Chapter 2

The mounted police troop entered the village square and stopped in a ragged semi-circle behind their commanding officer. A statue in the middle of the plaza was the only obstruction in the fourty meters between the csendorseg  and the thirty men gathered at the bottom of the town-hall steps. The protesters listened intently to the exhortations of three men up on the landing near the big doors.

Why hadn’t they disappeared? Lajos Kis wondered. Surely they’d heard twenty horses approaching the rally organized by the illegal Farmer’s Union. They all knew that gatherings like this were no longer tolerated.

Instead the mob turned and silently faced the horsemen. The rain had eased but slate-gray clouds hung low over the town and the waning late-afternoon sun cast a hazy pall over the scene. The cobbles will be slick, Lajos noted, as he considered the possibility of a chase.

“Stupid farmers.” one of his comrades muttered. He half-turned to see who’d spoken, as a nervous laugh rippled through the corps, but Lajos knew that it would be Imre’ or one of the few other men from Budapest. The city-raised members of his unit harboured nothing but contempt for the peasant farm workers. The comment irritated Lajos, and Imre’ knew it, since mobs like this reminded him of relatives and friends back in his home village. The countryside where he’d been raised was full of people just like them.

He and his mates had a job to do, though, since the Farmer’s Union was declared an illegal organization. In the eyes of the Hungarian parliament, the union was fomenting unrest among the peasant class. Their demands for land reform were stirring up the people and some of the gatherings had turned riotous.

Lajos grudgingly admired their courage but anyone with a whit of common sense knew that the aristocracy wasn’t going to give up any of their land. Ideas like that were considered dangerous in Budapest and Vienna, and here in the shabby, desperate little towns that dotted farm country, it was up to the csendorseg to uphold the laws of the land and stamp out the fires of dissent, one rally at a time.

“It’s a good day to break some heads,” someone else said with a humorless chuckle.

The rabble didn’t move, even after the commander rode forward and announced, “By order of Parliament, this is an unlawful assembly. Disperse immediately. You men,” he pointed to the three ringleaders, “don’t move. You are under arrest.”

For a tense, interminable minute nobody in the village square moved. The silence broken only by snorting horses and squeaking leather as the mounted men squirmed in anticipation of the order to charge. The commander ordered his men to begin the advance and spurred his horse into a gallop. One of the organizers, a tall man waving a stout walking stick, urged the crowd to hold their ground and they did – until the last second.

Lajos kicked his horse’s flank and joined the headlong rush across the square. The damp air raked his face and snatched the scream from his mouth. 

The criminals on the stairs ran first, including a stocky man wearing a bowler. Lajos focused on the black hat as the crowd screeched in fear and scrambled away from the charging troop. Out of the corner of his eye, Lajos saw some of his mates swinging batons at fleeing farmers, as his quarry jumped over the banister and ran into an alley running the length of the hall. He spurred his mount and followed. Lajos glimpsed the man disappear behind the back corner of the hall but didn’t notice the figure dart out of the shadows until it was too late. A small white face, wide eyes filled with fear, turned toward him a split second before the impact of steel horseshoes on flesh and bone. His horse stumbled on the slick cobblestones and whinnied in fear. Lajos twisted in the saddle and wheeled the animal around to investigate.

The screams and clatter of the chase faded as his comrades followed the other protesters away from the center of town leaving a eerie silence. Lajos jumped down and circled the small figure. Oh, God. It was a small boy, no more than ten years old in patched, threadbare clothing that hardly covered the thin body. He lay in awkward position, his head in an expanding, dark puddle. Lajos crouched beside the child and waited helplessly as life oozed into the street’s crevices.

He heard the scrape of a boot and looked up. The man in the bowler hat was walking toward him stiffly, clenched fists drumming his thighs. “Gyorgy, Gyory, nooooo, Gyorgy, noooo,” he moaned. Lajos stood and backed away from the body. The man dropped to his knees and kissed one white cheek.

“I didn’t see him,” Lajos mumbled.

But the man didn’t seem to hear the excuse as he tended to his son. With trembling fingers he removed the boy’s shirt and wrapped the leaking skull.

The stunned silence was broken by the sound of a horse approaching from behind and the scream of his commander, “Csendor Kis, arrest that man.”

Lajos turned and took a couple of steps toward his superior, “Are you blind?”

“I see perfectly, the criminal can bring the body with him. We’ll take care of the arrangements.”

Lajos glanced back to the grieving man who stood up with the body cradled in his arms. “His head is broken – his head is broken – his head is broken,” he chanted. Tears fell onto the corpse and red droplets from the underside of the man’s forearm splattered on the street.

“Why would I arrest this man?” he asked the commander.

“He has committed a felony. We have to take him in.”

“Is it now a crime to tend to the body of a loved one?” Lajos asked.

“What?” the mounted man bellowed, “What are you talking about? This man was on the steps of the town hall. He is a member of the outlawed organization. You must arrest him now.”

“I was not chasing this person. That man escaped,” Lajos said as the object of their confrontation turned and began to walk away.

Lajos leapt back onto his horse as the commander spurred his steed to follow. Lajos turned into his path and blocked the narrow alley at every turn. The officer threatened and swore and sputtered into his bushy moustache until it dripped venomously. Their quarry disappeared into the shadows and, after a few minutes, they knew it was pointless to continue. Panting, the commander wiped his moustache with the sleeve of his jacket, and glared at Lajos.

“You’ll be sorry for this, Kis,” he said, “Find your comrades and let’s get out of here.”

Lajos spurred his horse, half expecting to be struck by the man’s riding-crop as he brushed past.  

