- 4 -
Ezra was oblivious to the injustice that his new allies were doing him. Complaining came as naturally to him as breathing but he was keeping his commentary on his current circumstances to himself. At that moment, his brain was locked into one of the circular conversations that it sometimes got itself into.
How much further? Are you in a hurry to get shot? No, but I'm tired. Vin's been at this all night. I'm not him. No, you're not even a soldier. I'm doing the best I can. It won't be enough. It never is. How much further ?
Repetitive whispers like them had troubled Ezra all his life, their hushed taunts seeming to come from within the rushing of the blood through his temples. Sometimes weeks passed without a murmur but then something would trigger them and it seemed as if he barely had a moment's respite. One thing guaranteed to set them off was an encounter with his mother. In fact, he reflected sadly, if the War achieved nothing else but to free him from her soul-destroying visits, it would not be entirely wasted from his point of view.
He sometimes wondered whether his mother suffered similar doubts and fears far below the hard-as-nails shell that she had worn for as long as he could remember. He found it hard to imagine that she did and yet he knew that his own façade was as impenetrable to others as hers was to him. On the other hand, perhaps his unknown father was to blame for the character traits that had so far proved utterly worthless in any endeavor he'd ever undertaken. Maude would never give skull-space to such futile pontifications, he decided.
'C'mon, Ezra. Dawn ain't s'far off.'
This time the hushed whisper was real and it spurred Ezra into a renewed effort to keep up with his Corporal. If they did not reach the emplacement by dawn, he did not expect the light to prevent Vin from trying to complete his mission. Consequently, delay only increased the danger that he must face.
Less than fifty yards on, he dropped to one knee beside Vin, looking along the arm that was pointing into the darkness. Unable to make out anything at first, he wondered if Vin really could see in the dark or if he was seeing things in a more figurative fashion. Then, just as he was about to give up, he caught a glimpse of a shadowy outline ahead of them. He knew from the talk in Paris that the mound above ground was merely the tip of the iceberg. The Hun was famous for the strength of his fortifications and there were certain to be as many sandbags below ground as above it. A chill went through him as he realized that there was a gunnery team inside the indistinct structure, a group of men whom they were expected to dispatch into the next world without a sound. They couldn't afford to be heard because that would alert every defensive position in the German line, making the planned Allied attack impossible.
Although Ezra did not delude himself that he was a soldier, he was skilled with sword and pistol. He had defended himself with both when the occasion demanded and might have felt almost at ease in a gentleman's war. Unfortunately, he found himself in the middle of a different kind of conflict. Far more experienced men than he was had fallen in their millions and he was acutely aware that he might follow them at any moment. Now he was being asked to infiltrate an emplacement and slit as many throats as he could, as fast as he could. Not until Chris's final briefing outside the caves had he fully understood the nature of their unit. They were going in to do the dirty work, part of a last desperate strategy to stop the killing.
Paradoxically, the only way to stop the killing was more killing. He wondered if that troubled his companion. If it did, there was no sign that Vin intended to let it stand in the way of his orders.
'Here we go.'
This time, only yards from their target, Vin's voice was no more than a rush of air. All was quiet outside the dug-out. From inside drifted the lonely strains of a harmonica and a faint whiff of cabbage-water. Ezra had heard that German soldiers were surviving on little more than seasoned water and the aroma bore it out.
He reluctantly recalled their strategy, agreed half a mile earlier, and tried not to recall his horror at being asked to yank a man's head back and draw a blade across his throat. There were likely to be four or six men in the emplacement but, oddly enough, it was not the prospect of being too slow to dispatch his two or three targets that tormented him. No, instead it was the knowledge that he had never held a human body close while extinguishing the spark of life within it and he had no idea whether he would be able to deliver the fatal gash, or whether he would be able to move on to the next man if he did. That required a callousness he had never possessed and was not in a hurry to acquire. It also required a physical proximity that horrified him, making his skin crawl when he imagined the enemy's blood soaking through his uniform and reaching his skin. He knew his thoughts were still private from the way Vin flowed forwards, confident in their plan and in the man supporting him. That was the one thing for which Ezra could thank Maud: her negligent mothering soon taught him to turn a brave face to the world, however badly his heart might be aching.
Taking position on the opposite side of the entrance from Vin, he paused to synchronize movements and then swept inside. He could have died ten times over in the next thirty seconds but somehow that didn't happen. He had no time to think, as he grabbed a man standing close to the door, swept a blade swiftly into his heart from below his ribcage, withdrew it just as efficiently and shoved him roughly into two men playing cards at a folding table. They were playing an unfamiliar game, Ezra noted calmly as he killed them. When he spun on his heel to check behind him, he found another three men sprawled on the floor.
Men? Two of them were no more than boys. He turned back to survey the bodies of the soldiers whose lives he had brought to such an abrupt end. One might have been twenty-five and the second had perhaps seen twenty. It was hard to put the third one much past fifteen.
Vin's eyes had been scanning the wreckage too but now they looked directly back at him. In an instant's silent communication, Ezra saw that his comrade did not like what they had done any better than he did. He also saw that he had crossed a line: he could never again be the man he had been before he plunged a blade into those three bodies without challenge or warning. In a second, he had committed an atrocity that made the countless crimes that littered his past look like the pranks of a child. A chill wave of despair rippled through him, as he understood what he had lost.
Vin's gaze became utterly bleak, and then he bent down to wipe his knife on one of the dead men's tunics. 'It don't matter. Just s'long as somehow we put an end to it. We'll save as many of theirs as ours if we do.'
'What have we become?' Ezra wondered aloud.
'Don't dwell on it.' The words fought their way past teeth gritted against emotion. 'Take it from me, you won't like what you see.'
That, Ezra noted, was likely to be the biggest understatement he'd ever heard. He had never liked what he saw when he looked hard at himself but not until then had he loathed it. He understood the reasons for their actions, and knew that success might hasten the end of the War, but it was only just beginning to dawn on him the personal price that he might pay for peace. He had thought that death was the worst that military service could extract from him but had just glimpsed how living might sometimes be harder than dying.
Sitting down shakily, he let Vin check that their objective was secure. Only when Vin squatted by the gun and squinted at the landscape beyond did Ezra move to his side and match his scrutiny. There, just as they'd been told, was the observation post, a couple of hundred yards in front of the line with a commanding view of the valley. It was no wonder that Allied troops had failed to push back the Front, when their every move was played out in full view of the enemy.
They'd reached another make or break point in their assignment. Chris, Buck and JD were tasked with taking the observation post but, in front of the German line, dare not signal back their success. Instead, he and Vin, and Josiah and Nathan, must gauge when they were in place before signaling that they were in position. He was glad that the responsibility for timing the signal did not lie with him. Leaving Vin with that decision, he had stacked the bodies to one side, set the dug-out to rights and paced around it at least twenty times before Vin set a lantern in the gun-port and used his helmet to send three clear flashes. Ezra watched over his shoulder straining to see an acknowledgement. A few seconds passed before his vigilance was rewarded in the brief flicker of a match on a cheroot, a sign so subtle that he would have missed it had he not known what he was looking for. Lighting up outside might perhaps seem unnecessarily careless to any German watching but was not so odd, given that the emplacement shielded Chris from the view of the American sentries. The match acknowledged their signal but Ezra remained motionless beside Vin, waiting for a second to confirm that Josiah and Nathan had taken their objective. A tense quarter-hour or so went by before they could relax, knowing that all three positions were secure.
