Early December, 1915
Henri Laurent cowered against the front wall of the snow-capped trench, a stack of sandbags pinching his shoulders and hips on each side. Freezing rain and hail ricocheted off his steel kepi cap, and his nose wouldn’t stop bleeding. A few moments of silence interrupted the all-day roar of cannon fire, bombs, artillery, and machine guns. Utterly exhausted, he allowed his mind to wander back to his childhood during the brief respite: skipping rocks across the Dordogne River, drooling over hot raspberry pastries just out of his reach in the glass case of his favorite bakery. Then the curious kid to his right with big ears and a morbid fear of rats peered his head over the parapet. A single shot from the rifle of a Boche sniper echoed across the field and pierced the smoke and the soot.
Henri leapt forward and cried out, “No, duck down!” But the warning came too late. A concoction of blood and morsels of brain matter rocketed in every direction. Henri staggered backward. Fragments of reddish-gray human flesh oozed down the front of his coat and plastered onto the back wall of the trench. He wiped remnants of the kid’s head off his face and puke boiled in his throat, but he swallowed it back.
Henri slumped against the front wall. Tears welled in his eyes, but he wiped them away with his sleeve before they had a chance to dribble down his cheek. The sun dropped low over the round-top Vosges Mountains in the Alsace region of France, casting long shadows over the battlefield on the eastern slopes. He thought back to his first day in the trenches in the late autumn of 1914, a little over a year ago. Henri was sure today had been the longest and bloodiest day of his time on the Western Front. The bombardments eased as the daylight turned to dusk, but he couldn’t expunge the rotten-egg stench of burning flesh and hydrogen sulfide from his nostrils. Henri had stuffed loose fragments of a tattered shirttail in his ears that morning, but his sinuses and temples continued to reverberate from hours of the thunderous blitzkrieg.
A mortar bomb exploded overhead. Henri instinctively curled up like a roly-poly bug and buried his head under his arms. A high-pitched wail resounded to his left, and he peeked over his elbow.
“No!” Henri screamed. He scrambled toward his lifelong friend, Marcel, frantically wading and splashing through the muck. Marcel sprawled out on his back, limbs askew, blood gurgling in this throat and percolating out the left side of his mouth. His eyes rolled back white, his face blanched, and a spear of shrapnel wedged into the base of his neck.
Henri lifted Marcel’s head and slapped each cheek. “Look at me.” Again, more frantically. “Look at me.” Marcel opened his eyes, a faint sign of life. Henri extracted the projectile, applied pressure to slow the bleeding, and hollered for a medic. No reply. Louder. Still no response. “Damn the protocols.” He jerked Marcel to his feet and set off for the hospital tents located on the third line back.
Once upright, Marcel perked up a bit and was able to take a step, and then another, and another. Henri slung his arm around his friend’s shoulder and thought they must have looked like two old beggars, bent over double, wheedling for alms. They cursed and trudged through the slime, the bloodstained ice and mud mixed with the piss and excrement of fellow soldiers unable to make their way to the latrine during the all-day assault. Marcel lost his left boot in the sludge, but he didn’t seem to notice. Intoxicated with fatigue, they buckled and slipped, then heard the calls of warning: Gas. Gas!
Henri glanced back at the chlorine-gas cylinders descending softly behind them. They coughed and belched, floundered, and winced from the sharp sting in their eyes.
Henri snatched a gas mask from the post of a dead soldier lying facedown in the mire. A comrade tossed him another. “Hey, catch.” Marcel plunged forward into Henri, choking, drowning. Henri fumbled with the clumsy tight-fitting helmets, finally securing Marcel’s gas mask first, then his own. He thought of their schoolboy days when they squeezed into cardboard suits of armor and dueled with wooden sticks down by the river. Henri played King Arthur and Marcel was Lancelot. Back in the days when warriors fought with honor, not with gas.
The rain subsided. They stumbled on; the bleak sky mutated to a sea of green through the tinted misty panes of the masks. Henri checked on Marcel with hand signals and motions from time to time, but he dared not remove the mask to speak. They wormed along through a connecting trench and wobbled into an open-air hospital tent nearly forty minutes after they’d started.
Dusk turned to dark as two orderlies flung the slumping Marcel onto the rear of a wood-slatted wagon. They rolled him onto his back, death scrawled on his face, blood gargling in his halogen-perverted lungs. A doctor and his nurse hunched over Marcel, one on each side, aided only by a dim lantern oscillating sporadically in the breeze over the belly of the injured soldier. Henri slid to the ground and leaned back against a wheel of the cart, frazzled and in dire need of sleep.
The nurse ripped off Marcel’s one boot and both socks, toweled off the slime, and applied a yellowish-white salve. “This left foot’s going to have to come off.”
The doc dug into Marcel’s neck wound with a scalpel and didn’t bother looking up. “We’ll see if he’s alive in the morning.”
* * *
Henri sat by his friend’s side the entire night. Marcel mumbled about a headache, his sleep fitful and intermittent. Snow gusts swirled through the open-air covered wagon. Henri applied a cool compress to Marcel’s fevered forehead and wrapped gauze around his hands and feet to protect them from frostbite.
After Marcel dozed off, Henri tried to fall asleep, but he was restless and uncomfortable. His mind drifted back to their days in Paris, where they had attended the renowned art institute Academie de La Palette together. It was at the Academie that Marcel introduced Henri to Juliette, a sculptor two years his senior. She was the secretary-general of the local chapter of the French Union for Women’s Suffrage. She had bear-brown eyes and a weakness for crème brûlée and macarons. Henri tried his hand at sculpting just to stay close and brought her chocolates and cheeses. She baked him cakes and sweets and called him “mon petit nounours”—my little teddy bear. They married in the spring of 1914 in a small chapel near Montparnasse in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. Marcel was Henri’s best man.
Their art studies were interrupted in the summer of 1914 when some Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist murdered an Austro-Hungarian Archduke in Sarajevo. Henri had never heard of and didn’t give a shit about either one. But the Ministry of War conscripted Henri and Marcel into the French army soon thereafter. Juliette was four months pregnant when she waved good-bye at the train platform that balmy fall day, no doubt wondering if her unborn child would ever know Henri.
