Thursday, November 8, 2018

Veteran's Day 2018: 100th Anniversary of the Armistice Part 1

I have always focused my Veteran's Day blog post on WW1 & post-WW1 era LGBT stories so with 2018 being the 100th anniversary of the Amistice, this year's posts features a collection of my favorite WW1/post-war era M/M romances and gay fiction.  These are stories that even if you don't normally read LGBTQ+ genre or generally not a fan of historicals, I highly recommend and think you will still enjoy.  They are tales of strength, resilience, overcoming adversity, they will break your heart one minute and warm the soul the next.  Along the way Armistice Day became Veteran's Day and we need to honor all veterans every day but somewhere in the name switch many forget why November 11 is important, why that date was chosen.  So as the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month approaches remember why this date was chosen and why we should never forget those who served in the Great War.

Part 2  /  Part 3

Pack Up Your Troubles by Charlie Cochrane
An officer thinks he finds love in the trenches, but is it really waiting for him on the home front?

A doctor and an army chaplain spend the night in a foxhole and discover there’s hope even in the darkest situations

And an old soldier discovers that there are romantic problems to solve even after you’ve cashed in your chips.

Original Review August 2018:
Pack Up Your Troubles is an amazing collection by an author that really understands and respects the significance of history.  I know its not everyone's cup of tea but Charlie Cochrane has a way about her that makes it entertaining even while making the reader grasp what these men dealt with and it takes true talent to not turn it into a school lesson, which is what Miss Cochrane has in spades.  Pack Up Your Troubles is a WW1-themed trio that I will definitely be re-visiting for years to come.

This Ground Which was Secured at Great Expense
I've read this one before and loved it then and I loved it even more the second time.  You can't help but want to shake Nicholas and Paul for not speaking up when they have the chance but then you remember its WW1 and it wasn't so easy or legal back then to love who you wanted to.  I love watching Nicholas grow and yet still retain the same befuddled innocence when he came home on leave.  Will they ever find the happiness neither seems strong enough to reach for?  You have to read for yourself for that answer but watching them get from point A to point Z makes for a lovely entertaining and heartwarming read.

Hallowed Ground
Won't say too much about this one because it truly is a short story but one that definitely earned its place in my heart.  A little ditty about realization and friendship.  When two people are brought together under fire, a bond is formed like no other.  We may never know what fate had in store for these two men or if anything beyond this night occurred but witnessing their time in the foxhole makes for lovely reading.

Music in the Midst of Desolation
This one is why I said "WW1-themed" above, because it is a combination of historical and supernatural in a mostly-contemporary setting.  Some might say it doesn't really fit with the other two in the collection because of the contemporary setting but I think its a perfect way to end the collection.  "Old soldiers never die" "guardian angels are all around us" are sayings and ideas that have become cliché over the years but just because they are cliché doesn't mean they aren't comforting.  I may have wished we had a little more definite answer as to what happened to some of the characters in this one but at the same time I found it comforting and peaceful knowing that they found a place where happiness is not out of their reach.

Overall Collection Thoughts:
Whether you are a historical fan like me or you tend to shy away from stories about the past, Pack Up Your Troubles is a lovely read that will make you smile, laugh, shed a tear or two, but mostly it just warmed the heart.  If you've never read Charlie Cochrane before or at least none of her historicals than this is the perfect place to begin.

Original Home Fires Burning Review containing This Ground Which was Secrued at Great Expense February 2015:
Both tales are amazing.  It's the simplest and easiest way to describe it.  In This Ground Which Was Secured At Great Expense, you can't help but feel what Nicholas is going through.  Not only is he dealing with the heartaches of war but he's also has his heart set on a man he didn't reveal his feelings for before leaving.  He's given a chance at exploring physical love when he has a new tent mate in Phillip.  In The Case of the Overprotective Ass, we see 2 actors entertaining post WW2 audiences with Sherlock & Holmes but they are given a chance to play detectives for real. Alastair and Toby share similarities with Miss Cochrane's famed Orlando and Jonty from her Cambridge Fellows series, but they are definitely their own pair.  Both tales, although shorter than what I would like, are most enjoyable and very entertaining reads. 


The Door Behind Us by John C Houser
It’s 1919, and Frank Huddleston has survived the battlefields of the Great War. A serious head injury has left him with amnesia so profound he must re-learn his name every morning from a note posted on the privy door.

Gerald “Jersey" Rohn, joined the Army because he wanted to feel like a man, but he returned from the trenches minus a leg and with no goal for his life. He’s plagued by the nightmare of his best friend’s death and has nervous fits, but refuses to associate those things with battle fatigue. He can't work his father's farm, so he takes a job supervising Frank, who is working his grandparents’ farm despite his head injury.

When Frank recovers enough to ask about his past, he discovers his grandparents know almost nothing about him, and they’re lying about what they do know. The men set out to discover Frank's past and get Jersey a prosthesis. They soon begin to care for each other, but they'll need to trust their hearts and put their pasts to rest if they are to turn attraction into a loving future.

Original Review May 2015:
This is an amazing story of love, friendship, and overcoming both physical and emotional difficulties.  Added on top of all that, it was a time when a gay relationship was not only shunned but illegal.  Jersey and Frank both have their own issues to overcome that linger after returning from the war, alone they just manage to "get by" but together they find strength to not only get by but also grow and overcome.  I loved the way the author dealt with their individual issues and meshed them together at the same time.  Not all the characters are likeable but they aren't suppose to be and the author writes them in a way that is understandable, at times leaves the reader wanting to shake them till they realize what they are saying and doing could do with some rethinking.  A definite must for those who love historicals and for those that enjoy a good romance and character study, because you just might find something that makes today a little brighter, I know I did.


Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon
France, 1916. The Great War. High above the carnage in the trenches, British and German aces joust like knights of old for control of the skies. The strain and tension of living every day on the edge of death leads to dangerous choices and wild risks. When British ace Bat Bryant's past catches up with him, he strikes out in panic and kills the man threatening him with exposure. But there's a witness: the big, handsome American pilot Cowboy Cooper.

