Hearts in Barbed Wire—Chapter 6

Chapter Six

Luc swallowed the bile rising in his throat. The sound of men approaching grew louder. Smoke from the burning house, stable and bonfire stung his eyes and filled the yard. This was it. Two months after his fort fell, he would surrender to the Germans and become their prisoner.

Or they would shoot him.

He glanced at the bonfire in the middle of the Thevenet’s yard. Raising his chin, he squared his shoulders. The Boches could do whatever they liked with him so long as Madeline lived. Madeline. Her name whispered across his conscience. At least he wouldn’t have any more blood on his hands.

Mille dropped his makeshift cane. Balancing on his good leg, he too raised his hands. Fear lined his face, aging him a decade. “Do you think the Boches will shoot us or bayonet us?”

Madeline gasped. The broken chair leg thudded to the ground. “Don’t make me do this.”

“You must, Sister. Now pick up the stick and act like we’re your prisoners.” Luc kept his attention on the road. Long silhouettes stretched down the street in the pearly dawn. In the burning house on his right, beams groaned. God help him. He wanted to hide.

Mille hopped a few centimeters before setting his hand on Luc’s shoulder to steady himself. He lowered his voice and spoke in Luc’s ear. “I hope it’s bullets. I’ve seen what a bayonet can do.”

Luc closed his eyes. He’d seen what bullets could do at Liège. He’d cut down wave upon wave of German soldiers then watched as their comrades trampled them in the rush to take the fort. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. No matter how much he’d fired, the Boches just kept coming, and coming, and coming.

Mille removed his hand. He released a slow breath. “Madame, please, I fought for you and Belgium. Don’t turn us in to the Germans.”

Luc opened his eyes.

Glancing over his shoulder, Mille widened his eyes. “This is where you poke us with the stick and say something threatening.”

“I think I’m going to be sick.” She hiccoughed.

“Just raise the stick, Madeline.” Luc’s hands fisted. If he could just take her in his arms, he could reassure her that everything would be well. He’d learned to lie since the Fourth of August.

The day he’d shot his first man, and his second and the good Lord knew how many others.

The day the German Army had crossed the Belgian frontier and violated his country’s neutrality.

The day war had ignited Europe.

Above the crackle of the fire, fabric rustled. Bottles clanked together. Still he couldn’t see the enemy. They must have slowed their approach because of the smoke. Should he and Mille use the cover to leave? No, he couldn’t endanger Madeline any more.

“The Boches will probably shoot me anyway. Then my friends and neighbors will think I died a traitor.”

Wood clacked.

Dammit. She’d thrown away the chair leg. Luc whirled around. Heat tore up his side and he swayed before the world settled on an even keel. His fingers pressed the sticky fabric at his waist. Bending, he snatched up Mille’s cane. “You will hold this on us and tell the Germans you took us prisoner, Sister.”

She shook her head and stepped back. Her heel scraped Tommy’s body and she froze. A greenish tint washed over her pale cheeks.

Grabbing her hand, he slapped the branch against her palm. “If they believe you weren’t hiding us, then they won’t shoot you.”

He had to keep her alive. He owed her that much. Her family would still be alive if Gaston Cocard hadn’t said they could find shelter at the Thevenet’s farm.

She pushed the cane back at him. “I won’t live with your blood on my hands.”

“Then make the Boches believe we’re helpless.” Releasing his side, he wrapped his hand around hers and folded her fingers around the branch. “The Hague Conventions will protect us. The Germans will be forced to treat our wounds and feed us.”

A stone tumbled across the yard. The Germans were closer.

Mille hopped a little to find his balance. “I’m so hungry, I could eat even their vile cabbage soup. I like the idea of the Boches waiting on me.”

She sucked on her bottom lip. “I don’t know.”

“I do. You’ll save all our lives this way.” Luc released her hand. His blood painted her pale skin in red streaks.

Nodding once, she raised the branch. “I’ll do it.”

“Thank you, Sister.” Luc smiled. He heard the expression crackle on his stiff lips and cheeks. How long had it been since he last smiled?

The day before he’d started lying on a regular basis.

At least, Madeline hadn’t asked why the Hague Conventions hadn’t protected the dead men at her feet. Or her parents, for that matter. Technically, it didn’t protect Luc or Mille since neither wore a uniform. It didn’t matter. She had to live.

Leopold whined and thumped his tail.

“Protect her.” Luc pointed behind his back. “Protect Madeline.”

The dog slunk toward her.

A breeze thinned the smoke as a handful of men rounded the corner. Oval heads melted into wide shoulders. All five drew up short. Two on the right hefted their shovels. Ruddy jaws went slack. Mud caked their wooden sabots.

Luc blinked. “You’re not German.”

A barrel-chested man in the center stepped forward. He swung his spade until the flat part rested on his shoulder. Bright blue eyes blazed from a face framed by florid jowls. “Are you the soldiers the Thevenets expected to join the two they’d already hidden?”

The denial hung on Luc’s tongue. If these weren’t Boches then he and Mille still had a chance to rejoin the fighting. Yet traitors skulked everywhere. And Madeline might not be safe in the village. A stick appeared in his peripheral vision.

