The plain lay between a highway and a river.
Along one side of it flowed the noisy waters of the Stry, turbid and yellowish, on the other side rose the steep slope of a lowish mountain, overgrown with shrubbery below, and bristling with the branches of pine-trees a little higher up. The mountain, at its very foot was skirted by the highway whose smooth ribbon, as if glad to break out into the open from the narrowness of the mountain glens, straightened out a little farther off and cheerfully ran on, across the seemingly boundless plain. It was here that the mountains ended; the last range of the blue-green Carpathians went no farther.
Here and there, over the plain, mostly along the bank, small thick shrubs were scattered in patches, and in one place the level ground was cut across by a creek, its bed muddy, and, in some spots, almost completely dried up.
Apart from a few places, where the plain abounded in small mounds, it was silky-smooth with luxuriant grass, level and solid. It would be hard to find another spot in the Carpathians, more suitable for the life and training of artillerymen who were preparing for military exercises in the mountains.
They had come to the plain from the heart of the Carpathians. They belonged to one of the battalions of a mountain artillery regiment, the other units of which had made their camp on the slopes of nearby mountains, and whose headquarters were in a small Guzul village by the river.
The artillerymen's summer training camp was situated at a distance of about thirty-five or forty kilometres from the plain, on the high bank of the same river. Back there, the gunners had left neat rows of white tents, an intoxicating fragrance of pine-tree branches, the noise of the tall forest, a well constructed ordnance depot and orderly horse-lines.
The artillerymen reached the plain early on a cloudy evening. They were tired after the day's march along the stony winding mountain road. The horses unharnessed, and the small mountain guns taken care of, the artillerymen set to work, and late in the night, in deep darkness, they dug in posts on the river bank, nailed together the logs of the horse-lines, fed the horses with oats from canvas bags, and gave them the cold water of the Stry to drink.
The gunners noticed that the flow of the Stry at the spot they had reached was different from that in the mountains which they had recently left. Close to the new camp the river did not rush over the stones with a continuous roar. Even before the glens released the river from their tight embrace, and allowed it to run over the wide spaces of the plain, the mountains had been gradually retreating, the river growing wider between its low banks of clay. It was no longer as turbulent here as it had been in the mountains, and the waters rolled along without roaring and raging, but with power and dignity.
The place that the gunners had chosen was near to the growth of shrubbery, close to the highway. It was not a very complicated task to put up little huts that would shelter the soldiers should it rain; building the huts from branches and waterproof cape-tents was rather a matter of routine, but after all it was not all that easy in the dark, following the long march and the other events of the day. As a result of this, the men felt tired. After supper when little groups of soldiers, mess-tins in their hands, dispersed and made for their huts calling loudly to one another, the noise quickly subsided. In some five minutes the bank was completely silent, all the gunners except the sentries and the soldiers on duty at the stables, had fallen asleep.
The next day training began. The soldiers sat in small circles - some just squatting, others holding their arms around their knees - and listened to the words of their political officers who spoke about the events of the day in the motherland and about the international situation (at this time the world was beginning to be seriously worried because of Hitler's activity). In the meadow by the river the soldiers' thick hob-nailed leather boots trod over the grass when the gunners, following the officers' commands, marched in ceremonial step, doing "left turn", "right turn" and "about face" drills. In general, the soldiers' life went on as it usually does in a training camp.
In the large drill field near the shrubs on the river bank the soldiers went about their gun drill. In charge of their training in section No. 1 was Zapara, the section sub-commander, an energetic, loud-voiced senior sergeant. He was lean, gingerhaired and snub-nosed, and his thin nostrils constantly dilated as, his forage cap pulled down to his ears, he galloped his small, shaggy horse about the meadow and shouted: "At a doubl-l-l-le! Quick march!"
Following this command the riders of the horse teams, the soldiers of the gun crew that rode the horses of the teams, the rest of the gun crews who were also mounted, the small mountain guns, and the horses drawing the ammunition wagons, - the whole outfit - would push ahead with such a terrific noise that the drill ground, all overgrown with bushes, would seem to shake and moan. The riders of the horse teams would urge the horses along the bank of the Stry as best they could, waving their whips, digging their heels into the horses' flanks and bending down to the horses' manes which flew about in the wind caused by their crazy headlong career.
The section sub-commander, his forage-cap crammed firmly on his head, and his nostrils flaring, also flew along on his shaggy little horse. Then, at full speed, he would whirl round, pulling the halter, so that the stunned horse stopped dead in its tracks, and then the command would come, "Gu-u-u-ns! Ready for battle!!!" The sergeant's thinnish voice, which not infrequently broke into a falsetto, was surprisingly strong, and whenever he gave commands, even the soldiers who were a kilometre away could make out every word. Whenever this voice was heard, the whole battalion knew that Zapara's section was going through the drill.
