In the year 1917, the Russians were nearly beaten, and the Germans contented themselves with consolidating their hold on Russian territory from Riga south through Poland. With the end of the bitter fighting, a camaraderie grew up between the German soldiers and their Russian prisoners. Even so, Sergeant Grischa Iljitsch Paprotkin was determined to escape. His work was not difficult, and his cheerful strength had made him foreman of the labor gang and a general favorite with his German captors. Grischa, however, thinking of his wife and son far to the east, made his plans as he loaded lumber into freight cars on the railroad siding. He made a tunnel in the car, a wooden tunnel about the size of a coffin. That night, he succeeded in concealing himself in his hideout. Before daybreak, the train pulled out of the station. Grischa did not know it, but his train went far to the south. After four days, the train came to a stop. With his stolen pliers, Grischa opened the door and walked cautiously away from the railroad tracks. Guided only by his small compass, he set his path toward the east.
The thick underbrush made traveling difficult. Somewhere along the route Grischa picked up an old umbrella. By binding several ribs together with a string and using a long thong, he had a serviceable bow. Another rib made an arrow. With patient waiting, he could shoot rabbits in the snow, and he seldom went hungry. One day he came to the blasted area of a battlefield, where he built a fire in a ruined dugout and heated snow to make water for a bath. Taking off his upper clothes, Grischa stretched out and began to wash himself.
Two people, attracted by his fire, surprised him in his retreat. One was a Russian soldier, a deserter, and the other was Babka, a small, dirty woman whose gray hair justified her name, “Grandmother.” Both were armed. After they became acquainted, Grischa knew he was in luck, for they were the leaders of a band of refugees camped comfortably nearby in a wooden house made from old German dugouts. Grischa stayed with the refugees the rest of the winter. He cut wood energetically and traded in the villages of friendly peasants. He slept with Babka, who was young and vital under her misshapen clothes. Three years of war had turned her hair gray. Under the shrewd leadership of Babka by day, and warmed in her bed at night, Grischa became strong again.
The band of refugees scattered in the spring. Grischa and two companions were the first to leave. Grischa felt reasonably safe. Babka had given him the identification tag of a dead Russian soldier, and he called himself by a new name. He was no longer Grischa Paprotkin, an escaped prisoner, but Sergeant Pavlovitsch Bjuscheff, a deserter from the Russian army who was trying to get back to the Russian lines.
In Mervinsk, the Germans had established military headquarters. With little fighting to be done, the rivalry between field...
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