by beili and Himawari (ヒマワリ)
illustrated by beili
Once upon a time there was a young man called Grishka. He had no money, but he had a good horse, a pan for cooking, and a guitar. So he went out to find his fortune. He was tall and strong, with dark curls and a gold ring in his ear.
He stopped in an aspen grove where there was an old cottage. It was uninhabited, its roof fallen in and bird nests in the rafters. Many places had become abandoned in recent years, whether their occupants had gone to join the Reds or fled the conflict for some place quieter. There was grass for the horse, and an old well nearby. He tied his horse to a tree and went to the well to see if he could draw up water.
Grishka picked up a pebble and dropped it into the well, listening for a splash. Instead he heard a cry from below. “Hey! Are you come to bury me?”
“No,” he called back, wondering if it was a devil in the well, or a spirit, or something in between. “I want a drink of water!”
“No. Are you?”
“They left me down here to die,” the voice called back, sounding weaker.
Grishka sighed. “I’ll get my rope.”
Grishka and his horse made short work of lifting the man out of the well. He was smaller than Grishka, and a little bird-like. Once he was safely sitting on the ground, he took out small round glasses from a buttoned pocket on his shirt. They were, amazingly, intact. He put them in place and pushed them up the bridge of his nose with one finger, like he was a student getting ready for class.
“What’s your name?” Grishka asked, sitting down nearby.
Grishka wondered why a bourgeois young man like him didn’t fit in with the Whites, but he suspected he knew the answer. If Yurka leaned toward the Reds, that was just fine. It was hours before sunset, but Grishka began collecting wood for a fire, figuring the heat and perhaps a little porridge would help Yurka to warm up.
When the porridge was cooked, Grishka gave Yurka the first crack at the pan. He’d perked up a bit, drinking from Grishka’s water kettle, and he ate readily. But he didn’t say any more, communicating solely with polite nods and murmured thanks when Grishka passed him something. Grishka took his guitar from its sack, and sat watching the stream in the distance, sparkling in the lengthening shadows of evening. He strummed a tune.
Но рассвет подымет солнце,
И лучи его, как стрелы,
Остриями света разорвут ночную тьму.
Скинет ночь тумана сети,
День с улыбкой солнце встретит,
И поймешь, куда идти и доверять кому.
He looked up at the end of the song, and Yurka was watching him, eyes sleepy and heavy. “Perhaps you should get some sleep,” Grishka told him. “Not dying is more tiring than dying, after all. I’ll keep watch until it’s dark.” Yurka nodded, and stood, but wavered. Grishka slung the guitar behind himself and put an arm around Yurka’s shoulders.
There was a shed behind the broken down cottage, and it had a coating of hay on the floor. The hay was musty and covered with dust, but it was more comfortable than the ground. As soon as he sat down in it, Yurka’s eyes drooped again. By the time Grishka returned from putting out the fire and gathering his things back into his sack, there was snoring coming from Yurka’s side of the hay pile. Grishka smiled, and sat with his back against the shed wall, strumming very softly, as it got dark.
The next morning Grishka awoke to find Yurka gone from his side of the pile of hay, only to see him outside, poking the fire to life. “I’ll make more kasha?” Yurka asked.
Grishka gestured for him to go ahead. If it was pleasant to watch his nimble fingers stoke the fire and his lips blow on the flames, what of it? This time, Yurka offered him the pan first, when the porridge was done, and waited while he ate.
“I’m off to find my fortune,” Grishka said between bites. “I can spare you some grain, but I have to move on.”
“Can I ride behind you? At least as far as the next village. I’m not heavy.”
Grishka took a moment to think. “The horse can carry two, yes. Okay, as far as Ryabinovka.” He took a last bite of porridge and passed the pan back. “Eat up, we’ll leave soon.”
