Saturday, August 30, 2008


From afar Lazarenko thought he heard the drumming of hooves. “Death on his pale horse,” he thought. From the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of Ivan on a wildly racing steed, galloping out of control. The Russian hurtled directly at Jibrail Khan and a steel shod hoof cracked the abrek chief viciously. Jibrail Khan writhed in pain and gave Lazarenko a second more of life. Lazarenko heaved his iron frame into a last all-or-nothing blow that blasted through Jibrail Khan’s guard and sent his had spinning from his shoulders.

“A head for a head!” Lazarenko spat. Wearily he looked around. The abreks re-doubled their attack. The Cossacks had their backs to a wall and Ivan was pinned under his mount, a bullet had felled the noble beast. A moment more and they would all be swept away in a red tide of slaughter.

“Urra!” rang out from a hundred throats. A solid mass of Russian infantry surged up the narrow lane, bayonets at the ready. Drums were rattling and the tramp of heavy boots rose above the din of battle.

The abreks fired a few shots and scattered. Their best defense against Russian infantry was fast heels and a well-hidden sniper’s perch.

Lazarenko leaned wearily against a wall as Colonel Golinkov rode up. “Well, I think I can expect another medal out of this. And you might even get a pardon. Tres joli, n’est-ce pas?”

“You took your time getting here.” Lazarenko grunted.

Golinkov shrugged. “Our guide took a wrong turn and we were lost. Then that chap of yours, Ivan, turned up. He took one look at the column and raced off like the devil was after him. He galloped straight here. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought he was trying to get away from us on an out-of-control horse.”

“Ivan, turn deserter? No, I can’t believe that. Just let him stay with my Cossacks, I want to reward him properly.”

Golinkov strutted and smiled, well pleased with himself. “Thanks to our gracious Father the Tsar, civilization has advanced today. Il faut elever les barbares.”

Lazarenko looked around at the smoking ruins and the corpses. “Urra for the Tsar and civilization.” Medical orderlies were treating his men, for nearly all were injured. “Hey brothers, whoever can walk, get back to that wine cellar and stand guard. If any Russian tries to drink before us Cossacks, punch him in the mug!”

“What about us?” Ivan gestured to himself and Bayazid Shah.

“Like it or not, today, you are brother Cossacks.”



“Fire!” the men defending the upstairs window bellowed it again and again as they tumbled down the steps. Gasping, they said the roof-beams were alight, from what source in the confusion of battle, they could not say.

Lazarenko opened the front door and stood back. A blast of musketry drummed on the oak. “No way out there boys!” In reply Bayazid Shah flung open the cellar trap door and leapt down. Within seconds all had followed him.

“Rats in a hole!” Lazarenko cursed. Then a desperate thought came. He dropped his musket and scrambled over crates of ammunition and canisters of gunpowder. With a leap he hurled his shoulder into the bricked-up archway in the corner. Despite the agony of the smashing blow, the Cossack could feel the bricks yield ever so slightly. Lazarenko shouted for help and in a flash the Cossacks attacked the wall with prying bayonets and smashing gun butts. It collapsed and the Cossacks tumbled down with it, crushing Lazarenko beneath them.

Scrambling madly to their feet, they found themselves in a tunnel. Without stopping to get their bearings they ran. Lazarenko dragged his hand on the wall. The wall dropped away from his touch as the men spread out. He had just enough time to realize they had entered a room when a flash of light and a blast of hot air slammed him to the ground. Dust and fragments of rock pelted him and his ears felt like nails had been driven into them. Blood flowed freely over his face. Stunned, Lazarenko sat on the stone floor.

As his hearing returned, Lazarenko mentally counted his men. Sasha was of course gone and they’d left two dead up in the house, one from gunshot and another hit by a cannon. With Bayazid Shah and himself they were eleven. A groan cam from nearby, and Lazarenko moved toward it.

“I’m done Stepan Sergeivich.” It was Nicolai. “I’m lying in my own blood. There’s so much of it.” It was soaking into Lazarenko’s clothes and coating his hands. But it had an odd odor. Lazarenko lifted his hand to his nose and smelled the rich sent of chikhir, new wine such as was drunk in the Caucasus.

