In his e-mails and phone calls from Iraq, Army Spc. Joseph Merchant has been circumspect about the risks facing him and the other troops with the 10th Mountain Division deployed in the Sunni "Triangle of Death," south of Baghdad.
But a mother knows. And when Elaine Merchant saw the photograph in the newspaper of her only son creeping along the banks of a reedy canal, his M4 assault rifle at the ready, his face in a focused grimace, she found cause for concern.
His eyes were haggard, his expression tense. The nail of his index finger was blackened, as though he smashed it.
"It crushed my heart to see him hurting," she said, sitting on the porch swing of the family home in the tiny Carroll County town of Detour. "He wouldn't tell me because he's trying to be so Army tough."
The picture was snapped by an Associated Press photographer and picked up by Web sites and newspapers around the country -- including The Sun on May 25.
It shows Merchant, 22, searching for members of his company who disappeared in a May 12 ambush south of Baghdad.
The photo became a sensation in Detour, a town of 90 residents at the confluence of the Big Pipe and Little Pipe creeks near the Frederick County line.
One neighbor from church asked, "What is he, a poster child for the Army now?" a beaming Daniel Merchant, Joseph's father, said.
Daniel Merchant spent much of the afternoon and evening showing the photo to neighbors gathered outside their porch on Middleburg Road, Detour's only street.
Their weathered 19th-century wood-frame home is cheerily cluttered with family photos, six computers and children's artwork.
Christine Merchant, 11, was distressed by her brother's sadness in the image. "I just really don't want him to die," she said.
The soldier's grandfather, Roger Willis, first noticed the photo on the front page of The Sun over breakfast in his home in Baltimore's Hamilton neighborhood.
"I thought, 'Jeez -- that's my boy,'" said Willis, a retired city firefighter. "It really surprised me."
He quickly called his daughter, Elaine Merchant, who sent her husband to the Keymar Citgo around the corner to buy as many copies as he could of The Sun and other papers that ran the photo, including The Washington Post and the Hanover Evening Sun, a Pennsylvania paper.
The day before, Merchant had made a two-minute phone call to wish his mother a happy birthday. He sounded uncharacteristically somber, Elaine Merchant said.
The expression he wore in the photo meshed with what she heard on the phone, she said.
"It's just terrible to see those poor guys, to look at their fatigue and their despair," she said.
When the picture was taken, Merchant had been on patrol for nearly two weeks with the 2nd Platoon, Delta Company, 4th Battalion of the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
Merchant and the other soldiers in the photograph are spread out in combat formation, several yards apart -- as they are trained to do to limit casualties in the event of an ambush or bombing.
Associated Press photographer Maya Alleruzzo, 37, joined them for the patrol.
She had been embedded with Merchant's company in late January and returned after the ambush -- in which a third of one of the company's 30-member platoons was killed or captured -- to record the search.
"They were out on patrol before dawn every day, in 115-degree heat, on foot," Alleruzzo wrote last week in an e-mail to The Sun from Iraq. "Sometimes they got an hour break to eat and sleep and then they were back at it; ... they were sweating out water faster than they could replace it."
In the moments before she shot the picture, she wrote, "They'd just finished searching chicken coops and were looking into a canal for signs of their missing buddies."
Alleruzzo focused on Merchant because "he's got striking features, and I thought his body language revealed a mixture of fatigue and determination," she wrote.
Later, she was able to show him a copy of The Sun's front page, which a former colleague in Washington e-mailed to her.
He smiled when he saw it and asked that it be sent to his wife, who lives in Watertown, N.Y., near the 10th Mountain Division's headquarters at Fort Drum.
His wife, Joy, however, had already heard about the photograph from her sister, a Hanover resident who saw it in the paper.
Reached by phone, Joy Merchant, 20, said she was taken aback by her generally light-hearted husband's serious expression and the bags around his eyes.
"He has a very goofy personality, which is why it's kind of weird seeing him with that face," Joy Merchant said. "He looks like he hasn't slept in weeks."
The two had been sweethearts at Francis Scott Key High School in northwest Carroll County. The Merchants lived in Frederick County, in Walkersville, before moving to Detour in 1999.
An observant military wife, Joy Merchant noticed that her husband wasn't wearing his protective goggles or gloves.
The photo reminded her how vulnerable her husband is, and how little she can do to protect him, she said.
The family had been especially wary in the days after news broke of the May 12 ambush on Merchant's unit. Four Americans and an Iraqi were initially reported dead in the attack, subsequently blamed on al-Qaida.
"Oh, my God: It's mind-wrecking," Daniel Merchant said. "I didn't know if he was alive."
It's been a difficult tour for the soldier. His three-year commitment to the Army was to have been up last October. But under the Pentagon's "stop-loss" policy, Merchant was prevented from leaving active duty and is now scheduled to be discharged in February.
He missed the birth of his child, a son named Valin, because he shipped out on his current deployment in August, shortly before his wife delivered.
Merchant didn't see his son until November, when he was home on a short leave. He will likely also miss Valin's first birthday.
"He feels like he is stuck in limbo," his wife said.
Two days after Christmas, Merchant watched his best friend, Sgt. Christopher P. Messer, 28, and another platoon mate, Spc. Nathaniel A. Given, 21, die after an improvised explosive device detonated while they were on foot patrol on the same road near Mahmoudiya where the May 12 attack occurred. Merchant cared for Messer as he was dying.
Merchant was part of the May ambush too, in which a throng of gunmen ambushed two of his company's Humvees, abducting three soldiers and killing five others.
U.S. forces flowed into the area in a frantic search for their missing comrades that attracted international attention.
The body of one, Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr., 20, was found floating in the Euphrates River. The other two are still missing, though a video that appeared on an insurgent Web site this week shows their ID badges and claims they are dead. The Pentagon said it has no evidence of the fate of the soldiers.
Joseph Merchant had talked about having a crab feast in Detour when he returned in August. He planned to invite his entire platoon, including Messer, his fallen friend from Michigan, who had never eaten Maryland blue crabs.
Now that Merchant won't return until November, it will be too late in the season for crabs.
"A lot of the plans got messed up for summer," said his wife, who hopes Merchant can leave the service early in the new year.
Find Gregory Kane's column archive at baltimoresun.com/kane