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Dear Bobby,

It grieved me to leave you, considering how mad you were. It’s just that I am not cut out to be a homebody. Ma knows that. Don’t you recall her saying as how she had to tether me to the porch to keep me from straying? Well, I’m past my toddler days and the neighborhood’s bigger, and war or no, I could not pass up a trip to Europe. Besides, the hostilities will be over by fall.

Make me two promises: First, take care of Ma and watch her close. If she’s feeling poorly, she will never give you a hint of it. Second, don’t let Pa come on the place. I know you don’t recall him well, but he has the disposition of a junkman’s dog. And mind that he doesn’t come courting Ma. I suspect she harbors a weakness for him that may override her Christian virtues.

Don’t fret for my sake, either. When this is over, I’ll settle down, finish my studies, and spend the rest of my life doctoring lumbago. Still, come to find I sorely needed a vacation. Maybe when I get back stateside I won’t mind those tight-assed Harvard Congregationalists.

But I miss my English literature classes, especially as I am within sight of Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle.” It galls not being able to step foot where Keats walked. I’d like to see one of Wordsworth’s daffodils. I feel an awful longing to hear a nightingale. Tomorrow I sail the channel to France and, like as not, I’ll spend that trip as I did from New York to here—with my head over the rail, bestowing a free lunch on the fishes.

Didn’t see any submarines on the way. In that, I was luckier than those poor souls on the Lusitania who probably never realized they were dying as an example of bastardly German gutlessness.

Kiss Ma and tell her not to worry. Assure her General Wood’s battle lessons will come in handy. Remind her that I graduated at the top of my class, way over all those Yankee boys who cannot shoot straight and who complain mercilessly when they are made to shit in the woods. The general always did say that he perceived in me the élan for battle, and in a real man’s war, spirit is all that is needed to win.

Yours in brotherly affection,

Travis Lee

P.S. I knew it, for folks had told me; but I hardly believed until I saw for myself—the cliffs of Dover really are white. Yesterday I stood at the rail in the pouring rain until long after we had left them behind. How can I begin to tell you about Dover? It’s a chalk line God drew to separate gray from green, breakers from earth. Seeing it, I don’t know why William the Conqueror didn’t just put down his sword and take England captive with his eyes.

* * *


Dear Bobby,

The postman finally caught up with me, and it was no child’s play to find me, either, since my location has moved about. The Brits put me first in one battalion and then in another when they saw how well I could shoot.

“Good God, Yank,” Captain Hodgeson said to me the other day at target practice. “Do you realize that out of five bullets, you have shot five perfect bull’s-eyes?”

I speak fluent Texan around the limeys as they enjoy it so, and are not hurtful with their joshing like the Yankee boys. Anyway, I scratched my head like I was puzzled and said, “Did I ruin that target, sir?”

Captain Hodgeson then called up Major Woodhouse to see, and both officers asked me to fire once more, which I proceeded to do. Now it appears that, after a semester of introductory grenade tossing and an advanced course in trench-digging, I am to be a sharpshooter.

“Where did you learn to shoot like that, Private?” the major asked.

I told him, “Plinking squirrels for Ma’s varmint stew,” which delighted the two of them so that they had me repeat the phrase again and again for a succession of other officers. But my own jest was my downfall, for it caused me to ruminate upon those times before Ma started raising those fancy goats of hers. I was somber for the remainder of the day. You do not recall how strapped Ma and I were after Pa left us; how we lived off grits and yard greens and possum, like poor coloreds. Still, now I am filled with a sense of superiority. The English may have seen war, but I have lived with Pa, so I have seen Hell. Therefore I will always be hardier than they, and if that was all the inheritance that drunken bastard will give me, I suppose forcing me to become a man is enough.

Anyway, it is always good to hear laughter, no matter if the source of it is sorrow.

I cannot tell you where I am, but suffice it to say that it is a pleasant and verdant place in France. Here green has no overtones, not like in Texas where dry is always pushing through. Nailing France’s grass to its brown earth are massive chestnut trees and elms as stately as Gothic cathedrals. Oh Lord, Bobby, the flowers—all colors, and everywhere you look. Europe has such a tender and civilized countryside.

I wish you were here. Fondly,

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

You must not tell Ma, for it would send her entire praying circle to their knees, but the Tommies took me into town and got me knee-walking drunk.

