Nico eased down from the loophole. “Fog’s so thick I can barely see. It’ll be the same for them. You ready?”
Lee gave a thumbs up. In the shadows beyond him stood Aiden, who’d come to see them off.
Joshua met his gaze. He nodded. “Let’s go.”
And so began their first day of sniping.
He scrambled over the top and fell to his stomach. The fog was indeed dense, and the sky dark beneath a new moon. Conditions were the best they could have hoped.
His heart pounded, yet he felt calm. He and Lee were ready. The scouting forays in the preceding weeks helped. Plus they’d practiced moving out and back twice the night before, varying the route. He’d grown numb to the shock. Last evening he’d even noted a rotting corpse as a fallback position, perched as it was above a crater, likely from the explosion that killed the man.
It was impossible to navigate no man’s land in complete silence, particularly with a rifle. Still, he imagined drifting like the fog across the broken surface. If anything, Lee was more skilled than Joshua, so quiet that early on he used to wonder if the lanky Iowan was still behind him.
After glancing repeatedly during early drills, Joshua no longer felt the need. His shadow followed with no conscious thought. Lee was no different.
They maneuvered through the barbed wire more smoothly than the previous night. As they scrambled on, he listened for shells and launching flares. The light breeze was a concern, suggesting nature’s shroud might soon vanish.
They arrived at the predetermined position among a stretch of craters facing a short jog in the front. The bend offered more opportunities, though it left them more exposed as well. He unfolded the handwritten map, then covered the edges with dirt. He’d long since memorized the main targets. Still, he felt better having the sketch. Laying it out was his ritual.
He wouldn’t call it superstition. Unlike some, he refused to believe silly tricks would keep him safe. But maybe it was. All he knew is he’d done the same on every practice run. He had no reason to stop now.
The waiting began.
Lying prone, he watched the fog lift. At first it was nearly imperceptible. The breeze had lulled again so the erasure was slow, from the ground up.
A few inches became a few inches more. He could sense rather than see the pile of rocks twenty steps ahead. He knew their positions from morning watches. He studied the largest one, natural though shaped like a brick. It wasn’t gray like the Pocono stone from the quarry back home, more of a dirty brown instead. The color appeared only in his mind at first. But as the sky lightened, the image and the object became one.
Lee tapped his belt. “Let’s get two,” he signaled.
Joshua winked. They’d joked earlier that they might as well face the pressure of a first kill by taking out two Huns instead. Of course, the French sniper who’d helped train them had said it might take weeks. He warned them not to rush. As he put it, “Impatience will only kill you. Each mission you survive is a successful one.”
Lee went back to studying the enemy trench with his binoculars, and Joshua began another visual scan. He could see better now, though they’d agreed to wait until daybreak. As long as they didn’t create a shadow or stir up dirt, the glare of the rising sun would obscure them. With luck, they might find a target during the morning hate.
He imagined a clock ticking in his head the way he used to while hunting. Back then he awaited bucks moving along the morning ridge. Now he sought men arriving on post, who in turn stalked them.
The need to view the enemy is what provided opportunities. He practiced sightlines on the enemy loopholes. The breeze picked up, and Lee tapped again.
He closed his eyes an instant, noting the pressure against his cheek. He wanted to memorize the sensation, to grow attuned the way a musician must know the precise touch even absent his instrument.
A flare went up.
His every nerve snapped taut. He and Lee were outfitted to be invisible against the hellish landscape. They were caked with mud and dried grass, and their faces and hands were painted. A dirty cloth shielded the rifle sight. Even so, he breathed shallow until the glow faded.
If they’d been seen, they wouldn’t know. Not yet. Maybe never if the Germans were well trained, which they were. A bullet slicing through one of them would be the other’s fateful notice.
The minutes stretched. He felt the sun creep up from behind, starting with his calves. He noticed the stench, stronger than during the evening drills. No doubt the subtle warming unleashed the scent of decay.
Lee didn’t need to tap this time. Five knots. Joshua filed away the sensation and scanned again. It was time to hunt.