“Uncle Cyprien?” Madeline rushed forward.

Uncle? Luc’s knees wobbled. He really could leave her behind.

Cyprien squinted, waved at the mist of smoke in his face. “Maddy? I thought you were safe in the convent?”

Tossing the cane aside, she threw herself into her uncle’s beefy arms. Her skirts swung in an arc before settling around her trim ankles. “They’ve killed them. They killed them.”

Luc stared at the ground.

Cyprien patted her back. Wiry eyebrows wiggled over his deep-set blue eyes. “Do you know these men, Maddy? Did they accompany you from the convent?”

She shook her head. “No. I—I—”

The remaining four farmers fanned out behind Cyprien. Two wielded shovels. One a hoe. And the last held a pick.

Sweet Lord, she was going to get them killed. And by the very people he’d defended. Luc raised his hands a little higher. “I needed help to bring Mille to the farm. Since Madeline arrived last night and had a pass to be out after dark, she agreed to take a dog cart and help me bring my man back.”

The farming-implements-turned-weapons lowered a fraction.

Madeline clutched at her uncle. “I—I left Mama and Papa. I—”

Stroking his niece’s hair, Cyprien frowned over her head. “Where’s the cart now?”

“The Germans.” Sniffling, Madeline daubed her damp cheeks with her sleeve. “They took it. They took everything.”

“Not everything.” Her uncle adjusted her scarf over her straight blond hair before shuffling away. “Thevenet liked the shade of that willow. We’ll lay them to rest there.” He pointed to the big tree near the road.

The men moved off to begin digging the mass grave.

Blinking rapidly, Madeline eyed the ground. “Mathieu loved to climb that tree.”

Luc’s insides froze. The father hadn’t been called Mathieu which meant… Which meant another had been killed. A brother, perhaps. A younger brother. Luc wiped his hands on his thighs. His palms deepened to crimson. The blood would never wash off. Never.

“Cyprien Fusil. Which of you is the Lieutenant?”

“Lucien Duplan.” Straightening his jacket, Luc held out his hand. “This is Mille.”

Cyprien’s callused hand wrapped around Luc’s slim fingers. “It is an honor to meet you.” He pumped their joined arms twice before thumping Luc on the back. “Don’t matter what the cabbageheads say in their official Avis. You held that fort for a week when the Boches thought they’d steamroll right over us. You showed them what we Belgians are made of.”

“Yes, we held.” Of the four hundred men at his fort, only he and Mille remained. The price was worth it. King Albert still fought from Antwerp. “Like the national redoubt will hold.”

Antwerp couldn’t fall.

“We’re trying to find a way to slip through the Boches‘ lines to join in the city’s defense.”

Cyprien cleared his throat.

Madeline drew a ragged breath and set her hand on Luc’s sleeve. “Antwerp has surrendered. The King has retreated to Ghent.”

Mille swore.

A buzzing filled Luc’s ears. Ghent? But that was practically located beside the English Channel, leaving most of Belgium under German control. Did his country still exist? Had everything been for naught? The world spun, tilted. His legs buckled.

Cyprien caught Luc around the shoulders, kept him on his feet. “Here now. The English are there. The French, too. And word has it that America will soon join the fight on our side. Those Boches will be back in the Fatherland by Christmas.”

Luc locked his knees and stood on his own power. He’d only met the English during their retreat. As for the French… The official Avis said the Germans would be in Paris within two weeks. That had been a month ago. He hadn’t seen the German Army retreating anywhere, just flowing like a gray-green stream South and West.

Cyprien squeezed his shoulder. “You three had best come with me. Can’t have the cabbageheads seeing you. We’d all be shot then.”

For a moment, Madeline swayed on her feet. A tremor traveled up her spine before she straightened. “I’ll get water. To… to prepare Mama and Papa.”

Luc rested his hand on the small of her back. Her woolen coat scratched his fingers. A million lifetimes of apologies would never make up for what he’d done by ordering his men here.

Cyprien placed his spade tip on the ground before stomping on the metal. The blade sunk deep. Releasing it, he caught her hand and rested it on his arm. “My wife will see to your folks. You need to tend Mathieu.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” Madeline’s attention shifted to the tangle of corpses. “But I won’t tame his cowlick. He never liked to have it flat. He—”

“He’s safe, Maddy.” Cyprien dragged her away from the death and destruction near the house and around the bonfire. “An old Landstrumman found him and hid Mathieu while the rest of his unit rounded up the others.”

An older German soldier had helped save a Belgian? Handing Mille his makeshift cane, Luc followed Madeline and her uncle. The stables smoldered in front of them. Grit settled in his eyes and he swiped at it.

Mille hobbled behind him. “Why would they spare the brother, Lieutenant?”

“I don’t know.” But Luc didn’t like where his thoughts led. Could this Mathieu have informed the Germans of hidden soldiers in his house?

“Who knows why the Boches do anything?” Cyprien led them toward a heap of smoldering wood. Stray feathers marked it as a former chicken coop.

Madeline drew her shawl close. “Did Mathieu… Did he perhaps say something?”