Cowboy, it seems, has his own ideas of rough justice.

2nd Re-Read Review November 2018:
There is something about WW1 stories that always break my heart, even if it is a HEA of HFN, the lives lost alone is enough pain but with an M/M genre story there is an extra level of heartache added just because of the hiding they had to do.  So when I find a story like Out of the Blue, even as my heart hurts for the conditions the characters are living in, when I can still smile, laugh, and reach the final page for the third time and know it won't be the last time then I know I have definitely found a keeper.

Re-Read Review 2016:
I have upped my rating to 5 with my re-read.  Since reading it the first time 2 years ago, I have come to have a deeper respect for novellas and don't knock off 1/2 a bookmark just for it's shortness.  As for the story, it was fantabulous!!  I am a huge lover of WW1 stories so that just added to my enjoyment.  Even knowing how the story goes, Cowboy's actions and attitude still left me reeling but loved every ounce of him.

Original Review 2014:
This story is several of my favorite genres all rolled into one: historical, male/male relationships, romance, drama, and erotica. With main characters named Bat and Cowboy you expect to be dropped in the middle of a western, which by the way is also a favorite genre of mine, but this time author has brought her way with words to the airfield of World War One. Now, I won't lie, the first time you meet Cowboy you're not real sure if you are suppose to like him or not but we quickly find out that there's more to him than he first lets on. The only reason I gave this a 4-1/2 bookmark instead of 5 is because I would have loved for it to have been longer. Simply put, I was just not ready to let go of this pair when the final page came. Once again, I was not let down by Ms. Lanyon's work.


On Wings of Song by Anne Barwell
Six years after meeting British soldier Aiden Foster during the Christmas Truce of 1914, Jochen Weber still finds himself thinking about Aiden, their shared conversation about literature, and Aiden’s beautiful singing voice. A visit to London gives Jochen the opportunity to search for Aiden, but he’s shocked at what he finds.

The uniform button Jochen gave him is the only thing Aiden has left of the past he’s lost. The war and its aftermath ripped everything away from him, including his family and his music. When Jochen reappears in his life, Aiden enjoys their growing friendship but knows he has nothing to offer. Not anymore.

Original Review April 2015:
This is a beautifully written tale of a chance meeting becoming something more.  Not all chance meetings are instant bonds but when Aiden and Jochen find themselves talking over literature during the WW1 Christmas truce, it's pretty obvious that bond is real and the author conveys that in a way that is beautiful and believable.  If you love historical fiction than this is a must for your reading list and even if they aren't your typical fare, I still highly recommend this great story.  It's the first time I've read this author but it won't be the last.


Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane
France, 1915

Lieutenant Tom Donald envies everything about fellow officer Frank Foden—his confidence, his easy manner with the men in the trenches, the affectionate letters from his wife. Frank shares these letters happily, drawing Tom into a vicarious friendship with a woman he's never met. Although the bonds of friendship forged under fire are strong, Tom can't be so open with Frank—he's attracted to men and could never confess that to anyone.

When Frank is killed in no-man's-land, he leaves behind a mysterious request for Tom: to deliver a sealed letter to a man named Palmer. Tom undertakes the commission while on leave—and discovers that almost everything he thought he knew about Frank is a lie…

Re-Read Review November 2018:
Having read my original review there really isn't much I can add here.  Promises Made Under Fire is about friendships and balancing what we think we know and what we find out.  Watching Tom face that scale is equally heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Charlie Cochrane has a knack for not only setting the scene when it comes to WW1 era stories but also perfectly blending realism, fiction, not making the story into a school lesson, and doing it all while completely entertaining the reader. Her respect for the era comes alive with Tom's journey of discovery and that only furthers to heighten my love of the story and I'm already looking forward to the next re-read.

Original Review November 2016:
Sometimes life throws us on an unexpected journey that may appear unwanted but leads us exactly where we should be and Promises Made Under Fire is a prime example of just that.  When Tom's friend and fellow officer Frank is killed he finds a letter left to him asking him to visit Frank's mother.  When Tom is home and visits he finds more questions than answers but when he finally discovers the answers will they be what he expected, will they bring him some unexpected happiness, or will they throw everything he thought he knew about his friend for a loop?  For those answers, you will have to read Promises for yourself and trust me you won't be disappointed.  Once again, Charlie Cochrane takes us into the era of The Great War with scenes of the frontlines and the homefront, she does it with such devotion to detail that you feel you are right there.  Whether you are a history lover or not, if you love a good story with believable characters than you will definitely want to add this one to your reading list.


The Door Behind Us by John C Houser
Chapter 1
THE YOUNG man still had a dressing over one ear and a crust of blood inside one nostril. The doctor paged through the chart. Notations recorded progress as good as could be expected for such a recent amputee. “Mind if I look?” He pulled back the sheet and noted the wound drained normally. “How’d he rest last night?”

The resident pulled at his narrow tie. “Poorly. He was yelling and thrashing around. That’s why I asked for you to look in.”

“Hmm. Has he been given anything to help him sleep?”

“No, he even tried to refuse the morphine.”

“That’s interesting.” He watched the steady rise and fall of the muscular chest. “He’s a sergeant. Was he a squad leader? Do you know what happened to him?”

The resident shook his head, yawning. “Nope. He hasn’t said much.”

“Does he know about the leg?”

“We told him there was too much nerve damage.”

“The nightmares started before the surgery?”

“Before.” The resident yawned again. “From the first night he was here.”

“There’s not much I can do for him until he wakes up. You’ll have me paged?”

Chapter 2
FRANK CAME into the barn sniffing the air like the scent might tell him whether the place was dangerous.

“About time you got here. Saw the note, I take it? Any questions?” Charlie watched the boy take in the stone barn, from hayloft to the three-legged stool where he sat. “Questions?” he prompted the boy a second time.

Cocking his head as if sorting through a stack of mental index cards, the boy eventually picked a pair of questions. “What happened to me? Why can’t I remember?”

