It was dark when the wagons arrived in town. There was no train waiting for them.
Colonel Farkas came by the wagon and Vasili heard him tell Leutnant von Kemmel, “Those bungling idiots in the Logistics Department have done it again. They didn’t finish the paperwork to get the goddamn train here on time. The men will sleep here.”
“Yes sir!” said von Kemmel.
It was a very hot night, made worse because the men were all shoulder to shoulder on the wagon bench, in their full wool uniforms. Between the grumbling, complaining, and snoring, Vasili got very little sleep.
Marik was the first to awaken. He stretched, looked at Vasili, and said, “Best sleep I’ve had in weeks!”
“Only because you can’t hear yourself snoring!” said Vasili.
The field kitchen had been set up, so the men all got to enjoy a breakfast of ham and bread.
As they returned to the wagons, they heard the train approaching the station. A piercing whistle and the wheels grinding on the rails announced the train’s arrival. The men were ordered back out of the wagons and were mustered into line on the platform as the train came to a halt.
The cattle car doors creaked and groaned as if they did not want to reveal the car’s contents. As the doors finally gave way, Vasili was assaulted by the stench of rotting flesh and the iron smell of fresh blood. The sounds of death, men in agony, assailed his ears. To Vasili, the medics on the train, squinting in the suddenly harsh sunlight, had the empty look of men who’s decency had been stolen by the misery they had witnessed.
The wounded, those that still had eyes, seemed to stare into some faraway space, as if their bodies lingered while their souls had departed. Some men were mutilated, having lost a nose, an ear, or an arm.
The mutilations were horrific. The first man off the train had no nose, the next was missing an ear. Vasili helped a man down from the train who had only one arm, his shoulder covered in a bloody, tattered bandage. Gregor stepped up next to him to help lower a stretcher holding a man with no legs.
Vasili could not help but stare at one soldier’s face that was missing the lower jaw. A medic noticed Vasili gazing at the man and said to him, “This is what it’s costing us on the front lines. It makes me ashamed to be human.”
But Vasili could barely hear the man as he felt the gaze of a soldier whose boring into him. The man’s uniform was torn and bloodied, and he shook as if he were laying in a frozen lake. The shivering never paused, while he gurgled incoherently. Vasili wondered what could turn a man into such a shadow.
Then came the dead. Dozens of litters covered in bloody, dirty sheets. Hands or legs swayed outside of the covers in time with the movements of the litter-bearers.
The sounds of men gagging and vomiting brought Vasili out of his reveries. He turned to Nicolos and said, “How can they slaughter men like this? Our animals do not suffer like this when we butcher them.”
Nicolos bowed his head and blessed himself three times. “I don’t have an answer. Only God has the answer.”
Vasili felt his pocket for Maria’s rosary, then dipped his hand inside to rub the beads. Silently, he asked Maria to pray to God for him.
Even Marik bowed his head, for once having no joke to make.
The platform was silent until Vasili heard the order to board the train. As he was about to step onto the car’s platform, a Hungarian officer yelled, “Halt! You stupid dog! Passenger cars are for Germans and Hungarians. The cattle cars are for the Imperial Army.” The last two words were dripping with sarcasm.
Vasili and the others walked back to the cattle cars and jumped up.
Alexey sniffed the air and said, “It smells like the cattle are still in here.”
Gregor laughed and answered, “No, that is just you,” which earned him a friendly punch to the shoulder from Alexey.
The Ruthenians boarded, then several companies of Ukranians.
The train sat for several hours with the men sitting in the wagon cars, packed like cattle, their wool uniforms itching, the high collars digging into their necks. Vasili began to feel lightheaded and told Alexey, “We are going to die right here from the heat if we don’t get moving soon.”
Before Alexey could answer, Leutnant von Kemmel appeared in the doorway.
“Leutnant, sir, do you know what is happening?” asked Alexey.
“Goddamn bureaucrats,” answered von Kemmel. “The Colonel did not properly sign the right form or some such nonsense. We are waiting for that little rat of a man to return with the paperwork. The Colonel is ready to kill somebody. You all should probably stay very quiet.”
“We will all be passed out soon enough,” whispered Marik to Nicolos.
Another hour passed before someone slid the door, slamming it shut and clanking the locking mechanism into place. With the only light coming through the opening between the wall slats, Vasili felt the darkness closing in on him.
The train lurched and stopped, then slowly, like a man crawling to his doom, moved forward.
As the train began its ascent into the Carpathians, Vasili peered out between the wooden slats to view the mountains he so loved. But the deep blue shadows in the valley, resisting the brilliant sunshine on the hilltops, reminded him of a train trip not so long before.
“What is it Vasili?” asked Gregor, “Your look is a thousand miles away.”
“It is only that I remember a much happier trip through the mountains as Maria and I sat together watching the sunrise from our train car,” answered Vasili.
“You must tell me of your adventures some day,” said Gregor. “I know the memory is too painful now, but I must hear of your escape.”
Vasili smiled and said, “I promise to tell everybody the whole story—someday. For now, I wonder if I will ever get to see the mountains again. Will I ever see Nadya again?”
Gregor placed his arm around Vasili’s shoulder and pulled him close. “You are the most stubborn man I know. If anyone can will himself to survive, it’s you,” said Gregor.
