- 3 -
Chris was as relieved as his men when the armored car shuddered to a halt for the final time. He had not been entirely open with them in his briefing. It was true that the attack that they were to support was one of a pair designed to exploit the distraction provided by the Germans in their latest desperate push for victory. What he hadn't mentioned was that success in their sector was crucial. Reims could not fall - everyone was agreed on that - it had to peg the eastern limit of any enemy success. Without it, the Germans would make real territorial gains, rather than pushing themselves into an indefensible salient that the Allies would eventually recover - however many lives it took to do it. With the line little more than a hundred miles from Paris, the margin for error was uncomfortably narrow. They stood at a crossroads in history. Either the Allies, bolstered by the Americans now flooding into their ranks, would repel the German offensive and strike a blow for freedom. Or the Germans would overrun Paris, crushing an already demoralized French army and leaving the Alliance in tatters. The French Government could move west, to be sure, but no one seriously believed that France could weather the loss of her capital city. Symbolic or not, that would be too cruel a setback.
Seated behind the cab of the vehicle, Chris let his men get out first and then jumped lightly down after them. Thankfully the rain had abated and the mud was as yet only ankle-deep; he hoped it would stay that way, as the last thing they needed was a repeat of the disastrous summer of 1916. Only Josiah stayed inside the truck, tossing out their packs as if they weighed nothing. It took a conscious effort for Chris to catch his without staggering, weighing in as it did at over sixty pounds even with the non-essentials stripped out. It was not that he lacked strength but simply that he didn't have the bulk to absorb the momentum of such a load without swift and skillful compensation. It reminded him of a joke that he'd seen in one of the Tommy front-line newspapers that soldiers cobbled together to pass the time. A small boy looked up wide-eyed at his father and asked, 'What are soldiers for?' The father, laughing, answered, 'To hang things on.' Looking at his men now, Chris saw that was scarcely a joke. As soon as they moved away from the supply lines, they had to carry everything they needed not only to fight but to live from day to day. Such detritus weighed heavy indeed.
The night outside was several shades lighter than the gloom inside the armored car. A brilliant full moon overhead bathed the landscape in an eerie sheen far brighter than the sickly glow of the interior lamp that had lit their journey. Not far ahead of them were the reserve trenches of what remained a mostly French section of the Front. It was a difficult call to make, whether to entrust the defense to exhausted French troops or inexperienced American ones. Travis's briefing had been frank, explaining the French mutiny of 1917 in terms that made it clear he felt great sympathy for men who had been driven beyond their ability to endure. General Nivelle's sacrifice of tens of thousands of lives for six hundred yards of ground was the last straw for some fifty-four divisions of troops who, deciding enough was enough, refused to obey any more orders. Even court-martialing a hundred thousand men had not restored order and it was only General Pétain, Nivelle's replacement, who brought the men back under control - largely through an undertaking that they would wait for the Americans and the tanks. Travis sighed when he reached that part of the story, kneading the space between his eyebrows in a manner that suggested he wondered whether a few US divisions would be enough. Perhaps more in encouragement than honesty, he declared his belief that the French Army, though drained of its offensive spirit, remained an effective defensive weapon and would hold the line against the enemy.
Chris knew too much about weariness and disillusionment himself to judge the mutineers. They were fighting to defend their homes and families; destroy their belief they could achieve that and what was left to drive them on? He could not begin to imagine standing in the same trench fighting for the same piece of dirt for four years, as some of these men had done. Four years A man could take a wife, raise a son and lose them all in four years. It might as well be a lifetime. He shook his head abruptly, casting his memories away, wanting neither the pain nor distraction that they represented. With a curt nod to the man at the wheel of the armored car, giving permission to return to base, he shouldered his pack and headed for the reserve line.
The section they joined was a good deal more organized than the one they'd left, even after they'd done everything in their power to firm up the defenses and help their countrymen rebuild the bomb-damaged dug-outs and communication trenches. The officers' quarters in the reserve line were palatial by trench standards, a group of solidly constructed dug-outs banked with sandbags and made to last. It was only fair that men burdened by responsibility should have their load lightened by a few home comforts but Chris found the hierarchy of rank curiously incompatible with the ideals of equality and freedom that his country claimed to embody, and preferred to suffer with his men than be parted from them. It was not a choice for him to make. He needed to liaise with the officers they had come to help and his NCOs would not be welcome in the presence of their superiors.
It felt as if Buck had been reading his thoughts when he shrugged, then grinned and led the others towards the enlisted men's facilities. Resisting the urge to scratch his balls, where the heat of his body combined with heavy seams to create a haven for lice, Chris reflected that the officers' quarters would offer nothing that his men would covet. The true hardships remained the same for all: fear, noise, filth, stink and parasites.
A well-presented First Lieutenant stepped forward and saluted smartly. Chris returned the gesture more slowly, using the second or two's delay to examine the man with whom he would be dealing. There was an officious air about him that was far from appealing but his gaze was steady and astute. The condition of the line was to his credit and he was clearly confident in the state of his command.
Too tired for formalities, Chris waved the man to relax.
'At ease, Lieutenant.'
Hanton's eyes flickered after Chris's men, their expression almost hungry in their thinly veiled curiosity. Chris suppressed a smile. With every move on the Western Front paid for in gallons of blood, a group of seven men wasn't going to get anyone excited. Little could any detractors know it but that fact lie at the heart of their plans.
'Do you have our supplies ready?'
'Yes, Sir, but '
The single word 'but' was clearly the strongest protest that the Lieutenant intended to make to a Captain.
'Then we'll be moving on soon as we're fed and watered.'
Hanton's cheek vibrated as he fought the urge to say more.
'You'll be the first to know when we've got something to report,' Chris assured him. It was a promise that he intended to keep but, until that time, the fewer men who knew what they were attempting, the better.
'Perhaps you would care to join me in a late supper then?'
Ezra would have been far better company for Hanton but Chris was the Captain. On the plus side, the late supper was likely to be a good deal more palatable than whatever was being scraped out of a tin for the others.
'Thanks, Lieutenant,' Chris said civilly. 'I could use it.'
They shared a stilted meal, Chris making some effort to maintain a conversation but knowing that he was failing dismally. It was not entirely his fault. The Lieutenant came across as an ambitious man and clearly had no intention of criticizing the Army, in even the most oblique way, in the presence of a senior officer. The gulf between what he thought and what he was willing to say yawned between them like the Grand Canyon. Small talk proved equally stilted, with Chris's background in land and livestock sitting uncomfortably beside a life of culture and high finance. Chris knew enough about the theater to know that the kind of shows he'd occasionally seen in his younger days were not what Hanton meant by a play. He did not feel in the least disadvantaged by the comparison but was lost for a safe topic of conversation.
'I see you have a Negro serving your unit.'
Hanton's observation broke a lengthy silence. Chris considered the statement, not missing the significance of the wording. Men served in units. They did not serve units. Of course, units with missions like theirs did not take servants with them, black or white.
'One of my men is a Negro,' he conceded.
There was a pause, while Hanton seemed to give his words equally careful scrutiny. Chris could hear the ambition fighting with the prejudice. It wouldn't be the first time that a white officer had turned away a black man but, in this case, Chris was the ranking officer and he expected his men to eat and drink in peace.
'I understand that the recruitment offices in some areas are inundated with Negroes.'
It was another observation delivered in a neutral tone. Hanton was fishing for Chris's views, without saying anything for which he could be criticized. Chris stared coldly at him, slowly getting his measure.
'Yeah. Beats me why but they seem to think they should fight for a country that still treats them like cattle.'
Hanton did not react to the statement. He was too smart for that, reaching for the coffee pot and refilling Chris's cup as if they had been remarking on the weather. His sort was far more dangerous than the likes of Fiegler, having a position from which he could do more damage and the intelligence to make sure he wasn't caught doing it. Aside from any personal feelings on the matter, Chris couldn't believe that men could be so petty when they were being shipped in to die by the thousand. He had finally agreed to fight the Germans because they were firmly planted on French soil, taking the lives of America's allies and threatening to carry on over the rest of Europe, and beyond, if they were given half a chance. Even so, he felt no animosity towards the individual soldiers in the Kaiser's army. It was tempting to think them fools but he did not underestimate how hard it was to stand against your countrymen. He could not share the righteous indignation that he saw in some quarters, not when the memory of how his own people had almost eradicated the former owners of their land was still so fresh in their history, but nor could he believe that one outrage justified another. As much as he would have liked to stay out of the conflict, his deep-seated need for justice had played as large a part in his decision to serve as had his longing to end the purgatory he had inhabited since he lost everything in life that mattered to him. That sense of fair play protested just as vehemently against the philosophy of men like Fiegler and Hanton, as it did against Kaiser Bill's plans to dominate Europe.
