Here is the last chapter that I deleted in it’s entirety from the book I have coming out in a couple of weeks. Enjoy!
Lucien Duplan swiped at the beads of sweat on his forehead. The alder branch scratched at his sleeve, caught the torn fabric and ripped it to the cuff. Blood seeped through the cut on his muddy forearm. Fever lit a cold fire in his bones and simmered in his gut. He shivered.
Some leader he’d turned out to be. After fleeing from Liege before the last fort fell, he’d zigzagged across country trying to find the Belgian army. Instead, he’d found an ocean of gray-green washing over the land—burning, looting and killing. His score of men had fallen to six.
And still he hadn’t reached the fortress of Antwerp.
Antwerp would hold and from there Belgium would push the invader back across the frontier.
He and his men would fight to free their country.
Leopold, the German shepherd who had pulled their cart with its machine gun, lay at Luc’s back. The dog crept forward under the hedge. After flicking his ears, Leopold whined.
The damn cabbageheads had been hunting him since he’d stolen sausages and bread from their commissariat wagon. At least his men and Leopold had a full belly that night. Something they hadn’t enjoyed in over two months. He fingered the bulge at his side. His fingers came away sticky.
He’d have to change the bandage soon. He had to find the army soon. He was almost out of tunic fabric.
A rhythmic thumping scratched his ears. He stiffened at the sound of hobnailed boots on dirt.
The enemy approached.
Twisting onto his stomach, Luc wrapped one arm around his unconscious brother-in-arms on his right and the dog on his left. His fingers scratched behind Leo’s ear before bumping down the ribs protruding under his muddy coat and stopping at the thin patches where the harness had worn the dog’s fur.
“I lived like a king for seventy francs a day in Brussels.” The guttural notes lacked the appeal of grinding gravel.
Luc fingered his gun. Three shots left. He could take out the officers and scatter the rest. And flee to where? He had a hole in his side, Leopold wouldn’t leave him, and Mille’s leg injury meant he could barely limp along.
Heavy boots pounded the ground. “Imagine how well you’ll live in Paris.”
“And all the French souvenirs.”
Through the remaining leaves, Luc watched the boots pass. Just the two of them. Easy to take a little revenge. His finger twitched by the trigger. He forced it still. Revenge would come on the battlefield. He couldn’t risk it here. Now. Few citizens were willing to help him and his men. Stories of the Boches killing the lost and wounded soldiers and any civilian who helped them had spread like wildfire.
He knew two cases where it had been true.
The soldiers disappeared around the bend in the road.
“I think I would have shot them.” Mille whispered. A dead leaf caressed his smooth cheek. The boy had insisted on shaving once a week, even though he’d never needed it.
Maybe he’d need to once they reached Antwerp.
Luc rolled his shoulders. Pain radiated from the gunshot wound at his side. “You wouldn’t have fired.”
If he had killed those men, the nearby villagers would be lined up to be executed and their town destroyed. He would not be responsible for that.
None of them would.
Mille sighed. “True. But its better than rotting from the inside out.”
“Your blood’s not poisoned. You just stink.”
“And you don’t?” Mille grunted.
Hell, yes. Living outdoors, sleeping in dugouts and barns did that to a person. “We’ll be at a safe place soon.”
They’d move out when it was dark again. Night provided the best cover. He checked the western horizon. The sun peeked over the black clouds, turned the sky above red. Fire and ash. The colors of the German flag. He swallowed the sourness flooding his mouth.
Antwerp must hold.
“Thought you didn’t trust Cocard.” Using two hands, Mille shifted his leg to the right. The shin and leg dangled uselessly at the end of the bulge around his knee. White rimmed his mouth—the only acknowledgement of his pain.
“I don’t. Much.” The wiry man had stumbled into their dugout the week after Luc and his men had retreated from Liege. The infantry cap, Lancer tunic and calvary trousers had jarred Luc’s sense of propriety.
What soldier didn’t take pride in his uniform?