The corners of Vasili’s lips rose into a smile as he said, “I’m lucky to have you all as friends.”
From the corner of the car, Marik sniped, “And you are lucky to have Tóth as a friend, eh?”
The train slowed and stopped as the sun was setting. The doors protested their openings with squeaks and squeals of metal. Vasili stepped off the train first.
“Get the hell out of the way asshole!” Vasili slammed back into the train as a team of horses pulling a cannon nearly ended him where he stood. He looked around and saw anarchy. Galloping horses with wild eyes being whipped by drivers screaming at the horses and cursing them. Entire companies of dogs, their tongues out from the exertion, pulling small ammunition wagons, trying to keep up with the artillery horses. Men dressed in gray, red, blue, all colors, yelling in incomprehensible languages.
The front was close now, within a kilometer. Vasili could sense it. He could see that every man on the train felt it—the perception that Death was very near.
They formed up in column and marched through the town. The townspeople lined the street, but there was no cheering, no well-wishes. The people were silent. Men removed their hats and women averted their eyes, as if a funeral procession was passing by. In the distance the thump of artillery and the cracking of rifle fire made Vasili wonder if he could go from the farmer and mill worker in his first life to being a heartless killer in his second. Vasili shivered from the sense of doom within him.
The hazy air smelled of gunpowder. A battle was in progress. The orange bursts of shells reflected from the white clouds in the East, rivaling the final orange flow from the sunset in the west.
Őrmester Tóth ordered the men into line. “This is the time for you men to be true patriots! This is when you will fight for the monarchy!” he said.
Some of the men, mostly Hungarians, cheered wildly, as if they thought dying was a great idea. Vasili and the rest of his company stood silently. Vasili could only think of Nadya and the home he had made in America.
The pounding of the artillery built to a crescendo, then stopped. The silence was heavy, and was broken first by the sound of machine gun fire, then the pop of the rifles. Vasili could picture what that meant, and how many men were already dead or dying in the fields to their front.
“We are heading to the front in the morning,” proclaimed Őrmester Tóth. “Set up your tents for tonight and be prepared!”
Vasili looked at his friends and could tell they were barely covering their fear. He knew that his face betrayed the same.
Gregor spoke first, “We need to take care of each other. These Germans and Hungarians don’t care about us. They’ll hide behind us and let us be their shields.”
“We don’t have a lot of choice,” said Nicolos, the resignation clear in his voice. “We’ll either get shot by the Russians or by Colonel Shitface.”
Nicolos’s remark brought the men to full laughter, mostly from nerves. But it was the tonic they needed.
Alexey said, “We’ll just do what we have to. I’ve heard that the war will be over by December and we can go back to our farms. Some of us will go back to better things.” Alexey poked Vasili in the stomach with his elbow.
“Much better,” joked Vasili.
Just as the men were done setting up their tents, Colonel Farkas arrived from his headquarters. The men came to attention where they stood. Leutnant von Kemmel stood beside the Colonel and translated for those who did not speak Hungarian.
Colonel Farkas proclaimed, “Men, this is Galicia. Your duty is now to fight, and you will fight. If you do not wish to fight, you will be shot. If you do not obey orders, you will be shot. We are throwing the Russians back to their Motherland, and we will win.”
Out of the side of his mouth Alexey, imitating the Colonel’s raspy voice said, “And I will be a General, and you will be dead.” Fortunately for Alexey, Nicolos was standing between him and the Colonel.
Colonel Farkas turned on his right foot and walked back to his waiting truck, which sputtered to life and headed away towards headquarters.
Leutnant von Kemmel then spoke. “Remember, your orders will be one of the 80 phrases you learned in training. Your life and the life of your friends will depend on it.”
The sounds of battle began to abate as the sun set, and Vasili only heard an occasional pop of a rifle shot. He settled in, wondering why he felt a bit excited for tomorrow.
“Gregor,” he whispered in the dark. “What do you think it is like to kill a man?”
Gregor replied, “I don’t know, and I wish I never have to know.”
“But you know the Russians will kill you if they can.”
“Only God can decide who lives and who dies,” said Gregor.
“Then does God hate all of those dead men out there?” wondered Vasili.
“I am not God, I am a man. I will do what I am told, but only so I can live and return to my family and my farm and my church.”
Vasili sat up on one elbow.
“Gregor,” Vasili said, “I don’t know if I can return to God after this. Those men we saw at the train station. Were they all pagans? Did they not pray to the same God as we do? And yet, the poor bastards ended up like that.”
“You know what your problem is Vasili?” asked Gregor, “You think too much. God plans all things and we can only follow along.”
“So you think He planned for those men to be butchered like that?”
“I am not God. I am a man,” Gregor repeated.
The conversation did not satisfy Vasili. He had doubts before, but the mutilated men on the train made him doubt the benevolence of God even more. But he was not ready to give up yet. He gently pulled Maria’s rosary from his pocket and studied the icons placed at intervals into the design, and stared for a while at the three-barred cross at the junction of the beads. He rubbed his thumb over the body of Christ and thought about how he had prayed with Maria.
