But even so, one creature still came out into the blazing heat, bumbling along the path between the parked trucks and stopping to sniff at every vehicle.
When the animal reached the water truck, it stood up and grabbed the faucet. Its paws scrabbled away, but the faucet was too tight. Not one drop of water dripped out.
The animal was a bear. And the bear had never been to this camp before. It was so much bigger than all the other camps he'd visited. This was the headquarters. The bear's master was taking a nap somewhere, and the sun was so hot that the bear was close to collapse.
He shambled past the tents, but didn't find his master. He breathed in the scents that were all part of life in an army camp, like the odor of oil and gasoline. And beer, cigarettes, and chicken. And leather wax, sweat, and explosives. And, of course, the smell of miles and miles of sand.
There was a new scent too — one he didn't recognize. So he headed off to explore: when you smell something good, you have to seize the chance. The bear followed his nose through the camp. He didn't even care that his nose was almost blistering in the sun, because when you're a bear, nothing is more important than a tasty snack.
He took a left and then a right, and then another left. He waddled around the tents until he finally found what he was looking for. Then he stood up on his back legs and began a thorough investigation. The next thing he knew, a deafening scream was echoing around him.
Shocked, the bear fell back onto his haunches, put his paws over his eyes, and pretended he wasn't there. He stayed in that position until he heard his master's voice. Then he peeped out guiltily from behind his paws.
"You bad bear, what have you been up to now? And what on earth are all of those things doing on your head? What do you think you are? A clothesline?"
The bear put his paws back over his eyes and started rocking slowly backward and forward.
The unsuspecting bear had wandered into the women's quarters. He'd never seen women close up before, certainly not screaming ones, and he thought they were a bit scary.
"Does that bear belong to you?" one of the women shouted at the soldier who was standing beside the bear.
The soldier apologized about a hundred times, but the women didn't want to hear his apologies. They just wanted their underwear back.
The bear had at least ten pairs of undies on top of his head. One pair was hanging from his snout and he had a bra around his neck. The bear was perfectly happy. Everything smelled so lovely and sweet, like flowers, and it was all dripping with delicious water.
The screaming women were part of a Polish signals unit. They were in the army, like the men. When they realized the bear wasn't nearly as dangerous as he looked, they came a little closer.
"Now all of our things are stretched out of shape," one of the women soldiers complained.
"You'll just have to wash everything in really hot water," the soldier said. "It'll all shrink back to the right size." He started picking the pieces of laundry off the bear's head, one by one.
"Would you like me to wash them for you?" said another soldier, who'd come to join the first one.
"We can do that for ourselves," the woman said. She sounded a bit upset, but none of the women could help but laugh at the bear, who was rocking faster and faster, still holding his paws over his eyes. "Hello," she said to him, in a friendlier voice. "Aren't you a funny bear!"
"Nice to meet you," the second soldier said. "I'm Stanislav, that's Peter, my best friend and the bear's master. And the bear? Well, he's Private Voytek — and it's about time we started chaining him up."
"This half is ours now," the Germans said.
"And we'll take the other half," the Russians said.
Poor Poland! From that day on, the country as everyone knew it no longer existed. It was a divided country with a "peace border" running right through its heart. That was what the Germans called the new border. It was a funny kind of peace, though.
As for the Polish soldiers, they were rounded up and put into prison. If you lived on the left of the peace border, you ended up in a German prisoner-of-war camp. If, like Peter and Stanislav, you lived on the right of the peace border, then the Russians locked you up.
This dramatic event threw Europe into chaos. Germany invaded other countries and millions of people were forced to run away and leave their homes. People lied and killed and in the end no one knew who was their enemy and who was their friend. But Peter and Stanislav both promised, "We're friends and we won't abandon each other."
But even though they'd promised, they still got separated. One day, they were put to work in different Russian factories. Very occasionally Peter spoke to someone who had seen Stanislav and very occasionally Stanislav spoke to someone who knew Peter, so for two years all they knew was that at least the other one was still alive.
Then something unbelievable happened: an entire army of Germans invaded Russia.
"We thought you were our friends!" the Russians shouted at the Germans.
"Ha!" the Germans shouted back, "We're only friends with ourselves!"
The Russians let all of the Polish prisoners go free, including Peter and Stanislav. The Russians thought: if we're going to fight the Germans, we could use some help from the Polish soldiers. But most of the Polish soldiers didn't like that idea at all. They certainly wanted to fight the Germans, but not on the same side as the Russians, because they didn't trust the Russians for one minute. All of the Polish prisoners did their best to escape and make their way to the border.