Even before the horses came to a halt, the artillerymen were down and at their squat, sturdy guns. Zapara, the sergeant, checking his restive little horse, flickered his small, stern eyes now glancing at the soldiers as they led the horse teams away from the guns and placed the guns in position, now looking at the large silver watch on his wrist, thickly covered with yellow hairs. Usually after the guns were placed at the ready, everything would begin all over again. The dissatisfied sergeant would give the order to bring the horses up to the guns, again the gun crews would mount and the horses would rush off along the river bank, snorting, their manes a-flying. And again the command would come; "G-u-u-ns re-e-a-a-dy!"
However, each time the exercise was repeated, the senior sergeant noticed that Makoŭčyk, one of the gunners, was always the last to dismount and the last to take his place at the gun. Fat and slow, Makoŭčyk seemed to be deliberately unhurried, as if he were going out of his way to make fun of the sergeant. Of course he did run when the command came, but what kind of running was it? - a snail's gallop, just putting on an act, that's all. And this - despite the fact that the section sub-commander had repeatedly remonstrated with the recalcitrant soldier, and had even threatened him with punishment. Nothing had helped; there had been no progress whatsoever.
"Makoŭčyk, have you had breakfast today?" Zapara inquired, smartly jumping down from the saddle and snorting through his nostrils threateningly.
Makoŭčyk, a stout, ungainly fellow with a thick neck, and an ill-fitting field shirt, would stare at the section sergeant with his clear innocent eyes: "Of course, I have, Comrade Sergeant." "Not that you'd notice, private Makoŭčyk. Judging by the way you walk, you haven't had a bite to eat for 24 hours at least." "I have always been this way, Comrade Senior Sergeant." - "I am not interested in the way you have always been!"
"If so, I beg your pardon. Comrade Senior Sergeant, but I thought..."
Makoŭčyk spoke with a very serious mien, but to the sergeant it seemed that the fellow's words concealed some deliberate joke.
"I know what you think! You seem to be after some extra fatigue duty?"
"Just as you please, Comrade Senior Sergeant," the soldier replied calmly, shrugging his square shoulders.
With irritation the segeant was thinking to himself that because of just one such lubber the whole section might fall flop during the coming exercises.
"Can he do anything properly, at all?" thought the sergeant. "Perhaps, I should try and make a horse-team driver out of him? But a horse-team driver has to turn about very quickly too. Can this man be of any use in the section anywhere?" And, to tell the truth, it was not the first time that the section sub-commander had racked his brains over the problem.
Zapara was a man who was averse to making compromises with himself in his opinions. He was devoted heart and soul to the Army service; he was also very thorough and diligent; and it was the same devotion to the Army service and the same diligence that he valued most of all in his men. "Well, well, well", the sergeant thought as he inspected the way the soldiers had put the gun in the firing position. "Why on earth did they have to thrust this Makoŭčyk rookie on me? Well, somebody's done a good job in getting rid of him, I suppose."
The gun had been located exactly according to regulations. The panoramic sights and the mercury tube were in the right position too; the breech had been opened, and the canvas cap had been taken of the barrel. The gun crew were in their places, just exactly as the regulations indicated. Even Makoŭčyk was ready for action: he stood with his head lowered a little, holding a shell in his broad outstretched hands with his thick fingers, ready to pass the shell to the loader. A man of sturdy build, Makoŭčyk hardly bent down at all, only his neck inclined a little.
"You'll be hit by the very first shot, private Makoŭčyk", Zapara said in a prophetic voice, casting a contemptuous glance at the soldier. "We'll see..." returned the man. But his shoulders simply would not go behind the gun shield.
"Bend down!" the section sergeant ordered, his face turning red with rage. Unwillingly the gunner bent down, his whole appearance showing that he simply could not understand why some people had to find fault with him.
In the meanwhile Zapara had started to give the gunners the figures for sighting and laying the gun - the angles and the deflections, and so, for a while, his attention was diverted from Makoŭčyk. But when the section sub-commander gave the order to change the position, and when the horses made for the guns at full speed, Makoŭčyk enraged the senior sergeant once again; during the time it took him to climb on to his horse, the other gun had already reached the far end of the drill ground.
The day was gray and gloomy. Rolling, heavy thunderclouds were gathering on the steep mountains which showed blue in the distance up the Stry valley. Here and there on the summits of the mountains and on their higher slopes, the ragged contours of the forests, obscured by clouds of vapour, disappeared from view. Now and again peals of thunder, hollow and menacing, came from that direction.
It was clear that it would start raining soon. Yet the rain didn't seem to be in a hurry to begin. The soldiers' drill was over, the horses had beed unsaddled and fed, but the clouds remained where they were.
Makoŭčyk had begun his duty at the stables by the time evening came. For a while he watched the mountains almost hidden behind the dark clouds, and then said thoughtfully, - "Well, look, it seems to be bucketing down up there but here it's still dry... And this wind - it's coming from the mountains, too, and all the same, there is no rain yet..."
"You see, the mountains won't let it through," the answer came from Chaluta, a soldier, who was on the same duty as Makoŭčyk, at the stables. "The clouds are lying on the mountains, as you can see." Chaluta was the section's first singer, and spoke in didactic tones.