At some point that night I found out that they don’t like being called “limeys,” and I informed them of my personal objection to “Yank.” After another few tots of French brandy I went to echoing some of the more choice selections of their speech like: “Not by ‘arf” and “Gotcher mouf on yer, ain’t yer?” I tell you, they may have invented it, and it might even be named after them, but their language doesn’t bear much resemblance to English. After a few minutes of my aping them, a private from Lancaster started shouting, “Oos iff it, Yank? Oos iff it?” or something like, which I immediately parroted. He began a pushing sort of fight. I beat a retreat and went outside to find an outhouse. There I searched and searched, and the more I looked, the more urgency I suffered. In desperation, I crept around the side of the inn and unfastened my pants. I was joined by a drunken French private who spoke no better English than the Tommies, but who parley-voued well enough in gestures to let me know that he was of the opinion that he could piss farther than I. Little did he know that I was not only possessed of a sorely laden bladder, but I was a sharpshooter besides.

“Give it your best shot,” I said.

He let loose at an innocent bystander duck who took cheerfully to the shower. The striped cat that I chose was not so sanguine. I laughed so, I fell into a nearby ditch. I was told that the Frenchman attempted to get me out; but since I was unwilling and he too was drunk, he walked off and left me, forgetting to inform my sergeant where I was. There I lay until my mates stumbled upon me the next morning. The officers had assumed that I had deserted, and it was a trial explaining my hardshell Baptist upbringing. I told them, “Don’t y’all get me to dancing, then, for I ain’t used to that, neither; and God only knows what I’d do.”

They would have put me in the clink had they not found me such a caution. Had I not been such a dead-on shot. The sad thing is, last night I came to find out what lures Pa to the bottle, and I wonder if I shall discover in myself the same gloomy thirst. Promise me, Bobby, to stay away from liquor, as it gives a short-lived sort of glee, and you don’t remember the best parts.

One thing you might try, though, is pissing on a duck, as they seem to enjoy it. You might also try pissing on the Jennings’ calico cat for something of the opposite reason.

Yours in sin,

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Yesterday my new captain, Miller, ordered me to go with the new subaltern; and so the pair of us shouldered our packs and set off down a poplar-corridored lane, toward what destination I could not discern. As the lieutenant was a Scot he could not, in understandable English, tell me, either. After an hour’s pleasant stroll, we came upon what looked like a crude bar ditch, with a few soldiers lining one side and peering off across an orchard.

Right then the lieutenant throws himself down, yelling, “Four in! Four in!” The Tommies lining the ditch begin to shout, “Hed doon!” And then I heard wasps buzzing.

The lieutenant waved frantically. “Yer bloody ignorant Yank! Fritz is four in!”

I dived headfirst into the ditch. Soldiers and packs and curses were propelled every which way. When we got untangled, I saw that the lieutenant was ordering me to ready my rifle, which I did. There were only a few Boche, and they were lurking about the trees in the apple orchard, plinking at us haphazardly. My first shot dropped one, an outcome which took me by utter surprise. I saw the helmet sail off the German boy’s head. I saw him go down. Regret so overwhelmed me that I nearly vomited, an enterprise which, considering the close confines of the trench, would have earned me a pummeling. Luckily I must have only winged the man, for to my relief he soon sprang up and fled east through the trees, his fellows behind.

I have read of battles, and Granddaddy de Vrees talked enough about Shiloh to make me think I’d been there. This seemed like a puny encounter, without much glory. Still, I think that I shall like this war, as there is a sort of silliness to it.

When the battle was over and the Germans had run off through the apple trees, the lieutenant clapped me on the back. The corporal gave me a tot from his ration of rum. We lounged about and had a smoke.

The trenches are less than I thought, and the war is, too. I was prepared to go face-to-face with spike-helmeted ogres and damnable cowards. I understand why the old soldiers, the ones who have been here for a while, have an odd pity for the enemy. You shall see—very soon the Germans will lose heart altogether and run home, and the disagreement will be over.

I’ll travel a bit then, and see more of Europe. I need me enough memories to last through all the tedium of adulthood—for I realize that I must grow up eventually. There are enough scrub oaks and mesquites in my future; enough mockingbirds and grackles to make me forget the larks. The afternoon in that ditch smelled of moss and history. I sat and listened to the Tommies bicker over their game of cards. Apple blossoms drifted across the meadow like snow. In some other bar ditch well removed from us, a German sang a ditty in a lilting tenor, so high and pure a sound that it near brought tears to my eyes. The sun lay down, gently dying, in the soft grass of the orchard. I stood guard, and I would not have shot him for it, but my Fritz did not come back to retrieve his helmet. Evening settled with calm, chill indigo. Stars emerged. Oh, Bobby. How I love it here. Even after the warmest days, the nights are cool as salvation. Lieutenant sent someone into town to fetch dinner, and we ate crusty bread and hard cheese while the silent parliament of night convened. As I closed my eyes for sleep that night, I saw the German fall and fall again, in showers of petals, in the tranquil beauty of the meadow.