He drank his coffee in silence, abandoning any attempt to build a relationship with the officer whom he was duty-bound to support. He discarded any emotion he might have felt about that. For all he knew, many of the men under Hanton's command were decent soldiers deserving of the best intelligence he could provide and, even if they weren't, letting the line falter might cost other lives as well as theirs. He moved his thoughts smoothly forward, concentrating on his own men and the perilous mission that they were about to attempt.
What did he need from Hanton to minimize the risks they would face? Supplies were in hand and they already had the best equipment that US stores could provide. He thought about the Royal Engineers' report, folded safely into a document pouch inside his pack. The British Army was one of the most experienced and professional in the field, and its engineering corps were rightly revered for their expertise, so he set considerable store by the meticulous detail recorded in those crumpled pages. Still, he did not rule out the possibility of a mistake or of a change during the months since the report was written.
He glanced up at Hanton, who seemed to have reached the same conclusion about their mutual incompatibility and was now perusing a report of his own, and debated how much he wanted to say. The answer, he decided, was as little as possible. Despite Hanton's politics, Chris had no reason to doubt his loyalty to the US Army and that was not the reason he decided on silence. It was simply that, with little to be gained from candor but lives possibly dependent on caution, he preferred to keep his own counsel. He settled for an obvious question.
'What can you tell me about No Man's Land in this sector?'
Hanton slowly set his report down on one side. 'An attack?'
'Not yet,' Chris said noncommittally.
Chris gave a slight nod, although he did not like Hanton's tendency to ask more questions than he answered.
'Not much,' Hanton said abruptly. Perhaps he had been pressing for covert action and resented the intrusion of a band of outsiders making his move for him. 'We've just been holding the line. As ordered.'
'What about their observation post?'
Hanton glared resentfully back at him for a few seconds, then reached up to a shelf above his campaign table. He unrolled a map, anchored the corners with several makeshift paperweights and then stabbed at a point two hundred yards in front of the German line. Anger was beginning to erode his restraint.
'On high ground, with a perfect view. We can't move without the enemy seeing us. Whoever let the line settle here had no idea what they were doing. They'd have done better to fall back to a more defensible position.'
Standing to study the map, stooped under the low ceiling of the dug-out, Chris realized that he concurred with the sentiment. Both sides had become dangerously committed to holding every last yard of mud, whatever the cost in lives and however poor a position it left them in. Trying to cross No Man's Land in the open was a risky proposition, with the risk of being illuminated by a flare or artillery barrage at any moment. As if that wasn't bad enough, it would be a couple of weeks before the moon waned enough to give them a dark night in which to make their move.
Hanton glanced up at him, curiosity fighting anger and eventually winning.
'You're going to try it?'
The disbelief in his tone gave Chris the answer he had been seeking. Hanton knew nothing of any caves or tunnels. He saw no way for them to cross the wasteland, and thought them fools to try.
'Can't just sit here.'
Hanton laughed, though the sound was no more than a short rasp of exhaled breath. 'Why not?' he asked sourly. 'Nobody ever died of boredom.' The brittle humor left his eyes. 'You won't be taking any of my men.'
It was not a question, but Chris decided to treat it as one. 'No. If I'm right, six'll be just fine. If you're right, it won't make any difference if I have sixty. If we achieve our objective, you'll have word of it by dusk tomorrow.'
He stepped towards the door, letting his manner declare that their supper was over. If Hanton could not confirm the location of the entrance to the caves, there was nothing to be gained from prolonging the uncomfortable meeting. Hanton saw him out dutifully and led the way to where the others were slouched around a small kettle. He saluted smartly before taking his leave.
Buck's wicked grin declared that he'd guessed something of the awkward silence in which Chris had eaten. In sharp contrast, he and his companions looked as if nothing was more natural than brewing coffee in a muddy ditch carved across a windswept and battle-scarred field. Even Ezra seemed almost at home, supervising the single flame beneath the kettle, once again revealing a surprising grasp of their situation in the way that he avoided any smoke that might betray their position and attract a grenade.
Buck leaned forward, holding out his palm as if to test the temperature of the kettle, and spoke under his breath. 'You get any more from him?'
Chris gave a slight shake of his head. 'Looks like we go with what we got.'
Buck nodded. 'Now?'
'Might as well drink your coffee first.' A few minutes wasn't going to make much difference. 'Vin.'
In response to Vin's raised eyebrow, Chris glanced towards a periscope some twenty yards along the trench. They walked along to it, as casually as if they were out for an evening stroll. Chris looked through it first, studying an open landscape in which nothing larger than a jagged tree stump had survived. He stood up to let Vin look but stayed close, so that his Corporal would be able to hear even the quietest whisper.
'See the observation post?'
'Yeah.' Vin matched his low murmur. 'Took a look when we got here. Hell of a spot, Chris.'
'We don't find those caves, we ain't gonna make it.'
'You saying I should call it off.'
Vin twisted to look up from the periscope. His white teeth flashed briefly. 'Nope.'
Chris felt his own lips form a tense smile. He liked the understanding that had developed between them and admired the courage that he saw in his companion. 'Papers put the caves a good five hundred yards east of the observation post.'
He took from his breast pocket the map that he had extracted before stowing away the briefing papers. They studied it together in the flickering light of a dirty lantern.
'East of that almighty crater,' Vin mused softly.
'That any good to us?'
'Cain't see how it would be. What we need is cover, not a hole to hide in.'
'How about covering fire?'
'Maybe but you'd be tellin' 'em to look out f'something. Best if we can do without.' Vin stared through the periscope again, shifting from side to side as he panned through the view. 'Let me take a closer look.'
'What if they see you?'
Vin strode back to where the others had been watching their consultation in silence. Leaving his pack where it was, he took only his shotgun before heading east along the trench. Chris returned to the periscope, watching for any sign of Vin's passage but surprised by his confidence that he would see none. Their Corporal wasn't aiming to get himself killed and, if he thought he could scout ahead unseen, Chris was inclined to believe him.
- 4 -
Vin propped a scaling ladder against the trench wall and swarmed lightly up it. Despite his warning to JD about the dangers of a soldier raising his head above the parapet, he felt little fear. He'd gone over the top in more attacks than he cared to remember and had begun to feel as if he were immune to German bullets. He feared that JD might die, like so many others he'd seen, but had no expectation that such a fate awaited him. He knew that superstition could be dangerous, having seen old soldiers fall victim to the carelessness that it sometimes engendered, and so he focused his attention on maintaining the same vigilance that had served him so well for so long. On this occasion, he genuinely believed the risk was minimal. There was no attack in progress and the men in the opposing trenches had no reason to expect any action that night. In his youth, he'd been able to stalk a deer to within a few yards without being detected and he doubted that any man's senses matched those of a watchful stag. Far from making him careless, having his life hang in the balance had honed his hunting skills until he could pass shadowlike through even the most exposed landscape. Doubting that his companions shared that ability, he knew he must find a wrinkle in the barren hillside through which they could file unseen. If it was there, he was confident that he could find it. He only hoped it was there to find.
He kept down when he moved forward, scurrying along in a crouch and even dropping onto all fours when he could find no piece of scorched vegetation or blasted boulder to hide his progress. The muddy khaki of his uniform was an almost perfect match for the ground and he knew from experience how hard it was to pick a man out from such surroundings at a distance. Stationary, he would have been virtually invisible and so it was his motion that was most likely to give him away. With only his low profile and the fluidity of his passage to shield him, he concentrated on keeping his movements as smooth as he could.
He made for the crater that he and Chris had seen. It was of little value in itself: while inside, he would be fairly secure but thirty paces in safety were small consolation when he must cover four hundred to reach it. His hopes hung on a slim chance, one that would have been better served by a deep clay topsoil than the chalk that Chris described, and on the steady rain that had fallen throughout their journey. Nevertheless, he'd left the trench at a point directly opposite the crater and now, although prepared for failure, worked his way resolutely towards it.
The closer he came to the enemy line, the more urgent was his need for cover. He had already fixed a point in his mind beyond which he did not believe seven men would be able to pass unseen. What he had not decided was the point when he alone should turn back or change tack. He doubted he could reach the crater in safety and, while willing to try if it gained an advantage for his comrades, did not intend to risk his neck for nothing.
Ahead, in the gloom, he heard the sound for which his ears had been straining. Running water.
'Spiffin',' he muttered to himself, borrowing an expression he'd picked up during his months on the Somme. It was one he liked, which conveyed the notion of excellence better than any he'd used before, and he was totally unaware of how bizarre it sounded in his Texan drawl. As if to compound the effect, he added, 'Real spiffin'.'
