all intended to treat it as business as usual. Sharing their varied experience could only make them stronger. Buck slapped JD on the back.
'You did good with those Chauchats, JD. Looks like we'll be coming to you to fix whatever gets broke round here.' He grinned at Nathan, 'Unless it's us, of course.'
That brought a smile to all their faces. Buck knew that his irrepressible spirit was among the most valuable of his contributions to the mix and that it would often fall to him to lift their spirits after each new ugliness that they witnessed. Getting a smile, however knowing and cynical, on the morning after their baptism of fire was no mean feat. His role was likely to get harder, rather than easier, as time passed.
- 1 -
Vin leaned back comfortably, the familiar hollow of the funk hole behind him nearly as snug as an armchair had been in another life, now all but forgotten. He watched the middle-aged Private in front of him, following each practiced movement of Josiah's preparations for tea.
'Limeys got ya drinking that muck then? he asked good-naturedly.
Josiah looked up with a smile. 'There's not much in life that a nice cup of tea can't put right.'
'You bin with 'em too long, if you're startin' to believe that.'
It was just talk. Vin would drink tea if there was no other choice - unboiled water was certainly not an option in the blood-stained mud - and he understood the fondness Josiah felt for the British because he felt its like for the French. Sometimes he needed the easy company of a man who'd seen what he'd seen and lost what he'd lost. You couldn't explain it to anyone else: either you had been at the Front or you hadn't - that was all there was to it. He'd noted the ribbon of a Military Medal on the man's chest, although he'd said nothing, but now he considered the two older ribbons beside it.
'You fought in South Africa then?'
Josiah gave an ambivalent wave of his hand. 'I was there.' After a pause, he expanded. 'Chaplain.'
'How'd ya get caught up in that?'
'My father was doing missionary work with the natives. When the trouble broke out, it seemed like a chance to do something on my own terms for once.'
Vin studied him, wondering how a man went from cleric to front-line soldier in a spot like Arras. 'Brits pretty much got their asses kicked down there in the end, didn't they?'
'It wasn't an unqualified success,' Josiah admitted. 'But I guess they got what they wanted - protected their interests.'
'And now they're all buddies again. They went down side by side on the Somme, that's for sure.'
Yet another war was driving wedges between old allies and forcing alliances between old enemies. There was a long silence, and it fell to Josiah to break it.
'Hard to make sense of it.'
Vin snorted. 'Impossible, f'y'ask me.'
Josiah gave a reluctant nod.
'That why you ain't a Padre no more?'
An even longer silence stretched out, broken only by the rattle of the tin pot and mugs.
'Came out here that way. Didn't last but two months though.'
Josiah paused and Vin waited, wanting to hear the rest but with no intention of prying if Josiah preferred to keep his past to himself.
'First Battle of Ypres.'
Vin nodded, seeing that the man's war had been as bad as his own and yet, amazingly, as good too. He had survived Verdun and the Somme, while this man had survived Ypres and Arras. The odds against that were stupendous.
'You know how it was back then,' Josiah continued softly. 'Advance at walking pace, rifle at port, march into the wire and wait to be blown apart.' He cleared his throat. 'And I told them to have courage, to think of their country and their families.
In the hush that followed the confession, Vin fought back his tears. How many millions of lives had been squandered before that simple lesson made its way through the Generals' thick skulls?
'This is the work of men, Vin, not God. He's not on either side - he's waiting for us to come to our senses.'
Vin couldn't argue with that but he was puzzled by Josiah's continued presence. No army would make a man of the cloth serve. 'But you're still here fightin'. You coulda quit.'
'I thought about it but then I'd have been out of it, safe behind the lines.' Josiah cleared his throat again, more fiercely this time. 'I sent them in, just as sure as the Generals, and now I'm here, doing my penance. Every day, I hope it'll be the last but the Lord's not through with me yet.'