They left as soon as the pan was cold. It was wrapped in a cloth, put in the sack with the guitar, and slung on Yurka’s back. Grishka expected that Yurka would have difficulty climbing up behind him with the bag, but he clambered astride easily. He sat calmly behind Grishka, his hands relaxed on Grishka’s hips to steady himself. It felt nice to have that weight behind him, and the warmth of Yurka pressed against him.
The horse strolled along. The path hewed close to the river, and morning sun sparkled on the water behind them. The aspens rustled in the wind, and it felt like this could be anywhere, at any time. Grishka loved traveling, and on a day like this he thought he might just travel the world forever. Even with the new sensation of Yurka holding on to him, it was easy to be mesmerized by the sound and sight of riding, daydreaming as the horse covered the miles.
After some time, the sun was high in the sky and beating down on their heads. Grishka pulled the horse to a stop. “You first,” he said over his shoulder, waiting for Yurka to get down. Yurka slid off, still moving more fluidly than Grishka thought a city boy would do. Grishka dismounted as well, and led the horse to the river’s edge to drink.
“What are those bushes back there?” Yurka was pointing into the bushes between the river and the woods. It looked like there might be the remains of a very old cottage there, only the crumbling walls and a patch of roof left standing. But there was a mass of bushes next to it, dots of red in the brambles.
“Looks like raspberries. Take the pan and pick some. Careful of the thorns!”
Yurka nodded, and took down the sack from his back. He took out the pan and re-slung the sack, then trudged through the weeds to the bushes.
Grishka turned back to the horse, checking over the bridle and saddle straps while she drank. He ran his fingers through the horse’s mane and patted her neck absentmindedly. Then he heard a wordless shout from behind him. The horse swung her head around to look at the same time Grishka did.
Yurka was standing by the brambles, facing off against a boy who had a pistol in his sash. Yurka’s hands were raised in surprise, the pan probably dropped and forgotten in the weeds.
Grishka sighed and hooked the horse’s reins over a branch, then went up to join them.
“What’s going on?” he asked. He walked up slowly with his hands out to the sides, to see better without disturbing things more than they were already disturbed.
“I need help,” the newcomer said, and Grishka realized that she was a young woman dressed as a boy, in peasant clothing complete with boots, her hair cut short. Her gaze was darting back and forth between them, her eyes piercing blue.
“Okay, so let’s sit down, and you can tell us about it.” Grishka lowered his hands, and he saw some of the tension go out of her face. “Or we can pick raspberries and share. It’s time for some lunch, right? Yurka, where’s the pan?”
“Oh. It’s here.” Yurka bent down to pick it up, then shoved his glasses up on his nose again. Grishka saw the woman lower her shoulders a bit, relaxing further as she watched Yurka’s schoolboy mannerisms.
“Let’s pick. What’s your name?” Grishka asked the woman.
“I’m… Lesya.” She took a kerchief out of her shirt, and began fashioning it into a pouch for berries. She had dextrous hands. They were beautiful, really, but nothing to Grishka like watching Yurka’s hands work. Yurka was carefully leaning into the brambles to reach berries, muttering as he avoided the thorns. Grishka picked a berry and popped it into his mouth, then began to collect a handful more.
“So what’s the trouble, Lesya? Did you run afoul of the same Whites as Yurka did?” He heard a huff of irritation from Yurka, behind him, for letting that detail loose.
“Our father was a local Red organizer. They killed him, they’re barbarians.” Lesya said it as flatly as if she was announcing that it was washing day, but with a squint of contained anger. Well, that indicated where she stood on Revolution, then.
Grishka offered his handful of berries to add to her pouch, and began picking another. “Are you planning revenge?”
“No, worse than that. My brother was, and now they’ve got him.”
“In Ryabinovka. They’ve set up camp there.” She ate one berry, then continued picking, determinedly.
“Well, then he’s in a tight spot, but I imagine with three of us we can do something about it.”
Grishka heard Yurka clear his throat. “Wait, three of us? I don’t want anything to do with–”
Grishka turned to him. “You don’t have to, but this is a good way to get back at the men who left you to die in a well.”