Such as the Thevenets were hiding soldiers? Luc finished silently. Damn. What had this war done to them? Making them distrust each other so.

Cyprien shook his head, scraped his thick fingers through his thinning hair. “The Germans chalk the doors of those who aid them. Their livestock aren’t stolen. Their houses aren’t burned. Their families aren’t executed. No one goes near the traitors. No one. Those families are protected by the Boches.” He spat. “We’ll have to wait until after to deal with them.”

If there was an after. With so much of Belgium occupied, the army would need months to free the land and people. Luc held his injured side, slowing to assist Mille over the brown grass.

Mille gritted his teeth. “Do we head for Ghent, Lieutenant?”

Luc’s muscles clenched. Make for Ghent and find the Army in retreat again? Or… “No. We head for Holland then sail for England.”

And if the Belgian army no longer existed, he’d join the British and fight. Surely, they had a use for someone who’d seen the German army in action. Sweat beaded his upper lip. And he’d seen the German army in action.

Mille chuffed, “Never thought I’d see the world by joining the Army.”

“Not the world.” As they cleared the outbuildings, Luc adjusted Mille’s weight across his shoulders. Nubs remained of the harvested wheat in the field on his right. Amber grain swayed on his left. The wind carried the scent of fermented apples from the orchard ahead. “Just England and, maybe, France.”

Setting his hand on Madeline’s back, Cyprien pushed his niece toward the trees. “Your brother is in his favorite hiding spot.”

She stumbled a pace then slowed. Her hands slipped between the folds of her skirts. “Is he hurt?”

“Not a scratch on him.” Cyprien shooed her ahead. “He’ll be overjoyed to see you. And I think the reunion will do you good as well.”

Her gaze locked with Luc’s. He forced a smile. “We’ll catch up.”

Cyprien nodded. “Take him to our barn. Your aunt has a basket of food waiting.” He hitched his thumb in Luc’s direction. “I’ll bring the lieutenant and his man there.”

Furrows pleated her brow before she turned toward the orchard. “Then you’ll let me tend both your wounds?”

Luc jerked his head once.

Picking up her skirts, she sprinted forward.

Mille tilted his head to the side. “Very fetching ankles.”

Luc poked his subordinate in the gut. Thankfully, Madeline and her tempting ankles had disappeared into the trees. “Do you wish to walk on your own?”

“No, Sir.”

Cyprien’s blue eyes narrowed. His gaze raked Luc from head to toe, then he turned his attention on Mille. “My niece is promised to the church.”

Mille’s skin turned bright red. “Yes, sir.”

After another quick check, Cyprien unbuttoned his coat, shrugged it off and passed it to Luc. “You serious about heading to Holland?”

“Yes.” Luc smoothed the warm wool before shaking it out for Mille.

“I’ll be well enough to travel tonight.” Balancing on one foot, Mille stuffed one arm inside a sleeve, switched the cane into his coated arm, then finished donning the garment.

Cyprien rubbed his chin. “We can carry you to about five kilometers from Brussels under the wheat. Boches are keen we harvest our wheat and don’t harass us. Yet.”

Luc shook his head and helped Mille walk. “If you can just let us rest today, we’ll make our own way.”

“We’ve done this before, Lieutenant.” When he thrust his jaw forward, Cyprien’s jowls wobbled. “With him walking, you might not make it to the front before the war ends. I need you to arrive in time to avenge my sister’s and brother-in-law’s murders.”

Heat simmered low in Luc’s gut. The distant cannonade surged in his ears, drummed a savage beat on his heart. A soft breeze cooled the tears Madeline had spilled on his jacket. “I will.”

Cyprien stopped, laid a hand on Luc’s arm. “I also need you to take Mathieu and Madeline with you to Holland.”

Flattened blades of grass slipped under Luc’s boot heels. “Why? She’s safe with her family.”

“The Boches will return once they learn the boy escaped. They’ll kill her too, to teach us who our master is.” Cyprien spat then dragged the back of his hand across his mouth. “My wife has kin in Mollenputten. They’ll help you avoid the camps and send you to England.”

Mille’s head snapped up. “Camps? Does Holland fight with Germany then?”

Cyprien crossed his arms over his barrel chest. “No. She is neutral. So she takes soldiers from all sides and locks them up.”

“Ah.” Luc mentally swore. He had not considered that in his plans. Yet to take Madeline with him would risk her life. “Surely, you have other family.”

“Alas, no, or I would send the children to them.” Cyprien rocked back on his heels. “Maddy has skills that should assist your journey. Her father said she was a nurse at the convent. She might be able to prevent blood poisoning.”

Mille traced straight lines in the grass with his cane. “They’ll be safe in Holland. The Boches won’t be able to hurt them anymore.”

Luc sighed. “I’ll take them.”

God help them all.