Vin reached out and rested a reassuring hand on his comrade's shoulder. They were both fighting for an ideal, he for men's homes and freedom, and Josiah for forgiveness or absolution. Although he did not blame Josiah for his small part in the slaughter, he understood the sense of guilt. Every time another young life was cut short beside him, a piece of Vin had died with it until he began to feel more dead than alive. Worst of all were boys fresh from school and not even old enough to serve. In the early years of the war, many had been shamed into serving by women with white feathers. How he had hated those nameless, faceless women who sent children into a world of which they themselves had not the slightest understanding.
With his own land thousands of miles away, Vin spent his rare leaves in local French towns where the women knew the true face of war only too well, having watched hoards of brave young men march east and seen but a few shattered survivors return. He knew little of what passed in Paris or London beyond what he heard from other men but it sounded as if, even there, the mood had changed since the early days. There could be few families in France or Britain who had not lost sons or husbands to the war, surely shredding any dreams of patriotism and hopes of glory. With almost an entire generation of men dead or crippled, the situation had become so dire that older and older men had to be conscripted to fill the trenches. Britain's new age limit of fifty-one was a last desperate attempt to match the apparently infinite manpower of Germany, a vain measure that was instantly matched by the divisions pouring in from the collapsed Eastern Front. Vin sometimes wondered if the world could ever be the same again, after such a savage letting of blood, but he guessed that time would pass and people would forget what those who had lived through it would never be able to erase from their memories.
His contemplation was cut short by Chris's arrival. Vin had soon felt an involuntary bond developing with his new Captain, a man so like himself that they barely had need of words to communicate. He did not welcome the blossoming friendship, seeing it as just another brief alliance to be fractured by death or debility, but he could no more stop his soul reaching out to his fellow men than he could put an end to the War. He longed for the numbness that he saw in others but even that small comfort was denied him.
He knew from Chris's stride that this was not a casual visit, like countless others during the six days they had spent in the American trench. Their replacements were due to arrive that night and he had expected that they would move on a day or two later. Now he guessed that their plans had been advanced. He nodded in casual greeting but said nothing. Chris glanced uneasily at Josiah, a look that Vin immediately understood but Josiah misinterpreted as an instruction to give them privacy. Still holding his cup of tea, Josiah made as if to rise but Chris bade him stay with a brusque gesture.
'New orders,' Chris began neutrally. 'We head west at dusk.'
Vin waited, knowing that there was more to their orders than that.
'It sounds like the talk of a German offensive at Reims wasn't too far off the mark,' Chris elaborated. 'General Duchene of the French Sixth Army has ordered four British divisions to defend the Chemin des Dames ridge.'
Vin frowned. That was well to the west of Reims and it would take them days to get there. If word of the offensive was already out, he doubted that the battle would wait for them. Chris was looking at Josiah again.
'The British divisions are under Lieutenant-General Gordon, the Ninth Corps.'
Vin guessed the significance of that news. Josiah had been serving with the British before his transfer to the US Army and his sorrowful gaze confirmed that he knew the men of the Ninth.
'They were sent down from Flanders to recuperate,' he protested quietly. 'They've been in the thick of it for months. They're not battle-ready.'
Chris shook his head sadly. 'Gordon's been pressing for a deep defense, to give 'em a chance, but Duchene's ordering them all forward.'
There was no need for him to explain what that meant to Josiah or Vin. If the Germans pushed hard, under heavy bombardment, the Ninth would be lucky if one man in ten survived to tell the tale. Josiah bit his lip and said nothing.
'We couldn't get there in time.' Chris coughed before adding, 'Not that it'd do any good if we could.'
A wretched silence fell over them, until Vin eventually asked, 'Where are we goin' then?'
'Like you said, the idea here was to draw German troops away from Reims. Doesn't look like that's worked too good but, then again, maybe they're strung out here if they're busy over there. Travis and some old buddy of his have got an idea to take advantage of that. It's not gonna be much more than another sideshow but '
Vin nodded wearily. 'Somethin's better'an nothin'.'
Josiah remained silent. Vin knew the weight of his burden, contemplating the deaths of scores of friends among the thousands of casualties that the Ninth could expect to suffer, but he did not attempt to offer any comfort. He'd heard how hollow such platitudes sounded on other men's lips and saw nothing to be gained from more wasted words.