Yurka shrugged. “I suppose that’s reason enough.”
Grishka turned back to Lesya. “Now come sit and drink from the water kettle, and we’ll plan.”
Lesya brought out some hunks of dark bread from a pouch in her sash, and they shared them with the water and the berries for lunch. Yurka smashed berries into his bread, and Lesya alternated bites of bread with berries.
After their bellies were a little less empty, Grishka turned the conversation to planning. Lesya and her brother had come to Ryabinovka after their father had been killed. They were from the village town upriver that the Whites had recently burned to the ground for Revolutionary activity. Grishka remembered riding through there, just after it had been torched; it wasn’t a pretty sight.
An old friend of their father’s ran a shinok in Ryabinovka, and they’d been doing chores for him in exchange for food, when the Whites rode into the village and set up an outpost. Even so, things had been fine for a while. Lesya worked for Uncle Osip’s place, doing washing and sweeping with her short hair demurely hidden under a scarf, and nobody gave her any trouble. Her brother Sashka, however, had to be more careful because he could be recognized. People kept arriving at the village by day and night, and soon a whole band of White soldiers made camp there. Their commander, Lyutyj, turned out to be the very man who had tortured and killed Lesya’s and Sashka’s father. Sashka had even been there for the execution, but for some reason Lyutyj had let him live: maybe he hadn’t considered the scrappy boy a substantial threat. As the White mob hanged their father, Lesya said, Lyujyj had kicked Sashka out of their village and burned their house down. Sashka had been keen on revenge ever since. And now, in Ryabinovka, as he played the role of a diligent and hard-working orphan doing odd jobs for the villagers, he started to dream of getting back at Lyutyj.
“Lyutyj is a hard and cruel man,” Lesya said. “Utter White scum. His people don’t deserve to be called soldiers; they’re bandits.”
Through night-time spying at the Ataman Burnashev’s windows and helping the Ataman’s neighbours at daytime, Sashka learnt that Lyutyj was not content with robbing and burning villages anymore. He was chumming up to Burnashev in the hopes of getting more support for the White side and completely overthrowing Red Army in the region. Unfortunately for Sashka, Lesya said, Lyutyj caught him snooping around and exposed him to Burnashev as a Red spy. The Whites had locked him up and kept constant guard over him, and last Lesya had heard from half-drunk village hands, the little Red devil was set to be hanged.
“How do you plan to spring him?” Yurka said.
“Pick the lock,” Grishka said.
“There are at least three guards on duty every day,” said Lesya, “And they change as the sun goes down at night and comes up in the morning. There’s no way you could sneak past them unnoticed.”
“Then we’ll distract them,” Grishka said. “What does your uncle have by way of booze? Would he lend some of his better gorilka for the cause?”
“He’s stingy, but he hates Whites,” Lesya said. “I’m sure that for the sake of Revolution he could be persuaded.”
“You keep the booze coming,” Grishka said to Lesya. “I’ll provide the distraction.”
They both looked at Yurka, who shrugged. “Three to one is better than the whole village full of them,” he said. “What’s the distraction?”
“Why, a good song, of course,” Grishka said.
There are three things a good White soldier can’t resist: a stiff drink, a plump girl’s bosom, and an opportunity for a brawl. Where the first two go, the last one doesn’t hesitate to follow. This, Grishka learned early on. Girls’ bosoms being scarce (for they were well locked up after dusk by their parents, unwilling to provide for the cause no matter who was asking), a song and dance would do. Grishka’s step-sisters and distant cousins were artists at this, but never let it be said that a fine man couldn’t be an artist on his own. As the night rolled in and the first Whites started trickling into the shinok, they saw Grishka in his finest scarlet shirt. He was perched at the corner of the bar with his guitar and his best despondent expression. He hunched in on himself a little, strummed the guitar, and sighed into his half-empty mug. The Whites eyed him suspiciously at first, but Lesya came by to top up his mug and bring the first round of booze to the soldiers, and they left him well enough alone.