Pulling out a silver hip flask from inside his tunic, Ezra took a generous slug, paused and then passed it to Vin, who took a lighter nip and returned it with a nod of thanks. The man looked dead on his feet.
'Try for some rest,' Ezra offered.
Vin nodded wearily and dropped onto a cot on the far side of the dug-out. 'Reckon JD might be startin' t'see the sense in orders right around now,' he remarked wryly. 'Chris picked him 'n' Buck t'go back to Hanton's line in case they needed any help with the tanks. This could be shapin' up t'be the longest night of his life.'
Ezra smiled, remembering some very long nights in his own life, usually involving baize-covered tables and high-stakes card games. His voice was wistful when he replied. 'But youth is wonderfully resilient.'
He realized that he was speaking to himself when a soft snore indicated that Vin was already asleep. Getting out his ever-present deck of cards, he began the first in what he expected to be a long line of games of solitaire. There was nothing to do until the American troops launched their attack but to remain alert and deal with any relief or supply details that might interrupt their vigil.
- 5 -
If crossing No Man's Land had been the biggest risk in their plan, the passage of time was not far behind. The five men left to occupy the German positions faced a growing risk of discovery with each passing hour and could not hope to hold them for another day, so the attack must proceed immediately but, if that was without the cover of darkness, Buck doubted that their gains behind the lines would be enough to stem the flow of blood. Even his naturally buoyant character began to flag, as he watched Hanton executing Chris's orders. It was lucky, he reflected, that Chris was a fine judge of character. He'd chosen to leave Hanton largely in the dark, thinking the tight discipline they'd witnessed would enable him to respond quickly when required, and Hanton was in the process of justifying that faith. Unfazed by the arrival of the French tanks, now waiting just out of sight, he mustered his men with alacrity. Less than an hour after Buck and JD's return to the line, unseen by a German line that thought its observation post had the area covered, and only minutes before the dawn, they were finally ready.
Buck stole a glance at JD. Poised for the order to go over the top, every sinew of the boy's body was as taut as a violin string. Fear and excitement danced across his face but determination trounced them both. After longing for active service since before he set foot on French soil, the pressure JD was putting on himself to succeed was almost palpable. It was many years since Buck had felt such turbulent emotions but his heart swelled in empathy for the youthful intensity. The past week had done a lot to remedy his ignorance and naivety but could not begin to erode his resolve and, although he would never tell the kid, Buck admired that.
The wait for a battle was one of the hardest things about it, giving a man far too much time to contemplate his fate. Once it started, there would be no time for thinking. Buck looked right and left to see how their comrades were holding up. Most stood ready like them, some like statues carved in granite, others muttering prayers and a few shaking in their terror. A couple cracked bad jokes in futile attempts to relax. One, some thirty yards along the line, calmly urinated into a tin can and then tossed the fluid derisively into No Man's Land. That recalled a distant memory for Buck, his discovery in Cuba that fear was apt to loosen the bladder and then a later revelation that men taken that way were no more cowards than their comrades. The response might affect some more than others but every battlefield he'd ever seen was baptized by a fair proportion of the combatants. He certainly saw no sign that the man with the can was intending to give the Hun any quarter when they met.
As for himself, he was not afraid. His mind accepted that they would probably sustain heavy casualties but his heart refused to entertain the possibility that he might be among them. He set a lot of store by the French tanks that would pave the way for them but, more than that, he had faith in the five men whom he fervently believed would be turning the odds in their favor. Their plan had to work for, if it did not, the men on the flanks of their attack would be painfully - perhaps fatally - exposed. The problem with a strategy dependent on intervention behind enemy lines was that, without such aid, it might prove deadlier than one devised without the promise.
When Hanton raised his arm, it seemed as if every man in the line held his breath. As the distant limb fell, every junior officer and NCO in the line issued the order to advance in chorus. Three terrifying words rose from the clamor: over the top. It was the first time that Buck had heard the command that had consigned so many millions to their deaths. Forcing the thought from his mind, he swiftly scaled the ladder and led JD into battle. All around them, machine gun fire tore at the ground while artillery shells blew fresh craters among the older scars. Soil flew skywards and then fell more slowly back to earth to form new patterns, as if a vast and invisible child were playing in its sandpit. Feeling a strange mix of fear and exhilaration in the onslaught, Buck reminded himself that it was nothing compared with the intense bombardments of the battles whose names were already finding their way into the language as synonyms for mud, misery and madness. He strode boldly onwards and shouted fiercely into the maelstrom.
'C'mon, JD - you got your battle!'
They were only a couple of paces apart but Buck knew his words were wasted when JD's mouth moved soundlessly in reply. Around them, men were falling but in tens, not in hundreds or thousands. Behind them, the tanks had gained steadily on the infantry and were now beginning to pass through the line. Their guns spat shells into the distance, slowly finding their mark among the German artillery. The enemy spewed fire onto the metal monsters, having little effect but leaving the foot soldiers to advance in relative safety.
'I told Vin we'd be glad of 'em,' Buck yelled in delight.
A deluge of mixed fire settled on the German front line, with half the tanks and most of the field guns trained on the positions there. It was the moment of greatest danger for their friends hidden there. Buck hoped they had made a safe escape before the fire grew too heavy. Now the attack was underway, there was nothing more for them to do. The Hun now knew that he had been blind during the hours leading up to the attack and there was nothing he could do to regain the edge before the Americans pressed their temporary advantage.
Elated by the promise of success, Buck lengthened his stride and hurried towards the enemy. They must reach the line before the Germans had a chance to organize themselves and mount a concerted defense. Victory was almost within their grasp when Buck saw a man run forward from the German line. The desperate dash seemed foolish at first but, seconds later, Buck guessed what the lone figure was about.
Tanks were not invulnerable - their crews needed air to breathe and that meant there must be vents in the armor. A well-placed grenade could kill the men inside before they had time to free the hatch and flee their tomb. Buck dropped onto one knee in the mud and raised the rifle that he had been holding at port. He wished he had the BAR, with its longer range and rapid fire, but, having given that to Josiah, he resigned himself to the inferior weapon. His first shot fell yards short, making him wish that he had Vin's aim too. The second was closer but not close enough. He tried again.
The man had almost reached the tank on their left flank. Losing a tank would be a setback but Buck's concern now was for the three men inside the sweltering vehicle, who more than likely had no inkling of the fate about to befall them. He squinted down the barrel of the rifle, focusing on the figure even as it raised its right arm. He squeezed the trigger smoothly. The report stabbed through his head. The figure still held its arm aloft but then it convulsed, releasing the object in its fist as it did so. Buck watched as the man fell to the ground and the grenade fell into the tank.
'C'mon, JD!' he called to his right, abandoning regulation walking pace for a forbidden run.