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Friday Funny—Redneck Lent

Thanks to Hugh for forwarding this along.
REDNECK LENT
Each Friday night after work, Bubba would fire up his outdoor grill and cook a venison steak.
But, all of Bubba’s neighbors were Catholic.  And since it was Lent, they were forbidden from eating meat on Friday.
The delicious aroma from the grilled venison steaks was causing such a problem for the Catholic faithful that they finally talked to their priest.
The Priest came to visit Bubba, and suggested that he become a Catholic.
After several classes and much study, Bubba attended Mass … And as the Priest sprinkled holy water over him, he said, “You were born a Baptist, and raised a Baptist, but now you are a Catholic.
Bubba’s neighbors were greatly relieved, until Friday night arrived, and the wonderful aroma of grilled venison filled the neighborhood.
The Priest was called immediately by the neighbors, and, as he rushed into Bubba’s yard, clutching a rosary and prepared to scold him, he stopped and watched in amazement.
There stood Bubba, clutching a small bottle of holy water which he carefully sprinkled over the grilling meat and chanted:  “You wuz born a deer, you wuz raised a deer, but now you is a catfish.”
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Finished!

After a very, very long time, I finally finished my son’s quilt. He hovered for a while then I told him I had to wash it before it would be done. He waited. I washed it and dried it. Hubby found it in the dryer, folded and put it away. Son ransacked closet for his quilt then stashed it in his room until the weekend when he would remake his bed.

Here is the finished quilt. I can fit a queen-sized bed:

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It matches the mural my mother painted on his bedroom wall

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhere the pee-pot cat anticipated sleeping on it.

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Hearts in Barbed Wire—Chapter 5

20140311-091422.jpgChapter Five

“We’re nearly home.” A dull ache blazed a t-shape across Madeline’s back. Dawn bled across the horizon and oozed tendrils of gray into the inky darkness. Chimneys puffed smoke as cook fires were rebuilt. To the south, the boom of cannons dulled to the crash of ocean surf and the battle lines created a blood-red horizon.

She rubbed the sting from her eyes as a breeze carried the oily residue of smoke toward her. She adjusted her hold on Mille’s slim, hairy wrist, dragging his arm across her shoulders. Her thighs trembled from the extra weight.

Mille pulled slightly away, leaning more on the tree limb turned crutch. It pierced the muddy road. “I’ll be glad to reach your farmhouse.”

On his right, Luc scouted a few steps ahead, the German shepherd, Leopold, trotting next to him. He brushed aside branches of the pitted alder hedge lining the road and peered into the fields beyond. “As will I. I don’t like being in the open. The Boches are everywhere.”

If they were caught by the Germans… Madeline stumbled a step. “We haven’t seen any for hours. They could be close.”

Mille careened into her side then quickly pushed off her. “Apologies.” His injured leg buckled when he put weight on it. Groaning, he dropped the cane and extended his arm. He planted his hands in the mud, stopping his free fall.

Setting her valise on the ground, Luc rushed to his friend’s side. “Which means we’re overdue for an encounter. The Germans are quite fanatical about timetables.”

She reached Mille first and offered him a hand up.

“The lieutenant knows all about Germans and their need for order.” Ignoring her, Mille adjusted his wounded leg so it didn’t bear any weight. A dark stain nearly soiled his entire bandage. “He studied in Berlin before the war. He even speaks cabbagehead.”

Once they reached her home, she would have to attend to Mille’s wound properly before he became too comfortable. Those red streaks radiating from his wound preceded an infection.

“My knowledge of German has saved our lives more than once.” Luc wrapped his arm across his abdomen before bending down, gripping the man under his armpit and heaving. Both men groaned.

She bit her lip. How could she have forgotten that Luc was wounded as well?

Mille’s skin glowed ghostly white as their surroundings lightened. Pushing with his good leg, he clawed up the cane to his feet. “How was I to know that the British anthem sounded so much like a Boche call-to-arms?”

Luc grunted as he adjusted Mille’s weight before staring at her. “How much further?”

The two men staggered in a zig-zag pattern down the road leading to her village.

She rolled her shoulders. Her spine popped with the motion before she raised her arm. “That tall tree marks my family’s property.”

Home. She wouldn’t leave it again until the Germans left Belgium. She wouldn’t leave her family to the Boches‘ brutality. Picking up her skirts, she skipped forward pausing only long enough to scoop up her valise.

Tail wagging, Leopold pranced next to her, tongue lolling out.

Mille smiled as she drew abreast of the men. “I hope your mother has eggs.”

“And bacon.” Luc sniffed the air. “I miss bacon. It’s been a month since we’ve had bacon. I can almost smell it.”

“Thirty-five days.” Mille licked his lips. “Those sausages you stole weren’t bad but they’re not bacon.”

Madeline’s nose quivered. That oily smell underneath the smoke wasn’t animal fat. It was sharp and sour, like petrol. Her heart slammed into her chest. “Oh no!”

Valise swinging, she ran toward home, past the Dermonts and Undines with their houses’ green shutters thrown open, and glass shards glittering like diamonds on the brittle morning light. Wooden legs carried her past the pale shell of the Laiguts’ gutted house.

“What’s wrong?” Luc’s hoarse whisper prodded her onward.

“It’s wrong. All wrong.” Faster. She must run faster. She slipped on a muddy patch at the second hedge, sliced open her coat sleeve on the barbed wire entangled in the third.

