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[personal profile] belphegor1982
Back with the second snippet! It's longer than the first - I think each one is longer than the previous one - and a little more serious. Hope you like it!

Title: Between the Mountains and the Plains
Fandom: Giovanni Guareschi's The Little World of Don Camillo stories
Genre: Humour/drama
Rating: G
Summary: We only ever get hints in the books and films of what Don Camillo's and Peppone's clandestine activities were during the German occupation. Here's my take on the idea.
Chapter: 2.In which Don Camillo visits some of his parishioners in exile and comes to a few startling conclusions.

All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thought said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take those things, because they are mine!
I have a duty!

Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

November 1943

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been two weeks since my last confession.”

“I’m sure you have, but God will judge. Come on, young lady, let’s hear it.”

Eighteen-years-old Carola Ferretti chuckled, and Don Camillo rolled his eyes. The girl never had much common sense to begin with, but at least she used to be more respectful of the sacrament of confession.

She whispered her sins through the lattice – nothing serious there – and when she was done, Don Camillo let her go with two Gloria and a Pater Noster. But she didn’t leave the confessional, and even called him back.

“Wait, Father, I have a message from Smilzo.”

Smilzo was a boy about her age, a long, very lean youth about as harebrained as she was – in Don Camillo’s opinion – who had taken to mysteriously disappearing lately. According to rumour, he acted as messenger for Peppone and the other men from the area who had gone into the mountains after the Nazis had invaded. Don Camillo was one of the few who knew just how true those rumours were.

More and more partisans had taken to the mountains to hide and fight. They started to form groups that could go from a band to a brigade, procured weapons (mostly by stealing the enemy’s), and tried to train newcomers to military discipline and sabotage. So far the local German administration had not seen fit to retaliate against the civilian population like it had in other towns; every once in a while, though, people heard that a German convoy had been attacked or that a big railway line had been bombed, and were both nervous and secretly pleased. Unless, of course, their business involved taking the train regularly.

Smilzo’s little disappearing game would have given Don Camillo a lot more sleepless nights if he hadn’t known the boy since he was born (in fact, it was Don Camillo who had baptised him) and seen him grow up into the most slippery rascal he had ever laid eyes on. Smilzo seemed to be gifted with the power to dodge anything: things thrown at him, slaps, raindrops, and even Don Camillo’s kicks when he caught him scribbling on the wall of the rectory. If anyone could duck German bullets long enough to carry messages back and forth, it was Smilzo.

Of course, retrospective fear made Don Camillo yell at the boy extra loudly whenever he caught him doing anything even slightly reprehensible these days. But he still wasn’t fast enough to kick him.

Carola’s words made Don Camillo sit back down and peer at her through the lattice.

“What kind of message?” he asked carefully.

“First off, that he’s all right, but he won’t be able to return home until at least next week. Tell his parents not to worry too much.”

“Couldn’t you tell them?”

“I’m not supposed to know he runs around with partisans! Besides, his folks don’t like me, so it’d look suspicious anyway.”

Don Camillo huffed, but didn’t comment, much as he wanted to. “All right. What else?”

“Well, he told me to tell you that if someone were to go to Signora Antonietta’s farm outside Roccaverde next Saturday night at eight, they might see some people.”

“That’s awfully vague.”

“He had to be careful in case he, you or I were caught and tortured.”

Despite the girl’s deliberately over-dramatic tone, Don Camillo had no difficulty at all believing this last bit.

“I’ll tell Smilzo’s parents. Now run along, and don’t forget your Gloria and your Pater Noster.”

Carola strode out of the confessional and settled on a pew to say her prayers. After a few minutes, she jumped up and ran out with a cheerful and somewhat cheeky “Bye, Reverend!”

“And be careful!” barked Don Camillo just as she closed the door of the church. “Jesus,” he said, turning to the crucified Christ on the main altar and throwing out his arms, “can’t young people ever take anything seriously?”

“You’re exaggerating, Don Camillo. There are many young people across the world who are taking what they’re doing very seriously – so seriously, in fact, that they’re getting killed because of it as we speak.”

Don Camillo pointed to the door Carola had gone through with a large gesture.

“That’s exactly what I meant! You heard her talk about getting caught and tortured – it’s like she thinks she’s in a novel or a film. I don’t understand how she can be so flippant about these things! If the Germans ever got wind that she might know something… Do you know what those barbarians would do to her?”

“I know, Don Camillo, and so does she. She is afraid; she just has a different way of dealing with that fear.”

“Hmph. Then she’s better at hiding things than I thought.”

“Let Carola be and go see Smilzo’s parents. They will be glad to have news of their son.”