“I don’t know if God cares about me,” thought Vasili, “but Maria I know you do and I hope you will look after me tomorrow.”
The sun was not yet above the horizon when Őrmester Tóth, still smelling of his vodka excesses, came by and kicked every other man on the ground. “Up, you dogs! It is time to cover yourselves in glory!”
“Or vodka,” whispered Marik.
“Who the hell is laughing?” said Tóth angrily. “If you think this is a joke, you will not like the ending.”
The men fell into step in their marching columns. There was no more banter, each man marching in silence with his own thoughts.
Vasili’s gray uniform, his army boots, and his rifle made him look like a soldier. He looked down at his wool uniform, already stained with sweat, and wondered what would the wool look like when it was stained with blood. Even with the terrible training he received, Vasili thought that he could survive this war. He had no interest in who was right, or who was wrong, or who had started the terrible slaughter. Survival was his only concern.
In spite of the front being so near, the march to took over two hours. They were led by very indirect routes to avoid the open spaces that were covered by Russian machine gunners. The fields to their front seemed quiet, when the Russian artillery opened up.
The sound was overpowering. Vasili could hear the whirring sounds of the shells in the air, followed by the concussion of the explosions that made his chest compress. The acrid mixture of gunpowder and death permeated the air. They were just outside of a ruined village. Some stone chimneys and a few stone walls remained to mark the devastation between the lines. It seemed like nothing remained of the previous regiment.
“Take positions,” ordered von Kemmel in German as he pointed to a low stone wall about 200 feet in their front.
The wall was just visible through the greasy mist surrounding the battlefield. Vasili and his friends ran to the wall and laid down behind it.
“Prepare,” ordered von Kemmel.
Each man behind the wall checked his weapon and his ammunition, and made sure his bayonet was on his belt. As Vasili rolled on his stomach to prepare to rise, a bullet cracked into the stone in front of him, throwing spears of broken stone in every direction. One shard nicked Vasili’s face. Marik wiped the blood from Vasili’s temple and said, “This is not the last blood to be spilled.”
“Don’t be foolish,” replied Vasili.
Then another ricochet sounded down the wall from them. A man slumped over, dead.
Vasili peaked over the top of the wall and looked into the face of evil. He could see the dead lying in grotesque positions where they fell. Some men were trying to crawl back towards him, but were stopped when another bullet found them. Puddles of blood marked the many fallen. Only a few remained, hiding in deep craters that pockmarked the farmland. They could not go forward, and they could not go back. They could only wait for Death to find them hiding among the already taken.
Oddly, in the churned up soil, Vasili noticed that the soil was a very good color and would have made an excellent field to plant wheat.
Then came the single-word command from von Kemmel—“Charge!”
“Charge!” echoed Tóth.
Vasili’s regiment rose up from behind the wall and ran in the direction indicated by von Kemmel’s saber. An artillery shell exploded down the line from Vasili. He heard the agonizing screams. Body parts fell around him. Still, he had to keep running. He could hear his own breath above all the noise of battle. His heart and his feet pounded faster and faster as the he ran towards the Russians.
Vasili was trying to chamber a round as he ran forward. The bolt was stuck. He panicked for a moment until he remembered the advice an instructor had given him. Finally he cleared the jam and chambered a round as he came to a small rise at the edge of a large crater. He looked ahead and saw a gun pointed at him over the rim of the crater. The young man had appeared from nowhere and then fire exploded from the barrel. Vasili was stunned, but the bullet just grazed his sleeve. He raised his rifle, aimed, and fired. The head disappeared and Vasili began to run again.
When Vasili reached the crater, he saw the young man laying at the bottom, blood pooling around his shoulders, a single red hole through his chest, and a blank look of astonishment on his face. Vasili hesitated, and wondered why he felt no remorse for taking the life of this young man. His mother will likely never know what happened to him, he thought, but it is better you than me.
But now Tóth was ahead of him screaming to get moving, even as men began falling in groups from the machine gun fire pouring into their line. Vasili spotted his friends and was relieved to see they were still there, running and shooting. Another burst of machine gun fire to Vasili’s left barely missed his friends, but the men that were hit were nearly torn in half.
They were within twenty yards of the Russians when suddenly the Russians turned, climbed from their holes and trenches, and ran for the rear. Most of the regiment kept firing into the fleeing Russians, the battle having turned into target practice. The few that remained raised their hands and fell to their knees among the many dead bodies littering the bottom of the trench.
Vasili, breathing heavily, his heart pumping with adrenaline, aimed his rifle and started to squeeze the trigger when von Kemmel yelled “Halt! I do not shoot prisoners.”
Vasili fell to the ground, his muscles screaming in protest, his mind racing with the horrific images he had just witnessed. He never wanted to get up again.
“Vasili!” shouted Alexey. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” said Vasili, “I’m fine, but all of these men.”
“I know, these are things that no man should endure.”
Tóth ran and yelled “Stand up you worthless Slovak! Stand up and guard these prisoners.”
Vasili rose to his feet, fighting the urge to turn his weapon on Tóth. But he did as he was told. He heard the clanking sound of a motor vehicle and turned to see Colonel Farkas emerge from his staff car.
Farkas called out to Leutnant von Kemmel, “I have won a magnificent victory here, Leutnant, have I not?”