“You received a head injury, maybe from a shell explosion. That’s what the quacks at the hospital told us. But that doesn’t answer your question, does it? Why don’t you remember anything? I don’t know. Here, grab a bucket. I expect your hands remember how to milk a cow, even if your head don’t.” Charlie watched the boy’s hand creep upward to touch his head. “Queenie knows you, even if you don’t know her.”

Frank picked up a bucket hesitantly.

Charlie nodded at a Jersey cow that stamped impatiently at her stanchion. “She’s waiting.”

What was it like for the boy to discover who he was every morning from a note tacked to the door of the privy? If the boy had any feelings about it, he never told Charlie.

THE BOY discovered the note after waking in an unfamiliar room. Pale light filtered through a dusty window at the end of a tunnellike dormer. Feeling exposed even under a woolen blanket, he slid to the floor and rolled part way underneath the bed. More comfortable with the solid frame looming over him, he stayed for a time, staring upward. As the light strengthened, he let his gaze follow the lines of wood grain in the window frame. The builder of this house had cut matching pieces for the verticals, their patterns mirrored on either side of the window.

Eventually he rose and struggled out of the tangled bedclothes. A small writing desk, cluttered with loose sheets of writing paper, a fountain pen, and an inkpot, was tucked into the dormer. A stack of unopened envelopes lay next to the writing supplies. The first was postmarked in July of 1918, and the last in October of the same year. Why didn’t this fellow, Francis Huddleston, open his mail?

Gut fluttering like an anxious bird, he peered under the bed for a chamber pot. Finding none, he rushed down to the second floor looking for a toilet or the way to the privy. Steps led down toward either end of the house. The set in the back were coarse and painted rather than finished, a servant’s stair. He knew the term, even if he didn’t know where he’d learned it. Down again, he found a large kitchen and heavy door framed in pantry shelves. He ran out into the yard. A well-worn path led to a small, clapboard structure with high windows. A minute later, as he tried not to breathe the acrid stink, he noticed a ruled sheet of writing paper tacked to the door in front of him. GOOD MORNING was blocked out in square letters.

Your name is Francis “Frank” Huddleston. You are a soldier, returned from the war in Europe. The white-haired man milking the cows in the barn is your grandfather, Charlie Clark. He will welcome your help with the chores. When you return from the barn, the gray-haired woman in the kitchen will give you breakfast. She is your grandmother, Edith “Eddy” Clark.

Charlie continued to milk his own cow and watched as Frank began to squeeze a stream of milk from Queenie’s teats, the familiar act calming the boy. Soon the milk squirted steadily, and Frank fell into a kind of trance, his movements automatic, until a diminishing stream and restless stamp from Queenie signaled time to change to a new pair of teats. Shifting to a new set, he rested his head against Queenie’s side and continued mechanically.

Charlie finished first and went to stand behind the boy. When Frank was done, he placed his hands on his knees and looked around. Charlie held his breath and watched Frank’s face. But there was only a tightening around Frank’s mouth and a narrowed gaze. Charlie sighed and placed a hand on Frank’s shoulder. “It’s all right, boy. I’m your grandfather, Charlie Clark. You’re Frank Huddleston, come home from the war with a head injury. That’s why you don’t know me. Let’s go in and meet your grandmother. She’ll give us something to eat. Are you hungry? Don’t forget your bucket.”

EDDY’S SPOTTED hands twisted in her lap as she spoke. “Charlie isn’t a young man anymore. You’re a great worker, Frank, but it’s the forgetting. With one of us staying with you all the time to answer your questions, we can’t….”

Frank fidgeted in his chair and let his gaze wander over the worn fixtures and scarred wood of the kitchen. He wondered if they would ask him to leave, the strangers who had fed him for months, judging from the thick wad of notes in his hand. Would their faces ever be familiar?

“… so Charlie and I, we’ve posted a notice at the Grange Hall. We hope to have someone here by the harvest.”

Frank became aware the room had fallen silent—except for the tap dripping in the sink and the birds calling outside. Eddy and Charlie. They watched him closely as if they expected something, as if they were unsure of his response. He didn’t know why. Eddy’s careful announcement seemed to have little to do with him.

“Will you hire someone I knew… before?”

“No, Frank. You were with your parents in Philadelphia before the war. Nobody around here knows you.” Charlie looked away. His voice took on a rote quality. “They thought you might be more comfortable here with us while you recovered.”

“Will the new person stay with me or work with you?”

Charlie rubbed fingers across his forehead like he was trying to erase the wrinkles there, but Eddy answered in firm tones. “We have to be careful with our money, Frank. It may be cheaper to hire somebody to keep an eye on you and to help you remember when you have one of your spells. Charlie will work around the house.”

Frank fingered his notes again. “So… you want me to keep feeding the horses and milking the cows?”

“Yes, you’ll do that and other work as well.”

“Now, Eddy.” Charlie’s voice was gentle. “The boy’s still recovering. I’m not dead yet.”

“He’s strong as a bull, Charlie.”

“I don’t mind doing more, if that’s what you want.” Frank shifted from face to face until he focused on the sharp furrows at the side of Eddy’s mouth. “Just tell me what you want.”

“That’s what the new man will do,” Eddy said, looking at Charlie.

Charlie’s gaze dropped to his callused hands.

Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon
France, November 1916
“Don’t be too hasty, Captain Bryant,” Orton warned. “Not like I’m asking a king’s ransom. Not like you can’t find the ready, eh? What’s a couple a bob ’ere and there? Could ’ave gone to the major, but I didn’t, did I? Not one word to ’im about what you and poor Lieutenant Roberts used to —”

Bat punched him.

He was not as tall as the mechanic, but he was wiry and strong, and his fist connected to Orton’s jaw with a satisfying crack. Orton’s head snapped back. He staggered, tripped over something in the shadowy darkness of the stable, and went down slamming against the side of the stall.

The elderly dappled gray mare whickered softly. Leaning over the stall door, she lipped at Orton’s fallen form.

For a second, perhaps two, Bat stood shaking with rage — and grief.
“Get up, you swine,” he bit out.