Henri leaned back against the cart wheel, half asleep, half awake. He dreamed about cradling his little girl, Lily, and rocking her forward, then back. Seven months old and fiery-orange hair, just like his own. Juliette had sent him pictures. He caressed his own left arm as though it were Lily’s shoulders and head, swaying himself to sleep.
Henri awoke in the middle of the night, startled by tormenting moans from his friend. Marcel wrenched himself to his side and clenched Henri’s arm. He convulsed and tried to speak, but the words obstructed in his throat. Henri elevated his buddy and stuffed a blanket under his head.
Marcel weakly pulled Henri closer and stammered into his ear, “You’ve got to get out of here.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Henri replied. “Not without you.”
“Go home to Juliette and your baby. You’ve done your duty.”
“I’ll not leave you.”
“I’m a dead man. Life in the trenches ends in death. Promise me you’ll find a way out.” Marcel collapsed back onto the bed of the wagon, closed his eyes, and whispered, “Promise me.” Then his body went limp. Henri rested his head on Marcel’s chest and wrapped an arm around his torso. He didn’t bother to wipe away the tears.
By the time the sergeant growled his predawn “Stand to Arms” the next morning, Marcel had already taken his last breath. Henri wrote a letter to his friend’s mother, Marcel’s final words parading through his mind all the while: “Promise me you’ll find a way out. Promise me.”
* * *
Henri knew that a day of quiet often followed periods of heavy bombardments on the Western Front. The morning of Marcel’s death was no exception. After breakfast and daily inspections came menial tasks like repairing bomb damage to the walls; bucketing water and muck from the bottom of the trenches; and scrubbing the smut and grime off their face, hands, and hair. Henri cleansed Marcel for burial.
Then most men in Henri’s squad sat around for one monotonous hour after another. Besides the rats, lice, typhus, influenza, never-ending assaults, amputations, gas, filth, and dysentery, one of the deadliest afflictions confronted by the trench soldier was boredom—because ennui messed with your mind. Too much time to think, to dread the outcome, to anticipate the time and method of your own elimination. Some soldiers played cards; others read or wrote to their wives, girlfriends, or parents. Some mused over postcards they’d received from home; others brooded over letters from a distant lover for the hundredth time. It didn’t help.
Henri sketched during his free time. Juliette sent him sketchbooks, quality drawing pencils, and tubes in which to return his work home to her. He found solace in illustrating a portrait of Marcel that morning. He also depicted other images of what he’d observed: rats feasting on the intestines of dead men, bodies obliterated in an instant by exploding mortar bombs, a pimply-faced kid with his head bowed and hands clasped in prayer as artillery shells whizzed over his head, and blood squirting from the stump of an amputated fungus-infected foot.
But not just the horrors. Henri often also portrayed bravery, heroism, and compassion: a lieutenant crawling on his belly over the parapet to rescue a private tangled in barbed wire, an infantryman who’d volunteered for a suicide mission in a shallow “saps” trench extending into No Man’s Land to heave a grenade onto the Boche machine-gunner who’d been mowing them down, a nurse comforting an inconsolable youngster who’d just had his leg amputated.
Very few men that Henri had reported to service with were still around. Most had either been killed, gone crazy, or been sent home mutilated with missing limbs. Now Marcel was gone. Henri felt thoroughly bedraggled and haggard. His joints were sore and muscles stiff from hours of confinement in prone positions. He was weak, lethargic from protein deficiencies, and he didn’t even bother trying to cull all the lice from his hair anymore. He missed Marcel.
Just as Henri completed his last sketch that afternoon, a drawing of him and Marcel sharing a bottle of pinard, Captain Moreau assembled the entire platoon and said, “We need three volunteers for an assignment behind the lines.”
Several soldiers murmured among themselves. Then Pierre, the most fearless man in Henri’s squad who volunteered for everything, called out. “What’s the mission?” Raphael, a fellow artist, asked, “How dangerous is it?”
Henri thought of his promise to Marcel and wondered if this could this be his passage out of the trenches.
The captain answered, “It’s a highly classified secret mission, and it is dangerous. But I can’t tell you more than that.”
“Sounds like a suicide call,” Louis said. “Why would we ever do that?”
“Well, I can say this,” the captain said. “You boys are all committed for the duration of the war plus six months. But whoever signs up for this mission will be honorably discharged at the end of winter, four or five months from now. Free to go home for good.”
Louis laughed. “Now I’m sure it’s a death sentence.”
Henri Laurent was the first volunteer to step forward.
* * *
“Haw, haw,” Henri barked, cracking his whip overhead. The lead dog veered sharply to the left, followed by the pair of swing dogs and the entire team of Alaskan huskies, nine in all. Snow fell from the gray sky, quiet but steady. Henri gripped tight to the handlebar, flexed his knees, and leaned hard into the turn. The canines bounded forward, never breaking full stride, heads bobbing, tongues bouncing, snow splashing, pulling their sled at top speed down the hard-packed straightaway through the meadow.
“Gee, gee.” A slight deflection to the right and the huskies accelerated across a narrow snow-covered bridge over Le Moselle River. Pellets of snow and ice pummeled his face, and his frozen ears felt as though they might snap off. Another clap of the lash in midair and the sled surged. Henri had no thought whatsoever of slowing the pace. And why would he? The trenches were behind him; he was helping to feed and supply his former mates on the front lines, and he hadn’t felt so exhilarated in over a year.
Snowfalls had been heavy throughout the previous winter. Men, trucks, mules, carts, and horses struggled to get over the mountains in the snow and ice. Transporting food, supplies, medicine, ammunition, and reinforcements to the trenches had become next to impossible. Henri and his compatriots in the trenches had grown weak as food rations had been cut to a sixth of earlier allotments. The wounded lingered in field hospital tents; evacuation proved futile in the bleak environment. Henri had witnessed firsthand how even the strongest of men buckled when malnourished and undersupplied. Another winter like the last one and the Germans would bust through the French lines with an undeterred path to Paris.
