In the British Army the losses had been equally appalling. Men were exhausted and morale was low, but as yet no mutiny. Now there was talk of another push forward against the German lines and there was no heart left for it. Everyone had seen too many friends dead or crippled to gain a few yards of clay, and nothing had changed, except the numbers of the dead. The sentry's sympathies were with the men, and he was afraid.
"Please!" Joseph said urgently. "His brother was killed and he's in a bad way. I need to find him."
"And tell him what?" the sentry said raspingly, turning at last to face Joseph. "That there's a God up there who loves us and it'll turn out all right in the end?" His voice was raw with misery.
Joseph had not expressed that sentiment in a long time. Certainly such words were no help. Young men of nineteen or twenty who had been sent out to die, in a hell those at home could not even imagine, did not want to be told by a priest almost twice their age, who had at least had a chance at life, that God loved them in spite of every evidence to the contrary.
"I just want to prevent him from doing something stupid before he's had time to think," he said aloud. "I know his mother. I'd like to get one son back to her."
The sentry did not answer. He turned back to face over the parapet again. The sky was fading into a soft, bright peach trailed across by a wisp of scarlet cloud, still burning in the sun. There were a few naked trees in Railway Wood to the west, silhouetted black against the hot color, more ahead over the German lines beyond Glencorse and Polygon Woods. That was the direction toward which they'd mount the attack.
"Oi don't know," the sentry said at last. "But you could troy Zoave Wood." He jerked his hand to the right. "There's one or two decent places over there you could sit boi yourself. If that was what you wanted."
"Thank you." Joseph moved on quickly. Ahead of him he heard rats' feet scraping along the boards. The trenches were full of them, millions scavenging among the unburied dead. Men went out at night, Joseph often among them, and brought back the bodies, the living first, then what dead they could.
He passed the dugouts off to the side where stretchers and extra first aid supplies were kept, although each man was supposed to carry with him at least the basics to stanch a wound. It was getting dark and occasionally star shells burst above, briefly lighting the mud with a yellow-white glare, leaving men in momentary blindness afterward.
He still did not know what he was going to say to Snowy when he found him. Perhaps there was nothing more he could do than be there, sit with him in the long agonized silence. Snowy probably would not ask him the impossible questions. He had ceased to imagine there were any answers, and certainly none that Joseph knew. Snowy was over twenty, a veteran. Most of these boys coming out now had been taken from the schoolroom. When they were broken and dying, it was their mothers they called for, not God. Out here what was there to say to God? Joseph was not sure how many people believed in such a being anymore, or thought that if He was there, then He was just as helpless as everyone else.
The trench walls were deep here, the sides firmly riveted with wood.
He passed a couple of men squatting on their heels over a Dixie can of tea.
"Seen Snowy Nunn?" he asked, stopping beside them.
One lifted a pale face, smeared with mud, a long scar across his cheek. Joseph recognized him as Nobby. "Sorry, Cap'n, not lately, poor sod. Tucky were a good chap." There was no horror in his voice and his eyes stared beyond Joseph into a distance no one else could see.
"Thanks, Nobby," Joseph acknowledged, and moved on quickly. There were more sentries, a group of men telling tall stories to each other and laughing. Somebody was singing a music hall song with risque alterations to the words.
Excerpted from At Some Disputed Barricade by Anne Perry Copyright © 2007 by Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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