His boots began to slide, as the ground beneath his feet grew wetter. His gamble might yet pay off. Shell holes were apt to fill with water, which took time to drain away through the clay and chalk. With the lie of the land, he figured there was a good chance that the overspill would have left its mark on the landscape before it eventually found its way below ground.
Each stride took more effort, the mud reluctant to release its hold on his feet. He pulled steadily, careful not to lose his balance and fall face first into the sticky mess. He let out a cautious sigh of relief when the ground level at either side of the channel reached his knees. With luck, he'd found the cover he sought.
Progress was slow but he had more patience than the most steadfast milch cow, as she chewed the cud while awaiting her daily milking. He had no concept of time while easing his way forward, measuring his progress only by how much of his stooped silhouette was concealed as he closed the distance between himself and the German guns. The uneven slope reached his eye-level long before he deemed Fritz to pose a serious threat to his safety.
From that point on, he stopped worrying about being shot. The only danger once he was out of sight was an accidental hit from a shell or grenade, an outside chance at the worst of times and highly unlikely in the quiet night they had chanced upon. He was more at risk from spraining something while toiling through the mire that covered a treacherous landscape of bomb-blasted chalk boulders. Twice he feared the ligaments in his ankle had been torn, before a third stumble sent a stabbing pain right up his leg and into his groin.
'God-damn!' he cursed, tentatively stretching the leg before resting his foot gingerly on the ground.
Injuries were no respecters of circumstance: he could be stranded in the middle of No Man's Land by a sprain or tear, just as easily as anywhere else. He took his time transferring his full weight onto the leg, feeling a trickle of nervous sweat run down from his temple as he did so. Thankfully, he felt only a twinge and then a dull ache, far too slight to impede his progress. Like every frontline soldier, he lived each day with an assortment of ills, from lice-bites to trench-foot to diarrhea, until the ability to ignore them had become one more weapon of war.
Suddenly, without warning, the channel he had been following kinked to the right around a huge boulder and then opened into the crater. It was even larger than he'd judged through the periscope, most of fifty yards across, and made him doubt Chris's information that no explosives had been detonated. Perhaps a couple of shells had fallen on the same spot but he'd never seen a shell leave a hole as big as this one. He began to make his way tentatively around the rim, slipping and sliding precariously above the waterline. More than the thought of being cold and wet kept him away from its black surface when he squatted for a moment's rest.
But he was sure he'd heard something. He waited.
And then a slurping sound that he knew only too well. He was not alone. His shotgun was in his hands, stripped of its canvas cover, before he was conscious of having reached for it. He nestled the butt comfortably against his shoulder and watched the exit of the dyke along its barrel. His finger curled around the trigger, poised but calm. He had no intention of shooting a disoriented or injured soldier, even a German one.
As it turned out, the figure that blundered into the crater was only too familiar.
'What the hell ?' Vin's curt demand took his pursuer by surprise, throwing him off balance. 'Aw, shit,' he muttered, as the figure skidded downwards. He did his level best to reach JD before he hit the water but it was hopeless. 'Don't move!' he called in a hoarse whisper, trying to make his voice carry to JD but not beyond.
To his surprise, JD immediately stopped struggling. He was slowly sinking but keeping still would buy him a few seconds. Vin wormed his way back around the crater rim. If he'd seen right, JD was still carrying full pack.
'You got your trenchin' tool?'
JD's voice hit an odd note, sounding more embarrassed than afraid. Vin couldn't help but smile, wondering if he was ever going to see fear in the kid.
'Take it out and reach up as far as ya can with it. Dig it in good and then hang on till I get to ya.'
He watched JD's movements with one eye, while monitoring the mud beneath his feet with the other.
'Je-sus!' This time, there was something closer to fear in JD's weak cry.
'Keep it down!' Vin snapped back. In truth, the cry hadn't been that loud but the last thing they needed was for a dozen grenades to shower down on their heads. 'What's up now?'
'There's a ' JD's voice trailed away. 'Oh, Christ '
Vin recognized the horror in the exclamation and guessed the reason for it.
'Don't look at him, kid. Look at me. You jus' keep lookin' at me. I'll be with you in two shakes of a donkey's tail.' He kept his voice low and reassuring. 'If he's one o' ours, then he's jus' a friend ya never got t'meet. If he's one o' theirs, he's way past doin' you no harm. You hear me?'
'Yeah.' JD's voice sounded a little stronger. 'It just '
'Took you by surprise? Yeah, they got a way o' doin' that.'
'You seen one before? Like this?'
Sure, Vin thought, he'd seen them before. He'd led men picking up what was left of their comrades after attacks. One time he saw six men blown into pieces so small that everything his detail found fitted into two sacks, but it was not that experience he chose to share with the young Private. Slithering onwards, he recalled a week in 1915 when the guns had thundered on without respite. Trapped in No Man's Land, stretching meager rations over three long days and nights before he had a chance to move, he'd taken cover in a shell hole half the size of the one that they now occupied but otherwise much the same. One of his friends had found it first, except he clearly hadn't got there under his own steam.
'Yeah,' Vin called to JD in the same steadying tone. 'His name was Louis and we'd served together for six months. He was a tailor in Lyons before the War and I don't reckon he ever drew a breath unless it came through a Gitane - used to light one from another like he didn't want t'waste money on matches.'
He had a reason for describing Louis in such detail. That night, he'd felt no fear of his dead companion and he'd felt precious little sorrow either, confident that Louis was better off wherever he'd gone than he had been in the months before his death. It was difficult to see that Hell could be worse than the Western Front and Vin doubted than Louis was headed there anyway. He wanted JD to remember that it was the remains of a man beside him now, a man like them, a man who had laid down his life for his country. There was nothing to fear but sharing his fate, and perhaps even that should not trouble them too much.
'I tell ya,' Vin continued through clenched teeth as he negotiated a particularly soft piece of ground. 'I was glad o' the company. Reckon I'da gone crazy, iffin I'd bin stuck on my own under heavy fire for all that time. I must told ole Louis just about my whole life story by the time I got a chance to make a move.'
'This is a Frenchie too.' JD's voice came back softly, sadder but no longer afraid. 'Just a Private, like me.'
'That's it, kid,' Vin said encouragingly. 'Just like you. Here t'do the same job, with folk back home thinkin' on him jus' the same.'
Only a few yards still separated them and Vin closed the distance as fast as he could. JD's trenching tool was holding firm, so he reached for the youngster's other hand. Only when he had a good grip did he motion for JD to let go of the tool and swiftly substitute his boot. Bracing himself against the foothold, he hauled JD onto more solid ground. It was all he could do to free him from the mud's slimy embrace. They lay side by side, breathing heavily, for a minute or two before JD began to shiver. He was soaked through and the coming hours would be wretched, his wet clothes heat leeching away faster than his body could generate it and his kit chafing on his skin. The misery in his voice when he spoke again confirmed that he realized his mistake.
'I'm sorry, Vin.'
Vin was too tired to inject much anger into his reply. 'Y'darn well should be, kid. If I don't shoot you for bein' a pain in the ass, Chris'll be within his rights t'court-martial ya. What the hell were ya thinking?'
'I I wanted to help.'
'Fallin' in there's helpin' me, is it?' Vin snorted. 'Didn't wanna be left out more like.'
'I'm sorry,' JD repeated despondently.
'Forget it,' Vin sighed. 'Leastwise, I ain't gonna shoot ya. It's up to Chris on the court martial.'
JD's attention had wandered back to the corpse. Vin took his first good look. It was indeed a French Private and, judging by the state of him, he'd been there a while. No doubt he had company waiting for him in the murky depths but his tissues still retained some buoyancy; eventually expanding gases would make his organs explode, leaving his bones to sink beneath the surface to rest in peace.
'Should we bury him?' JD asked in a thin whisper.
'Ain't much point.' Hearing how brutal that sounded, Vin added more softly, 'He'll jus' come right back up again. Water table's too high right here and we'll get ourselves kilt tryin' t'find a better spot. Believe me, he wouldn't want that.' Seeing JD's uncertainty, he added, 'Would you?'
JD considered the question for a few seconds before slowly shaking his head.
'That's right. No sense takin' more fellas with ya. Decent thing t'do, iffin ya get the chance, is t'get an ID and take the time to write a man's folks. Better t'know f'sure than keep hopin' when it ain't gonna do no good.'
They sat in silence while JD digested that. 'Will you do that for me, if well, you know?'
Vin debated saying that it wouldn't come to that but, deciding the time was right for honesty, nodded instead. It was too late for the man in the water: any ID he might once have carried would have long since soaked away. Vin hoped the French troops had succeeded in notifying their comrade's next-of-kin of his noble sacrifice.
'The folks back home they don't understand what it's like out here '
'Don't reckon they ever will neither.' Vin looked directly at JD when he asked, 'Think you coulda pictured this six months ago? Without seein' it for yaself?'
