Part 1-Lazarenko and his Cossacks are threatened with exile to Siberia, unless they accept a suicide mission. The mission involves a name familiar to Lazarenko...
The name hit Lazarenko like a blast of icy wind. His fists clenched and his stomach twisted. He could not hear the colonel, he was away in memories that were still raw and fresh after seven years. Stepan Sergeivich was fifteen in the summer of 1843 and riding beside his older brother Pyotr on a forest track under the moonlight. Behind them two mules trotted along carrying bundles of salt lashed to their backs. The white crystals were subject to heavy taxes and the trade in black-market salt was lucrative. Both youngsters were armed. Salt smuggling was a risky, often violent business.
Pyotr halted his horse, a fine bay stallion that was the envy of all. “Here’s where we meet Jibrail Khan”
“Let’s hope he brings the money Pyotr.”
“He will. He’s my kunak, my blood brother. He buys whatever I steal. We drink chikhir wine together and he’s as good a Muslim as they come.”
Pyotr was Stepan’s hero. He was a real Cossack who fought, drank, and stole. He rode like a dzighit, a trick rider who could dance a jig in the saddle while riding at a full gallop. Nothing daunted him. All the girls loved him. He had the best horse, the best sword and was the best shot. Everything he touched was golden.
Four horsemen approached along the track “Allah bo rasi sum!” the leader said in Turco-Tatar, the common language of the Caucasus. “Pyotr Sergeivich, is all well? Do you have the salt?” He reigned his horse to a stop by Pyotr, who smiled and extended a hand to Jibrail Khan.
“I do indeed kunak. All is well with us except we have Russian troops quartered in our village. I swear they’re the lowest serfs. Ignorant louts who smoke tobacco in the house! Papa loathes them. I prefer you Muslims to them. How goes it with you?”
“Not so good. I got in a quarrel with one of Shamyl’s murids over a woman. I had to knife him.”
“Bad news,” was all Pyotr said. It was bad news indeed for Shamyl’s rule was iron and his lightest punishment was death. “Maybe you can use the salt to buy back his favor.”
Jibrail Khan looked at Pyotr. In the dim moonlight Stepan could not be sure what expression was on the Lezghian’s face, whether he was weighing consequences or showing regret.
“Yes, buy back Shamyl’s favor. A good suggestion. Too bad for you though. Dosvydanya, Urus!” Jibrail Khan’s hand flashed to his saber hilt and he slashed with the weapon. The young Cossack groaned but stayed in the saddle and drew his kindjal.
“Run Stepan!” Pyotr gasped as Jibrail Khan hacked at him again. Stepan did not move, even though his horse sensed the panic in the air and began to stamp. Instead the young man whirled his musket up and snapped off a shot from the hip. It whistled past Jibrail Khan’s head. The other Lezghians surged forward to cut down Stepan. But before they could reach him, Pyotr’s horse lunged across their path. Pyotr didn’t even try to dodge their blows. He simply turned his face to Stepan and groaned, “Flee!”
Tears flooded Stepan’s eyes as he wheeled his mount and galloped away. The mules kicked and brayed, trying to shake off their loads. Stepan got past them, but they remained to block the path. Behind him came the sound of curses, a horse’s shrill whinny and the butcher-like sounds of hacking. As he bounded recklessly down the track, Stepan heard two flat cracks. A musket ball sailed past him. Then something pushed his shoulder hard and a burning ache began to spread. His hold on the reins slackened and as the horse raced, he slipped from the saddle and landed in the dense fern.
As he lay in the thicket, Stepan heard Jibrail Khan and his men trot up and halt their horses.
“I saw the boy fall. I’m sure I hit him.”
“Let’s beat the bush and finish him.”
“No.” Jibrail Khan’s voice was harsh and urgent. “There’s a Cossack watchtower near this place. There’s been enough shooting to wake St. Petersburg, let alone the border guard. Get the loose horses, the mules, the weapons and the Urus’s head. The loot is enough to pay our expenses for a long while. The head will buy our pardon from Shamyl. He hates troublemakers, but he loves those who show zeal to slay infidels. Inshallah!”
The bandits laughed and went about their work. In the brush Stepan Sergeivich Lazarenko lay very still until long after they were gone. When he rose the carefree boy who worshipped a brother was gone, in his place stood a bitter Cossack warrior. Slowly and with great pain he stopped his wound and staggered to the Cossack watchtower.
The reverie faded and Lazarenko looked Golinkov in the eye. “We’ll accept the mission.”