The oil lamps sent smoky tendrils towards the low beams of the blackened ceiling. Across the back wall, a faded tapestry of the Last Supper hung, sagging with the weight of years. Small recessed windows of coloured glass, the hand carved wood that held the panes chipped and shrunken, so one might think that a strong wind would cause the glass to fall and shatter, lined the front wall, giving room only to a door crafted as a barn door might be made. Two sections, each able to be bolted of their own accord, so as on a summer day, the chickens and geese be kept out of the house by the lower door, while allowing the gentle breezes to waft through the top half.
In the fourth wall was the heart of the house, the fire and hearth. From the side of the fire place, a large cast iron pot hung from the metal arm, suspended over the coals; coals from wood gathered from the shelled houses that surrounded the house.
On a three legged stool, a woman sat, the firelight kind to her aging face, the black ill fitting dress disguising the thinness of her frame as she busied herself winding a confusion of fresh spun wool from a woven basket at her feet, into a skein of conformity with those that lay in a box beside her. Now and then she would put the wool aside, reach over and with a poker, pull the metal arm towards her, then stir the contents of the huge pot, stabbing at the lumps of horse meat to test their tenderness. The sound of tinkling glass caused her to pause and turn, knowing, before seeing, that it would be Suzanne bringing the freshly washed glasses to the tables.
She sighed, pushed the pot back over the fire, and took up her wool again.
‘What have we come to, that we have to have many men in our house, just to survive?’ her thoughts were dark and bitter. ‘I…, I that held the esteem of our town as the Maire’s wife, my daughter the most sought after debutante, am reduced to cooking for the Anglais and worse, the L’Australien. Ah, those L’Australiens. They that drink all our wine, demand more and more food, and turn my house into a gambling parlour!’
A piece of wood, once the beam of a ceiling in her neighbours house, fell forward onto the hearth
“Here Mama, let me.”
Her daughter reached for the poker and, balancing the wood carefully upon the poker, lifted the wood back into the fire. The wood crackled and flames licked upwards.
“Hurry, Suzanne, they will be here soon, with their loudness and their hunger,” the mother chastised her daughter.
“Mama, how can you be so hard on the poor soldiers that fight to help us. They are fighting the Boche and dying. They come here for our good food, and to relax for awhile.”
“And to gamble and ogle you! How do you think I feel to have strangers in my house? To sit where your father and brother sat and ate?”
Suzanne lowered her head, and brushing her hands against her dress, she knelt beside her mother.
“Mama, these soldiers are all that are between us and hunger. Between us and the Boche. They are dying and they are being crippled, so that we may keep our country. Some are far from home, from their mothers and family. Is it not our duty to give them a place to feel good?”
“Duty….. Duty!” the elder women spat. “Your cousins and brother and father did their duty and are no longer. They have been taken from us. We are reduced to having foreigners in our house!”
Suzanne bit her bottom lip, holding back the hard words of truth that she longed to say to her mother.
Staring into the fire, her thoughts chased around as did the flames that she stared at. ‘You can take their money, while you still reject their help; their sacrifices for our country, our lives. I know what has made you so bitter, Mama. But the dead are dead, and we have to get on. Get on the best we can. I have lost all the men I have loved. Papa, Nicholas, Cousin Henri. I hurt too. But these men from other lands are dying so that we can live, so that France can live, and they are not French, they are from all parts of the world. What do they owe us? Nothing. But we owe them everything.’
The older woman let the wool fall to her lap, her head drooping.
“Suzanne,” she whispered. “ Suz, you are young. You have your life ahead of you. Now that the Boche are being forced back, you will see a new life, a husband, a baby, a new France. But, I, ………. I having nothing left. My husband, my son, my family, all but you, ……gone. My friends gone, killed by the Germans.”
She raised her hands to her face, her heaving shoulders the only sign of her silent sobbing.
“Mama,” Suzanne raised herself on her knees and pushed back a lock of hair that had escaped the old woman’s bun. “Mama, I am here.”