Henri had guided his team on the “river run” from their base near the village of La Voivre on the western slopes of the Vosges, over the round-topped mountains, and to the trenches on the east side several times during the past ten days of training. His instructors, Lt Rene Robert Haas along with the famous Alaskan musher and sled dog racer Scotty Allan, had relayed the story to Henri and the other volunteers of how Capt Louis Moufflet of the 62nd Battalion of Chasseurs Alpins proposed a daring plan to resurrect supply lines over the Vosges Mountains during the coming winter. The top-secret mission was code-named “Poilus d’Alaska”—Hairy from Alaska.
In early August, Capt Moufflet and Lt Haas set out by ship for the New World to obtain four hundred Alaskan sled dogs. They had four months to sail to New York, find a ride to Alaska, purchase good dogs, transport them back to the American East Coast, secure return passage to France, train French soldiers—including Henri—to handle the dogs, and deliver readied teams back to the Vosges. The challenge was to find huskies that could lead a team of eight to ten dogs, follow orders, smell out the enemy, and find their destination through a blizzard. Moufflet and Haas returned with 440 dogs from North America in early December.
Henri spotted a familiar clearing in the trees ahead, a perfect place to set up camp for his first live mission, an overnighter. He let the huskies run another hundred meters before hollering, “Gee, gee.” Baldy, the lead dog, diverted the team off the snow-packed trail onto fresh powder and into the trees. “Whoa, whoa.” Henri jammed his foot onto the brake, and the steel claw dug into the snow. He unhooked the dogs, removed their booties, and unlashed their food and bedding. The hundred kilos of food, medical supplies, mail, and ammunition he’d secured onto the basket of the sled that morning stayed on the sleigh. Then he started a fire; it was going to be a cold night in the forest.
Henri tied the eight team dogs loosely to the lead line for the night. But Baldy curled beside him, unrestrained, and snuggled in close. Once the dogs settled, Henri bedded by the campfire, the lead dog’s head on his lap. Flakes of snow fell softly, forming an icy crust on his red beard and the lead dog’s furry coat. He was thankful to have endured the rigorous training near the top of the class. He attributed his success to having trained hound dogs of his own as a child and his natural affection for the animals. Lt Haas formed fifty-five sled teams, and Scotty Allan awarded Henri one of the top sled dog teams, including his personal favorite lead dog, Baldy.
The dogs went through their share of training as well. Haas and Allan imprinted the huskies with the odors of German soldiers, their uniforms, and food. They trained the dogs to recognize the German language and their manner of speech. They scented the air and wind to detect live people within a defined area. By the end of the week, the dogs could smell out enemy patrols from five hundred meters away and, under perfect conditions, from several kilometers afar. When alarmed, a low growl, perked-up ears, and hair raised along the spine alerted their mushers of impending danger.
Henri was too juiced up to sleep. He’d never had his own fire with a warm dog at his side in the trenches. He dreamed of Juliette and Lily and going home in a few months. The front lines and this ugly war would soon be behind him. He’d never yearned for anything more in his entire life than to return to Paris and to his family and resume his life as a painter. And it was right at his fingertips; he could sense it. He could feel the warmth of his wife’s embrace just thinking about it. A few more months, just a few more months.
He tossed another log on the campfire, and the flames crackled. Baldy was exhausted and never flinched. Henri decided to name the dogs based upon his observations and experiences he’d had with them over the past week. Froggy’s voice cracked like a teenage boy going through puberty when he barked or howled; an old adversary had bitten off most of One Ear’s left ear; Bandit stole food off Henri’s plate when Henri was distracted; Comet ran up the hindquarters of the dog in front of him, itching to go faster; a ring of black fur circled the right eye of Bullseye’s furry white face; Frisky jumped onto his lap, tail wagging, and licked Henri in the face at every opportunity; Rookie was only two years old and still learning the verbal commands; and he named Raptor after his favorite bloodhound back home in the Dordogne for his keen sense of smell. Scotty Allan had named his lead dog Baldy—the was the hairiest, fluffiest husky on the team.
Capt Moufflet had told Henri the story of the eight team dogs he bought from the Cree Indians in the province of Quebec. They were all a mixture of Siberian husky and Alaskan malamute: smart, strong, fast, and capable of unimaginable endurance. But Scotty Allan added that, compared to Baldy, they were mere mortals in the world of sled dogs.
Henri had seen this to be true over the past week of training. Baldy was not just agile, bigger, quicker, tenacious, more astute, and a fierce fighter, he had the instincts of a wolf born in the wild. With the nose of a bloodhound, he could detect a man eating sausage for breakfast or sauerkraut for lunch from up to twenty kilometers away. He could hear men talking in a normal voice from a half kilometer away. Once he ran a trail, Baldy could retrace the same route by following his own scent days later, even in severe blizzard conditions.
Henri had observed Baldy as he staked his position as chief of the pack on the very first day. After a few skirmishes and feeble protests, the eight dogs from Quebec meekly conveyed their fealty to Baldy.
The next morning, Henri stoked the fire and fed the dogs their usual soupy gruel of various meats, fowl, and fish. He’d slept well, protected by Baldy, and unplagued by rats, lice, bombs, or hornets—free from the constant fear of annihilation that he’d known in the trenches. After breakfast they took off to deliver supplies to the front lines.
Late that morning Henri and his team arrived at Catherine’s Cemetery, the post along the Western Front where he’d been stationed for the past year. He stopped the sled aside the quartermaster’s tent, not far from the hospital wagon where Marcel had died just a few weeks earlier.
Henri’s friend Emile rushed to him, clenched both shoulders, and kissed him on the left cheek, then on the right. “Are we ever happy to see you. Capt Moreau told us you were coming and that we’d eat well tonight.”
Henri was pleased to see that Emile was still alive, but his return to Catherine’s Cemetery reminded him how thrilled he was to be out of the trenches. He returned the kisses. “Give me a hand with these supplies.”
They unloaded several containers of medicine, mail, and food—mostly canned bully beef, sardines, and hardtack. Then he tossed Emile a large box of chocolates. “I found these lying around in the officers’ mess hall. You can divvy them up with the boys.”
Emile bear-hugged him and kissed him again before tucking the chocolates inside his coat and bidding Henri adieu.
“Line out.” Henri led his team away, happy to have seen his old friends, ecstatic to be out of the trenches.