I shall soon have to overcome my squeamishness, for killing is why I came. But the first deer I ever shot was so sloe-eyed that I sat down and cried over him, too.

Forever stout and bravely yours,

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Well, I am unmasked for an academic. Captain Miller came upon me today as I sat alone, reading from my Keats.

“Why are you not at the YMCA pavilion?” he asked.

“Noisy,” I told him. It was getting noisier all the time where I sat, too, what with the bees buzzing like sluggish bullets through the nearby clover and the captain making have-to conversation.

“Are you having problems with the others, Private? Any complaints you care to unburden yourself of?”

I took it upon myself to needle him a bit. “Yes, sir. Matter of fact, what with the rifle cleaning and all the grenade training, there just ain’t enough quiet time to read, sir.”

As is usual with the Brits, Miller failed to get the point. “Well, idle hands, what? Practice sharpens skills. Besides, our enlisted chappies are illiterate, or the nearest thing to. Books simply fail to interest them.”

Well, I tell you, that rubbed my fur wrong-ways. “You joshing me, sir? Somebody swore up and down this book has pictures of naked women.”

It wasn’t meant as invitation, but he sat down on the grass by me, anyway. As I said, the Tommies are always mistaking my intent. They howl with merriment at my anger and bristle at my good humor. God only knows what would happen if I’d up and kiss one. “Lieutenant McPhearson tells me you acquitted yourself well the first time under fire.”

“Um.” I went back to my reading.

It was a damp day, and the Tommies do better with the chill than I do. I pulled my greatcoat up around my neck.

“ ‘The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold.’ ” Miller has melancholy eyes and the stuffed-shirt British sort of voice that sounds like he’s eating mush; but that troublemaker grin of his gives him away.

I closed the book, marking the page with my finger. “ ‘The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass.’ ”

“ ‘And silent was the flock in woolly fold.’ ”

There I was, in another pissing contest.

I recalled the next line easy. “ ‘Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told ...’ ”

“ ‘His rosary!’ Too easy, Yank. ‘And ... and ...’ Oh, bugger it!”

In pissing contests, it helps to have a full bladder; it’s essential to know your Keats. “ ‘... and while his frosted breath,/Like pious incense—’ ”

“Cheating!” He snatched the book out of my hand. “You’d just read it!” He opened the book at the marked page and surprised, he read the title: “Endymion?” He looked at me then—not like an officer on a soldier, nor even like a rich man on a poor. “Good memory, Yank.”

“Travis Lee.”

“Travis Lee Stanhope. Good God. How inutterably quaint.”

“Ma worked on it.”

He handed me the book. “Travis Lee. So I find that you are not quite the rube.”

“I can pass in a pinch.”

“Um? Ah. Yes, I see. Well, you shoot. I have been made well aware of that. You have ridden horses too, then, I take it? “

“Bareback like a wild Indian. And if you will forgive me, sir, you don’t sit a horse for shit. Although you ride some better than Major Dunn, who I expect got the crack up his ass from being throwed so often, if I may be so blunt.”

He relished the comment about the major like spun sugar candy. “Please, Private Stanhope,” Miller said, smacking his lips, “promise me that you shall always be blunt. So tell me. Were you acquainted with any wild Indians, there in Texas?”

“Ma’s half Cherokee.”

He took to that, too. “How charmingly American of her. Which side?”

“Her ma come across the Trail of Tears and stopped when she got tired of walking. Hell, she was always tired after that, for Granddaddy de Vrees sired fourteen children off her. He sired more off a widder woman he knew, more off some boughten slaves. It fair shames me to admit to it, sir, but half the boys in Texas—white and colored—are relatives of mine.”


“Uh-huh. Granddaddy stuck it in everything it pointed at. Ma always tells me I favor Granddaddy de Vrees, and she don’t mean it kindly, sir.”

The captain guffawed so loud that he embarrassed himself. Right quick, he clapped his hand over his mouth. He peered about, then shrank back against the bole of the elm. “Shhh, Stanhope. Please be less entertaining. We must take care that no one hear us. In case you were not aware, it’s frowned upon for officers to consort with the enlisted.”

Well, Bobby, about that time I started asking myself, “Why me?” and hoping I hadn’t given him the wrong idea. It struck me that consorting might have overtones, for, as Uncle Cecil was always fond of warning me, you know the predilections of those poetry readers.

It started to rain—not a downpour like it might have in Texas, but a soft, refined European sort of rain. He didn’t make a move to get up. I didn’t either.

His tone was as mannerly as that shower. “Stanhope? Do tell me: Why on earth did you join?”