The old woman lifted her face from her hands and stared at her daughter, her only living relation.
“Yes, Suzanne, you are here. It is for you and my grand children to come, that I allow these strangers into my house. That I cook and become a servant. Yes, I take their money, and if I seem to be ungrateful, I am not. It is just so hard to see their liveliness, their good spirits, while our men are dead. It is for you, that I do so.”
Suzanne rose from the hearth, smoothed down her dress and lifted her chin.
“Well then Mama, I had better get on with preparing the house for the men who need us, and our food and wine. They who need a place to forget for just awhile, that they may end up like Papa and Nicci.
The door burst open and a slouch hatted, khaki clad mass spilled into the house.
“Bon-sure Madam, Hello, Suzanne,” they laughed, and touched the brim of their hats.
The men lounged and sprawled on the chairs and chaises, the sweat and dirt from their bodies invading the enclosed space of the front room.
The old woman snorted and turned back to the fire, while Suzanne smacked adventurous hands as she poured beer from the earthen ware pitcher.
Her smile was quick, and her eyes shone as she swirled among the men, laughing at their aliveness, avoiding their outstretched limbs, as they settled in and relaxed.
“Donny, where’s the kip. I’ve the pennies. Let’s get the game started. Johnny, you’re the cocky!” yelled Corp.
Johnny looked up from his beer, disappointment on his face. “I was cocky the other night, Corp. Let some other bastard be it.”
Corp smiled an indulgent big brother smile. “Now, Johnny, you know that you gotta earn things in this man’s army, and I don’t wanna tell your Mam that you was a gambler. Now git.
Leaning over the table, Johnny grabbed his beer and stalked towards the door, cursing at being the youngest of the company. He pulled the door open, only to have half a door swing at him. Kicking at the lower door, his ears ringing with the laughter of the men, he then jerked the bottom door open.
The glass of beer that he carried hit the stone floor with a splintering sloshing sound that carried over the raucous noise of the men’s carousing.
Slowly, as if the breaking glass was a bugler’s command, the house became hushed as all eyes turned towards the door.
In the lamp lit doorway, a small brown and white terrier sat, ears pricked, tail wagging, nose up, staring at Johnny.
Slowly, one step at a time, Johnny backed into the room, his lips quivering, his hands held up in front of him.
“No, no… You’re dead. We saw you. We all saw …”
His voice rose as he backed away, his hands warding away this apparition.
In the room the only sound to be heard was the crackling of the fire as the men sat rigid, their eyes fastened on the creature in the doorway.
The tail stopped wagging, and the little head with soulful brown eyes bent sideways as it stared at the room full of soldiers. It did not understand the fear that emanated from the room, the confusion; the rejection. He stood up and stretched, and trotted purposefully towards the fire, stared at it, bent his head around to chew at his behind, then after looking about again, lay with his head on his paws, staring out at the room full of men.
Suzanne went forward to the dog, shushing at him.
“No, no .. no dogs in the house.”
A hand reached out and caught her skirt, pulling her back. She turned to brush away the offence, and in doing so, saw the face of the man who had grasped her skirt.
His stony eyes filled a grey face that a moment ago had been ruddy with the glow of beer, and the promise of song and cheer.
Stepping back a pace, Suzanne glanced about, the sudden silence sinking into her conscience, the frozen looks of the men as they all stared at the little terrier that warmed himself in front of the fire.
“What is this dog?” she asked the men. “He must be put outside. We do not allow animals in our house!”
The sudden force of voices drove her back against the wall.
“No! He stays!”
“He is not here!”
“He is dead!”
“That was two months ago. Way back down there!”
Shaking her head, Suzanne gestured towards the dog, “But he is here. Look, he is content in front of the fire. He is a beautiful little dog.”
The scrapping of a chair caused her to look into the room.
Corp stood, his hands twitching by his side as he stared at the brown and white creature curled on the hearth.
His voice soft and broken, he lifted his eyes towards Suzanne, then past her, seeing another place, another time.
“Little Mate……….,” he said.
