Winter Sky by Chris Stewart
In a bombed-out Polish village during World War II a young resistance fighter finds that he is suddenly alone and trapped between two opposing armies. He is one of Poland’s “Devil’s Rebels” fighting desperately to save his homeland, but an injury has erased his memory and his only possession is a torn photograph of a couple he assumes are his parents. The woman appears to be holding the hand of a young child whose image has been ripped off. Could the child be him?
Caught in the crosshairs of the retreating German army and the advancing Russian forces, the village holds nothing but destruction and despair until a mysterious young woman offers a small glimmer of hope that may represent his last chance – news of a refuge train departing from a nearby town headed for American installations at the border. But complications arise when the resistance fighter is betrayed by his own countryman and hunted by German SS Officers who are determined to kill him before they retreat.
Desperately searching for a home and family he can’t remember he is persuaded to rescue two children who are doomed to die without his help.
As time runs out the former rebel is faced with an impossible choice. Standing at the crossroads of saving himself or risking his life for strangers, what would motivate a young man at the brink of salvation to make one more sacrifice?
Outside of Gorndask, Poland
December 20, 1944
The train swayed abruptly as it lurched along the poorly repaired tracks. Rail lines were the lifeblood of the war effort, and for six years the line, like every other in the war zone, had fallen under relentless bombing attack. Indeed, the track had been bombed and rebuilt so many times it was a miracle that it could carry any rail traffic at all. So the train engineer kept it slow, knowing that every bridge was an adventure, every crossing a potential derailing point. At one junction he looked briefly for oncoming traffic, though he suspected his was the only train running within two hundred miles. Who else would have the courage, or desperation, or defiance, or whatever combination of such things it might take to put another train upon the track?
The railroad track was a thread of black weaving through a white and green landscape of rolling hills, thick forests, farming cottages, and small towns. Black smoke billowed from the engine and floated back to coat the train in gray soot. The countryside was white with fresh snow. The storm had started out as rain a couple of days before and then turned to heavy snow, thick and wet. The train was surrounded by tall pines, their boughs drooping under the snow’s weight, seeming to reach for the ground. The sky was cloudy still, gray with soft wisps of fog drifting over the hills. Winter had come, and it might be weeks before the sun would break through the overcast to sparkle on the snow.
The train consisted of five troop transport cars. All the seats had long before been ripped out, leaving the desperate passengers to stand chest-to-chest or back-to-back as they swayed together with each lurch of the train. A few of the weakest among them huddled on the floor, too exhausted, sick, or wounded to stand.
The cars were packed with terrified civilians, mostly women and their scarce belongings: piles of clothing held together with rope, a few bags, an occasional suitcase. One of the women held a small sewing machine, another a wooden cage stuffed with three chickens. In the corner of the compartment, a young mother stood alone. Her long hair framed a beautiful oval face that was so vacant it looked lifeless. In her arms, she held a tiny bundle tightly wrapped from head to toe in a light blue baby blanket. Her child. No longer living. Taking him home. It was a pitiful sight, and the other passengers gave her as much space as they could muster, but no one spoke to her. The death of a child was as common as the falling of the snow, and no one had the ability to offer any comfort anymore.
To the west, the Germans had turned to take a final stand at the border of the Fatherland. To the east, less than twenty miles away, the mighty Russian army was approaching. The passengers were caught between the pincers, and most of them felt the chaos of war would never end. All of them were hungry. All of them were cold. And their only hope of survival was to flee the coming Russian horde.
In the back corner of the last troop compartment, a group of men stood together, tense, their eyes darting about. They were ragged and hungry like the others, with beards and rough hands. No one knew them, but everyone knew who they were. There was only one possible explanation for a group of men such as this traveling together: Devil’s Rebels. The insurrection. Those brave young men and others like them had been raining hell upon the Germans for the last six years. There were a dozen of them in all, ragged individuals in mismatched and poorly fitting clothes. And though the travelers considered every one of them a hero, no one acknowledged them in any way. It was far too dangerous to be seen consorting with the hated enemy of the Nazis.
Two of the rebels stood together. Four days before, under heavy fire and wearing stolen German uniforms, they had slipped into a German field hospital to rescue one of their own. They stood on both sides of the young man now, occasionally reaching up to brace him as the train swayed along the rickety track.
* * * *
The wounded man stared blankly into space, one eye unfocused, a smear of blood still oozing from his left ear. His blond hair was long and hung in front of his brown eyes. His face was square, with a prominent nose and dark skin. He was tall and almost thin from too many exhausting days and not enough to eat. And though his eyes were bleary, they contained an innocence that was rare in this part of the world. In the middle of a war zone, in a place where everyone was guilty of something in the desperate struggle to survive, very few were innocent any longer. Yet he seemed to have escaped some of the evil, and that made him look out of place.
He reached up and touched the blood on his cheeks. Why are my ears bleeding? his brain screamed in pain.
He stared in confusion at the blood on the tip of his finger. His legs felt like water, and waves of nausea heaved up inside him. He hadn’t eaten anything in the last two days, and that was good, for he surely would have lost it all from the sickness and disorientation that rolled from his stomach to his head. He lifted his hands, which were shaking badly, then jammed them into the pockets of a discarded military jacket that wasn’t his.
Why does my head spin? Why does my body hurt? his brain screamed again.
He didn’t know it, but a Russian shell had landed less than ten feet from where he had been bending over one of his wounded friends. His head hurt because it had nearly been torn off his shoulders, throwing his brain against the back of his skull like a pile of jelly against the side of a bowl. His feet hurt because the bones had nearly been broken from the shock wave that had spread across the ground from the exploding artillery shell. His chest hurt from the enormous pressure that had overinflated his lungs. His hands trembled from the nerve damage along his spine.
