© 2009 by Walter D. Reimer
(Dr. J. Meffit, MD, FRCSC, MC and Heinrich, Baron von Kojote courtesy of Eric Costello.)
(Poetry by Lawrence Binyon.)
November 11, 1933:
Fort Bob, Krupmark Island:
The few women out and about that morning ducked into shops in the Thieves’ Bazaar or found some way to hide themselves, and men stepped out of the path of the figure as he made his way through the settlement. No one made eye contact with him.
It would have been misinterpreted.
The figure was a male skunk, dressed in rags and his fur matted and unkempt, his headfur lying lank and oily down to his shoulders. He was tall and powerfully built, and had he taken better care of himself might have cut quite a dash among the assorted pirates, smugglers and criminals who inhabited the island.
He held his ragged-looking striped tail high as he stamped his way up the rutted track that served as the town’s high street and a Chinese canine with two pistols strapped to his waist shoved his charge down behind a stall holding several bales of stolen cloth. “Get down and stay there,” he hissed in Mandarin. “It’s Mad Mac.”
“Who?” the red panda girl asked. She and her family had only been on Krupmark a shade over four years.
“Mad MacTavish. Don’t let him see you.”
If the skunk heard as he passed by, he didn’t seem to notice.
He had other priorities this day.
November 11, 1937:
The uniform still fit him well enough, James Meffit thought as he closed the stock collar of his tunic and examined the result in the full-length mirror. The medal ribbon of the Military Cross, dazzling white bounding a stripe of deep purple, stood out bright as a star shell against the khaki uniform. P’ina had done a splendid job polishing the buttons and the three pips on the shoulders that proclaimed his rank as Captain.
The skunk frowned.
He didn’t expect to ever wear the uniform again, this side of the grave of course. But the Rain Island military base on Moon Island had extended an invitation to dine on the occasion of the Armistice. Uniform was required (the dinner being held in the egalitarian nation’s version of an Officer’s Mess), and he found that he couldn’t refuse.
Nineteen years was far too long to keep putting it off.
The uniform was clean, but putting it on he could almost smell the scents that accrued to it in his memory, and that memory pulled him back . . .
The letter in his paw . . .
Mere ink on paper, but it burned his flesh as if it were made of molten lead and hot coals. Dear Jacob, I’m sorry to have to tell you this ...
He was the battalion’s Medical Officer and had seen others in the trenches receive Dear John letters, but had never expected to receive one himself, and never from his fiancée. The fact that Rebecca was terminating their engagement was bad enough.
The fact, stated quite baldly, that she had thrown him over in favor of his younger brother ran a mixture of ice and acid into his veins.
He’d read it too many times to count, and each time came near to tearing his heart into even smaller pieces.
The dugout shook slightly as the barrage outside continued and some dust rained down onto the paper. He folded the letter and shoved it into his kit before squaring his shoulders.
He had work to do, and maybe it would take his mind off things.
The skunk threw aside the piece of canvas that substituted for an actual door and stormed into the bar, several furs dodging out of his way. Mad Mac was known for beating people to death with his fists if crossed. The bartender, a scrawny musk deer, stood behind the bar with a classic deer-in-the-headlights look.
“Um . . . what you want drink?” he quavered in stilted, accented English.
To the amazement of everyone, Mac actually replied.
The word came out in a voice that was like a path clogged with brambles and stones, but it was clear enough.
So was the menacing, feral gleam in the skunk’s eyes.
The cervine gulped again and started rummaging around behind the makeshift bar as an uneasy silence grew. The deer would occasionally glance up at the skunk, the glances becoming increasingly worried.
The other denizens of the bar started edging closer to the doorway. Many of them had seen this before, and didn’t want it to spoil their drinks.
Mad Mac’s fur started to bristle and his feet began to stamp rhythmically on the rammed-earth floor.
The bartender rummaged about, frantically this time.
Sudden as a thunderclap a bottle thumped against the bar.
If anything else, the voice was even worse than Mac’s, hoarse and gravelly.
But the bottle was full, sealed and bore an actual label, unlike so many bottles of spirits on Krupmark. The label bore the name MacKenzie and proclaimed itself to be ten years old.
Mac squinted at the bottle on the bar, then at the man who had placed it there.
