He arrived late afternoon, trudging up from the railbed over cracked ice and snow, his Enfield banging against a metal canteen frozen solid. Khaki ammunition pouches were harnessed neatly through his epaulets. Right then, long before he started in about the ghost train, we knew he was trouble. Dead of winter and supposedly he’d been in Siberia as long as us, but he was still wearing puttees and a canvas cap. He came to attention when I stepped out of the wagon and I had to wave him down.
“Relax, I’m no ranker,” I said. I noticed that he was wearing his Colt in a polished holster tied down to his thigh, and I suddenly missed Birney all the more.
“Private First Class Woodell.” His jaw was clenched to keep his teeth from chattering. “My orders -”
“Never mind that. Did you bring any newspapers?”
But he was staring at our camp, and didn’t answer. I thought we’d done a good job: two rattletrap wooden boxcars with the bogeys pulled, bermed up a good four feet for insulation. Jackson had showed us how to chink them airtight with river clay. He’d also built a half-closed firepit outside, by fitting together unmortared rock – someone had to stand sentry, since the partisans were all around, and it was bitter cold. A pile of broken crates and beef tins was accumulating to one side, and because the ground was too frozen to dig latrine pits, we generally just crouched behind them.
Maybe Woodell was expecting campaign tents and a parade square.
Our corporal had emerged from the other boxcar and was greedily flipping through the few tattered papers Woodell dug from his pack. He was wrapped in a torn wool cloak, a muskrat hat low over his ears.
“December 1919?” He shoved back the folded broadsheets and glared at Woodell with red, sunken eyes. “That’s two months ago!”
“I’m sorry, sir. I brought them for, ah, not for reading but for, well, you know how the toilets are . . .” His voice trailed away.
“Toilets? Toilets? Think I saw one the last time I was in Khabarovsk.” He relented. “Look, private, you’re freezing. Bring your kit inside.”
With a woodstove at either end, the ventilation louvers generally iced over, and Sutter smoking all the time, the fug inside the boxcar was blindingly thick. Not to mention none of us had had a bath since we arrived, three months back. It was hard to tell in the dim light but I’m sure Woodell went green.
“I’m sorry to see you,” said Sutter, from a heap of blankets on the floorboards where he’d been dozing. Like me, he hadn’t tried to shave since the last time we went into Lenyarsk, and his face was black with grime and gun oil. “Replacing Birney must mean they’re planning to leave us out here indefinitely.” Continue reading “Verst 7156”