If he could have remembered, he would have realized that he was lucky to be alive. If he could have remembered, he would know that, even in the midst of the battle, he hadn’t been afraid. If he could have remembered, he would have admitted that wasn’t because he was particularly brave but because of the fact that, after six years of bitter fighting, he had reached the point where he approached death much like a very old man: he knew it was coming, he just didn’t know when. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, but it was not far away.
But he didn’t have any of those feelings because he couldn’t remember anything.
He stood with the other men, trembling hands stuffed inside his pockets. Fragmented images continued to flash through his mind. Faces of children. An unknown stranger. A wounded soldier in his arms.
Who was it? He didn’t know!
A church. A military truck. Dozens of German tanks lined up along a road that ran through a thick forest.
He couldn’t remember where it was!
An open field scattered with wildflowers and deep ruts of exploded dirt. The sound of screaming aircraft engines. A little girl crying. A soft hand inside his own.
None of it meant anything!
He nearly panicked from the confusion, having to force himself to breathe.
The train lurched and he stumbled, wondering how much longer he could stand. He glanced down at his clothes, a winter jacket, a brown scarf, and mismatched gloves. His breath formed light clouds of mist that were quickly blown away in the drafty railcar. No one spoke to him as they rocked along.
Inside his jacket pocket, he fingered a photograph, the thick paper rough against his fingers. He touched it tenderly. It was the most important thing he owned. No, that wasn’t right. It was the only thing he owned. He carefully pulled it out, hiding it inside cupped hands. Crinkled. Dirty. Smeared with a thin line of dried blood. Worst of all, it was torn in two, the right side nothing but a jagged edge. He studied it a moment, then stuffed it protectively back inside his pocket.
The train slowed, the engine belching black smoke. All the windows in the troop cars had been replaced with wooden slats and then covered with metal bars. Small openings between the rough slats allowed the passengers to look out. The rebels stared through the slats as a tattered village came into view when the train emerged from the cover of the woods. “Looks like Gorndask,” one of them said.
“Or what is left of it,” another answered softly.
A couple of the civilians also turned to look between the slats, a silence seeming to fall upon them.
“It is a hard place,” one of them muttered. “These people have borne more than their share of the war.”
One of the soldiers nodded to the one who was bleeding from his ear. “Someone said this was his village,” he said.
The wounded man leaned over and stared between the slats, taking in the small town as the train passed through scattered openings in the trees. My village! he thought through the pounding in his head. How could this be my village? I don’t recognize anything!
The commander of the rebel unit, someone they would have called lieutenant if he had been wearing a uniform, studied the shell-shocked rebel. “I don’t know what to think of him anymore,” he said to no one in particular.
One of the other soldiers answered. “Shell-shocked, sir. Concussion. Maybe worse.”
The lieutenant scowled. “I can’t be responsible for a witless soldier.”
His sergeant nodded. Neither could he. Still, he hunched a weary shoulder. He knew there was more to the soldier than an injury to his head. He had seen it before—far too often, in fact. The violence and destruction had finally taken its toll, and if the wounded kid wasn’t completely broken, then he was right on the edge. But that was what happened when they sent such young men into war. So he spoke up to defend him. “He’s a good soldier. He volunteered for the resistance. That says a lot, especially for someone so young.”
“Young!” the lieutenant snorted. “I’ve seen children fight this war.”
“He isn’t much more than that even now, and he’s been fighting for many years.” The soldier paused. “And he risked his life to save me.”
“Then you saved him at the field hospital. I think you’re even now.”
“Maybe that’s enough. Maybe the rest of it doesn’t really -matter.”
They rode along in silence as the train slowed, the boxcars clattering with each passing section of track. The air inside the boxcar was humid with human sweat and breath. The lieutenant glanced in the direction of the approaching Russian army. A million men were coming. He glanced to the west, knowing the Germans were waiting there. He was so tired of the fighting. It had been so long. Six years of fighting the hated Nazis. Six months of fighting the hated Russians. War was all he knew. Friend after friend and death after death. “We’ve got nothing left to fight for,” he finally whispered to himself.
“The only thing we’re fighting for now is to live,” his sergeant answered.
“What are we going to tell our children?”
“That we fought beside our brothers.”
“And we lost them all for nothing.”
The train continued to slow, clattering at a crawl along the tracks.
The lieutenant nodded to the wounded man. “Even if we had somebody left to fight, he’s no good to any of us now.”
The sergeant didn’t reply.
The train jerked a final time and came to a halt. They had to stop for water for the steam engine, but no one would be let off the train. And they wouldn’t stop for long. Their destination was many miles to the south. Almost all the passengers were trying to make their way back to Warsaw, where they had had families before the war. Most of them wouldn’t make it. The train was only going halfway, and the roads were controlled by either the Nazis or the Russians, depending on the area and the day. The train would draw an enormous amount of attention, which in the middle of a war was never good. But for most of them, it was their only choice. It was this or walk all the way to Warsaw through the winter.
The engine hissed as the engineer released pressure on the brakes. The lieutenant had to make a quick decision. “You think this is his home?” he pressed again.
“Who knows? Maybe. That’s what someone said.”
The commander turned away in thought. A deep sadness seemed to fall upon him, darkening his face. He sighed in resignation. “Leave him here. Let him go and find his home.” He paused again and looked wearily to the south, calculating where the Germans might be waiting. “Who knows but that he might be the only one of us who actually survives this war.”
Author Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is a multiple New York Times bestselling author who has published more than a dozen books, has been selected by the Book of the Month Club, and has released titles in multiple languages in six countries. He is a world-record-setting Air Force pilot (fastest nonstop flight around the world) and former president and CEO of The Shipley Group, a nationally recognized consulting and training company. Currently, he is a U.S. Congressman representing the 2nd Congressional District in Utah.