“If you can even call this ‘news’,” muttered Don Camillo. But he returned to the rectory to get his hat and his coat and went to Smilzo’s parents’ house.
________________________________________________________________
Don Camillo had a long debate with himself as to whether or not he ought to go to Roccaverde on Saturday. Sixty kilometres was a long way away, even to someone used to going around the village and surrounding hamlets on a bicycle. Besides, there were other concerns.

What if this was a trap?

But what if this was not a trap?

Don Camillo had a fairly good idea who the ‘some people’ Carola had mentioned were, but no clue why they wanted to see him. Why would a bunch of partisans want to see a priest, of all people? Saturday was a few days away, so it couldn’t be that urgent – if somebody had been dying and in need of Last Rites, the message would have been very different. Besides, they probably wouldn’t have sent for him specifically; it wasn’t that difficult to find a priest in one of the nearby parishes.

In the end, he went to see Mario Pasotti, who lived on a farm some way from the village and could be trusted not to blabber, and asked him if he could borrow his cart and his horse. Pasotti was happy to oblige, and Don Camillo went off.

The November mists had well and truly fallen on the Lowlands, shrouding the roads with huge grey curtains that grew darker and darker as the sun started to set. Soon enough, Don Camillo was surrounded by the damp, cold darkness in the tiny pool of light provided by the lantern he had brought, with only the horse for company. He felt quite alone and very small indeed, which was no mean feat for a priest his size.

By seven o’clock he was at Roccaverde, and stopped by the church to ask the priest for directions to Signora Antonietta’s house. Half an hour later, he was knocking on her front door.

Signora Antonietta turned out to be a tall middle-aged woman, with strong arms and thick grey hair still streaked with its original red. She saluted Don Camillo and invited him to sit by the fire while she took care of the horse and cart; Don Camillo, soaked and chilled to the bone after a long trip through the fog, thanked her and practically ran to the hearth.

Signora Antonietta came back after a couple of minutes and put his coat and hat to dry near the fire.

“I took your horse to the stable,” she said. “Would you like a cup of coffee? I only have ersatz, but I can spice it up with a drop of cognac if you want.”

“Yes, please, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Not at all.”

She walked off in the direction of the kitchen but stopped in the middle of the corridor; then she drew a stool to stand up on, opened a trapdoor in the ceiling and called, “Gentlemen? You can come down now.”

There was a rustle in what was presumably the attic. A ladder came down from the trapdoor and three men climbed down.

Don Camillo had not seen Peppone, Brusco and Bigio for over a month and a half; not a very long time, really, but as they came closer to the firelight his eyes widened in spite of himself. They had a different look about them. They were wearing their old big red neckerchiefs again; there were shadows under their eyes and their belts were a notch or two tighter, but the biggest change was in their faces and their eyes. There was something dark there, sharper, harder.

And then Peppone raised an eyebrow.

“Huh. You’re early.”

“The horse was in a hurry to arrive,” said Don Camillo, whose teeth were still chattering. “It’s got a little foggy in the valley lately. You know how it is.”

“People back home are used to fog,” said Peppone with a piercing look at his old enemy. “Nothing they can’t handle, right?”

“A—absolutely.”

There was a beat, then Peppone smiled – the big, honest smile that made his eyes gleam and crinkle. His hand, when Don Camillo shook it, was warm and strong. The earlier impression vanished, just like that.

Don Camillo also shook Brusco’s and Bigio’s hands, and they all drew up chairs to sit next to each other. Signora Antonietta brought a tray with four cups; Don Camillo eagerly wrapped his fingers around his. Ersatz or not, the smell and the heat alone was enough to make him stop shivering.

He looked at Peppone and grinned.

“You’re growing back your moustache, I see.”

“Had to,” muttered Peppone. “Since somebody had the brilliant idea to have me shave it.”

“Well, that somebody was right, wasn’t he? You did make it to Marola without trouble. Which reminds me, what did you do with my cassock?”

“I left it up there.”

“Oh, nice. And here I was thinking I could finally get it back –”

“I mean up there in the attic. Bigio, go get it, will you?”

Bigio, who at the mention of a cassock had looked at Brusco with his eyebrows raised – to which Brusco had replied by a vague gesture – stood up and went to the corridor. Brusco gave a half-smile.

“Should’ve known it was you. Peppone wouldn’t say a word about it – he even forbid me to tell a soul that he’d been dressed up as a priest.”

“I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t have told a soul, either. Imagine the dishonour for the Church!”

Peppone went red and made to retort something scathing, but Bigio put something under his nose, taking the wind out of his sails.

“Is that it, boss?”

“Did you see me leave anything else up there?” shouted Peppone. Then, at a sharp glance from Signora Antonietta who came to add a log to the fire, he hunched his shoulders slightly and continued on a much quieter tone, “Yes, that’s it. Thanks.”

