Escape was waiting. All they had to do was reach the barn.
November 9, 2013
A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark
It would take them almost an hour to cross to the far side. That’s what Janika Eigner told them, and he had grown up on the banks of the river. He understood the unpredictable whims of the currents during the course of winter. The great chunks of ice confronting them were like battering rams, and the fleeing band of travelers would be at the mercy of a cold and miserable stretch of water that was becoming more threatening with each gust of the rising winds.
The little man led them straight to a small wooden rowboat, buried back in the thick underbrush of a narrow out-of-the-way inlet. It had been built as a one-man fishing skiff and began to settle low in the water as soon as Lincoln, Celia, and the British captain crowded their way into the cramped and narrow hull. The little man untied the rope and pushed the boat out into the cove, lined with the skeletal trunks of trees bending ashen and naked against the unforgiving chill of morning.
Lincoln reached for the little man’s hand to pull him inside the skiff.
“I’m not going with you,” Eigner said.
“There’s room for all of us, old man,” the British captain said. “We can squeeze a little closer together.”
Eigner shook his head.
“It is necessary for me to stay,” he said.
“There’s a firing squad waiting for you back in Pulawy,” Lincoln told him.
The boat was drifting farther away from shore.
“They’ll have to catch me first.”
“They did once.”
“It’ll be harder next time.” The little man laughed. “ Besides,” he said, “they won’t be looking for me. They’ll be looking for you.” His deep and hearty laughter expressed the irony that faced them all. The wind whipped his words aside as soon had he had spoke them.
Then his face grew serious. “There are those in town who will be taken out and executed for the crimes I have committed against the Third Reich,” he said. “They are innocents in our little village. I am the guilty one. I cannot let them die alone. It would be a sin against my father’s name.”
“You can’t save them all,” Lincoln said.
Eigner shrugged. “No,” he said, “but maybe I can save one. Even if I can’t, I can make the Germans pay a terrible price for their transgressions.”
“How will you be able to accomplish that?” Walker wanted to know.
“I know where the dynamite is buried,” the little man said. “The Germans don’t know that I know. The Germans don’t know about the dynamite. When it goes, I am guessing it will take us all.”
“That’s nothing but short of suicide,” Walker said.
“I can die a long and miserable death,” the little man said, “or I can leave quite suddenly and even more gloriously.” He turned, bent his head against the wind, and began a slow trek back toward town. He drifted back across the snow and into the fog. Lincoln watched him go until he had faded out of sight.
“He’s crazy,” Walker said quietly, almost reverently.
“All heroes are,” Lincoln said.
Celia wrapped the German’s woolen coat tighter around her as she knelt in the bottom of the boat. She could not stop shivering. Her face turned pale. Not even the heat in her eyes could warm her or melt the ice around her. Her lips were chapped by the wind, and she licked them.
After a while, the cold didn’t hurt anymore.
The river was freezing closer to the shoreline, and the ice was breaking apart, forming large, jagged chunks that clustered together farther out into deep water. The small rowboat wound its way slowly and precariously among them. Lincoln and the British captain paddled furiously against a hard wind blustering its way through the woodlands and out of the north. Each foot bringing them closer to the far side was a battle.
There was nothing to say.
Celia wiped the tears from her eyes. They were caused by the wind, nothing else.
Her words sounded more like a curse.
In the far distance, a gun fired.
The wind muted the sounds of both shots.
The dead lieutenant had been discovered.
Or had the troopers found the little man?
There were bodies lying on the street in Pulawy.
But his was not among them.
The boat slipped around and away from the last great barrier of ice and slammed into the rotting tentacles of a tree root that lay mangled against the bank. The woodlands clustered thickly beside the shoreline, and the dense thicket was as dark as it was cold.
They cracked the cold silence with the sudden snap of a tree limb breaking beneath the ice, and they were closer this time.
By now, the German troops had surely reached the edge of the river.
Would they confiscate a boat?
Would they swim?
Not in the cold. The snow was falling again around them.
Those were the thoughts that crossed Lincoln’s mind. Only one man would be upset with the escape.
And he was dead.
Lincoln immediately forgot the sounds of gunshots. They were of little or no consequence. He kept his arm around Celia’s shoulders as they followed Dunaway Walker up an embankment that rose a good four feet above the waterline.
“This way, old man,” the British captain called out as he scrambled into the cover of the forest. “We’re about two hundred yards south of the road. About half a mile to the west, the road makes a big bend. There’s an abandoned farmhouse and barn. The car will be waiting for us in the barn.”
“Who’s meeting us?” Lincoln asked.
“Man named Barkley,” Walker replied. “He’s new to the service. Haven’t met him before, but they tell me he knows his way around Poland. Lived here before the war. Lost a wife and two children during the first German wave. We pay him quite handsomely for his intelligence work. He doesn’t charge for killing the Germans.”
Celia was out of breath. She was no longer cold, but her face was numb, and her lips had been cracked by windburn. The boots were heavy, too large and unwieldy, but her feet would not be turning black with frostbite.
Lincoln broke out of the woodlands and into a clearing beside a highway that was pockmarked with age, weather, wear, and fragments from bombs that some allied plane had thrown out, hoping to hit any place the Germans were sleeping.
The farmhouse was exactly where Walker said it would be.
So was the barn.
The paint on both buildings had once been red but had begun peeling decades ago. The wood was wet and deteriorating.
Nobody lived there anymore.
Nobody had lived there for a long time.
Lincoln and Walker shoved the door back on the barn. The rusting hinges creaked. The lock was broken.
Inside, it was dark, the color of pitch. Inside still smelled like wet bales of hay. It reminded Lincoln of stale beer, too warm to drink and still too good to throw away.
Barkley was waiting for them as promised.
He was seated behind the steering wheel of a black CWS T-1 Kareta. It was a little old, maybe, but the rust had been painted anew, and the car still looked as though it could run.
Barkley had an odd smile on his face.
His eyes looked past Lincoln.
They even ignored Celia.
Barkley would not be driving them away from Pulawy.
He had gone instead to see his wife and children.
Barkley had a bullet hole in his forehead.
Chapters of Night Side of Dark will be published on Saturday and Sunday.
Please click the title, Night Side of Dark, to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his novels on Amazon.