“It’s not blood, it’s wine, Nicolai Alexandreivich.”

“Well that’s good news. I’m feeling better already, Stepan Sergeivich.”

Groping in the dark they found a ladder leading up and emerged from a trap door into a semi-ruined house. A glance in the dim light showed most of the cellar’s contents were smashed, but some remained intact.

“Jibrail Khan is a very bad Muslim to keep wine thus.” Bayazid Shah muttered.

Lazarenko glanced through a broken shutter. The storehouse was gone, only a column of smoke remained. The walls of the adjacent houses were shattered. Jibrail Khan’s men wandered up and down the street, seemingly dazed, corpses underfoot.

As Lazarenko wondered how they could escape, a bearded face thrust itself to the shutter.

“Why are you fools skulking here? Find the infidel dogs!” The abrek’s eyes widened in shock and he snarled. “By the Prophet! You are Urus!”

Lazarenko shot the man with his pistol and drew his saber. “They’re back boys!” He leapt through the window and fired his musket. He dropped the empty gun and drew his saber. Lazarenko no longer expected to escape, only to slay as many as he could before his foes cut him down.

He parried a blow and skewered the attacker on his point. A wildly stabbing bayonet grazed his leg and Lazarenko slashed the wielder across the face. Then he saw a familiar, grim visage.

Jibrail Khan leapt like a tiger on fresh meat. His sword was a flicker of deadly lightning in his hand. It took all of Lazarenko’s concentration and strength to parry the murderous blows. His body reeled from injury, fatigue, thirst and the piano wire-taut nerve strain of battle. Jibrail Kahn battered him back, scoring shallow slashes as his thrusts and cuts fell like hailstones.

“Now you will join your brother in Hell, Urus!”

“I’m no Russian, I’m a Cossack! And Allah keeps his deepest Hell for traitors like you!”

Jibrail Khan feinted to Lazarenko’s left and sent a whirling slash to his head that would have decapitated Lazarenko had he not parried at the last possible second. As is was the blow laid open his scalp and sent him stunned to his knees. Jibrail Khan raised his saber for the death-blow.


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!


Lazarenko moved stealthily, using the broken ground and rocks for cover as he approached the wall. The wall was of stone cemented with mud. It wouldn’t withstand cannon, but what army could drag cannon through the barren crags of Daghestan? Lazarenko studied the wall until he saw what he needed. A plane tree growing inside the wall spread its boughs over the parapet. Fashioning the picket rope into a running loop, he whirled it over the branch and hauled himself up the rope and over the wall. Soon he was walking the streets of the aul.

As he approached a corner, Lazarenko heard a man humming the sonorous notes of the Lezghian war dance. Bracing himself, Lazarenko waited for the man to round the corner. A tall warrior bristling with weapons stepped forward. His left hand held a lantern and a ring of keys dangled from his belt.

“Koshkildy.” Lazarenko mumbled. The Cossack’s accent and dress were very similar to that of the mountain tribes and in the dim light he hoped to pass with little scrutiny.

“What are you doing here?” The warrior’s reached for his kindjal hilt. “By the Prophet’s beard I know you not!”

With the speed of a striking adder, Lazarenko’s hand shot to the warrior’s throat, choking off his shout. His left clutched the warrior’s right wrist and they struggled for the kindjal. The warrior dropped the lantern and vainly tried to break the iron grip on his throat. Lazarenko felt a sharp sting in his side as the dagger plowed though his hip. Convulsively he forced back the blade from his body and warm blood flowed. The Cossack forced his hold to tighten on the warrior’s throat. The man clawed futilely at the vise-like grip that choked off his breath. His eyes bulged and his face turned purple. Locked in a death embrace, sweat poured from the fighters. Lazarenko’s head swam and his body burned from the cut. Again the warrior advanced the dagger toward Lazarenko until the tip touched the Cossack’s throat. Blood started from under the dagger’s tip. With bone cracking effort Lazarenko held on to his enemy’s throat. A gurgling sound came from the warrior and the arm with the dagger relaxed its iron clutch. The warrior sagged and collapsed, dead instantly from the terrific strain of battle and the deadly chokehold that had crushed the life from him.

