With a wild energy born of desperation, Lazarenko snatched up his sword and rolled aside. As the abrek’s saber flashed down, Lazarenko’s blade whirled up and impaled the warrior. The abrek crashed to the ground, squarely onto the flame, drowning the deadly blaze in his blood.
Outside there was the sound of shouts and gunfire. Painfully, Lazarenko rose and limped to the window. A glance out of the shutter revealed Bayazid Shah and the Cossacks charging down the narrow street. Lazarenko unlocked the door, flung it open and shouted to his men. They swarmed through the opening and slammed the door shut again even as musket balls thudded into the heavy oak.
The Cossacks all began to shout at once, but Lazarenko “We were spotted by a herdsman,” began Nicolai “Before we knew it there was shooting all around. The hills are swarming with abreks! That group we ambushed last night must have been just one part of the horde rushing to get Jibrail Khan’s guns.”
Another Cossack, a bearded ruffian named Mikhail, “They were already behind us so we skirmished on horseback as they forced us toward the wall of the aul. We had to leave the horses and clamber over the wall, thank God it wasn’t defended or we’d have been cut down to a man. As it was Dimitri took a bad slash on the arm. Worse yet, Sasha was shot down dead. We had no chance to bring his body with us.”
Lazarenko swore grimly. “Get to the loopholes and shoot Jibrail Khan’s ammunition back at him. And pray a stray spark doesn’t blow us all to St. Petersburg!”
The Cossacks rushed to defend the house. Outside the abreks made a rush for the door and began to pound on it with gun butts and axes until shots from the upper floor drove them away, leaving a trail of dead and dying. Soon the room was filled with a haze of choking smoking as the Cossacks blasted away.
The Cossacks’ lips were black from biting the ends off cartridges to pour powder down their musket barrels. Spent percussion caps crunched underfoot. The enemy’s fire was more concentrated as the tribesmen took cover in neighboring buildings and sent balls whistling through the loopholes. A deadly accurate shot killed a Cossack, hitting him square in the heart. Another shattered the arm of a Cossack as he took aim.
Suddenly the firing ceased. A voice rang out from across the street, “You in there! Who’s your leader you Russian dogs?” With a chill Lazarenko remembered he had last heard that voice in the dark, gloating over his brother’s corpse.
“Stepan Sergeivich Lazarenko! Do you remember that name you swine?”
There was a pause. “Aye, by Allah I do! I sent your brother to Hell just as I’ll send you and all of your men if you don’t yield! Listen Stepan Sergeivich, lay down your arms and come out. After a while we’ll trade you and your men back for some of ours. Or you can become Muslim and join us. It’s your choice, but resistance is death!”
Lazarenko spat in disgust. “So is surrender to you! I know how you treated my brother Pyotr, your blood-brother. I’ll see you in Hell you dirty pig!”
“Have it your way. I’m a robber and killer, but remember, your Tsar is the biggest, most murderous abrek of all. And you do his dirty work, stealing our land!” Jibrail khan laughed grimly. “Send this to your Tsar!” A shutter flew open and an object was hurled out. Lazarenko’s stomach twisted as he saw Sasha’s head roll to a stop in the street. The Cossacks howled in rage and began firing again. They knocked a hole in the font wall and ran the cannon’s muzzle out. The blast made Lazarenko’s ears ring and punched a neat hole in the facing house.
The Cossacks’ fire slackened and a howling war cry arose from the abreks’ cover. With appalling suddenness dozens of figures swarmed out, shooting and waving swords. The Cossacks fired and re-loaded and fired again. The leaders of the rush were stabbing through the loopholes.
Lazarenko fired his musket directly into the snarling faces beyond the wall. The Cossack drew his saber for a last defense. He looked around and saw Nicolai put a lit match to the cannon’s touch-hole. A shuddering blast shook the building as the cannon loosed a blast of grapeshot. The densely packed fighters outside howled in rage and pain as the shrapnel tore through them. As quickly as the rush had come, it faded away, leaving behind the dead in gory heaps.
The air was thick with acrid gun-smoke that stung the eyes until tears came. Mechanically, Lazarenko re-loaded his musket. Nicolai made a retching couch and spoke, “That’s the last shot from this gun. The carriage has broken.” Grimly, he cursed shoddy Turkish workmanship.
Lazarenko inhaled some of the nauseating, polluted air. A ghastly scent came to him over the smell of gunpowder, it was the sharp tang of burning wood!