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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    HUNGER IN THE DEEP, DARK WOODS by Mike Buckendorf
    October 20, 2010  Short stories   Tags: ,   

    The artillery barrage had gone on seemingly forever. Hans and Reuter had long ago given up any notion of hearing anything beyond the pounding of the approaching wall of American 105 mm shells. The landscape looked like some cratered imagining of the moon the two men had seen in picture books when they’d been boys. It was clear that Wessel was no longer going to be in German hands for much longer. The two men communicated by hand signals, pointing themselves in any direction which would take them away from the Ami’s relentless bombardment. Running away held many dangers though. Both men knew all too well what would happen should the Feldjaeger find them. Those Fepo bastards were too damned eager to string up anybody caught going in a direction other than the fighting.

    “Well, to hell with it,” Reuter thought. He still had his MG42 strung around his neck, even if the belts of ammo for the light machine gun were starting to run low. If those SS field police bastards tried some of their drumhead trial nonsense, he’d show them a bit more resistance than they were used to. Hans was his little brother and there was no way he was going to allow him to die for some stupid cause that was all washed up anyways. Welcome to Germany. March, 1945.

    It took them more than an hour to evade the patrols of roving Feldjaeger once they got past the perimeter of the American bombardment. Already they could hear the chatter of small arms fire breaking out behind them as the Allied armored and infantry forces pushed their way forward into the beleaguered city. It was only a matter of time before the city fell, though he was certain the fighting would be hard on both sides. It was madness to keep on fighting at this point. The Amis and the Tommies were already well within Germany’s borders and the damned Ivans were rapidly closing in from the east. Anybody with a lick of sense knew that the game was up. If they could have, Reuter would have gotten he and his brother through to the Ami lines and surrendered to them outright. He shuddered to think what his Uncle and older brother were going through on the eastern borders. The Ivans weren’t known for their kindness to German prisoners. He shrugged. Just as well, really. It’s not like they invited us into Russia.

    The two brothers had kept to the riverbanks and smaller creeks and tributaries. Staying near the water masked their scents from the Fepo’s dogs. After another hour of stealthy walking in knee deep cold water, Hans tugged at his brother’s sleeve.

    “Was ist das heir? Is that a boat?” Reuter strained his eyes. It was getting close to dark and the light did not penetrate well through the smoke of battle and the tall forest trees.

    “Jah. Das ist richtig…I think so.” The two brothers cautiously approached the small fishing boat, nestled beneath an overhang of moss and tree roots. The boat had obviously been scrupulously hidden by its owner. You couldn’t see it from the shore at all. Reuter had never considered himself a thief, but these were desperate times.

    “Get in Hans. We’ll make much better time paddling in this thing than we will walking in the muck.”

    “But won’t we be visible from the shore?”  “Aber naturlich, dumpfkoff! But everybody else is going towards the fighting. I think we’re far enough to the rear that our chances of running into any Fepo’s are scant. Besides, it’s getting dark. Now start rowing.”

    Hans nodded to his younger brother and clambered up into the boat. Reuter handed him the MG42 and shoved the boat clear of its mossy shelter. Hauling himself aboard, Reuter again took the machine gun and scanned the shore as his brother rowed.

    As the sounds of gunfire faded into the distance, he began to relax a little. Time passed slowly for Reuter and Hans Dietel as they made their way down the river. They’d managed to come a good ways, though he had no real way of gauging how far. Rowing with the current behind them made for a swift journey, or at least it seemed to. A thick pall of smoke hung in the new nighttime air and it obscured all landmarks. They could be heading in any direction at this point, maybe right into the arms of another German unit who would almost certainly shoot them as deserters, or hopefully into some Allied encampment. Reuter didn’t want to think about how much of their luck he’d used up at this point.

    After nearly another hour of rowing, fog began to settle in. Visibility quickly dwindled. The brothers rounded a bend in the river and beheld a large spectral shape materialize out of the mists along the shoreline. Its ramparts were largely obscured, but both could easily recognize the remnants of a medieval castle. The landscape in this part of Germany was dotted with them, but Reuter had always considered them a part of the local color, just something that had always been there. Now he saw other possibilities.

    “Hans, steer towards the shore. There’s no sense in us trying to row further in this fog. Those ruins up ahead will make for good shelter. If nothing else, we can hole up there for the night and get our bearings come first light.” Something bumped against the underside of the boat as they cleaved through the water. Both brothers exchanged questioning glances as they felt something hammer against the planks briefly before the current swept whatever it was away. As it vanished into the night, something broke the water for a moment and Hans cringed as he heard something that sounded like a clearly audible moan.

    “Reuter? Was ist? Did you hear that?” Reuter shrugged. Whatever it had been was gone now.

    “Who cares. Let’s get ashore and hide this damned boat.” The brothers hauled themselves up onto the muddy ground and pulled the boat up with them as silently as they could. Reuter set the machine gun down as they found a suitably shadowed area beneath a fallen tree to conceal their boat. Hopefully, some other resourceful absconder wouldn’t come along in the next few hours and liberate it anew. Reuter didn’t think so, but why take chances? The two had barely begun to hide their boat when the sound of someone clearing their throat behind them made them freeze in place.