Makoŭčyk did not answer. It was not because he disliked talking to his fellow soldiers, but he liked sensible conversation and disliked talking about nothing. If Makoŭčyk heard someone talking in platitudes he lost his respect for such a man for a long time. Chaluta, the most easygoing fellow in the section, and the best singer among all of them seemed to Makoŭčyk to be just that sort of a prattler.
"The mountains won't let the rain through, the clouds are lying on the mountains! Quite a discovery this fellow has made," Makoŭčyk thought with some irritation as he walked away. He watched the river for some time. The horse-lines were almost on the very river bank, just about ten metres away from the water. While watching the river, Makoŭčyk noticed with surprise how much higher the water had risen in the course of only a few hours. The river was as turbid and turbulent as it had been in the mountains and went rushing past the soldier in such a mighty flow, and with such a roar that the bank seemed to be hardly strong enough to contain it.
"Well, it certainly looks pretty high," Makoŭčyk said, frowning at the river.
It grew dark earlier than usual that evening. It seemed that the clouds had become still heavier and slid closer to the earth. Gradually it started to rain, but the noise of it was drowned by the unceasing roar of the river waves.
The drizzling rain, the dark clouds, and the monotonous roar of the river made Makoŭčyk feel sad. This feeling disappeared for a time when some soldiers came to see that their horses were all right, and Makoŭčyk cheered up a little. After they had returned to their tents Makoŭčyk came up to Chaluta and asked, "When do you want to start your duty, now or after midnight?"
"I think I'll start now", replied Chaluta.
"Then you'd better go and have supper, and don't waste time talking. Come back at once."
"Don't worry. I'll be back very soon."
And, indeed, Chaluta returned very soon. The best singer in the section, he allowed himself some liberties with other soldiers, but somehow he was wary of Makoŭčyk and even a little afraid of the ungainly fellow.
Once more Makoŭčyk went round the stables and inspected how the horses were tied. Then with a last, rather sulky remark, - "Well, keep a look-out around here", he left and unhurriedly made for the tents.
For a long while he could not fall asleep. The noise of the rain did not cease and neither did the roar of the river. It was almost midnight when Makoŭčyk dropped off at last, and when he was awakened he could not believe at first that it was time for him to take over at the stables. However, his watch showed him that it was really time to go. Getting up, Makoŭčyk donned his waterproof cape which felt rather cold, and went out yawning sleepily.
"Of course, he wouldn't do his turn after midnight, not he. He prefers an easy life," Makoŭčyk said to himself, thinking about Chaluta.
"Well, nothing has happened here," reported Chaluta, glad that his relief had come. "Leanid Piatrovič dropped in, that's all."
"Who's Leanid Piatrovič?" Makoŭčyk inquired sulkily and sleepily.
"Senior Lieutenant Charužy, the Officer of the Day."
"So, he's Leanid Piatrovič to you, is he?"
"Well, we are quite friendly, he and I, aren't we?
Chaluta was on the point of enlarging on the topic of his connections, but checked himself. "Oh, before I forget - I moved Eagle from the horse-lines, he had been kicking about a lot. I tied him to an oak tree over there. You don't have to worry - I tied him up fast.'
"Oh", another thought crossed Chaluta's mind. "Senior Lieutenant Charužy said that Kamaroŭ's foot was O.K. He'll be better soon, it's quite certain."
Kamaroŭ, the gun layer of gun crew No. 1, was the owner of Eagle. The day before, the wheel of a gun had rolled over his toes, injured his foot and the soldier had been taken to the regimental field hospital.
Chaluta made to go, but lingered a second - "Look at the river, Mak. It's rising like crazy. Seems that it'll flood us, won't it?
"Flood us!... Come on! That's nonsense." Makoŭčyk grumbled in reply.
When Chaluta had gone, Makoŭčyk sat down on a tightly packed bale of compressed hay covered with horse-cloth, pulled down the hood of his waterproof cape so that the rain wouldn't get down his collar, leaned against another bale of hay and relaxed his tired body. Hell, he did feel damned sleepy: you always felt sleepy after midnight, and then there was this monotonous ceaseless whispering of the rain into the bargain.
Without noticing he dozed off. But he woke with a start when the horses began fighting. Then Makoŭčyk got up and went over to the horse-lines. The horses sniffed and snorted, and stretched their heads towards him; in the darkness, they looked rather sad, it seemed to Makoŭčyk. The soldier tightened one of the halters which had already become loose and, yawning, started walking to and fro, because he was afraid he might doze off again.
Suddenly through the apathy of his half-somnolent state Makoŭčyk recalled Chaluta's anxiety.
"River's rising. It won't flood us, will it?" - he remembered Chaluta's words. He cast a glance in the direction of the Stry. However, the river was invisible and it was only its angry roar, which Makoŭčyk had hardly been conscious of previously, that reminded him that the river was there all right. Once again, exactly as before, Makoŭčyk sceptically dismissed Chaluta's remark. "Flood us! What nonsense that windbag talks!!!"
And yet Makoŭčyk walked towards the river bank, perhaps, just because he was tired of hanging about the horse-lines.
What Makoŭčyk saw on the shore made him feel uneasy at once. The water that in the daytime had not reached the level of the bank by a margin of about two metres, was now splashing under his very feet, and every now and then it was even overflowing the bank and spreading in the grass.
