The Barn

The Father Mackenzie looked up at the sky. Although it was only four in the afternoon on what had been a scorching hot July day, the black clouds rolling in from the West had obscured the sun and darkened the day. A few spots of cold rain dampened his face and he decided he and his little troop of pilgrims should find shelter. Their next stop, a hostel in a nearby village, was only about an hour’s walk so it made sense to shelter and see if the storm would pass. They were descending the slopes of the Pyrenees and were looking forward to some easier days on the Camino de Santiago.

The rain and chill wind strengthened, and he had difficulty in making himself heard as he pointed to an old stone barn further along the path. Those that were with him made haste towards it, bending into the wind and wrapping their jackets more tightly. He counted and knew there were four stragglers, the same four who had difficulty in keeping up every day. Three of them were not experienced walkers and were finding the daily distances hard going. The fourth was a professor of history who specialised in the Second World War and regaled anyone who cared to listen or could not escape with the details of various battles and atrocities wrought on local inhabitants if they were either members of the resistance or, in this area, involved in the business of sheltering and guiding fleeing Jews and communists across the border into Spain.

He walked back along the path, crouched against the wind and the increasingly hostile elements, and found them after about a mile sheltering in the corner of a walled field. The rain was almost horizontal now and their situation was dry and relatively calm. The professor was regaling them with an account of an incident that took place in the area towards the end of the war. A troop of German soldiers had raided a nearby village and flushed out some attempted escapees, a family of Jews, mother and father, a young child and a babe in arms. These, along with the others in the house giving them sanctuary, were dragged into the village square and summarily executed, shot through the head, and left to the villagers to dispose of them.

Most of the men were away on the route used for smuggling refugees over the mountains and others had seen the soldiers arriving and had run into the hills. A few of the men had not had time to escape and these were rounded up and shot. One of them pleaded for his life and agreed to take them to where the other men were likely to be hiding, a barn were refugees and their guides sheltered and waited for night fall before completing the journey over the border.

It was an unseasonably cold and windy afternoon and when the soldiers surrounded the barn they saw smoke from an opening in the wooden roof. They threw a grenade though a window followed by an incendiary bomb and machine gunned any of the still living who managed to run from the building. When they were satisfied no one was left alive, they shot their informant. They camped that night in the reflected heat of the funeral pyre and moved on the next morning.

After an hour the wind abated, and the rain slackened to a gently drizzle. The pilgrims still had time to make it to their hostel for the evening meal if they didn’t delay so Father Mackenzie and his stragglers walked the mile back to the barn where his main flock had sheltered. The sun reappeared and soon the evaporating rainwater was forming a thin mist that swirled gently in the breeze and obscured the way ahead. They turned the bend to where the barn was but all they saw in its place was a burnt out shell, blackened walls, cold sodden ashes all over grown with weeds and bushes. As they stood there the cold returned and the wind got up again, moaning in the bushes like the faint anguished cries of the dying.

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