Swiftly, Lazarenko took the keys and the lantern and went in the direction the guard had come. He tore a strip from the warrior’s cherkesska to staunch the blood from his wound. It wasn’t deep, but bled freely. A dozen yards past the corner where they had battled was a massive iron bound door. Lazarenko tested the keys in the lock until one fit. He stepped inside and stared in amazement at the contents of the house.

He stood in a storeroom crammed with weaponry. There were stands of British muskets, cases of Belgian pistols, thousands of Turkish cartridges, and even a cannon with a quote from the Koran piously inscribed on the muzzle. Stacked neatly by it were cannon balls and powder charges with French markings. Small windows allowed for ventilation, which reminded Lazarenko that he still held a burning lantern. A staircase led to an upper floor and a trapdoor opened to a basement. Both were packed with guns and ammunition. In the corner of the basement was a bricked-up archway.

Lazarenko set down the lantern and set about laying a powder train to a keg of loose gunpowder. As he finished the wailing call to prayer arose from the minaret. It ended and Lazarenko stood in silence, counting the beats of his heart. He allowed enough time for the abreks to gather at the mosque. He placed the key in the door but did not lock it. The powder train was long enough that he could get out the door and away before the arsenal blew itself to bits. Just that and no more. Lazarenko got the lantern and applied it to the powder train.

He heard the hiss and pop of the gunpowder as it burned behind him, but his whole mind was focused on the door. He reached it in two steps and a thousand heartbeats. From outside there was a sound of shouting. As Lazarenko’s hand touched the key, there was a pounding at the door. The Cossack recoiled as if he’d touched an adder. The door swung open, an abrek stood there, naked sword in hand. He stepped through and slammed the door behind him. Swiftly the abrek twisted the key.

“There is an alarm! No one is to enter the arsenal. We are to guard…” Then he stopped as he realized the man before him was a stranger and the stink of burning gunpowder filled the room.

With a snarl the abrek reached for the door. Lazarenko lunged at him, if the abrek got away the Cossack was as good as dead. The abrek, caught between a wild desire to escape and the onrush of the Cossack, fumbled at the lock and dropped the key. With a chill of death, Lazarenko realized he was locked in a room with a deadly foe seconds away from a massive explosion.

The abrek lunged at Lazarenko, raining wild slashes. Lazarenko parried desperately as he retreated toward the burning tip of the gunpowder train. He thought he saw the flame and broke from the fight to stamp on it. In the thickening smoke he missed and the deadly burning trail escaped, the flame crackling derisively. The abrek rushed to the attack and missed cutting off the Cossack’s arm by a hairbreadth. Lazarenko’s sleeve was slit open and blood flowed from the shallow cut.

Lazarenko spun and returned to the battle. Slash, cut and thrust, he drove the abrek before him. The only sounds were the panting of the fighters, the clash of swords and the low, sinister hiss of burning gunpowder. Lazarenko feinted to his foe’s left and changed the stroke into a cut that bit deep into the abrek’s leg. The man groaned and sank down in agony. Lazarenko could have chopped him down where he stood, but the Cossack leapt away, desperately lunging for the burning powder trail. He saw it and in a frenzy flung himself onto the flame. Daggers of fire slashed his hand and scattered away.

Lazarenko gasped in the nauseating, smoke-filled air. Even as he relaxed in relief a sword chopped into the floor beside his head. The abrek was on him, stumbling on his injured leg. He stumbled against a powder keg that toppled and spilled gunpowder on the still glowing sparks. The powder trail lit anew. The abrek raised his sword in both hands, rearing back for the deathblow. He would chop Lazarenko in half before they were blasted into a flaming hell.


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.


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.

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.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


I was hoping to post a new installment of "The Abrek's Shadow", but alas my computer is badly crashed. It''s running off a bootable Linux CD and my files are inaccessible. Maybe I'll be able to post the next chapter of "Abrek" later this week.