The night went on; more soldiers trickled in. Grishka’s strumming was getting louder, and the drink, courtesy of Uncle Osip, was getting stronger. When he judged the audience receptive enough, Grishka started singing: first the quieter songs about being on the road and the sun rising through the fog, then about the lovely girl one can’t help but kiss on her smiling lips. And then, the daring ones, about chasing your destiny and being lost, about riding the steppe as fast as the wind, with the bullets singing past.
Мне бы дьявола-коня да плеточку заветную,
И тогда искать меня в поле не советую!
The White soldiers liked that one very much. They were tapping their feet and bouncing their knees to the tune; some joined drunkenly when he repeated the chorus.
“Jug!” Grishka shouted. “Gimme a jug!”
A stout jug came, and Grishka bent down to the table to drink, hands clasped behind his back. Some spilled on his shirt as he drank; he finished and flung the jug to the floor, where it broke at his feet.
The crowd shouted in encouragement. Grishka went dancing round the room, his body limber and quick and his feet quicker. He rolled his shoulders and jumped and struck the wooden floor with his heels. This was the sort of dance that could put any of his step-sisters to shame: wild as a forest fire, a tall young man in a shirt the colour of a flame turning, turning, his thick dark curls bouncing, a gold earring flashing. There wasn’t a White soldier in the room who didn’t feel himself unstoppable, invincible in that moment. Grishka struck the floor with his boot one last time, and they all erupted into applause… and shouts for the owner to bring out the good stuff.
Grishka’s drink had been plain water, poured covertly by Lesya under the tall bar counter. The good stuff the owner had poured into the waiting mugs of the Whites was strong enough to strip paint. Soon, the next jug went to the floor with a crash, and next one, and the next. Uncle Osip winced once or twice at the back of the bar, but what was some crockery when you could be rid of the White horde forever? He kept his mouth shut and ducked into the cellar for more gorilka.
Grishka went around the room, playing his guitar and singing. A clumsy old man spilled a drink on his comrade; another turned too quickly and hit his neighbour; a moody drunk at the end of the table got his pistol out and was aiming a wavering hand at the empty bottles on the bar. Grishka’s fingers ran quicker over the strings; a man struck another across the face; someone got upset that the booze was gone; a shot rang out and a bottle went crashing down. From there, it was chaos. As Griska retreated smartly to the edge of the room, each White remembered every time his fellow man had slighted him, and each one was all too willing to make that fellow man pay.
Fistsfights were breaking out left and right. A jug came flying; a bottle broke on a man’s head; the moody drunk was riddling the counter with bullets. The doors burst open, and two of the people Grishka knew to be on guard duty came rushing in: perfect timing.
“Leg it,” Grishka whispered to Lesya, who was crouched beside him near the counter. The pistol she took off a blind-drunk was steady in her hands. They made it around the room and out the back door just in time to see a dim silhouette of Yurka as he struck the last guard across his head with Grishka’s cooking pan. Then they were across the yard and Grishka was fiddling the heavy lock open.
It was dark inside the shed. The single tiny window high under the roof couldn’t be giving it much light even at midday. By the flickers of the fire the guards had kept, Grishka saw a lanky figure slumped by the far wall: Lesya’s brother. He seemed to be sleeping, but when Grishka shook him by the arm, he didn’t wake, just groaned. He seemed all right otherwise, his hands cuffed in front, but there was no rope or chain binding him to the wall or the floor. With Yurka’s help, Grishka dragged him outside.
“Quick,” said Lesya: she’d been on the lookout. “They might return any minute.”