    “Hande hoch, meine kinder. And keep those hands where I can see them. Turn around. Schnell! I don’t have all night.”

    “Great,” Reuter thought ruefully. “Captured by our own. Sorry, Hans. I tried.”

    The Dietel brothers turned around as ordered and beheld three German soldiers, all with weapons trained on them. Two of them held standard-issue K98’s and were Luftwaffe groundpounders if their breast eagles and shoulder boards were any indication. The officer with them was a squid, a Kriegsmarine. That didn’t surprise Reuter to see a naval officer at this point. There were lots of former coastal artillery people this far inland. There wasn’t any damned coast to defend anymore except for those isolated outposts in the Channel Islands. He figured it was a safe bet that he wasn’t from there.

    “I thought you Heer boys didn’t go near boats. That’s my province, nicht wahr?” He grinned at them. “Speak up, boys. Like I said, I haven’t got all night.”

    “I think we can figure them out, herr Leutnant,” one of the Luftwaffe troops, a gefreiter by his sleeve chevron intoned warily. “I’d say they’re in the same spot as us. They’re on the run too.”

    “You are deserters?” Hans asked with wide eyes.

    The officer shrugged. “Aren’t’ you?”

    Reuter nodded. “Jawhol, herr Leutnant. Wessel was all but lost…”

    The officer nodded indifferently. “Jah, jah…and you didn’t want to hang around for the Fepos to drag you back in or string you up from a tree. It’s a familiar story, meine freund. It’s all gone to hell. Join the club.” He gestured towards the MG42. “You two can come with us, but Horst will relieve you of your toys until I’m certain we can trust you. Kommen sie. Come check out our accommodations.”

    The lieutenant continued his tale as they walked. Introductions were made. The officer, Johannes was indeed part of a Kriegsmarine artillery forward observer detachment. His whole command had been wiped out two days ago, their column strafed by Yank P-51 Mustangs. Horst and Burkhardt were part of an artillery battery accompanying them. With their 88’s knocked out, they had little taste for joining the infantry.

    “We’ve been here at the castle for less than a day. We thought this might be a good place to hole up and hide till the Amis or the British reach this area. There’s plenty of game nearby for forage, but I wouldn’t go into the village. The likelihood of some sympathizers loyal to the fanatics in Berlin would love to turn us in to the Fepos. Local legend has this castle as something of a cursed place. Most of the villagers shun it.” He laughed. “It’s like something out of Bram Stoker, jah?”

    Reuter shrugged. He’d been a poor worker all his life. Reading for pleasure had never been much of a priority. Growing up during the depression that ensued following the Great War had been hungry years before Hitler got into the chancellery. Reuter didn’t particularly care for the little corporal, but the revitalized Army at least had offered regular food and shelter. Hans had been the one the family had their hopes hinged on, but the war eventually dragged him away from university all the same.

    “If you say so, herr Leutnant. I saw the movie with Lugosi once.”

    The officer laughed again. “Jah, that was a good one. This castle seems much like that one. We found an old man living in the ruins when we arrived, wretched fellow. He was something of the village outcast, I think.” He made a corkscrew gesture with his right hand, which Reuter saw was freshly bandaged. “A crazy man. Verruckt.”

    The five men approached the castle and waved to another soldier, this one a wearing the Red Cross brassard of a sani, who nervously held an MP40 submachinen pistole in his hands.

    “Calm yourself, Rudi. We have guests. Rudi here was my unit’s sani. Having him along has been a godsend. That lunatic old man took sick and eventually deranged. We could not communicate with him at all.” He pointed at his wounded hand. “The old bastard gave me this. It still hurts like hell. Danke Gott for morphine, jah?”

    “What did you do to him? We didn’t hear any shots.”

    “Of course not! Do you think we want to draw attention to ourselves? Nein, we beat the old man, weighed him down and tossed him into the river.”

    Hans and Reuter exchanged glances. That might have been what they’d heard strike their boat.

    “At any rate, here is our home for the forseeable future. We managed to grab enough rations for a few days. There’s a little wine, bread and cheese. Make yourselves comfortable.”

    The Dietel brother settled in with their new companions and ate well. Hans quickly unclasped his bedroll from around his gas mask container and lay down upon it as soon as their feast was done. Reuter couldn’t sleep. The lieutenant grinned at him and tossed him a cigarette.

    “Here. A misdrop from the Tommies landed near us full of supplies a week ago. We threw away that horrible bully beef, but there were plenty of lucky strikes to go around.”

    Reuter eagerly accepted the smoke and inhaled deeply. Life was beginning to look good again.

    “Do you want to see something interesting? I’ll show you what the old man was doing when we got here.”

    Leutnant Johannes grabbed a torch from their dwindling fire and wrapped several strings of rotting tapestry around it. It lit up their dim path enough to see by, but not by much. The officer led Reuter down a corridor that descended downward into the castle’s lower chambers. They soon came to a large chamber. At the end of the room, barely made perceptible in the gloom, Reuter beheld the outline of a stone door that had been long walled up. Loose stones had been pried free and littered the floor.