“Yes sir, you certainly have,” replied von Kemmel. His face, for an instant, betrayed his true feelings to Vasili, but he quickly changed his expression as he looked at Farkas.
Farkas seemed satisfied to claim his victory, so he climbed back into his car and sped off toward the rear. The sounds of war suddenly vaporized. Vasili became aware of the unnatural silence surrounding him. No one was speaking, the air had a stillness he had never felt. It was as if the entire earth had stopped.
Vasili turned around, searching for his friends. He spotted Alexey first, who gave him a smile. Then he saw Gregor, Nicolos, and Marik huddled together in exhaustion. They gave Vasili a wave, which was a great relief for him.
Von Kemmel, looking dirty and disheveled, came to Vasili and broke the silence with his order, “You and Alexey take these prisoners back to headquarters, then rejoin us here.”
“Sir, I don’t need a babysitter,” said Vasili.
“You need more than that Mihalyos. If anything happens to these prisoners, I will personally flog you.”
“Őrmester Tóth,” von Kemmel continued, “take over this trench. Regroup the men and prepare for a counterattack.”
“Yes sir,” said Tóth.
Vasili and Alexey marched the Russian prisoners three miles to headquarters, then stopped in the mess tent for some water. They were told to fill their canteens outside from the water barrel. When they exited the tent, Vasili could faintly hear gunfire.
He looked at Alexey and said, “Do you suppose that was what von Kemmel was talking about?”
“I don’t think the Russians would be back that fast. Maybe Marik is shooting at Tóth,” Alexey answered with a smile.
“Something is not right. We must get back now!”
They ran as fast as they could towards the sounds of battle. They found their regiment hunkered down back at the spot they had started from that morning—behind the low wall.
“Get down you fools!” yelled Tóth.
Machine gun fire raked the top of the wall just as Vasili and Alexey hit the ground.
Artillery fire from behind them finally drove the Russians away, but Vasili’s regiment had been decimated by the Russian counterattack. Vasili looked out over the wall as the Russians ran back to their lines. The dead from both sides were mixed together, some laying together as if in midstep of some macabre dance of the dead. Vasili thought he could walk from his line to the Russian line and not step on bare ground. And now, he thought, both sides are right back where they started; neither side had gained anything. His silent thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of the wounded, some calling for water, some calling for their mothers, then one voice calling for Vasili, for Alexey, for Gregor. Vasili knew that voice. It was Nicolos.
Gregor spotted him first and pointed him out to Vasili, Alexey, and Marik.
“We need to help him,” whispered Gregor, knowing that Tóth would never allow it.
Vasili decide they should try. He crawled over to Tóth and said, “Őrmester, Nicolos is laying out there wounded. We have to help him.”
“So that you can go down with him, you stupid Slovak?”
“I can do it. I can grab him and get back.”
“Mihalyos, if you try, I will put a bullet in your back. I am ordering you and your pretend soldier friends to stay behind this wall.”
Vasili clutched the grip of his bayonet, meaning to unsheathe it and pierce Tóth’s throat. As he withdrew the first inch, Alexey pushed Vasili’s hand down and breathed, “You will be shot. Stop. We will find a way.”
Vasili released the grip as shouting came down the line, “Cease fire! Cease fire! We are under a truce to collect the wounded.”
Vasili glared at Tóth, who just nodded. Vasili and Alexey were over the wall and sprinting to Nicolos. He had been shot in the thigh and could not walk. They carried him back to the wall and then to a medic. As Vasili and Alexey laid him on the stretcher, Nicolos smiled and said, “It took you long enough.”
He gave a weak laugh, and Vasili said, “Maybe you are the lucky one. You will be going home for sure.”
“Maybe in a box,” said Nicolos.
“Nonsense,” laughed Alexey, “It’s barely a scratch!”
“Goodbye my friends, punch Tóth in the face for me,” Nicolos said, then he passed out from the pain.
Von Kemmel stopped and said, “You men did well for your first time. I think we taught the Russians a lesson. We must hold our position and prepare to drive them out tomorrow.”
Marik spoke up, “What is so special about this hellish land, sir?”
“It is Przemyśl fortress,” answered von Kemmel. “We must keep the Russians from surrounding the fortress and forcing the surrender. If the Russians take Galicia, they will be through the mountains and into Hungary before we can stop them. Your family, all of our families will suffer if that happens.”
The sun was setting by the time both sides collected their wounded. Many of the dead remained in the field between the two sides. But Vasili was grateful for the sunset and rest. He ate a piece of the hardtack and drank some water, then laid back and fell into a deep sleep.
When Vasili woke, the dull grays of the pre-dawn sky gave way to the brilliant colors of the late summer sunrise. Though it was a new day, Vasili felt
“Up dogs!” barked Tóth. “We are falling back to the town. The Russians have escaped during the night.”
“Then why are we falling back?” asked Gregor.
“I don’t know, General. Why don’t you go give you advice to the Colonel. I’m sure he’d be happy to listen,” said Tóth.
The men marched with weary steps back to the town where they started. Again, they spent two hours on the return trip. Vasili stood in the chow line and received his ration of stale bread, dried beef, and coffee. That was to be his meal for the day.
