It was a cold but beautiful day and spirits were high. Sol considered himself very fortunate; the view was not at all like the kind he'd expected to encounter when he registered all those months ago. Snow-capped mountains overlooked the town, sculpted beneath a clear blue sky. It was hard to imagine that a fierce war was taking place just a two-day train ride away.
The houses of Aix-les-Bains must surely have been empty for the entire population of the town seemed to have turned out to the station to await their new arrivals. The mayor was there, standing proudly on the platform with his staff and a few American officers—and the small band of musicians the town kept.
Lieutenant Europe and his band, meanwhile, waited a little further back in the town square.
"We should be up on the platform, too," Archie said. "Nobody can even see us back here."
"They'll see us soon enough," Sol said.
A buzz stirred the crowd as an excitement passed through them.
Archie went up on his toes. "What's happening? I can't see anything."
"I think the train's here," Sol replied.
Sure enough, the rumble of a train grew louder as Sol spied the transport rolling into view over the heads of the crowd. They cheered as the train hissed to a stop.
"Vive la France!"
And at once, the small band of Frenchmen started up.
Music would be a kind word to describe the sound produced in that moment. Sol was pretty sure it was supposed to be a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner", but if it was, then it had never sounded so foreign. He heard a snigger beside him and turned to see a couple of his fellow musicians had dropped their heads to hide their smiles.
"Quit it," he muttered. "They're doing their best."
Their smiles faded into looks of shame as Sol returned his attention to the platform.
The band would once have been much bigger, but the most able-bodied men were long gone, now either many miles away in the trenches or in a place where no amount of miles could reach. The twelve who were left were all either old or crippled, and despite their low ability, they played with more heart than twelve men had any right to.
The cheering intensified as the train doors split apart and the American soldiers piled out. Their helmets and uniforms were caked in mud, as though they'd just stepped straight out of the trenches.
If anything, the music grew worse as it reached its climax, and it seemed to whimper into its last few notes.
"That's our cue," Lieutenant Europe said, raising his baton. "Let's welcome our boys back in style."
Sol and the rest of the band readied their instruments as Jim started them marching, and the music began.
Rather than repeat their own anthem, the men of the 15th decided to repeat their rendition of the "Marseillaise" which had gone down very well for the soldiers in Brest and seemed a fitting way to announce themselves. They had not yet played for the locals and were keen to live up to the hopeful words of General Kernan.
Their first few notes had barely rung out before every head in the crowd turned to see the cause of the commotion—and the look on their faces was a picture. Black men were not a common sight in that part of France, especially black musicians, so the sight of a large band marching towards them playing their own anthem must have been quite a shock.
Every hat was at once removed and pressed to their owners' chests. There was no dancing or cheering. Every man, woman and child watched the band advance as though they were marching down from the clouds, bringing with them the sounds of heaven. It wasn't until the music ended that the cheer they had contained was set free, and the hats which had been held were thrown high.
"Mais Mon Dieu!" an old man wept. "C'est magnifique!"
The 15th Regiment had arrived.
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