Walking into the barracks, Danko scanned the room, automatically counting his team of convicts. Noticing one of his men was missing, he asked, "Where's Leeds?"
Jerking his thumb, LeBec answered, "Mr. Mopey is still out back."
Danko sighed and turned around, exiting the building. He followed the dirt trail to the improvised basketball court behind the barracks. The lieutenant tried not to have favorites in his squad, but there were a few for whom he definitely had a soft spot. Dylan Leeds was one of them, and Danko was worried about the private. The young man had been playing basketball for hours, talking to no one, refusing to eat, refusing to quit.
Stopping at the sidelines, Danko watched as Leeds raced around, dribbling the ball and shooting countless baskets. The private's shirt was soaked with sweat and his curly hair was matted to his head. Already breathing heavily from the extended exertion, Leeds continued to drive himself forward, pushing his body harder and harder.
"Leeds," Danko called.
The ball kept bouncing.
Being ignored was something the lieutenant was not used to and he didn't take it well. Next time the ball came near him, he stepped onto the court and snatched it away.
Leeds seemed surprised, as if he hadn't noticed anyone else there. "What's the problem, Lieutenant?"
"That's exactly what I'd like to know."
"I was just shooting some hoops, sir."
"For five hours?"
Leeds shrugged and gave a slight smile. "What can I say? I like the sport."
"Bullshit, Leeds. The only time I've seen you play so hard is when you're betting on the game. What's going on?"
"It's nothing, sir. I'd rather not talk about it."
"When have you not run off at the mouth about anything and everything?" Danko asked. "You've never needed a reason before."
"Just think of me as your shrink." Danko doubted Leeds would talk and he wasn't sure what to do. His job normally wasn't to comfort his men; it was to kick them in the ass when necessary. He was surprised when Leeds took him up on his offer.
"My sister sent me a letter," the private whispered, brown eyes downcast.
"You could say that." Leeds chuckled mirthlessly and leaned against a tree. "My ma died."
Knowing it wouldn't be enough, Danko said, "I'm sorry."
Leeds nodded and turned to stare at the basketball hoop he had been pounding at for the past few hours. "I wasn't the best behaved kid growing up," he said as if talking to himself.
"Leeds, I'm shocked." Danko realized his private wasn't in the mood for wit, and that in itself showed the gravity of the situation. "Go on."
"But Ma always stood by me, stood up for me," Leeds continued. "I knew I was a disappointment to her, but when I joined the Army, I think she finally had some hope for me. Figured I would finally do some good.... Then I ended up in prison." He kicked his heel against the tree. "She hadn't talked to me since." At last Leeds faced Danko and stated, "My old man died in prison."
"I didn't know."
"It's not something I brag about." Leaving his position at the tree, Leeds paced, hands gesturing nervously. "She didn't want that life for me. Ma was ashamed of Pop, and mad at him for leaving her.... Ended up feeling the same way about me."
Danko was at a loss. He felt as though he was in over his head and sinking fast. "No matter what, she was your mother."
"Great. Thanks," Leeds mocked. He hit the ball out of Danko's hands and it bounced away. "Got any more clichés to share, Lieutenant? How about 'It's always darkest before the dawn'? Or even 'A stitch in time saves nine.'"
Danko refused to back away from the onslaught. "Look, Leeds, nothing I say will change how you feel; we both know that."
"Then why don't you go back inside, sir," Leeds shot back. "I'll be along shortly."
Danko stormed away. That's what he got for trying to help. Slowing down, he turned back to see Leeds sitting, slumped on the ground. Danko stopped, sighing in frustration. One of his men was hurting and he had to do something. He slowly walked back to Leeds. "Did you ever tell her what you're doing now? How you're helping to win the war?"
Leeds looked up and shook his head. "She wouldn't have cared."
"Sounds to me like she wanted you to do well, and you are," Danko said. "I think she would've been proud of you."
"That right?" Leeds looked hopeful.
"Maybe so." Standing up, Leeds brushed the dirt from his pants. "How'd you get to be so smart?"
"You think I got to be the world's oldest second lieutenant by being dumb?"
The private pretended to think for a moment. "Pretty much, yep."
"I'll remember that when it comes time to picking who teams up with Farrell..." Danko turned and walked toward the barracks.
"Aw, Lieutenant," Leeds said, "I was only kidding." He chased after his superior.
Danko called over his shoulder, "Go hit the showers, Leeds, you stink."