After weeks of walking, Peter finally reached the border between Russia and Iran. When he got there, the first words he heard were, "Tell me it's you!" Then he heard the voice again: "Please, please, tell me it's you."
Peter turned around and found himself looking into the eyes of a man who seemed to be more dead than alive. But somehow the ragged stranger's eyes looked familiar.
"Tell me it's you," the man repeated.
"Who? What do you mean?"
"Tell me your name is Peter Prendys."
"Yes, my name's Peter Prendys," Peter said, "but why do you want to know? Who are you?" And then Peter realized. It was Stanislav! With his sunken face and a six-month-old beard, he looked about eighty. Peter's jaw dropped and then he threw his arms around his old friend. "Of course it's me!" he cried. "It's me, Stanislav! Who else would it be?"
Stanislav just shook his head and kept slapping Peter on the back.
"You look like my granddad," Stanislav said. "But older."
"Have you taken a look at yourself recently?" Peter replied.
"Hmm, I think the last time was about two years ago."
Peter and Stanislav had escaped to Iran with hundreds of other Polish prisoners. It was the only border they could cross safely to get away from Russia. They couldn't go back to Poland, because it was crawling with Germans.
"So what do we do now?" Peter asked.
"Now? We fight," Stanislav said. He told Peter that he wanted to join the British, so he could help beat the Germans and free Poland.
Peter thought about it for a moment and then said, "I'll come with you, on one condition."
"That we stick together. We never get separated again."
"It's a deal," Stanislav said, and they shook on it.
Peter and Stanislav reported to a British army camp where there were lots of other Polish soldiers who had escaped.
"Everyone here looks like a skeleton," Stanislav whispered to Peter when they were waiting in line for food that first evening.
"They won't look like that for long," said the soldier in front of them.
"Why do you say that?" Stanislav asked.
"Janusz takes such great care of everyone," the soldier said, nodding at the man who was dishing up the soup.
"Hmmm, I wonder if I could get a job as his assistant," Stanislav said, rubbing his hand over his empty stomach.
"No, he already has an assistant — Lolek. But if you behave yourself, I'll put in a good word for you."
That same evening, Peter and Stanislav got to know Janusz, who served the food, and Lolek, who helped him. Pavel, the soldier they'd met while they were waiting in line, introduced everyone. But none of them suspected that this was the beginning of a very special friendship.
"Line up in groups of five," an officer ordered the group of over 120 soldiers one boiling hot afternoon. Peter, Stanislav, Pavel, Janusz, and Lolek hurried to stand together.
"You five!" the officer said to them. "Over by that truck. And you men," he said to the next line of soldiers, "stand beside that one." This went on for a while, until all of the soldiers had been assigned to a vehicle.
Then the officer gave them their first task: taking a truckload of equipment all the way across the desert to Palestine, where the British had set up a large army camp.
"No tagging along behind each other like a flock of sheep either," the officer said, "Keep your distance, or we'll be an easy target."
"A target? Who for?" Peter whispered.
"Something you wanted to say, Prendys?" the officer called.
"No, lieutenant," Peter said, nervously shaking his head.
"The enemy is everywhere, men," the officer continued, "so keep these piles of junk apart and only stop in sheltered places and when there are fellow soldiers nearby. The sergeants will be in charge during the journey. A sergeant will be assigned to each group of men."
And so they set off together: Peter, Stanislav, Pavel, Janusz, and Lolek. Their truck was packed with sleeping cots, tents, barrels of oil, and boxes of artillery parts.
Their journey took them over steep mountain passes and along narrow roads. From early in the morning until late at night, all they saw was rocks, sand, and shimmering air. Sometimes, when they saw other army trucks parked up at the side of the road, they stopped driving. Then they could have a chat and nap safely while the others kept watch.
But one afternoon, Stanislav had had enough. He decided to stop the truck, even though there were no other trucks in sight for miles.
"That's it. I can't keep on bumping along in this oven," he said, jumping out of the truck.
"But it's way too dangerous here," Lolek said.
"Yeah? Well, cooking away in that tin box is dangerous too," Stanislav replied.
Janusz sighed and walked around to the back of the truck to open up their crate of food. They sat in the shade of the vehicle and took turns drinking from the water bottle.