A spare-looking bobcat looked back at him. The feline wore a weather-beaten cowboy hat and a battered leather drover’s coat that was at least a size too big for him. It was a preferred item of clothing for the number of things that could be hidden under it. “Scotch, ten years old,” he grated. “I think we both need it, and for the same reasons.”
Two pairs of eyes met.
Each saw something in the other’s eyes.
After a moment Mac nodded and reached out for the bottle. “Aye, tha’ we do. Sit ye doon,” he said in a thick Glaswegian accent. He grabbed the bottle up and snapped its neck with only a twist of his paws, then drank a portion of it before shuddering. “Tha’ll do,” he said as he passed the bottle back to the bobcat.
The feline poured his into a none-too-clean glass and took a long pull at it. His whiskers bobbed up and down as he thrust out a paw. “Thomas Canty.”
Mac looked at the paw. He took it. “Ewan MacTavish.”
“New Haven Flying Corps.”
MacTavish looked mystified for a moment, then nodded. “Royal bluidy Navy.” The note of venom in his reply caused a few less hardy souls to seek cover again.
“HMS Monmouth.” Another long drink of the ten-year-old Scotch. “Bluidy Germans sank her at Coronel, back in ’14.”
“And here you are. Tell me,” the feline urged.
The strategy, that chilly April on the Western Front, was simple: There was an escarpment that the Allies wanted.
And the Germans were equally determined to keep it.
The name of the place was Vimy Ridge.
The opening barrage had been going on for days when Jacob Mouffette, a doctor serving as Medical Officer to the 4th Canadian Division, took his place with his medics and stretcher parties and prepared to assist those troops who were going over the top.
An eerie silence descended as the artillery ceased and the gun crews set their sights.
Half an hour later the earth erupted across No Man’s Land as every artillery piece on the Canadian side fired in unison and three huge mines detonated under the opposing strongpoints. The barrage started to intensify as officers blew shrill blasts on their whistles and the soldiers, some uttering prayers, others curses, climbed the parapets and advanced.
“Long time ago, ‘twas.”
“But you remember it like yesterday.”
“Aye.” MacTavish took another swallow of the Scotch and closed his eyes for a moment. “Was young then, servin’ aboard as Chaplain – “
“You?” one fur asked, starting to laugh. “A Chaplain? That’s a damne- guuurk!”
The skunk’s left paw had shot out and caught the man by the throat. The nearly empty bottle was placed gently on the bar, just before a large right fist slammed into the unlucky fellow’s snout. The man fell to the floor unconscious with blood streaming from his broken nose, and two others started rifling his pockets for money or valuables.
Canty smirked, and pulled another bottle from a pocket within his coat. Setting it on the bar he said, “Go on.”
“’Twas Chaplain, y’see, board th’ Monmouth. Heard the Germans were headed south so we went after ‘em.” The skunk shook his head. “Awful, ‘twas – bluidy waste o’ men. Th’ fires were th’ worst, an’ th’ shells goin’ off. Like perfect Hell, ‘twas.” His voice grew softer and the other furs in the bar craned to hear.
“I’d thought th’ fire was worst,” MacTavish said, “’til I hit water. So cold . . . never thought I’d feel warm again, ever.” He shook his head. “Can’t recall much ‘bout tha’.”
Canty nodded. “They say no one survived the sinkings at Coronel.”
A brief attempt at a smile twitched at MacTavish’s mouth. “They say . . . they say a lot o’ things, aye . . . I came here, an’ there’s a church.” Several furs looked uneasily at each other at that; there was indeed only one church on Krupmark Island, but what went on in there made it hardly a fit place for anyone to sleep in.
And definitely no place to dream in.
The creature who had once been Ewan MacTavish, Royal Navy, Chaplain aboard HMS Monmouth, drained the last of the Scotch in the first bottle before opening the second. He cocked an eye at Canty. “Aye?”
“Give me a drink of that,” the bobcat said. “My throat gets kind of scratchy.”
A few hours into the battle it became clear that the general commanding the 4th Division had erred.
His decision to have the artillery leave one part of the German trenches alone was proving to be very costly as machine gun fire raked the oncoming Canadian troops. By midmorning the number of wounded streaming back across No Man’s Land had increased, with reports of more left where they had fallen.
At an aid station close to the forward trench a medic looked up from the wound he was dressing and said, “Sir, where are you going?”