JD slowly shook his head. 'How do you ?'
'Live with it?' Vin shrugged. 'Hell, I bin here s'long I cain't rightly recall what things were like afore it started.'
His words were casual, revealing none of his doubts about leaving the War behind. He could picture himself, killing time on a Sunday morning outside a café beside the Mediterranean, but it was as if he were watching someone else through the wrong end of a telescope - he couldn't recall being the carefree young man that he saw. Still, given that he might not outlive the hostilities, he saw little point in worrying on the future.
'Well, kid, now you're here I guess I'll have to take y'along. We gotta cave t'find so we'd better get movin'.'
They began the tortuous journey over ground that he had already traversed twice in the previous half an hour. With characteristic resignation, he had already accepted the unscheduled addition to his party and JD would be hearing no more on the subject from him. It was not in his nature to waste time in fruitless recriminations, especially when there were far more important problems for him to consider. By the time they reached the far rim of the crater, his mind was already five hundred yards to the east.
'You ever do ' he asked, between breaths that were as heavy as the mud caked onto his boots, ' any rock-climbing?'
'Yeah,' JD rasped back. 'Why?'
Vin grinned. 'Cause we'll be goin' in through the out when we get to these caves. I'm figurin' water's apt to come down a lot easier than a man goes up.'
JD nodded. 'Could be tough.'
'Yup,' Vin agreed. 'Could be fun too.'
It had been so long since he had done anything that might be considered fun, in even the loosest sense of the word, that he found himself looking forward to the pure physical challenge of their task. However, they had a long way to go before then.
'This is gonna be the tough part,' he went on. 'We were lucky with that dyke but luck has a way of runnin' out sooner or later. What I'm countin' on here is that a sentry don't expect a man to pop up in the middle o' No Man's Land without s'much as a by-your-leave. If they're watchin', and you can bet they are, I reckon they'll be lookin' at the line. We gotta make sure we don't do nothin' to draw their attention over here. You got that?'
There was commitment without confidence in JD's young voice. Looking at the land ahead, Vin couldn't blame him for that. They were taking one hell of a chance, with only a few scrubby bushes between them and the enemy. Even so, he reckoned they had a better than even chance of making it. Dark clouds now shrouded the moon and he knew how easy it was for a man to overlook what he was not expecting to see. He would have felt better without the knowledge that he must return for the others and then repeat his cautious negotiation of the hillside. Still, on balance, he felt his decision to scout ahead had been the right one. At least he would know where the cave was - if it existed at all - and the best route to it, before more lives hung in the balance. Glancing at JD, he couldn't help being glad of the company, even if he could have done without the responsibility that it placed upon him.
'C'mon then, kid. It'll warm y'up, if nothin' else.'
Leaving the safety of the crater behind without further ado, he struck out into the darkness beyond. The map Chris had shown him was lodged firmly in his memory; it took no conscious effort for him to relate it to the reality around him and he was content to rely on its contents. Most of the sappers he'd met in his time with the British Army were salt-of-the-earth types from the coal mines of northern England. Unlike many soldiers, he did not hold himself above them. He had only admiration for the pragmatic way in which they shouldered without shirking their twin burdens of backbreaking physical labor and the daily threat of rock falls or poison gas. He understood that the constant streams of colorful complaints were merely their way of dealing with hardships grimmer than the horrors that featured in most people's nightmares. However, for his own part, he much preferred the dangers of passing over No Man's Land to the prospect of passing underneath it.
- 1 -
JD's low whistle was eloquent.
Vin looked up at the stream emerging from the rock above. As he expected, height wasn't the problem. The French Alps boasted peaks to rival any in his western homeland but they were far to the south. He had noted how featureless the northern region was when he first arrived, although it had then a certain pastoral charm that had since been thoroughly expunged. Compared with the snowy peaks he'd traversed in snowshoes and skis so long before, the way ahead wasn't much of a climb but low was not the same as easy. If a man had shaped the rocks specifically to protect the entrance to any caves beyond, he could hardly have done a better job than Nature had managed by herself. With every angle against them in a tangle of overhangs and crags, it was just the sort of place an army instructor might pick for an exercise: a falling recruit would be unlikely to kill himself but any man who could scale the corrugated stone would be ready to try something higher.
Vin paced the base of the outcrop, studying the land to east and west. Chances were that they could work their way around the formation and approach it from the top. On the plus side, the climb down would be shorter and maybe easier too. Set against that was the shelter provided by the deep shadows on the southern face. They would be as safe from enemy fire there as they could be anywhere within five miles of the Front.
'Could go around,' he suggested to JD, interested to hear the kid's reply.
JD had matched his study of the land. 'More open,' he offered cautiously.
'Yeah.' Vin gazed upwards again. 'Up for it?' For all anyone could have told from his tone, they might have been on a hike rather than in the middle of a War.
'Sure,' JD replied in kind.
'All righty. Best get ourselves comfortable afore we head on up.'
Leaning his shotgun against a rock, he went through a routine he'd followed countless times before tough assignments. Designed to remove every possible distraction, it took in everything from having a drink to blowing his nose to retying his boots. It took a deliberate effort to put his mind in as good order as his body but slowly his thoughts fell into some kind of order. His plan was to go back for the others as soon as he was sure he'd found the caves. There was no guarantee that, even then, they would be able to find a way through to the rear of the German line but he couldn't check out the whole mission ahead of time.
When he'd checked over his own kit, he hefted JD's pack experimentally. It was no heavier than he'd carried during his Alpine excursions and he would have a pack of his own, not to mention a lot of extra miles under his belt, when he returned later in the night.
'S'okay,' JD said from behind him. 'I can manage.'
'Sure y'can but I figure y'all be glad iffin I lighten it some.'
Without giving his young comrade time to argue, Vin detached the bulky bedroll and overcoat from the haversack and fastened the straps across his chest. It took a bit of work to fit them snugly but eventually he felt confident that the burden would not impede his movements. JD shouldered his load again, bouncing it up and down to settle it into the contours of his back. His still-damp uniform was a mess, creased across his crotch and the back of his legs and stretched into loose cups over his elbows and kneecaps. Having heard not even the slightest murmur of complaint, Vin couldn't help but admire the kid's restraint.
Reaching up as far as he could, he let his fingertips explore the ledges in the rock face. Each piece of information slotted effortlessly into a three-dimensional map in his mind. It was the same skill that he used to find his way, a near-infallible memory for terrain combined with an uncanny sense of direction that meant he invariably knew precisely where he was. Once he had identified the most promising route for their climb, he sought the toeholds he needed to get started and was pleased to find JD doing the same a couple of yards to his right. Following in his wake might seem easier but it increased the chance of a fall killing them both.
The first few steps were hard but progress became easier when he could rest his toes on holds already tested with his fingers. Even so, it was difficult to judge their positions accurately. He refused to be hurried when JD began to pull ahead, making sure each foothold was firm before risking his weight on it. He wished he had more sensation in his toes but that had left him in 1915, along with the last of his illusions.
Trying to be more positive, he noted with pleasure that his steady breathing was as yet little faster than it would have been at rest. An energetic outdoor lifestyle had ensured that his healthy appetite never made much impact on his waistline but the War had trimmed and hardened his physique until there was not so much as a pound of excess flesh. Four years of fighting had left him fitter than ever before, as it had many others - some of whom had suffered from too little to eat before the War and some from too much. It was good to know that one thing had improved when so much else about him had deteriorated.
Hold by hold, foot by foot, he worked his way steadily on until an upward glance revealed JD waiting for him only just ahead, armed hooked around a convenient root and a frown faintly visible on his forehead in a shaft of moonlight that had found its way between two clouds.
'Okay?' he asked.
'I ain't got your feet.'
'You show me a man who's bin out here four years and says he's got good feet,' Vin hissed through clenched teeth as his right hand felt out the next hold, 'An' I'll show you a liar.'
'Some. Still got all my toes, mind.'
He wasn't sure why he felt the need for the declaration - who the hell cared how many toes he'd got? - but he shouldn't have tried to divide his attention. As he spoke, the rock under his right foot splintered and he felt himself begin to slip. The sudden weight on his right hand threatened to break his grip.
Before he could finish the word, a hand closed around his wrist and gave him the few seconds that he needed to find a new foothold. The fingers gripping his flesh were small but stronger than he would have expected. An instant later, he was secure again, with both hands and feet firmly located once more.
They carried on side-by-side, helping each other as often as needed and all the while hearing the sound of the stream deepen as it shrank from splashing cascade to roaring spout. By the time they neared its source, Vin reckoned they were nigh on even. It saddened him to know that he wouldn't have made the modest climb without help, considering how easy it would once have been for him, but he felt better knowing that JD likely would have fallen too. It was one of the most awkward ascents he'd ever made and he wondered how some of the bigger men in their group would fare. Only the thought of the rope that he planned to drop from the cave mouth reassured him that they, and he, would make it up later.