Peter was just about to stretch out for an afternoon nap when he saw a young boy — that was just a young boy, wasn't it? — stepping out from behind a rock. He nudged Stanislav and pointed. Could it be an ambush? What was the boy doing out here in the middle of nowhere?
The boy slowly walked toward the soldiers. He was dragging something heavy in an old burlap sack. Lolek reached for his gun.
"Don't," Peter said sharply, and he beckoned the boy over.
Lolek whispered that there could be a bunch of bandits hiding behind the rocks.
"Come on, scaredy cat," Stanislav said. "What do you think this is? Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves?"
"Hey you, come here," Peter called, but the boy hung back.
Stanislav waved a chunk of bread at him. When the boy saw the bread, his expression changed. He stood up straight and walked over to the soldiers. Then he snatched the bread from Stanislav's hand and stuffed it straight into his mouth, all in one bite.
"Look!" Lolek cried, pointing his finger at the sack.
"What is it now?" Stanislav said.
"That sack's m-m-moving."
Curious, Peter walked over to take a look at the sack.
"Don't!" Lolek called. "It's a trap." Peter didn't pay any attention to Lolek, but went ahead and opened the sack. They all held their breath, except for the little boy, who calmly carried on chewing his bread.
Peter just stared. "Whoa," was all he said. The soldiers leaped to their feet and ran over to see what was in the sack. Even Lolek came to look. They all turned in amazement to look at the boy.
"Does this belong to you?" Peter managed to say, using a combination of words and gestures.
The boy nodded. Two beady black eyes appeared over the top of the sack, blinking in the blazing sunlight. The eyes were surrounded by dull, pale brown fur. Peter didn't look back at the boy, but picked up the dusty little creature. It fit perfectly in his arms.
"A bear," Stanislav whispered. For just a moment, those brave, tough soldiers disappeared. Their voices became quiet and soft, and all they wanted to do was pet the bear cub.
"He's just like a teddy bear," Pavel said.
"A hairy little baby," Janusz said.
"I had a dog back home in Poland," Lolek said. "He looks just like my dog."
"Look at us! We're like a bunch of women," Stanislav said. They all gazed tenderly at the bear cub lying sleepily in Peter's arms.
The boy came over to the soldiers and pointed at the bread that was lying on the ground nearby. They could see how hungry he was. And they could also see that the little bear didn't have much more life left in him. Peter rocked the cub in his arms as though he'd been raising baby bears all his life, and Stanislav declared, "Okay, we're keeping the bear." And he opened negotiations, taking a penknife out of his pocket and handing it to the boy.
"But what about the sergeant?" Lolek said.
"Who cares about the sergeant?" Stanislav replied.
The boy left with Stanislav's penknife, a tin of corned beef, and some money. The bear stayed with the soldiers. Janusz held out a piece of bread in front of the bear's nose, but the cub hardly moved. Peter gently shook the bear and Stanislav tried to force the bread into its mouth, but it just closed its eyes and seemed to want to sleep.
Then Janusz slapped his forehead, ran to the truck and came back with a tin of milk and an empty vodka bottle. He filled the bottle with milk and handed it to Peter.
When the bear cub smelled the milk, it opened its eyes and drank down the whole bottle.
All of the soldiers started petting and stroking the bear cub again. They had no idea how it was going to work, but they all agreed on one thing: they weren't going to leave this little bear behind.
"We have to give him a name," Stanislav said.
"Let's call him Rover," Janusz said.
"Ali Baba," Pavel said, slapping his knee.
"Ha, ha," Lolek muttered.
"It has to be a Polish name," Stanislav said. "He's one of us."
"Voytek," said Peter, still rocking the bear cub to and fro. "It means 'smiling warrior.'"
All of the soldiers agreed that it was a good name. Stanislav poured some water over Voytek's head and said, "We hereby name you Voytek, little bear, and we bless you and pray that you have a long and happy life."
"Amen," Lolek added.
"Amen," repeated the others.
"Well, um ..." Peter started.
"See, it's like this ..." Pavel said.
"I told you, didn't I?" Lolek whispered.
"Shut up, Lol," Stanislav said.
"It's ... a bear," Janusz said.
"I can see that for myself," the sergeant replied.
"Well, why did you ask ..." Stanislav began, but he didn't get any further because Peter gave him a nudge.
"Sergeant," Peter said, springing to attention. "This bear is our new mascot."
Excerpted from Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak Copyright © 2008 by Bibi Dumon Tak. Excerpted by permission of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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