As they finished their meager rations, Malik said, “I overheard some officers talking about a hospital in the village here. I’m wondering if Nicolos is there.”
“That would make sense,” replied Gregor, “but if you’re thinking of going to find him, I think that’s a bad idea. You know we could be shot for desertion, and Farkas made a point of ordering us to remain in camp.”
“What does that matter?” said Alexey, “He’s our friend, we need to see his condition.”
Vasili was lost in thought, still seeing the face of the young German he had killed.
“Vasili, what do you think?” asked Alexey. “Vasili!”
“Sorry,” replied Vasili, “what?”
“What are you thinking about?”
“My first kill. That young man had a family. Do you think he wanted to be here?”
“I’m sure he didn’t,” replied Gregor, “but he would have killed you, so you had to do it.”
“I suppose I did,” said Vasili, “that doesn’t make it right.”
Alexey broke into the conversation saying, “Now, what about Nicolos? Are we going?”
“Of course we’re going,” laughed Marik.
The four friends were determined to find Nicolos. The orders from Colonel Farkas stated that the men were to remain in camp. But the four of them were not going to let hawk-faced Farkas stand in the way of finding Nicolos.
They waited until dusk, when the grays of night began to overtake the day. One at a time, they snuck past the guards on the perimeter. They followed the ambulances through the dusty streets, and in no time spotted the hospital.
Vasili could not believe his senses when he stepped through the door. The smell came first. Blood and sweat, stale cigarette smoke and urine. He saw orderlies hauling baskets of limbs leaving by the rear doors and dumping the baskets onto the putrid piles already outside. The horror shattered any remaining illusions Vasili had about war.
Vasili looked at the others and said, “There was no glory here, only misery.”
Malik, Gregor, and Alexey remained silent.
The four of them asked nurses and doctors if they knew where Nicolos was, and receiving no answer, searched the hospital. The first floor was full of the worst wounded. A corporal laid on a bloody gurney in the hallway. He had no arms and was blind.
“A cigarette my friends,” he begged, “Please, can you give me a cigarette?”
Alexey lit one and placed it between the man’s lips.
“May God bless you,” he said.
“And you,” returned Alexey.
“Hah!” cried the man. “It is too late for me.”
The cigarette fell from his lips to the floor. Alexey bent to pick it up, but Malik stopped him with his hand, and shook his head. The corporal was dead.
They climbed the stairs to the second floor and there they found Nicolos on a gurney just inside one of the wards.
“My friends!” he said as the entered the room. Then tears filled his eyes.
“Nicolos,” said Vasili, “I am sorry we were not there to help you when you fell.”
“Don’t bother, you couldn’t have done anything. None of you could.”
“The good news is,” said Malik, “you can go home! Doesn’t that make you happy?”
Nicolos threw back the sheet, revealing his leg that had been amputated above the knee.
“That won’t do me any good. I can’t farm like this. What good will I be? I should have been killed.”
“No, don’t say that,” said Gregor, “God will find a way for you. You must have faith.”
“Yes,” interrupted Alexey, “Your life is not over. We will see to it that your father and mother have all the help they need.”
“Please, Alexey, can you write a letter for me?” asked Nicolos. “I can’t sit up yet.”
“Of course. Hand me the paper and pen.”
Nicolos dictated. “Mother, I have been injured and I won’t be coming home for a while. When I do I will not be much use to you.” Nicolos drew a long breath as tears began to roll down his cheeks.
“I am sorry. I will do what I can with what I have left.”
“That’s all,” Nicolos said to Alexey.
“When we all get home,” said Alexey, “We will get you a good wooden leg.”
“And you can keep the woodpeckers away from the barn wood,” said Malik.
Nicolos broke into laughter, and Vasili said, “That’s better my friend!”
“Please, can you send it to my mother and father?” asked Nicolos. “They tell me they cannot handle mail from here.”
“Of course,” said Vasili.
“I can’t believe you idiots found me,” laughed Nicolos. “Did you get leaves?”
Malik smiled and said, “Yes, we decided we wanted to leave.”
“So you risked desertion charges to come here?” Tears were filling Nicolos’s eyes.
Vasili said, “Do you think we could let you leave without giving you a hard time?”
“Of course not,” laughed Nicolos. “I couldn’t ask for better friends.”
“We need to get going before we’re missed at camp,” said Gregor.
“Don’t get Tóth upset, guys. One of those veins in his neck might explode,” said Nicolos.
The five of them broke into loud laughter, prompting a nurse, one of the many nuns doing nursing duties, to scold them and push them out the door.
“I promise I won’t do anything stupid, my friends. Just seeing you all has cheered me up. Thank you all for finding me.”
“Of course. I will get this to the mail tent as soon as we get back to camp,” said Vasili.
Malik led the men out of the ward, down the steps, and out the front of the hospital.
“What do you think?” Vasili said to Malik.
“I think he is finished as a farmer,” answered Malik. “Poor bastard. When we get home we have to do what we can for him. At least he’ll go home to his family now.”
They continued back through the village and to their camp. Leutnant von Kemmel was waiting for them, his arms crossed in front of him, an angry scowl marked his face.