And why the mismash of units? Over the weeks, he’d encountered others dressed likewise, with handfuls more fighting in their civilian clothes. Still, his gut throbbed in Cocard’s presence.
“He’s followed orders like any other volunteer.”
“And he is a damn fine shot.” Alas, so were most peasants. Still, many a rabbit had filled their bellies thanks to Cocard. And yet something was off.
Leopold’s hackles rose. The dog crawled out of hedge and stared at the tall grass behind them.
The missing piece clicked in Luc’s thoughts. Cocard didn’t have the shadows Luc had seen in his shaving mirror after that first day of fighting—the ghosts of those he’d slaughtered in battle.
Cocard hadn’t killed anyone.
Beside Luc, Mille stiffened. “What? What is it?”
Luc isolated the thought, pushed it to the side. Being innocent wasn’t a crime. He could think of ten reasons why Cocard hadn’t fired at the enemy—all of them legitimate. So why did Luc’s stomach cramp at the idea?
The dog paced the hedge, sniffed the air then woofed softly.
All clear. Luc pushed to his feet. Bracing his legs, he held out his hand to the other man. “Let’s move.”
Mille glanced up at the bleeding sky. Shrugging, he grabbed the walking stick at his side with one hand and Luc’s hand with the other.
Muscles strained across Luc’s back and warmth coated his side.
Mille’s face paled. His lips clamped together. When he reached the halfway point, his eyes rolled back and he collapsed onto the ground.
“Damn.” Luc dropped beside him. He found the other man’s pulse, felt the strength in its beats.
Immediately, Leopold darted over and lay beside the unconscious man.
The sky darkened. A star twinkled above. Others joined it.
Mille’s breathing changed. “Go on without me.”
Luc shook his head. No one would be left behind. Never again. “We go together.”
“It’s not far.” If Mille could walk a bit, Luc could carry him a bit. They’d be there before morning.
“You said that last night.”
“We’re closer than we were last night.” At least they were if Luc had correctly identified the rubble they’d walked through. He rolled to his knees preparing to stand.
Luc dropped to the ground and belly-crawled to the hedge. Dammit. Another German patrol.
“Leave me, Sir.” Mille hissed. “You know what the Boches do to officers.”
“They shoot them like everyone else.”
The thud of marching boots shook the ground as they passed.
Luc’s heart drummed through his veins. His breathing rasped in his ears. The clank of metal accompanied the jingle of a harness. His stomach rumbled at the scent of stale cabbage. Tucking his nose in his sleeve, he fought the urge to sneeze.
Beside him, Mille squeezed his eyes closed and bit his lip.
Darkness swallowed the soldiers. Seconds passed. Then a minute. Leopold rolled onto his side.
Luc stayed in place, counted to sixty, then one-hundred-twenty.
Mille sighed. “I’m not saying leave me behind. I’m saying retrieve Savage and Plummer. They should have eaten and rested. They can help me walk to the Thevenets.”
The idea had merit. Luc hated it. “We’ll walk a kilometer. Then I’ll carry you one. We should be almost there by then.”
Maybe. His compass had broke over a month ago. He had no map, just memories of the area of his family’s summer home. He raked his hand through his mud-caked hair. Pain zipped over his scalp when he ripped some strands out.
“Sir.” Mille grasped Luc’s hand. “You can travel faster by yourself.”
Leopold woofed softly in his sleep and his paws twitched.
Luc scratched his chin; stubble rasped against his fingers. As the superior officer, he was responsible for his men. “I’ll scout ahead. Their patrols are bound to have a pattern to them.”
Knowing it would reduce their risk of discovery.
“The Boches are nothing if not slaves to a schedule.”
Rising, Luc motioned for the dog to stay. Leopold rolled to Mille’s side and rested his head on the man’s chest. Skulking along the hedge, Luc traveled south.
Monsieur and Madame Thevenet were about to have company.
He pulled his gun out of his belt.
Whether they wanted it or not.