The troop made ready to move out with dark. They would ride all night and attack with surprise at dawn. Their horses were fresh and good quality Cossack steeds, not broken down cavalry nags. They were all heavily armed with swords, kindjal daggers, lances and muskets. The men ate well, for it would be their last meal for a while, if not forever. Silently they rode out of Fort Platov’s gate into the gathering gloom.
The troop worked its way down the trail, pushing more by feel than sight. The dense overhanging canopy and brooding cliffs above deepened the shadows. The horsemen climbed an open slope to a ridge where the trail plunged down into the forest once again. To either side loomed massed of wild crags. Bayazid Shah reined in his steed beside Lazarenko.
“Does your honor propose to advance by this trail?”
“Not if there’s a better way. This road goes through fields cultivated by the Chechens. Spies would report our advance to Jibrail Khan before we’d gone a tenth of the way.”
“There is another way, if your honor thinks the horses strong enough and the riders daring enough.”
“Daring enough! Anything a Nogai dares a Cossack dares! And quit calling me ‘your honor’! It’s Stepan Sergeivich or Stepanka or Dog Brother, got it? If you don’t I’ll bust your ugly nose!”
Bayazid Shah laughed and spurred his horse toward a nearly invisible crack in the cliff wall. The Cossacks gave an “Urra!” and galloped after. Soon they were scrambling up a rocky defile that broke out into a narrow ledge above a chasm whose bottom was lost in night’s shroud. The path climbed upward past jutting sentinels of rock to the top of the cliff. Then it plunged downward again along a knife edge ridge where the wind howled and chilled them until they descended once again under the canopy of trees and felt the torrid summer’s warmth. The band zig-zagged madly, crossing half a dozen such heights and again as many swampy bottoms. They were working their way along a creek bed when the faint glimmer of a campfire showed ahead.
Lazarenko halted the troop. He told the men to hold their places while he and Bayazid Shah reconnoitered. They worked their way forward on foot, kindjals at the ready. Lazarenko felt Bayazid Shah’s hand on his shoulder and stopped in his tracks. Silently the Nogai pointed to a shadow moving under the trees. A man was pacing a few yards away, his shape was outlined briefly as he passed between the fire and the observers. Lazarenko had to get closer to the camp, but the sentry barred the way. He could easily shoot the man, but that was as good as walking into camp and announcing himself. The kindjal was silent, but that did not solve his problem either. A knife in the wrong set of ribs meant a blood feud with hostile tribesmen.
Silently he crept forward to the pacing guard. He coiled his arm and held his breath. A few steps of the guard brought him closer to Lazarenko. From his hiding place the Cossack shot his iron-hard fist forward and smashed into a chin that cracked as its owner collapsed.
In a moment Bayazid Shah was at his side. They bound the fallen man with his belt and gagged him. Leaving Bayazid Shah to watch the prisoner, Lazarenko crept towards the encampment. He peered from the heavy brush at the scene revealed by firelight. A half dozen men sat cross-legged about a fire, roasting a sheep. The wool of their beards seemed to merge with their fleece caps. Their cherkesskas were embroidered and silver cartridge cases gleamed on their chests. No speck of dirt showed on their silver inlaid muskets or gold mounted sabers though. Outside of the ring of firelight Lazarenko could hear the sounds of horses picketed under the trees.
“Ah, may shaitan take Jibrail Khan!” one ruffian grunted. “We used to fight for ourselves. Now we fight for Shamyl. The loot goes to Shamyl and we get the hard knocks.”
“The old war-hawk knows his business. With the arsenal packed into the house by the angle of the wall he can arm hundreds of abreks. Then we’ll storm a rich Georgian town and take some fat merchant’s daughter for ransom, or as a wife, Inshallah!” They all laughed.
The speaker paused and cocked his head as if to listen. “Silence!” he hissed. “Someone is tampering with the horses! Where is Ahmet the sentry? Guns and swords brothers! The stink of treachery is on the wind!”
As the abreks scrambled for their weapons, Lazarenko cursed under his breath. One of the tribesmen was charging straight for his hiding place bawling for Ahmet. When he saw the Cossack’s shadowy form, his shouts turned to an angry bellow. To run was certain death, hacked down from behind. Survival meant carving a bloody path forward. Lazarenko exploded into action slashing madly with his saber. He had to finish the man quickly. Their swords rang in the dim moonlight as they hacked with a fury born of blind desperation scarcely knowing where their steel went. A single flashing stroke of Lazarenko’s blade flew past the abrek’s guard and skewered the bandit.
But Lazarenko’s onslaught had carried him into the fire-lit clearing. Immediately two of the abreks rushed him. Their sabers rained blows on his guard like a hailstorm. Lazarenko desperately parried but he knew he could not last. The other three abreks held back not wishing to hinder themselves with too many fighters. As he braced for the death struggle, a figure in a soldier’s greatcoat smashed a carbine butt into an abrek’s face with all the force of a charging bull. The man dropped like a stone, his skull crushed in. The other abreks drew back. In a flash Bayazid Shah was at Lazarenko’s side. Ivan stood over the fallen abrek, leveling his carbine at the remaining bandits.
The Cossack, the soldier and the scout faced the four abreks across the fire. Stillness descended as they gathered strength for the battle. The crackle of the flames and the fighters’ breathing was the only sound. The flicker of firelight gleamed from swords and cast direful shadows across the men’s faces till they seemed less than human, more than demons.
The abrek on the right rushed Bayazid Shah. Ivan swiveled his carbine toward him, and the bandit opposite the soldier lunged. Ivan fired and missed and suddenly the clearing was confused knot of fighting men.
Lazarenko engaged a foe, sword-to-sword, and sent him crashing to the ground with a well-timed thrust through the neck. The Cossack wheeled to aid his comrades when a dozen men rushed the clearing. In a moment the abreks were down, overwhelmed by the rush of Lazarenko’s Cossacks.
Lazarenko got their account. They had held their place until the sound of a struggle alerted them. In the dark with no communication they had moved slowly and cautiously, arriving only at the last minute. The sentry Lazarenko had slugged escaped in the confusion.
Lazarenko took in the situation. Two questions blazed up in his mind. “The bandits got suspicious when someone went for their horses. Who was trying to steal a horse?”
No one answered.
“Ivan, how did you get ahead of everyone else? How did you get to my position so fast?” No answer came. “Speak, dammit!”
“Alright! I sneaked off. I thought I could pick up something good if I went on my own.”
“Rastak!” Lazarenko’s hammer fist slammed into the soldier’s face. The blow sent Ivan crashing to the ground, spurting blood from his nose.
“You dog! You were trying to desert! Run off if you want but don’t expect me to die because you’re too stupid to pick a better time for it!” Lazarenko looked at his grim faced warriors. At a word from him they would shoot the Russian. The frontier Cossacks had no love for the peasants of the settled lands. Lazarenko glared madly, snarl on his face and a curse on his tongue. He would have gladly murdered Ivan for a kopeck.
“Get off the ground you lout, and take your pick of the horses. I suppose it’s the least I can do since you saved my life.” Grim and mirthless laughter arose from the Cossacks. Theirs was the law of the wolf pack: audacity could excuse a host of crimes.