He handed the package to Don Camillo, who took it quite happily.

“Thank you very much. You didn’t arrange this little meeting just to give me my spare cassock back, though, did you?”

“To tell the truth, no, we didn’t. It’s just… well.” Peppone gulped his coffee, looking uncomfortable.

Brusco looked at him, and then finished grimly, “We had a scuffle with some Fascist bastards last week, and one of our lads got killed.”

Don Camillo’s heart skipped a beat. “What? Who?”

Peppone shook his head. “You wouldn’t know him. He was from Milan. Smart fellow, very cultured. Had a wife and two little ones…” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, it gave us some things to think about, you know? One moment you’re here, talking, laughing, living… And the other you’re stone dead on the ground with a bullet between your eyes. And not only you don’t get to be buried like a Christian but in some unmarked grave lost somewhere in those damn mountains, but your loved ones aren’t there to hear your last words or anything.”

“One would think,” said Don Camillo quietly, “that you’ve already thought about those kinds of things before.”

“Yeah, well. It’s been twenty-five years. I had time to forget.”

They looked at each other, the four of them, and not another word was needed. They had all been through the Great War; they all knew with painful accuracy just how suddenly death could strike when you faced men who wanted to survive just as much as you did.

They also knew perfectly well that some things you can never, ever forget, no matter how much time passed.

Don Camillo drank a bit of his coffee and cleared his throat. “I understand that. But where do I come in? Do you want me to hear your confession, or…?”

“What? No!” Peppone briskly handed his cup to Brusco, who was so startled he almost dropped it. “I just – we wanted to give you these.” He opened his jacket and pulled out half a dozen envelopes.

Don Camillo put his cup down on the floor and took them, frowning a little. They were addressed to families of his parish – in fact, the families of Brusco, Bigio, Stràziami, Smilzo, and Peppone. The envelopes were thick, like they held a few sheets of paper inside, and most of the names were written in the careful, deliberate hand of people for whom writing didn’t come easily.

Don Camillo turned the envelope addressed to ‘Maria Bottazzi’ and looked at the three men.

“And ‘these’ are?”

“Not to be opened or delivered unless we’re killed,” said Brusco sharply.

“It’s private stuff for our families,” added Bigio, looking down at his cup. “You know. Important stuff we didn’t get to say, or should’ve said more often.”

Peppone zipped his jacket back up and took back his cup from Brusco. “Anyway. We figured we could trust you to keep a hold on them and give them to who it may concern if necessary.”

“Of course, but… How will I know if…?”

“You’ll know. We’ll send word. Besides, those damn pigs like to brag when they’ve killed themselves some ‘terrorists’.” Peppone’s expression was dark, his tone grim. “I swear, when the war’s over they’ll—”

“The war’s not over yet,” said Don Camillo brusquely, “far from it. In the meantime just try to make sure your families don’t need those letters.”

After an awkward silence, the conversation naturally drifted to the village, how the families they had left behind fared, and what the German occupiers were doing. From there it quickly turned ugly, because Peppone held a bear of a grudge against Signor Torconi, the podestà, who hadn’t done more than weakly protesting the Germans’ string of arrests, and before that had obeyed the Fascist authorities’ orders – albeit without either zeal or reluctance. Don Camillo retorted that Peppone was hardly in a position to criticise people for following orders when he himself had sweated for a year and a half trying to justify Stalin’s pact of non-aggression with Hitler.

Things went downhill from there fast.

Before it got truly nasty, though, Signora Antonietta crossed the room to stand between the two of them, folded her arms and said sternly, “There are no Germans in Roccaverde and I live a reasonable distance from the village anyway. But if you go on like this, they will hear you all the way from Rome.”

“They won’t,” said Peppone. He stood up and carefully put down his empty cup on his chair. “We’re leaving. Come on, lads.”

Bigio and Brusco got up; they briefly saluted Don Camillo and thanked their hostess before they went out the door. Peppone thanked Signora Antonietta, too, then shot a hard look at Don Camillo.

“Thanks for the letters,” he said, a storm in his eyes and a sharp edge in his voice. “We really appreciate the gesture. Especially coming from a reactionary priest who makes excuses for the Fascist authorities.”

“Not at all,” said Don Camillo just as grimly. “Some of us try to live by what we preach and use our brains at the same time.”

Peppone clenched his fists and gripped the door as though he wanted to bang it shut; but he seemed to remember that he was in someone else’s home and closed it slowly behind him.

There was a beat; then the moment was broken by a tremendous sneeze somewhere outside the house.

Signora Antonietta collected the empty cups on the tray and sighed. Then she shook her head.

“You people must not get bored very often. Are they all like that where you come from?”