"Well, there we are!" Makoŭčyk's somnolence vanished in an instant. Excited, he pushed back the hood of his cape and looked round, as if he expected advice to come from somewhere. But behind him everything was dark and still. What was to be done? It was quite clear that in a short spell the river Stry would flood the bank, the horse-lines, and the drill field where the guns were standing. Then Makoŭčyk recalled the muddy creek that separated the horse-lines from the tents. If the water in the creek rose, the camp would be quite cut off from the horse-lines...
Makoŭčyk made for the creek at a run. On passing the familiar shrubbery the fellow almost fell in the water - along the ditch sped a turbulent stream which had certainly not been there before. And although Makoŭčyk saw that the stream was not deep, the fact that it was there, behind the horse-lines which were threatened by the roaring overflowing river from the opposite direction, this fact alone was sufficient to alarm him.
While Makoŭčyk pondered on whether it was best to call the Officer of the Day, give the alarm, or wait and see how the circumstances developed, - he recalled Zapara, and the thought cooled him down instantly. Makoŭčyk could very well visualize how the section sub-commander, on learning the reason for Makoŭčyk's alarm, would cast a contemptuous glance at him and say that it turned out that after all he, Makoŭčyk, was able to act quickly on occasion. Perhaps even unnecessarily quickly? Or perhaps he was frightened of the shallow stream?
Looking at the dark, overcast sky, Makoŭčyk tried to calm himself down: "The night is almost over. But for the clouds, light would be already breaking." It seemed to Makoŭčyk that, after all, it was possible to wait until morning came: even if the river overflowed the banks, it would be easier to deal with the situation by daylight.
The soldier strolled back to the horse-lines. Presently, a young junior sergeant who belonged to the administrative section of the battalion and was on night duty at the horse-lines, came up to him. Makoŭčyk understood that the sergeant was also worried about the flood that was threatening the bank.
"Look how the river has risen. Where on earth does all this water come from, I wonder?" He yawned: it was clear that somebody had awakened him.
"Well, what do you say? It looks as if we may be flooded, doesn't it?" The sergeant spoke in a frank, friendly manner treated Makoŭčyk with respect as if that one was older and Makoŭčyk appreciated the attitude.
"That's what I have been thinking all the time," confessed Makoŭčyk.
"Perhaps I should go and report the matter to the O.D.?"
"Looks like you should, Comrade Junior Sergeant. He may not be in the picture - his base isn't that close to the river."
"That's my opinion too... So, you think I had better go and report the matter to him?"
"Yes, Comrade Sergeant. But be careful on the way - the creek has been flooded."
"Well, I'll cross it somehow. You hold on here!"
The junior sergeant disappeared in the darkness. Makoŭčyk recollected what had been said in the battery about the sergeant: a kind, friendly, but rather funny fellow - has doubts and questions about everything. He also recalled that to everbody the junior sergeant was known under the nickname "the Chernigov Scholar". The sergeant had joined the Army only about half a year before; previously he had worked as a teacher somewhere in the Chernigov Region of the Ukraine. In an instant, however, Makoŭčyk forgot about the sergeant entirely; he strained his hearing trying to penetrate through the stillness of the camp: despite the roar of the river and the monotonous drumming of the fine rain, everything in the camp was obviously calm. Everybody was asleep and completely unaware that with each minute the river was rising higher and higher and creeping closer and closer...
Then Makoŭčyk noticed that more and more water was appearing on the ground, and it did not look like rain puddles at all...
At last, above the noise of the river, Makoŭčyk heard the first commands, and almost at the same time he saw the junior sergeant on duty rushing by. Without stopping the sergeant shouted to Makoŭčyk, "We are moving from here immediately!" and ran on. However, some time passed before the artillerymen came to collect their horses. But Makoŭčyk understood what the delay meant: the soldiers were pulling down the tents, and there was no doubt that the whole camp would be moved. Thinking that he had to get ready for the march Makoŭčyk felt uneasy, because he realized he would not be able to run to the camp and pick up his pack, his rifle and the greatcoat. And, of course, Chaluta would never think of bringing the things along. Besides he did not even seem to be in a hurry to put in an appearance. What could he be doing? Where was he, this penny pop singer?!
The reception Makoŭčyk gave Chaluta when he eventually arrived was far from being very friendly. Sulkily he took his things and the rifle from Chaluta, but the latter hardly noticed Makoŭčyk's bad mood.
"The camp's being flooded, Mak! The water's got into the huts on the camp boundary already - they lie at lower level, you know. The boys jumped down from the beds and - splash! - they found themselves in the water. That's something, I tell you!"
Chaluta spoke in such a way as if he felt amused by the situation.
"What a windbag!" Makoŭčyk thought, piling the wet bales of hay onto a cart. He personally did not see anything funny about the situation, and that's why he felt irritated by Chaluta's words.
"Pick up the horse cloths! Count them!"
From the meadow Zapara's resounding voice could be heard. Even from some distance, the section sub-commander shouted - "To the horses! Saddle up! Ride to the depot, pack up the guns!"