- 2 -
Nathan stared fiercely at his boots, intent on forcing the pain from his mind by sheer willpower. Crammed into the back of an armored car - the horses they'd used to reach the Front long since returned to camp - they'd been jolting along the ruined roads of Northern France for hours and he was beginning to wonder how much longer he would be able to endure the agony that throbbed through his equally ruined shoulder. He was still amazed that his new Captain had selected him for an elite unit and knew that he could lose his place in an instant if he revealed that he was barely fit to serve in a catering corps. It wasn't the first occasion on which close quarters had denied him pain relief but the rhythmic bump of the side of the vehicle against his battered body returned his suffering to an intensity that he had not felt since soon after he was wounded the year before.
'I don't see why we're not riding,' JD was protesting. 'We'd make better time on horseback.'
'I thought you were all for these new contraptions,' Buck countered.
'Sure, when they're the best tool for the job, but we're having to dig this out every couple of hours. The roads are shot.'
'Least we ain't getting shot, tucked up in here.'
Nathan agreed with that sentiment. The guns were lively that night, the earth trembling under a savage sleet of steel splinters. One piece of shrapnel could put an end to a man's life or make him wish it had been ended. His control almost restored, he glanced up to find Josiah's concerned gaze on him. He managed a smile but knew that it was far too tense to persuade his former patient that all was well. No doubt an explanation would be needed sooner or later but he would not be offering it in front of the others and he was confident that Josiah would not be expecting him to.
Chris said nothing, choosing neither to answer JD's complaint nor to reprimand him for it. Instead, Ezra looked up from the deck of cards he had been shuffling and stacking over the miles.
'The only thing in shorter supply than good horseflesh in this region is the feed to maintain it. In the unlikely event that we could find seven steeds fit to be ridden hard, they would be faint from hunger and thirst before we reached our destination.'
Nathan nodded. 'The ground-water along the lines ain't fit for man or beast, JD. Keep that in mind if you get caught alone. It'll take you days to die of thirst but poison water'll do the job in hours, if not less.'
'Sides,' Vin chipped in, 'We got two drivers tekkin' turns and the truck don't need no rest. Don't see too many horses beatin' it over a distance.'
JD raised his hands in symbolic surrender. 'All right, all right. It just feels darned slow.'
'I'm with you there,' Nathan assured him.
It surely did. His mind told him that they'd only set out a few hours earlier but his backside, if it could speak, would have measured the time in days and his shoulder might have opted for weeks. He wondered idly whether automobiles would ever catch on. It was more than twenty years since the first ones had appeared and yet they remained a rarity, available only to the rich and the military. He couldn't deny that trucks had their uses, beating horses for carrying capacity as well as speed, but he wasn't keen on them himself. From their choking exhaust fumes to their unforgiving steel bodywork, they seemed more like monsters than servants.
On the other hand, at least a truck felt no fear or pain. Bathing in the blood of a thousand deaths had not blunted his sensitivity to the suffering of his fellow creatures, although he sometimes wished it had. He had lost count of the times he'd spared a bullet to end a horse's agony or turned his medical skills on one with superficial wounds but he could do nothing for the wasted bags of bones that stumbled along until they dropped. He knew of few things more pitiful than the cry of 'plate and punch' that summoned a farrier to cut a new hole in the cinch on a starving animal. He'd seen grown men cry at being forced to subject beasts to such torture, tears streaming down their cheeks when they drew a pistol to reward faithful service with a slug of lead. There was no putting it out of mind either, as the piles of rotting carcasses grew and contributed their own sickly sweetness to the foul pall of trench-life.
Sometimes the cumulative suffering seemed almost tangible to him, like the pack upon his back, a crushing burden that he could not set aside until the war ended. He suspected that his perspective was different from the viewpoint of a typical front-line soldier. He'd done nothing during the war by which he was troubled, throwing himself in front of the guns to save lives without hesitation but never taking a life except to provide a merciful release. By agreeing to join this new unit, he was risking his peace of mind, gambling it on the opportunity to prevent rather than merely alleviate suffering. Only time would tell whether that had been a wise move.