“Well, sir, it’s a long damned story. Won myself this scholarship first. Wrote an essay for some old Harvard alumnus as to why Harper, Texas needed a doctor. Ma’d been craving a sheepskin for her wall, and I got that first one just to please her. I’ll earn my license, I guess; but there’s a load more study goes into doctoring. Before I settle down I need something just for me: a couple of spoonfuls of adventure.”

Miller smiled cheerlessly. “Ah, yes. Of course. Adventure.”

He looked quickly away, down to where the road grew tired and petered out in mist. “ ‘Mother whose heart hung humble as a button/On the bright splendid shroud of your son.’ ”

“What, sir?”

“Stephen Crane. War Is Kind. Please remember that some courage is mere idiocy. Learn to keep your head down when the Boche fire, will you? And you might also acquaint yourself with your own fine American poets.” He got up. I watched him amble across the pasture, worry’s weight bowing him.

I have made myself a promise, Bobby, that the captain’s warning will not spook me. I inherited Granddaddy’s obsession with the ladies; and like him, when my pecker at last gives out, I plan to die in my bed of disagreeability and old age.


Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Well, I have seen my first aeroplane and was nearly shot by a Canadian. His name’s Pierre LeBlanc, but don’t let that fool you, for he has only a nodding acquaintance with French. Even the Tommies speak the language better than he, and their vocabulary’s no more than a Texan’s chinga su madre.

As soon as I came into the company, the Tommies threw LeBlanc and me together. See, this particular Canuck was born on a horse ranch up near Alberta, so as fellow yokel colonials, the Tommies naturally figured we’d have a lot in common.

Yesterday all of us were in the barracks. There was rain outside, a leaking roof within, nothing but housework to do. LeBlanc looked up from cleaning his rifle and said, “Lose my company, and they throw me in with an untried asshole of a captain. The bastards are doing their best to kill me, eh?”

The Tommies said nothing because talking about destroyed units is bad luck. We’re a green company and an even greener platoon. Among us, only Lieutenant McPhearson and Corporal Dunleavy and Sergeant Riddell have seen battle, and they don’t like to talk about it much.

Anyway, I took it upon myself to defend Miller. “Oh, strikes me he’s smart and careful. Rather have that in an officer than one who’s got more balls than sense.”

LeBlanc jumped to his feet. Mind you, he had his loaded rifle in his hands—pointed downward, but still. “You have a point to make about the Third Canadian?”

I put up my hands real quick. The barracks was quiet except for the hollow drip of rainwater into a nearby bucket. The Tommies were eyeing us both.

“Didn’t mean nothing by it, friend,” I said.

“You’re not my goddamned friend.” All of a sudden he went to shaking hard, trembling like he had the fever. It scared the fool out of me. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what,” he said.

“Take it easy.” I spoke to him patient and slow, the way I always talked to Pa when he was drunk.

“Shut up,” he said. “And listen. You listening?”

“Yeah. All right.”

“They sent us into Kitchener’s Wood at midnight, eh? Dark and wet as a whore’s cunt, and we fixed our bayonets and went, not knowing where the hell the Germans were. The Frogs didn’t have the stomach, eh? And the Tommies were bumping into each other in the dark. The Canadians, see? We pushed them back.”

“Okay. That’s good,” I told him.

He wasn’t having any of it. “Shut up. You don’t know. It was last April. End of April.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“Shut up,” he said again, and this time I did. “The weather was nice. Later it rained and all there was, was mud. But it was a pretty morning when we climbed down into the trenches. Later that afternoon we could see it coming. We could see it for a long time, coming across the pasture slow, like fog rolling in ...”

“Private LeBlanc,” Lieutenant McPhearson warned.

It shocked the hell out of me when LeBlanc snapped, “You don’t know! Shut the hell up!” And it utterly bewildered me when Lieutenant went quiet. LeBlanc was still holding the rifle, and I began to wonder if the lieutenant was scared to take it away. “Piss on your bandolier, Stanhope. Piss right on it. That’s what they told us. And so I did. And before it hit, the gas smelled good, sort of like spicy pineapple. Then my eyes started to sting and I put my wet bandolier up to my face. Funny, right? Don’t you think that’s funny? Breathing through your own piss? I would have eat my own shit, too, see? Would have eat yours. I would have done anything. Up and down the trench, men started barking, a terrible hard barking, like choking dogs. Then all of a sudden the firing along the line stopped. Jesus. It got so quiet. For weeks I thought that everybody but me’d turned and run. But piss on it, right? Right? That’s what the Brit officers told us, and they should have known. Still, I feel a tingling in my throat. My chest starts to hurt bad. The captain yells, ‘Up top!’ and the few of us left scramble up the parapet, right into the bullets. The boys who are hit fall in the trench again, down into the gas. Ricky and Danny and Dennis and Jean Claude. And there they are in the bottom of that goddamned hole, clawing at the dirt and turning blue. But we held, didn’t we? We pushed the Boche back. That was the important thing. The whole world was dead and the battle was won and everything smelled like pineapple. Goddamn it to Jesus and Mary fucking holy shit.” He threw down his rifle and walked out into the rain.