Captain Mouffette paused in the act of putting on his helmet. “I’m going out to help,” and he left the dugout before the medic could frame an objection.
Outside the wind was biting, even through his uniform and his thick fur, and a thin sleeting rain was falling. The only bright spot was that the wind was at his back, so his vision would not be impaired. He gathered up his kit, making sure that the Red Cross on its side was prominently displayed, and scaled the parapet.
Ahead of him was a sea of churned mud and shattered trees, with the pall of smoke from the artillery barrage to give the landscape an infernal backdrop to the overcast sky. He put his head down and started forward, running at a crouch and changing directions randomly. German snipers were no respecters of rank.
Sure enough a few bullets started digging holes in the ground and the skunk threw himself flat, then slithered into a shallow shell-hole. Mud spattered around him as several more bullets tried to find him, and failed.
Mouffette took stock. Apart from the chill mud seeping into his uniform, he wasn’t in any pain.
His gaze fell on his canvas medical bag. The Red Cross had a neat hole drilled cleanly through it.
He got up again and headed toward the front, crouching only slightly as he did so, and not weaving as much.
When he reached a spot about a quarter-mile from the front line he slid into a mudhole to help a wounded soldier. The private was clutching at his side, moaning; as Mouffette started to look at the wound he gasped, “Am I gonna make it, Doc?”
The skunk smiled. “It’s only a graze, lad. Let me bandage you up. Where’s your rifle?”
The canine jerked his head to the left. “I – I – “
“You dropped it.”
He patted the boy’s shoulder. “Listen to me. I’m a doctor, see? Your wound’s not so bad that you can’t keep fighting, and you know we need every able paw. I’m going to bandage you up and give you a little morphia. And next time keep moving. Where’s the shooting coming from?”
Another jerk of the head, but the private didn’t look quite so scared now.
Mouffette put a bandage on the graze, then gave the man a pill – but not from the small box where he kept his morphia tablets.
It was astounding what a small amount of sugar could do.
Leaving the soldier to collect his wits and get back to the line, the skunk headed off, at a lower crouch this time, in the direction of machine-gun fire.
Canty drained his glass and smacked his lips. “I signed up,” he said, “after Belgium. New Haven’s a small place, so all we sent over was men to fly planes.” He chuckled.
“They called us ‘The Three-Ring Circus,’ on account of the three red rings in our roundel. The Germans had a hard time aiming at the bull’s-eye, though,” and he winked at the crowd, clearly mellowing from the liquor. “We were drunk most of the time.”
The crowd joined him in chuckling, while MacTavish drank, his ears twitching towards the bobcat as he spoke.
“It was late in ’17, when the Anzacs took Messines Ridge that I had to land behind the line of the advance.”
“Engine trouble?” This from one of the pilots in the room.
Canty laughed. “Yeah, if you consider shot to pieces to be engine trouble. Anyway, I ended up flat on my back after crawling out of the plane – no sense in staying with it. Good plane, too; I’d had the upper wing painted up to look like this vixen I knew once, with her legs – never mind.
“I rolled over and started crawling, and the mud – you’ve never smelled anything like it, before or since. Take every bad smell you can think of, roll it in a ball and grind it into the mud and you might come close. Bits of bodies, blood . . . took ages to wash it out of my fur, and I’ll never wash it out of my mind.
“I was headed back to our lines, and had joined up with some other guys who were headed back – wounded, most of them – and the cry went up: ‘GAS!’
“Well, everyone starts fumbling around, ‘cept me – what does a pilot need with a damned mask, anyway? One guy points me to a dead soldier, an’ tells me to take his mask ‘cause he won’t be needing it.
“As I’m putting the damned thing on I get this funny smell up my nose. Smelled like garlic, and mustard.
“I get back to the trenches and I’m coughing, so I go to an aid station. They hear what happened and put me and a bunch of others on a road and tell us to start walking – we’re headed for a clearing station for people who’d been gassed.
“Mustard gas, they called it,” and the crowd listened. “I used to sing – pretty good voice, too. The gas did for that. And it did this,” and he took off his hat.
Patches of fur on his head looked stunted, as if it were grass blighted by some illness or pest. The stunted patches surrounded bare skin that showed pockmark scars, like craters. Canty put his hat back on. “Nasty stuff,” and he took another pull at his whiskey.