His head had been aching for some time when the noise through which they'd been traveling began to fade. The truck's engine still growled and whined but, while the artillery fire behind them had receded into the distance, the fighting around Reims was still far ahead. For the first time, the drumming of a downpour on the steel canopy overhead asserted itself as a separate sound, instead of merely setting a rhythm for the cacophony of war. He only became conscious of his furrowed brow and clenched jaw when the muscles began to relax.
'It's like banging your head against the wall, ain't it?' Buck said lightly. 'Good when it stops.'
Nathan nodded, although the sounds of destruction had not stopped - they had merely fallen below the threshold of pain. He suspected Vin's guess about shell shock had not been too far wide of the mark. Constant noise, combined with the fear that any second might bring a serious - possibly fatal - wound, kept men coiled like springs. Deprived of real sleep for months, their minds followed tighter and tighter circles until they lost the ability to reason. During his years as a stretcher-bearer, he had seen as many of his fellow orderlies succumb to nervous disorders as were blown apart by shells. Most had been volunteers, brave and selfless, and there was no obvious explanation why they were so badly afflicted while he was able to endure. His personal observations, unlogged by the medical establishment that he served, made him wonder whether men accustomed to quiet lives were more likely to break down. Glancing at their Corporal, he thought of the wide open spaces of Texas and recalled a Lieutenant of the Manchester Regiment he'd nursed one time. The young officer had sworn that the best infantrymen came from that city's mills and factories - hunger, noise and pain were all the same to them, he said, because they'd never known any better. Surprised by the conditions that he had slowly come to accept as normal himself, Nathan thought there might be some truth in those words.
They all had to brace themselves as the truck made a laborious right turn.
'Headin' north,' Vin remarked softly.
Nathan had no idea how the Corporal knew that, inside the stuffy vehicle, but had equally little doubt that it was true. A right turn while traveling west suggested north but their course through the night had been far from straight and he would not have been sure. Something in Vin's voice declared that he was absolutely certain.
If true, it suggested that they were nearing the starting point for their next mission.
Chris leaned forward, his elbows rested on his knees. It seemed for a moment as if he would say something but then he remained silent. Nathan had a good idea of their mission: reconnaissance to help another beleaguered section of the line make it through another few nights. Travis was trying to play smart, hoping to compensate for some of the foolhardy decisions being made in other quarters. Nathan longed to share his conviction that they could make a difference but hadn't yet found such faith.
It fell to JD, unperturbed by Chris's silence, to ask the question.
'What are we here for then?'
Chris looked up from where he had been studying his fingernails, seemed to consider whether the question deserved an answer, then levered himself back into an upright position and turned a few degrees to face them.
'There's a US regiment under Major-General Bullard out to the west of Compiègne.'
Nathan felt himself start at Bullard's name. The news that their operation was in support of that particular officer was as unexpected as it was unwelcome but he steeled himself to avoid giving any outward sign of his surprise. Deliberately shifting his focus away from that discovery, he noted that Chris pronounced the word 'Compiègne' precisely as the locals did, without the corruption that most Allied troops added when they used a French word. He suspected that the precision revealed more about an attention to detail than any linguistic talent. It was another facet of the character that made Chris include names and ranks whenever he spoke. He spent far more time listening than speaking, taking in everything that passed even when he appeared far away in thought, and Nathan found that more reassuring than anything he'd witnessed in a long time.
'Bullard's got a plan to use the Hun's attack as cover to go for a tough target, an enemy observation post that's been putting a lot of pressure on the line in that sector. There's another one this side of Reims that Travis has had his eye on for a while and he figures now's as good a time as any for our boys to try for it.'
They all listened in silence, waiting for their Captain to unveil what they needed to know and certain that questions would prize no extraneous detail from him.
