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The Wild Men of No Man's Land

Robert Van DusenOct 6, 2019, 4:55:10 PM
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Hello, all you awesome people of Internetland! I hope you're doing well. My favorite time of the year is nearly upon us so I thought I'd take a break from the other stuff I've been working on to write a short story for you all. Enjoy and if you'd like to support my work, please consider donating either by my PayPal right here or subscribing to my SubscribeStar for as little as a buck a month here.

The Wild Men of No Man's Land
 

“This is ridiculous.” grumbled Harry Moore, the wiry dark haired man running the pad of an index finger around the rim of the wine glass in front of him. His flint gray eyes flicked from Will's face across the table from him then to Joan before going back to Will. “Coming all this way chasing ghost stories.” the man shook his head incredulously. The slender brunette sitting in the booth next to him slipped her arm around his waist, leaning against his side as he pulled her close as he shook his head sullenly. He drained his glass then plucked up the bottle and, finding it empty, signaled to the inn's host for another.

Joan shrugged indifferently. “If you don't want to come you don't have to, Harry.” she said, the blonde's emerald green eyes sparkling with mischievous mirth aided by the three large glasses of rich red wine sloshing around in her belly. “We aren't going to think less of you.”

“Don't tell me you've turned yellow, old buddy?” Will grinned back shark like as the sandy haired man stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. The only American in the group, he spoke next to no French so he only smiled gratefully while the inn's host rather indifferently delivered a new bottle and took away the old one. He handed the man the cash for this round then went to refill Joan's glass who put a hand over hers. Will made a face then topped off everyone before filling his own.

What a strange man... he thought then shrugged off the heavy set man's brisk manner. The fellow struck him as the old fashioned sort who would have probably refused the four students service if he could afford it. It was rather plain he did not like the way Diane and Joan were dressed at any rate. Indeed, the sight of a woman in slacks and a turtleneck sweater with bobbed hair was still positively scandalous in some circles...

The whole enterprise had started two days ago in Roye, where torrential rains waylaid the travelers on their holiday through the French countryside. To pass the time Harry, Will, Joan, and Diane spent the afternoon sharing scary stories while the storm raged and thunder rattled the windows of the hotel they stayed in. Joan had recounted a story her uncle, who had fought in the Great War, told her one night while deep in his cups. Intrigued, Will had brought up the idea of taking up a little side trip a few miles out of their way.

Harry gulped wine from his cup. “Raving cannibals in No Man's Land?” he shook his head with a dismissive wave of his hand and snorted. “Come off it, Joan. I mean...no offense meant but your uncle's a nutter.”

“Aw c'mon, Harry.” Diana said, smiling and elbowing the young man in the flank. “Where's your sense of adventure?” She glanced toward the wall of the inn, feeling an involuntary shudder run down her spine and scooted closer to the man. It was a little unnerving to think that just a decade or so ago there was a war going on just a little ways off. As a matter of fact they could probably see the trenches of the front from where they sat right now...

The four of them staggered out of the inn, waving the beams of their electric torches around as they started across the field. The ground under their feet was pitted with the craters left by mortars and artillery shells, the bare earth slowly being covered with thin green carpet of ankle high grass. Joan cried out and stumbled into Will who caught her, smiling down at the voluptuous young woman when his hand found the curve of her waist. “I guess you've really fallen for me.” Will quipped, flitting the beam of his torch toward the woman's face.

She rolled her eyes then glanced over her shoulder toward Diane and Harry. A cold hand brushed its fingers down her spine as she looked around, her hand tightening around Will's as they wandered toward the trenches. It was one thing to listen to her uncle's stories about the war safely tucked away in his house in Ipswich and quite another to be wandering around in the dark where they supposedly happened... The surreal effect of the moonlight shining down and the pale yellow light of Will's torch was not helping at all as well.

Diane yelped behind them and they whirled, Will sweeping the ankle high grass with the beam of his torch. The little hairs on the back of his neck bristled as he crept forward searching the ground. “Where'd they go?” he wondered aloud, scowling as he kept a firm grip on Joan's hand. Maybe they fell into some part of the trench or something? Will thought, swallowing as his heart leaped into his throat. He glanced back at Joan. “Did you see where they went?”

Joan squinted into the silvery dark hoping to see some sign of where their friends had gone. “No...” she whispered as beads of cold sweat sprang on her forehead. A terrified shriek erupted from her lips when a shadowy form stood up not ten feet from where she stood then the heel of her boot found a rock sending her tumbling into a small shell crater. Will and Harry rushed down into the pit to help her, the latter apologizing profusely as he clapped the dirt and grass from the woman's clothing. She kicked him in the shin and scowled before letting Will help her out of the hole.

The three of them climbed out of the crater. “Know what? Let's go back.” Joan grumbled, crossing her arms under her breasts as she glanced around in the dark. The men probed the darkness with their torches as they climbed out of the hole as well.

“Hold on...where's Diane?” Harry asked, concern plain in his voice. He glanced back at Joan and Will then shone the torch around on the grass. “She was right here. We were going to lie in the grass and jump up to scare you two...” It was about then that his drink fuzzed brain realized just how far from town the four of them had wandered in the dark. Indeed, he could barely even see a few lights twinkling through windows in the distance... Harry absently wiped his mouth then turned back to face Joan and Will.

