Jack had to find Private Richards before he did something stupid, and irrevocable. Damn the men who had tormented the new recruit with what they had said was his cowardice. They might have thought they were teasing him, teaching him to stand up for himself, but Richards was barely seventeen. It was too soon—only a couple of months ago he had been a school boy! Now he was a soldier in the Flanders trenches, with a rifle in his hands.
Jack rounded the bend in the trench, keeping his head low. But Richards was nowhere in sight along this stretch. He was not among the men sitting on the duckboards, smoking their Woodbines, reading letters from home, making bad jokes. They knew how to hide their fear. Richards didn’t, not yet. He was frightened out of his wits, deafened by the noise of gunfire, sick with the smell of death clogging his senses, and above all trying to do the right thing, trying to belong.
Jack Barrick was a veteran; he was twenty-three and had been here since the beginning, two years ago, at the end of that blazing hot summer of 1914. Home by Christmas, they had said. Over a million casualties later, it looked as if they would be here forever. Some of them really would be, God help them. Buried in the Flanders clay. What is forever when you are seventeen and the average life expectancy is a matter of weeks?
But Jack was not going to lose Richards because some irresponsible idiot had made him think he was a coward and not fit to be one of them.
Everything was quiet now, Jerry must be taking a nap! Jack’s feet rattled on the duckboards. Think! Where would Richards go? Where would he feel safe? Double back to the supply trench. Jack went down the connecting trench, still keeping low. A careless hand—or worse, head—could still attract a sniper’s bullet.
Jack asked everyone he passed if they had seen Richards. No one had. But then he encountered a worried-looking sergeant far too concerned with his own problems to listen to anyone else’s.
“Ah! Captain Barrick,” said the man as he grabbed Jack’s arm. “You seen anyone come this way carrying a gas canister? Probably had it wrapped up in something. Could look like anything—clothes.”
“You missing one?” Jack caught his alarm. Gas was everyone’s nightmare. Ever since it had first been used at Ypres last year, the thick, poisonous fumes haunted them all, worse than drowning in the mud, or being caught on the barbed wire, riddled with bullets. Equal, maybe, to the sapper’s fear of being trapped in the endless tunnels beneath no-man’s-land in a flood or a cave-in, slowly crushed, unable to breathe. Jack knew that fear personally. He was a sapper himself.
“Yes,” the sergeant admitted. “Saw a young soldier hanging around, you can always tell the latest lot. The fear in their eyes that isn’t quite the thousand-yard stare, but you know that if they live, it will be. He could have taken it; stupid little sod might not realize what it is.”
Jack felt a knot tighten in his chest. “About my height, fair hair? Seventeen?”
There was no relief in the sergeant’s face. “Yes. That’s him.”
Jack wanted to doubt, but the sick certainty inside him left no room. “Which way did he go?” he asked, although he knew already.
“Toward the front.” The sergeant indicated the front line, and no-man’s-land and the German lines beyond. “Do you know him? Where’s he gone?”
“Just lost, I hope,” Jack said fervently. “Please God—”
The sergeant still had hold of Jack’s arm. His grip tightened. “Lost? You want the poor little devil lost? What’s wrong with you, man?” He was almost shouting.
Jack freed his arm. “I’m hoping he’s wandering around trying to think what to do. Or better still, how to get the gas back without anyone knowing.”
“But I’m afraid I know where he’s going—”
“Where? God in heaven!” The sergeant’s face was white now. “He’s not going to gas those stupid gits who were teasing him, is he?”
“No . . . I think he’s hoping to prove his courage by going into the tunnels and letting the gas out . . . on the other side.” Jack remembered the taunts he’d heard and some hare-brained idea that gas in the German lines would decimate them the same way they had decimated us. Only nobody had the guts to take it there. It was just stupid talk.
But Richards had heard it. He had even asked where the entrances to the tunnels were from this side. No one had answered him. It was a carefully guarded secret. Only the sappers went down there, new men, and the remnants of those who had dug them. Sappers’ casualty rates were high. It was something Jack knew but refused to think of.
The sergeant was staring at him. “What do you want me to do?”
“Keep quiet for the moment.”
“You going after him?”
“Would it . . . would it be so bad if he put a gas canister in their trenches for a change?”
Jack closed his eyes to conceal his fury. “It would be very bad indeed, Sergeant,” he answered quietly. “Our trenches are a little lower than theirs. Slope of the land. And we dug a bit deeper. It gives us an advantage in some ways. The friable topsoil where they are tends to collapse more easily. Ours is more clay, thicker, less likely to give way. And wetter, of course. Water finds its own level—”
“I know all that,” the sergeant interrupted.
Jack opened his eyes. “Do you also know that the gas is heavier than air? That it finds the lowest level it can? It will start off in their tunnels and then seep into ours—”
“Through the earth?” The sergeant’s disbelief was thick in his voice—doubt, mockery.
“No,” Jack said patiently. “Through the places where the tunnels come close to one another. Through the walls that are so thin in places, we can hear them talking to one another as if there were just a piece of plaster board between us and them. Sometimes we accidentally break into one of their tunnels, or they do into one of ours. If he lets the gas go in one of theirs, you can bet your last penny it will end up in ours, too. Would you like to be trapped underground in a dark, narrow tunnel where you have to stoop to miss hitting the roof and carry a lantern to see where you are going—there’s no light underground, Sergeant. Absolutely none at all. Then smell gas? Would you?”
“Oh, sweet Jesus.” The sergeant crossed himself, his face pasty white.
“So which way did he go?” Jack repeated.
“You’re not . . . going down there after him? You can’t!”
“No, I’m just going to let it happen,” Jack snapped. He could not bear to think about it and then do it. He could do it only if he thought about something else.
The sergeant grunted without saying anything else.
Jack went straight to the camouflaged entrance of the nearest tunnel. To his mind, it seemed the most likely one for Richards to have found. Although the thought that the boy had stumbled across it so quickly was worrying. It was obviously not as well hidden as he had believed. Something to pay attention to another time.
He pulled back the sacking over the entrance and went in, letting it fall back into place after him, concealing it again. He shone his lantern ahead of him. The corridor was long and low, rising at the end until the way forward became invisible. His eyes would get used to it. He breathed in slowly. Even now, the smell of wet earth almost suffocated him. It brought back too many memories, going far into his childhood and time spent with his father down the coal mines of Durham County, in the mining village where Jack was born. He could remember the huge, ragged wind-torn skies, the endless views from the moors, and place names that haunted you, like Pity Me. Mining country.
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