The dog jumped to its feet, ears pricked, eyes on Corp, and as one, the soldiers drew breath. The room quivered.
The hair on the back of her neck prickled as Suzanne looked about, first to the little dog, seeing his gaze fixed upon the Corp, and then she looked over to the men. Grown men who seemed to be stricken at the sight of a mere dog. She shook her head, and lifting her arms, stretching out her hands, she asked, “What? Why? He is just a little dog.”
The man that the men called Corp shook himself, as if shaking off a bad dream, a bad thought. He wiped his hands over his face and then dropped his arms.
Corp stepped back and lifted his glass to take a sip, trying to get himself under control. It was then that the little dog tipped his head on the side, pricked his ears and stared at Corp, as if waiting; waiting for Corp to answer.
Corp coughed, and lifting his hand to his mouth he forced another cough, trying to get his voice.
Staring at the dog, be began, and his voice had the pitch of a choirboy.
“We had a lad. We knew he was young, but what with them that was going west, and he was there and he stepped up and you didn’t remember he was so young. He had this thing with the animals. When we were billeted in some barn out from Pozieres, he chatted with the cows, for Christ’s sake! And the cats curled up with him!”
There was a whisper in the room, as the men murmured and remembered.
The high sing song voice continued.
“Then we moved into the front line, and the little bugger had birds that would come down and eat from his hand.” Corp raised his glass and swung it around. “We’re in a bloody trench and this boy had bloody birds eating from his hand!”
He paused, grasping for the next words. The room was still, the only movement, the wagging tail of the little dog.
“He was a boy. He found a dog. A terrier that some Scots had bought over as a mascot. They were all dead. Gone over and all killed, but this little dog was still there in the trenches. And young Jimmy, he took to the dog, and fed him and the little dog took to young Jimmy, was always with him, even when we went up to the lines.”
Corp’s eyes stared up at the blackened ceiling, his mind leaving the room.
“That little dog, he didn’t give a damn who we were, he was Jimmy’s dog. He slept with him, he kept the rats from him, he let no one near Jimmy’s gear. Then, we got orders. We marched to another place, another line, and we went over,” Corp’s high voice paused, and he cleared his throat.
Softly, in a whisper, he continued, “ We always tried to have Jimmy stay behind, come later, but he never would. He’d come storming through. The Captain caught it this day, and later, after we had been beaten back, and the Captain was out there in the mud, Jimmy went out and picked him up. How, I’ll never know, him a slip of a lad, but he just got up and out he went. The Boche, they was waiting and when Jimmy picked up the Captain and was carrying him back, they starting shooting, and Jimmy must of taken bullet after bullet before he went down. ……He was a good lad.”
As one, the men sighed, and the scrape of glasses across the wooden tables as they raised them in tribute, sounded loud in the room.
Corp dragged his eyes from the ceiling, down to the dog that lay on the hearth.
“Little Mate, is what he called the dog.”
The dog sprung up again at the sound of the familiar name, his eyes fixed on Corp.
“As the Boche fired at Jimmy, and he went down, the dog jumped out over the parapet and ran to Jimmy. He jumped all over him, and grabbed his shirt trying to drag him back to the trench. But… the bloody Huns, they…” Corp’s voice broke, and he stopped, gulping air, but forced on by his emotion he tried again.
“They took aim at the dog, and there must have been six or seven rifles firing at Little Mate. We knew he was hit when he jumped and yelped and ran. But then he stopped and crawled on his belly, back to Jimmy, and we saw him licking Jimmy’s face, and then the Hun had another go ….”
Suzanne walked towards the Corp, her hands reaching for his face. “Please, no more. You and your men, no more…”
Corp stared at the woman in front of him, feeling her hands on his cheeks. He stared at her, his eyes wide and unyielding.
“No, … I saw the Hun’s bullets hit the dog. I saw it! I saw the dog die beside Jimmy.”