Even as he ran, he wondered why he felt the need for haste. He would never reach the tank before the grenade exploded and, even if he did, he would not be able to reach to pull it out. The tank crew was already dead. Still he ran on, his long stride leaving JD toiling some way behind. His mind raced faster than his legs - grenades didn't always explode, although only a fool would gamble his arm on the state of a fuse, and some packed little punch. Maybe the men would survive
His thoughts were punctuated by a puff of smoke from the vent. He was too distant, and the battle too noisy, to distinguish the explosion from all the others around him but the grenade had gone off. There was almost no chance that the tank crew would survive that, their eardrums burst by the blast in a confined space and their lungs filled with smoke instead of air. With no time to mourn their passing, Buck raced on towards the tank. It might have survived the impact, less frail than its occupants.
Closing the distance to the German line in long strides, he kept the crippled vehicle between himself and the German machine guns. He risked a hasty glance over his shoulder to check that JD was doing the same and was relieved to find the boy in his wake, adding Buck's body to his protective shield. That was definitely not in the textbook, which required men to walk side by side and evenly spaced into enemy fire, but Buck thought JD's approach made a good deal more sense.
When he reached the immobilized tank, there was no obvious damage. Hardly daring to hope that it could be returned to action, he climbed boldly aboard. The hatch could not be opened from the outside and so all his hopes rested on the chance that one of the crew had lived long enough to try to escape. Dangerously exposed to German fire, he grasped the hatch and lifted. To his relief, it began to rise. Only then did his stomach roll over in anticipation of the carnage inside. Before his resolve could waver, machine gun fire rattled across the panel beneath his feet. He yanked the hatch fully open and dropped inside.
His mouth filled with bile as his feet sank into the softness below. Swallowing resolutely, he reached into the gloom and hauled up a body. The face was a mass of blackened blisters and blood had seeped from both ears. He looked up to see JD's head silhouetted against the grey sky, still exposed to enemy fire and unable to enter the cramped tank while its crew remained inside, and then manhandled the corpse upright. He hoped that he could stomach the dead flesh against his face, and that JD would not be overwhelmed by either the weight or the ghastliness of their load. When he felt it begin to lift, he knew his apprentice was not about to let him down.
The second body was easier, being a full ten pounds lighter, but the third must have been nearer the blast because it was drenched in blood. A piece of the vent casing had almost severed one arm and another had eviscerated the abdomen. Even Buck's nerve faltered and it was only the thought of the boy in danger above him that spurred him on. Casting aside any pretense of civilization, he tore the arm free and threw it through the hatch. Without it, he managed to maneuver the corpse, pressing an empty ammunition bag against the slimy entrails to keep them in place while he boosted it upwards. He heard JD's sickened curses above but the body slowly disappeared from view.
Seconds later, the youngster dropped down in its wake. Buck saw JD's face was green - as no doubt was his own - and gripped his shoulder reassuringly before reaching up to close the hatch. There was no need to offer a bigger target than they must while they investigated the damage to the vehicle. He scanned the controls methodically, looking for obvious signs of damage to the switches and gauges. One whole panel was bathed in blood, garlanded with unidentifiable threads of human tissue.
'Christ,' JD muttered, as he swiped a rag across it. A moment later, he retched and lifted the bloody rag to his mouth, spewing thin vomit into its folds. 'Sorry,' he mumbled through it.
'Forget it,' Buck told him.
He meant it. He was that close to throwing up himself and he admired the boy's presence of mind despite his nausea. Together, they went through the start-up sequence, he immediately recognizing JD's familiarity with the metal monster and trusting him to perform his share of the procedure. The circuits were still live and he began to feel more optimistic, suspecting that the engine had merely stalled. All the time, he pushed from his mind the knowledge that another German might be scurrying forward, grenade in hand, to put an end to their efforts. Their lives might be about to end but they had no time even to consider that possibility. He engaged the starter and felt more than heard its grating voice. He held it for a minute but, when the engine didn't catch, released it and waited before trying again.
Rivers of sweat poured from his sideburns, cooling his burning skin as they evaporated. What if it didn't start? Climbing out of the stranded vehicle would be just as risky as breaking into it had been but the difference was that he'd now had time to take in how close they were to the German line, something he'd spared no thought while there was a chance of getting the vehicle moving and protecting another phalanx of American soldiers.
He engaged the starter again. The engine turned over, misfired and then turned again. He held his breath. He was about to release the starter when the ignition caught. He pumped the gas cautiously, fearful of flooding it. As the revs climbed, the whole vehicle vibrated in sympathy with the engine. Buck felt a relieved grin spread across his face and saw it mirrored in JD's expression. He raised a thumb to signal their triumph and then sent the tank rolling towards the Hun again, refusing to consider the possibility that another brave soul might rush forward with another grenade that could end their life just like the three men they had replaced.
Fifteen minutes and countless shells later, it was all over. The German line crumbled before them, men scrambling to retreat into the old line beyond the ridge before they could be felled by the six-ton Renaults that crawled relentlessly onwards until the infantry behind began to tire. The aim had never been to punch a hole in the line but rather to move it to a position where the Allies had the advantage. With that achieved, the tanks juddered to a halt.
For the first time, Buck was tense. Too many lives were lost needlessly in the closing moments of battles, catching stray bullets or being mistaken for the other side when they should have been safe. He knew his friends were particularly at risk, perhaps stumbled onto by retreating soldiers or mistaken for the enemy by their own side. He watched anxiously for their reappearance through a slit in the armor, not yet ready to open the hatch and take a good look at the vacated line. Only when the infantry had secured the vacant trenches did he climb cautiously out of the tank and, even then, he would not let JD follow suit until he had made a thorough check of the battlefield.
They were standing beside the tank, admiring its sturdy lines and highly effective gun, when Vin and Ezra emerged from the woodland through which the infantry were driving back their German counterparts.
'Okay?' Buck shouted too loudly, his ears still dulled from the din inside the tank.
Vin nodded. 'Got t'drive a tank after all then, boys?'
Buck nodded and beamed. 'Ain't she a beauty?'
Vin gave Ezra a half-smile. 'Remind me not to let him set me up with any ladies, iffin he thinks that's beauty.'
Looking past him, Buck saw Chris striding boldly down the hillside. He saw familiar relief in those sharp green eyes: once again, they'd lived to tell the tale. Throughout their long history, they'd shared an unspoken understanding that one day they might not survive and yet, when death came, it left them and took another. Buck would gladly have given his life to prevent that and sometimes he wondered if Chris blamed him for living when she had died. But, then again, perhaps he only wondered that because he blamed himself.
'You see the others?' Vin asked.
Chris shook his head. They turned to face the woods, instinctively looking eastwards towards the emplacement that Josiah and Nathan had taken earlier. After a while, without any discussion, they drifted in that direction, hoping to be met by their friends at any moment. They were only yards from the first trees when Josiah came into view, his arm around Nathan's waist and Nathan's arm around his shoulders. Blood stained Nathan's tunic on the right side of his gut.
'What happened?' Chris asked.
'An accident,' Josiah growled.
'What sort of accident?'
'The kind that happens when you give guns to the wrong sort of men.'
'One of ours?'
Josiah declined to be grouped with the offender. 'One of Hanton's.'