Thursday, August 21, 2008


Today is the 40th Anniversary of the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia that ended the "Prague Spring" of political and intelectual openness that flourished briefly in 1968. I lived in Prague for a while and heard a lot of people's stories about the aftermath of the Prague Spring and the Soviet Invasion. Czech history is mostly about aftemaths I think. There was the aftermath of WWI and Independence, the aftermath of the Nazi takeover, the aftermath of the Communist takeover in 1948, the aftermath of the Soviet Invasion, the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. Many peolpe were still working through the impact of '48 and '68 on their lives. They did so with a sense of irony forged by a history that had made a virtue of patience and resiliance.

One gentleman I knew spoke of his grandfather. He was condemned as "kulak"-he owned a farm- by the Communist authorities. The grandfather spent a year in jail. When his son, my friend's father, went to serve in the army he was designated as having a "bad class background." Recruits from politically undesirable origins had to serve, but weren't trusted with weapons. They tended to be sent to do work in fields that had a labor shortage, generally coal mining. But they were paid coal miner's wages, which weren't too bad. My friend's father was able to save money and buy a house for his father (the farm had of course been confiscated). He bought one on the western border where there was an abundance of unnocupied housing owing to the expulsion of the Germans that lived there.

One lady I knew told me about her parents. She was six in 1948 when her parents were sent to prison. Her father's crime was being a lawyer. She lived with her grandmother for six years until her mother was released. Her father did a full ten. If I recall corerctly she told me she didn't see him for about eight years.

In 1968 her sister was living in an apartment in Vysehrad, an old part of Prague just south of the city center on the east bank of the Vltava. When the Soviet troops occupied the city they imposed a curfew. One night they began firing wildly at nothing in particular. My friend's sister spent the night cowering on the floor, hoping not to get hit by a stray bullet. When dawn came my friend went over to help clean up and give moral support. They found only one bullet had entered the apartment. It had hit a book of Lenin's writings.

When I was in Prague it was a placid place. It stretched out along the river, busily tending its real estate, its art openings, its pubs (ah, Prague's wonderful pubs). The scars of the past were never too far away, laid on one another like layers. But there was always a fresh face on top looking to somethng new. And grumping about it. How I miss that dear, beautiful, frustrating, friendly, golden city.

-Dave Hardy

Saturday, August 16, 2008


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.”

Saturday, August 09, 2008



Fort Platov crouched like a panther over the Lezhgian Military Highway. Native carts and post coaches under Cossack escort crawled by as military couriers galloped with dispatches from the Tsar to his generals. Jewish and Armenian traders breathed easily, for this stretch of road was relatively safe, more than could be said of the wilder regions to the south in the heart of the mountains. Fort Platov’s cannons and soldiers offered protection to Russian settlers and loyal natives. They had a hard fist for the abreks, the bandits and rebels that infested the mountains.

Over fifty years ago the Tsar’s armies had marched south to humble the arrogant Persians, the cruel Turks, and the upstart mountain tribes. The sultan and the shah fell back before Russian might but the tribes, Chechen, Lezhgian, Avar, Abkaz and Circassian, battled on. In 1828 Kazi Mollah of Daghestan proclaimed jihad against the tyranny of the infidels and flames of war swept the highlands. Twenty-two years later the murids, the holy warriors, still fought under Imam Shamyl. The green flag of Islam still waved. The cry “Allah Akbar!’ still defied the Russian Empire and blood still flowed in the mountains.

PT 1

Lieutenant Stepan Sergeivich Lazarenko nervously paced the floor of his cell in Fort Platov. Here and there prisoners had left their marks. Crude pictures, a tally of days, initials, and even a verse from the Koran were incised in the wall.

The sound of heavy boots stomped down the hall and stopped outside Lazarenko’s cell. A key scraped in the lock and the door swung open. The sergeant of the guard and a private stood outside. They were smartly turned out in dark green blouses and spiked helmets, in sharp contrast to Lazarenko’s shabby cherkesska and fur cap.