* * *
“Whoa, whoa,” Henri cried out, his voice barely audible in the hissing winds and swirling gusts of snow. It had been a month since their first excursion, and they’d already delivered supplies to Pierre’s Point, Catherine’s Cemetery, and two other posts along the trench lines that day. He jammed his foot on the brake, the claw dug into the snow, and they gradually came to a grinding, bouncy halt.
The Whittler’s Ridge veteran gray-haired quartermaster trudged out of his tent to greet the team, his head bent low, his jacket tugged over his head for protection. “I ain’t never seen anything like this. We’ve been freezing our asses off out here, and the winds been shooting through here like a damn torpedo,” he said. “I was about to give up on you, thought you might have gotten lost in the blizzard, or worse.”
“Sledding’s been slow, and we’re pretty beat up,” Henri replied. “Bullseye’s been coughing and gasping for two days. Frisky’s head’s drooping low, glassy-eyed and lethargic, and Comet’s been limping for the past five kilometers.”
“You only got a few hours of daylight left. We best get you unloaded so you can be on your way.”
“I was thinking of hunkering down and bedding here for the night. If that’s okay with you.”
“Fine by me. There’s a near empty hospital tent we can get you set up in. Nice and cozy, got its own fire. Long as you don’t mind smelling Eli all night.”
Henri laughed. “Eli will do just fine. He couldn’t stink any more than we do.”
Henri and the quartermaster unloaded all the remaining supplies in the basket. He had just about finished untethering the huskies when a doctor wearing a heavy fur coat over his stained green scrubs ran up to them.
“Our captain’s been shot, and it’s bad, real bad,” the doctor said.
“On a day like today?” Henri asked, surprised.
“You know those Boche snipers. They never take a day off.”
“Do I ever,” Henri said, thinking back on the boy with the big ears.
“You’ve got to get him back to La Voivre, right away.”
“It’ll be lot safer in the morning.”
“He won’t be alive in the morning. He needs a real hospital, and he needs it now.”
Henri sighed, exhausted and exasperated. “My team is really thrashed right now. You got any other dogs or sled teams that can handle this?”
“There’s nobody else. You’re his only chance, Henri,” the doc said. “I’ve patched him up best I can, but he’s gonna die if you can’t get him back to town.”
Henri and two hospital orderlies strapped the wounded captain securely into the basket of the sled, half delirious during his intermittent moments of consciousness. The old Whittler’s Ridge quartermaster saw them off and warned Henri, “You best be careful out there, son. We’ve already had two reports of German patrols today.”
Henri nodded in reply. He didn’t think they had a prayer of getting back to La Voivre in this weather, even without the extra payload. Comet wobbled and fell to his knees twice while Henri lashed him up. Frisky whined and cried and pleaded with his eyes. There was something wrong with him; he was no complainer. Bullseye coughed and gagged so much that Henri seriously considered strapping him into the basket alongside the captain. Henri felt like he was setting off on a suicide mission and that the captain was going to die regardless of what happened. But he thought of Marcel and doing everything he could to save him, even though the odds of survival were slim. There was no way Henri could say no to the doctor, not when there was a faint shred of hope of saving that captain’s life.
“Line out,” be bellowed. Baldy pulled the lines taut. Henri pedaled to help the team get started through the deep snow, one foot in the sled, the other pushing off the sticky fluff. “Hike, hike,” he hollered, and off they raced, Baldy barely visible to Henri.
They headed back toward La Voivre on the familiar Le Moselle “river run,” the same route traveled each day by Henri and ten other French dog sled teams. About an hour into the journey, while still on the eastern slopes of the round-top mountains, Baldy suddenly tilted his head to the right and let out a long, low, whiny growl. The hair on his spine stiffened, and his ears stood at attention. Henri understood the warning at once and commanded, “Gee, gee, gee.”
Baldy didn’t hesitate. He veered off the trail and led the team into the forest. Comet stumbled but managed to keep on his feet. The dogs whipped around a boulder in sync, and the sled went up on one rail, snow spraying off the other in its wake.
Baldy brought the team to an abrupt halt beside a fallen pine tree, snow packed high upon its trunk. The dogs cowered together in silence, sunk low into the snow, eyes peering forward just above the surface. Henri followed their lead. Bullseye sniveled, and Baldy turned his head, exposed his fangs, and shot him a glare that said, “Hush or die.” Snow swirled to the ground from the gray sky above. Branches whipped about in the stormy winds, snow tumbling off their boughs. Henri looked back into the meadow, the fresh snow and wind already obscuring their tracks into the forest. They waited patiently, and they waited.
Half hour later the enemy appeared. German soldiers trudged two abreast along the trail that the French dog sled teams had sculpted out over the gradually upsloping meadow. Shoulders and heads bent forward, shielding their eyes from the pelting snow and ice. Parkas tugged high over their ears, rifles slung across their shoulders. Heavy breathing produced puffs of white clouds melding and dissipating into the crystal flurries. Their progress was slow and onerous.
Henri peered over the fallen tree and through its branches, invisible to the enemy. Twenty by his quick count, too many to engage, a mere thirty meters away. He instinctively placed his left index finger over his lips, but no need—Baldy had the huskies under control. Henri slowed his breathing to avoid any possibility of detection, but he couldn’t shake the feeling of being thrown back into the trenches. His fate out of his control, he started quivering, overwhelmed by freezing temperature, and fear. He was a dog musher now, no longer a soldier. The Boche troopers lumbered on, so burdened by the cold, snow and wind that they appeared oblivious to their surroundings. But Henri and the dogs remained silent, on full alert.
Then, without warning, the injured captain bawled out a hideous scream. Baldy jerked his head about and bared his teeth but maintained quiet. In a state of frantic delirium, the disabled soldier jerked and tugged at his wrist and leg bindings. His throat gurgled, and the wailing grew louder.
Henri clamped his hand over the captain’s mouth, his eyes pleading him to shut up. The muffled, agitated moaning persisted. Henri pressed harder, prepared to suffocate the man if need be, and nodded toward the enemy patrol. The captain’s muscles relaxed and his eyes blinked, which Henri interpreted as a signal of understanding. Yet Henri did not dare risk removing his hand.
