Historical Fiction Suspense

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. He was lucky to be inside somewhere, even in this place. 

The barn smelled of its occupants—a cow, a pig, half a dozen piglets, some chickens, and a swayback horse whose eyes were perpetually closed in the hope of being left to sleep. There was also the slightly sweet-sour smell of fermenting hay kept for the winter. They weren’t bad smells. They were farm smells, smells that reminded Willie of a day years before when his parents had taken him on a bus up to the Catskills and they visited a farm. They’d picked apples that day and had fresh, hot donuts.  

That seemed like forever ago.

A farm, a barn, they were good places. They might be safe places. He breathed in the rich air from his perch in the loft. He was burrowed in a dry pile of hay, naked but for the sweat-salted blanket he’d found in an empty stall. There were more holes than blanket.  

Willie had managed to sleep some until the single rooster crowed. He pushed aside the hay and listened. All he heard were the animals walking on the dirt floor, the piglets suckling. He was alone for now. A good thing. A farmer would be coming he supposed, at least to open the barn door. He’d stay low. Who knew whose side the farmer was on? 

From his little cave, he wrestled into the too-big uniform he’d stuffed with hay. Damp but drier. Another good thing. He was on a lucky streak. The clothes had lost most of the stench from his scramble over the muddy field two nights earlier. The stench of fear. The mud made it impossible to distinguish cow flops until he stepped on them. At least they didn’t explode. Willie didn’t just step on them, not that night. He crawled through them. There were those gray trucks on the road that skirted the edge of the field. Gray was not his color. His color was olive drab. Drab said it all. It was an ugly color, but right now it would be beautiful.  

Maybe the gray ones were searching for men like him. Maybe not. Trucks were to be avoided. Anything with an engine was to be avoided if it was painted gray. There was a war on, and only the bad guys had gray things with engines

Just beyond that overly fertilized field had been a copse of trees that promised Willie decent cover. The trees stopped at a small river. Willie waded in to drift downstream, ducking his head under the water when he thought he heard something. If there was anyone, they didn’t see him, and the cold river washed away most of the filth his uniform had accumulated. Yet another good thing.

The chickens were pecking in the dirt outside the barn. Willie looked at them scratching away, squawking if one came to close. He wasn’t that hungry. He should be hungrier. I bet my stomach has shrunk. The scant rations he’d taken off the other guys wouldn’t be missed. Who’d eat them? Willie hardly knew the guys lying in the snow. He’d been talking to the tall one standing next to him, a huge guy from Michigan. An older guy he was. Well, he looked older. They all looked older. You don’t get this far without it showing. The winter. The war. They ran into the woods when the firing started, the ones that didn’t get hit. The few who didn’t get hit.  

Willie dropped when he felt the punch in his shoulder. It wasn’t a bullet. It was the guy from Michigan, or it could have been Minnesota. Yeah, it was Minnesota. He’d kept saying you betcha. That guy was hit. He fell, headfirst, into Willie. Willie collapsed under his weight. That started the start of his lucky streak. Willie just played possum, this real dead guy hiding him, keeping him warm. The guy from Minnesota was his blanket. A warm cover until the warmth left his body. Poor guy. Willie took the K rations the guy had in his jacket.  

There wasn’t much anyway. No, those rations wouldn’t be missed. Who’d eat them anyway? There was something wrong about taking rations off a dead body. It wasn’t as wrong as taking personal stuff, like rings or watches and such. He hadn’t done that. He wouldn’t. Unless they came off a German. Anyway, what good would it do? You can’t eat watches.

Water wasn’t a problem, not after his swim, not with the melting snow around. If he was desperate, Willie could drink from one of the streams that ran next to most of these country roads. But he was avoiding the roads. Instead, he’d stay well within the forests, or up on the ridges, keep an eye on any traffic. And an ear out for barking dogs. 

He’d been hearing plenty of dogs. They sounded huge. Everyone had been tied up, he figured, at a home, or maybe sticking to watching their flock in the fields. He figured they probably didn’t know what they were smelling. Hell, until he got to this barn, he didn’t know what he smelled like, but whatever it was it wasn’t good. Death maybe. Maybe that’s why the dogs didn’t run after him. Maybe the sheep smelled better than he did. It was almost funny.

The farm was dead quiet when he saw it. Willie figured, hoped, it was abandoned. If it was, he could get cover, maybe a fire, and a lot of these places had something of use: a blanket, food, a gun. Something. 

He’d almost opened the front door, his hand slowly pressing the ancient handle, when a breeze captured a wisp of smoke from the chimney. Then he smelled something else. The animals. Or the manure. Or both. Willie wasn’t a farm boy. He backed away from the cottage to slip into the barn.