“Come on, the colonel wants to see you.” The sergeant gestured and the private shifted his musket. Lazarenko and his guards marched down mazelike halls, across a courtyard toward a stoutly built blockhouse. They stopped before a solid oak door. An orderly let them in and escorted them into an office hung with regimental flags. A portrait of the Tsar gazed steely-eyed at an icon of the Holy Virgin who stared back no less fiercely.

Count Colonel Golinkov sat at his desk. Lazarenko stopped before it and saluted his commander. The escort withdrew, leaving the commander of Fort Platov alone with his prisoner. The contrast between the men was sharp. The colonel was a polished, aristocratic Muscovite. His uniform was impeccable, from his carefully blacked boots to the Saint George cross that gleamed on his chest. A post with a regiment of Guards in Saint Petersburg would have been more to his taste than command of a grim pile of stone on the north side of the Caucasus. Still, if one couldn’t enjoy a fashionable billet, the Caucasian frontier offered action and chances for distinction and promotion.

Lazarenko, on the other hand, was frontier born and bred. He was a broad faced, stocky man with shaggy hair and an unkempt mustache. Though still a young man in his twenties, Lazarenko was old in the ways of the border. He wore no uniform save for lieutenant’s shoulder straps on his cherkesska. Lazarenko sprung from the Greben Cossack host, a little tribe of frontiersmen who had drifted into the killing zone of the Terek steppe and had made it their home.

“So Lazarenko, you and your company were found on duty at the Number 14 watchtower in possession of a herd of stolen horses worth several hundred rubles. The horses bore imperial government brands. Vous avez joué de malheur.” Like most aristocrats, Golinkov affected to speak French. Russian was for dogs, serfs, and Cossacks.

What was it to be, Lazarenko gloomily wondered, hanging, Siberia, or something worse?

“What do you have to say for yourself?”

“We thought we were stealing Chechen horses.”

Golinkov glared at Lazarenko. “Fortunately for you the illustrious Prince General Znamenski has a soft spot for Cossacks. Some romantic notion has led him not to send you all to Siberia. Instead you are to be allowed to win back your freedom by une amende honorable in combat.” Golinkov sighed at the folly of unmerited lenience. “The order has been approved by the Tsar himself. His majesty has stipulated that the service must be… most arduous.”

“I thank the general for his mercy.”

“Thank him when you come back alive.” Golinkov smiled sardonically. “You are to proceed to the aul of Kizil-tchock. General Neiderwaldov seized this village in the summer offensive of 1849 and the elders submitted to Russian rule. Shamyl sent a band of Lezghian abreks to punish the people there for surrendering. One of the survivors escaped the massacre and warned us. The abreks have consolidated a major arsenal there. Shamyl will use it to devastate the Russian settlements to the north and Georgian villages to the south. You are to make a diversionary attack at night to hold the abreks in place while a column under my command moves up for an overwhelming assault in the morning. You may need to hold out a few hours against superior numbers of enemy, but you Cossacks are resourceful.”

Lazarenko stiffened. Try as he might his expression betrayed his disgust and shock. It was suicide, not just for him but all his men. He yearned to smash Golinkov’s arrogant sneer into bloody pulp. He would strangle the French phrases out of Golinkov. He would refuse. Siberia was positively a boon. After serving his sentence a man could find all manner of opportunity in the East. And he would be far from the arrogant, sneering, heretical, damnable Golinkov.

Golinkov barked a laugh. “You are of course free to decline. I hear Siberia is quite healthful this time of year. Discipline is strict, but what Cossack ever feared a flogging or branding?” He paused and added, ”You may know the abrek chief’s name. It’s Jibrail Khan.”

Friday, August 08, 2008


Long before the present Russo-Georgian War, which is spiralling out of control as I write this, I developed an interest in the Caucasus and Russia’s frontier there. I read Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, about Pechorin, a Tsarist army officer serving in the Caucasus. The book is a set of muscular, adventure tales posing as decadent ennui. Tolstoy began his career writing about the lives of soldiers and Cossacks in the bloody border wars with Chechen and Daghestani tribesmen. Then I read Lesley Blanche’s The Sabres of Paradise about Russia’s long war with the Imam Shamyl, a Muslim fundamentalist who waged guerrilla war in the mountains and had a son almost grow up at the imperial court.