He once again peeked over the snow-capped tree trunk, then drew back in horror. The Germans clearly had heard the shrieks and were charging toward their forest hideout. Henri didn’t hesitate.
“Line out, line out,” he screeched. “Hike, hike.” He pleaded, “faster, faster, go faster,” even though that word was no command that the dogs were trained to understand. No matter—they perceived the danger. Baldy and his team of huskies were already at full tilt. They rushed back toward the sled trail through the meadow at an angle away from the oncoming Boche soldiers. A small stand of pine trees stood between Henri’s team and the Germans.
But full speed was not particularly fast in the heavy fresh snowpack. Headway was sluggish on both sides. Henri pedaled aside the sled to lighten the load. But with every stride forward, the dogs sank deeper into the virgin powder. The Boches toiled too, their boots buried into the snow with every step, stumbling, toppling, and scrambling to advance.
The dogs plodded and slogged ahead, their breathing labored in the thin mountain air. “Haw, haw,” Henri cried, and Baldy veered slightly left past the cluster of pine trees. They were now exposed to the Germans. A single rifle shot echoed across the mountainside, then another and another. Sharp, sizzling, hissing sounds pierced the atmosphere unseen. Henri ducked his head involuntarily. Bullets whizzed by, first a few, then torrents zoomed past. A slight lull. The pungent aroma of charcoal and sulfur poisoned the landscape. The onslaught resumed.
Baldy finally regained the trail, followed in an instant by the other members of the team. They propelled onward, legs extended, unencumbered at last, long graceful strides at maximum speed, as if launched out of a cannon, albeit in the wrong direction, back toward Whittler’s Ridge. The distance between Henri and the predators widened with every bound forward.
Henri glanced back. Visibility was still poor, but he observed every German firing their weapons, some standing, others from a kneeling position, a few still in pursuit. Volley after volley reverberated throughout the meadow. Henri’s dog sled team didn’t flinch and sped forth, undeterred by the Boche assault.
Then the roar of the guns was overshadowed by Rookie’s cries and yelps. The young husky collapsed mid-stride, caromed hard to the ground, and skidded into Raptor at his side, taking the legs out from under him. Blood squirted from Rookie’s shoulder across the backdrop of fresh white snow. The dog sled lurched and slowed, hindered by the two downed dogs bouncing along the hard-pack pathway. Raptor scrambled to his feet and recaptured his stride, but Rookie remained limp, bumping along on his side.
Henri’s first instinct was to jump on the brakes and run to Rookie’s aide. But he didn’t dare. To stop would be to die—not just him but Rookie, the captain, and the entire team. There was nothing he could do for his young husky but to get out of range of the rifles.
The barrage of bullets continued uninterrupted. Henri exhorted his team forward. Rookie tried to clamber to his feet but stumbled and collapsed once again. They approached a sharp bend in the road, and Henri chanced another quick peek back. The Boche soldiers had ceased their pursuit, but they continued firing their weapons, Henri and his team still within their range.
The dogs and sled dashed around the curve in the trail and, finally, out of sight of the enemy. Henri hollered, “Whoa, whoa.” Baldy hesitated, looked back and tilted his head, perplexed with the command. Louder, Henri cried out, “Whoa.” He stomped on the brake, and they came to a halt.
Henri leapt out of the sled and rushed to Rookie. He unhooked the wounded dog, carefully scooped him in his arms, and loaded him into the sled basket alongside the injured captain. Baldy cried, whimpered, and pawed at the snow, desperate for them to be on their way.
Henri ignored his lead dog’s protests. He performed a cursory inspection of the wounded husky. Rookie looked up at him with those big ol’ sad eyes that dogs get when they’re hurting and in need but can’t help themselves. Henri stroked the young dog’s neck and ears, and thought of Marcel lying on that wagon, helpless, dying. He pushed the fur aside where the bullet had entered. The bleeding had slowed, but the slug was lodged in his shoulder. It had to come out, but no time for that now.
He hopped back on the sled and barked, “Line, out. Hike, hike.” Baldy and the team bolted away while Henri mapped out in his mind an alternate route back to La Voivre.
It was a long, slow trip back that evening and into the night. All Henri could think about was embracing Juliette once again and cuddling their new little baby in his arms as they fell asleep in the old rocker his parents gave them for a wedding gift. A few more months, just a few more months until his life was returned to him.
* * *
It was early spring, and the snow had mostly melted at the lower elevations. The ground was soft, unfrozen, and Henri figured the wildflowers had to be popping up soon. He sat on the edge of a wobbly stool in front of his La Voivre barracks, brush in hand, easel secure on a three-legged stand before him, painting a portrait of Baldy and the team. But his mind floated off to Juliette and Lily. Any day now, and he’d be on his way home. His year-and-a-half front-row seat at a real-life horror show was almost over.
The boys, as he’d grown fond of calling them, lazed about after their evening meal, about as placid as they’d ever be. Rookie had recovered, and the team was healthy, at full-strength. He brushed the final strokes of their likeness, sure that Lily would love the huskies.
Lt Haas approached, tentative, a little fidgety. “What’s up?” Henri asked.
“You’ve been one of our top mushers, Henri,” the lieutenant said. “I know Capt Moreau promised you a discharge in the spring, but—”
“No buts,” Henri interrupted, leaping off the stool. “You’re not reneging on that commitment, are you?”
“No, nothing like that. But we’d like you to consider coming back next winter.”
“We’ll talk next fall, but assure me that I’m going home now.”
“Okay, okay. I’ve got one more job for you, then you’re going home. But think about next winter—we really need you.”
“What kind of job?”
“An overnighter. River run to Catherine’s and Whittler’s, usual route, then overnight at Pierre’s Point. Next morning you go up the line a few hours to pick up General Dubois. Be back here in two days, then you go home to your wife and baby.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
“I’ve got to warn you. We’ve lost three teams in the past two weeks, and German patrols are everywhere.” Haas hesitated, as if unsure whether to say any more. “I think we’ve got a traitor tipping them off.”
“Any idea who it is?” Henri mentally thumbed through the faces he’d seen in the barracks over the past few weeks.