“Well, she's got to be around here someplace.” Will said, frowning as he turned in a slow circle shining the torch at the field around them. A startled cry erupted from the man and he stumbled back knocking into Joan who, in turn, staggered into Harry who managed to barely keep his balance and prevent both of them from falling over. “I saw something!” Will announced as flicking the beam of his torch this way and that as he lurched away from the group. Joan and Harry looked at each other then hurried after the man as the sweeping yellow beam of his torch gradually shrank into the distance.

Joan and Harry stopped in their tracks when they saw the torch suddenly disappear. “Oh God!” Joan gasped, pressing a hand to her lips as a cold hand rested on the nape of her neck making the small hairs there bristle. She glanced at Harry, eyes wide with fear. “Will!? Are you alright?” she called, rushing forward with Harry cursing close on her heels.

Harry caught her wrist jerking the woman to a halt. “Slow down, Joan!” he cautioned through clenched teeth. “There's trenches and shell craters all over the place. You'll break your neck!” He smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “C'mon. He had to be around here some place.” The man shook his head, imagining Will rushing off and falling head first into an abandoned trench. Hopefully he didn't hurt himself... he thought with a wry grin.

“What was that!?” Joan shouted, pointing into the dark at the edge of Harry's torchlight. He glanced over his shoulder at the woman then squinted into the blackness trying to see what had given the woman such a start. Harry felt a cool sweat beading on his brow then looked at the woman standing next to him. “I think I saw somebody.” she explained, shaking as if she had palsy.

Something heavy and metallic whacked Harry hard between the shoulder blades making him grunt and stumble forward. He shone the torch at the ground and nearly jumped clear out of his skin when he saw what looked like a metal cylinder on a wooden shaft lying in the grass at his feet. Grenade! The word electrified his nerves to action. Unthinking, he pounced on Joan pushing her to the ground shielding her with his body. She squawked and pushed the man off her, scrambling a few feet away propped up on her elbows as she looked frantically around.

Harry's mouth dropped open when a tattered and muddy pair of khaki trousers appeared in the light of the torch behind Joan. Something whistled through the air and struck Joan's head with a nauseating cracking noise and the woman stiffened, a dazed expression on her face. The lights went out behind her green eyes as she stared at the man as a slow trickle of crimson drizzled down her forehead. A big fish belly white hand reached out of the darkness catching hold of the collar of the woman's sweater as she sagged to the earth.

Gibbering, Harry launched himself to his feet and ran. A sound like the feral snarling of starving dogs reached him and Harry could not help himself. To his horror he saw at least two different shadowy forms outlined in the light of the electric torch, both of them seeming to fight over Joan's body as she lay stretched out on the grass like wolves contesting a carcass when he looked behind him. The young man ran and screamed and ran until a hand reached up out of the ground and closed around his ankle sending him crashing to the grass...

Arthur woke up before dawn and stoked the fire in the oven then set about getting breakfast ready for his guests. The heavy set man frowned as he tied on his apron. He recalled the four young foreigners had gone out last night though... “Did they come back in?” Arthur wondered aloud as he put coffee on then went to the door and peered into the common room. Frowning, he started upstairs and pressed an ear to the doors of the two rooms he had rented them for the evening. Curiosity turned to alarm when he could not hear anyone moving or snoring in the guests' rooms...

After fishing out the skeleton key he opened first one door then the other revealing that none of the four beds had been slept in. “Oh shit...” he muttered under his breath then ran downstairs, bursting out onto the street and hurrying to the police station down the street.

The local constable gathered a few reluctant volunteers. There had been much bold talk of the military sending men to search the area around the former front lines to dispose of the unexploded artillery shells and land mines that surely peppered the area. As, so far, no one had shown up no matter how many times the mayor telegraphed Paris many were not exactly willing to go tramping over hill and dale to look for some silly drunken English kids that had wandered off.

They found the brown haired boy face down in a shell crater with several feet of rusty barbed wire wrapped around his left calf. “GET OFF ME! NO! BACK, YOU DEVILS!” Harry raved and shrieked, practically foaming at the mouth as two burly farmers tried to get him untangled. Not comprehending Harry's words, one of the farmers finally sat on him while the other worked at the vicious wire with a pair of pliers. Muddy and bruised the pair dragged the young man kicking and biting while screaming like a maniac back to town.

There was, of course, a rather brief investigation. Harry was interrogated by the local police as to what happened to his friends while the the bushes were beaten as much as possible looking for them. The land mines left behind though helpfully marked out by the army rather limited the area the men could look, after all. In the end the young Englishman was carted off to an asylum where the doctors might be able to help him get over whatever shock had so addled his mind.

The search party discovered neither hide nor hair of the other three though a few of the men, stouthearted veterans of the terrible war, exchanged concerned knowing glances when they discussed the matter of the young Englishman's rantings that evening at Arthur's. “The Wild Men of No Man's Land...” they whispered and crossed themselves as they warily eyed the grassy moonscape to the east of that little village.