Orton’s head lay out of reach of the uneven lamplight, but his limbs were still — and something in that broken stillness alerted Bat.

He moved the lantern and the light illuminated Orton’s face. The man’s head was turned at an unnatural angle — watery eyes staring off into the loft above them.

Bat smothered an exclamation. Knelt beside Orton’s body.

The mare raised her head, nickering greeting. The lantern light flickered as though in a draft. He could see every detail in stark relief: the blue black bristle on the older man’s jaw, the flecks of gray in his mustache, oil and dirt beneath his fingernails.

There was a little speck of blood at the corner of his mouth where Bat’s ring had cut him. But he was not bleeding. Was not breathing.
Bat put fingers to Orton’s flaccid throat and felt for a pulse.
There was no pulse.

Sid Orton was dead.

Bat rose. Gazed down at the body.

Christ. It seemed...unreal.

He was used to thinking swiftly, making life-and-death decisions for the entire squadron with only seconds to spare, but he could think of nothing. He’d have to go to the CO. Chase would have to go to the Red Caps...

Bat wiped his forehead with his sleeve. First he’d need to come up with some story — some reason for what he’d done. Gene mustn’t be dragged into it. No one could know about Gene and him. Wasn’t only Gene’s name at stake. There was Bat’s own family and name to think of. This ... just this ... murder ... was liable to finish the old man.

He couldn’t seem to think beyond it. Disgrace. Dishonor.

He ought to feel something for Orton, surely? Pity. Remorse. He didn’t. He hadn’t meant to kill him, but Orton was no loss. Not even an awfully good mechanic. And Bat had killed better men than Orton — ten at last count — for much worse reason.

A miserable specimen, Orton.

But you couldn’t murder a chap for that.

Gaze riveted on the ink stain on the frayed cuff of Orton’s disheveled uniform, Bat tried to force his sluggish brain to action. Yes, he needed a story before he went to the major. More, he had to convince himself of it — get it straight in every detail — in case he was cross-examined. Mustn’t get tripped up.

If only he had ignored Orton’s note ... Why the devil hadn’t he?

“You waiting for him to tell you what to do?” a voice asked laconically from behind him.

Bat jerked about.

Cowboy leaned against the closed stable door. His eyes glinted in the queer light. Bright. Almost feral as he watched from the half shadows.

“P-pardon?” Bat asked stupidly.

“If you don’t plan on getting jugged by the MPs, you better get a move on.”

It was as though he were speaking to Bat in a foreign language. Granted, Cowboy was a Yank — a Texan, at that — and did take a bit of translation at the best of times.

Bat said, “I don’t — what d’you mean? I-I shall have to report this.”

“Why’s that?” Cowboy left his post at the door and came to join him. Oddly, it gave Bat comfort, Cowboy’s broad shoulder brushing his own. Together they stared down at Orton’s body.

Already he had changed. His face had a waxy, sunken look. The smell of death mingled with kerosene and horse and hay.

Bat’s stomach gave a sudden lurch and he moved away, leaning over a rusted harrow. But there was nothing to vomit. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Hadn’t eaten since Gene bought his packet and crashed in flames in the woods of the estate his family once owned near Hesdin.

Instead, he hung white-knuckled onto the rough metal frame heaving dry, empty coughs and nothing coming out but a few exhausted tears. Not for Orton. For Gene.

“You better pull yourself together, boy,” Cowboy told him when the worst of it was over. Listening distantly to that terse voice, Bat knew he was right. He shuddered all over. Forced himself upright, blinking at the American.

Cowboy was a big man. Several inches taller than Bat. Broad shoulders and narrow hips. Long legs. Must be the way they grew them in Texas. Cowboy certainly fit Bat’s notion — based entirely on the works of Zane Grey and Max Brand — of a man of the West. He’d been attached to the RFC for about two months. Which was a bloody long time in this war. Several lifetimes, really.

The old mare stretched her long neck and nibbled at the collar of Cowboy’s tunic. He patted her absently and drawled, “Orton was a sidewinder. A low-down, miserable piece of shit pretending to be a man. He wasn’t even a very good mechanic. Whatever else you might be, you’re one hell of a pilot. And the RFC is running short on pilots these days. Let alone aces.”

Bat blinked at him, wiped his face again. He felt hot and cold, sick and sweaty. He felt as though he were coming down with something — something fatal. He was unable to think beyond the thing at their feet. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying what the hell’s the point of you going to jail for killing that skunk? Anyway, I saw what happened. It was an accident. You slugged him and he fell and hit his head.”

“It’s still...” But he didn’t finish it. He felt a flicker of hope. “You’ll back me up then? When I go to Major Chase?”

“I don’t think you want to do that.”

Too right there. Bat didn’t. But...

“How are you going to explain what he said that got you so mad you punched him? Or what the hell you were doing in the stables this time of night?”

Before Bat thought of an answer — assuming he’d have come up with one — Cowboy added, “I guess Orton ain’t the only one who ever noticed you and Lieutenant Roberts were kinda sweet on each other.”

Bat lunged, and Cowboy sidestepped, grabbing him and twisting his arm behind his back in a wrestling move they never taught in any officer’s training course Bat had received. It was fast and efficient. Pain shot through his shoulder and arm and he stopped struggling, sagging against Cowboy. The American was so big, so powerfully built, it was easy to underestimate how fast he was when he needed to be. Not least because he never seemed to be in a hurry. He spoke in a lazy drawl and moved with easy, loose-limbed grace. Even when he flew into battle, he picked off enemy planes as though he were potting birds off a branch with a rifle. As though he had all the time in the world.

Listening to the calm, strong thud of Cowboy’s heart, Bat thought dizzily that this was the closest he’d come to being in a man’s arms ever again.

Cowboy’s voice vibrated in his chest as he intoned, “Never realized you had such a temper, Captain Bryant. One of these days it’s going to land you in a fix you can’t get out of.”

Bat yanked free and Cowboy let him go.

“Not tonight, though.”

Bat rubbed his wrist where Cowboy’s fingers had dug into the tendons. “What d’you mean?”