“Madeline.” He hissed. “Wait.”

She shook her head. “That smell.” Ice seeped into the marrow of her bones. Only one thing smelled like that. “Bombs.”

The Boches had bombed her village. Her home. No, please, God, not that. Dropping her skirts, she pumped her arms faster. Past the heaps of rubble that had once been homes of her friends and neighbors.

The smoke thickened, drifted like wraiths over the fresh graves.

She skidded around the willows. Low branches slapped her face and ripped at her hair. Pushing them aside, she stumbled into the rutted drive. A tree root grabbed the toe of her wooden shoe. She pitched forward, belly-flopped on her valise, crushing the cardboard suitcase. Darkness crowded her vision as air fled her lungs. Clammy mud sucked at her cheeks. Get up. Check on Mama. On Papa.

Footsteps pounded behind her.

A dog snuffled her neck. Leopold’s wet nose chilled her heated skin.

Dragging air into her lungs, she tugged her arms free then planted her hands on the ground. Dead grass snapped before mud oozed between her fingers. She levered up.

Black smoke drifted in clumps across the yard. A thick pillar soared out of the fireplace toward the Heavens. Two wispy ones joined it on the left. What did it mean? Her thoughts spun but didn’t connect. The pillars meant something, didn’t they?

Fingers curled around her elbow, clamped down on the flesh and bone before dragging her to her knees. Luc’s warm breath cascaded down her cheek. “Madeline, you can’t rush off in these perilous times.”

She nodded. Peril. Danger.

Luc tried to tug her to her feet.

Muddy skirts anchored her in place. Smoke. Fire. Words linked, laying tracks. Was Papa burning the refuse in the yard? But what of the columns on the left? They didn’t come from the chimney, and yet the only thing there was the house. She sucked in a breath and sprang to her feet.

“My house. It’s on fire.” Gaze flying around the yard, she searched the smoke. Where were her parents? Her brother?

“I’ll check.” Luc stumbled back. His grip loosened.

She’d check. Surging forward, she broke free of his hold. She would see. This was her family. Her family. She waded into the smoke. Her sabots trudged along the worn trail winding through the dead grass. A breeze shifted the smoke. In the middle of the yard, flames licked at the triangular edge of a mattress on the rim of the bonfire. Feathers danced on the heat before exploding in red starbursts and disappearing. A spindly chair leg rolled away from the fire, the charred tip smoking.

Why had Papa burned the chair? Her mother loved that chair, loved the entire dining set. The bonfire collapsed. Cinders blazed hot before fading to gray. Ash swirled on the breeze, obscured the rest of the yard. A few flakes landed on her coat sleeve.

She turned toward the house. Waves of heat pushed against her, kept her from getting too close. Sweat beaded her forehead. Orange light poured out of the kitchen window. Smoke chuffed between the jagged teeth of the shattered pane. Her stomach knotted. Why was the light orange? She reached for the door handle.

Luc caught her hand and held it. “Don’t.”

“Why not?”

“The Boches set your house on fire.”

She shook her head. No, he didn’t know that. He couldn’t know that. She tugged on her hand.

He jerked back. Stronger.

She stumbled against his chest. His fever penetrated her coat and the layers of clothing she wore. Medicine bottles, sewn into her skirts, thumped against her legs. Movement caught her eye and she faced the kitchen window.

Orange flames writhed over the lump eating at the floor. Fire danced up the walls and along the low beams, devouring the bouquets of herbs hanging from the ceiling. Broken crockery littered the smoldering countertop and shattered shelves.

She blinked. Her house was on fire. Her house was on fire! She jerked back. “My parents! My brother!”

He flattened his palm between her shoulder blades and held her in his arms. “It’s too late.”

“No. No! It can’t be too late.” The roof still stood. The walls were mostly intact. She twisted in his grip.

He fisted the back of her coat.

The fabric banded her chest. A button dug into her throat. She pounded on him. “Let me go. I need to get to them.”

He grunted and winced. His lips rolled back to reveal clenched teeth. “They are not inside.”

“You don’t know that!” She stomped on his foot.

He sucked in a breath and rocked forward.

His weight knocked her off balance. She staggered back a step. His grip slackened. Spinning about, she wrenched free.

“Mama! Papa!” Rising on tiptoes, she peered through the kitchen window. There was so much smoke! How could she see inside? “Mathieu!”

“They’re not inside, Madeline.” Holding his side, Luc lunged for her.

She shoved his hands away.

“I must find my family.” Keeping out of his reach, she retreated, following the length of the house.

He stumbled after her. “Stop!”

She folded her arms across her chest and shuffled backward. “Don’t you want to find your men?”

“I know where my men are.” His lips compressed into a thin line, then he lunged for her. His fingertips raked her forearms.

Her heel slammed into something soft and she stopped.

“Don’t look.”

She glanced down. A still hand lay like a pale, upturned spider near her sabot. A puddle of dark liquid glistened on the gray morning light. A ragged cuff draped around a thin wrist. Dark blue strings, the color of a Belgian uniform, trailed across white flesh.

