A storm rolled over the distant mountains. As the moist earth sunk beneath his footsteps the wind whispered through the pines. Crouching, he waited. He watched the deep purple flashes, hidden, inaudible, amidst the haze of the approaching storm. He felt the weight of the knife at his side and of the rifle in his hands. His stomach growled. As the heat that preceded the storm washed over him he grabbed the front of his shirt, fluttering it back and forth to cool his chest. And with the back of his hand, he wiped the sweat from his brow. Gabriel remembered those he left behind.
Movement in the distance caught his eye.
In one quick swivel, he turned the rifle in his hands and lifted the iron sight to his right eye. He left the other open, a habit from the war. He took a long deep breath. The air cracked and the trunk of a pine beyond the beast exploded with wooden splinters. Gabriel pulled the bolt and tracked the animal with his glassy eyes. He pulled the trigger and a pink mist burst from above the creature’s rear leg. Gabriel rose to his feet and paced towards the animal.
The animal wheezed on its side as it looked back at the figure towering above it. Unsheathing his knife Gabriel dropped to his knees, one hand patting the dog’s side and the other, knife in hand, made one slash. The dog went limp.
* * *
“Any food?” called the gypsy to Gabriel. He sat alongside the ashes of a fire as Gabriel approached the camp.
“Just a dog,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel threw the sack he carried to the ground. It landed with a solid thunk. The end of the sack hung open and the gypsy’s sour gaze rested, unchanged, over the contents of the sack.
“So, we’re killing dogs now.”
The gypsy poked at the ashes with a branch, coal black at one end.
“Yeah. Just got a craving, you know?”
“Funny. I’ll light a fire. You cut it up.”
The campsite consisted of a canvas sheet that was tied between four trees, two ends at the base, two high up, and under the canvas sheet were two backpacks packed with dwindling medical supplies, blankets, a canteen and not much else.
They ate that night and Gabriel slept. The gypsy sat up, with the rifle, on watch. It was pitch black when the gypsy woke Gabriel.
Gabriel rose and took the rifle from the gypsy, aiming the gun towards the approaching footsteps.
“Who goes there,” he shouted.
He pulled the bolt and stared into the shadows of the forest as his eyes adjusted to the moonlight.
“Please. Don’t shoot. I’m coming forward,” said a voice from the woods. A gaunt woman stepped into the moonlight. “You’re heading north too, aren’t you, to the French border?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Why else would a nigger and a gypsy be hiding out in the woods?”
“Don’t call him a nigger,” the gypsy said, gesturing towards Gabriel, his rifle locked on the woman.
“Negro, whatever, I’m sorry. I just… I’m desperate.”
“So are we. Now beat it,” Gabriel said.
“I didn’t mean to get off on the wrong foot. I just thought we could–”
The gunshot rang out through the hollow night and the woman stood a moment then collapsed, her face slamming into the dirt.
“Why’d you do that?” the gypsy said.
“We couldn’t risk her getting us caught. No one can know we’re here.”
“We could have taken her with us,” the gypsy said, his voice hollow.
“We can barely feed ourselves.”
The gypsy looked at Gabriel a long moment and Gabriel looked back and he felt a shadow cross over them. Something distant fondled his waking dreams. He saw a man sitting on the edge of the wooden porch, as a dog leapt in unbroken snow, surrounded by children who looked like the man. Rolling snow in their hands the children began throwing it at the man, leading him to rise and pick up the children and swing them in circles till they fell and the man felt the wetness of the dog’s tongue as it licked him.
Rising from the snow the man began to brush it off his shoulders when he saw, leaning on a wooden beam situated on the porch, a tall woman wrapped in a blanket, watching the man. But then the woman was gone, and the dog and the children. And all that remained was the waking dream.
* * *
Neither of them slept for the rest of the night.
When the sun rose, their fire had been extinguished, their belongings were packed and they had set out.
As the sun passed midday they reached a road. And down the road they heard the grinding of machinery and the march of vagabonds, so they hid. With the rifle aimed at the convoy, they rested on their stomachs and watched the passing trucks and soldiers, cloaked in grey and fury, marching, whilst dragging behind them dozens of people whose torn garments and sunken visages told that they were a broken people. Once the convoy had passed the gypsy and Gabriel followed at a distance.
Reaching a bridge Gabriel and the gypsy passed under it. And strewn across the shallow river that flowed beneath it, were the women, men and children the soldiers had shot and thrown over the side.
Gabriel walked towards one of the bodies, whose blood trickled from a gash across their forehead into the shallow stream and saw it was a woman. The gypsy approached Gabriel and stood beside him, looking upon the woman’s limp frame.
“Bastards,” the gypsy said, “killing women and children. When did they lose their souls?
Gabriel was silent and turned from the woman who lay dead in the stream.
“Let’s go,” Gabriel said.
The gypsy followed Gabriel and they marched all day and into the night.