“I mean, if you can simmer down long enough to listen, I’m going to help you.”

“Help me how?”

Cowboy wasn’t looking at Bat. He stared down at Orton’s body. Thoughtfully, as though only making his mind up to it, he said, “I’m going to get rid of him once and for all.”


“Never mind how. It’ll be better if you don’t know. Go back to the mess, and make sure everyone sees you. Close the place down. Then head up to your quarters. Understand?”

The flicker of hope flared. Bat knew a cowardly longing to do exactly as Cowboy instructed. Leave it to him, go get blind drunk, then retire to bed and forget any of this happened.

He forced himself to say, “Awfully good of you, old chap, but you must see I can’t ... can’t let you do this.”

Amused, Cowboy retorted, “You don’t even know what I’m going to do, old chap, so why argue about it?”

He was staring at Bat, smiling that funny crooked grin of his. Bat had never noticed how blue Cowboy’s eyes were. Blue as the sky — back when the sky was empty of anything worse than clouds — light and bright in his deeply tanned face. His hair was soft gold. Palomino gold.

Helplessly, Bat said, “Why should you do this? Why should you help me? I haven’t been ... it’s not as though...”

“You’ve acted like a stuck-up sonofabitch since the day I arrived, is that what you were going to say?” Cowboy asked easily. “Not a member of your old boys’ club, am I? Well, I guess it could be that I like you anyway. Or it could be having you around makes my life easier — ’cept days like today when you seem bent on getting yourself blown out of the sky.”

His gaze held Bat’s, and there wasn’t anything Bat could say. Today. Yes. What a long time ago it seemed.

If Cowboy hadn’t been there today ... Sid Orton would still be alive.

“Git,” Cowboy said softly. “I’ll find you later.”

And so ... Bat got.

On Wings of Song by Anne Barwell
Chapter One
JOCHEN WEBER pulled his greatcoat around him and continued watching the scene in front of him. It had snowed the night before, the ground a blanket of white, a refuge for those who had survived the last few days. Stark contrast to the devastation of clay, mud, and ruined brick that lay beneath.

Men who had shot at each other mere hours before now kicked a ball around a supposed no man’s land—the forbidden area between their trenches and those of the enemy. The lines between friend and enemy had blurred: British, German, and French soldiers spent Christmas together in Flanders, Belgium.

“Come join us, Jochen!” Arndt Dahl yelled. “Put your book down.”

Jochen waved but didn’t move. “I haven’t even started reading it,” he muttered. Reading was more appealing than the game. He’d never really understood why men felt the need to kick a ball around, and preferred to lose himself in the words that came alive on the page.

He caught a movement from the corner of his eye and turned. A young Englishman stood about a meter away, watching Jochen with something akin to curiosity. He didn’t look much older than Jochen, who was barely twenty. The private, like himself—Jochen recognized the British insignia—was several centimeters taller than Jochen, with dark hair and the most amazing dark brown eyes. He smiled shyly, and Jochen couldn’t help but return the gesture.

“Frohe Weihnachten,” Jochen said quietly, not sure what else to say. “I mean, Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” the man said. His voice had a musical quality to it, strong but not as deep as Jochen expected. “I thought this war would be over and we’d be home by Christmas. We all did.”

“Perhaps we won’t be fighting for much longer?” Jochen voiced the hope he mainly kept to himself. “After all, if we can find peace at Christmas, maybe it will last. The war has only been going four months, but it feels much longer.” He held out his hand. “Excuse my manners. I’m Jochen. Jochen Weber.”

The man shook Jochen’s hand. “Aiden Foster.” Aiden shook himself as though waking from a dream. “I’m sorry. I still can’t believe what’s happened. We’re supposed to be on opposite sides. You Jerries are nothing like I expected.” He flushed bright red. “I just insulted you, didn’t I?”

Jochen chuckled. “That depends on what you expected.” He shrugged. “You’re not what I expected either, although I didn’t really believe that you Tommies were as bad as we’ve been told. Not if your Mr. Dickens is to be believed.”

“You’re reading Dickens?” Aiden looked surprised. “Your English is very good.” He grimaced. “Probably much better than my German.”

“Thank you. There were books I wanted to read that hadn’t been translated into German. It was quite the incentive, although I’ve also been told I’m too impatient.” Jochen tapped the side of the book in his hand. “I have read Dickens, but this is Goethe.” He lowered his voice. “Reading a British author in English while in a German trench during a war against his countrymen is probably not very sensible.”

“About as sensible as a Tommy and a Jerry discussing literature on what is supposed to be a battlefield?” The side of Aiden’s mouth twitched.

Jochen laughed. “Exactly.” He liked Aiden already. The man was easy to talk to and had a good sense of humor. One of the soccer balls headed straight for them. Jochen stepped between Aiden and the ball and caught it. “The goal’s that way!” he yelled, pointing to a pile of sandbags a few meters away.

“You could always come and play!” Arndt laughed. He sounded happy, more so than he’d been over the last few months. He missed home, and in particular his girlfriend, Lisel.

“Don’t let me stop you, if you want to join in.” Aiden watched the ball for a few moments.

“Do you want to?” Jochen asked.

Aiden shook his head. “I’ve never been one for football or any game really.” He turned to Jochen. “But as I said, don’t let that stop you.”

“I’d prefer to continue our conversation.” Jochen kept his voice light, but truth be known, he found Aiden rather intriguing. “Besides, this war could go on for a while, and I could not honestly pass by an opportunity to discuss Dickens.”

“I’m more into Tennyson and Keats,” Aiden admitted. “I’ve read one of Dickens’s books, but never got around to the rest.”

Jochen gave him a look of mock horror. “Only one? Which one?”

“David Copperfield. Have you read it?”

“No, I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy.” Jochen studied Aiden. “So… Tennyson, hmm? Anything in particular?”