Henri Bertrand had seen him, the soldier in a wet uniform, slinking to the barn. An American. He could tell right away. Americans all looked strong, well-fed. When they’d been slugging down the road a few days before, through the mud, the Germans on their tail, they somehow looked confident, like this, this war, was a lark.

  This tired-looking fellow didn’t look like he’d missed too many meals. That bothered him for a moment. I hardly have enough for me. The Americans that had been in the area in the last few weeks were nice enough. They hadn’t bothered him, didn’t need anything. One fellow on a passing truck had even tossed him a package of cigarettes when he gave them a salute. Fresh, American cigarettes. The Germans never did anything like that. He’d smoked one and it was wonderful. Henri hid the rest when the Boche came back in their tanks. They’d take the cigarettes and maybe shoot him for good measure. And here he had thought the war was over!

Bertrand noted the soldier was alone. He didn’t have a rifle. He didn’t have anything. He considered going to the barn, calling to the man, offering food, something warm. Maybe in the morning. Approaching someone at night, someone trying to hide, wasn’t a good idea, not with all the fighting going on. There were more Boche around now than at any time since the war began. They were all pigs, animals. They’d been taking from him for almost four years now—his prized Belgian blue cattle, the sheep, the chickens, and most of the eggs laid by the ones they didn’t steal. And the milk, the cheese, the butter. He barely had enough for himself let alone his guests.

What did he have left? A dozen scrawny chickens, and here it was winter, they didn’t lay much to begin with; the cow getting too old to provide much milk; one sow and the few piglets he’d managed to hide in the forest; and his ancient horse that had maybe one or two years of plowing left in him. The Germans had taken the others. They were all thieves, always had been. These were the worst of a bad lot—young, arrogant, always screaming, shoving, waving their guns. Nasty SS pricks.

He didn’t have guests now. There weren’t any refugees anymore and there wasn’t enough food anyway. There were those Jews a few years back, hiding with him before moving on to who knows where. They offered him things: jewelry, old Francs, and thanks. He didn’t demand it, but why not? They came to him, knocking on the door at night, pleading to let them stay for a bit. He gave them precious food. He didn’t tell the Germans when they came to steal eggs. Letting them stay was dangerous. A little something seemed only fair. Then there were the locals who needed a place to hole up. He didn’t know what they did, but they had guns and were up to no good. And what was no good? Fighting the Boche was plenty good.

Once they brought in an Englishman, a flier he supposed from the outfit, whose French sounded like a Parisian snob. One night, they took him away, too. Like the Jews. He didn’t know if they were all safe somewhere. It wasn’t his place to ask. He hoped so, but then he had his own life to live.

Willie looked through the cracks in the barn walls and watched the old farmer toss grain to some chickens pecking in the muddy paddock. The farmer stared at the barn for a moment. He might have smiled. He had a cigarette on his lips, taking deep inhales, smiling for sure. Willie put his hand in his breast pocket. It was an instinctive and fruitless gesture. The SS-Rotten Führer had taken his cigarettes—and his lighter—when he was captured. Rotten Fuhrer was an apt name. Willie almost laughed when he heard. He tried to breathe in the smoke the old farmer was exhaling. He could almost taste it. 

Willie considered approaching him, asking for food and a smoke. He had a ten-dollar bill stuffed in his sock. That was way too much for a smoke and a meal. He doubted the farmer had spare change. Maybe a couple of meals and a few cigarettes. Coffee would be good, too.

The thought of coffee woke him. He wondered if he’d ever get coffee again. This farmer wouldn’t have any; hell, the stuff the army gave him was good enough for a roll in the hay with that pretty girl in France. Or maybe that was Belgium, too? The GIs didn’t pay too much attention to borders. This was Belgium, he was sure of that. If he had coffee he could trade it with the farmer maybe. For cigarettes. But if he had coffee he’d have cigarettes, too. And the farmer already had cigarettes. He wished he had coffee.

  That farmer put a bag of something over the horse. It was quiet; Willie could hear the thing eating. He assumed it was oats. Horses ate oats, right? If they could, I could. Oatmeal. Just add water, and simmer. The cow would have milk. Cream even. Maybe he could get some from the farmer. Maybe he liked Americans. Most did. More so when they had things to give away. Willie had nothing to give away. 

The horse was spilling some of the oats, which the chickens pecked at. The farmer was walking back to the house where smoke was coming out of the chimney. A warm house, Willie thought. Maybe the guy was friendly to Americans. He didn’t know. Hadn’t that old Belgian bitch pointed to where they were, with what was left of his unit, in the woods to those SS scum? They couldn’t be trusted. You never knew.