He pushed her hands away and slowly walked towards the dog. Kneeling down, he stretched his hand out. The terrier reached forward, his tongue darting out to lick the hand that came towards him, then he rolled on his back, his belly exposed for a rub from a known friend. The room heard the intake of Corp’s breath as he saw the healing wounds of bullet grazes, the missing piece of flesh on the inside of the near hind leg.
His hands smoothed over the dog’s head and felt a deep furrow along the terrier’s scalp.
“Little Mate?” he asked.
A wag of the tail and a lick told him.
His eyes lifted from the dog and he looked around slowly, answering each soldier’s eyes.
“We left the little bugger for dead! He must of crawled off and somehow?…..He’s survived and followed us. Followed us all this way?”
The man reached over and lifted the dog into his arms. Little Mate swiped a tongue up Corp’s cheek and looked around the familiar soldiers for Jimmy.
Kneeling down beside Corp, Suzanne took the little dog’s face in her hands.
She looked into the eyes that wanted to see only one soldier.
“Mon Brave, Chien. “
The men took their leave, subdued, not as gay as usual on leaving an Estaminet. The little brown and white dog foremost in their minds.
“How did he find us?”
“What did he come through?”
“How the hell did he survive?”
The questions lay about them, chasing everything else from their minds. That last few moments in the place, with Corp acknowledging that it was indeed Jimmy’s Little Mate, and Suzanne, paying respect to the dog’s loyalty, it haunted them.
Even those that had never had the comfort of a dog, known the loyalty of a dog, shivered as they pictured in their mind’s eye the dangerous and exhausting route that Little Mate had taken to find his master’s mates.
Sammy put it bluntly, his curiosity and disbelief overriding the natural instinct of the men to bury what they could not grasp.
“How’d the little bugger know? How’d he track us here? He was dead! We all saw that!”
Not a man answered.
“Well? Nobody got nothin’ to say? Jimmy was special, we knows that. But why did that dog follow us?”
A voice growled, “Shut up Sammy. It don’t bear thinkin’ bout.”
Sammy kicked at the brick wall he was passing.
“I don’t know. But here we is, fighting and killing, and this little dog tries to save Jimmy. Jimmy’s gone west for Christ’s sake. We leave the dog for dead and it turns up. Well, it’s enough to make you think!”
He turned and looked at his mates in the lamplight. He was struck dumb by the expressions on their faces.
Some were pale, one had his rosary out, the beads flying through his fingers. Others stared about them, trying to ignore his words.
Heavy steps on the cobblestones behind them drew their attention, and as one they turned to see Corp coming towards them.
Sammy stepped forward, his chest thrust out.
“Well, Corp? What did you do with the little mongrel?”
Corp paused and looked at each man. He knew that the night’s doings had caused them some questions. It made them remember Jimmy. It made them ask how a small creature of God could survive what their mates had not. It made them wonder at their lack of care that they had not made sure Little Mate was dead, that they had let an innocent creature die in agony, and not put it out of its misery. It had not died , and this haunted them.
The yellow lamps showed each man’s worn face, the sallow hungry look of men who had seen too much; suffered too much.
“Suzanne promised to look after him, men. He has a hearth to lie on, and good food, and a gorgeous new owner. He has done his time, and now he will be happy.”
The men stamped and murmured their agreement. Yes, this was the best way. the little one would be cared for. Better he stay in the village than follow them to who knows what hell!
The men tramped down the cobblestones towards their billet, the wine and beer that they had drank feeling like a dead weight in their veins, not giving them the pleasant glow that they were used to.
The morning bugle came not too soon for some of them. They had laid in the hay, their legs and arms twitching as their dreams took them through the battles of the last months. The deaths of their mates and the horror of the battle fields, all re-lived in the darkness of sleep.
They awakened cursing. Cursing the little dog that had bought back the memories, and then they bit their lips, as they remembered its bravery in trying to save Jimmy, and the lonely death that they had left it to.
They rose and washed in the trough at the front of the stables, the water icy cold, bringing them awake, and back to reality. The reality that they were to march up to the front line. Again.
After sipping petrol scented tea, and coughing over a last smoke, they dragged their packs onto their shoulders, lifted their rifles, and formed up.