“I could have you all shot for desertion, you know,” said von Kemmel, barely containing his anger. “You must realize that if Tóth was here, he would most likely have shot you already.”
Alexey started to explain, but von Keller cut him off, “I don’t care where you went or why you went. You fools are in the army and this is a war zone. Leaving for any reason is a reason to be shot. However, I need all the men I can get. I doubt that reinforcements will be coming any time soon, so you will be going to the brig.”
The brig was a small tent meant for two men, but the guards shoved the Vasili, Gregor, Alexey, and Malik inside and stood outside. Occasionally the guards would come in the tent to jeer at them give them a punch or two. Each time, Gregor would remind them they were named as deserters, so it would be hard to blame the guards.
The tent was very quiet as the night wore on. Vasili finally fell asleep, but his dreams were evil. He saw his friends blown to pieces and then the end of his own life. He yelled and awoke.
“Are you OK?” asked Gregor.
“It was a nightmare. I saw you all get killed.”
“It was a terrible day,” said Alexey. “I think we will all have nightmares for a long time.”
Vasili said, “I killed a man today. I never thought I would have to say a thing like that. And now I must live with it forever.”
“Sadly,” lamented Malik, “it will probably not be the last man you kill. But what choice do you have?”
“He’s right,” said Alexey, “This is a war, and you must kill the enemy or they will kill you.”
“I just hope that God will forgive this sin,” said Gregor, “or else we will be going to Hell.”
“What does it matter?” asked Vasili, “This is Hell, this is a punishment for us.”
“God will forgive us,” stated Alexey, “He knows why we do this, why it is our duty to defend our country.”
Malik grunted, “You sound like a Hungarian patriot. What have you been drinking?”
“I’ve heard many stories about the Russians and what they do to prisoners, and what they will do to our families,” answered Alexey. “I’m no patriot. I spit on the Empire, but I want my family to be safe.”
Vasili had left the conversation long before. He could not wipe away the face of the young man he had shot. The friends fell silent, and finally fell asleep for a few hours.
In the morning, the guards opened the tent and allowed them out.
The sun had already burned off the morning dew, and Vasili felt the sun like a torch on his skin. The cloudless sky was a brilliant blue. It reminded Vasili of all the days he spent with Nadya, walking through the village, talking and laughing. He hoped she would walk with him again in America.
His daydream was interrupted when he heard the whistling of Russian artillery shells over his head. Everyone ducked for cover as more and more shells pummeled the earth around them and around the village. An attack must be coming, and they must get prepared.
When a shell whistled by and a loud explosion rocked them, Vasili turned towards the village and saw the plume of smoke.
The Russians appeared from nowhere before anyone could react.
Vasili grabbed his rifle, as did the rest of the men in his regiment. They only had time to get to the cover of the stone wall on the outskirts of town. The Russians appeared within 50 yards of their position. The Russian yell was all Vasili could hear. Their faces were contorted with hatred. Their bayonets sent flashes of light into Vasili’s eyes. Then came the order to fire.
The front line of the Russians was thinned out, but still they came. Again came the order to fire. Many more Russians fell, screaming. Then they were at the wall.
When his magazine was empty, Vasili used his rifle as a club. He managed to knock away the Russian bayonets and beat the men who tried to impale him. Some Russians made it over the wall, but then a wave of Hungarian reinforcements charged from the left, stopping the attack, and finally sending the Russians retreating.
Vasili looked around at the bloodied bodies. Once again, death came looking, but did not find him or his friends.
When the guns were finally silenced, Vasili went looking for Őrmester Tóth and found him behind one of the remnants of a house wall. He was snoring loudly and smelled like a distillery.
“Useless filth,” thought Vasili. He sighted his rifle barrel on Tóth, but he knew there was no good in killing him. The officers would never care what a Rusyn had to say about a Hungarian, and they would never understand a Rusyn killing a Hungarian. Vasili lowered his rifle and went looking for von Kemmel.
“Sir, may I talk to you?” asked Vasili.
“Yes, what is it,” said von Kemmel in a tired voice.
“I would like leave to go to see Nicolos in the hospital before he is sent home.”
“The hospital?” said von Kemmel. “You have not heard? The hospital was hit by a shell this morning. There is nothing left. I am sorry.”
Vasili could not hold back the tears as he ran to tell the others.
“Is he sure the hospital was hit?” Gregor struggled to ask.
“Yes, yes” repeated Vasili, “He’s sure.”
“We just spoke to him yesterday. It doesn’t seem possible,” said Alexey.
“We need to write to his mother and father. The Colonel will never do it.”
“I will do it,” volunteered Gregor. “I was very close to his parents.”
The sound of the Colonel’s car engine interrupted their conversation. The Colonel climbed out of his car and with a giant flourish of his arms, he said “We have done it again.”
He looked at Leutnant von Kemmel and said, “You see what great leadership does for an army?”
“Yes Colonel,” answered von Kemmel. Vasili could see von Kemmel’s veins bulge out in his forehead. His jaw muscles contracted repeatedly, and his neck was stretched tightly while his eyes were staring at the ground. It must have been a strain for von Kemmel to stay calm.
“You see men,” Colonel Farkas announced in a loud voice, “with my leadership you men can accomplish great things!”