“Idylls of the King,” Aiden said without hesitation. “A storm was coming but the winds were still. And in the wild woods of Broceliande, before an oak, so hollow, huge and old it look’d a tower of ruin’d masonwork, at Merlin’s feet the wily Vivien lay.” He trailed off. “That’s the first stanza of ‘Vivien.’ It’s one I keep coming back to because of the war. It’s like the storm, but today the winds are still, or we wouldn’t be talking like this…. Oh Lord, I’m rambling, aren’t I? Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Jochen assured him. “You make it sound so lyrical. I’ve never read much in the way of British poetry in English, and the flow of it is often lost in translation.”

“I like poetry.” Aiden shrugged, the fire in his eyes fading a little as he retreated back into himself. “It reminds me of music, I guess.”

“I’ve heard it described as music without… the notes.” Jochen hoped that didn’t sound as foolish as he was certain it did. “Are you a musician?”

“Music without the notes.” Aiden sounded thoughtful. “I like that.” He smiled, and his expression softened. Did he realize how breathtaking he was when he smiled? “Yes, I am a musician. I’ve loved music for as long as I remember.”

“What do you play? I love music, although I don’t play anything.” Jochen’s grandmother had attempted to teach him the violin. It had been a disaster, and for months afterward their cat had taken one look at him going anywhere near the instrument, howled, and run away.

“I sing.” Aiden looked a little embarrassed. He studied his boots. “I’ve been with the Avery Theatre for about two years. Or I was until this bloody war.”

“Avery Theatre?” Jochen asked.

“In London’s West End.” Aiden continued to stare at the ground. “It’s a music hall, so there’s a bit of acting involved too.”

“And the shows are focused on the snow?” Performing on stage would take a great deal of confidence. Jochen wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to. Or want to.

“Huh?” Aiden looked up.

“You keep looking at the snow.”

“No! I mean….” Aiden sighed. “I’m not very good at talking about myself. I hate it.”

“Yet you perform on stage?” Jochen tried to imagine a confident Aiden on stage, wooing the audience.

“Yes, but that’s not me. Not really. When I sing, it’s not me, it’s a… role.” Aiden shrugged again.

“It’s still you,” Jochen said firmly. “Be proud of who you are, Aiden. Of what you can do, and of what you want to achieve.” Those were his father’s words, spoken to Jochen as a child, but he’d never forgotten them. Why was he repeating them to a man he barely knew?

“Thank you.” Aiden frowned and tilted his head to the side. “There’s something going on over there.” He gestured to the end of the makeshift soccer field. A group of men were talking together—a mix of German, British, and French officers. “I can’t hear what they’re saying, though. Can you?”

Jochen strained to hear, but he couldn’t make it out either. “We could always go find out,” he suggested, slipping his book into the pocket of his greatcoat.

“It looks as though we won’t have to,” Aiden said. “They’ve finished talking and are coming this way.”

Jochen stood to attention as his commanding officer approached. Hauptmann Grünberg was accompanied by two other men of equivalent rank—the commanding officers of the British and French troops.

“This is Captain Williams and Capitaine Brodeur,” said Grünberg in English. He was a good man, and fair. His men respected him. “Given this truce, we have decided to work together to bury our dead. As you are fluent in German and English, Weber, I’m counting on you to help spread the word.”

“Foster, find Mills and organize shrouds and stretcher-bearers.” Williams glanced back toward the barbed-wire fences in front of the British trenches. “It’s a chance to give our chaps and theirs a decent burial.”

“Yes, sir.” Aiden saluted his commanding officer, took one last look at Jochen, then headed toward the group of men socializing nearby. He spoke briefly to a red-haired man. Several others overheard and joined the conversation, offering to help.

Jochen had the same response when he approached men in his own troops. They’d all lost friends and comrades over the last few weeks, and their bodies were still lying out there, decaying under the snow.

THEY BURIED their comrades in silence. Jochen offered to dig graves for both sides. The ache in his arms took his mind off what they were doing. Not completely, yet enough to numb his emotions so he could pretend he was able to ignore them. Until now, he’d known logically these men were dead, but seeing their sightless eyes and still bodies, often with limbs missing or at odd angles, made him shiver. He’d have nightmares about it soon enough.

He leaned on his shovel and closed his eyes for a moment. A light touch on his shoulder jerked him back to attention.

“It’s not easy, is it?” Aiden said softly. He nodded toward the grave Jochen had just dug. Jochen realized the man in it was a British soldier. He’d dug so many graves he’d lost track of what side they’d been on. They’d all worked together to get the job done.

“It’s not meant to be.” Jochen watched the plain wooden cross being hammered into the ground. Someone had made crosses from old biscuit boxes. Others had taken it upon themselves to collect identity discs from the corpses so their families could be informed. “Did you know him?”

Aiden shook his head. “No. There are so many men I didn’t get the chance to know. And so many I did know who are now dead.” His voice shook. “We’ve lost so many already. How many more deaths will there be before this bloody war is over?”

“Too many.” Jochen picked up his shovel. They finally seemed to be getting to the end of the burials, at least for now. These men would have the luxury of a grave, but how many more would not?

“I’m not sure who wins a war.” Aiden glanced around, his gaze resting briefly on Captain Williams, who was far enough away so their conversation wouldn’t be overheard. He lowered his voice. “Why are we fighting, Jochen? I joined up because it was supposed to be the right thing to do. I was going to do my bit for king and country, and save Britain from you Jerries.”

“I’m thinking the same thing,” Jochen admitted. “I….” He swallowed and gripped the handle of his shovel tightly, his knuckles white. “Have you seen a man caught on the wire?”

It was an image he’d never get out of his mind. The soldier was younger than Jochen by a few months. They’d chatted briefly when Jochen had joined their unit. Conrad had been a student at Göttingen University, studying literature, so they’d had that in common. He’d had fire in his eyes when he’d spoken of his love for the subject, of his dreams for his future. An hour into the attack on Ypres he was dead. Hanging on the wire, unable to get free while shells rained down around him. Caught in the crossfire, the lower half of his body blown away a few moments later.

Jochen had vomited when he’d seen it—what was left of Conrad wasn’t really him. Jochen couldn’t believe it was. He didn’t want to. His stomach still churned at the memory of it. He’d wanted to run at the time, to pretend the whole thing was just some kind of sick nightmare, a landscape of death brought on by something dark lingering deep in his own mind.