The Corp did not have to say a word, as the men fell into formation, and as one body, moved forward.
The dust sprung up in tendrils from their boots, and the roadside verges beckoned them invitingly, with the colour of the cornflowers and poppies amongst the green of the gentle grass that waved in the soft breeze. As the ancients had marched these roads, now the soldiers of a new land followed. Where, they knew, for what, they knew, for why; they questioned.
As the roads became the saps and the dust became mud, they mumbled and swore, only pausing in their disagreement with the world’s sanity, when a stretcher passed them. Then, as each to his own religion, they crossed themselves, or looked away, or shook the injured man’s hand, promising him that they would give the Hun justice on his behalf.
As they stumbled along the duckboards, over the debris of war; the coils of barbed wire, the fallen blackened tree trunks, the dead mates, the bloated horses; they remembered the warmth of the hearth, the soul reviving smell of stew bubbling in the pot, the dry tart aftermath on their tongues of the Vin Blanc, the glint in the eye of Suzanne,… and they cursed and wondered.
Taking over from the 45th, the men settled into a routine that was now second nature. Reinforce the parapet, repair the shell damage, seek the best dugouts, look to the stars, and wish that the Huns had no plans for tonight. Swear at being on sentry duty, pray that the cooks in the back lines were on the go, hope that the runners would make it through. All the bits and pieces that made a soldier’s life hell, or bearable …just.
Dawn bought the usual stand to, and no sounds alluded to the promise of a shit of a morning. The men relaxed as best they could, some writing letters, others playing cards. More digging, more sniping, looking for the runners that would bring hot, well, maybe warm stew for tea. As the men set about their duties, one or two looked down at their sodden boots, and remembered the warmth of Suzanne’s Estaminet. That place that had been comfortable and homelike, no matter that the old woman snorted at them; they had felt human there.
And now here? Enveloped in a uniform that bred chats, taking bets on how many rats they could spear, how many Hun that Harry would snipe that day; they all thought of Suzanne and the warm walls of her house. Was it a dream?
The orders came down. Over the top at daybreak. The barrage would start an hour before. Go forward over a five hundred yard front, the Tommies on the left, the Kiwis on the right. Go forward, take the Huns, go forward, through the mud, the wire, the old battle field.
Each man communed with his own that night. They thought of those that were not with them now. They thought of those at home. They wrote letters; cheery, uplifting letters so as to allay their loved one’s doubts. They remembered the long path they had marched to come to this trench.
They remembered the warmth and generosity of the local people.
And they prepared.
A gossamer veil of a dawn mist hung over the battlefield, wavering and swirling, hiding and revealing no-man’s land, and the German trenches. The black earth, the shell holes, the devastation of the countryside, flowing and ebbing with the mist’s elusive wanderings.
The men roused themselves, some lingering over their biscuits soaked in tea, others on their knees, asking.
The Corp walked along the trench, his eyes never still. Here a man needed a pat on the back, there, one needed a wink.
He gave himself to each of his men, the only way he could.
The command came. The barrage opened up, and hell rent the earth.
The whistle shrilled. That tiny instrument of death, it shrilled against the orchestra that the devil had drummed up for the men that day.
They scrambled and crawled up over the parapet, walking forward, rifles at the hip; the freshly sharpened bayonets dull in the morning mist.
Forward they went, and the Hun’s artillery opened up. The Hun’s machine guns rattled, and men sank into the soil of France. Some would never again know sunshine or rain, others would never again set eyes on the sea or the mountains. Some lay gulping, screaming; their torn limbs, their oozing stomachs an appointment with death. Still some marched forward, and left their bodies hanging on the wire. Those that had felt, seen, and stumbled over the dead and maimed, they knew a rage; a rage of red and fog. A rage that grew in them and took them to a place that man had no right or expectation to go. But there they went, and with the screams of timeless men of war, they went forward and took a life for a life; drove the bayonet through flesh, and revelled as the steel went home, as the enemy sighed when the life force left him.