“Thank you Colonel,” said von Kemmel, “we are truly inspired by your leadership!”
“Don’t stand around, do something!” said Farkas as he slammed the door of his vehicle and the driver sped away.
Von Kemmel ordered the men back into the town for the night after posting a picket line from another company.
Vasili and his friends scrounged together enough straw to use for bedding. The straw smelled like a cow had urinated in it, and they could feel the fleas jumping onto their skin. But after the day of bloody violence, and after losing their friend, they could think of nothing so luxurious as that smelly straw.
In the morning, Tóth kicked each man in the ribs, slurring “Get up lazy dogs, cuddle time is over!”
Vasili could still smell the alcohol, and wondered how Tóth had not been killed yet. When Tóth walked out of the barn, Vasili turned to his friends and said, “That bastard was sleeping off a drunk while we were fighting yesterday.”
“We all know he’s a useless coward and a drunk,” said Gregor, “That’s why he yells and treats us like dirt. He hopes no one notices what a piece of shit he is.”
Vasili could not help but laugh out loud, 
“Gregor, that’s the worst words you ever used,” laughed Malik. “It won’t be long before you are another me!”
“God help us all!” said Alexey.
They fought over the same useless piece of ground for two months. They would advance, only to be thrown back by the Russians. Over and over again.
One morning, Tóth entered the barn and said, “We have our orders. We are falling back.”
The men all groaned.
“You don’t like it?” said Tóth, “You are welcome to sit here while the Russians overrun our position. Maybe they will feel sorry for you—right before they slit your worthless throats.”
Vasili packed what little belongings he had back into the horseskin backpack. He tightly rolled the gray tent and folded it over the top of the backpack. He hoisted the pack and noticed that this time his knees didn’t buckle, and the pack felt for the first time like it belonged on his back. The mental change of the past few months were showing in Vasili’s normally calm eyes.
Alexy whispered, “Vasili, you are starting to frighten me. That is the look of a wolf searching for prey.”
“Nonsense,” Vasili said. “I am still Vasili the farmer. The wolves are only in the woods and in the headquarters.” But Vasili could not clear the vision of the wolf he saw before him.
They marched for three days until they were in the foothills of the Carpathians, at the Dukla Pass. Vasili had learned during hunting trips with his father that a wind as cold as the one blowing down the pass this early in October meant a terrible winter was coming. It would be a good time to leave the mountains. It was here that the men were ordered to dig trenches.
By the middle of the month, the men had dug a complex series of trenches, each connected to another with communication trenches to easily pass between them. The ground was fairly solid, so they could dig down to five feet, then carve a firing bench for the men to stand on when needed to shoot from the trench. They felt prepared for the Russian assaults they knew would be coming very soon.
In the quiet he knew was only temporary, Vasili received a letter:
Vasili, I don’t know if you are alive. I hope you are. I can’t think of what I will do if you don’t return. Catherina is very good to me, but I can’t burden her forever. Please tell me you will be home soon.
When Vasili finished reading, he crumpled the letter and held it tightly in his fist. Gregor noticed the tear falling from Vasili’s face and said, “Vasili, is Nadya alright? Has something happened?”
“No,” said Vasili, “nothing has happened, but I have abandoned my wife to live at the mercy of her family. How can I tell her I will be here for at least three years? It will kill her.”
“My advice,” said Alexey, “is to never tell her it will be that long. Just keep telling her you’ll be home soon. What choice do you have?”
“None, I suppose,” said Vasili.
My Dear Nadya, I do no know how long it will be before I can leave this place. They do not tell us anything about the war except that we will win soon. If I could get out of here now, I would come back to you as fast as I could. But they would shoot me if I tried to leave, so I must stay until they allow me to go. Your Vasili.
Vasili, sitting in the small shelter they had dug in the wall of the trench, finished writing his letter. He addressed the envelope, read the letter one last time, then sealed it and placed it in the envelope. Whatever happened now, at least she will know I am alive and I will get home to her.
Gregor sitting across from Vasili said, “Even in this dim light I can tell you’re troubled. You should get that to  as soon as possible.”
“I don’t trust them,” said Vasili. “We are due to rotate to the rear in a few days. I will take it to the office myself so that I know it will be sent.”
Vasili tucked the envelope into his breast pocket, and felt the beads from Maria’s rosary. A slight smile showed on his face.
“What are you so happy about?” said Alexey.
“Just memories, happy memories instead of this nightmare,” said Vasili as looked around their small dirt home. His smile faded as tears appeared on his cheeks.
Vasili remembered his mother’s sweet smile as she handed the rosary to Maria, and he remembered Maria’s insistent voice telling him to take the rosary from her. He knew now that the rosary was not a link to God, but only a link to his memories.
The rains arrived well before the Russians. Vasili’s world was nothing but slippery mud. The bottom of the trenches were rivers, carrying waste and rats as the soldiers sloshed through. Vasili’s dugout in the wall of the trench collapsed so they spent nights sitting in the water, trying to keep the rats from gnawing at them. Vasili and his friends were due to rotate back to the rear the day the Russians came.