Around the horse-lines, the crowd of the artillerymen was in a kind of commotion. In the darkness each of the soldiers was busy, doing his own bit of work. One could hear calls, questions, momentary arguments.
"Where's the saddle?" - somebody demanded impatiently.
"Stand still, you bony devil!" another soldier shouted at his horse.
Zapara gave a loud command, "Chaluta and Makoŭčyk! Put up the new horse-lines by the forest, close to the highway!" Makoŭčyk gingerly echoed the command - "Very good, sub-commander. New horse-lines - by the forest - close to highway!"
"Look out that you don't leave the oats and hay behind!" added Zapara.
To Makoŭčyk, the sergeant's last words sounded like another dig. But Chaluta reassured the section sub-commander - "Don't worry, we won't forget anything!"
Makoŭčyk, who was busy getting a horse into harness, said nothing. Silently he climbed onto the cart, settled on the sacks of oats and the bales of hay, told Chaluta to have a last good look around so that nothing should be forgotten, and jerked the reins.
Almost everywhere the road was already under water, which splashed with each step of the horses, but when they came to the creek, the stream reached the floor of the cart.
The day was breaking, and now it was possible to see that where the rows of the soldiers' temporary huts had stood, only wooden supports and poles stuck out of the cold, rippling water which was quickly spreading in eddying streams all over the place. On overflowing the banks, the river had flooded the lowlying places and hollows which had previously been quite inconspicuous. Now they were turning into little pools of water, which were spreading wider, joining together and becoming small lakes, which were growing in size surprisingly quickly.
At the place where the two roads leading from the bank joined and ran on towards the highway, Makoŭčyk was obliged to stop his cart: up the road moved horse teams drawing mountain guns and ammunition wagons. The horses, their wet flanks glistening, stretched out their necks, toiling up the slope, the horseteam riders waved their whips, urging the horses forward with angry or encouraging words. These were the guns that belonged to another battery.
Makoŭčyk waited for them to pass and drove his cart also onto the highway. On the smooth, level asphalt the cart ran more easily, and the horses started off at a cheerful trot. After covering a distance of about a hundred yards Makoŭčyk turned off the road, following the guns of his battery which were moving along a newly-laid track climbing a rather steep slope. He also drove his cart uphill. Now it was hard for the horses to pull, and the gunner climbed down and, pushing the cart with one hand, walked beside it.
The cart proceeded careening to one side, its wheels slipping back on the muddy, uneven ground and threatening to knock the soldier down.
At one place the cart stuck altogether: the horses were tired, they were snorting and panting for breath, and Makoŭčyk allowed them to stand still and rest for a while. At that moment Chaluta rode up from behind carrying several canvas pails. Makoŭčyk asked him to help, and both of them started pushing the cart from behind and below, urging the horses on. Moving in such a way they soon reached the spot where the new horse-lines were to be put up. Several other artillerymen who were also on stables duty had already arrived there and were bustling around.
Makoŭčyk singled out several pine-trees standing on the edge of the forest, which went up along one side of the slope stretching towards the remote summit, invisible from that particular spot. Then the soldier took a rope out of the cart, tied it round the trunk of one of the pine-trees, stretched it towards another, took a turn round that, and fastened it round a third one. Chaluta who helped Makoŭčyk was talking all the time about different incidents of the emergency situation caused by the flood.
"Oh, Mak, you should have seen what a torrent the creek has become! Especially at the bend. I crossed there. And you know what? - I was almost swept away by the current. I made it by the skin of my teeth. It's a fact, I only just made it!"
"Nothing to boast of. You'd better keep mum about the stupid things you do," Makoŭčyk muttered indifferently.
"What kind of stupid things?"
"Usual kind of stupid things, - no sensible chap ever crosses a stream at a bend where the current is the strongest."
"Oh, you are so sensible, aren't you! It is easy to be wise after the event..."
Chaluta straightened himself up, and took a look at the river: in the damp grayness of dawn the Stry rolled along glistening darkly. The river looked boundless. It had overflowed the banks everywhere along its course, and now its waters stretched from close below the highway and almost as far as the foot of the gloomy mountains showing dark on the other side. They were no less than a kilometre and a half away. The dark waters of the flood covered the plain in the same way all along, with only trees and shrubs dotting the surface here and there.
Even from the spot where the soldiers stood it was easy to see that the current was very strong. Both the mid-stream and the currents running closer to the farther shore carried pieces of wood, logs, uprooted shrubs and hay. In the midst of all this lumber, Chaluta sighted a big tree which the angry river swept along, spinning it round and round, like a matchstick.
Not far away Chaluta discerned some poles sticking up out of the water and recognized them as the remnants of the camp. Then he turned his glance to the place where the horse-lines had been, and as he did so an expression of alarm appeared on his countenance.
"D'you know, Mak? We... left... Eagle... behind..."
Still busy tying the rope round the pine-tree Makoŭčyk looked up. No, Chaluta did not seem to be joking - he was pale, and his face which usually wore cheerful and care-free expression, looked frightened now.
"Didn't I tell you, you fat-head, to take a look around and see that we left nothing behind?"
