Billy hunched deeper into the muck-filled trench as a cascade of dirt rained down on him. Icy water filled his boots and soaked his trousers, and he shivered, not from the cold, but the raw fear that clawed at his guts.
With stiff fingers, he pulled the pin on a grenade and lobbed it, hard. A flare and resounding thud. Billy wiped sweat and mud from his face.
“Hey, Billy, where’d you learn to pitch like that?” Jack jerked his chin in approval.
Billy grinned wryly. He’d never touched a baseball in his life; his strength had developed from forking hay and splitting firewood. Indeed, it was probably his manly brawniness that had convinced the recruiting officer to enlist Billy.
A growing hunger had gnawed at him as he’d read public notices exhorting men to join the battle across the ocean. “Do your bit,” the posters persuaded. “Why don’t you go?” they beseeched. Even the Reverend Gillis had encouraged everyone to dutifully serve God, King, and country.
“A sign,” Billy thought, since the Reverend spoke for the Almighty Himself.
And so, leaving a note for his over-worked widow mother, who’d surely rejoice at having one less mouth to feed, fifteen-year old Billy hitchhiked to a neighbouring town’s recruiting office, where they’d not know him, and attempted to sign up.
The officer had inspected Billy through watery eyes. “Age?”
“Eighteen.” Billy kept his gaze riveted on a sepia coloured print of the Parliament buildings on the wall behind the officer.
“None, sir. But, I could run home and fetch the Bible.”
Pursing his lips, the officer had paused, then stamped the exultant Billy’s papers, perhaps not entirely unaware that he’d not enlisted an adult.
A sailing adventure to England, a fortnight’s training at Witley, and Billy was at the front in France, stalwartly bearing almost a hundred pounds of gear, enough to buckle the knees of the sturdiest man.
Another mortar exploded, spewing up sludge and filthy water. The steady cadence of gunfire echoed the rapid thudding of Billy’s heart, interspersed with roaring explosions that thundered through air sooted by smoke and descending night and rippled the surface of the stagnant water.
“Keep your head down. You want to get us killed?” Frank waved his bayonet-tipped rifle at Billy. Fateful words, as Frank slid silently into the mud, a neat perforation above his right eye. Billy gaped in appalled wonder.
“You heard ‘im,” rasped Jack. “Never mind now.”
Another blast heaved up more muck, a drowned rat, and something more gruesome, more grisly.
Billy felt hotness spreading down his thighs. He wretched.
“Don’t be a sissy,” Jack hissed. “Don’t act like a boy still wearin’ short pants.”
But, I am a boy. Billy stifled a whimper.
“Buck up.” Jack cuffed him on the shoulder.
Billy swallowed hard and pitched another grenade, and another, then shouldering his rifle, threw himself over the berm and opened fire, rage igniting him. A volley of bullets replied, along with another explosion. As the dust and haze cleared, Billy saw the lifeless body of a soldier several yards away. Barely thinking, Billy vaulted across the ground and slammed himself down beside the still body.
Seizing an arm, Billy began dragging the bloodied man back to the trench, bullets gouging furrows through the earth, spraying shards of gravel into his face. A grenade exploded nearby, too close, hailing rocks and debris, and nearly blinding him with its blaze. He felt a sting, barely a kiss, on his cheek, and warmth trickled into his collar. He rolled the unconscious man over the bank, then crawled down after him.
Relief overwhelmed him, and he vomited into the mire.
“You done good, kid,” Jack’s warm breath brushed his ear. “You are a kid, aren’t you?”
Billy nodded weakly, reluctantly.
“I’ll keep mum about it. Far as I’m concerned, you’re all grown up. You’re a bigger man than me, though a mite more foolish.” Jack thumped him on the arm.
In the darkness, groans and whispered prayers shrouded the shivering men, softly and strangely comforting amid the gun fire weaving brilliant threads of light through the starless night. And as vermin crawled in hidden places, and putrid scum chilled to the core, and death hovered, eager to caress within its miasmic embrace, a boy who would be a man, came of age.
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