The guard Yurka had hit with the pan was out cold, an empty bottle close by his side. The shinok was lively with the shouts for booze, loud swearing, and an occasional shot; the moody drunk must’ve picked up some other poor sod’s weapon when he ran out of bullets. It was clear that no one was returning to check on the prisoner any time soon. But there was always a possibility that someone might turn up: perhaps a White officer, as there hadn’t been any at the bar. Or a village local; they’d raise hell just to avoid being hanged for helping a Red escape. Yurka searched the guard’s pockets and took his pistol. Grishka slung the guitar over his back and picked up the pan; it came in handy in a pinch. He pulled the shed door closed and snapped the lock into place, making it look like nothing was amiss. Yurka put his shoulder under the brother’s arm on the left and Grishka took his place on the man’s right. Then he nodded at Lesya. Together, they staggered away from the shed, through the tall willow bushes and over a shallow creek, then out to the steppe, avoiding the other end of the village and the fields. By the time they got back to their camp at the ruins, the sun was rising.
The ruins of the house were only a little bit cooler than the outside in midday, but the remaining bit of roof provided some shade, and there was enough space inside for both the horse and the people. The empty windows had been boarded long ago, and the raspberry bushes grew thick and tall in the years the place had stood abandoned. The house was a ways from the village, almost out on the steppe, so there was little danger of someone riding by and seeing them by accident. Grishka and Yurka had put Lesya’s brother – Sashka, she’d said – down by the far wall of the house, in a small patch they’d cleared of rubble and fallen brick. Lesya put a rolled-up shirt under Sashka’s head and cleaned his face with a wet rag. Yurka started some porridge – weak and watered-down, easy to eat for someone who might’ve been starving, and Grishka put his trusty little pins to work on the heavy metal cuffs.
The lock in the cuffs gave way quickly, and Grishka sat back by the wall. Lesya was running a careful hand over her brother’s hair, pale and cut short in the same fashion as hers. He seemed to be sleeping, but restlessly now. His eyes opened once or twice, but he didn’t talk or recognize his sister. Lesya made him drink some water, and he fell into a heavy doze again.
Grishka caught Yurka’s eye, then nodded to the horse. They led her out to where Grishka found a small pool formed by the source of the creek, covered on all sides by tall old willows.
As the horse drank, Yurka took off his glasses and pulled off his shirt, and after a second, Grishka followed suit. The pool was too shallow to bathe in, but water was clear and cold, refreshing after all the heat and dust. They splashed a bit, washing away the grime. The horse huffed. After some time, Yurka sat back, wiping his neck and chest with his shirt. A small trickle of water ran from his temple, down his cheek, beaded at the hollow of his throat. Grishka couldn’t look away even if he wanted to.
“So tell me,” he said, “how does a city boy like you end up in a well in the middle of nowhere?”
The corner of Yurka’s mouth lifted in a small smile. He draped the shirt over his shoulders, but didn’t put his glasses back on. He looked… younger, a little softer, oddly vulnerable.
“There was shooting involved,” he said.
“Father sent us away from Petersburg,” Yurka said, at long last. “Not least because he’d hoped that would keep me away from the ‘ideologists.’ It was impossible to reason with him.”
He’d fallen silent again, but that was almost enough. An idealist, Grishka thought. How curious.
“What about you?” Yurka said. He’d put his shirt and his glasses back on, and they both took to unsaddling and brushing the horse, then saddling her again.
“No family,” Grishka said. “I’m all alone now. And I didn’t want to go with the tabor. Dance and sing at every White’s beck and call? What kind of freedom is that?”
“So you went out seeking your own fortune,” Yurka said, and there it was, that warm, secretive smile, lurking at the corner of his lips again. Grishka wanted, more than anything, to trace it with his own. “Like a folktale hero. Do you reckon you found it yet?”
“Maybe,” Grishka said, and even to his own ears, it sounded like a promise.
As they returned, they saw Sashka sitting up.
“’m all right,” he muttered when Lesya ran over and pulled him into a hug. He hugged her back, one-armed, familiar. “They just hit me a couple of times when I tried to make a run for it. Put some cuffs on me.”