The farmer turned back to look up at the barn. He may have smiled. It was hard to say from the distance. The guy had a bushy mustache that make him look like an ancient Jerry Colonna. His eyes were popped open wide. In surprise? Kindness? Fear? He was looking right at the barn, right at the crack. Right at Willie. He lifted his hand, the one holding the pitchfork, almost in a wave. The start of a wave. It seemed the weight of the thing held his arm down. But he had two hands. He could have used the other. It was a threat, thought Willie. Farmers and pitchforks. The old man walked slowly back to the house, slipping every so often in the muddy slush. Not much of a threat. I could take him. He watched as the old man return to the paddock and led the ancient horse to a more ancient cart. The farmer struggled as he carried some heavy bags and loaded those onto the cart. The limp bags contained lumps of something. After he lifted each, he had to lean against the cart, eyes closed, hand to chest, before continuing on. He heaved the last one off his shoulder and out spilled potatoes. Dirty, yes, but food. The old man started to put them back in the bag, then looked once more to the barn. His eyes squinted in what might have been a smile. But that mustache hid any confirmation. He lifted two to the air as if trying to attract customers in a market. 

Then the old man did an odd thing. He started nodding his head, holding it to one side, then another as if trying to touch each ear to his shoulder. He may have pointed his chin towards the house. Or he may have been trying to get a crick out of his neck. He left four at top of the stone wall that surrounded the paddock. Then he led the horse down the lane.

Willie saw all this through the crack in the barn walls. What was the man playing at? Then he repeated the gestures, bending his head to each shoulder and hearing the relief of crack. He, too, had a stiff neck. He had to smile.

When the cart was nearly at the larger lane, hardly a road, Willie went down. Could he eat raw potatoes? He didn’t know and didn’t care. On the ground level of the barn, he saw three eggs in boxes that served as the chicken’s nest. He took one. These he could eat raw. He cracked one and poured it into his mouth. Funny, but that made him hungrier. He ate a second and then the third. Then hid the shells in his pocket.

He was about to go outside to get those potatoes, when he heard the truck. He opened the barn door a crack to see the truck stop and two Germans jump from the back. They stopped the old man. The old man was gesturing to the barn and moving to the cart where he hefted the sack of potatoes. More spilled out. The Germans laughed as if it was the funniest thing in the world. The old man held them up, using the potatoes as pointers to the burlap sacks. One German shrugged and made way as the farmer carried it to the back of the truck. Willie thought he heard the word schnell. That meant faster, he knew that. He knew that from the SS Rotten scum who kicked them into the field.

The soldier reached into his tunic and brought out a packet of something. Cigarettes. He lit one for himself and the other German. Then offered one to the farmer, who nodded in appreciation, and put it in his coat. This time Willie was sure he was smiling.  

They all looked up to the farm, the house, the barn, as the farmer made peasant gestures with his arms. Were those an apology? A plea? The soldiers just nodded, taking their rifles off their shoulders. The old man’s arms were flying about as they talked. Again, he pointed to the barn and the Germans looked back up directly to the barn doors. The old man walked quickly now to the back of his cart and carried the rest of the sacks to the back of the truck. When done, one of the Germans gave him another cigarette, lit it, and stood back. 

The old farmer rested his arm on the bent neck of his horse. He lifted the cigarette in a gesture towards the Germans and took a long drag, just the one. Another German, an officer, had left the back of the truck, yelled something. The old horse jumped a little when the German shot the old farmer. Then he shot the horse. That officer shrugged at the startled soldiers and yelled again. They got back into the truck and drove away. A couple of other trucks drove past. A tank, too. They didn’t slow when they passed the dead farmer and his old horse.

When it got dark, when there weren’t any more trucks, Willie walked down to the lane. He picked up some muddy potatoes. They’ll do, he thought. He also reached into the farmer’s jacket and extracted one cigarette. Sonofabitch. A Lucky Strike. 

Willie slept in the cottage that night, in the loft. On a feather bed. With a real blanket. Just before he fell asleep, he enjoyed that cigarette. Yessiree, he was on a serious lucky streak. 

March 10, 2023 19:04

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V. S. Rose
17:29 Mar 25, 2023

David, I really enjoyed the slow reveal of the details of why the main character was in the barn. I thought you did a good job of providing sensory details to pull the reader into story. I thought it was a great suspense build, the climax hitting when the german truck encounters the farmer. This also paints an accurate picture of war, where survival takes priority and how someone's misfortune is another person's luck. Great story David!


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Joselin Benitez
11:28 Mar 18, 2023

Wow really interesting war story


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David Ader
16:24 Mar 16, 2023

Funny, but I really liked this story and am disappointed that there are no comments. Perhaps it was too dark?


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