The last few yards were far and away the worst. Both he and JD cast around desperately for the tiny ledges they needed to reach their goal, each false move costing valuable energy when they were already tiring. He heaved a sigh of relief when he finally hauled himself level with the emerging watercourse and immediately braced his feet and reached down to help JD with the last couple of steps.
From their precarious perch, they studied the opening in the rock closely for the first time. When JD spoke, his tone echoed the doubts already swirling around in Vin's mind.
'It's awful small.'
Vin couldn't fault that assessment. Like the others, he had assumed that they could follow where the sappers had gone. Only now, looking at the boulders jammed hard against the opening, did he consider what else apart from water might have swept through the underground caverns. Even without human intervention, heavy rains could transform a landscape and there was no knowing what further damage shelling and mining could have wrought in the vicinity. The way ahead might prove impassable, even for men as slightly built as they were.
'Lucky I ain't seen too many steaks lately then,' he said calmly.
He groped around the hole, exploring its contours and trying to gauge whether the inside opened up or closed down. He ran his fingers along the join between cliff and boulder, judging from the algal growth how long the surfaces had been in contact. Several minutes passed before he ventured an opinion.
'I don't guess this has shifted in a good while. Those guys got in here somehow so I reckon we can too.'
They carried on the exploration together, speaking only to share findings and ideas.
'No way we'll get in here '
'Maybe another exit '
'No water comin' out anywhere else '
It was JD who came up with the idea of looking higher and Vin who made the actual discovery. Some ten feet or so above the point where the stream erupted from the rock face was a narrow cleft, barely wide enough to admit a man standing sideways. They inspected it in silence and then Vin got out the lantern he'd brought, lit it and attached it to his helmet. Taking the lead, he wormed his way into the opening - all the while feeling the unyielding surfaces against his back and chest, slowly pressing the air from his lungs.
Snap out of it! he told himself fiercely. Nothin's movin' but you. If y'can git in, y'can git out.
Even as he thought the words, he knew they were not entirely true. It was possible for a man to get stuck, genuinely stuck not through panic, because body parts did sometimes go forward without being able to go backwards through the same hole. He forced himself to wriggle deeper into the crevice, relegating his fear into the trembling tips of his fingers and churning contents of his gut.
Behind him, he heard the scrape of JD's boots against the rock as he slipped into the opening. Vin wanted to tell him to hold back to stay off his tail to get the hell out but he said nothing, letting the young private block his only escape and forcing himself to keep moving. He was a man with a lot of resolve but he had plenty of time to wonder whether that would be enough before he felt the channel begin to widen. Only then did the possibility of a larger space inside begin to hold more appeal than turning back. Any second might find him inside a cavern with space to breathe deeply and stretch his cramped limbs.
It was more than seconds but not too many minutes before his frantic hope was realized. First, the pressure on his chest eased. Soon he couldn't feel the wall in front of him when he pressed his back to the one behind. A few more crablike steps and he could stand clear of both. He leaned back against the wall and tried to steady his breathing, relieved to have maintained control thus far but knowing how tenuous that control was.
JD's voice came from behind. 'You all right, Vin?'
The anxiety in the words brought to the surface the anger that Vin had so far kept directed firmly at himself.
'Hell, yes,' he snapped. 'Why wouldn't I be? Ain't no guns in here.'
His words were true and yet, frustratingly, his body refused to believe them. He wiped a clammy palm on his thigh. Of course, a man could die of plenty of things aside from a bullet. There might be a rock fall or poison gas, heavier than air, trapped in an underground pocket or they might just plain suffocate from lack of oxygen. He swore under his breath and wiped the hand again. It was still shaking.
When he muttered another oath, he felt JD's hand grab his left bicep fiercely.
'What's up, Vin? You're scaring the bejazus out of me!'
He jerked his arm free but, as he did so, he caught sight of JD's face in the dim flicker of the lantern. The brown eyes were wide, filled not with the panic of a trapped animal that he himself felt but with alarm at the strange behavior of a hitherto reliable comrade. Vin bit his lip, reaching far inside his spirit for some hidden reserve of strength.
'Ain't nothing for you to worry on, kid,' he said in a softer tone. He tried for a grin, and then hoped it looked better than it felt. 'Iffin I start babblin' an' dribblin', you jus' slap me good.'
JD gaped at him. 'I What?'
Vin leaned against the cool stone, flattening his palms against its tomb-like walls.
'I ain't s'good in a tight spot.' That was an understatement, even by his standards. He was useless in a confined space. 'I shoulda told Chris afore I set out but I figured I could handle it. Guess I figured wrong.'
Vin waited to see what the kid would do with the knowledge. He hated admitting a weakness but, in truth, his reluctance had as much to do with the success of their mission as with his personal pride. JD was young and green; he deserved a Corporal he could look up to, not a gibbering wreck.
When a glimmer of understanding spread over JD's face, there was sympathy rather than scorn in his expression. Perhaps it would have been a different story a week before but he didn't seem to be jumping to any conclusions about courage now.
'Lotta men get took bad underground, Vin. It ain't a big deal.'
'Yeah, well, I can tell it ain't you who's shakin' in his boots,' Vin said bitterly.
'I did, when I started out.'
'When you started out ' Vin echoed in surprise. The kid made it sound like he had decades of experience.
'I was in a special projects team, back home.'
Vin already knew that, having listened unseen as Buck and Ezra went through their new team's files while Chris was meeting with Travis. Although in civilian life he had always been one to one to mind his own business, he - like his new comrades, it seemed - preferred in war to know as much as possible about men on whose actions his life might depend. Nevertheless, he let JD rattle on unchecked.
'One of the things the team was working on was better fuses and detonators for mines. We did a whole bunch of tests up in the Catskills. It gets easier after a few weeks.'
'If you think I'm spendin' a few weeks in here,' Vin said, in an emphatic growl totally unlike his usual indistinct drawl, 'You got another think comin', kid.'
JD slapped his shoulder with the casual insubordination that Vin was beginning to accept as an unalterable facet of his youthful character. 'You'll be okay, Vin. Honest you will.'
Some of the conviction in the reassurance seeped into Vin. It was his horror of losing control that made his fear so hard to bear but the knowledge that someone else had such faith in his ability to handle himself lightened his load by a fraction. He hoped it wasn't cowardice talking when he reached his next decision.
'Look, kid, someone's gotta go back and lead the others through that dyke. It don't take two of us to do it and, fact is, more of us means less chance of passin' by unseen.'
JD nodded, his features stretched into eerie masks by the flickering lamplight.
'Y'ain't gonna get yaself lost or buried, iffin I leave ya here, are ya?'
JD grinned. 'You can trust me.'
'Trust ya t'be wherever y'ain't s'posed t'be,' Vin said grudgingly.
'I won't let you down.'
'Reckon you won't at that, kid.' Vin knew all about inspiring confidence in his men, whether or not he honestly shared it. He took a ball of string out of his pocket, glad that he'd had the presence of mind to bring it on his initial foray. 'We ain't got too much t'go on in here an' a compass won't do you no good 'cause the bedrock's magnetic. I reckon the easiest thing is t'follow each passage y'find and see where it takes ya. If y'keep quiet and tie the end of this good'n'tight, y'should be safer in here than y'are on the outside.' All that was true but he remained uneasy at delegating a task he would not want for himself. 'You okay with that?'
'Sure. I'll have it all mapped out by the time you get back with the others.'
'Mind you're careful now. You get y'self in trouble an' it'll be me the Cap'n chews up, not you.'
The grin was back on JD's face.
'One more thing.' Vin made his voice as stern as he could. 'I reckon y'know all about bad air underground but remember Mother Nature's had a helpin' hand around these parts. Poison gas is heavier than air, so it'll hang around in pockets down here for ever an' a day. You get a whiff of sulfur or chlorine, you fall back faster than a bullet out of a gun, y'hear me?'
JD's solemn tone bore only a faint hint that he was humoring his Corporal but it was too much for Vin.
'Now you listen t'me, kid. I had a good buddy got gassed one night without even knowing it. The itchin' didn't start till the morning but he was blind by the time he reached Blighty. It ain't somethin' t'take lightly. Reckon y'all got a few uses for your eyeballs, don't ya?'
This time JD's voice was serious, accepting the warning in the spirit in which it was given.
'How will I tell?'
'That's the hard part,' Vin admitted. 'But watch the lamp.' He took it off his helmet and handed it carefully to JD. 'If the flame starts t'gutter, ain't liable t'be good news.' Aiming to part on a positive note, he added, 'I'll whistle when I git back with the others. Best y'all know it's us. I don't want no holes in my hide.'