Slowly the noise abated, the barrage died and the battlefield became a quiet, bleak, tormented piece of earth. Except for the cries of ‘Stretcher!” and the groans of men whose wounds were too much to bear, the sounds of battle died away.
Sammy stared about. The fog had lifted from his mind, and now, as he looked around, it was as if he were flipping the pages of a story book, each picture painting a different scene. Around him were the dead and dying German’s. Spread between hell and their own trenches were his wounded and dying mates; the red blood, the grey faces, the blasted trenches, the new shell holes.
Setting his head sideways, he listened for Corp’s usual diatribe of what useless bastards they were, what they had done wrong, who they had to attend to, where to dig in!
He listened in vain. A rising panic, not one that came when you went over, but a deeper, more gut wrenching turmoil came, as his eyes searched the bleak black ground of No Mans land, his desperate stare searching for Corp.
Corp, the one that fathered the young, punched the smart arses, been the go between the f’ing officers and the men, the one who had bought the drinks, the one who couldn’t , wouldn’t….do anything but the best by his men.
Sammy’s stare roamed over the wire behind the captured trench. His face froze, his eyes widening in horror as he saw the torn bleeding body of Corp, held by the vicious knots of barbs on the German’s wire. Sammy’s mind did not ask why, as he dropped and floundered in the mud on his knees. His mind did not question why Corp’s body should affect him more than any other.
What drove Sammy’s mind to another plateau, a place that would never be reached again, a place that only those that had had the privilege of seeing what he now beheld, and would always hold such a thing as a gift, now appeared for Sammy.
He lifted his mud-encrusted hands to his face, dragging them down over his eyes. Digging into his cheeks, his fingers left red furrows as they tore into the skin.
It was not possible. They had marched thirty miles, come through hell.
His heart told him his eyes did not lie.
He stared at the little brown and white dog that tugged at Corp’s collar, trying to drag him off the wire, to drag him to safety.
Sammy’s mind stopped all thought, all but one.
Jimmy had not been dead when Little Mate went to get him, and neither was Corp. With an instinct, – a gift unknown to man, this little dog had followed and stayed loyal to his men, and now that ancient wisdom of the dog was showing Sammy that Corp was not dead.
Sammy stared, the whites of his eyes mapped with thin red lines. Slowly he found his feet, using his rifle to heave himself up from the mud. One foot forward, then the other, his body drew itself through the muck, his mind trying to rebel in doubt. With his head flung upwards, he straightened and screamed at the wide sky above.
“Jimmy was alive! We left him for dead. We left our mate for dead!”
His hands shook as he raised them up, reaching towards the figure on the wire. His sodden boots lifted with a squelch that became rhythmic as he began to move faster and faster through the shell holes, over the torn remains of humans; only one image in his mind.
“Jimmy,” he screamed. “Stretcher bearers! Where the hell are the stretcher bearers?”
Smoke wafted upwards from the small fires that the shelling had started, and men milled about, doing the mop up that the last stage of battle required. The stripping of useful intelligence from the dead, the binding of wounds, the sorting of prisoners, the consolidation of trenches; it was the aftermath of rage.
Men glanced at Sammy, seeing just another soldier bereaving a wounded or lost mate. They looked about for the cause of his distress, but saw nothing. All were dead. Then one or two paused, a small glitch in the usual scene of mopping up causing them to slow to a standstill.
Johnny was the first to understand. He threw down the handful of papers that he had taken from a dead German officer, and crawled up the trench wall, slipping back for every leap forward. He howled his anger and with an almighty effort, clambered over the top. As one, the men rushed forward, their eyes fastened on Little Mate.
The dog paid no heed to the infrequent shells, the screaming of the men. His teeth were fastened to the collar of the man who had caressed him, held him, there by the warm fire. The man whose scent reminded him of Jimmy. His hindquarters dug into the mud as he tried to drag the man to safety, every muscle quivering with the strain he placed on his body. He paused, and tilted his head sideways, his perky ears cocked. He thrust his nose into Corp’s face. Little Mate sniffed, and whined.