    “You see? The old lunatic had been excavating this room for some reason. When we got here, he’d been down here unblocking this ancient door. What we found on the other side was interesting.”

    Johannes handed Reuter another torch from the floor and lit it. The room was soon illuminated somewhat better, though it still made Reuter incredibly uncomfortable. On the other side of the long-blocked doorway was a long hall that descended back into pitch blackness. At their feet were piles of human bones, complete skeletons and pieces of skeletons. The remains stretched back far into the gloom. It was impossible to say how many bodies had choked this narrow corridor. At the very edge of the corridor, butting up against the remains of the stone door lay two skeletal figures clad in full armor, once resplendent but not pitted with rust. Piles of crossbow bolts, two fragile, broken crossbows and large broadswords lay beside them. Several of the skeletons had crossbow bolts sticking out of their skulls.

    “Mein Gott…. What happened here?”

    Johannes shrugged. “Who can say? It was certainly one hell of a fight, I can tell you that. These two must have held off the attackers while the door was walled up behind them. It must have been a suicide mission for them. Poor bastards.”

    Reuter frowned with concentration. “This castle is old enough. Could they have been plague victims trying to escape? Could the door have been sealed to prevent the contagion from spreading?”

    Johannes nodded. “Jah. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to also. But what I don’t understand is why the old man was down here trying to uncover it all. He didn’t seem like an archaeologist. He was already half-crazy when we got here, sick as a dog from something he came into contact with while rummaging around in this hole.”

    Reuter looked hard at the naval officer. Over the last hour, he’d broken out in a profuse sweat. “Herr Leutnant. The old man bit you, didn’t he?”

    Johannes nodded. “Jah. That he did. Rudi cleaned the wound very thoroughly, but it was an ugly bite. I’ve been feeling worse as the night has gone on. I cannot show it in front of the boys though. They’ve depended on me to keep them alive. That’s why I’ve confided in you somewhat, Reuter. You’re about my age, jah?”

    Reuter nodded. “We seem to be fairly close anyways.”

    “Jah,” Johannes continued. “And you see the way things are going as well as I can. The war is over. It has been for months as far as I can see. If I take sick, I’m depending on you to see them through. I can see that responsibility in the way you take care of your brother. I order you to take command and protect them should I become ill.”

    Reuter nodded reluctantly. “Jahwohl, herr Leutnant. I’ll watch over them with my life. It’s the least I can do after you’ve taken us in.”

    The two men shook and made their way back up the stairs.

    Four hours later, full night had descended. Johannes awoke with a feverish chill, his stomach roiling and the wound on his palm pulsating with pain. Aside from that throbbing hurt, the rest of his extremities felt completely numb. It took a supreme effort for him to wobble to his feet and stagger out of the ruins to heave up the small amounts of wine and cheese he’d forced himself to eat earlier. He’d ordered Horst to guard the entrance to their shelter within the castle’s walls, but he’d fallen asleep and remained utterly oblivious as his commander stumbled and moaned as shuddering pain gripped his insides.

    “Grosse Gott, bitte…. What is wrong with me? Please let this pain end,” the Leutnant who had survived the Normandy invasion, the bombardment of Cherbourg and that bloody withdrawal from Belgium in January pleaded to the unheeding night sky. His voice depleted to a choked rasp, He fell to his knees and attempted to marshal his waning strength to call out for help. It was no use. Leutnant Johannes Hauser, age thirty-four of Stuttgart collapsed face first into the dirt. Harsh, wracking breaths came out of his trembling form for another minute before he finally lay still and unmoving.

    Another two minutes passed before he stirred once more and again gained his feet. He swayed in the night breeze, but the sounds that came from his throat now weren’t cries for help or impassioned pleas to an ignoring God. They were mewls of hunger. And of course, he wasn’t Johannes anymore…

    9 Comments

    1. I liked it. Having the reader wait for the inevitable is always a good thing.

      Comment by Chris on October 21, 2010 @ 7:34 am

    2. Good story of a bad time.

      Comment by Mac on October 21, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    3. Liked the time period. Good story.

      Comment by Pete on October 21, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    4. Cool-WWII mode. It also seems to reference one of the stories in WWZ book about a castle in medieval times during an undead outbreak & how the villagers just locked the infected inside & noone would come near it for generations, but the zombies were still inside.

      Comment by D.Mc on October 24, 2010 @ 3:39 am

    5. Thanks. I actually got the idea for this story talking with fellow WWII reenactors who were also zombie fans. We’ll sit around the fire at events and drink, and come up with story ideas. I figured it was about time for me to write one of them down.

      Comment by Retrobuck on December 6, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

    6. This is gonna make one hell of a movie

      Comment by Hope1719 on April 23, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    7. Big trouble in little germantown…

      Comment by Oppressed1 on September 4, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    8. Intriguing. You know its coming but your willing to wait. Prose style flows.

      Comment by Ed on September 7, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    9. Wow. Very impressed. Ever think of self publishing?

      Comment by Mike Adams on February 12, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

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