Swiftly the Cossacks gathered the bandit horses and hastened on their mission. Afoot, the abrek who had escaped would have no chance to reach Jibrail khan ahead of them, but they could take no chances.
In the dim hour before dawn the Cossacks reached Kizil-tchok. The aul perched on the top of a steep sided knob, broad enough to allow room, high enough to discourage attackers. In the Caucasus men built their homes for defense, not convenience. A handful of gunmen could hold off hundreds trying to advance up the slope. Lazarenko and his men halted on a lower ridge, hidden among boulders and scrub. A single minaret stood out over the low, shingled roofs of the aul. Soon the muzzein would climb the minaret steps and hold aloft two threads, one black and one white. When dawn gave enough light to distinguish the two, his voice would rise in a hypnotic, droning wail to summon the faithful to prayer. Lazarenko wondered if he would live long enough to hear it.
“Listen brothers! Jibrail Khan has enough weapons to arm every abrek from here to Sukhumi. He’ll use them to bring red slaughter to the Greben line settlements first. Our homes will burn and our people will die if we don’t stop him.” Lazarenko paused to study his men. The grime and pallor of prison still clung to them. They had ridden all night and fought a skirmish too. Hunger gnawed at their bellies. Yet their spirits were as keen as Damascus blades. How easy it would be to hurl them into the stronghold and wreak red havoc. Many would die, perhaps even Jibrail Khan himself, but certainly Lazarenko’s brave Cossacks would die as well.
Coldly, Lazarenko reasoned his way through the problem. They didn’t have to die. They need not have come, save for Lazarenko’s lust for revenge. They could turn around and face Siberia even now. Let Jibrail Khan’s abreks ravage the frontier, Lazarenko would be far away. No, he thought, there was another way. The Cossack remembered what he had overheard at the abreks’ camp. The arsenal was in a house at the angle in the wall. He knew what he had to do.
“I’m going in to blow up the arsenal.” Lazarenko said.
“We are with you!” his men cried.
“No! I go alone.”
The Cossacks groaned and pleaded, “How can we let our brother die alone? It’s madness! The old men would curse us and the girls of the village would never talk to us again. They’d call us milksops and gutless cowards. They’d say we were as soft as Persians. We didn’t come this far to sit like drunks at a feast.”
“Peace, brothers. Stop your bawling or you’ll wake every Chechen in the valley. I have a task for you. After I set fire to the powder magazine, I’ll need a diversionary attack to cover my escape. It will be bloody work, but nothing new to us.”
“Rastak! You are all mad!” Ivan glared at the Cossacks. “Lazarenko will be cut down before he’s anywhere near the gunpowder. We are too few to attack a fortified aul with no cover and no place to retreat. Die if you want fools, I’m leaving!” The soldier’s hand gripped the trigger on his carbine. Warily, he turned his horse away. Lazarenko watched warily as he went, ready to draw his saber and cut down the soldier at the first sign of hostility. Within moments Ivan was spurring his mount down the trail. The soldier rode badly, for the horse was far more spirited than Russian cavalry mounts. Lazarenko looked to at his men.
“We should have killed the Russian. He’ll go to Jibrail Khan,” one of the Cossacks said.
“Not on a horse stolen from one of Jibrail’s bandits. More than likely he’ll fall off and break his neck. Besides, a shot would have aroused the village.” Lazarenko dismounted and loaded his musket. “Brothers, keep a close watch while I’m gone. If the arsenal doesn’t blow up by the time morning prayers are over, I’m dead. You’ll have to get out as fast as you can.” Lazarenko took the picket rope from his saddle and wound it about his belt. Shouldering his gun, he strode to the aul.