'You all right?' Chris demanded. The barely suppressed anger was clearly audible in his voice but Buck knew that it was not directed at Nathan.
'I'll live.' There was pain in the curt reply, physical pain from the wounded arm but something more than that besides. 'I can talk Josiah through fixin' me up once we get back on our own ground.'
'What the hell were they doing? How could they make a mistake with you in full uniform in broad daylight?'
'Ain't so sure it was his uniform they was lookin' at.'
It was Vin who voiced an unpalatable possibility that had already crossed Buck's mind.
'What?' Chris snapped.
'Wouldn'ta been the first time a man got murdered under cover of an attack.'
A slight vibration rippled through Chris's cheek. It was an expression Buck knew of old, one that boded ill for the man who provoked it. His voice was unnaturally calm when he said, 'If that's what happened '
'You'd never prove it,' Nathan said bitterly. 'And even if you did, it wouldn't do no good reporting it through Bullard's chain of command.'
'Why?' Chris asked. 'You been there before?'
'No, but I've treated men who have.'
'You saying he tolerates bigotry in his regiment?'
'No.' Nathan paused significantly. 'I'm saying he encourages it. Regular KKK.'
'That explains some things I heard.' Chris chewed his lip for a moment. 'You be sure and stick close to one of us till we get out of here. I don't want to hear about another accident from these sons of bitches.'
Josiah's heavy brow creased into deep furrows. 'You said Bullard's an old buddy of Travis's, Chris?'
Chris hesitated, his expression thoughtful. Buck guessed that he was replaying another conversation in his mind. 'Yeah,' he admitted, 'I said that.' Another pause. 'He didn't.'
Buck was glad to hear that. Everything he had heard about Travis was decent and fair, and he didn't want to find out otherwise. In a war that called on them to cut down young Germans who should have been carrying schoolbooks not machine guns, he needed something to make some kind of sense. If he lost faith in the justness of their cause, he might lose the only edge that could keep him alive.
- 1 -
Chris leaned back in his chair, letting himself relax fully for the first time in a month and realizing that he had not known before just how tired a man could get in such a short time. He'd put in some hard months on the range, whether riding hundreds of miles or working from sun-up to sundown on his ranch. Sometimes he'd pushed himself until there was scarcely a muscle in his body that didn't ache but, through it all, he'd been living on his own terms to build a better life, first for himself and later for his family. The fatigue he felt now was altogether different, an unpalatable combination of constant danger, frequent disappointment and growing disillusionment. Of all he'd seen, it was the bigotry within their own ranks that rankled the most.
Looking around the estaminet now, the memory faded slightly. The air rang with the conversations of scores of men, half of them speaking in strange languages that he couldn't understand. As well as the native French and other Europeans, men from across the British Empire added their tongues to the mix. Most bore the mark of service at the Front - tiny clues that he was beginning to recognize - and there was no trace of any animosity. The insults that flew between groups from time to time were given and taken in good part, recognizing but paying little heed to their differences.
His own men blended in as if they'd been in France for years, as indeed most of them had. Ezra was lining his pockets at the expense of a group of French infantrymen, chatting fluently as he relieved them of their cash. To Chris's ear, his accent was indistinguishable from the locals. Josiah was playing dominoes with a British private close to his own age. It still surprised Chris to find men of fifty and more at the Front, when war had always seemed to be a young man's curse before. Nathan was sitting at the bar, chatting to the formidable-looking Madam who tended it with brisk efficiency. Chris recognized in her the type of woman who ran drinking establishments the world over. Beside Nathan sat Vin, looking as if he was sharing in the conversation despite his silence.
Only Buck and JD stood out in the crowd. Chris allowed himself a wry grin as he watched his old friend trying to corrupt a fresh young protégé. A petite girl with coppery hair and good teeth was smiling at JD's clumsy attempts to repeat the choice phrases that, much to Ezra's amusement, Buck had spent their return journey from the Front teaching him. Knowing how limited Buck's grasp of the lingo was likely to be, Chris wondered if it would make any difference whether JD remembered his lessons or not. In truth, only a dollar bill - or the French equivalent - would be winning him any favors in that quarter. If he'd been in the mood, Chris would have wasted no time on words but he wasn't too old to remember a time when he might have been as bashful about it as JD clearly was. Looking more closely, he wondered if JD even realized that he was in the company of a prostitute.
His thoughts were stopped there by a commotion from the door onto the street. As the noise within faltered, he heard the thwack of a nightstick on the thick oak planks. A British MP leaned through the doorway.
'We'll be back in ten minutes, lads.'
Chris smiled as the man withdrew. It was up to individuals how they interpreted their duties and the patrol clearly saw no reason to spoil men's recreation more than they must. All around, Tommies prepared to leave with only a muttered undercurrent of half-hearted complaint. As Vin said, they seemed to be used to a tight ship and resigned to accepting the regulations with good grace. When a passing Lieutenant set an unlabeled bottle, still a third full, on his table, Chris nodded his thanks.
'Waste not, want not, Sir' the man said in a bizarre accent, filled with rounded vowels almost as if his mouth was stretched around a plum.
For an instant, Chris wanted to laugh at the ridiculous intonation but the urge passed with the sudden understanding that he'd be no better than Hanton and his men if he did. What difference did it make whether you judged a man by his skin or his voice? A glance at the Lieutenant's insignia revealed three years' service and two wound stripes - hardly a record to be mocked by a Yankee newcomer.
As the British were leaving, a bunch of Australians took their place. Chris had already met a few of their compatriots during his short time in France and found them a likable bunch on the whole. They drank a lot and cussed a lot but he liked the rough and ready friendship that most of them seemed so quick to offer. One look told him that the new arrivals were not of that type. Any man who'd spent as much time in bars as he had soon learned to spot trouble a long way off; a cautious look around his companions revealed that he was not the only one to have noted the change in company. He filled his glass from the Lieutenant's bottle and drained it thoughtfully. Although one would think that the last thing a man needed in the midst of war was more violence, the idea of the beating the crap out of a deserving Aussie or two was not without appeal. He settled himself more comfortably to await the provocation that he did not expect to be long in coming.
- 2 -
JD, meanwhile, was having the time of his life. Drinking in a bar full of comrades after heroically saving the day was just the sort of thing that had made him sign up. The horrors of the past month had already begun to fade, as his blood was diluted by cheap red wine and his ego massaged by the company of a pretty girl. Her lips were painted the deep red of a ripe raspberry and he'd been wondering if they would taste as good as that if he could persuade her to let him kiss them. Apart from the wrinkled cheeks of aging aunts, he'd only had one kiss and that had tasted of the chocolate he'd given in payment for it. Not that he minded the taste of chocolate but he had been hoping for something... well... different. He'd consoled himself at the time that a scullery maid probably didn't taste as good as a proper girl. A lovely young lady like the one beside him now was sure to be a completely... different.
'S'cuse me,' he said, noting the slur in his voice with dismay. 'Call of nature.'