'I'm not gonna lie to you.' Chris lowered his voice but it was still strangely distinct from the noise of the laboring engine. 'These are well-defended positions with clear views of the Allied lines. The Germans decided where to make their stand and they seem to know what they're doing.'
Nathan noted Vin's nod, silent confirmation of his support for caution against underestimating their enemy. He leaned forward, unconsciously matching the movements of his comrades. When Chris did not immediately go on, Nathan studied him more closely, trying to gauge his expression. Seeing a reluctance to continue, he wondered what kind of madness they'd been order to embark upon but then, underneath the reluctance, he detected a determination that a man as down-to-earth as Chris would not bring to a fool's errand. What they were about to attempt would be hard but the man who led them did not believe it was impossible.
'But we might have an edge. The Hun gained half a mile here, back around the start of the year. The British were holding the line before that and they brought in the Royal Engineers. They never got around to blowing the charges they were laying, so there's a good chance Fritz doesn't know they were tunneling. Reports show an underground watercourse that comes out in what's now No Man's Land. The sappers followed it through into the cave system beyond. Theory is, we can do the same and break out the far side, behind the line.'
Nathan was no strategist but even he could see how much they stood to gain from that knowledge. If they could sabotage a few key machine gun emplacements and observation posts, forces advancing from the Allied line would stand some chance of a breakthrough. They lacked the numbers to drive the Germans back far but they could reposition the line in a place that gave the view, and therefore the advantage, back to the Allies.
'On top of that, we'll have support from the French.' Chris paused before unveiling their secret weapon. 'Or at least from a dozen of their tanks.'
He smiled to Buck, who returned a broader grin. Neither explained the exchange and it was Vin who spoke.
'You seen the ground?' he asked suspiciously.
Chris gave a slight shake of his head. 'But Travis had a team survey it way back. I know what you're thinking. Tanks haven't been a big success out here most of the time, have they?'
'You could put it that way.'
Vin's tone said far more than his words. Nathan knew of some of the disasters behind the wariness, where tanks had done nothing but get stuck and fall into trenches, not to mention tearing up the ground so badly that the infantrymen could barely wade through it, much less attack anyone.
'This time, we've got a well-drained field with a solid chalk sub-soil. They should glide right over it.'
'Won't the Germans just send in their own tanks?' JD asked.
Chris let Buck answer that.
'The Boche don't like tanks any more than Vin does. Can't be sure but best guess says they don't got more than a few dozen down the whole line. But the Frogs ' he shook his head. 'They've got thousands of the beauties. What're we looking at here, Chris?'
'Nice,' Buck said appreciatively. 'You wait till you see 'em, Vin. They're nothing like the British Mark Twos that sank like stones around Passchendaele.' He grinned to JD. 'You're gonna love 'em. They surely are the right tool for blowing Fritz sky-high without mussing up your hair.'
Nathan was surprised at the knowledge their Sergeant had so casually unveiled. Buck spent such a lot of time fooling around that it had not been obvious how he came to be a part of the unit into which Nathan himself was thrust only by a chance encounter. Any doubts had withered in the face of his solid performance over the past week but, even then, he'd shown more by way of grit and balls than expertise. It was clear from the way that Chris deferred to him in this briefing that he was an acknowledged expert on the strange new vehicles that had been unknown until a year before and had so far played a useful role in only a handful of engagements.
Vin looked skeptical. 'Reckon I'd sooner take my chances out in the open.'
'We'll see,' Buck said cheerily. 'You've got the build for crewing a tank.'
It was true that Vin, half a foot shorter and a couple of inches narrower than Buck, was far better suited to the cramped cockpit of a tank but his expression declared that his aptitude might well end there. Still scowling, he let the matter drop. Nathan smiled. He was not eager to lever his own - far more substantial - frame into the stifling belly of tank but he suspected they would all be doing anything that was required of them in the days ahead. He had soon realized that they'd been handpicked for precisely that reason, not for blind obedience but certainly for determination and self-discipline. Each hour spent in the company of the others provided further evidence that their Captain, and the Major whose orders he was following, were both fine judges of character.