Grishka looked him up and down. He was taller than all of them, but hardly any older. Sashka’s eyes were as blue as Lesya’s, and his hair stood up in little tufts from sleeping on the makeshift pillow. There were small cuts on his lip and cheek and at his temple, scabbed over. A few yellowing bruises showed on his ribs through the open shirt, but he moved easily, if a little gingerly. Not too banged up or in a lot of pain, then: definitely nothing broken.
“You weren’t waking up,” Lesya said. Her voice shook just a little.
“I didn’t want to just sit quietly and wait to be hanged,” Sashka said, voice hoarse and raspy. Yurka passed him a cup of water, and he drank it down slowly, nodded in thanks. “They said I’d made a hell of a racket. Someone must’ve hit me on the head to shut me up”.
He felt for the back of his skull and winced.
Yurka coaxed the fire up again and heated up the morning porridge.
“Did you see Lyutyj?” Lesya said as they all sat down to eat and passed the pan around.
“More than I’d like to. He’s with them. Was so keen to whip me like Father whipped him, the bastard. Ataman didn’t let him. Said he’d get his laugh when they hanged me for the whole world to see.”
Lesya took his hand in hers and squeezed. Sashka squeezed back.
“There are more important things, though,” Sashka said as he ate a little bit of kasha and drank more water. “They’ve got an armored train.”
“Who does, Lyutyj?”
“Yup, they took it right after they torched that village. It’s just a normal engine pulling two guns on a flat car and an armored draisine, but it’s useful enough. There’s an old siding on the line out at the turn of the Ryabinovka river, yes?”
Lesya nodded; she knew the place well.
“It’s there. They kidnapped the engineer too. They brought him in and tied him up next to me for a night, but I think he agreed to go work on the engine in exchange for not trying to get away.”
Grishka cocked his head to the side. “So do we ride to the Reds in Donskoye and tell them?”
Sashka smiled a bit, though he was still pale. “Better, I think we should steal their train.”
They snuck up to the siding in the earliest dawn light. Roosters were crowing in the distance, but it was likely the Whites would not rouse for hours, and some might even be drinking at this hour. The shed was downhill from the village, and Grishka led the others to peer at it from behind a pile of earth and weeds. Yurka climbed up next to him to peer over the top, while Sashka and Lesya kept watch in the other direction. The siding had a one-sided lean-to with a bit of roof, under which the first flat car was parked. Other than this, the train was in the open.
“Do we know how many guards?”
“One, maybe two.” Sashka said over his shoulder.
“I see one at the front, ” Yurka said, and Grishka followed where he was looking. The man had a large belly under a white Cossack shirt.
They sat and watched until they were certain there was only one guard. “I think they’re more worried about the engineer escaping than about anyone taking the train,” Sashka muttered.
“So do we distract the guard, or…” Grishka stopped as they heard commotion from the village. The guard went to high alert, craning his neck to see what was going on up the hill.
Lesya, her scarf and apron back on, got up and started down the hill. “Wait for my signal, I’ve got it!”
She sprinted down the hill, ignoring a whispered, “No, wait!” from behind her.
“Help! Red soldiers coming from the north! Everyone’s drunk, and we can’t find Ataman!” The guard leveled his rifle at her briefly, but then lifted it back to his shoulder as he comprehended her words. He looked between her and the train, and between her and the village, and then started up the hill with his rifle.
As soon as his bald patch was out of sight, they surged over the mound of earth and sprinted to the train. “Where’s the engineer?” Grishka asked Sashka.
“In the engine!”
Grishka swung up the steps into the cab. The engineer was there, snoring loudly.
“Up and at ’em, man! Let’s go!” Grishka urged him, and his eyes snapped open.
“What? But I’m…”
“No time! If you want to get away from the Whites, now’s your chance!” Behind Grishka, Lesya and Yurka climbed into the coal wagon, and started throwing coal into the furnace.
“It’ll take time to raise steam, it’s not a horse!” the engineer shouted back, but began working the dials anyway. The engine had a low fire burning already, but it would take time to stoke it enough to move. They redoubled their efforts, taking turns with the two shovels to heat the boiler.