Into the silence, Sergeant Riddell said, “Never you mind, boys. I’ve walked through gas, ’aven’t I? And Lieutenant McPhearson, too. I can tell you the masks work. Captain Miller may be a Jew, but don’t let that worry you, either. You’ll see. When the time comes, he’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with us, stout as any white Christian officer.”

It fair shook me. A Jew. Now I understand why I never see Miller with the other brass. And why, when he was looking for company, he only found me.

Still, how could the Tommies know by looking? Miller seemed like an ordinary man. I mean, I can pick out a colored, even if he’s high yellow. I can pick out a Mexican. The only Jews I’ve seen were in cartoons, and they didn’t look at all like Miller. How could the Tommies know for sure?

And what’s against him anyway, more than an idol-worshipping papist, I mean? And this army’s full of papists. Jews, papists, they’re all of them the same—all walking that long road to Hell. And so what? I have the suspicion Lutherans and Church of Christers will end up sucking flames. If God’s fair, the Congregationalists will, too. I figure that, despite “Once saved, always saved,” I’ll meet with all of them there.

Later, the rain let up and I walked out of the barracks. Down at the stables I saw LeBlanc. He was standing by an officer’s mount—Captain Hawkins’s, I think. A bay gelding, like a hundred others. Just any horse. And he was so patient, standing tethered there, LeBlanc hanging on to him tight as a man drowning, his face buried in that brown satin neck.

I walked past the YMCA pavilion. Across the way, a squad of Frenchies marched through a stand of trees, in their horizon-blue uniforms faint as smoke. High up, in a calm azure lake between clouds, a glint of color: an aeroplane. I thought of how lonely the pilot had to be, nothing but wind to hold him.

Still, I guess I’m flying now, aren’t I, Bobby? Strikes me Miller is, too. And Pierre LeBlanc, just because death put him there.

I sure do miss you.


Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Miller came by the practice field yesterday, all swagger stick and attitude. “Stanhope,” he said. “Put down your rifle. I wish to see you at once.” He turned around and walked off, leaving me to follow, wondering what the hell I might have done to set his temper off. We arrived at the stables, where a group of officers were sitting around a table drinking cheap red French wine and scratching their balls and speculating about what was happening where people were fighting actual wars.

They shut up fast when they saw Miller and me. Miller began to shout orders: “Bring my horse up!” Then “Wilson! Might I borrow your mount? The private here is to ride mine. I wish him to check my gelding’s wind.”

One of the captains tapped stick to cap, then went back to his conversation, all the time eyeing us like he was trying not to stare.

When they brought Captain Wilson’s gray around, Miller climbed up and left me to mount his long-legged sorrel. That gelding had to be near seventeen hands high. I’d never mounted from one of them women rider blocks, but I swallowed my pride this time. Even then I had a hell of a time getting up, since my hobnail boots were too slick for those steel stirrups.

I swung a leg over that limey excuse for a saddle. Before I was settled, Miller barks, “Fall in!” Damned if that gelding didn’t start sauntering across the paddock—with only half of me on him.

The officers around the table nearly pissed themselves laughing.

I held on best I could. Then I hear Miller call out, “Stretch high! High!” and the gelding commenced to backing. About the time he reached the middle of the paddock, he started up on his back legs.

I jerked that gelding’s head hard right, grabbed me an ear and twisted hard. I surprised the bejesus out of that sorrel. He took to snorting and crab-dancing, and then to standing stock-still in place, waiting to see what I would do next. I crooned to him, the way Grandma de Vrees always taught me; and only when he started to quiver did I let go.

I looked up. I had everybody’s attention. The officers weren’t smirking anymore.

“A Cherokee trick, is it, Stanhope?” Miller looked cat-in-the-birdcage satisfied.

That’s when I got that it hadn’t been my respect he was after. “Yes, sir. Biting the ear is better, but pinching will do.”

“The stirrups bother you?”

“Can’t keep my feet in them, sir.”

He climbed off the gray, came and fastened my stirrups up under the saddle’s gullet. It was odd, sitting and looking down as he helped me. There was gentleness to his touch, a humility to his gesture. I figure it was by way of a public apology and a private thanks.

He never looked at me. When he was finished, he walked over and climbed up in his saddle. He called for the paddock gate to be opened, then he trotted the gray through. I clapped my legs around the sorrel’s belly and followed.