“Got invalided back to New Haven, spent a few months in a hospital. Then I left the country – it was going to Hell anyway. Still had Prohibition in America, so I started rumrunning. Come out here after it started getting too hot back East.”
He lapsed into silence as the two drank, the others watching intently.
“Damn you, Jacob!” the Colonel thundered. He glared at the object of his anger and held up a fistful of papers, shaking them accusingly. “You’re a Division Medical Officer – you are NOT SUPPOSED TO BE IN THE FRONT LINES!” The sea mink jerked his bulky frame out of his chair and circled around the desk, huffing through his mustache as he continued to glare at the skunk.
“Look at these reports – ‘saved several men right out from under the muzzles of the machine guns’ – ‘continually exposed himself to enemy fire in order to save the wounded.’” He threw the papers at his desk and they cascaded to the floor. “You know we’re short of doctors ever since Mouton got hit. That stupid ram’s lucky to have just had one horn shot off!” He stamped around his desk again and flopped into his chair, the exposed skin on his nose and ears flushing an angry red.
Mouffette stood at attention, his uniform crisp and neat. “Was that all, Sir?”
“No, damn it, that’s not all. And stand at ease, for God’s sake – in fact, sit down,” and after the skunk sat the Colonel said in a milder tone, “Now, what’s gotten into you, Jacob?”
“I wanted to help the wounded, Sir.”
The large red-furred mink shook his head. “You always were a bloody poor liar, Jacob. I’ve heard about the letter.”
Mouffette almost got to his feet. “What?” he growled.
“Word gets around, and you know there’s no such thing as privacy in a dugout. Look, you’re not the first one to get that kind of letter, believe me. And,” and here he leaned forward, paws clasped together on the desk in front of him, “you’re not the first to seek an end to the pain out there in No Man’s Land. That’s what you were really trying to do, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.” Almost a sob.
The Colonel nodded. “I’m going to send you to Paris for a few days – just a few days well behind the lines so you can get things sorted out.”
“But – “
“It’s either that or Craiglockhart, followed by a Court-Martial.” The Craiglockhart Hospital was for officers suffering mental and emotional stress as a result of exposure to conditions at the front.
“Yes, damn it. I’ll have you broken down to the ranks and invalided back to Canada. Now, wouldn’t that be piling Ossa upon Pelion?” the Colonel demanded.
Mouffette considered. Adding the disgrace of being drummed out of the Army to his current pain might be enough to send him over the edge.
He closed his eyes, as if pained, then replied, “Yes, Sir, it would.”
“Now, will you take the leave?”
“Good,” the Colonel said briskly.
The Canadians took several days to secure Vimy Ridge, driving the Germans off the strategic high ground while suffering nearly eleven thousand casualties. In coming years the victory would be a point of national pride.
“Dr. Meffit! Glad you could make it,” the base’s chief medical officer, a slender pronghorn doe in Rain Island’s maroon and forest green formal uniform, shook paws with him and ushered him into the room. Others were already in there, a broad variety of species and a virtual kaleidoscope of uniforms.
Some from countries that no longer existed. But in honor of the occasion the Base Syndic had invited the veterans of the Great War to wear the uniforms they served in for those terrible years.
Shared experience had made for some strange arrangements; in one corner a feline wearing Royal Flying Corps khaki stood talking with a stoat dressed in the braided formal uniform of the German Empire’s Uhlan cavalry.
A senior sergeant in the Army Union (who had been a lieutenant in the AEF from Kansas) was the bartender, and with a rather brown whisky and water in his paw Meffit wandered around the small sea of uniforms.
Yes, he had taken his leave in Gay Par-ee.
He’d even visited a brothel there.
But while it had satisfied his physical longing, the mental and emotional hurt remained.
Upon his return he was ordered to receive two more of what his superior puckishly called “therapeutic tongue-lashings;” one from the Division’s commander and another from none other than General Sir Julian Byng, the overall commander of the Canadian Corps.
Surprisingly, Byng’s turn at him was very gentle, almost fatherly and commiserating. Then the terrier had informed him that he’d been named in the dispatches and was being awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Vimy Ridge.
When he protested, Byng raised a finger. “You know any Shakespeare, Captain?”