He hated leaving a youngster alone, in what seemed to him little better than the depths of Hell, but JD was already shuffling forward, unperturbed and clearly ready to start exploring. Vin fixed his expression into an impassive mask, determined to make him appreciate the gravity of the mission that he had muscled in on, but failed to keep a relieved grin off his features when he turned his back on the subterranean depths. Outside there would be nothing above him but the vast night sky, which might disgorge a fatal shell onto his body at any second but which had no power to instill fear in his heart.
- 2 -
JD was as good as his word: over-eager he might be but he was also far from stupid. With no doubt as to the importance of his task, he realized that every minute of exploration was a minute saved when Vin came back with the others. On top of that, though he tried not to dwell on the reprimand he was going to get from Chris, he was determined to have something to show for his insubordination.
Only one thing had taken priority over all that. As soon as the crevice opened into a small cavern, JD had done what he had been - literally - itching to do since being hauled out of the water in the crater. Within minutes, he stood in just his boots and underwear, his holstered pistol buckled over the top and the rest of his kit laid out to dry. It was a measure of the misery he'd suffered that he was willing to risk misjudging his friends' return and being seen in such disarray, but his need to relieve the chafing was irresistible.
He examined his skin in dismay, running a forefinger tentatively over the blisters that the coarse fabric had so quickly etched into the tenderest parts of his body. Parting the front of his drawers, he grimaced at the state of his groin. The flickering lamplight revealed the pale flesh there to be peppered with lice bites and swollen with puffy red weals. By the time he'd done scratching, the criss-crossed white lines he'd added reminded him of a lattice-topped cherry pie ready for the oven.
Firmly rejecting the luxury of self-pity, he began to investigate the leftmost tunnel. When it soon petered out, he returned to the cavern and started on the next. He was systematic, making no guesses but taking the left turn at every junction and carefully paying out the twine Vin had given him. Only when he exhausted each option did he strike out to the right, slowly closing off each path in the maze. Some tunnels stopped abruptly with a hewn rock face, marking the end of the sappers' labors, while piles of fallen rock blocked others, quite possibly covering the remains of some of the unlucky diggers. JD shuddered at the thought, warier of ghosts than small spaces, but managed to hold the fear at bay and follow his guideline back to the last junction.
Occasional checks of his cheap pocket watch, which now hung around his neck, told him that his task had already consumed three and a half hours when he turned into an upward-sloping tunnel. Given that the terrain they were to traverse swept smoothly up to a ridge, he couldn't help feeling more optimistic about tunnels that rose than those that fell away.
'Tarnation!' he cried out when he stubbed a toe for the third time in five minutes.
The echo of his voice brought him up sharp. Although the word was repeated back to him, he instinctively knew that there was an opening ahead. Something in the shape of the sound told him that it had not bounced back from a total blockage. The rock-strewn floor seemed to confirm his judgment: it looked as if water had rushed down the tunnel from time to time, bringing with it stones and bits of vegetation.
He strode on as fast as he dared, cussing each time his bruised toes caught another obstacle but refusing to slow down more than he must. The excitement of success swelled within him as he felt cooler air on his skin - a distinct draught was coming from ahead. Growing more confident, he grinned and hurried forward.
As he followed the tunnel around a gentle right-hand bend, he thought he could see a lighter patch ahead. A few more steps and he was sure. The only trouble was the speed at which the tunnel was narrowing. The walls were already brushing his shoulders and he had to stoop to keep his head clear of the roof. Although he felt no trace of the claustrophobia that tormented Vin, he still fought a rising tide of anxiety as he wondered if he, let alone men of Josiah and Nathan's height and bulk, would be able to thread his body through the exit ahead. Perhaps the sappers might have enlarged it in due course but their priority was to lay explosives under German positions without being detected, a goal not well served by larger entrances. His fear was not of getting stuck, although he knew full well that was a possibility, but of failing in his first solo mission. Having snatched the opportunity to be noticed, he wanted his Captain to see him succeed.
Soon bent double, he paused to get out his knife. It was a cheap blade that folded inside a handle of polished walnut, worn smoother still by the constant handling it had received since he pulled it from the scarlet tissue paper parcel that his mother set beside his plate at breakfast on his fourteenth birthday. Opening it carefully, he used its point to score the rock. The low-grade steel left almost no mark, confirming how difficult it would be to widen the tunnel if they could not pass through it. He closed the knife and took a few more paces before the rising floor forced him to kneel. No more than a dozen yards later, he could only shuffle. There was rock on all sides, brushing his back from above and his shoulders from the sides. The floor was still rising.
'Okay,' he muttered, 'Just don't get any narrower.'
He still had the option to lie down but he could do nothing to narrow his shoulders and the other men were broader than he was. To his relief, the walls stayed put while the floor inched higher. Using the only option left to him, he dropped onto his belly and wormed his way towards the patch of night sky that had become clearly visible ahead. He put the opening some fifty feet away and hardly dared hope he'd be able to reach it. Not until he wriggled through it a quarter of an hour later did he realize from his shaking body just how anxious he'd been. He sat there in his sweat-soaked underwear until he began to shiver in the chill night air. He wanted nothing more than to carry on, seeking out the Hun's positions on the hillside rather than going back into the close confines he'd just left, but knew that he could not do that. He had a duty, to Vin and to the others, and he could not shirk that to suit himself. Without knowing it, he was starting to think like a soldier.
He slithered back into the opening that he'd so recently left and worked his body back over the uneven floor, adding new bruises to the ones he'd already picked up. He had plenty of time to think about the concept of scouting ahead during the time it took to make the return journey. He would shortly be covering the same ground for the third time, something that Vin was already doing outside. What, he wondered, had made him think that was an enviable task in which he wanted to be included? Next time, he might not be so eager to win a place on such a sortie. His reverie was interrupted by a low whistle, distant in the darkness.
JD had no doubt that it was Vin, having heard him use the signal when they were working with Sergeant Robinson. He replied with a more ragged trill of his own. Vin would know that he was on his way back to report progress. Only then did he begin to wonder just what reception he could expect from their Captain. He hadn't disobeyed an order, although he had acted without being given one. Was that as bad? Given that his training had been cut short by the numerous special assignments that his particular skills attracted, he hadn't much idea of army procedures and still less of the military law that enforced them. It took great effort of will to face the fury of a Captain of whom he was still apprehensive. It was fortunate that he did not consider his apparel or the task might have overwhelmed him. As it was, he almost jogged the last few hundred yards back to the cavern, his thumb and forefinger looped around the reassuring twine and his spirits beginning to rise at the prospect of the progress he had to report. When his comrades came into view, JD saw that they were all now kitted out with lamps and the greasy flames sent shadowy legions flickering in every direction.
'I hear they shoot men for insubordination out here.'
Buck was facing away from him, speaking casually but just a shade too loud to be natural. JD recognized it for the gibe it was but doubted Chris would have the same light-hearted attitude to his transgression.
'Indeed,' Ezra replied, adjusting his lantern so that it rested more firmly on the rim of his helmet. Glancing up, he let his gaze flit over JD before it settled on Buck. 'Not to mention the fact that the boy is fortunate not to be serving in one of the regiments with a more rigid dress code.'
Suddenly aware of his long johns, JD refused to be abashed by their thin cotton and only faltered for a second before emerging into the cavern. He met Chris's glare resolutely.
'I'm sorry, sir.'
The glare persisted.
'I was out of line.'
Chris's eyes locked onto his own, seeming to probe his soul, and he felt a surge of anger that his admission seemed inadequate. Without him, he doubted that Vin would have made it up the rock face with his rotten feet. He began to open his mouth. Even if Vin had reached the caves, he wouldn't have had time to find a way through if he'd found the courage to try
The word courage rattling around in his brain brought him up sharp. He'd seen Vin's courage during their time with Sergeant Robinson, and did not doubt that he'd see plenty more of it, and he had meant it when he said a lot of men got taken bad underground and it was nothing to be ashamed of. On top of all that, it certainly wasn't Vin's fault he had rotten feet. Appalled that he'd been about to use such confidences to defend himself, he glanced shamefully at Vin. Seeing that the man understood his temptation, he was about to look away in despair when the slightest smile creased the corners of Vin's eyes. In an instant, JD knew that he would not judge the temptation, only the response, and that he had probably already told Chris that he'd been glad of the help. He closed his mouth firmly and stared at Chris's feet to await his decision.
A few more seconds crept silently by before Chris spoke in a low voice. 'It won't happen again.'
Spoken as a statement of fact, JD knew the words were a warning. He suspected that this Captain would be just as willing to shoot him as to court martial him if the situation merited it. He felt the blood rising into his cheeks but was saved any further embarrassment when Vin moved the conversation on.