Even with his ears open for problems, the first shot whizzing by overhead startled Grishka. They took cover in the engine cab, and a second shot pinged off the metal of the coal wagon. “This side!” Sashka yelled, and leaned out to squeeze off an answering shot. Grishka peeked briefly over the side of the cab, and saw the guard coming back, yelling and firing wildly.
“I guess he couldn’t find Ataman either,” Grishka said, grinning, and poked his head up again to fire off another shot. The guard dove behind the wall of a shed, and ran away again, now firing his weapon into the air.
“He’ll be back again with whoever he can find. How’s the steam?” They all looked at the engineer, who muttered under his breath, but began opening the valve to power the wheels. He moved a low lever, and then a high one, and the engine began to move.
By habit, the engineer reached up to pull the whistle chain, and Grishka barely caught his hand in time. “Stealth before safety!” he said, and the engineer’s eyes widened, but he obeyed.
At the beginning the train’s motion was agonizingly slow, but it built speed, and was eventually puffing away from the village.
“Yurka, you take over here, I’ll watch out the back,” Sashka yelled to him.
Grishka handed his pistol over to Yurka while Sashka climbed to the back of the coal carriage. Lesya kept doggedly shoveling coal into the engine while being careful not to dislodge her brother from the top of the pile.
“Do you think we got away?” Grishka asked Yurka, not taking his eyes off the track ahead.
“I’ll bet they’ll try to catch us yet,” he said, just as Sashka shouted from the back and squeezed off a shot. A bullet clanged off of the roof of the engine cab, startling them all.
“Who is it?” Grishka yelled over the huffing of the engine.
“Commander Lyutyj himself!” Sashka yelled back, ducked down behind the metal wall of the coal bin. Grishka climbed the pile, and on a count of three, they both poked their heads out. Three riders were gaining on the train, guns out, and and another shot rang out. Yurka shot back from the cab, and Grishka pulled Sashka back down to reload.
“Here.” Grishka pulled three bullets out of the pouch under his shirt. “These are my last few, make them count.” As Sashka reloaded, Grishka shouted to Yurka, “Shoot, shoot!” and he did.
Finally, Sashka poked his head above the coal bin ahead. Lyutyj was nearly at the train, reaching out from his horse to grab the rungs on the draisine at the back. Sashka breathed out, squinted, and fired. The horseman slid off his horse, and the other pursuers fell back to help him. “Bastard!” Sashka yelped, as Lesya cheered. “May not have killed him, but they’ll stop to help him.”
“We’re not out of the woods yet!” Yurka yelled from the cab, pointing ahead where the track curved to cross the river. The old trestle bridge there was thick with tar, painted on the timbers over the years to keep them from rotting. Smoke and flame rose from the wood.
The engineer squinted out the other side of the cab at the flames. “Can we make it?” Sashka asked.
“We’ll see if we can cross before the rails warp,” said the engineer. “Everyone inside the cab, it’s going to get hot.”
The train seemed simultaneously speedy and agonizingly slow, approaching the burning bridge. The engineer shielded himself with a glove but stayed at the levers, and everyone else clustered as close to the center of the cab as possible. The smell of pitch got closer and closer, and then they were riding through flames, cowering together, smacking out sparks that flew from the wood. The timbers groaned as the engine passed over.
And then they were across the bridge, the engine at least, but it wasn’t too late for the bridge to collapse under the cars and pull them down with it. They peered out the sides of the cab, and just as the draisine was back on land, the timbers began to give way. The engineer pushed the train to an extra burst of speed, gaining ground before the rails bent from the fire. His sleeve was aflame on the throttle, above the cuff of his glove, and Yurka dashed over with a kerchief and the water kettle to put the flames out. Even with pained eyes, the engineer blew the whistle triumphantly; the next road bridge was miles away and they were free of the White band now.
Grishka hung his sack from a nail in the beam of the hayloft, then thought better of it and took out his guitar. He sat on a crate at the edge of the pile of hay, tuning the strings and then strumming gently. After a time, Yurka’s head came up through the floor as he climbed up the ladder.