“No. But I’m going to send an escort out in front of you, just a precaution. Gaston Brodeur. Good musher who knows the terrain. A fine marksman too.”
“Never heard of him,” Henri said, nervous about being attached to a newcomer with a traitor in their midst. “Can you vouch for him?”
“He’s pretty new, been around a month or so. He seems okay, sent down by top brass up north. We’ll pack your sled. You leave first thing in the morning.”
* * *
Henri and the boys set out as the morning sun peeked over the crest of the Vosges with a full load of desperately needed ammunition. The weather report forecasted high-speed freezing winds and harsh conditions, perhaps the last storm of the season. Brodeur took off first in a lightweight sled pulled by four of Haas’s fastest dogs.
Low, dense clouds hung in the sky, but winds were calm up the western slopes. Henri passed the time dreaming about heading back home in a few days. Brodeur checked in from time to time, but for the most part the scout stayed out of sight, ahead of the supply sled.
They crested the mountain before noon and sledded down the eastern grade. Henri steered the team into an open meadow, and the snowfall intensified, winds gusted, and visibility deteriorated. He hadn’t seen Brodeur in over an hour.
Henri flipped his hood over his head and cinched it tight around his neck. The sled bounced and swerved in the strong crosswinds. He fumbled for his goggles with his left hand but hung on tight with his right. He was thankful for his heavy fur coat. Progress slowed, and Baldy snipped at the other dogs to keep them going.
They crossed an icy bridge over the frozen Wolf Lodge Creek. The timber truss overpass was about fifteen meters long supported by a stone foundation at each end and five iron piers staggered evenly in between. A few of the dogs slipped, and Henri felt the sled skid sideways. He tightened his grip on the handlebar.
Baldy was racing across the middle of the span when Henri noticed a man emerging from behind a fir tree about twenty-five meters beyond the bridge. At first he thought it might be a Boche sniper, but the man’s hands were empty. Then he recognized the team of four huskies and Gaston Brodeur’s olive drab parka, and Henri relaxed. The scout moved toward the bridge, then disappeared into a grouping of small saplings.
The sled drifted to the left, and, to his shock, Henri noticed three sticks of dynamite lashed to the base of one of the bridge’s support posts. His gaze darted forward to the next post: three more sticks of TNT. Same with the next post, and the next.
“Hike, hike,” Henri screamed. He cracked the whip overhead, again, and again. “Faster, faster!” Another snap of the crop. The boys responded, but Henri feared they wouldn’t be quick enough on the slippery surface.
Henri fixed his sights on the stand of young trees. Then he saw him again, Gaston Brodeur, camouflaged among the seedlings. With both hands, Brodeur pushed downward on a T-handle as though he were pumping the tire of a bicycle full of air, his eyes fixed upon the dog sled team crossing the bridge.
A powerful explosion burst through the air, as loud as any artillery shells or bombs Henri had heard during his time on the Western Front. The dynamite on the furthest forward pier had detonated, impacting the leaders of the team first. Huskies yipped and squealed. Images of his horrific days in the trenches flashed through Henri’s mind: the head of the curious kid with a fear of rats disintegrating in an instant and shrapnel from mortal bombs hurtling into Marcel’s neck. Baldy had just crossed onto the other side, and the line connecting him to the rest of the team severed. He scrambled onto shore, staggered, then collapsed. The front of the bridge was obliterated, and the two swing dogs, Froggy and One Ear, their lines also cut loose, were thrown off the bridge and hurtled across the sky toward the frozen creek.
Henri slammed his foot on the brake with both feet and hollered, “Whoa, whoa!” But the huskies had no traction on the frozen slats. Bullseye and Bandit toppled over the edge of the bisected bridge. They dangled in midair between the overpass and the creek, five meters below, still attached to the dogs behind them and the sled. Then the remaining huskies slid forward, pulled by the force of the suspended canines. Henri pounded on the brake, but there was nothing he could do to halt the forward movement.
An instant later, the explosives on the next pier detonated, then the next pier and the next. Then the full load of ammunition lashed onto Henri’s sled blasted. All of the remaining dogs,—Comet, Frisky, Rookie, and Raptor—tumbled across the gray backdrop, screaming, upside down and sideways, limbs askew. Henri hurled into the atmosphere, at first still connected to the sled. His eardrums felt like they’d been shattered. Then he disengaged from the basket and flopped about, to and fro, toward the heavens.
Fragments of timber, pylons, support beams, and blood shot out in every direction, then rained down to the ground, staining the pristine white surface. He could see dogs crying and yelping as they plummeted to the ground, but he couldn’t hear them. The stench of sulfur contaminated the clean mountain air. In a few short moments the annihilated bridge was gone.
Henri landed hard on the frozen creek, the sheet of ice creaking and groaning from the impact of his body. A large chunk of lumber smashed into the side of his head. A jagged piece of wood lodged into the middle of his chest, and blood squirted down the front of his coat. He was dazed and disoriented, then felt the ice crack below him. On adrenaline alone, he managed to crawl and slither to the bank of the creek, just a few meters from Baldy.
Henri collapsed on the embankment, then looked up as Baldy growled and hissed, the hair stiffened along his spine. The husky staggered to his feet like a drunk just kicked out of a saloon, woozy and wobbly, blood dripping from a gash along the side of his face. But he was otherwise unharmed.
Gaston Brodeur raced toward Henri and Baldy, a rifle in his left hand. Henri tried to reach for the revolver tucked under his belt, but his arm was numb and wouldn’t move. He cried out a warning, but his voice was weak and close to inaudible. No matter—the husky was already on the move. Baldy galloped toward the oncoming scout, then accelerated to a full charge.
Brodeur stopped and yanked a pistol out from under his coat. Baldy launched himself through the air, mouth open, teeth bared, and clamped onto the traitor’s throat. They tumbled to the ground, but the husky clenched tightly and wouldn’t let go. Baldy shook Brodeur’s head back and forth. Blood sprayed over the dog’s face and into his mouth. Then the husky dropped the Boche spy’s listless body to the ground. Henri sighed in relief, then scoured the area for the other dogs.
Many of the huskies lay on the ground whining, tending their wounds. Frisky, Bullseye, and Comet sprawled motionless on the snow. Henri managed to remove the jagged, splintered, wooden stake from his chest, then collapsed back along the shore, his back resting on the gradual upslope from the creek.
Henri closed his eyes, half conscious, half aware, and felt the blood oozing down his neck and shoulder. He was so close to making it home. So close. He fantasized Juliette and Lily, one on each side, patting his wounds with gauze, stopping the bleeding. They’d found him, come to his rescue. Then he felt his wife licking his face and his neck and lapping the blood driveling from the wound in his chest.
When Juliette stopped licking, Henri slowly, and with great effort, opened his eyes. Not much—just a few cracks was all he could manage. His vision was blurry and he blinked, images gradually coming into focus. Baldy stood beside him, his mouth hanging open, panting, his tongue and nose drenched in blood.
Baldy whimpered and cried. He slumped beside his master’s torn body and dug his head into Henri’s shoulder. Henri snuggled against Baldy and weakly stroked his neck and behind the ears, just where the magnificent dog always liked to be scratched. “Tell Juliette I love her. Tell her I’m sorry I couldn’t make it home. Can you do that for me, old boy?”
Henri closed his eyes and his arm fell limp. So close to making it home.
* * *
Juliette Laurent stared out the window at the bomb-pocked countryside. Rain was light but steady as the train sped through the western foothills of the Vosges Mountains. The last few patches of winter snow speckled the higher elevations. She’d never been to the Alsace or anywhere so near the German border. She tried to envision infantrymen cowering in their trenches, shells exploding about them, and teams of sled dogs sprinting across the snow, just as Henri had described—and as he had depicted in his art. She even found herself scouring the terrain for rats. But she saw none of this: no bunkers, no barbed wire, no cannons, no dog sleds, no soldiers, and no rodents. Just bent, dead burnt pines hovering amid young saplings, green grasses, and colorful spring wildflowers competing to restore the lost beauty of the landscape.
Juliette’s seven-year-old daughter, Lily, slumped by her side, sleeping. She had inherited from Henri her glossy orange hair and freckles that sprinkled across her nose and cheeks.
The train whistle hissed, and the conductor called out, “Next stop, Saint-Amarin.”
They’d traveled from Paris at the invitation of Lt Rene Haas. The old commanding officer’s letter informed her that a sizeable collection of Henri’s sketches, drawings, and paintings had been discovered in the basement of the barracks where Henri last resided in La Voivre. They’d even unearthed a few old photographs along with Henri’s journal with entries right up to the evening before he died. Haas also offered to introduce Juliette and Lily to Henri’s lead husky, Baldy, who was old and long retired from service.
The train came to a halt. Lily sprang to her feet and said, “Come, Maman, let’s go,” tugging on her mother’s hand. Lily led them up the slope to Haas’s house on the hill behind the museum. But Juliette paused and sat on a wooden bench. She couldn’t stop trembling. Today was the day that she would introduce Lily to her father, not just through the stories she’d told her all these years but by way of Henri’s sketches, paintings, and his own written accounts detailing the horrors of that wretched war.
* * *
Juliette and Lily found the address and walked through a courtyard adorned with blue, yellow, red, and purple spring flowers. Lt Haas greeted them at the front door of his old stone house and warmly invited them into his dining room.
“You’ve had a long journey.” He threw his hand toward the center of the room as a substitute for a drum roll. “Please, help yourselves.” Refreshments spread out across the table, displayed with the usual artistic French flare: baguettes, a variety of cheeses, meats, olives, nuts, and other garnish. Alsatian Riesling for Juliette and Normandy cider for Lily.
After the nice meal Haas lead them into the front room. He had laid out dozens of pieces of art throughout the front sitting room on tables, chairs, and even on the floor. He had pinned others to the wall.
Juliette recognized many of the works that were similar to sketches Henri had sent home to her in tubes.
“I will leave you now to enjoy Henri’s work alone, at your own pace. Please take all the time you like,” he said.
“We are in your debt, Monsieur,” Juliette replied.
Lt Haas ambled toward out room, then turned back as though he’d just remember one last point he wanted to make. “All of this, the art, the journals, everything, of course, belongs to you. I will have it crated and delivered to your residence in Paris.”
Before Juliette could thank him, he was gone.
Juliette stood before the painting of a team of dogs barreling around a large boulder on one rail spraying snow in its wake.
“Why were they in such a hurry?” Lily asked.
“I believe that was the day the Germans were chasing and shooting at them.”
Lily threw her hands over her mouth and her eyes opened wide. “Did anybody get shot? Or killed?”
“The youngest dog was hit in the shoulder. He fell and was dragged along the ice, but he recovered. His name was Rookie.”
Lily pointed to the sled. “Is that Papa driving the sleigh? Who is that lying down beside him?”
Henri had written the entire story to Juliette in a long letter. She had been so proud of Henri after reading the account, which she’d reread many times. She’d committed every word, even the tiniest detail of the adventure, to memory. Henri was as good a storyteller as he was an artist. “That was your father, the musher. How about we read his letter together when we return home?”
“Hey, Maman, there’s a picture of you in your studio with your white artist clothes on.”
Juliette smiled. “I was wedging clay into a bust of Henri. I gave it to your father as a gift for our wedding.” She remembered walking down the aisle, arm in arm with her father. Henri and Marcel waiting for her at the altar. After the ceremony they sang and danced and drank. So happy.
“There’s another one of you waving to someone from the train platform. Who’s that on the train waving back?”
“That’s the last time . . .” She hesitated, the words lodged in her throat. “That’s the last time we saw each other.”
Juliette sat on a bench opposite the composition. Henri had died so long ago and she thought that she’d conquered the grief and heartache. But tears welled in her eyes and started to trickle down her cheeks. She reached for a handkerchief, but her pockets were empty. She sniveled and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
Lily sat beside her. She pulled a hankie from her pocket and handed it to Juliette, then wrapped an arm around her.
Juliette smiled and returned the embrace. They walked around the room together studying the other sketches and paintings: two canines hauling a machine gun and ammunition, a portrayal of Henri and two fellow soldiers eating a chocolate birthday cake, a black-and-white photo of Henri and Lt Haas standing behind nine Alaskan huskies posing–some sitting at attention with their mouths open and tongues hanging out, others restless–and a self-portrait illustrated Henri on one knee in the snow, smiling, with his arm around an Alaskan husky. Henri and the dog leaned into each other.