At the road, Miller let the gray have his head. We cantered past chattering knots of soldiers, past artillery shells nestled in their open boxes like brass eggs. There is a magic to riding, you know, Bobby? An enchantment, even astride that jackrabbit sorrel and that slick little postage stamp of a saddle. When we were clear of the lorries and the road stretched wide and empty, Miller cried out, “Put heels to him!” and we flew into a dead run.

The race was just for the intoxication of it, I guess, for once past the next turn of the road, he halted. He turned to me, and his face was flushed. “Close your eyes, Stanhope. No, don’t gape at me so, old man. I’ll take your reins.”

He kicked the gray close and nearly tore the reins out of my hands. Then he gave me one of his rascally grins. “Close your eyes.”

Eyes shut tight, I let him lead me. The thud of steel on clay softened; dry leaves crackled under hoof. The chill of dense shade washed my face. The air went damp and rich with the scent of horse and forest. A crow cawed, startlingly loud. Soon the wind freshened and the dark behind my lids went ruddy and hot sun prickled my skin.

“Look,” Miller said.

I opened my eyes. Before me stretched a meadow of crimson, as if God himself had bled there. A breeze sent flower heads nodding. A current shivered through the poppies and blew a confetti cloud of white butterflies upward.

“I thought you should see it,” Miller said, “before it is gone.”

I dismounted and waded knee-deep into that calm scarlet sea.

His quiet voice came from far behind me. “We are to move out the day after tomorrow,” he said. “I could not let the flowers die unseen.”

I turned. Astride his horse and at least twenty feet away, but his stare was as assertive as a hand. “Sir?”

He ducked his head. “Yes. Well. I suppose we should go.” Still, he sat where he was, sat so quiet that it seemed he had given up on breathing. I walked to the sorrel and hesitated. There was no convenient rock wall, no fallen tree trunk. Finally Miller awkwardly, and without meeting my eye, dismounted to give me a leg up. Close as we were—chest to shoulder, my knee planted in his hands—I could feel him tremble. His face was high-colored, his skin so hot that his heat baked right through my trousers. As soon as I was up, he sprang away, clearing his throat.

“Right you are,” he said. “Just a bit of sightseeing. Hope you enjoyed it.”

He mounted the gray. There we sat, considering each other across a gulf of rank and questions.

Miller’s a gentleman, I’ll give him that. A poetry lover, as Uncle Cecil would say. All that time, Bobby, he was hoping. And when it came down to it, he was so smooth that he asked and then accepted my rejection without either one of us having to say a word.

Those dark eyes of his went even sadder. “I’d best get Wilson’s mount back to him.” Suddenly he wheeled the gray and cantered back to camp.

Knowing that he’s a light-stepper disgusted and shocked me for all of ten minutes; then I decided, unless he tries proselytizing some, I don’t really care. Long before I came, this company set fast as concrete. Everyone else is runoff. There’s no sticking place for me, who’ll always be a stranger; nor for Miller, who they look down on; nor for LeBlanc, who no one understands. I wish there was some way for me to tell Miller that I need him—not in the way he’d like, but in the simple way humans need each other.

When we got back to the stables, Miller dismounted and handed the gray’s reins to a groom. He thanked me coolly for testing his mount; then he walked away, the other officers’ eyes following him. At first I thought they knew about his predilections, but his secret’s too dark and Miller is too discreet. I was right. When he was out of earshot, I could hear whispers: “ ... right school, but good God, how could they have taken a sheeny,” and “ ... whole outfit’s rotten with kikes, bad as the Boche army.”

Damn those Brit officers. Those soft faces, those softer hands. They remind me of those Harvard Congregationalists. I’d rather kill me some limey officers, frankly, than any poor helpless Germans.

I’ll keep this letter until I see you again, because—for poor Captain Miller’s sake—I daren’t send it through the censors.

I remain yours in outrage,

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Granddaddy de Vrees should have told me about the marching. Understand, Bobby, that to secure some glory you have to get from Point A, where battle isn’t, to Point B, where things are going on. I never imagined the tedium.

I’d been off my feed the day before, and achy like I was coming down with an ague. The ague never hit. The next day started off well enough: everybody finally marching to war, each platoon singing, me having to learn the ditties in a hurry: “Oh, Landlord, Have You a Daughter?” and “Mandalay.” Then the pack gained some weight, and the straps started to bite into my shoulders, and the hobnail boots, which never fit me worth a damn, rubbed blisters onto my feet.

We marched on and on, not singing anymore. We stopped for lunch, and afterwards, just to break in my boots, we marched some more. Everyone looked tired. One of the battalion’s supply wagons lost a wheel, and our company was ordered to stay behind and guard it. The rest of the companies marched on.