He made for the back door of the bar, weaving slightly no matter how firmly he fixed his eyes on its rough-hewn surface. No drinker, he rarely touched wine and then never more than a glassful on a holiday. Outside, the night air hit him hard. He swayed from side to side, scanning the alley for an outhouse, and, to his surprise, found it lined with couples doing just what he hoped to be doing later. When they had arrived earlier that evening, there were half a dozen girls in the estaminet - he hadn't noticed them leave but now he knew where they'd gone. The moon cast deep shadows down one side of the alley but most of the couples had opted for its silvery light instead.
Only one of the outbuildings looked the right size and shape for his purpose. He set a determined course for it, which took him past the nearest couple. He tried not to stare but his eyeballs ignored him, gluing themselves to the slender legs wrapped around the man's naked butt. He felt his color rising, up his neck and over his face, not stopping until it reached his hairline. Shock collided with embarrassment as he realized his mistake. The girls were...
He couldn't even bring himself to think the word. He'd heard of such things, of course, but he'd never seen them. If he craned his head, he'd be able to see the whole thing. He shuffled quickly by - unsure whether he wanted to see but damned sure that he didn't want to be caught looking.
It was a relief to reach the outhouse. He hurried inside and slammed the door behind him. Even when the stench of the open pit filled his nostrils, it was still better than standing in the alley. He stood, shaking, trying to pull himself together even while he wondered why he was so surprised. He'd read books about war; he knew that armies were followed by both wives and prostitutes. They had been doing that for as long as men had been recording their exploits and he supposed they would go on doing so until the end of the world. He just hadn't expected to walk right into it, as if it was nothing, cool as if they were chatting in the street after church. Slowly calming down, he unbuttoned his pants to take care of the business that had brought him outside in the first place.
'So,' he mumbled his thoughts half-aloud. 'Buck thinks I'm going to pay that girl?'
He threw the idea back and forth for a while. His mother would be appalled but he knew men did a lot of things that would appall their mothers, both in the name of war and for their own reasons too. He didn't know how he felt about it himself. There were worse ways to spend his pay and he did want some of what the men outside were getting. He thought again of the one he'd seen, thrusting confidently into the woman he held so effortlessly, but, try as he might, he just couldn't put himself into the picture. He'd probably drop her or...
Suppose he couldn't...?
That would be worst of all.
But he did want it.
Still undecided, he buttoned up and headed back. This time, prepared, his shock receded and he let his gaze flit over the couples as he walked boldly down the middle of the alley. One man glanced around and caught his eye. JD tensed in anticipation of a beating but the man only winked and shifted sideways. The moonlight lit his shaft until he rammed it back into the woman.
'Werth it at twaice the praice,' the man assured him.
JD thought the accent, a strangely strangled bray, was probably South African. He swallowed.
Thanks? He felt more of a fool than ever but braved it out, striding into the estaminet as if nothing had happened. Once inside, he knew that something had changed but couldn't put his finger on it. Celeste had been friendly when they talked before but now she seemed delighted by his return. She sidled up to him and held her glass for him to fill. He tried to oblige but his hand was trembling so badly that he spilled the ruby liquid all over her hand. Still smiling, she wiped it on a napkin and sipped elegantly from the small quantity he'd managed to get into the glass.
She smiled. 'Merci, mon chèri.'
Just because the women out back charged for their services, he reasoned, didn't mean that she was one of them. She hadn't mentioned money and now seemed to have taken a shine to him.
'Shall we go,' she asked in a breathy whisper, 'Outside?'
Even JD knew that no self-respecting young woman was going to take a total stranger outside a bar. Whether she charged or not, she had to be what his mother had called a tart. Hopes of romance began to fade but baser aspirations quickly took their place. He had learned a lot in the preceding weeks about what war could take away from a man and there was one thing that he'd joined up with the fervent hope of losing. However, having imagined that soldiers were experienced in every sense of the word, he'd begun to wonder since reaching France and seeing how many men were needed to fight a war and how few women were to be found near a battlefield. Glimpsing an opportunity, he realized that - prostitute or not - this one was welcome to his virginity.
'That'd be real nice.'
She steered him back the way he'd come, back to where the man had winked at him. It wasn't how he'd imagined his first time would be. On the other hand, they'd be headed back to the Front in a few days and he might not get another chance. A question suddenly struck him: could people could tell whether you were a virgin after you died? He thought about what Vin had said about finding some sort of identification but couldn't imagine the Corporal inspecting a corpse's genitals and proclaiming it a virgin - who but the dead man would care anyhow?
He'd expected to feel excitement when the moment came, when he saw his first conquest within his grasp, but instead he was only nervous. Normally he would have found Celeste attractive, from her ready smile to her shining eyes, but her forwardness didn't fit his ideas on how a girl should behave.
'I haven't got much money,' he told her bluntly.
It was true, partly because some of his pay went to an aunt who put it into the bank for him and partly because he had squandered quite a chunk of his ready cash on black-market food since leaving America. Everybody said that US rations were the best but he could hardly believe the amount he was supposed to live on, feeling almost constant hunger pains for weeks on end. The sights of the Front had, he realized, taken the edge off his appetite but he was still hungry most of the time.
'Who spoke of money?' she responded demurely.
Perhaps she wasn't a prostitute, after all.
'What would you like?' she asked.
He didn't know how to answer. 'S-s-sex.'
She raised one hand to her mouth, pretending to cough, but, he knew, laughing behind it.
'Oh, forget it,' he said abruptly, trying to pull away from her.
She held his arm in a surprisingly strong grip for one so slight, pressing her open mouth to his firmly closed lips.
'Stay, s'il vous plaît. I can make you feel très bon.'
He didn't know what to do, wanting her but needing her to care about him in some small way. The idea of being just one more piece of flesh passing through the alley made his skin crawl, bringing back everything his mother had every taught him about vices and virtues.
Celeste knelt in front of him.
He knew what she was about to do because he'd seen one of the other girls doing it not ten minutes earlier. He wanted to stop her but simply stared in fascination as she unbuttoned his pants and reached inside. He sensed from the way that she shifted her hand that she'd expected to be hard already. Instead, it was as if his cock had chosen that minute to hibernate for the winter. It was curled tight inside his drawers, showing no interest at all in being prized out into the cool night air. He let her try to resurrect it for a while, feeling nothing but embarrassment, then pushed her away.
'I've changed my mind.'
She looked up at him, puzzled. 'But your friend has already paid. I am sure-'
'Buck paid for me?' he squawked. 'Why? What did he tell you?'
'To... break you in gently.' She frowned. 'I think those were the words. I did not truly understand.'
'Break me in gently,' JD muttered darkly. 'You'd better give him his money back.'
She shook her head. 'It does not work that way. It is not my fault that you-'
'You dare,' he growled. 'You dare tell them...'
And what? He was hardly going to lay a hand on a woman, even a whore.
'I will say nothing,' she promised. 'But I will not give him his money back.'
'Serves him right.'
JD buttoned up his pants and headed back inside, challenging Buck before he even got close.
'What the hell were you thinking?'
The angry demand caught Buck's attention but also drew curious looks from Nathan and Vin further along the bar.
'I was just giving you a helping hand. What's the problem?'
I don't need your help.'
'Sure you don't.' Buck looked past him. 'How'd he do, darlin'? You get him sorted?'