'Y'all have any luck?'
JD nodded, unable to conceal his enthusiasm any longer. 'Just broke through not half an hour before you got here. We can make it.'
He could feel the others' relief, even though the first comment came from Ezra and did not relate to the good news.
'Might we trouble you to restore your battle dress, young man? I believe our arrival will provoke more apprehension in our enemy if we look something like soldiers.'
It wasn't the recognition that JD wanted for his efforts. 'Hell, Ezra, if you'd had the night I've had first I ' He hesitated. If Vin hadn't told the others about the crater, there was no need for him to say anything, and he'd never hear the end of it from Buck if he did. He recovered himself quickly. 'Of course, I'm gonna restore my battle dress. Hell, I was hardly going to leave it here, was I?'
He pulled his uniform on hurriedly. It was still damp and that made it difficult to force his limbs through the misshapen sleeves and pant legs.
'What's it like in there?'
Vin's question was to be expected and JD couldn't detect a trace of fear in his voice. Only their earlier experience told him what might be behind those few words.
'We can get through,' he began confidently. Deliberately looking at Chris rather than Vin, he admitted, 'It's tight, and the rock's hard so it won't be easy to widen the tunnel if we need to.'
'How tight?' Chris asked, his gaze shifting from JD first to Buck and then to Josiah and Nathan. He didn't need to put his doubts into words.
'Narrow. Tight on my shoulders so it won't be easy. You and Vin should fit easy enough but it'll be harder for the others - even Ezra, 'cause he's broad. And we might have to repack our kit somehow but I guess we can pull stuff through with a rope if we have to.'
Chris nodded. 'Let's go then.'
JD felt a thrill of excitement as he led the way down the passage that he had identified. Whatever the circumstances, his six comrades were following him. It was a small triumph but it felt like a battle won. He covered the ground quickly while the opening was wide, calling out warnings about the obstacles that had caught him out on his first attempt. It was about ten minutes before the passage began to get noticeably more cramped. He stopped and turned to face the others.
'What's up?' Buck asked.
'We won't be able to pass each other much longer.'
Chris gave a slight nod and looked around them.
'I reckon we better have a small one front and rear, so we got movement either way if things get tough. Since you been ahead, JD, it makes sense for you to stay up front so, Vin, you better take the back.'
JD was watching Vin, waiting for the smallest sign that he was unhappy with the assignment. When it came, the sign was infinitesimal but a faint flicker in those expressive eyes hinted at his horror of being stuck inside the passage behind men who might not be able to pass through it. There was no sense in letting Chris's decision stand because, if Vin proved unable to contain his dread, he'd be no use to anybody, but it hurt JD to play the only card he could think of that might help to pay back the kindness Vin had shown him throughout the night. Steeling himself, he went ahead with a suggestion that not only questioned his Captain's judgment but also put him at the rear instead of the vanguard.
'I don't know, sir. There's only one way out so it's not like you need a guide. Maybe it'd be better if you and Vin went first. If we hit problems, I've worked underground before so I might be able to figure something out. If we have to change the plan, at least we'll have one of our experienced soldiers on the outside.' He hoped that having six men waiting behind him would give Vin another reason to overcome his anxieties.
Chris considered the suggestion for a moment or two before nodding slowly. 'Fair enough. Vin, you take the lead. Buck and Ezra, you two after me. Josiah and Nathan, you come on ahead of JD.'
It took a few moments for them to shuffle into their places within the confined space.
'Speaking for myself,' Ezra murmured coolly, 'I have not encountered a meal that I could finish since I enlisted. If I am unable to pass through this exit, I doubt it will be my stomach that prevents it.'
JD pushed by Vin while Ezra was speaking. He felt Vin's fleeting grip on his forearm and caught a low mutter of thanks as they passed each other. 'No problem,' he breathed back softly. 'We'll all make it.'
An hour later, he wasn't so confident. Vin made it, in good time and without any trouble as far as JD could tell, and was soon hauling packs through the passage with Chris before the larger men gave it a try. Maybe Vin had been soaked with nervous sweat by the time he reached the open air, and maybe Chris had noted it, but JD was beginning to understand that brave men were brave not because they were without fear but rather because they knew how to overcome it when they must. Rather than making him doubt Vin, the night's revelations were making him ever more certain that he was right to trust the Corporal.
He clung to what he'd learned from his discoveries as he felt the claustrophobia begin to rise up within him. It was true that he had quickly overcome it in the Catskills but then he was not lying in a tunnel barely large enough to admit him with a larger man almost immobilized in front of him. From the undercurrent of curses ahead, he knew that Buck and Ezra were making steady, if slow, progress but it was another matter for the two men behind them, who were both tall and broad. Just in front of JD, Josiah was managing to gain ground inch by inch by wriggling like a snake. Nathan's oaths were clearly audible from not far beyond him.
While he waited for them to move on, JD tried to worm his way backwards. At first, it seemed impossible and he doubted he could manage even the snail's pace that Josiah was achieving. He fought down the fear that he might not be able to go forwards or backwards. Only slightly less urgent was his fear that he might be left out of the mission, forced to turn back with the men who couldn't get through when he might have been in the lead if he hadn't stepped aside for Vin. Forcing himself to take a break, he lay still and waited for his jumbled to stop tumbling around in anxious circles.
Only when he had finally calmed down did the obvious solution come to him. Vin had taken through a looped rope to haul their packs behind him. It worked just like a washing line between two high windows in an alley back home in Boston. They pulled the loop of rope around two anchor points so that it was always ready to attach the next bundle. The loop was still in place and the men ahead were trying to pull themselves along it by grabbing both cords together. Ordinarily, that would be easy enough, but not when their arms were pinned to their sides with no room to move. JD tried again to move backwards, this time staying calm and trying one technique after another until he found one that moved him at a decent pace.
'Hey!' he called forward urgently. The cussing and rustling stopped.
'What's up, son?' Josiah called back.
'I got an idea. We should be able to pull you through one by one, like the packs, so you don't have to move, just hold on to the rope while the rest keep as clear of it as they can. You reckon you can get a good grip?'
There was a short pause. 'Reckon so, but we'd need someone to do the pulling from behind.'
'I think I can make it back to where we hitched the rope. Leastwise, I can try while you keep going forward. See if Chris says it's okay.'
Chris's voice came faintly from far ahead. 'Can't hurt, JD. Go for it.'
With every yard backward meaning another crawling forward on his belly later, it was all JD could do to keep going. His body was a mass of aches and bruises, sores and bites. War was proving to be nothing like he had expected, with far too much pain and far too little glamour. There was little to keep him going but his pride in knowing more about the task than the others and his hope of being able to save the day. Every time he felt he'd reached his limit, he pictured himself basking in the glory of his achievement out on the hillside.
When he was finally at the point where the rope passed around a solid and well-rounded rock, he whistled as loudly as he could. Vin's melodic reply was muffled by the bodies between them but came through loud enough to hear, followed by Chris's far-off voice.
'You first, Buck.'
The rope pulled tight and then began to move in the same direction they'd used for the packs. JD took a firm grip and hauled with all his might. Before, there were two of them at each end for less than half the weight. Now he was alone, trying to match Chris and Vin's combined strength, which was far from easy. Each man who got through was another pair of hands at the other end but he had no one to help him, as well as a long crawl to come afterwards. He was only sure that it had been the right choice when Vin's final whistle told him that Josiah was safely out. He flopped flat on his belly and drew deep, ragged breaths of musty air.
'JD?' Chris sounded a little nearer through the now-clear tunnel.
'Unhitch the rope and hang on to it.'
JD's mind was foggy from fatigue. 'But we'll need it to get back.'
'If we come back, it won't be through here.'
JD didn't stop to analyze the meaning hidden in his words: if we come back. Too tired to do anything else, he did as he was told and looped the rope securely under his armpits. 'Ready, sir.'
It couldn't have been more than five minutes before he stood with the others, too stiff to straighten the stoop in his back, after being dragged painfully over the rough rock floor. Buck's light slap on his shoulder felt like a blow when its force rippled through his body.
'Good thinking, JD. We were starting to figure we were in there for the night.'
It was a lot lower key than the scene that had played out in JD's mind during his wretched backward crawl and the blistering sessions handling the rope, but that didn't matter. Six men were now looking at him with fresh respect and acknowledging his contribution to the mission. He nodded mutely - it felt as if doing any more would kill him.
'You two need some sleep,' Chris said firmly. 'Can't spare more than a couple of hours but it'll be better than nothing.'
JD was sinking to the ground before he even finished speaking, vaguely aware of strong hands shifting him onto a smoother bit of ground and covering him with a blanket. The last thing he heard was Vin's quiet voice.
'He's a good kid, Chris. His heart's in the right place.'
