WHEN they were youngsters of ten and twelve, the Sprague boys used to walk home alone after Sunday evening services. Peter was the elder, a stocky, unimaginative child, dark-skinned and awkward. Davy had nice features. He was fair like his mother’s people.
As they neared the foot of Pride’s Hill, Peter would take his brother’s hand. Davy was afraid. That was on account of the old Baptist cemetery. The stones gleamed, and there were noises in the underbrush that fringed the road. As they topped the rise, the younger boy would draw away a little, and start chattering again.
Even in those days Peter had understood. Davy was different; things bothered him more. But he was smart, smarter than any of the others in the Pine Street school; and he could talk to people, even to strangers, when Peter could only mutter unhappily.
When the war came, it was inevitable that the Sprague boys should be among the first, from Braintree to go. A Sprague had followed Ethan Allen down from the hills. There were the many Decoration Days when they had stood very straight and silent beside their mother, while the Grand Army bugler sounded taps. It was in the Sprague blood.
Davy enlisted in Boston, on his way home from his freshman year at Tufts. Two weeks later, when he left to report for duty, Peter went with him.
It was September. The transport was rocking to the first long swells of the outer harbor. The brothers stood by the rail, watching their convoy nose out ahead. Somewhere in the distance behind them the fog was blurring out the ragged Hoboken water front.
David turned a shoulder against the gray shifting surfaces. ‘The old man has it in for me, I guess,’ he said suddenly, an apologetic note in his voice. He was looking at his brother’s chevroned sleeve.
Peter watched a smudge of smoke on the horizon. ‘You ‘ll be on the next list, Davy,’ he said awkwardly.
They were silent then. David was wondering what it would be like — over there. How long it would be. Peter was thinking of his brother. He was n’t sure —
Beneath their feet the great shafts plunged and recoiled — pushing them steadily, relentlessly, toward the unknown.
It was December. The third battalion had halted along the road beyond Ménil-la-Tour. At eight that night the division would take over a sector from the French. The men had done twelve muddy miles since noon, and they were profanely tired.
The rain had ceased falling and the sky was drawing away, cold and hard. A heavy rumbling came and went among the hills up ahead. A gray-blue camion lumbered by. Its bearded chauffeur dexterously caught a cigarette and grinned his thanks. The poplars dripped. Out of the clumps of O. D. blue shreds of smoke eddied.
Sergeant Sprague, working down the line, reached his brother’s squad. Davy was sitting on his unslung pack, a little withdrawn from the others. Peter noticed that as he squatted down beside him.
‘How are the feet, Davy?’
‘ They ‘re sore, Pete. Got any water? ‘
‘Plenty.’ He reached for his canteen.
As he took the canteen back, he paused, his fingers on its cover. Out of the distance had come a purring noise — high up. A soft purr with a recurring throb in it. The men grew silent. The noise came louder and louder. Far up in the sky, somewhat off to the right, a tiny black insect was sailing slowly toward them.
‘He’s looking for the road,’ remarked Pete. Slipping the canteen back in his belt he snapped-to the felt covers. The word was passed along to cut out the cigarettes and lie flat.
The Boche plane was droning almost directly overhead. The men lay still. The plane swooped down toward the road. A bomb struck in the field behind them; the explosion beat on them — the Boche had passed over.
A voice came from the next squad, ‘Missed us, you—!’ A tense suppressed laugh. The Boche came circling back again. The drone of his engine grew louder and louder. It would be close this time. Davy’s hand came into Pete’s line of vision. It was very still — the hand. Then slowly, spasmodically it twitched. It twitched as a shot rabbit twitches — convulsively. He was aware suddenly of a fear that had been with him from the beginning. Davy could n’t stand it. He was different. He wished to God the war would end — soon.
A flash, and the crash came. On the other side of the road — a bit of iron rang on a helmet.
The plane did n’t return. It hummed off toward Ménil-la-Tour. The men sat up and followed it with jeering comments. Dave clambered to his feet, laughing unsteadily.
Sprague grew leisurely awake. There was a patch of sunlight on the dugout floor. That meant afternoon. He had a vague memory of noise, heavy muffled sounds. He had slept since daylight. It was quiet outside. It had been a quiet two weeks. By this time to-morrow they would be back in reserve. The first battalion would be in to relieve them by dawn. He heard someone passing outside; the creak of heavy boots on the duckboards. Fritz had been lying low. It was a bad sign, that. Well — they’d be out to-morrow. He’d speak to the captain then about Davy. It was nothing to be ashamed of. Davy was sick. His nerves were screwed tight — to the breaking-point. They could see for themselves.
He sat up and reached for his shoes, but the image of his brother’s white face, the tense look of his eyes, persisted. Only one more day. The bags at the head of the stairs pushed in. It was Sergeant Ferber.
‘Sleep through the row?’ he grunted, pushing back his helmet.
‘ I heard something.’
‘They threw some Berthas over — knocked in a piece of the support trench.'
Pete swung off his bunk and began winding on his spirals. Ferber stood watching him.
‘Your brother’s out of luck.’
Sprague straightened up and waited — tense.
‘He sneaked off post five when the fuss started. They picked him up cryin’ like a kid.’
It had come.
Sprague drew a quick sharp breath and bent again over his leggings, his back to Ferber. He tucked in the tape ends and turned.
‘The kid’s all in — he’s sick,’ he said quietly.