“More or less,” muttered Don Camillo, who was starting to get cold despite the fire. “That’s what we’re like in the plains. When we have things to say to someone, we say them to their face. Sometimes…”

He trailed off, and Signora Antonietta stopped and gave him a curious look.

“Sometimes, Reverend?”

“Nothing. I’d better be on my way, too.” His coat was still damp in some places. It felt ice-cold when he put it on. “Thank you very much for your hospitality. You took a great risk.”

“You’re welcome. My husband’s been in an English prisoner of war camp since 1941; I thought helping our partisans would be the quickest way to get him back and end the war in an honourable way, if there is such a thing. If you need to contact them, to pass on a message or information of any kind, I will make sure it reaches them.”

Don Camillo thanked her and followed her to the stable. He and Signora Antonietta harnessed Pasotti’s horse to the little cart, and he slowly started down the rocky path on foot, holding his lantern in one hand and the horse’s snaffle in the other. For the first hundred metres he had to concentrate hard on guiding the horse down the most treacherous part of the path, with bumps and holes and small pebbles that rolled dangerously under his feet; after a few minutes, though, the way got easier, and before he reached Roccaverde he was back in the cart with the reins in hand.

Unfortunately, this meant he had ample opportunity to think.

Peppone and he had known each other since childhood, and, since childhood, had had plenty of occasions to fight about anything and everything. They had thrown everything they could at each other: harsh words, fists, kicks, even the occasional bench, with no lasting consequences. Usually, it just meant that they ignored each other for a while afterwards before becoming civil and even friendly once more. Then something happened, someone said the wrong word, and the whole circus started all over again.

Now, however, the situation had changed rather drastically. The layer of envelopes in his coat, against his chest, was a stark reminder, as had been the expressions in Peppone’s, Brusco’s and Bigio’s eyes when they had talked about their fallen comrade.

It only took a tiny leap of imagination to picture one of the three ‘stone dead on the ground with a bullet between their eyes’.

“Still,” muttered Don Camillo, trying not to shudder, “you can’t go after everyone who compromises and then conveniently forget you did the same thing under different circumstances. Things are more complicated than that. Besides, you’d think a man who loves his family as much as Peppone does would understand that people are afraid for theirs every single day.”

“Did you say something, Don Camillo?” came the voice of Jesus from afar, some way along the road.

“Sorry, Lord, I was just talking to the horse.”

Jesus didn’t comment; as for the horse, it turned out that he didn’t have anything to reply.

When he was halfway home, Don Camillo sneezed violently, and realised that the burning feeling behind his eyes that had plagued him since he had left Signora Antonietta’s house had not, in fact, been a prick of his conscience, but the premise of a nasty cold.

“Who says it can’t be both?” asked a quiet voice through the thick fog.

By the time Don Camillo reached Pasotti’s farm and led the horse inside the stable (so late in the night it was almost early in the morning) he was running a fever and sneezing repeatedly. He let his feet guide him home through the fog, half from memory and half from instinct. When he finally got there, he trudged up the stairs to his room, hung his coat and kicked off his shoes. Finally he sank fully-clothed into his bed and didn’t fall asleep so much as drowned.
________________________________________________________________
When the bell ringer knocked on Don Camillo’s bedroom door the next morning because it was time for the eleven o’clock Mass, he found him dead to the world and didn’t insist.

Don Camillo finally emerged some time later in the afternoon; his head felt ten times its usual weight and his nose felt as though it was stuffed with cotton, but his temperature had gone down a notch and he had stopped sneezing up a storm. He downed the cup of tea the bell ringer’s wife had left a couple of hours ago on his bedside table and almost choked when he remembered the letters in his coat pockets.

Fortunately, his coat was still where he had left it, the envelopes barely crinkled by the previous dampness. He racked his brain for a little while for a good hiding place, then threw the bedspread over his shoulders, grabbed the envelopes, and went up to the attic.

In one of the dustier spots, under a crossbeam and behind the remains of a chair, was a metal chest with the words VI’ REGG. ARTIGLIERIA PESANTE CAMPALE – CAPPELLANO MILITARE – DON CAMILLO stamped on the lid. Don Camillo fumbled under his bedspread to fish the key out of his pocket and opened the lock.

He kept all sorts of things in his old military chest: his old helmet and tin can, a pair of boxing gloves, a few photographs… Things that might have seemed trivial to other people but were precious, each in its own way, to Don Camillo. The letters would be safe there. Between the darkness, the dust and the twenty-five year old lock, nobody would even think of looking this way.

Don Camillo, reassured on that point at least, made to close the lid again, but something in the bottom of the chest caught his eye. He carefully removed the gloves, the helmet and an empty canvas bag, and pulled out a large box vaguely resembling a suitcase, with a big, still sturdy leather strap attached. He put it on the floor, opened it, and everything he had been trying hard not to think about since Peppone’s and his men’s departure last night flooded through his mind.

Before he had been a priest, Don Camillo had been a chaplain. A military chaplain, to be exact.

He had spent the last couple of years of the Great War like any other soldier on the front lines, except instead of running with a gun towards the enemy, he had run with his rosary and his prayer book to the wounded and the dying lying in their icy, muddy holes with half their bodies missing. He had received hundreds of last words and breaths, celebrated Masses and communions and heard confessions, all amidst the mud, the ice, the hunger, the smell of death, and all the other things that were a soldier’s constant companions on the battlefield.

Everything was in its place when he opened the box: the field altar, the little candles, the holy water, the bag of hosts… It even still smelled faintly of wood fire from the time Don Camillo had put it a little too close to the fire and the wind had blown the smoke right into it for ten minutes.

Besides the usual sacraments – baptisms and last rites, weddings and funerals, etc. – the processions on holy days, and the celebrations of Masses, Don Camillo had always considered his duties as the parish priest to be fairly straightforward: giving spiritual (and often physical, too) assistance to his parishioners, protecting them as best as he could from threats from both within and without. Occasionally he knocked some sense into a few hard heads who had trouble hearing the Words of the gospel, particularly the bit about loving their neighbours as themselves.

There had been quite a few empty seats in church lately. Granted, the lost sheep who had gone to the mountains had not been the sort who showed up in church every Sunday, but they remained a part of the flock nonetheless. At least he knew where some of them were.

Those men’s souls were no less his responsibility than Pasotti’s, Carola’s, or Smilzo’s parents were. And he had a duty to them as well.

Don Camillo carefully closed the altar’s box and dusted off the lid with his sleeve, then locked the military chest. He grabbed the box by the leather strap and went back down to his room.

He had a quick wash-up and a bite to eat, as well as the hottest, strongest cup of tea he could make without ruining the leaves. As an afterthought, he poured the rest of the tea in a thermos flask, which he managed to wedge into the box between the hosts and the candles, muttering apologies to Jesus all the while.

Then he tucked his cassock into his warmest pair of trousers, wrapped his thickest scarf around his throat and practically rammed his hat on his head, and headed off to Pasotti’s with the strap of the altar box over his shoulder and the collar of his coat pulled up to his eyes.

The sun was starting to set when Pasotti opened the door. When he saw Don Camillo’s fever-bright eyes and puffy red nose, he paused and said, “You know, Reverend, if you need to get somewhere too far to reach on foot or bicycle and you need to get there real quick, I might have something better than my old Nero.”

Don Camillo followed him to the barn, dumbfounded, and watched him lift up a large piece of canvas half-hidden behind some straw. Then his eyes went round.

“Pasotti, I didn’t know you had a motorcycle!”

“Bought her second-hand about ten years ago,” said Pasotti, looking as proud as though he had built the thing. “She’s a 1928 Alcyon, 250 cubic centimetres. When the French decide to make something good, it stays good! Plus my boy’s tinkered with her once or twice. Works like clockwork.”

“It certainly looks… sturdy.”

“She is! I give her gas from my tractor when I need her, but it’s been a while since I had the chance to use her. You’ll be doing me a favour, Father. It’s no good leaving her for a long time like that. She needs to breathe a little every now and then!”

Five minutes later, Don Camillo was flying rather than riding through the fog to Roccaverde, having tied up his scarf snugly around his head to keep his hat in place. The motorcycle was eating up kilometres at an alarming pace, the road in front of him was flooded with yellow light that looked like the sun compared to the little lantern he had used previously, and despite the fever – or maybe because of it – Don Camillo couldn’t help grinning as he stepped on the gas.
________________________________________________________________
It barely took him a little more than an hour to reach Signora Antonietta’s house this time. The woman was surprised to see him again, and not a little alarmed.

“What are you doing here, Reverend, and at this hour? Did something happen?”

Don Camillo was quick to reassure her. “No, nothing bad happened,” he said, untying his scarf and putting it around his neck again. “I just wondered if you knew where the men you had in your attic yesterday are right now.”

She peered at him, her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why is that? Is there someone you intend to tell?”

“Nobody but you and God knows I’m here and I mean to keep it that way. I just need to talk to them.”

“Why? Forgive me if I’m being blunt, but you didn’t exactly part on good terms.”

“Precisely. There’s a few things that need clearing up.”

Signora Antonietta looked at him again, long and hard, and shook her head.

“I’d heard that Lowlands people were crazy, but I didn’t have any reason to believe it. Now I do.” She grabbed her coat, a shawl and a lantern, and said, “We’ll put your machine in the barn and I’ll show you the way. I went to their camp two days ago to bring them some food. If you’re lucky, they’ll still be there.”

Once Pasotti’s motorcycle was safely tucked away in the barn, Signora Antonietta started up a little path lined with brambles and Don Camillo followed her, trying not to blow his nose too loudly. There was no fog – he had left it down in the valley – but it was a cold, cloudy November night, and there was little starlight to see by. Signora Antonietta seemed to know how to avoid every rock and every hole along the way, and Don Camillo took great care to walk in her steps as precisely as he could. But it often wasn’t enough.

“I usually take my goats to a little clearing up there in the summer,” she explained when she heard him curse the pebbles under his feet, “so I know this side of the mountain like the back of my hand. Right now it’s tame enough. When the first snow falls and covers everything – that’s when it gets bad.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” muttered Don Camillo between clenched teeth.

At some point, she stopped, and let out a low whistle. After a few seconds, there was an answering whistle from above – or rather, from one of the trees maybe half a dozen metres away.

“Don’t move,” Signora Antonietta whispered to Don Camillo. “I’ll tell them you’re here first so they don’t shoot you on sight.”

He watched her walk away; a dark figure climbed down from an oak tree and joined her. The light of her lantern was just enough to illuminate the sharp, severe features of Stràziami, one of the men from the village.

As Signora Antonietta spoke, Don Camillo watched Stràziami frown deeper, looking puzzled. He took it as a clue and stepped closer.

“Good evening, Stràziami,” he said cheerfully. Then he sneezed into his handkerchief, somewhat ruining the effect.

Stràziami, usually the most impassive member of Peppone’s gang, stared at him open-mouthed, eyes wide as saucers.

“D—Don Camillo?” he stammered. “What… what are you doing here?”

“Paying a visit to my lost sheep, apparently. Where’re the others?”

“Over there, after that thicket, but –”

“Thank you.”

The partisans were much too few to be called a brigade; indeed, they were barely a squad. All in all, there was about a dozen men under the makeshift shelter built out of old tarpaulins and branches. Most of the men were sitting around the fire, huddling close together for warmth; one or two shapeless mounds wrapped in blankets suggested that sleep had already claimed a couple of them. All of them wore several layers of clothes, a necessary precaution against the cold and the dampness. About half had a red kerchief around their necks.

Don Camillo’s arrival drew varied reactions: most of the men looked at him with wariness mixed with mild curiosity, while Brusco gave him a small nod, Smilzo a cheeky salute, and Bigio rose to shake his hand with a slow smile.

“Come to join the patriots, Reverend?”

“Yes and no,” said Don Camillo. “I came to offer spiritual assistance. If anyone is interested, of course.”

“I think I speak for all the men when I say we’ll take all the help we can get,” said a tall fair-headed man with serious dark eyes. “Aldo,” he added, shaking Don Camillo’s hand as well. “I’m in charge.”

“Don Camillo, reactionary priest.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Aldo with the shadow of a smile, “and more.”

“Oh, don’t believe everything you hear.”

Aldo gave him a curious look and went off to salute Signora Antonietta. Don Camillo did a brief headcount, and walked up to the heap of blankets by the fire.

A young man sat up when he passed by and shot him a confused, vaguely puzzled glance. The other lump did not move from his nest of blankets, from which only the tails of a red kerchief stuck out. Don Camillo sat down in front of it, not too far from the fire, and carefully raised a corner of the blanket.

“Peppone,” said the young man in a tired voice, rising heavily to his feet, “there’s someone for you.”

“Tell ‘em I’m not home,” came a low, thick voice from under the blankets. The young man looked at Don Camillo and shrugged.

“He says he’s not home.”

“Well, he isn’t wrong, is he?”

At the sound of Don Camillo’s voice, the blanket moved, and Peppone opened one bleary eye.

“I must be sicker than I thought,” he mumbled, “if I’m seeing bloody priests when I’m awake as well.”

The young man slipped away, grumbling. Don Camillo watched him lurch off, then looked down at Peppone again.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

This made Peppone sit up in a jolt. His eyes were bright with fever and his nose was just as red as Don Camillo’s.

“Now I know I’m delirious. It really is you – what on earth are you doing here?”

“Well, I thought about what you said,” said Don Camillo, resisting the urge to rub the bridge of his nose and the spot behind his eyes where it felt as though something was hammering away from the inside of his head.

Peppone looked just as exhausted as he felt and uncharacteristically subdued. “I said a lot of things,” he muttered, “including a few I shouldn’t have.”

Don Camillo nodded to acknowledge the implied apology and went on.

“I meant anything can happen to you lot up here, any time, like that poor man who got killed last week. I can go bless the grave, by the way. At least you’ll be able to tell his family that he came to rest in hallowed ground.”

“Thank you. I think they’ll appreciate it.”

Silence fell – the kind of companionable silence born of a mutual understanding – that would have been quite comfortable if the air hadn’t been so cold and damp that both men could see their breath hanging in front of them despite the fire nearby. Then Don Camillo sneezed into his handkerchief and Peppone looked amused.

“There is a heavenly justice, after all.”

“What are you on about?” grumbled Don Camillo. “It’s a cold, not divine retribution. Strictly earthly business, I can assure you.” Then, as Peppone was still smirking, he pointed at his red kerchief and said, “I can’t believe you still have that old thing.”

“Keeps me warm,” retorted Peppone with as much defiance as he could muster while he fished his chequered black-and-white handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. “So. What are you really here for?”

“Oh, I thought you might use some of this.” Don Camillo turned to the box he had put on the ground beside him; Peppone eyed it warily, as though he expected to find explosives. His eyes went round when Don Camillo opened it and took out the thermos flask.

“Is that what I think it is?” he asked in such an unexpectedly quiet voice that Don Camillo stared at him, taken aback.

“If you mean the tea, I’ve been out of honey for two weeks and it might be a little strong, but I heard you sneeze yesterday and I thought you might –”

“I didn’t mean the thermos, Father, and you know it. Did you really come all the way up here to say a Mass for us?”

“And bring tea, yes. I reckon your soul could use a little cleaning with all the Sundays you missed.”

“So, basically, you’re offering your services as chaplain.” Peppone’s voice was still nasal and thick but steady, his eyes serious but warm.

“If you’ll have me,” said Don Camillo, just as seriously – and just as nasally.

Fever still gleamed in Peppone’s eyes, but now there was something else, as well.

And it was just as bright, if not brighter.
________________________________________________________________
Don Camillo ended up celebrating the most unusual Mass he had celebrated in the last twenty-five years.

When everyone was in place, hat or cap in hands, Smilzo, who had regularly served at the altar until five or six years ago, shuffled next to Don Camillo almost reluctantly.

“Religion’s still the opium of the people,” he muttered.

“Good thing you only smoke cigarettes, then,” retorted Don Camillo.

Smilzo shrugged, and helped him don his vestments on top of his overcoat. Then he lit the little candles on either side of the small altar and stood to attention.

It was a furtive Mass, conducted all in whispers, lit only by the two candles and the flickering light of the fire a few metres away, but Don Camillo could not recall having such a keen audience in years. The men were intensely focused, their eyes soft with homesickness and memories. Sometimes, however, as their lips moved in automatic prayers, it was hard to tell, when they looked at the altar, whether they really were thinking about God or about their families and their loved ones, down in the valley.

“Maybe,” whispered a gentle voice in Don Camillo’s heart, “they aren’t sure of this themselves. And maybe it doesn’t really matter.”

Don Camillo nodded imperceptibly, and picked up the thread that he had lost for a second.
________________________________________________________________
After Mass, Don Camillo, still wearing his vestments, followed Aldo to the grave of the fallen partisan. It was a sad, stark thing, barely a grave at all, with nothing but a meagre wooden cross with a name – Carlo – and a date going back a week ago.

“Carlo was a nom de guerre,” said Aldo once Don Camillo had blessed the grave with holy water and said the proper words. “We couldn’t put his real name on that cross – we don’t want his family to suffer retaliation. All we must remember about him was that he was a partisan, a father, a husband, and a Christian Democrat.”

Don Camillo looked at him, surprised. “I thought you were all Communists.”

“Oh, far from it. Gianni, for example, is a Liberal. There’s a few independents, as well, and I’m a Socialist. But we’re all fighting a common enemy, so we don’t do politics here.”

“Saving that for after the war, are you?”

“Undoubtedly. In the meantime, though, are you really applying to be our chaplain, like Peppone told me? I thought he was joking.”

“He wasn’t, and neither was I.”

Aldo gave him a long, serious look, which Don Camillo returned, unperturbed. “You’ll be taking a risk, Father.”

“Who isn’t, these days.”

There was a silence, during which Aldo scrutinised Don Camillo as though he wanted to stare the certainty out of him. After a while, he seemed satisfied, and held out his hand for the second time that night.

“Then it’s settled. We’ll find a way to let you know where we are when we’ve moved camp. Welcome to the Garibaldi Brigades, Father.”

Don Camillo shook his hand with a smile.
________________________________________________________________
Once he had tucked everything safely back inside the box – except the thermos flask, which he left to Peppone, pointing out that he would return to retrieve it before long – Don Camillo followed Signora Antonietta (who had stayed for the clandestine Mass, bemused) back to her house.

Pasotti’s motorcycle was just as fast as it had been a few hours earlier, but somehow the trip through the mist and the dark appeared much longer than an hour and a half. Don Camillo spent the last thirty minutes trying to peer through the wall of fog and muttering curses under his breath, his eyes burning.

