I stumbled in, mud dripping off my boots, my jacket… well, pretty much everywhere, including a few places that I would rather not share with anyone else. “Faugh!” I declared, spitting on the straw covering the floor around the entrance.
Behind me, Young Henry followed on my heels, although he forewent my exclamation. He’d stuck close, practically my shadow as a round of artillery fell only meters from our position.
“Relax,” I told him, glancing back over my shoulder. “We’re on neutral ground now, lad. Take it easy.”
“Neutral, that’s in your mind!” shouted one of the wags at the bar, eliciting a round of gruff laughter. “We’re on a truce, that’s all! Any second, it’ll fold and we’ll be firing right into the blazes of this place!”
“Unt how long does ze truce last?” called out another voice from the other end of the room.
“Until the ale runs out, dear chap! And by the Queen, I hope we can sign another one before we’ve depleted the emergency whiskey!” A cheer greeted these words, as men slammed their mugs against the scarred and gouged wood.
Young Henry stared around in open amazement, gawking as I tried to wipe some of the mud off my uniform. “Sarge, what is this place?” he asked softly.
“What’s it look like?” I retorted, grimacing as I shook some mud off of my fingers. Stuff seemed to get everywhere, never really dried. I’d probably end up dumping my coat and boots over near the fire, hoping that some of the water would evaporate out. “Place’s a bar, Henry.”
“Yeah, but…” Young Henry struggled, his mouth opening and closing blankly for a second. “But we’re out in the trenches, Sarge.”
I moved over to the bar’s counter, where a squat man with a massive beard looked evenly back at me. “Jacques? Want to take the explanation?”
He huffed, blowing out some of his mustaches and revealing just a hint of lips beneath the thick hair. “Fwa, Tomlin, always looking for someone else to do your dirty work, isn’t it?”
“Aren’t you,” I corrected. “Not ‘isn’t it’. And look at me, I’m plenty dirty! Give a man a chance to get some of the muck off, would ya?”
Another sigh, but his eyes moved over to Young Henry. “T’ place is mine,” he explained. “T’was mine before the war, here in a village. Whole place was nice, mostly underground on ‘count of the cool dirt. Then, when th’ bombs began falling, whole place got buried, but still held up.”
“And still had cellars full of France’s best,” I added, my voice a little muffled as I fought my way out of the mud-soaked coat.
Jacques nodded. “Aye. And I serve whoever comes in, long as they don’t raise a fuss.”
Young Henry’s wide eyes, meanwhile, had swept across the bar. I suspected that he’d stopped listening, and those suspicions were confirmed when his eyes landed on the group of men at the far end. “Sarge, those are Krauts over there,” he gasped.
“Yeah, I know. Don’t challenge them to a drinking contest, they’ll put you under the table.” Finally, I got the coat off, dumped it alongside my boots by the fire. “Jacques, how’re things? Stuff you need?”
He frowned. “You to pay your tab, for starters.”
I grinned at him. “Come on, mate, you know that I’m good for it. I’m talking supplies. Maybe I can help you out.”
“Well, we do always need more rations, you know. Firewood helps, fights off the damp. Pretty good otherwise.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I promised. “But for now, an ale, and one for the newbie as well. Eh? Show us a bit of that vaunted French hospitality?”
He sighed, even as he fetched the beers. “What I’d give to have my country back,” he lamented. “But drink up, and may you forget th’ troubles of the war.”
I held up my glass, passing the other to Young Henry. “Jacques, I’ll toast to that.”