by Barry B. Longyear
Marcoing Region, France,
The sky was just beginning to lighten as Kurt Wolff examined the British works, his gaze quickly scanning long stretches of trench then quickly returning to pick out individual features that had become as familiar to him as old friends. He studied his old friends looking to see if they had changed: The configuration of the endless wire barricades, the four empty tins tossed over the top by some well fed Tommy, the shattered trees, the gaping craters, the shapes of the trench lines —there. There was a change: A slight rise in the chewed up ground slightly left of his center that hadn't been there the day before. In the near dark it looked like earth thrown up by the creation of a nearby crater, but the crater had been there the evening before and the rise in the dirt next to it had not.
The Tommy sniper had killed dozens and knew how to hide. Once he fired, revealing his position, the Tommy would move. Kurt had to smile and give a slight nod in admiration. Everyone would be looking to the works, the sandbagged trench edges, for snipers. It would be insane to take a position forward of his own trench. No one, however, would think to look there. Kurt studied the position as he examined what ifs. The Tommy couldn't fire, drill his prey, then jump up and flee to the safety of his own trench. If it took him more than a second he'd be ripped apart by a dozen German slugs.
Down into the dirt like a rabbit, that's how he'd go. The British sniper must have tunneled through the trench wall to his present position, broke through the surface in the dark, spread his dirt-stained blanket overhead, took his position, and waited—if he was there at all. Kurt didn't wish to give away his own position, otherwise right now he could pop a round into that rise in the earth. If no one was there, however, it would be a wasted shot and Kurt would have to find a new position himself.
There was a deeper shadow at the edge of the camouflage closest to the German lines. If Tommy was looking at the German trench, that would be from where the shot would come. Kurt glanced back at the slight rise to the rear of his own position. Poorly placed trench. Runners going to and from the rear had to cross that rise, which is why they called it the shooting gallery. A trench was being dug rearward, but it was not yet completed. When they'd come over the rise, the runners would dip and dodge until they managed to drop into the trench. There were exceptions: late at night and very early in the morning. Not so much running and dodging then. That's what the Tommy sniper was waiting for, some careless fellow going to or coming from regiment, taking it easy before full light.
Again Kurt studied the rise in the soil. The Tommy would be standing in his rabbit hole, nothing but his head and shoulders exposed beneath the blanket. If the muzzle of his rifle was near the edge of the camouflage, his head would be just there. Tommy would be shooting uphill, leaving less exposed. The German eased his right forefinger from the trigger guard to the trigger, placed the crosshairs on the rise where the Tommy's head should be, and waited.
A murmur of voices from far behind him. A little chuckling, and that guttural "Haw!" the Austrian lance corporal from regimental headquarters always made when he laughed. Kurt and he had both received the Iron Cross First Class at the same ceremony. Another voice—
—The shadow at the near edge of the camouflage changed ever so slowly as the Tommy adjusted his aim. Kurt fired first, the center of the dirt-stained blanket erupting as the Tommy jerked back, his own weapon firing harmlessly wide of its target. Kurt turned from his position, bringing his rifle with him, as a baffling feeling of dread filled him. For a slice of existence it was as though all the world's dead mounted the edges of their graves at the same time and beckoned him. He couldn't catch his breath. When he could at last breathe, Kurt rubbed his eyes. Too long on the front, too many kills, and too little sleep; that was what it was, he told himself.
"Wolff, you look white as a sheet," said Sergeant Zimmerer, both of them on the trench's step to stay out of the mud and squatting to stay out of the lead rain.
Lowering his hand, Kurt ignored the sergeant and looked back toward the rise. He could see the lance corporal crouching beside a stump, his eyes wide. The runner gave a quick nod and wave in thanks to Kurt, then quickly sprang to his feet and dived for the trench.
Kurt looked at Sergeant Zimmerer, a heavy set fellow with a red face and graying handlebar moustache. "I need some rest, sergeant. My eyes play tricks on me."
"They were good enough to make that shot, Wolff. Incredible marksmanship. Turn in for a couple of hours. You earned it. Lance corporal Hitler owes you his life."
Kurt entered the shelter dug into the ground from the side of the trench, found his bedroll, and stretched out on it. It had been a long night, but he couldn't sleep. Behind his eyes the dead were still beckoning. . . .
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