Grabbing Corp’s uniform, the dog’s efforts at dragging the man became frenzied, a deep throated growling coming from the shaking dog.
Johnny was the first to the wire, the cutters dwarfed by his large hands. Each strand twanged as he ground the blades into the vicious metal, and he saw other hands peeling back the strands as they gave way.
Four feet in, they were astounded to be met with snapping teeth, a brown and white ball of fury.
Softly Johnny crooned, “Little Mate.. Little man, it’s us.”
The terrier paused, sniffed the proffered hand, and turning his tail to them, went to Corp’s head whining, licking the face of the man bleeding on the wire.
Sammy reached forward, feeling the Corp’s throat. The men held their breath and when they saw Sammy’s shoulders stiffen, saw his body tense, they all gave voice.
“Get your arses here!”
It was a confusion of hands and wire cutters that surrounded the small dog that sat guard by the head of the company’s best mate. Hands that bought forward field dressings, hands that lifted the Corp from the wire; gently, reverently.
Little Mate’s tail curled over his back, his legs prancing up and down as he moved between the men who carried Corp out of the wire, over the muddy ground, and laid him down on a piece of iron that had been blown from a dug out.
The men hunkered down around Corp.
One who had seen what these men had seen, could not doubt that Corp was dying. His uniform could not hide the ropes of his intestines, and the spurting jets of blood that came through the rents in his trousers. The blueness that touched his lips and the barely lifting chest; the men saw and read. Little Mate’s tail slunk down, and his perky ears lowered as he pushed his nose under Corp’s arm, and burrowed into his side. Soft whimpers came from deep in his chest as his wet nose buried into Corp’s neck.
Sammy sat back on his heels, and with no effort to wipe them away, let the tears run down his cheeks.
“He knew. We left him with a good home, a warm fire. But he was one of us, and he knew,” his voice cracked, and he coughed and spat.
Staring around at the soldier’s who sat, covered in filth, blood, gore, the blackness of battle, he gave voice to their thoughts.
“I dunno how he knew that Corp wasn’t dead, or why he followed us, or why we didn’t know that Jimmy wasn’t dead. That we might of saved Jimmy………………”
Smoke drifted over the ring of men that crouched around the dying man, all sound seemed to cease, as Sammy words entered their conscience.
One by one, their eyes lifted and dwelt on the brown and white dog that lay with Corp.
Some communed with God regularly, others had written him off, and some men believed in only what their own eyes told them.
Here in the mud of Flanders, here in the bowels of Hell, far from their loving homes and all that they knew was good and true, they were faced with something that they had no answer for. A small dog, an animal that had no right or sense or obligation to be where it was, had defied the madness of man, had gone against the animal’s instinct to flee from harm, and had not once, but twice, of its own doing, put itself in amongst the cauldron of man’s hate.
The little dog sat up, its body stiff, its eyes upon the face of Corp. As Corp’s lips moved, the little ears pricked.
“Little Mate, …men take care. Been good…”
Slowly Corp died. His spirit valiant, his body weakened moment by moment. The men did not move. Then, one by one, they touched the cooling body, with a whisper, a promise, a soft touch to the hand, a shake of the shoulder. Then they rose and stood around, lost, until Johnny took Corp’s rifle and thrust it bayonet into the mud.
“Jimmy?” Sammy murmured.
Johnny turned back and taking his slouch hat from his pack, he placed it on the butt of the upturned rifle. His fingers brushed the brass rising sun, as he whispered,
“Jimmy, the little dog didn’t let you down. Here’s to you, mate.”
The singing in the streets, the blowing of horns and the joyous sound of a violin filtered into the dark room. By the fire, the old woman sat, her empty hands winding an imaginary ball of wool, as she stared into the fire. It was hard to admit that she was wrong. Proud to the last, she did not acknowledge the men who crowded the room in their fresh uniforms, their faces shaved and clean, their slouch hats at a jaunty angle.
She left it to her daughter to say the words.