The next day, after the troop had returned to their station, Lajos was summoned into the office where Colonel Andrassy sat behind a large walnut desk. The troop commander was also there, standing behind and to Andrassy’s left.

“You have been charged with insubordination and dereliction of duty in regards to the action today. Do you have anything to say?”

“I didn’t intend to kill the boy.”

“Pardon? Ahh, yes, the boy. The boy was an accident, an unfortunate casualty in a skirmish with a large group of combatants. The boy is neither here nor there. You are not in this difficulty because of the boy.”

“They were not combatants and the boy’s death is the only thing I regret today.” Lajos said.

“You disobeyed direct orders from your superior officer and used physical force to prevent him from apprehending a criminal and that is all you have to say?”

“Yes, sir.” Lajos said.

“You are relieved of all further duties. You’ll be discharged from the Csendorseg in short order. Turn in your weapons and identification. You are confined to barracks until the paperwork is done. Consider yourself lucky not to be spending time in custody.”

“Yes, sir.”

That night, Lajos lay awake long after the other men had filled the dorm with snores. Images of the dead child and fears of his uncertain future vied for dominance in his mind. Suddenly, at the age of twenty-seven, he was being forced to find a new path and no matter how he wracked his brain, he envisioned only limited opportunities for someone like him. Besides farm labour, the police force was his only experience.  Hours passed as he lay awake in the barracks and pondered his future. What kind of life can I make here anymore?

Lajos spent the next day confined to the base while his comrades went out on a day patrol and when they returned in the evening, his friend Vineze Vargyas sat down on the bed next to his.

“How are you?” Vineze asked.

“I’m bored and I have too much time to think,” Lajos said.

“Any ideas what you’re going to do next?”

“Not really,” Lajos said, “maybe I’ll go to Budapest if I can’t find work around Potrete.”

“I hear things aren’t very good in Budapest and we know first-hand how farmers are doing,” Vineze reached into an inner pocket of his jacket and pulled out an envelope, “Have you ever thought about going to America?” he asked waving a letter, as if it held all the answers.

Many men his age were leaving for the new world but he had never seriously considered it. He shook his head.

“No,” he said, “Why? What’s that?”

“It’s a letter from my brother, Mihaly,” Vineze answered, “he lives in a place called Pennsylvania. He works in a mine and he says in his letters that there is work for me as well. I’ve decided to quit the force and go. Why don’t you come with me? He says there are plenty of jobs.”

“Don’t count on me,” Lajos said, “but I’ll think about it and let you know.”

A week later, back in Potrete’, Lajos soon learned that, while not as impoverished as other regions, his hometown had no opportunities for employment. It didn’t welcome him back as if the torrent of years had washed him, and most of his family, away. His parents were buried next to the church and, except for a half-brother, Karoly, and a few cousins, he had little remaining connection to the area.

And Karoly didn’t encourage his return. He and Lajos went for a walk on Sunday afternoon, after mass. By unspoken agreement, they strolled toward the fishing pond.

“You’ll really leave Hungary and go to America?” Lajos asked.

“If I can come up with the money,” Karoly said, “Many have already left and more are planning to go. This country is doomed for people like us.”

 “I know first-hand how the government feels about land-reformers,” Lajos said ruefully, “You’ll never have your own farm.”

They reached the lake and found a lone figure on the shore staring out over the rippled surface as a wisp of pipe smoke coiled over his head. An older man dressed in his Sunday best. Late fourties, Lajos thought. Taller and leaner than most Hungarians, Lajos sensed that the man was tough and muscular despite the medium frame.

They interrupted the man’s solitary musings.

“Hello, Josef,” Karoly said.

The man turned, a small smile of recognition forming under his bushy moustache. He had the weathered face of a man who had spent most of his life outside.

“Good afternoon, Karoly,”

 “Sorry to disturb you. You were deep in thought. Trying to solve the world’s problems?”

“I have my own family to worry about, the world is on it’s own,” Josef said and then changed the subject, “Who’s that with you?”

“Lajos Kis,” Karoly said, “my half-brother. You remember?”

“Of course,” Josef replied and extended his right hand, “the csendor.”

Karoly turned to Lajos, “You know Josef Lukacs?”

“Yes, hello Mr. Lukacs,” Lajos extended his hand in greeting, “I’m no longer with the csendorseg though.”

“Oh,” Josef responded and then smiled, “good then, I won’t have to be careful about what I say.”

Lajos laughed along with Karoly but inside he felt a pang of shame at memories of his career and the image of the little boy asserted itself for a moment.

“We were just talking about America,” Karoly said, “I heard that you were thinking about leaving, as well?”

“Thinking and talking, yes,” Josef said, “You’re going for sure, Karoly?”

“I think so,” Karoly replied, “but it’s not going to be easy.”

“At least you and your family are young,” Josef said, “you’ll do well in a new place. I’m getting old and my children are ready to flee the nest, I don’t know if we can do it.”

“I’m surprised that neither of your daughters are married yet,” Karoly said and then turning to him, “what about it, Lajos? Should we call on Mr. Lukacs later and introduce you to Erzsebet and Rosa?”

“Ahem,” Josef interjected, “nothing personal, Mr. Kis, but I’ve been discouraging all suitors. If we emigrate, we go as a family.”

“I understand, Mr. Lukacs,” Lajos said, “I’m not in a position to take a wife, under the present circumstances, anyway.”

Josef nodded and started to walk away, “I should get back,” he said, “ Good-day, Karoly. It was nice to see you again, Lajos. Good luck.”

Lajos watched him go and thought, If men like him are ready to leave Hungary, what am I waiting for?