Axidava

The Forced March

Intermittently, when the snow ceased falling for a moment, Wojak could see the regiments ahead, black against the white fields, crawling interminably over the hilltop under the dull sky. Wojak was a burly, bearded fellow. These winter days pleased him. He liked the tingle that came with marching in the cold air. He liked the dull, rhythmic “scruff” of the hundreds of feet as the regiment swung along, welded by its months of marching into a living unity.

This was his own country they were marching through. His homestead lay not twenty miles away, near this very road. As he trudged along thoughts of Sophy and little Stephan kept slipping into his mind.

At the crest of the hill the regiment came to a halt. Back from the road, half hidden in trees that were cut sharp and black against the snow and the sky, stood the ruin of a house.

“Just so stands my house,” thought Wojak. “Behind, among the trees, should be the pigsty to the left, the stable to the right.”

He turned and waded through the newly fallen snow toward the dwelling. Charred beams at one end showed where a fire had been checked by the snowfall. In the yard beneath the fluffy new snow the old layer had evidently been tramped. Behind the house he found the pigsty and the stable.

“But the stable is bigger than mine,” he murmured.

He looked in. A pile of hay was in the corner, and on it lay some rags. The stable was so dark that Wojak thought he saw a child lying there. He went over to the corner. On the hay was a yellow head, the round cheeks streaked with tears. The child was sleeping, but its breath came in little sobs. With clumsy gentleness the soldier picked the baby up.

“Stephan had curls like that,” he whispered.

As he stepped out into the light the child awoke. A chubby arm slipped about the burly neck, and the blue eyes looked at him with the beginning of a smile. But in a moment the fact that this was not father, but a strange man, came over the baby, and he began to sob, not angrily, but with a worn anguish that gripped Wojak’s heart.

The company was falling in after the halt when he came to the road. The curly head lay close to his bearded face, and a great clumsy hand protected the little body.

“Where did you get that, Wojak?” growled the lieutenant, staring blankly at the sorrowful little bundle. “Leave the kid and fall in,” he commanded. “There’s no time for nonsense on this march.”

Wojak started to protest, but the habit of obedience was too strong. Sullenly he stood the baby in the snow and took his place in the ranks. The child’s sobs turned to a heartbroken wail.

“Forward, march!” commanded the officer, and the company moved away down the road. Wojak looked back and saw the tiny arms stretched out after him while snowflakes settled on the yellow head. Long after the hilltop was hidden in swirling snow he seemed to see them and to hear the wail of the orphaned baby.

*

The sun was setting when the army bivouacked four miles from Wojak’s farm. The orders were that no leaves of absence should be granted; but he knew the sentinel on guard, and home was too near to be left unseen for another four months.

The stars were glittering from an all but clear sky when he slipped silently through the lines and started down the familiar roads toward Sophy and Stephan. Four months was a terrible length of time. The passage of armies had marked the country. The great tree by the cottage of Ivanovicz had been shattered by a shell and had crashed through the roof. Jablonowski’s barns had been burned. The windows of the church at the corners were shattered and a great hole had been shot in the steeple. Wojak walked faster, and a twinge of anxiety came over him as he entered the lane that led up to his barnyard. His heart stopped: the thatch of the stable had been burned and only the walls were standing. His eyes strained for a glimpse of the house. It was not there. A few charred beams marked the place where his home had stood.

He ran nearer. Snow had covered everything. Beside the place where the door had been was a white mound with a stick standing in the earth at its head. To the stick was nailed a little shoe. Wojak seized it with shaking hands.

“Stephan!” he choked. “My little Stephan!”

After a while he looked up. Looming above him was a man on horseback who had ridden up unheard through the muffling snow.

“You are under arrest,” said the voice of the lieutenant.

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