The little old man and the soldier

Once upon a time, a little old man lived in a hut in the middle of the forest. The hut was small, with a bed, a table, and a wood-burning stove.

During the summer, the old man would set traps to catch small animals. Sometimes he would shoot birds, or go fishing. He would bring his catch back to his hut, skin and gut it. Then he would preserve the meat in salt, and store it away for winter.

Other days he would go out and cut down trees. He would haul the wood back to his hut. He would chop it up with an axe and store it in a log pile behind his hut.

When winter came, deep snow would fall and the little old man would be cut off from the world. But he did not worry. He had enough supplies to survive the winter in comfort.

The little old man needed little money to live. When he needed a new pair of boots, or to get an axe or a hammer repaired, he would walk into the town, and do some odd jobs for the cobbler or the blacksmith, and get what he needed in exchange.

This was odd because buried behind his hut was a chest full of gold bars, enough to pay for him to live in luxury for the rest of his life.


 

One day in the depth of winter the little old man was drinking tea by the stove in his hut, when there was a knock on the door. No-one had visited the little old man in at least 10 years. He decided he had just heard a bough fall in the wood, and ignored it. Moments later the knock came again. Strange, thought the little old man, two boughs falling together like that. But the third time the knocking came, the little old man got up and opened the door. Standing there was a girl, wrapped in a cloak, shivering.

“Please help me,” said the girl. “I am lost in the forest. My parents have been taken away by soldiers and there’s no-one left to look after me. I had to run away. I haven’t had any food for three days. Please can I come in?”

“Go away,” said the little old man. “I am not a charity. I have just enough here to last the winter. I have done what I need to provide for myself, and I don’t see why I should share it with you.”

A tear ran down the girl’s face, and she turned to walk away. The little old man shut the door. He poured some tea from the pot on the stove, adding hot water from the urn and sugar from the bowl, and settled by the stove.

But the little old man couldn’t get comfortable. He kept on thinking about the girl that he had turned away.

“I have to look after myself,” he told himself.

“But she will die if no-one looks after her,” his other self retorted.

“But I don’t have enough to look after her and me,” said his first self.

“You have plenty, and more,” said his other self. “You have more than enough food and fuel for the winter, and you have all that gold which you could use to buy some more if necessary.”

The little old man sat by the stove arguing with himself for a long time. After a while the feeling of guilt overcame him. He put on his fur hat and fur coat, and his knee high fur boots. He took his axe and his shotgun and a bag with some food and a bottle of brandy. He opened the door and walked out into the snow.

The girl’s footprints, deep in the snow, led into the darkest and deepest part of the wood. The light was failing as the little old man followed the trail. After a while, the girl’s footprints were joined by another set of prints, which covered the first ones. The little old man looked carefully, and realised that these were the prints of a wolf. Now starting to panic, the little old man went as fast as he could in the deep snow. He burst into a clearing. The girl was lying in the snow, and wolf was at her throat. The little old man raised his gun, and shot the wolf. He ran to the girl. Her throat was ripped open, and she was dead. The old man let out a great cry, and fell to his knees.

By now it was quite dark. The old man picked up the body of the girl, and carried her back to the hut. He laid her down outside. He fetched a lamp and a shovel, and dug a grave for the girl.

After he had buried her, he want back inside the hut. The fire had gone out, and the little old man felt utterly miserable. He could not sleep.

“You murdered that little girl,” said the other voice.

“No I didn’t,” said the first voice. “I didn’t arrest her parents. I had no responsibility for her.”

“But you could have helped her,” said the other voice. “There was no-one else there, so you were responsible. You knew when you sent her away that there were wolves in the forest.”

The the little old man cried. But his tears did not make him feel better.


 

Time passed, and the little old man forgot about the girl and the wolf. Then one day in the depth of winter he was sitting by the stove drinking tea when he heard a knock at the door. Once again, he decided he had just heard a bough fall in the wood, and ignored it. Moments later the knock came again. Strange, thought the little old man, two boughs falling together like that. But the third time the knocking came, the little old man got up and opened the door.

He saw a man dressed in rags that had once been a uniform.

“Please help me,” said the man. “I am a soldier, and I have lost my battalion. The enemy was on my trail, and I ran deep into the forest. I haven’t eaten for three days.”

Then the little old man remembered the girl that was killed by the wolf. He threw the door wide open, brought the man inside. He brought sweet tea, dried meat and bread. When the soldier had eaten, the little old man made a bed for him on the floor by the stove.

The little old man got into his own bed, and slept better that night than he had since the girl knocked on his door all those years ago.

In the middle of the night, the soldier woke. The little old man was fast asleep. The soldier pulled a rope from his pack, grabbed the little old man, and before he could properly wake up, tied him to a chair.

The soldier lit a lantern, and held it in front of the little old man’s face.

“I want your gold,” said the soldier. “Tell me where it’s hidden.”

“I haven’t any gold,” said the little old man.

“Ah, but you have,” said the soldier. “You were chopping wood when I heard you singing a song.

I live on my own
I’m little and old
And no-one suspects
I have stashes of gold

Now tell me where it is.”

But the little old man was stubborn. He wasn’t going to tell the soldier where his treasure was.

“Is it inside the hut?” asked the soldier. The little old man nodded his head. So the soldier searched all through the hut, emptying out the cupboards, throwing all the little old man’s clothes and food stores onto the floor. But he didn’t find the treasure.

Now the soldier was angry.

“You lied to me,” he shouted. “Now tell me where the gold is.”

The little old man was still stubborn.

“Is it buried outside the hut?” asked the soldier.

The little old man shook his head. But the soldier no longer believed the little old man.

“It is buried outside, isn’t it?” said the soldier. “Is it buried to the North?”

The little old man nodded.

“I don’t believe you”, said the soldier. “Is it buried to the South?”

Again the little old man nodded.

“I don’t believe you”, said the soldier. “Is it buried to the West?”

Again the little old man nodded. The soldier didn’t even bother to ask again, but as soon as it was light, he went outside and started to dig in the snow to the East of the hut. He dug for many hours, but he didn’t find gold. Instead he found the bones of a girl, and lying by the bones, a locket.

The soldier went back into the hut.

“What are these bones?” the soldier asked.

So the little old man wept, and told the soldier the story of how the girl had knocked on his door, how he had turned her away, and how he had found her in dead in a clearing. The little old man had never spoken of this before, and he found much relief in telling the soldier about it.

The soldier opened the locket, and there was a picture of the girl’s parents. Now it was the soldier’s turn to weep.

“I was one of the soldiers who took those parents away,” he said. “We were under orders, and I had no choice.”

The soldier wept a while, then went back to the digging. After a while, he discovered the casket with the gold bars. Taking his pack from the hut, he set off into the forest, with the casket on his shoulder.

The little old man was left tied to the chair, and the door to the hut was left open. The fire was out. After a while the little old man froze to death.

But the soldier fared no better. As he tramped through the snow, a blizzard started, and the soldier was unable to go any further. In his hurry to get away, he had forgotten to take any food from the hut. Soon he too froze to death.

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