It wasn’t just the wheel that had gone bad. It was the axle, and it took three hours to mend. We hurried to make up the time. LeBlanc, who isn’t a big man to begin with, looked to be collapsing in on himself, pressured by fatigue and fury.

How many picturesque churches can you pass without them looking the same? Miller rode up and down the line of our bent-backed shuffling company, throwing out a sympathetic word here, a joke there—a cutting horse watchful of the herd. He would not meet my eye.

When the sun began to lower, the wheel failed again. We bivouacked that night where the wagon broke down, deep in a dripping forest; and some of us slept in a charcoal shed and some slept in a smokehouse. It rained, and the damp brought the fragrance of long-eaten hams from the smokehouse’s walls. I dreamed of food and thought I heard thunder. The next day we found the bridge five miles up had been blasted. Despite our songs, war had gone on and men had died. We passed a dray mare with her two back legs blown off and a mercy bullet between her ears. Then we marched by two Frenchies, one with a splendid handlebar mustache, his eyes glassy with surprise. His horizon-blue uniform was stiff and so maroon with blood that for the life of me, I couldn’t tell which part of him had been wounded.

Nobody talked much. We looked over our shoulders for the next several miles. Except for that capricious death, there was no other sign of battle. We stopped to eat in a woody copse by masses of white flowers—so many blossoms that it seemed like we’d stopped in snowdrifts. My stuffy head and aching muscles had turned into a full-fledged cold. I couldn’t smell the flowers. I couldn’t smell my rations. I sneezed.

Miller put guards at the perimeters, told us to keep our talk down and to set no cookfires. The dappled woods spooked me. I could see the others’ eyes dart here and there. My boots had not turned comfortable and the pack was just as heavy; still I was ready to leave that place. The missing bridge took us five hours out of our way.

Poplar-bordered lanes. Churchyards with their dead sleeping under tapestries of pink winecups. Bluebottle flies buzzed us like enemy aeroplanes. By the time the sun sank, I sank, too. I couldn’t breathe. My feet hurt.

Lieutenant told me to “Gi’ up, mon. Can ye not gi’ up?” Me grumbling and pretending not to understand. “Up! We ma’ meet w’the battalion,” he says.

“Let the Boche shoot me. Save them and me both the trouble of marching.”

Little baby-faced Abner Foy laughed. “Captain’s sent Sergeant ahead to find us billets, hasn’t he. And maybe there’s a barn with warm straw waiting, and a farmer’s daughter for the cuddling. So off yer bum.”

I got up and we went on. Sergeant had found us an abandoned farmhouse, half its roof caved in from a shell. I dropped my pack in the kitchen and lay down on the tiles. Above me, the ceiling gaped open to twilight. That evening when I closed my eyes, I saw Ma’s face before me as plain as if she had been standing there. I could smell her, too: that mix of camphor and rosewater soap.

Something punched me in the side.

Miller’s toe. “Up! Up, damn you! Get those boots off at once, Private! Sergeant Riddell!” The bellow brought Riddell on the double. “See that this soldier washes his feet and dries them thoroughly. Tomorrow, Private Stanhope, make certain that you put on a pair of clean socks, two pair if need be. If that does not solve your problem, speak to Sergeant Riddell here, and he will arrange for another pair of boots.”

There were quick salutes and “Yes, sir”s all around, and then Miller was gone, leaving Riddell looking at me helplessly.

There weren’t any goddamn extra boots.

Still, Riddell helped me get my boots and socks off. He clucked at the bleeding and oozing blisters. “ ’E’s right, the captain is. Ain’t a man in this platoon what ain’t got sores from double timing, but you takes the prize, Yank. ’Ooever requisitioned these boots for you did you no favor.”

He washed my feet and then salved them. I was too tired to eat. Riddell, who knew his way around weeds, went out and picked me some.

“Look what I found, Yank!” Riddell held up fistfuls of yard greens, and he was beaming ear to ear. “Ribwort and agrimony. ’Course you can always find ribwort. No luck to that. But the agrimony’s a trick, ain’t it.”

He wrapped the ribwort around my blisters. For my cold, he made me chew the agrimony stalks. I fell asleep where I was, the bitter taste of that agrimony in my mouth, the night sky above, the murmurs and snores of men all around.

The next day my cold was better, but I couldn’t put my boots on. Riddell looked worried.

“Hell,” I told him, “I didn’t know what a shoe was till I was fifteen. I can go barefoot. Let me go barefoot, all right?”

He stuffed bunches of agrimony into my pack until I ended up looking like a hay wagon. He shook his head. “All right, then. But best you don’t let me see you marching wifout your shoes. Mind the captain and Lieutenant don’t see you, either.”

