This short story was originally published in High Magazine, issue 259, June 2004. I have read it again in the last few days for the first time since then and, although I would certainly write it a bit differently now, it would also feel a bit dishonest to make any changes so here it is.
Tap, tap, tap… fat black drops thudded onto the dusty floor. A dark bloody tentacle eased its way between the flagstones.
The throbbing awoke Fausto. His arm hung off the edge of the bench upon which he had lain a few hours earlier. The pain returned as soon as he caught sight of it – an untidy mess of swollen flesh wrapped in a blood-soaked piece of his shirt. He didn’t know what remained but he was sure he had lost most of his fingers. Terzo was sitting on an old plaid blanket, leaning against the wall, asleep. Fausto sat up and leant towards the flames. His breath condensed; “there’s still life in me”. Forcing the words out as reassurance, he took a slug of grappa. 'So much for the great escape', he thought.
The previous day he had helped seven partisans over the Volpe Pass. Fausto knew the mountains. ‘Fausto is the mountains’, they said.
The people of the village spoke in hushed tones lest an enemy ear should overhear. In truth they knew little of what he did. He was a shepherd, an ugly man with sunken cheeks. His large ears were red and veiny from a life spent in the mountain air. His legs were slightly bowed but no one ever beat him in the annual race up the Madonna Peak.
The partisans used his knowledge of the surrounding Alps. Yesterday they had wanted to retrieve a cache of rifles and grenades that Fausto had secreted for them some months before. They were to be carried across the Volpe pass into the neighbouring valley to help two airmen who were going to escape to the coast. He admitted to himself a little bitterness in handing over his hoard of arms to help a couple of faces he didn’t know. His loyalty was to the people of his valley. Battista, a small principled man and the leader of the local partisans had described it as ‘The Great Escape’. His feverish excitement seemed childlike to Fausto but Battista simply had an Italian pride in doing things well. In real life he was a notary. His round refined face, so used to theory over practice had grown healthier under the cloak of war.
They left the village, up a steep cobbled path flanked by shoulder high, roughly constructed stone walls. The skeletons of vines stretched away on either side. On the ground dirty snow hid in dark corners. Within half an hour the path had lost all distinction. Fausto led the way under a canopy of bare beech and chestnut trees. Occasionally, when the group cam across an opening, their heavy boots sank into the snow. By the time they emerged into open country it was over a foot deep in places. The train of men was a little strung out so the shepherd stopped to wait. Someone bleated about thirst but on the whole people had stopped complaining about physical hardship in the past year. With some delight Fausto realised it was the first time he had seen some of them sweat.
They passed through Salsaro, a small collection of stone-walled houses, timbered with large pine beams, roofed with thick stone tiles and covered with a soft pillow of snow. Behind a small chapel Fausto took a huge iron key and led a big bucolic man, named Terzo, into a small cellar. Three canvas sacks, stiff with cold and full of rifles, were shared amongst the men. Fausto and Terzo took hold of either end of a wooden crate of grenades.
It was some four hours since they had set of that morning. The sun rose above their heads and the comfort of the tree line was behind them. Feet began to stick in deep crunchy powder. Even with their walking sticks the climbing was difficult. Fausto offered his ice axe to Terzo who just looked embarrassed and waved his stick at the shepherd. From the back, their guide heard the distant sound of men. It was unlikely that their whereabouts was known but the sight of a line of men high up on the mountain would attract unwanted attention. Fearing the worst Fausto tried to quicken the pace but from the back, with one hand carrying a heavy crate, it was difficult to force the party on.
Terzo was beginning to struggle. His footing slipped repeatedly on the steepening slope. The men’s heads were bowed and the light burnt their eyes. It wasn’t long before sharp calls rang round the mountainside. Four dark figures emerged from the last few buildings of Salsaro. They moved across the white landscape in the tracks of the partisans. The message that they were being followed soon spread up the line. Battista urged his men to keep going and not look around. Fausto glanced periodically, over his shoulder. The uniforms were getting closer. Frustration boiled up inside him. He felt impotent. Physical weakness disgusted him and he cursed Battista. He knew that he could make it to the pass and the southern slopes without trouble. These were his mountains. Pride raged inside him and he cursed the whole plan.
Against a royal blue sky, between two rusty walls of rock the Volpe Pass was visible. There was no time for rope and no talk of it. In two groups they inched their way up a shady gully of about 50 degrees. Progress was interminably slow. They hoped it would be the same for their pursuers. A wind stung their faces with a few icy particles blown up from the ground above them. The first group, including Battista disappeared over the top as if they had never existed. Soon the last two men were alone. Terzo, whose big knuckles throughout all of this had never once let go of the crate, looked around squinting. Fausto swore at him and wondered whether the big, clumsy man would make it.
Soon a shot rang out followed by a shout from the officer. A Flurry of snow fell from the frozen lacework on the rock face but soon dissolved into the atmosphere. There was a distant rumble. Terzo, who had lost his stick, was digging into the snow with a clenched fist as his feet slid from under his large frame causing little rivers of snow to roll down the gully. Fausto felt himself taking more and more of the weight of the grenades. Every other step the crate would dig into the deep powder yanking Terzo back. Fausto stayed behind his partner. If he got ahead he was sure the big man would surrender to the mountain. The approaching voices became louder. Orders were barked at them to stop or they would be killed but they couldn’t hear anything above the rasping of their breath. Hearts pounding, they churned up the snow with desperate lunging strides. At last they reached the gap in the mountain as a pistol shot cracked the cold air and shattered the rock above their heads.
Back on more solid ground Terzo collapsed with fear and exhaustion. He failed to break his fall and his face punched a patch of wet snow. Their hands clung to the crate as it hit the rock. Fausto turned to look at the Germans. All four were standing some twenty metres below. Two had revolvers pointing straight up at the pass.
From the corner of his eye the shepherd saw a green metal pin on the snow. The grenade was still in the crate, handle pointing skywards. He screamed at Terzo to let go but his fingers were bound to the frozen slat like frozen twine. “Come down or we’ll shoot” came the officer’s order. Fausto knelt as if to pray, grabbed the cold metal and bowled the grenade down the mountain. The air was filled with fire. The soldiers turned to hide their faces and were briefly lost in the lightning flash of the explosion above them. The mountain roared. Beneath his feet Fausto sensed the ground falling as the snow parted from the earth. A huge thick slab of white slid effortlessly down the gully.
When a cold breeze cleared the powdery air the soldiers had vanished. Fausto stared down at the tufts of spiky brown grass that had lain hidden for the last couple of months. He pictured the flat yellow teeth of his sheep chewing and remembered the sweet, stinging smell of his horse. For a moment he felt the heat of the sun on his back. “We’ll go to my house”, he said. Terzo was staring at the shepherd’s hand.