'Buck!' JD snapped. So much for a friend - he might as well wear a sign declaring his innocence.
'What?' Buck seemed genuinely not to understand why he might be angry. 'Don't say you...? Hell, JD, she's prettier than a wildflower meadow in June and I told her to do anything you wanted. What more do you-?'
A black fog descended over JD's eyes at that moment. He had never before felt whatever it was he was feeling. His mind crowded with wretched images, from Vin's measured gaze to Ezra's amused disdain, and he wanted to sink into the ground and never be seen by anyone ever again. Then all those emotions seemed to flow through his body and into the fist that he threw at Buck. It wasn't much of a punch but it found its mark.
'What was that for?' Buck demanded.
'If you don't know, I'm not telling you.'
It wasn't much of a retort, borrowed from his mother in fact, but it was all he could think of on the spur of the moment. He stalked off outside to lick his wounds in peace. The worst thing was that Buck probably had meant well and it was he who had blown it up for everyone to see. The Hun aside, he was his own worst enemy and, with friends like Buck, he wasn't sure he needed enemies.
- 3 -
Still rubbing his jaw in disbelief, Buck looked to Vin for sympathy.
'Can you believe it?'
The corners of Vin's eyes crinkled but he said nothing.
'I shell out my hard-earned cash and he thinks it's just to pee through. She owes somebody a darned good time.' He hesitated before adding, 'D'you wanna...?'
Vin took a pull from the bottle of beer in front of him before giving a slight shake of his head.
'That kid wants to take the chance while he can. Might not get another one.'
Vin raised one eyebrow. 'Iffin that was the way of it, I'da thought that'd be the last of his worries.'
A rare half-smile tugged at Vin's lips. 'There are other things in life, y'know.'
'Sure, but name me a better one.'
'Reckon y'already made up y'mind. Mebbe you should go collect on your credit.'
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of a chair being shoved forcefully backwards. They both looked up, following the action in the mirror behind the bar. A burly Australian Corporal was glaring down at Ezra, who remained seated and looked coolly up into the man's reddened face.
'You're a bloody Yankee rorter!'
Ezra rose slowly to his feet. 'I beg your pardon.'
His tone was so frosty that Buck half expected to see icicles form in the air in front of him.
'You heard me, you sniveling little cheat.'
Ezra feigned relief and then spoke with an exaggerated version of his usual Southern lilt. 'For one ghastly moment, Ah was sure you called me a Yankee.'
There were a couple of tense laughs from around the room but most of the men watched on in silence. Buck doubted that many would want to get caught in any crossfire, given that they could face a court martial if they were caught brawling.
'I don't give a rusty fuck where you come from. I want the money you just stole from me.'
'Perhaps you shouldn't play with the grown-ups until you have learned to lose gracefully,' Ezra suggested politely.
Buck didn't quite see what happened next. One minute, the Aussie was lunging towards Ezra and the next he was flying through the air and landing, with no grace whatsoever, on a nearby table.
'Nice move, Ez,' Buck muttered.
He had never, not even for an instant, been fooled by Ezra's cultured persona. Any man who played cards as successfully as he did, by fair means or foul, had to know how to handle a sore loser. If he'd needed further evidence, Ezra provided it by taking on both the other two men at his table together.
'Get the feelin' he's done that a time or two,' Vin remarked.
'You with that lairy wombat?' a wiry man at the bar demanded.
'We ain't married or nothin',' Vin told him good-naturedly.
'You Yanks think you're the bloody dog's bollocks, don't you? Only four years late gettin' 'ere.'
Vin didn't seem to react but Buck somehow felt the bonhomie of a few moments earlier drain away, leaving his face set in a mask as cold as a tombstone. Any soldier with even half a brain should have been able to read his combat record on his sleeve. Buck decided to offer some advice.
'I'd watch your mouth.'
'Gonna make me? You and whose army?'
'Oh, I think I can manage a little one like you all by myself.'
He let the man come to him, then used his momentum to send him flying over the bar. Glass shattered all over the floor.
'Mon Dieu!' the Madam shrieked. 'Stop that, you... you... animaux!'
Things went a bit hazy for Buck after that, as he fought off one man after another, sometimes alone and sometimes doubling up with Vin. He'd rarely found such satisfaction in a well-placed punch, normally being a lover more than a fighter, something he admitted to Vin between opponents.
'Maybe you're right though - this feels almost as good as a woman.'
He was pleased to see his words put a broad smile onto Vin's face. He'd taken a liking to their weary Corporal and hoped to reveal more of that quiet humor in due course. Meanwhile, the estaminet was in disarray. Quite a few men had left when the fight broke out and not many of the others had joined in, making it more or less them against the Australians. They were outnumbered three to one without JD but that wasn't a problem. Josiah was worth three men in a fist-fight any day of the week and Chris was keeping up with him easily, making up in speed what he lacked in bulk.
'The Cap'n's pretty handy with his fists, ain't he?' Vin called out, as his fist smashed into an unshaven jaw.
Buck grinned, 'Oh, yeah. Remember that if you ever decide to piss him off.'
Just as they drew ahead, a movement by the door caught his eye. He thought it might be MPs, although he supposed only American ones would be a problem, but instead saw a short figure stop in the doorway - JD. Something protective in Buck wished the kid would turn back, even though he didn't really see the fight as dangerous, but of course that didn't happen. Instead, JD piled straight in to help Ezra, who was putting up a good show against three men who each had at least twenty pounds on him.
The extra pair of fists must have swung the balance because the room fell quiet about five minutes later. It looked a mess but most of that was overturned furniture and spilled drinks - the real damage was slight.
Quiet shriveled into silence when a woman's scream came from outside, closely followed by a man's curse. Buck took a moment to look around, trying to figure out who was missing, but JD didn't waste time on that. He shot past like a stone out of a catapult, throwing the door wide and shouting threats into the alley beyond. Buck was on his heels in a second, with Vin in hot pursuit.
They needn't have worried. With his usual recklessness, JD didn't lose momentum while sizing up the threat - he simply charged onwards with his fist outstretched. He knocked the man backwards, landed on top and then kept punching. His blows were ragged and light but so plentiful that the man had no chance to retaliate. When Celeste saw them, she squealed at them to help - or at least that was how Buck interpreted the muddle of French and English that tumbled out of her mouth.
'Looks like he's doing fine to me,' he said, happy to let JD play the hero.
Vin chuckled. 'Reckon the other guy's the one as needs help.' He strolled over and hauled JD off. 'Ain't y'got nothin' better t'do with your evenin', kid?' He elbowed JD towards Celeste and wrenched the Aussie onto his feet by one arm. 'I'll take care of this sack o' dirt.'
Seeing JD staring awkwardly at Celeste, Buck decided to make himself scarce too. In any case, he thought Nathan might be needing some help patching up the casualties of the altercation. As he headed inside, he wondered idly whether Ezra had been cheating, and if he'd managed to hold on to his ill-gotten gains in all the confusion.
- 4 -
Celeste smiled at JD, no longer using the expression as a tool of her trade but instead showing him genuine regard and appreciation. The moonlight gave her teeth a pearly luster.