Suzanne, in her joy, in her gratitude, spoke English and French, all mixed up, making little sense. The men knew what she meant. It was there for all to see, in her shining eyes, her dancing feet, her soft touch, as she grasped their hands one by one.
Sammy said it for the men. “ Mademoiselle,” he bowed to Suzanne.
Turning, he bowed to the old woman. “Madam, we’d like to thank you for the rest you gave us. The way you took us in.”
The old woman had the decency to blush at the young man’s words.
Continuing Sammy said, “ Lots of places would have thrown us out, but you gave us wonderful food and comfort.”
He paused, then clearing his throat he went on. “We have a problem. One that we hope that you might help us with. We have a mate that won’t be allowed to return home with us. Rules and regs won’t allow it. We left him with you before. But he decided that being with us was his duty, and he did his duty. Far and beyond, as they say.”
Suzanne’s eyes misted up, as she saw what was unfolding, and her heart thudded as she realized the trust that these men were giving her.
Sammy whistled, and Johnny came through the open door, Little Mate jumping up and down at his side. The terrier froze in his playful antics and sat, his head tilted, looking from soldier to soldier.
Sammy clicked his fingers and Little Mate sprung forward. “We can’t take home our best mate. The brass said No. Him that tried to tell us so much, and we didn’t listen. Him who asked nothing but to be with us? Would you take our little mate, and give him a home?”
Clutching her dress in her hands, Suzanne sank down to the hearth and stretched her arms out.
“Mon Brave, Chien, …Little Mate?”
The dog sat at Sammy’s side, his quick eyes darting between Sammy and Suzanne.
“No more, Little Mate. No more war,” Sammy whispered. “Go,… go sit.”
He pointed to Suzanne, and the little brown and white dog trotted obediently over to the girl. He sniffed at her dress and then leapt into its folds, settling down into her lap.
The blackened branches glowed with the freshness of emerald green leaves, and the fields swayed in the gentle morning breeze with small blue dots of cornflowers, the white of daises here and there, and rolling carpets of red poppies. Suzanne laughed as she watched Little Mate start a squirrel for its tree, a high yipping renting the air as the squirrel found refuge before feeling the snapping teeth.
Suzanne’s feet threw up small puffs of dust as she walked along the sunken road, the little dog shaking himself as he fell in behind her.
The gate swung smoothly as she opened it, letting it swing back behind her. If one looked carefully, one might see a slight wornness in the grass of the path that she took, a slight dullness in the manicured green underfoot. Nodding her head to the left and the right, she walked purposefully towards the large white cross that rose from the green carpet.
Stepping up onto the white stone, she lent forward and bought forward the posy of roses she had carried from her garden, placing them on the cold surface. By her side, the little dog sat, watching her every move. She took two buds from the posy, and curled her hand around them, not a sound from her as the thorns pricked her flesh.
As she stood up, and turned, the dog pranced in front of her, tail curled over his back, his purpose sure.
He trotted back down the green aisle, and as he passed the rows of white stone slabs, his nose lifted.
He stopped, looked back at Suzanne and turned into a row that glowed with red roses.
He trotted by six gravestones, each one engraved with a name and sad epitaph, then he sat, his soulful brown eyes staring at the ground.
Suzanne whispered the words that never became trite. Somehow, they always were the only words that could be spoken.
“Here they are, Little Mate. Your two L’Australien’s.”
Gently she laid a rose bud at the foot of each gravestone, and sat back on her heels. As with every other Sunday, she looked from one gravestone to the other, wondering what divine intervention had placed Little Mate’s soldiers, side by side, in this, one of many graveyards.
Standing up, she smoothed down her dress, nodded towards the two graves, and murmured, “Thank you for your lives, and thank you for the gift you gave me.”
She looked down at the little brown and white dog, and watched as he sniffed the rosebuds, and then stared up at her, his eyes questioning.
“Yes, home now!” she answered.
She laughed as he sprinted over the grass, stopping to hunt imaginary spooks in the recesses of the walls, in the long grass of the roadside on the way home.