"But why didn't you remind me of Eagle?"
Makoŭčyk did not reply. His hands shook with anger.
Why not remind him, indeed! So, this Chaluta needed a nurse to look after him! Oh, how eager Makoŭčyk was to tell that sop what he really thought of him! Fuming, Makoŭčyk seemed to be searching for words to express his anger and contempt for Chaluta.
But at that moment he saw the section sub-commander walking in their direction, leading his horse by the halter. Just like everybody else, Zapara was besmeared with mud up to his ears, there was even some mud on his forage-cap. On top of everything this was, surely, the last thing they needed!
Coming up, Zapara cast an indifferent glance at Makoŭčyk, and unsaddled his horse.
"Have you brought all the oats along?" he asked the soldiers and rubbed the horse's back, damp with sweat where the saddle had been.
"Yes, of course, we have", Chaluta replied hastily. "We've brought both the oats and the hay! It was some job, too, but we managed it! We've brought the lot!"
Makoŭčyk looked angrily at his fellow soldier, and turned away. For a second he glumly stood motionless, and then slowly walked downhill digging the heels of his boots into the wet, slippery soil. Makoŭčyk felt furious: anybody would be! That nitwit! - leaving a horse in the water! How could he, Makoŭčyk, so thoughtlessly have relied on such a fop? Why didn't he stay behind himself a bit longer? Why didn't he check everything himself?
Makoŭčyk was furious with Chaluta, but at the same time he had another feeling: it was absolutely clear for him that it was he, Makoŭčyk, who had to put the matters right. He was sure that it was his duty and nobody else's. In general, Makoŭčyk always preferred to face up to problems himself.
And now the most vital problem for him was the task of rescuing Eagle. Now Makoŭčyk felt it to be his primary duty, a matter of paramount importance in his life. Surely, this duty was really important, not to be compared with some dull drill, when Zapara urged you on for no earthly reason whatsoever. Now Makoŭčyk was conscious of being responsible for the life of another creature, the spirited bay Eagle, the horse of Fiodar Kamaroŭ who was in hospital now, and could not come to the bay's rescue...
"Mak-o-oŭčyk! Ma-a-ak! Hey!" The call came from behind, some distance up the hill. Makoŭčyk recognized Chaluta's voice but did not stop to look round. He even quickened his step. In a hurry as he was, the gunner halted on crossing the highway. It was here, close to the water, that he became fully conscious of how astonishingly high it had risen. However, he was too preoccupied with other things to give it further thought. He decided to turn to the right, for it was the shortest way to the place where the horse-lines had stood.
On turning, Makoŭčyk went down the steep, slippery slope.
The water was waistdeep here, and slowed the soldier's progress. However, the current was not very strong and at first Makoŭčyk moved along without much difficulty.
After he pushed his way through the shrubbery beyond which the bed of the creek began, he became conscious of a perceptible change in the current of the stream. According to its own laws, the water ran much quicker here, seethed and whirled, carrying broken tree branches and loose hay. The current almost knocked the soldier off his feet, dragging him towards the deeps, and here Makoŭčyk halted. He tried to visualize his further progress, and his heart sank. He looked around, trying to find a place where the current was not so strong, but it was the same everywhere. The gunner was thinking hard: would he be able to keep on his feet while crossing? would he be able to withstand the powerful rush of the mighty current? what would happen if he did not, if the water knocked him down, started whirling him round carrying him along the river?!
He did not even know how to swim! He had never learnt: near his beautifully green home-village in the Viciebsk Region of Belarus there was no river, not even a puddle-sized lake. So, he just could not swim.
A large heap of hay was whirled along by the current past Makoŭčyk, hay driven all the way from some place up in the mountains - the same could happen to him. It was as easy as anything for such a torrent to knock a man down and sweep him away. It was simply nothing for such a powerful stream of water.
"Mako-o-ŭčy-y-k!" the voice of the Chernigov Scholar, the junior sergeant, came to the gunner from the mountain.
"Makoŭčyk! Come ba-ck!"
It meant that they had been following Makoŭčyk's progress. The gunner had not been aware of this: he had been too preoccupied with his own thoughts and problems. And in the meanwhile they had been watching him, - both the junior sergeant from the Chernigov Region and Zapara stood on the mountain slope, looking in Makoŭčyk's direction. The junior sergeant was watching the gunner's movements with concern, Zapara, on the contrary, was mistrustful and sceptical.
"Damn! I always felt it in my bones that this fellow was up to something stupid! Your favourite, too!" fumed Zapara. "But I've already had enough of him! Yes, this is the giddy limit!"
Angrily he flung his cigarette on the ground and set forth down the hill towards the water. The young sergeant followed the section sub-commander, speaking about what could possibly be done to rescue the horse.
"There's hardly any chance..." the section sub-commander replied brusquely. "We haven't got any boats here, and even if we had, at the place where the creek is..."
"Yes, they would be overturned there in no time," the junior sergeant finished the sentence.
The section sub-commander concluded: "So, it is really an emergency. And all our talk is just a lot of hot air!"
It seemed he was convinced that it was impossible to rescue the horse and, consequently, he was very annoyed.