'Merci beaucoup, JD.'
She pronounced his name with the soft French 'J', making it sound sexier than he'd ever imagined it could.
'Aw, that's okay, Miss,' he said, feeling even shyer than he had before.
'You are not so young as you seem, non?'
'Yes... no... I mean, I can box.'
That was the truth, although he knew that the elderly groom who'd taught him would have been dismayed by the performance he'd just given.
'I am sure you know many things.'
He wasn't so young that he couldn't tell she was flirting with him.
'No, not about that stuff. You want Buck.'
'I do not think so.'
'Oh yeah, he knows everything there is to know about... that.'
She smiled. 'The first thing to learn, mon petit, is not to believe all the things men say.'
'But Buck's my friend,' he protested, only slightly surprised by his confidence after such short acquaintance. A month of Buck's lurid tales had certainly dented his confidence in other areas.
'I am sure he is,' she soothed. 'But men are not honest with themselves about these things, so do not expect them to be honest with you.'
'Do you get a lot of men... like me... like earlier on?'
'Mais oui. And there are many reasons.'
'I figured it was because...'
'It was your first time?'
He nodded, hoping to God that she didn't go back inside and broadcast the confession to everyone in sight.
'It can be that way but I think so much wine did not help.'
'Yeah, I think that too,' he admitted.
'And that is the same for many men,' she assured him gaily, 'Even after one thousand times.'
'But not all men?'
'Non. Some want it more when they drink. Others want it... different.'
He saw the shadow the last word sent across her face. He had some idea, if only a vague one, what she meant and didn't want to know more. It reminded him of a young maid he'd seen after a weekend party at the big house where his mother worked. She couldn't walk properly and one of her arms was broken. No one spoke aloud of what had passed but he heard whispers enough to know that it had something to do with a visiting gentleman who was rarely far from the brandy decanter.
'But here,' her voice saddened, 'In this place, as it has become, many men can no longer look at a woman's body - or any body - as they once did.' Her eyes looked directly into his and filled with tears. 'Have you yet seen enough to understand that, I wonder.'
He bit his lip, remembering the dressing station and the body in the crater, and nodded. 'Yeah, I've seen enough.'
She brightened. 'So, men have many reasons for lying about such things. Let them have their comfort and do not let them take away yours.'
He smiled at her, grateful for the advice. 'You're real kind.'
'That is part of why we are here. Yes, we must live and soldiers have money but are we not Français? Do we not do what we can to help our men who must suffer so much?'
He hadn't thought of it like that before, seeing himself as an American first and one of France's Allies a distant second. Celeste thought more like Vin, all friends on the same side. He liked the idea, the feeling that there were millions of soldiers on his side, and could see why men might slowly come to view it that way.
Thinking of the Corporal made him wonder whether he or Josiah or Nathan might be as she had hinted. As far as he'd seen, none of them had shown an interest in what few women they'd met but he could not know whether that was because of the war or not. A former chaplain might have other reasons for holding back and a negro would surely think twice about laying hands on a white woman. Having had colored friends since childhood, JD didn't like the attitudes that made such caution prudent but, even in the north where he came from, it'd be asking for trouble and, surrounded by men from all over the Union, it'd be downright stupid - and he already knew that Nathan wasn't stupid.
'So, mon petit, do you wish to try again?'
He stroked her hair, enjoying its silky texture on his palm, and thought about it. Eventually, he sighed. 'No, I reckon I'll know when I'm ready.'
She kissed him, a dainty touch far more like the romantic encounter he'd imagined that the wet and forceful contact she'd initiated earlier. 'Perhaps a game then?'
He frowned his incomprehension.
'A trick on your friend? Buck?'
He was starting to catch on. 'I like the sound of that.'
'All right. Let us wait. I think he will look for you if you do not return.'
Yeah, JD thought, she was right there. Buck didn't trust him to wipe his ass by himself - he'd be sure to think he needed help, whether with his love life or maybe with a stray Australian hiding out back. He drew her closer and kissed her with the same tenderness she had just shown. He no longer needed reassurance for himself - the life in his pants told him that he could do what was required in the time and place of his choosing - but it wouldn't hurt to shut Buck up about it once and for all.
They didn't have to wait long. Buck's distinctive whistle filled the alley outside. JD thought it was a touch louder than usual, probably intended to warn him of the impending interruption. He and Celeste peeped through a gap between the boards of the stable wall.
Buck's long stride took him to the outhouse quickly. He left the door open while he relieved himself and then buttoned his pants publicly in the full glare of the moon.
'He is a confident man, your friend,' Celeste gave a delightful giggle, tickling his ear as she did so.
'Yeah,' JD agreed. He was hoping some of that confidence was going to rub off when he'd spent more time with Buck, especially when it came to wooing ladies.
Celeste threw herself back into the straw and sighed loudly.
JD monitored the effect through the gap. Buck looked up, scanned the outbuildings for the likely source, and placed it accurately. It felt as if he were staring straight at JD.
Buck did not move. JD guessed that he was still trying to decide whether the sounds came from Celeste or from another girl.
She giggled obligingly.
Buck grinned, obviously placing the characteristic sound they'd heard several times while they chatted before the brawl. He started walking again.
'Oh, JD,' she gasped.
Buck stopped to listen.
Buck slapped his thigh.
Celeste built into a crescendo of yelps and whimpers that brought the color flooding back into JD's cheeks. He felt almost as if he had done what she was so convincingly simulating. By the time he'd told the tale a time or two, he would probably believe it himself.
Buck was laughing aloud when he disappeared into the estaminet.
Celeste scrambled through the straw to JD's side. 'Did he believe it?'
'Hell, yes, I believed it. You were great!'
She laughed. 'We have many practices.'
'Thanks. I mean it, Celeste. I'm kinda new to everything out here but I don't need him on my duster about this on top of all the rest.'
'I know.' She kissed his cheek. 'Shall we go inside?'
He helped her down the ladder and then held out his arm for her to take. She'd acted more like a friend than a prostitute and he planned on treating her that way. He escorted her inside and then took his leave just as if she were a lady.
Buck was sitting with Chris and waved furiously for him to join them. He went over, trying hard to look casual but aware that he was probably coming closer to smug.
'Well,' Buck said to Chris. 'The boy looks like the cat that got the cream, don't he?'
Chris smiled but said nothing.
JD decided to play the gentleman. 'Leave it, Buck. We were only talking.'
'Yeah, I heard.' Buck turned back to Chris unperturbed. 'Yes-yes-yes.'
Chris's smile broadened.
JD gave him a say-what-you-like smile. 'You need to get out more, Buck. What're you doing listening to other people's conversations?'
'You help 'em along,' Buck went on as if JD wasn't there, 'Give 'em the benefit of years of experience, and that's all the thanks you get.'
'You shoulda spent your money on getting yourself sorted, instead of meddling in my business.'
There was a pause before the answer: 'Buck Wilmington never pays for it.'
The finality of the statement took JD by surprise. 'But you paid for-'
'But nothing, kid.'
With that, Buck returned to the bar.
'What did I...?' JD gaped at Chris. 'Is he serious?'
'You best ask him. I'm not saying he'll tell you, mind.'