Her soul partitioned itself from her body. The owner of the hand was dead. She turned more fully. Did she know the dead man? Her attention tripped over his tattered uniform to a blue and white checkered fabric.

Mama had a scarf like that. One that dried tears. One that held fresh picked berries doled out on the long walk home. One that Mama had taken off to tuck around Madeline’s head when she’d been caught outdoors without her shawl. What was the scarf doing outside? Mama would be upset. Leaning over, Madeline reached for it.

“She’s dead Madeline. They’re all dead.”

“Dead?” She shivered. An arm cut across her waist. Her fingers pinched open and closed, missed the blue and white fabric. “Mama’s scarf.”

Lifting her, Luc dragged her backward, cutting off her air. “They’ve been executed.”

Stiffening, she sucked in a breath. Faces came into focus. Mama. Papa. The two soldiers. “Oh God!”

Luc turned her about. Holding her chin, he angled her face toward his. “We must leave here.”

Leave? But this was her home. She shook her head. Molten lead flooded into her belly. Tears cut hot trails down her cheeks. Her nose pricked and her nails dug into her palms. “This is your fault! Your men got them killed.”

She pounded her fists against his chest.

He squeezed his eyes closed. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry! Sorry won’t bring them back.” She pummeled his torso, clipped his chin. Over and over and over until her arms grew heavy and her shoulders ached.

“I’m so sorry.” He kept her in the circle of his arms. Made no move to protect himself from her assault.

She counted time in the soft thud of her fists against him. Grief swelled in her chest until she thought she’d explode. Mama! Papa! Dead. Her blows slowed then stopped. Anger drained away and she shivered. Her knees trembled.

He tightened his embrace. His hard length pressed against hers. Warmth enveloped her.

She sagged against him. Her fingers uncurled to grasp at his jacket and hold herself up. “It’s your fault.”

“I know.” His voice cracked. “We’ll escort you to your neighbors. You need never see us again. Never.”

Never? She clutched him tighter, buried her face in his shirtfront. He smelled of alder, sweat and blood. She’d wanted him hurt, but he’d already been. The war had taken from him just as much as her. She sniffed up her tears and inhaled a shaky breath. “I’ll see to your wound.”

“I can see to my injuries.” Luc clasped her hands between his and placed them between their bodies. “We need to get you someplace safe.”

“I’ll see to it. Papa—” She caught her breath, trapped the pain in a bubble before slowly expelling it. “Papa would have wanted me to.”

Luc opened his mouth.

Mille hobbled around the hedge and into the yard, Leopold at his side. “We have company.”

“We have to hide.” But where? Madeline glanced toward the house. A sob lodged in her throat. No sanctuary there. The barn. She turned. The roof collapsed with a groan. Bricks and sparks spat across the smoking yard.

After emptying the bullets from his gun, Luc tossed it toward the bonfire in the yard. He shoved the smoldering chair leg in her hand. “You tell the Boches you found us on the road and were taking us to town to turn us over.”

“No.” Turn them in? Then her family would have been executed for nothing. “Never.”

Boots pounded on the road. Close. So close.

“There has to be a place to hide.”

“Do it Madeline.” Luc raised his hands. “Maybe then I can save your life.”

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Friday Funny

These were passed along by my friend Hugh.

The first one: You know you’re a redneck if:

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The second one: They attack in packs:

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Upcoming Workshop on Villains

Hi all,

I’ve been asked by Melanie at the Dog-Earred Pages Used Bookstore to give a workshop on Villains, titled Facing Off: Creating an adversary worthy of your hero. Apparently, she really loved Trent:D.

Date: April 18th
Time: 05:30 PM

Anyway, the series is part of the Friday Night Writes, she hosts at her store. I believe this is a small fee to attend, but that fee will be applied to a book purchase. FMI, you can visit her website http://www.dogearedpagesusedbooks.com/

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Hearts in Barbed Wire—Chapter Four

Chapter Four

The Germans were coming! Madeline rose on brittle legs. Any moment now, she’d collapse into a heap. But she had to face the enemy. The roll of bandages dropped from her numb fingers, bounced once on her coat then rolled to a stop in the matted grass. Her hand trembled when she reached for her coat.

“Is the electric torch out, Sister?” Luc rolled onto his back and whipped out his pistol.

“Yes. Of course.” She stuffed her arms into the stiff sleeves and shivered from the cold. Papers. She needed to find her travel papers. The Boches would shoot her if she didn’t have them.

They might shoot her anyway.

Don’t think that way. Her plan would work. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she patted her chest. Paper crinkled in her left breast pocket. Thank God, she still had them.

On the ground near her sabots, Mille rose up on his elbow. “What are you doing?”

“I have to go out there.” Pinching the wooden coat buttons, she tried twice to shove them through their holes.

Luc rose to his knees. “No. You don’t know what those savages do to women.”

“I do.” All too well. She’d been on duty in the clinique when peasants had been carried in—bruised, bayonetted and violated. Age hadn’t spared anyone from the violence. She brushed her pass and identification papers before stuffing her head scarf in her collar.

Luc grabbed her hand. “You need to stay here. I will protect you.”

