Sunday, August 24, 2008


Soon Lazarenko’s fellow Cossacks mustered in the yard by the guardhouse. A dozen of his comrades had been arrested for horse stealing and condemned together. They were all men of the Greben Cossack host and of the same village. They had grown up, played games, rode horses, and herded stock together. They had stood watch on the river crossings for Chechen raiders, fought, drank, sang, gambled and looted together. That Lazarenko was an officer and they privates meant nothing. Cossacks followed leaders because they led, not because they had lace on their shoulders. To Russians who came down from the settled lands of the north they were picturesque brigands. To Lazarenko they were his kin, the reason he fought to tame the Caucasian frontier. Other men fought for the Tsar or glory or career. Lazarenko fought to give a safe home to his people.

In addition to the Cossacks there were two others. Lazarenko stopped in front of the first. He was a hawk-faced man with a shaven head, almond eyes, and a scanty beard. He wore native dress.

“What’s your name and tribe?” Lazarenko said in Turco-Tatar.

“I am Bayazid Shah of the Nogai Tatars, your honor.”

“You know the salt smugglers’ routes well then. You’ll be our scout.”

Bayazid Shah grinned and said, with the insolent tone the Nogai used so well, “Your honor is an officer of the White Tsar and far too exalted a person to associate with horse thieves and smugglers. Why should you think I am a salt smuggler?”

Lazarenko laughed. “Because I know the Nogai well.”

Lazarenko moved on to the other stranger. He was a big round-faced fellow, dressed in a soldier’s brown overcoat, a cross belt supporting a bayonet, and a spiked helmet. To Lazarenko he had the look of a serf drafted into the ranks.

“What’s your name peasant?”

“Ivan Ivanovich Mikhailov. Company C, Tver Dragoons,” he replied sullenly.

“Your offense!” Lazarenko barked. Little love was lost between Russians and Cossacks. Unless he established control fast, Lazarenko knew he never would.

“Insubordination! And if you don’t like it you can cram it up your Cossack backside!” The soldier reached for his bayonet.

Lazarenko swung a hard fist into Ivan’s jaw. The Russian dropped and groaned as he rubbed his jaw.

“I don’t think I’ll cram anything up my backside!” Lazarenko snarled. “Alright!” he barked. “You fellows know me. We are Cossack brothers. I made a bad choice about which horses to steal. Now we’re in a tight spot and our choices are all bad. If you think I've lost my wits, I can't blame you."

The Cossacks shifted nervously until one blurted out, “Oh no, Stepan Sergeivich! We all thought the horses were fair game.”

“Well, listen to what else I have to say. Colonel Golinkov has planned a mission for us. We’re to destroy a nest of Shamyl’s abreks. It’s almost certain death. Or we can be sent to Siberia. Your heads will be shaved, you’ll be chained and marched off to confinement and exile. There’ll be flogging and branding if you try to escape. Which do you prefer?”

“Cossacks never fear a fight! To hell with chains and exile! For God and Tsar!” they shouted. They were his, and Lazarenko knew it. And in his heart he burned with shame for having tricked them so.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

I like this Cossack.