JD stared at Buck's back for a few seconds. He did want to know but suspected Buck wasn't in the mood for telling him. Besides, although he'd sobered up some since the brawl, the combination of wine and excitement had taken it out of him.
'No, I think I'll turn in.'
Chris nodded again.
JD found his Captain's long silences more unnerving than any of the highly vocal Drill Instructors he'd encountered in training. This time he supposed it was because there was nothing to say. He knew where their room was and didn't need permission to retire to it.
Chris raised one hand an inch or so in acknowledgement.
- 5 -
Soon after they sent the Aussies packing, Chris had noticed Vin slip outside with a slender brunette at his side. The girl had come through from the back of the estaminet and her gravy-spotted apron suggested that she spent her time in satisfying men's hunger for food not company. It didn't particularly surprise him that she might make an exception for Vin, who had freely admitted that he knew the area of old, but he grew curious when Vin's absence stretched past an hour.
In fact, it wasn't until a few minutes after JD headed for bed that the brunette slipped back in as unobtrusively as she'd left. He wondered idly why she hadn't used the back door but then realized that the alley behind the estaminet would be frequented by men like JD, paying for the company of Celeste and her friends, and therefore not a good place for a girl who wasn't selling her services.
He let another ten minutes drift by before he wandered outside. There he found Vin perched on a wall, gazing towards the southern horizon, apparently lost in thought. He stopped twenty yards short, wondering whether or not Vin wanted to be disturbed. Sometimes the company of a woman left a man with a warm glow that made solitude welcome. Other times, Chris knew from experience, it left him lonelier than if he had never felt her touch. With no way of knowing what had passed or how Vin felt about it, he waited for some sense of his mood.
Only when Vin began to speak did he move closer.
'Ain't what y'think ,' Vin said softly. 'With Danielle, I mean.'
Those were surely among the last words Chris expected to hear. Although some officers might insist that their men stay away from such temptations, Chris thought Vin had him pegged well enough to know he didn't give a damn. He saw no reason for Vin to offer any explanation or justification for his pleasure, whatever had passed between him and the girl, but a fleeting glance brought understanding - Vin's concern was for her reputation, not his own.
'I knew her brother.' He paused. 'Said I'd look out f'her, far as I could anyhow.'
Chris nodded slowly, reflecting on yet another lost friend, but said nothing. Had there ever been such a time before, when so many men had lost so much and so fast?
It was quiet, with the recent fracas already fading into memory. Even so, the subdued observation, with its hint of wistfulness, was a totally unnecessary statement. As that was something his taciturn Corporal was not given to making, Chris recognized it as an invitation to talk.
'Yeah,' he agreed. 'It all feels different when the guns stop.'
'It'll get easier.'
'The noise. After a while, you don't notice it s'much if you're lucky.'
Unspoken caveats sent a shudder through Chris's body if you don't go crazy if you don't die
'It's the same for nigh on every man that comes out here,' Vin added.
Chris considered his reply, wanting to draw more from this man who knew something of France outside that time and place - perhaps something that was not a wasteland of blood and mud.
'You said you were at the Somme,' he began. Vin had never actually said that but he hadn't disputed the fact when Josiah mentioned it. 'I guess it doesn't get much worse than that.'
Several seconds dragged slowly by before Vin replied.
'Who's keepin' a tally? Verdun afore that Passchendale last year take your pick.'
'I heard a Tommy say twenty thousand men died on the first day of the Somme,' Chris said skeptically.
'Sounds about right,' Vin agreed. 'But that was just the British, and it went on for five months.'
Chris could not even begin to imagine such losses. He doubted that there were twenty thousand people in a county back in New Mexico, the territory that had become his home at much the same time as it became the 47th State of the Union. He looked northwards, over a sea of mud spiked with the burned stumps of trees.
'And all for this God-forsaken hellhole.' He heard Vin's sniff of a laugh and looked back at him. 'What?'
'Josiah don't reckon God's got much to do with what's goin' on here.'
As so often happened with soldiers at the Front, Vin's mood suddenly shifted from amusement to sorrow. Chris saw the glint of tears in his eyes, although he doubted they'd make it to his cheeks.
'Wasn't always like this.'
Chris said nothing, hoping his silence would draw more from his friend. Eventually it did.
'Y'asked me once why I come over here in the first place.'
That was true. Chris had asked that question soon after they met. He waited, more interested in the answer now than then.
'I was waitin' for a shave in a barber's shop one day. Picked up a journal t'pass the time an' I see these paintin's of the country over here. Didn't know it then but they was by these fellas who was tryin' out some new way o' paintin' - weird pictures that didn't look like the land s'much as how a man feels when he looks at it '
Vin's voice faded away in frustration at trying to explain how a painting reproduced in a magazine article could make a man set out for a new country.
'And you came to see it?' Chris prompted.
'Yeah. Pretty dumb, huh?'
'Sanest thing I've heard since I got over here,' Chris reassured him. He couldn't imagine making such a leap himself but any action taken for a positive reason had to be better than recent events.
'That's what France was like before. That's what the French are fightin' for. La Belle France.'
'And the British?'
'Came in 'cause o' Belgium. 'Sides if France falls, it ain't s'far t'England. Ain't seen it myself but I've heard the Tommies talk about it. Ain't no way they're just gonna hand their country over to the Hun. It's their land, Chris. They feel just like you or me'd feel if it was ours in the line of fire.'
'But the British have done the same thing as Kaiser Bill a hundred times over.'
Vin shrugged. 'Maybe so. But their Dominions're fightin' right alongside 'em now.'
'The way I heard it, they were dragged in by the British declaration of war.'
Vin shrugged again. 'Talk to the Canadians and the ANZACs. You'll get the same story you get from the Brits and the French. End of the day, they're all out for the same thing.' He seemed to consider for a moment. 'Hell, I reckon everybody has a go at takin' stuff sooner or later but it don't mean folk have t'like it. The Brits got whipped by the French way back in ten-sixty-six but they didn't take it lyin' down. Don't reckon they ever forgot it neither - ain't no love lost 'tween 'em most o' the time.'
Chris hadn't given much thought to Europe before the war and was still uncertain of the tangled history that had led to the present bloodletting. Years in the company of the allied forces had clearly given Vin considerable insight into their thinking and Chris made a mental note that it might prove useful in their operations. But, for the present, he returned to Vin's reason for coming to France.
'Was it like the paintings? When you got here?'
Vin smiled, casting off the darker mood as if he'd never seen its shadow. 'Yeah. It's still there, Chris. When this is over, y'all head south and don't stop till y'see the Med. Reckon Josiah'd say it's like Heaven on Earth.'
It was the first time that Vin had alluded to the possibility that the war might ever end, or that any of them might survive it. Chris hoped that Vin would live to play guide on any trip to a Promised Land but dared not reply for fear of snuffing out the rare flicker of optimism.
Instead, he returned to his silent contemplation of the lull in hostilities, content to share the silent companionship that fit them both so well. It had been a good evening - the fight had vented his spleen, while Buck and JD's antics had provided much-needed entertainment - and he'd seen enough of the Western Front to be grateful for small mercies.