“Then I give you a line from Richard III: ‘Play the maiden’s part; say No, and take it.’”
With that, he’d been dismissed and returned to his unit.
He hadn’t tried to seek his death in battle again, and when he returned to Canada he’d had it out with his family. The reunion had been both acrimonious and bitter, and he had cut off ties with them.
Even to Anglicizing his name; now James Meffit, he had taken up private practice until the year the Althing had offered him a job in the Spontoons.
The door to the hall opened and heads turned, then the furs in the room came to attention.
The second bottle was almost empty.
Canty reached into his coat and produced a third, opened it and refilled his glass before placing it on the bar. “So, a toast.”
“Eh?” MacTavish grunted, and swiveled to face the bobcat.
Canty started to say something, but the sound of someone clearing their throat caused everyone in the room to turn.
The fur was a young man, a lupine with a scarred muzzle and the same hungry look that most people on Krupmark shared. He had taken his flat cap off and was holding it in his paws as he said diffidently, “My Father – he died . . . at some place called Salonika, so my Mom says.” He looked down at his feet, then looked up and started to recite in a clear voice.
“With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.”
The other furs in the room held their peace.
MacTavish held out his bottle, then brought it to his lips and drained it.
Canty waved the young wolf over and poured a glass of Scotch for him. “Here, lad. Know any more of that?”
The boy nodded.
“Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.”
Another man, this one an older wolverine, coughed, spat, and spoke.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Meffit knew the Base Syndic, Ian Maxwell, was a Captain in the Naval Syndicate, and the host of the gathering.
But there were a few things he didn’t know and it seemed that a few of the others hadn’t known either.
The black-furred Labrador entered the room wearing the formal red mess jacket of the British Army with the rank of Major on his shoulders.
That was one of the things.
The other was the medal that took pride of place on the mess jacket.
Meffit’s own medal, the Military Cross, was the third-highest award for valor throughout the British Empire and her dominions.
But the Victoria Cross was the first.
The others had risen out of respect.
Accompanying the canine was a tall wolf that Meffit recalled seeing once or twice. The Baron von Kojote was dressed in the uniform of the Royal Bavarian Flying Troops with the rank of Colonel, and secured around his neck on a silver and black ribbon was the blue enameled Maltese cross of the Pour le Merite, the German Empire’s highest award.
Maxwell smiled. “Be at ease, ladies and gentlefurs,” he said. “Sorry I’m late, but my uniform seems to have shrunk a bit.”
Several of the veterans in the room laughed and one voice called out, “Most of us have that problem, Ian.”
Maxwell laughed along with the crowd and people began to circulate again, drifting toward the dining room.
For a long interval, no one spoke.
Finally MacTavish dropped the bottle on the floor and turned to face Canty. “I . . . must go.”
The bobcat nodded, and the skunk walked out, headed back to the woods he frequented – and the church up on the Hill.
Canty said, “Pleasure, gentlemen. I best be getting back to my plane.”
After the meal the drinks were topped off and Maxwell, seated at the head of the table, turned to the man on his right. “Lieutenant? When you’re ready.”
“Thank you, sir.” The rat, all spit and polish in his RINS uniform, stood up. “Ladies and gentlefurs, your attention please. I wish to propose a toast.”
The others stood, Meffit along with them.
The rodent marshaled his thoughts and held his glass aloft. He opened his mouth and stopped as a stern voice said, “One moment, Herr Leutnant.”
It was the Baron. He had been quite jolly during the reception and dinner, and now he stood with a snifter of fine cognac in his paw. “Herr Major, with all respect I claim the right to make with the toast, if you please.”
Maxwell looked up at the wolf, then at the rat. “Lieutenant? Will you defer?”
“Well, sir,” the rodent said as he started to smile, “I really think I should. He does outrank me,” and he sat down as the Baron laughed heartily.
“Sehr richtig, and I thank you. Gentlemen! And Ladies! I propose a toast!” the Baron thundered and everyone in the room rose, drinks in paws.
The Baron’s face grew solemn, and he paused as he adjusted his monocle. Finally he raised his glass and intoned, “The toast is: To the Fallen, and to Absent Friends.”
“To the Fallen, and to Absent Friends,” the assembly chorused, and drank.
Meffit drained his glass, feeling (as so many others in the room must have) the hot sting of tears.
“As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.”