The heat from his palm sowed tingles across her skin. She tugged free and cold stung her fingers. “I need to be with the cart.”

Out there. On the road. She stared over the hedge into the moonlight and shivered. So much darkness. It would practically swallow her once she reached the cart.

“Lieutenant.” Mille clawed at the ground under him and sat up, his injured leg stuck out in front of him. “We can’t let her go out there alone.”

Raising her chin, she took a steadying breath. “And I can’t let them find you.”

Papa would never forgive her. These soldiers were fighting for her, for Belgium. Grabbing her valise, she waded through the grass.

Luc crawled after her. “At least take the dog.”

“No. I don’t want him getting shot.” She didn’t want any of them to be shot. She pushed aside the hedge. Leaves crackled and crumbled. Branches scratched at her coat, tore her skirt. Stepping through, she glanced left then right.

Twenty meters away, cigarettes floated like demon eyes in the night. The tromp of hobnailed boots and the clang of a soldiers’ kits prodded her heart to a faster tempo. She could do this. She had to do this.

Lives depended upon her.

Holding her skirts, she scrambled onto the road. Each footfall echoed hollowly in her chest. She’d come to no harm. Her papers were in order. A rock jutted from the dirt road, caught the toe of her boot. She stumbled a few steps toward the cart.

20140311-091422.jpg“Halt!” A man called in guttural German.

Dropping her valise, she raised her arms and froze. She would give them no reason to shoot her. Not that they needed a reason… Everyone was a franc-tireur, a saboteur, in German eyes.

Fingers of light raked the road until they caught her wooden shoes. Dead grass and mud clung to her sabots. They would know she’d stepped off the road. The steel banding her chest snared her breath in her lungs.

More electric torches clicked on. Spike-helmeted silhouettes arrowed down the road. Bayonets stabbed the night. The clomp of boots rolled like a snare drum.

Was the whole of the Kaiser’s army descending upon her? God Almighty, please protect me. Stars twinkled in her peripheral vision. She gulped air and resisted the urge to shield her eyes. She’d be well. They would not hurt her.

Please, don’t let them hurt me.

Underneath the smell of cabbage and beans swirled the hint of blood. Four soldiers surrounded her in an arc, bayonets ready to puncture her chest. They shone their torches in her face, burned the back of her skull.

“What is it?”

“Is it a franc-tireur? Will she scoop out our eyeballs with a spoon and slit our throat when we are asleep?” The soldier raised his rifle and stepped back.

Nein, it is a Fräulein.” One after the other, they shoved their faces into hers. Helmets and thick noses cut their features into blades of shadow and light.

“I’m not a saboteur.” They were executed. Her voice broke over the denial. Wincing, she licked her dry lips. A wall of light separated her from the rest of the troops. Her heart raced. Could they see Luc, Mille and Leopold hiding behind the hedge? “I’m a nurse. Red Cross.”

She dipped her chin to her valise.

The man on her right swooped down. Cutting the ties with his bayonet, he opened the suitcase and dumped the contents on the dirt. He kicked the belongings with his foot before unearthing her arm band. “A nurse.”

The soldier on her left hustled toward her dog cart and threw open the trunk in the bed.

She bit her lip to stop the protest. Let them take what they wanted so long as they left quickly.

Waving her arm band, the soldier dashed away.

The remaining two closed in, scanning her while talking, deciding her fate.

Madeline struggled to find a familiar word in the garble. What were they saying? Would they shoot her? Oh, why hadn’t she paid more attention when Lisle tried to teach her German?

Fabric rustled and the lights dipped and swayed. A black form blotted out the light. Broad shoulders solidified. With his face masked in darkness, impressions hit her. Male. Authority. An officer. He barked orders with the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire.

She stepped back, her heels sinking in mud.

The two original soldiers snapped to attention then marched behind the wall of lights. Her Red Cross badge floated to the ground.

Officer Shadow stopped directly in front of her and lowered his head, shielding her from the light. Dark eyes glittered, his full mouth turned down at the corner and his nostrils flared. “Papers!”

Madeline jumped but quickly yanked her travel documents from her breast pocket. Paper ripped. With a shaky hand, she presented them to the officer.

He snatched them. Twisting at the waist, he held them to the light. “Where have you come from?”

“Brussels.” Her teeth clicked together. She had to say as little as possible, give them what they wanted and they would leave.

The officer left a dusty boot print on her white apron. “And you are a nurse?”

“In training.”

“Are the citizens so healthy in Brussels that they do not need to train any more nurses?”

“N-no.” She cleared her throat and clamped her lips together. Even if the German governor of Belgium hadn’t made it a crime to speak ill of the Boches, the invaders had a way of twisting one’s word to their own advantage.

“Then why are you not at your post?” He crushed the papers in his fist.

“T-the clinique where I trained was closed and I was ordered to return home.”

He shoved his face in hers. “And do you live in a field, mademoiselle?”

Sour wine filled the cloud of words.

“No, sir. I live in the village.”

Even white teeth glowed in the darkness. “And does your village still stand?”

Fear spiraled down her back. She locked her knees to keep her legs from buckling. “I—I do not know. I haven’t been back since…”

The invasion.

