Death by Sardines

   They were roused before daybreak and each given a boiled egg and a shrunken apple. Then they marched five kilometres to the train station, where they learned that their destination lay six days' travel to the North. They were herded into small square boxcars, fifteen to each, and the train was soon clicking along its long journey as the workers staked out their spots in the straw.
     Their boxcar smelled strongly of horse manure, and Roman was quick to claim a small patch of floor below a series of open knotholes. Adam had camped in a corner spot to his right, and a tough, angular Ukrainian named Pietr was to his left. Adam whinnied. "Maybe the worst is yet to come?" he said, smiling weakly.
     In mid-afternoon, the train slowed and stopped, and  when an officer slid the box car door open, Roman saw that dense forest crowded the train from both sides. "You will have five minutes to relieve yourselves, then work a bit," ordered the officer in Polish, repeating in French, Italian, and German.
     It became a welcome break to the monotony in their bucking cars: a stretch, a squat, and then felling and sawing enough trees to power the locomotive. The train also stopped sporadically at tiny stations, where watery lukewarm soup and a rocky bun would be doled out.
      Roman had lost track of the days and nights when he was brought awake by a rough shove from Pietr, who handed him something in the darkness of their tossing car. "And pass one on to your sleeping horse," he said. Others woke, and were soon licking their fingers of wondrous oil from a miraculous stash of sardine cans, which were tossed out when licked utterly empty.      The whispered news was that Pietr and seven countrymen had somehow used the last lumberjack stop to pry loose a plank on the train's supply car. There were murmurs of gratitude, and sleep was fed by happy dreams of food.
     The train stopped at a station before dawn, and when the doors slid open the command to get out seemed harsher than usual, and included no reference to breakfast. As the workers lined up in the splash of thin light from the station, Organisation Todt soldiers in brown shirts began to roughly frisk them, and smell their hands.  

    To his right, Roman could see that Pietr and two others had been found with sardine cans in their clothing. To his left, three from another car were also discovered with small caches. They were ordered to step forward, as were a dozen others with the telltale odour on their fingers. A Wehrmacht officer and two soldiers paced very slowly in front of the shorter line, stopping to deliver two hard slaps to the head of each miscreant.
     Two Finns hustled from an idling truck and dealt two slices of white bread, a dollop of honey and water to each man in the main line, which they consumed stranding and quickly. Bloodied or bruised, the dozen who had smelled of sardines were then sent back to the main line while Pietr and his countrymen remained standing alone.
     An officer wearing Gestapo black strode out of the small station house. He stopped before each of the six who remained in front, four of whom stood with heads hung. He came to Pietr, who looked him full in the eye. As the sky began to brighten with streaks of crimson, the officer pulled out his pistol and shot Pietr twice in the head.

    "Nobody steals from the Third Reich," he barked in German. At his feet, Pietr's legs twitched as if trying to kick him.

    They were ordered back on the train, and rode mutely through the day.

The End

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