I tied my laces together and slung the boots over my shoulder. The bare dirt between my toes was a frolic, something like playing hooky. I’d come out the door and was hiding behind Riddell, keeping my head low, when Major Dunn rode up, his ass bouncing in the saddle and him pulling every which way on the reins and yelling, “Damn him for a nag! Whoa! Whoa!” The horse stopped so quick that he nearly sent Dunn over his head, a sight I would have paid American dollars for. And then he wasn’t yelling at the horse. He was screaming at Miller.

“Your orders were to meet us at Conty! Did you not understand that? If I give a junior officer some responsibility, I expect in return a bit of self-reliance. Need I wipe your bloody arse for you? Need I? Why, when I arrive at Conty, do I find everyone billeted but you? Colonel Caraway asked, and not very politely, where I had mislaid you. Can you not read a blasted map, Captain?”

Poor Miller, ramrod-straight astride his sorrel gelding, his face as emotionless as an Indian’s. Dunn shouting him down in front of his own men; the major’s fury accompanied by Miller’s soft “Yes, sir”s and “No, sir”s and “Sorry, sir”s.

“Sorry will not do, Captain. ‘Sorry’ leaves dead men in the field. ‘Sorry’ leaves battles lost.”

“Yes, sir. But the wagon broke down again.”

“Damn you! I will not have excuses. You may well have a problem on the road. Many of us do. But you are expected—no, you are required—to carry on. If your wish is to be a British officer, Miller, then kindly begin to act like one.”

“Yes, sir. Right you are, sir.”

Then those glacial eyes swung around the unit, and Dunn pointed right at me. “Captain! What is that man doing barefooted? Barefooted!” he screamed. “Is that the sort of army you will give us?”

Everybody in the unit was turning. Miller was frowning tight-lipped. And then right quick he was explaining, “An American, sir. From Texas. He was having a spot of trouble with his boots ...”

Dunn’s cheeks went brick-red. “Order him to put on his boots at once! You people may put up with such slovenly habits, but I will not have it.”

Quietly and urgently, Miller was saying to me, “Your boots, Private. Please.”

“Not please!” Dunn shrieked so loud that his mount flinched. “Not ‘If you would be so kind’! Order him, Captain. If you cannot control your men, I shall see you stripped of your commission.”

I went to it quick as I could, with Miller calling out, “On the double, Private!” By the time I got my boots on, I was fair panting from the pain.

Dunn said, “See that it does not happen again.” And then off he rides, one hand on his pommel, the other grasping reins and a handful of horse.

“What an asshole,” I said under my breath.

Sergeant Riddell turned, frowning. “None of that,” he said, but his lips were trying to curl up at the corners. “Needs a bit of respect. Well, ’e’s the major, isn’t ’e. Nothing’s to be done about it, Yank. You’ll have to keep the boots on.”

Riddell helped me up; then he walked beside me, toting my rifle. As we marched, he picked weeds from the roadside.

“Meadowsweet,” he said, holding up a bunch of white flowers that smelled good as Heaven. “For your grippe, if it comes back. Best thing for fever, meadowsweet. That, or white willow bark. There’s them that swears by white willow, but me? I likes the taste of meadowsweet best. Me mum’s a healer, ain’t she. Got her own medicine garden, like. Got to know me way around plants, I did. Your feet, Yank?”

I had stopped because I couldn’t make my feet move anymore. A few of the company had halted to look back. My boots were leaking blood out the laces.

Then LeBlanc was there. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Sit down! Sit for Christ’s sake down! Take the boots off.”

Riddell’s voice was cautious. “Orders are—”

“You can shove the goddamned orders up this shitting army’s ass!” LeBlanc jerked the bayonet off his rifle. Riddell and the others stepped back, round-eyed.

LeBlanc knelt by me and, gentle-gestured as Miller, pulled the blood-soaked boots and socks from my feet. He used his bayonet to cut holes in the sides of the leather, then handed them back. “Think you can you put them on?”

I managed to lace them. LeBlanc helped me up. My bloody toes stuck out to either side; my torn heels protruded from the backs.

“Take a few steps,” LeBlanc said.

The half-boots were as ugly as Aunt Alice, but they felt good. Hearing the slow plod of hoofbeats, I looked up. Captain Miller was contemplating us.

“Well,” he said, fighting a smile. “Carry on.”

When Miller had ridden out of earshot, LeBlanc said sourly, “Carry on. Jesus. D’ja hear that? Carry the merde on. That’s the only order they know in this turd of an army.” He shoved his bayonet into its housing and marched down the road, never looking back to see if the rest of us were following.

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