“And you’ve been traveling this road since the tram stop?”

“I’ve stayed off the main roads to stay out of the way.”

Officer Shadow raised his hand.

Madeline reared back.

He chuckled and tugged on her hair. Moving his arm, he twirled a leaf between his index finger and thumb. “A wooded trail?”

He knew. He couldn’t know. He was trying to trick her. She’d seen it done, seen folks executed for falling into their trap. “I had to, um…”

Dropping her gaze, she studied her boots, keeping him in her peripheral vision.

“Ahh…” The officer cleared his throat and looked away.

He couldn’t be embarrassed, could he? She’d seen other Boches strip wounded Belgian soldiers down to skin, cut off their blood-soaked bandages and force them to stand on smashed limbs.

Movement caught her eye.

The officer stiffened then snapped his fingers.

A soldier marched over, holding an embroidered nightgown against his gray-green uniform.

Officer Shadow fingered the tatted collar. “This is hardly fitting for a nurse.”

Madeline’s cheeks burned. “It was for my trousseau.”

The officer’s gaze bounced between the negligee and her. “I suppose your fiancé is now a soldier in service to King Albert.” He switched from French to German and shouted at the soldier, who wadded up the clothing and stormed back to the trunk.

She blinked. He wasn’t going take her things? The men at the depot hadn’t hesitated in plundering her finer clothing items.

Paper crinkled. The officer held the ball out to her. “I suggest you do not tarry any longer. Any Belgians out after dark are presumed to be franc-tireurs.”

She was no spy; she was a patriot.

“I won’t.” She plucked the documents from his hand.

He manacled her wrist and pried her fingers open. Her pass and identification papers drifted to the ground. With his thumb, he teased the raw, blistered skin.

Fire blazed up her arm and she drew cold air over her teeth.

“I suppose even Belgian nurses aren’t used to pulling dog carts.” He dropped her wrist. “We shall take over that task.”

He snapped off orders. Fabric swished, dirt crunched and armaments clanked. The lights clicked off and the many-headed shadow lump began to march toward her town.

“Oh.” Oh, dear. She needed the cart to help Mille reach her parents’ farm. “That’s not necessary. I’m accustomed—”

“You misunderstand. I am requisitioning the cart and its contents.” The officer stroked her cheek. His callused index finger traced the curve of her bottom lip. “You and your fiancé may count yourself fortunate that we found nothing else of value tonight.”

“I understand.” Pulling away from him, Madeline shuddered.

“Perhaps you do.” He bowed his head once. “You may retrieve your belongings once my men have passed. I wouldn’t recommend you move before then.”

“Naturally.” She wouldn’t want to be one more dead franc-tireur.

With a click of his heels, he dissolved in the current of his marching soldiers. A wagon wheel squeaked. Boots pounded. One by one the electric torches clicked off and the night dropped over her like a shroud.

She wrapped her arms around her waist as the first tremor hit. Wave after wave shook her from her heels to her head as if to thresh the skin from her bones. She was safe. Safe. The word pulsed inside her skull, mingled with the echo of her breathing. Safe. The shuddering subsided.

The thud of feet faded.

Safe. She crumpled to the ground; a soft cry escaped her lips. Her nails sunk into the clammy mud, gouged furrows as she raked her belongings into a pile. Her vision blurred and tears pricked her nose.

Branches shook.

Luc eased through the hedge. “Did they harm you?”

“No.” The denial was acid on her tongue. Her fingers dug into the fabric, crammed handfuls into her valise.

He touched her shoulder, his hand soft as the flutter of butterfly wings. “Madeline.”

She leaned into him for a moment before shaking him off. She had to be strong. She swept her hand along the rutted area before stuffing the last of her belongings into the soggy cardboard suitcase. Sniffing, she blotted her cheeks with her sleeve. “I’ll see to Mille’s wound then tend yours.”

“Mille’s tending his own injury, Sister.” Luc waved his hand in front of her face.

She liked it better when he used her name. She slid her palm against his. Mud squished between her their pressed skin when he wrapped his fingers around her hand. She rose, swayed on unsteady legs.

“My injury will wait until you are safe at the farm house.” He cupped her waist.

His strength infused her and chased the chill from her limbs. I mustn’t give in. I must be strong. “None of us will be safe until the Germans are driven from Belgium.”

Leopold stuck his snout out of the hedge.

Leaning heavily on a crooked tree limb, Mille hopped behind the dog. “I think we should move out and avoid any more encounters with the Boches.”

“I am sorry you lost your clothes.” Luc squeezed her hand before releasing it. He quickly walked to Mille’s side and supported the other soldier. “But you are worth far more than fine linen and bits of lace.”

A flicker of warmth licked her insides. She hadn’t known what was in the trunk; she wouldn’t miss it. Madeline scooted to Mille’s other side and wrapped her arm around his waist and immediately detected his fever.

He transferred his makeshift crutch to Luc. “I’m not sorry that you won’t have to face the enemy again.”

Luc grunted.

She didn’t want to face the Germans ever again. Next time, she might not be so lucky.

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