The Horse Thieves
By John W Prince
He stood there, leaning heavily on the rusty bicycle, pointing west on the eastbound road toward Russia; rags wrapped around the wheels of the contraption where rubber tubes and tires should be; ragged, dirty, hungry and exhausted; outside the broken fence of their burned-out farmhouse.
“Guten Morgen,” he said softly, as if asking a question.
“Guten Morgen,” she said hesitantly, quietening her terror. He didn’t look Russian.
“Bist du Deutscher?” She recognized his Stuttgart accent. It felt so familiar from so long ago and so far off when she was just a girl.
“Ja. Kommst du aus Stuttgart?” She was hopeful.
“Ja,” he responded. “I’m a soldier—was a soldier,” he corrected quickly. “I’m trying to get back to Stuttgart.”
A long pause, staring at each other.
“Stuttgart is a long way,” she began slowly. It had been so long since she had spoken to anyone like this. One didn’t speak to the Russians at all, if possible. “Come in. We have very little.” She turned and walked back toward the old barn, the only building still partly standing. He followed, pushing the creaking bicycle across the mud and dirt.
“Russians?” he asked waving his hand at the destruction; house and one barn burned and collapsed; one barn partially destroyed.
She nodded mutely, shoulders stooped, shuffling in too-big, worn-out men’s boots.
“I’m Wilhelm,” he volunteered. “Named after the old emperor. Wilhelm Gerber.”
“Erika,” she said simply.
She fed him watery potato soup and a slice of rough bread while the children, Max and Hans, looked on wide-eyed and silent. They were waiting for the stranger to hit her, knock her down, drag her onto the bed, climb on top and grunt and thrust and eventually, walk away, leaving her disheveled and motionless and silent. That didn’t happen. The stranger moved to the side of the old stove, lay down on the swept dirt floor, and fell asleep almost immediately, snoring loudly.
They looked at their mother. “He’s a German soldier, trying to get home. To Stuttgart. He’s not a Russian.” The children looked at each other in relief and wandered outside to play.
Over the following days they exchanged stories.
He’d been a carpenter in Stuttgart, sent to a Russian front, captured, escaped, hidden, and in the chaos of the war’s end, found an old bicycle, wrapped the wheels with rags and rode west, mostly at night, eating raw vegetables from fields, starving, sleeping in copses. In Stuttgart he had parents. Family. Perhaps they had survived. He needed to know.
She had stayed on the farm during the war. It wasn’t that bad at first in German Pomerania. Her husband had been conscripted and sent to somewhere in Yugoslavia. She hadn’t heard from him in months. Probably he was dead. Then the Russians came, and things became extremely bad. They wanted women and wristwatches and vodka. They murdered and burned and raped and took what they wanted. The farmers planted what crops they could. The Russians blatantly stole everything, along with their horses, cows, chickens and even the rabbits. The families in the village lived on soup made of wild roots and sour cherries, and the few half-rotted potatoes the drunken Russians had overlooked.
During the day he helped with the rebuilding and weatherproofing of the old barn, getting ready for winter, working with ease and skill. In the evening he sat on the floor in the darkness, one of the boys on either side, recounting nursery rhymes and fairy tales he remembered from his own childhood. Erika sat in her mother’s old rocker, grateful, smiling sadly, knowing it was all going to end all too soon.
One day old Herr Timmerman from the village stopped by. Wilhelm hid in the stalls inside the barn, listening.
“The Russians have a large herd of horses over by the river mill in Stolp,” he told Erika. “I hear they are going to move them east soon.” He paused and peered at her closely. “I know they stole your horses. I also know that the Russians don’t guard the horses very closely at night. They get stinking drunk on their rotten vodka.” He spat on the ground in disgust. “Maybe you could get help,” he looked up at her knowingly, “And sneak over there and get your horses back.” He smiled, tipped his battered hat politely, and walked on down the road toward Russia.
The rest of that day and into the night and all of the next day they talked. She needed a horse on the farm. It would be very dangerous. She knew the village paths and back lanes to Stolp. It was 25 kilometers. Four hours at best on foot each way. If caught they would probably be executed. Hopefully. What about Hans and Max? A horse would make life so much easier. Oh, God in heaven! What to do?
