Andriy turned the key in the ignition and the engine spluttered into life.
Four days earlier they’d been slogging along the road, close to Srem. Both of them were so bearlike they could be mistaken for brothers, but while Alexei kept his dark hair closely cropped and his nose looked like it had seen too many fists, Andriy’s scalp was hairless and leathery and his features pinched and hawkish.
The moon hung low that night, with a large lone tree casting dark shadows over a heavily frosted field. In the distance to the North was a copse of evergreens. Andriy focused on them, he had a bad feeling; one that was confirmed by a hiss from Alexei who crept up beside him.
“T-72. Six men.”
Andriy squinted trying to discern flora from human and machine but sure enough, the hunting shape of a T72 tank rumbled out of one copse and into another flanked by six human forms.
It’s not that Alexei and Andriy were deserters; their units had been completely destroyed to a man and they found each other at opposite ends of a makeshift trench. They’d become friends over the few weeks since and Andriy shared his intention to return home to Kyiv Alexei grunted back; he had nowhere to go anyway so Kyiv was as good as anywhere. The last thing either of them wanted was to bump into someone who still thought the war was on; that one last (possibly fatal) push was needed.
As the T72 disappeared among the trees, the pair moved deliberately more south. They were heading to a town called Srem at first, maybe to secure some transport and then east towards the Ukraine border.
A crisp set of footsteps disturbed them; up ahead, following a beaten path, was an old man, dreadfully thin and wrinkles upon his wrinkles. Wisps of white hair stuck to his chin below a thick brimmed hat and above a threadbare wooden cloak. A piece of string tied to his wrist led to a somewhat pitiful-looking goat and under his arm was a loaf of bread. The two soldiers stepped from cover and levelled their weapons at the old man who, with a little protest (Fucking Russians!) handed over both loaf and goat. They didn’t express any remorse as they walked down the path towards Srem, munching on slightly stake, ill-gotten Rye bread and what they couldn’t finish they tossed to the goat.
About three hours later they reached the outskirts of Srem. The town itself was mostly ruins but there was light from a large barn to the south of the ruins. The pair crept up quietly until they could hear muffled conversation in Polish. As Andriy readied his RPK-74, he caught it on a stick and in steadying himself let off a single round. The noise echoed around the empty buildings and the conversation inside the barn ceased. The door burst open and four men emerged; one with a shotgun and the other three with farm tools. They shouted something in Polish, Andriy shouted back in Russian. The standoff ended when Wieslaw, the man with the shotgun, lowered the barrel. There was no interest on either side in prolonging a firefight. The Poles were aware of the firepower outside and both Andriy and Alexei want to avoid making more noise and maybe attracting the attention of that T72, which was bound to have a nosy and dedicated officer aboard.
Inside the barn, the two found some warmth in both the air and the company. There didn’t seem to be any resentment here; just a thankfulness of no further violence. They were offered some soup and a place by the fire. Andriy explained about the T72 and troops nearby and the handful of men, woman and a child decided to evacuate. They led the soldiers to the shore where a shallow bottomed boat was moored and an hour later they were rowing upstream with Jerzy and Daniel providing the muscle at first and then Gustav and Waclaw taking over.
About an hour before dawn, the boat slipped in bedside a small dock beside a large boathouse and the crew and passengers clambered off. The head of this household was a fat man called Wojciech and his Russian was good enough to hold a proper conversation. Wojciech asked Andriy and Alexei to be a further escort to Daniel and Jolanta (his wife) and Wieslaw would come along as security. Jolanta was close to the end of her pregnancy and would need a doctor; the nearest doctor being in Jarocin. For this task, they could borrow Wojciech’s pickup truck and they’d get 4 days rations as a reward.
But as simple as this seemed; Alexei wasn’t comfortable and insisted on putting on a proper watch which turned out lucky as the building was approached in the night by two renegade Americans. These poor souls didn’t have much chance against the superior skills of Alexei’s Spetnatz training and Andriy’s marksmanship with the light machine gun. They quickly consigned Private Pete Ricketts and PFC Bobby Bell to their maker.
But noise travels – and it was decided that it would be safer to leave especially with that T72 still prowling. The pickup truck was loaded and the five ventured east towards Jarocin. The town was skeletal in appearance, once a thriving Polish market town but now with empty buildings with darkened windows looking like a row of skulls. They arrived as the sun began to climb into the middle of the day and unloaded their precious cargo outside a large townhouse that had been converted into a field hospital. A nurse checked them over for wounds, finding none, and didn’t seem to mind they were Soviets.
Wieslaw committed to helping them on the next leg of their journey. The first thing was getting them a pickup truck.