Ferber spat his disgust. ‘He will be when they get through with him,’ he remarked judicially.
Sprague’s eyes flamed. Then, without speaking, he went past Ferber to the stairs.
The sky was blue overhead. The guns were quiet, oppressively quiet. There was a soft thud above him. A little sand scattered down. Davy — Davy!
The lantern at Captain Doane’s elbow flared and smoked. The shadow on the wall behind him bulked grotesquely. He gave no sign. Sprague spoke with an effort, a sense of futility dragging down his words. When he had done, the officer raised his eyes. He looked past Sprague.
‘The court can consider his physical condition. That’s not up to me,’he said wearily.
Sprague’s voice was steady. ‘Will you recommend clemency, sir?’
’I can’t, Sprague. When your brother crawled off his post, he endangered the whole battalion. I can’t let any feeling for you —’
There was more; something about justice and Pete’s own record. The words blurred together. It did n’t matter. Davy would be put under guard in the morning when they started out. They would n’t shoot him — it would be Leavenworth. The Concord Times would have it. Jim Wetherby would bring the paper out to his mother.
The phone stuttered. As Doane reached for the set, Sprague saluted stiffly and turned away.
He was passing out of the orderlies’ room when someone grabbed his elbow. ‘Are you deaf, Sarge? The old man wants you back.’
The captain was waiting, drumming nervously on the table. ‘Price is on number nine. He thinks they’ve sneaked in and set up a machine gun off to his left.’
As Pete listened, his brother’s face grew indistinct. The ground sloped off to the left of number nine.
‘They could get the support trench from that position, sir.’
The captain jerked forward, scowling. “If they’ve got that support trench covered they’ve got wind we’re going to be relieved. They’re going to strafe us when we start out.’ He paused, and then went on grimly, ‘You know the men. Send someone out to look it over. If the Bodies are there, we’ll hold up the movement and shell them out in the morning.’
A sense of relief — of escape — flashed on him. It would be a way out. Doane was waiting — giving him his chance.
A way out — for him. He stood silent.
The captain stirred impatiently. ‘Well? Tell the man who goes we’ll make him if he gets back. That’s all, Sergeant.’
Sprague wormed his way out through the narrow connecting ditch to number nine post. A fine rain was beginning to fall. The night was black and warm. Price pointed out through the dark. Crouching together, they waited till a flare light shot up.
‘Off to your left,’ whispered Price, ‘there’s a shell hole. You can’t see nothing, but there’s a couple of Heinies in there with a machine gun or I’ll —’
‘All right, Price. I’ll send someone out to look it over. Don’t open up if you hear us. I’ll go part way myself.’
Price cursed fervently under his breath. His whisper followed Sprague. ‘There’s a ticket west waiting for the bird that goes.’
Sprague knew it.
Davy lay crouched, his face to the wall. At the touch of his brother’s hand he shivered and turned to stare up at him hopelessly. He tried to smile. His lips twitched.
Pete’s face was granite. ‘Davy, get your shoes on. The C. O. wants you.’
The members of Davy’s squad were rolled in their blankets on the dugout floor. They had drawn away from his corner. One of them stirred in his sleep, but he did n’t wake. Davy groped for his boots and stumbled after his brother.
In the trench outside, Pete gripped his shoulder. ‘You’ve got to get out and get out quick. They’re going to line you up in the morning.’
His brother’s fingers clutched at his blouse. ‘ My God, Pete! They would n’t do that!’
‘They’ve got to on account of the others.’ He put his arms around the boy and held him close. Then gently he broke the grasp of his fingers. ‘You’re going over to the Boches, Davy. They will ship you back to a prison camp. After this thing is over, people won’t remember.’
He was glad of the darkness.
‘I can’t, Pete.’ There was nothing left but fear.
‘ It’s your only chance. Sure you can. Come.’
The boy shrank back.
‘It’s that or the firing squad, Davy.’
A moment later they were on their faces crawling beneath the wire. Out by number nine post. He could hear Davy breathing — quick forced gasps. Groping, he reached and found his hand. They crept on. Out past the vague hump that was number nine post. Five — ten yards beyond. A flare went up, and before the light failed he had aligned the suspected crater.
Drawing close, he whispered, ‘I’ve got to go back now, Dave. Keep straight on till you strike a shell hole, twenty-five yards out. Crawl in there till it starts to get light and then go over.’
He drew swiftly back before Davy could hesitate, lest he refuse to go on. He could still get him back. He dug his fingers into the earth. The silence pushed down on him — it was too late now. The seconds hung back.
A roar shattered the night. The waiting Boche had swung his gun on the black smudge that had crept too near. A sharp staccato of shots. The silence settled down again. Sprague crept back under the wire. His lips were bleeding.
Captain Doane looked up anxiously. ‘Well, Sprague?’
‘There’s a machine gun there, sir. Thirty yards off post nine.’ There was a note of exhaustion in his voice. ‘He opened up and got our man.’
Doane fumbled for his pipe. Their eyes met. ‘Who went, Sergeant?’
Pete lifted a suffering face. ‘Private Sprague, sir,’ he said proudly. Then his voice went flat.
‘Your lantern’s smoking, sir. I’ll send Webber in.’
He stopped in the orderlies’ room, and then went back to his brother’s dugout — to gather up Davy’s things. They would send them back to his mother.