"Don't worry, young man, he won't get very far! Not the like of him!..." Zapara spoke to the junior sergeant in such tones that it was hard to disbelieve him. They were descending the slope rather quickly and the section sub-commander halted a few times to catch his breath.
"I've seen plenty of his kind", he went on. "He won't venture into the creek if the water is more than knee-deep. You should see him dismounting! He wouldn't think of simply jumping down, - oh, no! - he might sprain his ankle! I feel surprised he's walked that far, but I think he's just excited..."
"What if he goes further on? There's that whirlpool, isn't there? He could get dragged down there all right!"
They reached the highway. The junior sergeant cast a glance in the direction where they had seen Makoŭčyk: now the soldier's form was barely discernible beside the shrubs.
"But I tell you he won't go any further!" Zapara averted his gaze from the river, adding with disgust: "And what a horse they lost me, too, the goddamn boobs! Just imagine! - The river had already overflowed its banks, and yet they dillydallied waiting for the water to spread everywhere!... If I were the regimental commander, I'd teach some chaps such a lesson for last night's events that they wouldn't forget it in a hurry."
"You don't seem to be able to talk about anything except teaching other people lessons," commented the junior sergeant.
"So what? Do you think they deserve a pat on the back? Thank them for losing me such a horse?! No, my man, there are no praises forthcoming here! As for this Makoŭčyk fellow, - I tell you, he is in for it!"
"You may be in for it, too if anything happens to him!" the junior sergeant replied and shouted again, "Mako-o-ŭčyk!!!"
The call echoed over the mountain slope and over the wide space of water, repeatedly - "o-o-e-ee" -.
"Well, evidently, he can't make up his mind. You have a go at calling him back," said the younger man. The section sub-commander made a movement, but did not call to the soldier.
"There, look - that's some flood, eh?" the junior sergeant remarked surveying the broad expanse of water. "That's the kind of river it is: flowing along for a day or so, - all nice and quiet and regular - then, all of a sudden, like it looks now - a sea, a regular sea with hardly any bounds, eh?" He fell silent and then added: "It's the same with people sometimes... There are some you can see through at once, and there are others where you don't know what's going on inside them even after a whole year..."
Again he called, "Mako-o-oŭčyk!"
"Oh, he is on his way back already," said Zapara. "Damn it," he went on "we've really got ourselves into trouble over this horse!... The whole schemozzle is because of you three but, of course, it's me who is supposed to take the responsibility. But I'm not standing for that! No, I won't - I am not going to carry the can if it's been your fault all along! It's your look out, and you'll have to take the consequences! And don't try laying the blame on others!"
"Don't worry, I am ready to take the rap if I have too."
"Yes, it's you who is to blame. You were on duty... But, to be sure, I'll get it in the neck, all the same. The horse belongs to my section, he was left behind, - it means I'm ultimately responsible!"
The section sub-commander fell silent: from beyond the shrubbery came the sound of a horse's neigh. Damn it, he would be in for plenty of trouble because of that horse! Zapara nervously shoved back his map case which had slipped forward, and peered with an uneasy feeling in the direction from where the neighing came. His bony face became dark and expressed resolve.
"Chaluta!" he called the soldier who stood close by. "Go, find Makoŭčyk, and don't come back without the horse! Is that clear enough?"
"Comrade Senior Sergeant," Chaluta began in a pleading voice.
"What is it now?"
"Comrade Senior Sergeant... I... I..."
"Out with it!"
"I can't... swim, Comrade Senior Sergeant..."
The section sub-commander's eyes glowed with contempt.
"You miserable coward!..."
His head lowered, the soldier obediently started to walk down the slope, but Zapara ordered him to return. The senior sergeant would not even look at the soldier. He took off his battered map case, and flung it to the junior sergeant. Then without saying a word, he resolutely marched towards the seething water.
...Makoŭčyk was on his way back. Yes, he had been willing to do his bit, but now he felt it was beyond him. It was too late. He had started off too late. Had he started a little earlier, had Chaluta told him about it as soon as they had come up the hill they might have had a chance to save the horse. It was too late now!
He pushed his way back through the shrubbery with the feeling of relief that always comes after a decision, the right and honest one, has just been made.
Suddenly he heard the horse neighing, just a short distance away. The soldier looked round discontentedly. He felt like yelling to the horse, "Stop it! Leave me alone!... Don't you see that I can't help you!"
He made a few more steps, moving slower and slower, and then stopped altogether. His recent feeling of relief and ease was gone. In Eagle's neighing there was a fear, a helplessness, a desperate hope of rescue, and the last despairing plea for aid. It was the call of a creature that was alive, but was in danger of perishing and in mortal fear of death...
"Forsaken, forgotten, and nobody cares..." the appeal seemed to say.
This time Makoŭčyk did not become angry or irritated. Resignedly he heaved a deep sigh - nothing to be done, his help was evidently Eagle's last hope, - and he walked resolutely to the whirling stream from where the plea for assistance came.