First came the scream of the artillery shells, mostly misguided, but occasionally finding a target and scattering limbs, mud, and filthy water in a huge circle. Then came the infantry. Men ready to be slaughtered by men eager to do so. The thumping of thousands of rushing Russian footsteps was like a stampede of angry cattle. The blaring of the soldiers’ yells mixing with the booming of the rifles was terrifying to Vasili and the men waiting to receive the onslaught. The Russians quickly covered the flat ground to the front of the trenches, but then ran into the barbed wire.
Vasili and his friends took aim and fired as fast as they could, and watched in horror as the Russians fell, their blood mixing with the mud to make a macabre soup. Many Russians tried to jump the barbed wire but were left hanging in gruesome positions on the wires, their limbs like limp marionettes whose masters had thrown down their strings.
But still they came on as the trenches filled with the odor of gunpowder, sweat, and urine as more men became frightened for their lives. Bullets buzzed around their heads. Vasili yelled to Alexey to keep his fool head down, but it was too late. A Russian had seen him first and Vasili saw the blood spurting from the hole left in Alexey’s hat.
“No!” screamed Vasili as the first Russians made it to the edge of the trench. The anger rose up in Vasili like magma rushing to a volcano’s mouth. He slashed, stabbed, and clubbed every Russian that came within his reach. Men had fallen around him and those that were not killed outright were trampled to death in the fight for survival. Those that fell face down were drowned in the water at the bottom of the trench.
At last reinforcements arrived and pushed the Russians out of the trenches and back to their lines. Vasili, Gregor, and Marik shoved their way through the exhausted men covered in mud and blood, who fell or leaned against the trench walls, until they found their friend Alexey. He face was serene though it was covered in blood from the wound in his head.
“My poor Alexey,” said Vasili, “I should have pulled him down.”
Vasili punched the mud wall and went to his knees next to Alexey’s body. Tears cut clean paths through the filth that covered his face.
Vasili looked at his remaining friends and said, “I tried to warn him but I failed him.”
“Nonsense,” said Gregor. “How could it be your fault? You didn’t pull the trigger. You didn’t make him stand up in the trench.”
“I should have yelled sooner or jumped up and pushed him down.”
“Then you would both be dead. You can’t take the guilt of the world on your shoulders, Vasili.”
“It’s not the world, but enough of it.” Vasili sank down in the trench until he was sitting in the morass that covered the bottom.
The burial details came and gathered the remains of the soldiers. For the Russians, nothing. They were carried away from the trenches to rot. The Austro-Hungarians were placed in a long trench grave. Vasili, Gregor, and Marik were not permitted to leave their posts to bury their friend. Gregor led them in the Panachida, then they sang Memory Eternal until they were ordered to be quiet by von Kemmel.
Vasili got very little sleep that night. The cries of the wounded between the trenches was heart-breaking, calling for their mothers, begging for water, and some asking to be put out of their misery. Now and then a flare would illuminate the battlefield, allowing both sides to view the slaughter pen. Vasili knew that his turn could come tomorrow.
For now, the friends had to mourn the loss of Alexey in silence. The slightest sound could bring a barrage of machine gun fire across the lip of the trench.
In the morning Vasili stopped von Kemmel, who was on his rounds, and asked, “When can we rotate to the rear and get some rest.”
“You have not earned the rotation,” said von Kemmel. “The performance of this outfit was pitiful if not cowardly. We had to bring in reinforcements to push back that small attack. You will remain on the front until I say you can go back.”
After two more weeks living in filth, during a quiet spell the three remaining friends huddled in their dirt hovel.
“These lice are driving me crazy,” said Marik. “I have nearly scratched my skin off. We can’t delouse because the Russian artillery could use the smoke to aim their stinking artillery. I have never been so miserable.”
“They are in the hair on my head,” said Vasili. “I want to burn my hair off.”
“Did you see what happened to poor Lucas?” said Gregor, “his gut wound kept him from getting up when the rats came. They ate the poor soul from the inside while he was still alive.”
“God protect us from that fate,” said Vasili as Gregor and Marik blessed themselves three times.
Gregor said, “Vasili, do you not wish for God’s protection?”
“God did nothing for Nicolos or Alexey. I don’t think he cares what happens to me either.”
Őrmester Tóth came through the trench the next morning rousing the men.
“Be ready to pull out in 15 minutes!”
“Where are we heading?” said Vasili.
Tóth’s answer was short and tart. “Into the mountains.”
Vasili could hear the wind making a howling sound as swept down from the mountains, a warning, he thought.
“We are in for some terrible times,” said Vasili.
Marik answered, “Death might be an improvement over what we have been through.”
Gregor said, “Have you heard the wolves howling? They seem to get closer every night.”
Vasili said, “It’s as they say about bullets. It’s the ones you don’t hear that will get you.”
The move into the mountains was treacherous. The snow had come early and was up to their thighs as they tried to march upward. The snow had silenced the air and beautified the country with crystal ice and brilliant white snow, but it was not to be conquered easily.
NOTES: He tucks the letter away until he can go on leave to mail it. But they are caught in battles and the Colonel punishes them for (cowardice) by keeping them on the front line so he doesn’t get to mail it. He then gets another letter from Nadya asking why he doesn’t answer her and she is afraid he is dead. It is then that he feels the letter in his inner pocket.