It wasn’t.

“I’ve seen it,” Aiden said quietly. “I wish to God I hadn’t.” He looked directly at Jochen. Jochen met Aiden’s gaze. He’d seen an echo of Conrad’s fire in Aiden when he’d talked about his music earlier that afternoon.

“Don’t die on the wire, Aiden.”

“I’ll try not to.” Aiden’s words were an empty promise. They both knew it, but what else was he going to say?

The red-haired man Aiden had spoken to about arranging the burials walked over to him. He too held a shovel, and he wiped perspiration from his brow despite the cold. “There’s going to be a combined service for the dead,” he told them. “In about ten minutes in no man’s land in front of the French trenches.”

As they made their way over, men were already beginning to gather, soldiers from opposite sides sitting together, conversation dwindling to a respectful silence. A British chaplain stood in front of them, a Bible in his hand, a German beside him. Jochen recognized him, although he didn’t know his name. The young man was only a few years older than Jochen and was studying for the ministry—would he ever get the chance to complete those studies?

Jochen and Aiden found somewhere to sit a few rows back from the front and joined the company of men. The German spoke first. “Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel. Geheiligt werde dein Name.”

The British chaplain repeated the words in English. “Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy Name.”

They then spoke a few words each, some from the Bible, the rest from their hearts. Their congregation was silent apart from a few quiet “amens.” Jochen saw a couple of men wipe tears away. He was close to it himself.

Finally the chaplain bowed his head in prayer. When he’d finished, he spoke quietly to the man who had come to stand next to him. It was Captain Williams. He nodded and looked over the crowd, his gaze fixing on Aiden.

Aiden must have guessed what Williams wanted. He inclined his head in response and then stood. Jochen glanced between the two men, confused. What did Williams expect Aiden to do?

“Aiden?” Jochen asked softly.

Aiden smiled at him and began to sing. “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining….” He lifted his head, his voice strong and clear, each note building on the last to create something truly beautiful, something angelic. Aiden’s eyes shone; his body swayed slightly in time with the music. He was the music.

His audience sat in awe. Jochen could feel the emotion rippling through the men around him, tangible, as though he could reach out and touch it. He felt something inside himself reach out, wanting to be a part of it, to be carried along the wave of pure music, to grab it and never let go.

Finally Aiden sang the final verse, the notes fading as he came back to himself and sat down again next to Jochen. There was no applause, it wouldn’t have been appropriate, but Jochen could see men around them wiping tears. One man closed his eyes and gently moved from side to side as though he could still hear Aiden’s song.

Several minutes later, the congregation dispersed, heading back to their own trenches. Aiden began to stand. Jochen laid a hand on his arm. “Can we talk?” he asked. Tomorrow they’d probably be fighting again. He’d heard whisperings that the Staff were visiting the trenches that evening, that they weren’t impressed with the fraternization between their men and those of their enemies. But Jochen didn’t want to lose this magic, this brief friendship with Aiden, just yet.

“Of course.” Aiden seemed surprised at Jochen’s words. “What about?” He acted as though his performance hadn’t happened. He was merely a soldier, nothing more.

Jochen led Aiden back to where they’d first met. Men were still talking quietly in small groups, just as reluctant to return to the reality of the war as Jochen was.

“Your singing…,” Jochen said. “It was beautiful. It touched me, Aiden, took me away from everything.”

Aiden blushed. “It… it was nothing.”

Darkness was falling quickly. They didn’t have much time. “I wish we weren’t on opposite sides,” Jochen said. “I’d… perhaps in another life we would have been friends.”

“I would have liked that.” Aiden’s blush grew deeper. He swallowed. “Perhaps we are now, just for this day. I’ve never met anyone who listened to me the way you do. Not my music, but me.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Thank you.”

“I’ve never met anyone who listened to me like you do either,” Jochen said. It figured, didn’t it? He’d finally met someone who understood and it had to be a man he’d probably never see again. “I’ll take your song with me too. I doubt I’ll ever forget it.”

“What will you do after the war?” Aiden asked.

“Go back to my studies, I hope.” Jochen noticed Aiden spoke of a life after the war as though they’d both have one. “I want to teach, if I can. Will you return to the theater?”

Aiden nodded. “Yes. It’s my life, really. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“You should,” Jochen said. “Go back to it, I mean. People need music in their lives, especially music like yours.”

In the distance lanterns were being lit. The lights of the Christmas trees shone from the top of the German trenches—a glimmer of home. They were all far from home tonight.

Jochen hesitated. He didn’t want to say good-bye, to just walk away as though they’d never met. An idea struck him, a foolish one perhaps, but what else was there? He yanked off a button from his uniform, low down where it wouldn’t be immediately noticed. “Happy Christmas, Aiden,” he said, handing it to Aiden.

Aiden took it, their fingers brushing momentarily. A welcome warmth spread through Jochen. “Thank you,” Aiden said. He studied the button. “It’s different to ours,” he said. “A lion holding a shield. I like that.” He slid it into his pocket, then pulled one off his own uniform. “Happy Christmas, Jochen.”

“Thank you.” Jochen took the button Aiden offered. “You’re right. It is different.” It was inscribed with a crown, although made of brass like his. “I’ll keep it safe. I promise.”

“I’ll keep yours safe too,” Aiden said. “I promise.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Bloody war,” he said suddenly. “I don’t want to fight you, Jochen.” His voice shook. “Survive this insanity, and have a good life.”

Before Jochen could answer, Aiden spun on his heel and walked away. Jochen watched him go—back to the British trench, to the reality of death and killing, farther away from the sanctuary of his music, leaving behind a friendship that had been doomed before it had begun.

“I don’t want to fight you either,” Jochen said softly. He fingered the button in his pocket. “Survive this insanity, and have a good life too, Aiden. I won’t forget this. Or you.”

Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane
First light. A distant sound of something heavy being moved. A thin curtain of rain--the sort of misty, drizzly rain that soaked us through to the skin. Prospect of something for breakfast that might just pretend to be bacon and bread.

Good morning, France. An identical morning to yesterday and bound to be the same tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow, world without end, amen.

I looked up and down the trench. The small world I'd become bound in was now starting to rouse, stretching and facing a grey dawn. The men were stirring, so I had to get out my best stiff upper lip. If I showed how forlorn I felt, then what chance had I of inspiring them?

"Morning, sir." Bentham, nominally my officer's servant but in reality a cross between a nursemaid and a housemaster, popped up, smiling. "Breakfast won't be that long. You and Lieutenant Foden need something solid in your stomachs on a day like this."

"Aye." I nodded, not trusting myself to say anything else until I'd got my head on straight.

"Tea's ready, though." He thrust a steaming mug into my hands. Add telepathist to the list of his qualities. Maybe when I'd got some hot tea into me then the world might seem a slightly better place. "Quiet, last night."

"It was." I was going to have to enter into conversation whether I wanted to or not. "I don't like it when they're quiet. Always feel that Jerry's plotting something."

"He's probably plotting even when he's kicking up Bob's a dying."

"Bob's a dying?"

"Dancing and frolicking, sir. Not that I think Jerry has much time for fun." Bentham nodded, turned on his heels and went off, no doubt to make whatever we had in store for breakfast at least vaguely appetising. I took a swig of tea.

"Is it that bad?" Foden's voice sounded over my shoulder.

"Do you mean the tea or the day? You'll find out soon enough about the first and maybe sooner than we want about the second."

"The perennial ray of sunshine." He laughed. Only Frank Foden could find something to laugh about on mornings like these, when the damp towel of mist swaddled us.

"Try as I might, I can't quite summon up the enthusiasm to be a music-hall turn at this unearthly hour." I tried another mouthful of tea but even that didn't seem to be hitting the spot.

"If you're going to be all doom and gloom, can you hide the fact for a while? The colonel's coming today. He'll want to see 'everything jolly.'" The impersonation of Colonel Johnson's haughty, and slightly ridiculous, tones was uncanny. Trust Foden to hit the voice, spot on, even though his normal, chirpy London accent was nothing like Johnson's cut-glass drawl.

"Oh, he'll see it. So long as he doesn't arrive before I've had breakfast."

Foden slapped my back. "That's the ticket. Don't shatter the old man's illusions." He smiled, that smile potentially the only bright spot in a cold grey day. In a cold grey life. Frank kept me going, even on days when the casualty count or the cold or the wet made nothing seem worth living for anymore.

"How the hell can you always be so cheerful?"

"Because the alternative isn't worth thinking about. Why make things more miserable when there's a joke to crack?" They weren't empty words--that was how he seemed to live, always making the best of things. He wasn't like a lot of the other officers, plums in their mouths and no bloody use, really. The men loved him.

"I bet it's not raining at home."

Charlie Cochrane
As Charlie Cochrane couldn't be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice - like managing a rugby team - she writes. Her favourite genre is gay fiction, predominantly historical romances/mysteries, but she's making an increasing number of forays into the modern day. She's even been known to write about gay werewolves - albeit highly respectable ones.

Her Cambridge Fellows series of Edwardian romantic mysteries were instrumental in seeing her named Speak Its Name Author of the Year 2009. She’s a member of both the Romantic Novelists’ Association and International Thriller Writers Inc.

Happily married, with a house full of daughters, Charlie tries to juggle writing with the rest of a busy life. She loves reading, theatre, good food and watching sport. Her ideal day would be a morning walking along a beach, an afternoon spent watching rugby and a church service in the evening.

John C. HouserJohn C Houser
John C. Houser’s father, step-mother, and mother were all psychotherapists. When old enough, he escaped to Grinnell College, which was exactly halfway between his mother’s and father’s homes—and half a continent away from each. After graduation, he taught English for a year in Greece, attended graduate school, and eventually began a career of creating computer systems for libraries. Now he works in a strange old building that boasts a historic collection of mantelpieces–but no fireplaces.

Josh Lanyon
Bestselling author of over sixty titles of classic Male/Male fiction featuring twisty mystery, kickass adventure and unapologetic man-on-man romance, JOSH LANYON has been called "the Agatha Christie of gay mystery."

Her work has been translated into eleven languages. The FBI thriller Fair Game was the first male/male title to be published by Harlequin Mondadori, the largest romance publisher in Italy. Stranger on the Shore (Harper Collins Italia) was the first M/M title to be published in print. In 2016 Fatal Shadows placed #5 in Japan's annual Boy Love novel list (the first and only title by a foreign author to place on the list).

The Adrien English Series was awarded All Time Favorite Male Male Couple in the 2nd Annual contest held by the Goodreads M/M Group (which has over 22,000 members). Josh is an Eppie Award winner, a four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist for Gay Mystery, and the first ever recipient of the Goodreads Favorite M/M Author Lifetime Achievement award.

Josh is married and they live in Southern California.

Anne Barwell
Anne Barwell lives in Wellington, New Zealand, sharing her home with her twin daughters, at least during the holidays, when one of them isn't away at university. Her son has left home and started his own family, although she claims she is too young to be a grandmother already. Her three cats are convinced that the house is run to suit them; this is an ongoing "discussion," and to date it appears as though the cats may be winning.

In 2008 she completed her conjoint BA in English Literature and Music/Bachelor of Teaching and has worked as a music teacher, a primary school teacher, and a librarian. She is a member of the Upper Hutt Science Fiction club and plays piano for her local church and violin for a local orchestra.

She is an avid reader across a wide range of genres and a watcher of far too many TV series and movies, although it can be argued that there is no such thing as "too many." These, of course, are best enjoyed with a decent cup of tea and further the continuing argument that the concept of "spare time" is really just a myth.

Charlie Cochrane

John C Houser

Josh Lanyon

Anne Barwell

Pack Up Your Troubles by Charlie Cochrane

The Door Behind Us by John C Houser
Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon

On Wings of Song by Anne Barwell

Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane