The first gun has a team which is the joy of the whole battery. This is owing to Astruc and his off-horse Jericho. Astruc, with bright brown eyes and a face like a carrion-crow, is not much taller than a walking-stick and has hardly any legs. Jericho is a vicious brute that kicks, bites, and refuses to be groomed. Astruc holds long conversations with him, and every morning greets him like one greets an old friend who is a little crabbed, but of whom one is really fond:
“Well, Jericho, old boy, what have you got to say? Have you been dreaming of German mares?”
Brejard pointed out to Astruc that Jericho is a gelding.
“Oh!” retorted Astruc, “I expect he gets ideas in his head all the same.”
But to-day Jericho was in a specially bad temper, and wouldn’t let himself be bridled in order to be led down to the watering-place.
“What’s up, old chap?” asked Astruc. “Oh, I see what you want! You haven’t had your quid this morning, have you? . . . It’s your quid you’re after.”
And he held out in the hollow of his hand a pinch of tobacco which the horse swallowed with avidity. When Astruc is astride his near-horse, Hermine, Jericho bites his boot, and the more Astruc whips him the harder he clenches his teeth.
“Well,” says Astruc, “I bet that if I leave Jericho in a melee he’ll eat as many Boches as he can get his teeth into. If only we’d a hundred more like him !”
And looking the horse full in the face he added:
“It’s odd, you know! The brute’s got a naughty twinkle in his eyes . . . just like one of those girls. . . .”
A corps of pontoon engineers passed by our camp, their long, steel-plated boats loaded on carts, keel uppermost. Some foundered horses, tied behind the vehicles, followed with hanging head and limping step, a look of suffering in their bleared eyes a pitiful sight.
Far down the road, winding its way through the long valley and white under the morning sun, one could see the column toiling up a hill as if ascending to the blue sky. At that distance men and horses seemed no more than a swarm of black ants, but the steel bottoms of the boats still glinted in the sunshine. In front of us the long line still passed slowly by. The men’s health is excellent, but the horses stand this new life less successfully. Last Friday we had to leave one on the road, and yesterday an old battery horse named Defricheur died in his turn. We had to prepare a grave for him, and four men had been digging for more than an hour in the hard and rocky ground when the mayor of Moirey arrived on the scene. The grave had been dug too close to the houses, so they had to drag the heavy carcass farther on and begin digging again. Unfortunately the measurements of the new grave had been badly calculated, and Defricheur, a proper gendarme’s horse, could not be crammed into it. The men were heartily tired of digging and so, with a few blows of their spades and picks, they broke his legs and folded them under his belly, so that at last he could be squeezed into the pit.
The hill which had limited our horizon at Villa-devant-Chaumont was still to be seen rising on the east in solitary splendour, its outlines traced as if by compasses. Beneath the azure sky it shone like a mass of burnished bronze.
Moirey lies in the lap of a valley and consists of a few dilapidated cottages roofed with broken tiles. No matter from which side one goes away from the village it is instantly hidden by an intervening spur of the hills, so that one can only see the top of the roofs and the short, rectangular steeple covered with slates.
As we were grooming our horses in a field through which a brook bubbled along amid the iris, a bevy of white-capped girls came down from the village.
The only means of getting over the river was a narrow bridge. This we barred by standing a couple of horses athwart it, and, by way of toll, demanded kisses. The girls, their rosy-cheeked faces smiling under the spreading butterfly-wings of their caps, at first hesitated. Then one of them took a run, jumped, and splashed into the water.
The others learnt wisdom from her example and decided to pay the toll.
“Come on now! Just one kiss, you know!” said Deprez. “That’s not so dear in war-time!”
They paid conscientiously.