They left just before sunset, tucking the children in. Warning them to stay in bed until they returned. (If they returned!) To say nothing. To say that their mother had gone off to meet a Russian if anyone asked.
Heading west into the farms and wood lots and fences, moving as quickly as possible through the dusk and then darkness. She led and he followed, loops of weathered rope over his shoulder, hearts pounding, breathless, stopping, listening, moving toward the river mill. Sometimes he had to hold the tail of her old dress in the blackest areas, following her movements, unable to seen even her back.
The horses were spread out across several fields behind the mill. A quarter moon. The nearest horses raised their ears for a moment, then went back to grazing or sleeping. She took Wilhelm’s hand, squeezed it tightly until it hurt, her body tense, mind racing, eyes flickering. No movement. No sound. No Russians.
“Let’s take the nearest one, and get out of here,” he whispered almost silently.
She stood very still, then turned slowly to whisper back, “I want three of them.”
She could feel him recoil. “Three,” he hissed. She put her finger on his rough lips. “Three.” She felt him nod.
They soundlessly lifted poles off the fence posts, crept in like shadows, keeping the horses between themselves and any Russians who might still be on guard, making soft shushing noises to the animals. The horses, used to people, made no sound as they grabbed them by their manes and steered them toward the break in the fence. Wilhelm had two mares and Erika held a young gelding, leading them silently along a dark path between two fields.
A half kilometer away they stopped, put rope halters on the horses, and led them forward. “What time is it?” She looked toward the sky. The moon was starting to descend. “Probably around two,” she said. “I don’t think I can walk all the way back,” she added. “I’m exhausted.”
She could see him nod. “Then we’ll ride. I suspect that any Russians about are now very drunk and sleeping their way to a late morning hangover.”
She found the road toward Russia and he boosted her up onto one of the mares while he mounted the other one and led the gelding. They rode, moving swiftly eastward, low over the horses’ necks, holding their manes tightly. There was a very faint azure glow along the horizon as they reached the farm, led the horses into the barn, and closed the door.
Both were breathless, sweating, cold, panting from exertion and fear, and then laughing hysterically at their amazing feat and holding each other at arms-length and falling together on the straw and holding each other tightly, desperately.
She nuzzled her face closely into his neck smelling the sweat and horse and man and strength.
Her hair, wet and plastered to her head, filled his nose with her power and foreboding and dark dreams and woman.
“What is this?” she asked herself. “This desire and loneliness and never wanting to let go?”
They stayed together for a long time, not moving, anxious, fearful of losing the other. Finally, they relaxed and slept. He woke first, the new light shining on her cheek through a crack in the stable wall, reminding him of one of those old medieval paintings of a rustic Madonna.
Her eyelids fluttered. “Good morning,” he said softly. She held him, kissed his cheek, brushed a piece of straw from his forehead.
“Thank you,” she looked into his eyes.
“You’re welcome,” he laughed. “Now I can add horse thief to my list of other life accomplishments.”
“For that, too.” She released him, rolled onto her back, looking up at the old beams and sunbeams shining through the holes in the leaky roof. “For being kind and gentle to me, and telling stories to Hans and Max. For bringing us a few days of civilization in the midst of this, this…” she struggled for words. “Chaos and Hell and uncertainty and destruction of everything good.” She took a deep breath. “Thank you for bringing love into our lives again. I thought we’d never feel that again. Never. We all so desperately needed to know that love still exists somewhere, so we’ll know it when, if, we see it again in the future. Thank you for that.” Tears ran down from the corners of her eyes into her hair. “I haven’t cried since the Russians came. You can’t, don’t, cry when you think that love may have deserted you forever.”
The next morning, he left at sunup, pedaling deliberately down the road away from Russia, the old bicycle with the rag tires wobbling slightly, the rising sun warming his back. Erika, Hans, and Max watched from the gate, waving. He did not look back.
“I like him,” Max said finally. “He told good stories. Why did he have to go?”
“He has his own family to find in Stuttgart,” kneeling, putting her arms around them, hugging her sons close.
“Will we ever see him again?” Hans asked.
“No,” she sighed. “But, he’ll always be here.” She pressed her hands on their thin chests, over each tiny heart, and looked at them in turn. “Any time you need him.”
John Prince is Partner/Creative Director at Hallard Press LLC. The story is based on a true event, but the details have been changed.
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