I should add Uncle Sandro of Chegem by Fazil Iskander, Abkhazia’s Mark Twain. Nowadays Abkhazia has its own separatist government and Russian peacekeeping forces staring down the Georgian government. There’s Chechnya: A Small Victorious War about the first Chechen War. And there’s been lot’s else like Aukai Collins’ book My Jihad and At the Edge of Empire about the Terek Cossacks and Harold Lamb.

Anyway, I started to see the Caucasian Frontier as having some deep similarities to the American West. An expanding empire was conquering and colonizing a territory on the edge of European culture. Yes, I’m aware that Americans are not European, but we’re a lot more like Europeans than the Iroquois. Cowboys aren’t exactly Cossacks and Chechens aren’t Comanches. But the differences made the similarities all the more compelling. Frontiersmen living in a raw frontier battled for survival against natives. Sometimes they found they had more in common with their tribal foes than they did with the authorities from the settled regions.

So I thought, why not a Russian Western? The result was “The Abrek’s Shadow”. I’ll run it in six parts over the next six weeks, starting tomorrow, Saturday. Tonight however, you can find the Prologue below.


David A. Hardy


Fort Platov crouched like a panther over the Lezhgian Military Highway. Native carts and post coaches under Cossack escort crawled by as military couriers galloped with dispatches from the Tsar to his generals. Jewish and Armenian traders breathed easily, for this stretch of road was relatively safe, more than could be said of the wilder regions to the south in the heart of the mountains. Fort Platov’s cannons and soldiers offered protection to Russian settlers and loyal natives. They had a hard fist for the abreks, the bandits and rebels that infested the mountains.

Over fifty years ago the Tsar’s armies had marched south to humble the arrogant Persians, the cruel Turks, and the upstart mountain tribes. The sultan and the shah fell back before Russian might but the tribes, Chechen, Lezhgian, Avar, Abkaz and Circassian, battled on. In 1828 Kazi Mollah of Daghestan proclaimed jihad against the tyranny of the infidels and flames of war swept the highlands. Twenty-two years later the murids, the holy warriors, still fought under Imam Shamyl. The green flag of Islam still waved. The cry “Allah Akbar!’ still defied the Russian Empire and blood still flowed in the mountains.

Saturday, August 02, 2008


By Gustav Meyrink

Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel is one of the most evocative stories inspired by Prague’s Medieval Jewish Ghetto. It has a brooding, dreamlike quality that covers the story like a mist from the river Vltava hanging in the narrow pasažy that wind in strange configuration through the Stare Město. The Golem was praised by H.P. Lovecraft, it is long overdue for some more praise.

The protagonist is Athanasius Pernath, an amnesiac gem-cutter living in Josefov (the alternate name for the Jewish Ghetto). He is the focus of the complex intrigues of Aaron Wassertrum, the junk shop owner, Charousek, a Czech student, and Angelina, a young woman with a mysterious past. Above all the Golem has returned to the Ghetto, and its appearance is linked with Pernath’s quest for his own identity.

This barely scratches the surface of this complex story. There are puppeteers and prostitutes, gangsters and kabalists, quack doctors and meshugga musicians. Buddhist philosophy mixes with Jewish mysticism in Meyrink’s work. This is not a novel with a plot that is easily described, but it is a story of powerful and moving imagery as well as striking vignettes.

I give nothing away by adding that the great imperial urban renewal of the 1890s figures prominently. Much of the old Ghetto was razed to make way for new and highly ornate offices and homes. Praguers are still traumatized by it (one lady I knew gestured at the gorgeous Jugendstil buildings of Josefov and said dismissively, “This is all new. They got rid of the good stuff long ago.”).

While many people find the soul of Prague in the works of Franz Kafka, Gustav Meyrink carried a little bit of it away too. The Golem is a fantasy of remarkable power, like dreams rendered into life.

-Dave Hardy