He made it to the village around four in the morning and left the motorcycle carefully propped up against the wall of its owner’s barn. When he got home, he barely remembered to change into his nightshirt this time before collapsing into his bed, body freezing, head on fire, but heart finally at peace.
 
________________________________________________________________
It took a couple of days for Don Camillo to be back on his feet, and, the following Saturday, Peppone’s wife Maria went to confession.

When she was done, she made to leave, but Don Camillo called her back. “Wait,” he said in a low voice that was still a little hoarse, “I have a message from Peppone.”

Maria tensed and went pale.

“Did you hear from him? Is he all right?”

“He’s got a little case of the sniffles, but otherwise he’s fine. He told me to tell you not to plant the shallots too close to the radishes, because he buried a box of ammunition in the orchard.”

Maria stared at him through the lattice.

“You actually saw him, didn’t you?” she asked, astonished. Don Camillo was tempted to reply that he had done no such thing and that he only relayed messages because apparently some people mistook him for the postman; the last thing he wanted was for the wrong people to get wind of his trip to the mountains. But the tears in her eyes stopped him cold.

“Yes,” he said gently, “I did see him. And some other men from the village – you know, the usual gang. They’re all fine, too. I promise that so far, the worst that’s happened to him is a cold, and having to leave his family. He asked about you, and Beppo and Marco, about how Tonino and Lucia are doing in school, if his mother’s rheumatisms aren’t too bad this winter…”

He stopped to clear his throat. Maria wiped her eyes and smiled.

“Well, the fog hasn’t helped her rheumatisms, but it’s not as painful as last year. Marco had a little earache, nothing serious; he was hardly grouchy about it at all. Lucia draws a lot, I’ve started to give her old newspaper because I’m running out of white paper –”

Don Camillo listened and tried to commit the whole thing to memory. When she went silent, he promised to repeat everything to Peppone next time he saw him. Then he said in a deadly serious tone, “You cannot – and I really mean that – let anyone know that I’ve been in contact with them. Otherwise it’s death for us all.”

“Not even his mother?”

“Not even her, and especially not yours! She’s one of the worst gossips in the village.”

Maria half-glared at him, but nodded. “I swear before God I won’t tell anybody.”

“Good.”

“Do you think you could warn me before you go see them next time? I’ll put a salame and some cheese aside for them. Lord knows they must be yearning for some proper food.”

It was Don Camillo’s turn to stare at her, taken aback. Then he smiled.

“I’ll let you know somehow.”

“Thank you, Reverend.”

He watched her leave, then shook his head.

“I wonder how much stuff that old rascal’s got buried in his garden. Ammunition boxes next to the radishes, honestly. What’ll it be next? Grenades in the cabbages?”

“Coming from you, Don Camillo, this is, if you’ll forgive the expression, a bit rich,” said the Christ from the main altar behind him. “Don’t you have your old M91 gun buried in the rectory garden? And three boxes of ammunition hidden in the wine cellar, if I’m not mistaken?”

“Oh, that’s right. I had forgotten about those.”

“You’re lying, Don Camillo. In fact you were thinking about those things just now and even looking for other places to hide weapons in, in case the Germans search the bell tower and the rectory attic.”

“Lord, the Commandments say ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and I have never broken it, nor do I intend to. And I know the kinds of things one reaps when sowing bullets and cartridges. However…”

Maria Bottazzi had left the door of the church open. Don Camillo trailed off, staring out the door into the square, where a squad of German soldiers were patrolling, weapons in hand.

“However?” came Christ’s voice.

“However,” said Don Camillo, “it can’t hurt to be a little prepared.”

And he went off to the rectory garden to find other hiding places for the weapons he didn’t have yet but was certain to come across soon enough.

Just in case.
________________________________________________________________

The Alcyon was a real motorcycle; that particular model does NOT look sleek and racy like some other hotrods of its time, but it was sturdy and trustworthy even on rough terrain (very few European roads were made of asphalt at the time, and most of the main ones were cement).

Also, this is a bit of a mix between books and films, so while I don’t point out the town’s name very often, I still think of it as Brescello, even with the fictional frazioni (hamlets) of Molinetto, Crocilone, etc.; besides, it helps with the general geography and how it affects timing (the same way I based my Hogan’s Heroes stories near the actual Hammelburg, Germany). Roccaverde is an invention, though. I needed a little village/hamlet in the mountains and it seemed like a good name for it.

Don Camillo bringing his WW1 field altar to celebrate Masses in the mountains with Peppone’s band is canon and one of the things that made me want to write this story :o)

Okay, I think the formatting's mostly good - and I didn't spend half as much time as I did last entry! Yay :D Scratch that, I spent a long time. Urgh :-/
 
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