Heading to Lorraine
After a while the rocking motion slowed. They came to a stop, but he let Tommy be. It didn’t seem worth the bother as the men crowded the openings even tighter. A few started spitting broken French through the cutout. Straining to hear, he noticed a small hole along the side. Though merely a blur in motion, at rest it offered a sliver of view. He dipped his head and peered out.
He could make out a village square lined with shops. A cluster of women in black stood outside a store. As he watched, one stepped into the street and lifted her veil, revealing a delicate face. She called out, motioning toward the train.
Joshua couldn’t hear, but his suspicion proved right. A young boy, maybe eight, meandered into view. A little girl followed, clutching his hand. As they tottered near, the woman yanked them to her side. She picked up the little girl and rejoined the other women.
Even from their limited time at Abbeville, the scene was familiar . . . an absence of men, scores of women in mourning. How many children of France would grow up without fathers? Could the two in the square even remember a time without war?
He found it hard to imagine, but then it struck him. The states had weathered the same in the not so distant past, losing nearly a generation of men.
Mom’s father had died of natural causes, but Dad was a child of the Civil War. His father, a soldier in the Vermont Brigade, was killed at the Battle of Cold Harbor less than a year after Dad’s birth. He hadn’t even had a proper burial, his body lost forever in a Virginia swamp. Joshua wondered if the loss was what later drew Dad south. Of course, he didn’t know. Dad never talked of his past. It had been Grandmother who’d shared the family history.
The whistle blew, startling him. Tommy stirred then nestled back into place. Joshua wondered if he’d sleep as sound on the front.
They had been back underway only a short time when men in the center of the car began shifting about, clearing a path. Seconds later, he heard the sergeant’s voice. Both he and the lieutenant appeared, stopping a few feet away. Apparently the sergeant had switched cars during the stop, probably to find the lieutenant.
They were in deep discussion. The lieutenant stood largely silent, listening as the sergeant laid out plans for their arrival. They discussed the weapons exchange and billeting for the night. Then the sergeant brought up the schedule of drills, most on their own, a few joint exercises with the French as could be arranged. It was important to start fast, he explained, since it was unclear how much time they’d have before rotating into the lines. The lieutenant nodded. All in all the conversation sounded routine. They probably had discussions like this all the time, though typically away from the men.
As they continued, Joshua studied the sergeant. He had strong features – a square jaw and prominent nose. Even in profile, Joshua could feel the power of his gaze. When he grew excited or irritated, the energy rippled through his body. And his hands flew into action whenever he emphasized a point.
Watching him was mesmerizing. Aiden was handsome . . . masculine.
Joshua tore his gaze away. He fidgeted, as if caught. No one was paying attention, the men nearby listless from the motion or busy in their own conversations. Tommy remained fast asleep.
He turned his focus to the dirty floor, burying the feelings. It was a practice he’d perfected . . . automatic, instinctive. In a minute he’d convince himself it hadn’t happened, like always.
Soon enough he recovered. He eavesdropped on the New York contingent nearby. They were arguing over prospects for the Giants after last October’s painful series loss. He listened for a while and then glanced back at Tommy, who was nearly slack jaw. Any more relaxed and he’d probably snore.
Joshua felt the presence an instant before he heard the voice. “How’re you holding up, Wolfie?” the sergeant whispered as he crouched beside him.
He smiled in spite of himself. “Good, Sergeant.” He looked at and then beyond him.
The sergeant noticed. “The lieutenant went back up front. I wanted to check on you. You looked bothered.”
“It’s nothing, Sergeant. Just a bit cramped.”
“Not for much longer; we’re nearly there.” The sergeant glanced about then plopped down beside him. Their shoulders touched for an instant when he leaned over. “I heard good things about your training with the scouts. They say you’re a natural. How’d it feel?”
“Good. Once I knew what was expected, I did alright. It isn’t all that different from turkey hunting. You have to be silent to get in close.”
The sergeant chuckled, his shoulder again pressing against his. “Well, you have more than that going for you. Half the men in the unit grew up hunting, Wolfie. They aren’t acing target practice.”
Joshua felt the sergeant tense so he turned to face him.
Aiden’s expression had turned serious. “Being a scout is risky enough, but that’s just the beginning. Becoming a sniper takes discipline, not only the skills but mentally too. The guilt can weigh on a man. It’s different than battle, Wolfie. A sniper hunts men.” His eyes locked. “Are you ready for that?”
The bluntness surprised him. Nobody asked those kinds of questions. It never occurred to him anyone would. A soldier followed orders, always, without hesitation. The sergeant himself emphasized the point in every drill. Still, he had asked. Joshua looked around, considering the matter. He tried to picture a man in his sights, unaware, going about his business. Could he pull the trigger?
He bit his lip. “They have snipers, don’t they? They’ll be looking for us.”
“Yes, they will. Better trained than ours probably. The Germans killed a lot of good men when things first bogged down. They were ready before we were.”
Joshua looked at Tommy, still deep in slumber. This time he didn’t hesitate. “I can do it, Sergeant.”
“Alright, Wolfie. I believe you. I just thought someone should ask.”
“Is the lieutenant making me a sniper?” he asked, confused.
“The lieutenant doesn’t have much say in this. They’ll be using men from across the units. Ultimately it’s up to the colonel, possibly the French as well, at least for a while. And we’d have to find you a decent spotter, likely outside the company.” He smirked. “Of course that British major said you didn’t seem to need one.
“The long and short of it is before they decide, they’ll ask me if you’re ready. So you come to me if you have any doubts. You understand, Wolfie?”
“Yes, Sergeant. I understand.”
The sergeant looked around the car and at Tommy, then again at Joshua. It seemed he wanted to say something more, but he rose abruptly. “I’d better get back to the lieutenant.”
“Sergeant,” he began.
“Thanks.” He hesitated, realizing he didn’t have anything to add. He’d just wanted him to stay.
The sergeant winked. Then he turned and wove his way through the men.