This time he did not pause to think when he had approached the whirlpool: the thoughts might be too disturbing. He just stepped into the seething stream. Immediately the current bore heavily upon the soldier, seized him and tried to sweep him off his feet. To preserve his balance Makoŭčyk had to lean as far forward against the on-rushing water as he could. All around him the river was whirling, roaring and foaming. However, this time Makoŭčyk did not feel scared and sorry for himself; he simply felt that he had to cross as quickly as possible and reach the place where the other submerged bank of the creek was indicated by overhanging hazel branches. Yet the soldier's progress was slow and difficult: before making each step he had to find a place where he could secure a footing on the slippery soil of the bottom, and every now and then he had to pause and bend to keep his balance. On reaching the other bank of the flooded creek, Makoŭčyk stretched out his hand and gripped a young hazel branch with sticky leaves. But the branch was too thin and broke off.
The soldier lost both his balance and his foothold at once, the strong current seized him and swept him along, turning him on his back. Instinctively Makoŭčyk realized that he was going under. He floundered and then, stretching out his hands, reached up for the tree branches past which the water swept him. He was lucky enough to catch hold of a willow branch, overhanging the water. But this branch could also give way at any moment. Makoŭčyk hastily reached for a thicker one, then gripped two more. Holding on to them he scrambled up to the bank.
His heart beating like a hammer and his throat full of water, Makoŭčyk did not even pause to catch his breath. Still shaking with the effort of his recent persistent struggle and excitement, the gunner looked around him dazedly trying to make out where Eagle was, and staggered in his direction.
The bay horse snorted, madly running in circles round the tree, pulling at the halter, and trying to break the deadly chain which was fixed round the tree.
However, the iron chain would not give way, instead it bit deeper into the tree, leaving a wide mark on the bark.
The unusually round, blue eyes of the horse were protruding and wild with mortal fear and sadness. These eyes, full of suffering and so clear at the same time, astounded Makoŭčyk. "He is just like a man!" thought the soldier with a stab of pity:
"Eagle... Eagle... You fool..." He stepped closer gingerly, patted the horse on the head, stroked his neck, and tenderly addressed him as if he were human being.
"Well, what, Eagle old chap? So, you've been frightened, haven't you? Plenty of trouble, wasn't there? Same with me - I've had lots of trouble, too..."
Hearing the soldier's soothing voice, and feeling his touch, the horse calmed down, and the taut chain hung loose.
"There, there, ... that's a good old fellow!..." Makoŭčyk laughed happily, leaned against the wet flank of the horse, and relaxed for a second. The horse was still trembling.
The gunner unfastened the chain and under it a deep, fresh white mark became visible on the tree trunk.
"Yes, Chaluta tied you up all right, Eagle! This could have been the end of you!"
The horse neighed, as if in agreement, but now he sounded happy.
Makoŭčyk mounted the horse and wanted to adjust his forage cap but found that he was bareheaded. "Must have lost it in the whirlpool,"... he thought, "Well, that's another reason for Zapara to pick on me..."
"Now, Eagle, we're going to cross," he said to the horse on reaching the whirlpool. "I almost went under at this place. Shall we cross it all right together?"
Remembering his previous experience, Makoŭčyk became worried again. He decided that it was better for him not to go straight across the water but diagonally, so that the horse should not be knocked down by the current. He urged Eagle forward, and rode a short distance along the bank. In doing so he rode past the place where Zapara stood on the opposite side watching the gunner.
"Now, we'll cross here!" Makoŭčyk said, and was already on the point of directing the horse into the stream, when he noticed that from beyond the bend a large tree came surging down on the current, its crown as big as a hayrick. Sharp, naked branches stuck out of the crown of the tree, the other end of which bore bare broken roots.
Makoŭčyk waited for the tree to pass, - it was an oak uprooted by the water somewhere in the mountains: - then the soldier, not yet being fully conscious what danger he might have faced if he had not sighted the tree in time, rode into the stream.
In a moment the water was up to the horse's back. The current was so strong that Eagle strained his whole body to withstand it and keep upright. Now the horse just waded through the water, now he attempted to swim a while. The current was carrying him downstream, and to resist it, Eagle moved sideways, obeying Makoŭčyk who pulled at the halter.
The horse breasted his way through the water, his head raised high, his round bluish eyes glistening with moisture. Makoŭčyk felt that Eagle was frightened by the churning, roaring water and that he did not fully obey him.
The stream seemed to be boundless!.. One more effort! And another! The bank was quite close now! Makoŭčyk's fingers gripped the chain of the bridle so hard that it hurt.
"Once more, Eagle old chap! Hold on! Hold on, Eagle!"
The water around Eagle and Makoŭčyk was whirling and frothing so crazily!...
When they reached the bank Eagle was out of the water in one spasmodic jump, and then he stopped dead. He shook his dripping mane and gave a snort. It seemed to bring Makoŭčyk out of a kind of trance. He let the reins go, pressed his face to the horse's neck and laughed happily.
"So, we came through it, didn't we! We did it, after all! And we're out of that damned hell!"
At that moment the gunner saw Zapara standing close by, and his face darkened. Makoŭčyk straightened himself up, drove the horse forward and rode towards the highway.