Coming from their reticent Corporal, JD took that as high praise indeed.
- 3 -
Nathan followed Josiah, relieved to have an experienced soldier for his partner. He'd waited apprehensively for Chris to give them their orders outside the caves, wanting the respect that Chris accorded Josiah and Vin but doubting his right to it. As it turned out, he was both satisfied and reassured. Although initially surprised by Chris's choice of Buck and JD for his forward team, he soon saw the sense of it. Vin and Josiah each brought more combat experience to the fray than an entire division of a peacetime army and, while Ezra and he could not compete as fighting men, just being in France for the duration gave them an edge over newcomers to the conflict. They could handle whatever they found to either side of the observation post, while the others focused on the prime objective. By pairing them as he had, Chris created two well-balanced teams to maintain a presence behind the German line until Lieutenant Hanton received his order to attack.
Nathan was reassured to be in the company of a man who had survived years of frontline conflict. He knew - in disconcerting detail - the kind of damage that each type of weapon could inflict on the human body but he was far less certain how to avoid such wounds. On top of Josiah's military record, Nathan thought his faith wouldn't do any harm either; lacking such belief himself, he hoped that any shield around Josiah might protect him too. He was surprised how afraid he felt, traversing the exposed strip between the caves and the machine gun emplacement that they were to disable. Overhead, there was only sporadic artillery fire. Safe for once from German shells, only the Allied fire was a threat and the odds were heavily against a direct hit on the precise spot that they occupied. Nevertheless, he was far more afraid that he had ever been while rescuing injured men from one battlefield after another. On reflection, he knew why that was.
Driven on by his knowledge of the pain that each casualty endured, and by his fear that Death would beat him to a man's side, he thought of nothing but making the best possible time across the cratered landscape. Now his goal was less immediate - saving Allied lives in the future to be sure but taking German lives in the present. He found it difficult to hurry towards that duty, risking being killed in his own quest to kill first, and was uneasy about the morality of the mission. He had not consciously speculated about it before the briefing and he wondered now if he had been deliberately evading the truth. He'd been near the Front for too long to claim surprise at what they were being told to do but it still shocked him to realize that he was on the brink of cold-bloodedly taking the life that he'd always fought so hard to preserve. Wondering if he would waver at the critical moment, he countered his doubts by remembering the hosts of nameless comrades that he'd seen scythed down in one ill-conceived action after another. If he had learned just one thing, it was that the old rules no longer applied. Only as he accepted that conclusion did he realize how compelling his need for the carnage to end had become - there was nothing that he would not do to stop it.
The terrain they must traverse could have been far worse. The caves had taken them into the outskirts of the woodland that crowned the ridge behind the German lines. Not only did the Hun have a sweeping view of the valley but his supply and artillery trenches also had the cover of a mixed canopy of birch and hazel. In fact, it would have been easy to flit invisibly through the shadows, if only his shoulder had not been so painful. As it was, forcing his body through the caves had inflamed pain into agony and it was all he could do to swallow the bile without vomiting. His thoughts had settled on a blue glass vial in his breast pocket hours earlier and rarely strayed from it since.
Just when he thought he could bear the throbbing no more, they stumbled into a fallen tree. Josiah motioned him to take a break. He sat down gratefully, only just catching Josiah's low whisper over the rush in his ears.
'Got to see a man about a dog.'
Nathan frowned his incomprehension, never having heard half the weird expressions Josiah came out with, and got a crotch-ward wave in explanation. What that had to do with men and dogs was a mystery but he just nodded in reply, seeing in the need for a moment's privacy the chance he'd been hoping for.
As soon as he was alone, he pulled out the vial and poured a generous measure into his half-empty canteen. He was always meticulous in measuring out the lowest effective dose, determined to control the dependence that he was too honest to deny, but now his desperation - and his concern about when he would next be alone - made him almost reckless. He drank freely, needing to quench not only the pain but his thirst too. His hands were shaking so badly that half the fluid ran over his chin and then the vial slipped through his fingers. It was all he could do not to panic. Thankfully, the stopper was in but that would be no comfort if he couldn't find the vial. He dropped to his knees and groped in the mixture of coarse grass and fallen leaves. He was still feeling around when Josiah came back without a sound. The first Nathan knew of his return was when he looked up to find Josiah looking down on him quizzically. He silently cursed himself for being so careless - knowing how quietly his comrades were apt to move, he should have been more cautious.
'Lost something?' Josiah asked.
Deciding to brave it out, Nathan nodded. 'My medication.'
Josiah dropped down beside him. 'What're we looking for?'
'Small glass vial.'
They fumbled around for a few minutes before Josiah grunted his satisfaction. Nathan held out his hand for the vial but Josiah raised it to his nose first and sniffed at the stopper.
'Is there anything you want to tell me?' he prompted, without voicing what he was no doubt thinking: before I tell the Captain.
Nathan wished he had left the vial and wondered if his desperation to find it indicated that his dependence was worse than he realized. Trying to be brutally honest with himself, he didn't believe that. He hated the way that it eroded his faculties and took as little as he dared to keep the pain within his capacity to bear.
'I'm not I don't need it.'
'You wouldn't be the first,' Josiah said, noncommittally. 'It must be a temptation, when you've easy access.'
'It' was morphine, or the various tinctures based upon it, and it was true that its abuse was widespread in the medical corps but that was not how Nathan's problem had begun. He looked hard at Josiah, wondering how much he wanted to admit and whether doing so might cost him this new assignment - perhaps the only truly worthwhile thing that he would be able to do in France, given that he'd long since despaired of the value of the medical corps when most of the men they saved were sent back to the Front to be killed later.
'It's not because I've lost it,' he protested.
He heard his own defensiveness and knew Josiah had heard it too from the sympathetic reply.
'I lost it long ago - there's no shame in that. I'd be more worried if this all made sense.'
Nathan smiled, accepting the reassurance in the spirit in which it was offered. However, his problems were not in his mind and, although he knew such problems could be insurmountable for those afflicted with them, it was still important to him to explain that.
'No, look, Vin was right in what he said to JD about stuff like shell shock - I seen a lot of it and it's as real as a bullet in the gut - but it ain't what I got.'
Josiah returned his gaze, inviting him to go on, but Nathan doubted that words would be enough to allay the man's concerns about his fitness to be depended upon in the kind of tight spot that they would be facing, both in the next few hours and in the months ahead. Unfortunately, there was no guarantee that the truth would be enough either. He began to unfasten his tunic, revealing a scabbard containing the three throwing knives that he was never without. They had served him well in self-defense in more than one assault, although the need to conceal them had cost him too much time in the unexpected confrontation with Fiegler's thugs.
'Nice blades,' Josiah said appreciatively.
'Never know when you might need a clean, sharp edge,' Nathan agreed.
He preferred to admit to the peaceful applications that the weapons had more often found than to the bloody wounds he had occasionally inflicted with them. After unbuckling the scabbard and unbuttoning his shirt, he shrugged one arm free and turned the shoulder blade toward Josiah. He knew the ugly sight that would greet those pale eyes because he'd so often studied it in a mirror himself during the slow and painful healing process. Josiah struck a match, shielded the flame from any observers with his hand and leaned closer.
'Lord have mercy.' The murmured exclamation confirmed that the mass of scars had faded little since Nathan's last inspection. 'Shrapnel?'
'Yeah. Hurts like hell at times.'
'You shouldn't be on active duty.'
Nathan shrugged, began to re-button his shirt and then smiled as he quoted Josiah's favorite reply right back at him. 'Might as well make myself useful.' He swallowed before adding, more emotionally, 'Fact is, I'm not sure I wanna spent the rest of my life in this sorta pain. If Fritz gets me again, he might be doin' me a favor.'
Josiah nodded. His manner was casual but he had not looked down quite fast enough to hide the understanding in his eyes. He was not merely empathizing with that view. For whatever reason, he had no more fear of dying at a German's hands than Nathan himself had. It was the same calm resignation, not a reckless suicidal tendency but rather a rational judgment that death might not be such a terrible blow. It was a card to be played in a sticky situation, only if necessary and only if the potential rewards justified it.
'How long till it kicks in?'
'Not long. I'll be fine.'
Nathan shrugged. 'Better than I am with the pain.'
'All right, we'll move on then. I couldn't see the emplacement but it can't be much further.'
Nathan breathed a sigh of relief. Josiah would not be saying anything about his fitness to serve, at least not unless he discovered more concrete reason to doubt it, and Nathan was determined not to give him cause.
'I wonder if Vin and Ezra have taken theirs.'
'Depends if they're moving at Vin's pace or Ezra's.'
Nathan grinned. He'd already discovered that Ezra was apt to take time out to complain about most things. Vin might have had trouble keeping him moving quickly and quietly.