Juliette thought that of all his self-portrayals, in none did Henri appear so happy as he was in that painting.
Lt Haas returned to the room.
Juliette said, “I didn’t realize Henri did so many paintings. Where did he get the paints, brushes, and easels?”
“Once we headquartered in La Voivre, Henri befriended a local artist who kept him well supplied.”
Lily grabbed Haas by the sleeve and pointed to the portrait of Henri with his arm around the husky and asked, “Who is that dog with my father?”
“That’s Baldy. He was Scotty Allan’s personal lead dog in Alaska, and he gave him to your father. He said that Henri was the only man he trusted to take care of his favorite dog. Would you like to meet Baldy?”
Lily grinned. “Oui, oui.”
Haas glanced over at Juliette. She melted, her lips tight, unable to speak. But she managed to offer an approving nod.
Juliette and Lily settled onto the couch while Lt Haas went into the back room to fetch Baldy. He’d warned them that the legendary lead dog was old, deaf, and nearly blind.
Moments later, Haas emerged with the husky at his side. Baldy limped badly, barely able to place weight on his right front leg. He teetered forward, gingerly, as though he might topple over at any moment. His hair was gray and he hung his head, ignoring the presence of the newcomers. Juliette reached to pat him upon his head. But Baldy cowered lower and slunk away, emitting a guttural whine. Juliette jerked her hand back.
She was rarely around animals and had never been particularly fond of dogs. Baldy’s unfriendly greeting was an instant reminder of just how much she actually disliked them.
“I’m afraid Baldy isn’t too keen on people,” Haas apologized. “He’s a work dog. And dogs like him pledge fealty to their master and nobody else.”
“He doesn’t look like the friendly husky hugging my father in the painting,” Lily said, chagrinned, her mouth and nose crinkled as though she’d just taken a bite out of a lemon.
“Baldy has only offered his love and affection to two people in his life: Scotty Allan and Henri Laurent. He tolerates me, mostly because I feed him.”
Lily slumped and appeared disappointed. “Does that mean he doesn’t want to play with me?”
“I’m sorry, but Baldy doesn’t like kids,” Haas replied. “He detests being patted on the head, petted, or hugged. Especially by strangers.”
Haas sat in his cushy rocker and motioned Baldy to his side. But the old husky ignored his master, sniffed the air, and then wobbled toward Lily on the couch.
Juliette extended her right arm in front of Lily, as though that would protect her. “Be careful, honey. He’s old, but he still might bite.”
Lily squirmed back and pulled her arms to her chest.
“There’s no need to be frightened,” Haas said. “I’ve never seen him bite anybody.”
Lily flinched, uncertain, even fearful.
Juliette placed her hand on Lily’s lap. She turned to Haas. “Are you sure?”
Haas nodded, a reassuring nod.
Baldy nudged his nose against Lily’s knees and legs, then laid his head upon her lap, as if petitioning a pat on the head or a stroke of the ears.
“My goodness, he doesn’t even do that for me.” Haas gawked at his dog in wonderment.
Lily extended her hand, cautiously, then pulled it back.
Juliette thought back to her childhood when their neighbor’s Rottweiler bit her little brother’s hand when he wandered into their yard. He’d lost his index finger and most of his thumb. She’d hated dogs ever since. She liked Henri’s stories of the huskies in the letters. But now that one of them was up close, her old fears resurfaced.
“Go ahead and pet him,” Haas said. “I think he’s asking for a little attention.”
Lily wriggled to the edge of the couch. Juliette wanted to pull her back but was afraid the husky might snap. Lily stretched out and ever so gently placed her hand along the right side of Baldy’s face. She gazed into his eyes. The husky cocked his head and pressed his jaw against Lily’s hand. His tail oscillated back and forth in long sweeping motions. All the while, Baldy’s eyes maintained steady contact with Lily’s as though they were two young kids daring each other to blink first.
Juliette relaxed. She could see that Baldy meant Lily no harm. She recalled Henri’s attachment to the dog when he described the husky’s devotion to him. Juliette thought that perhaps Baldy was showing the same affection for Lily that he displayed to Henri.
Emboldened, Lily softly rubbed both hands along each side of Baldy’s face and under his chin. The husky sat motionless, receptive to the caresses. She massaged the fur behind his ears and snuggled her head against his. “Baldy likes me,” Lily said. Baldy lifted his left paw and rested it on Lily’s shoulder.
“Well, I’ll be darned,” Lt Haas exclaimed. “He can smell you, missy. He knows you’re Henri’s kin.”
It was at that moment when Juliette fully understood Henri’s transformation from the hopeless misery of waiting to die for over a year in the trenches to his satisfying last four months of life helping feed and supply his compatriots, rescuing the wounded, and making a meaningful contribution to the Allied war effort. It was Baldy who had helped facilitate Henri’s metamorphosis from despair to gratification. Baldy had been Henri’s loyal partner and best friend.
Then, without warning, mustering what little strength he had left, Baldy leapt onto the couch and wormed his body between Juliette and Lily. He licked Juliette on the chin, as if acknowledging that she was an important person to both Lily and Henri. Juliette stroked his shoulders and worked her hand up to his head. Baldy didn’t protest.
Then Baldy circled twice, tail flipping side to side, and slouched against Lily. She wrapped her arms around the husky’s neck and nestled in close. Baldy nuzzled tight and licked her a few times. Then the husky rested his head on her thigh and closed his eyes.
“Well, what do you make of that?” Lt Haas said. “Baldy has decided that he’s your dog now, Lily. You’re his new master.”
Juliette pictured their flat back in Paris and wondered whether they had enough room for Baldy. Silly, she thought. Of course, they could make space for him. It would be like taking a piece of Henri’s heart home with them.
Stephan Lang retired in November, 2018, and has been writing full time ever since. He has had stories published in Decomp Journal, BlazeVOX, New Plains Review, Gloom Cupboard and Sixers Review. He is currently working on his first novel, a WWI historical fiction work. In addition, three other short story projects are near completion.