Bill Meilen
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THE ARMORER

 

the enamel mug far out into the passing grain, he cursed fluently in the Gallic for a good half minute without repeating himself.

The whole clacking and banging length of the train, the German prisoners of war made themselves ready for the day, lining up for shaving water, polishing boots, setting their personal spaces right. At precisely zero seven hundred hours buckets of hot oatmeal were hauled into each compartment and the burgoo was slammed into messkits from metal spoons by a greasy cook in denims. Each prisoner received one fresh orange to ward off any possibility of scurvy. There was plenty of good strong coffee. Anything else the prisoners wanted was taken from their personal ration boxes underneath their wooden seat, where the issue of canned beans, bread, butter and condiments were stored throughout the journey.

In Rudi Kristl’s coach men were taking turns viewing the country through the hole booted out by Geisenfelder. The general opinion was that they were passing through Ukraine, although there were no signs of war’s passing—no burned out tanks, dead horses, scorched earth, ruined farms smoking on the horizon. It looked far too peaceful to be true—only a land abundant with grain under the bright sun of a broad blue sky. The farms that passed looked far more prosperous than anyone who had been on the Eastern Front could remember.

It looked a land totally at peace, apart from the tattered remnants of a seemingly smashed army being carried across its golden face. Rumour and speculation ran riot among the men caught in the trawl of war. Were they being taken to be shot? Why waste time dragging them long distances only for that? To forced labour camps? Of course!

Rudi pulled back from the face-whipping wind of the broken widow, easing his cap back on his head.

“It’s grain, as far as the eye can see in all directions. How in the name of God are they going to harvest it all?” Men stared at the thought. “Well, it’s logical. They are going to make us cut it all with little nail-scissors!”

That brought a roar of laughter from the men, and Rudi stuck his mess-tin out to the greasy cook for a dollop of glutinous oatmeal porridge. “If this oatmeal sticks to your back-bone as well as it sticks to this gamelle, it’s good grub. Keeps you regular.” The men laughed again. Rudi moved to his seat among the legionnaires.

He sat, sprinkling his oatmeal liberally with salt, stirring it in. “Salt. Improves the taste, you know. You need salt in this heat.” Remember harvest-time as a kid in the high fields of western Carinthia? Lines of farm-workers with sweeping scythes and cropping sickles, stooking and stacking and the sweet smell in the summer sun. It makes me ache to think of it. “That’s why the Roman armies took half of their pay in salt—salarium.”

This brought a groan. “Pass the salt!” someone cried. “I take my pay in Reichsmarks—if I can get it.”

Rudi laughed. “At one-and-a-half Reichsmarks a day? You’ll have to get out of here before you’ll see any kind of money. Reichsmarks, schillings, roubles, akkers, dinar, or Yankee dollars. Some day someone will leave a door ajar,

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