The sun was sinking low over the waste of no-man's-land when Barshey Gee staggered up the trench, his arms flying, his boots clattering on the duckboards. His face was ashen and streaked with mud and sweat.
"Chaplain! Snowy's gone!" he cried, bumping into the earthen wall and stopping in front of Joseph. "Oi think he's gone over the top!" His voice was hoarse with helplessness and despair.
That morning Snowy Nunn had seen his elder brother sawn in half by machine gun fire in yet another pointless attack. It was now late July 1917, and this mid-Cambridgeshire regiment had been bogged down on this same stretch of ruined land between Pyres and Passchendaele since the beginning, those far-off days of courage and hope when they had imagined it would all be over by Christmas.
Now mutilation and death were everyday occurrences. The earth stank of three years' worth of latrines, poison gas, and corpses. But it was still different to see the brother you had grown up with reduced to bleeding jelly in front of your eyes. At first Snowy had been too stunned to do anything, as if the sheer horror of it had paralyzed him.
"I think he's gone over," Barshey repeated. "He's lost it. He's gone to kill the whole German army himself. They'll just wipe him out." He gulped.
"We'll get him back," Joseph said with far more certainty than he felt. "He might have been taken back to the first aid post. Have you--"
"Oi looked," Barshey interrupted him. "And in the cookhouse, and Oi looked in all the dugouts and the holes big enough for anyone to crawl in. He's gone over the top, Captain Reavley."
Joseph's stomach clenched. It was pointless to cling to hope they both knew was futile. "You go north, I'll go south," he said briefly. "But be careful! Don't get yourself killed for nothing!"
Barshey gave a bark of laughter so harsh it was almost a sob, and turned away. Joseph started in the opposite direction, south and west toward the place where a man could most easily go over the parapet and find the shelter of what was left of the trees--shell-torn, blackened, and mostly leafless, even now in full summer.
" 'Evenin', Chaplain," the sentry said quietly from his position on the fire step, peering forward into the gathering gloom. The German guns were rumbling sullenly, starting the night's barrage, flashes from their muzzles red. The British answered. There were Canadian and Australian regiments up in this section, too.
"Evening," Joseph answered. "Seen Snowy Nunn?" He had too little time left to afford discretion. Grief had shattered all sense of self-preservation. Of course Snowy had seen men killed before: burned, drowned, gassed, frozen, or blown to pieces, some caught on the wire and riddled with bullets. But when it was your own brother, there was something that tore you in an inner way that nothing else could reach. Tucky had been his childhood friend and protector, the companion in his first adventures, the one who first told him daring jokes, the one who had stood up for him in the school playground. It was as if half his own life had been destroyed obscenely right in front of him.
Joseph had seen Snowy's face, and known that when the first numbing shock wore off his emotion would turn to rage. He had just expected it to take longer.
"Have you seen him?" he asked the sentry again, this time more sharply.
"Don't know, Captain Reavley," the sentry answered. "Oi bin watching forward."
"He hasn't done anything," Joseph said, clenching his teeth to keep control of the helplessness rising inside him. "I want to get to him before he does!" He knew what the man was protecting. Joseph was an officer and a priest, tied to the command by both rank and conviction. There were whispers that men in the French army had already mutinied, said they would hold their positions but would not launch any attack. They had demanded improved rations and whatever humanity of treatment was possible in this universal misery. Thousands had been charged, and over four hundred had been sentenced to death, but so far apparently very few had actually faced the firing squad.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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