“Hello, Grigorij Tsigankov,” he said, sitting on the floor of the loft, and his smile was wide.
“Hello, Yurka,” Grishka said softly. “Are you come to visit me and admire my new surname?” The Commander had thanked them personally, earlier that day, and outfitted them in the kit of Red Army regulars. Grishka had, for once, felt a bit abashed at his lack of a surname, but the Commander had welcomed him all the same, and suggested that he simply use his people’s name to suit. The Red Army, he had said, welcomed all who wished to bear arms for the Motherland.
Yurka laughed softly. “I just came to visit. I like you, whatever name you go by.” Grishka set aside his guitar and beckoned Yurka closer. Even in the indirect light of evening from the hatch on the wall, Yurka’s eyes shined their most brilliant blue. Grishka reached out and took hold of Yurka’s face, setting his glasses safely aside. Then Yurka was in his arms, kissing him.
“Comrades in arms, eh?” Yurka muttered, between kisses, his eyebrows quirking upward.
“Comrades in whatever you want,” Grisha said, and pulled Yurka down on top of him in the hay. They spread out one of the brand-new army coats beneath them, not caring for the hay they would have to pick out of it later. They settled into the coat, pulling each other’s shirts out of waistbands to pet at bare skin. Grishka scooted out of his trousers. “Can I?” he asked, his hands at Yurka’s waistband.
He saw Yurka’s eyes close and that beautiful smile widen, and took it as permission. Yurka was pale where the sun hadn’t tanned him, but strong. Grishka stroked Yurka’s flank as he eased the garment off, and Yurka’s cock sprang free of the fabric, already very hard. Yurka reached out and pulled them together, and Grishka came along with a happy groan. They were both sweaty all over and grimy in spots from the exertion of the past few days, but it was so nice to lay together. It was good to rest, if you could call it that when there was this much panting and grunting involved.
Even partly clothed, it was delightful to lay entwined, grinding slowly and sweetly against each other. Some of the time it was their cocks rubbing together, which made sparks fly behind Grishka’s closed eyelids, and some of the time it was off-center rubbing against each other’s thighs. Grishka held Yurka’s firm ass in his hand. Yurka nuzzled Grishka’s neck and bit gently at the muscle of his shoulder, and Grishka groaned more, letting his head drop back. He felt Yurka’s hand slide between them, to stroke them both together.
“The schoolboy is talented!” he whispered in Yurka’s ear, and Yurka nudged him, laughing. But he kept stroking, and soon both of them were gasping too much to joke. Grishka held on to Yurka’s shoulders, shaking until he came, trying not to shout and be heard out the window of the barn. He shuddered as Yurka came after, pressing his face into Grishka’s chest and sighing. They hadn’t taken their shirts off, even in this heat, but the fabric had bunched up, leaving room for them to pet drowsily at each other’s chests while breathing slowed and panting stopped.
“I’m not an idealist,” Grishka said at length. Their bodies were cooling now, but they stayed pressed together, and he ran a hand slowly through Yurka’s hair.
“Not everyone needs to be,” Yurka said. The evening light softened his sharp features, and he had a sated, lazy look in his eye like the cat that ate the cream. He raised himself on one elbow and squinted a little, presumably to see Grishka’s face better in the settling dusk. His other hand traced Grishka’s eyebrows and then his nose. “I reckon seeking fortune is a good enough reason to help free your land from people like Lyutyj and Burnashev.”
That sly smile, so at odds with Yurka’s usual look of a serious student, was back.
“Doesn’t hurt that you can dance to your own tune now,” he said.
“Doesn’t hurt that it’s exciting as hell,” Grishka said, tracing that smile with his fingers.
“If you two are quite finished,” said Lesya loudly from below, “the Commander says he’s got another job for Little Red Devils. Are you coming or not?”
Grishka and Yurka looked at each other and scrambled for their clothes.
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