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- BEASTS MEN AND GODS - 2/45 -
whirling storm of mad revolution raging all over Russia, sowing in this peaceful and rich land vengeance, hate, bloodshed and crimes that go unpunished by the law. No one could tell the hour of his fate. The people lived from day to day and left their homes not knowing whether they should return to them or whether they should be dragged from the streets and thrown into the dungeons of that travesty of courts, the Revolutionary Committee, more terrible and more bloody than those of the Mediaeval Inquisition. We who were strangers in this distraught land were not saved from its persecutions and I personally lived through them.
One morning, when I had gone out to see a friend, I suddenly received the news that twenty Red soldiers had surrounded my house to arrest me and that I must escape. I quickly put on one of my friend's old hunting suits, took some money and hurried away on foot along the back ways of the town till I struck the open road, where I engaged a peasant, who in four hours had driven me twenty miles from the town and set me down in the midst of a deeply forested region. On the way I bought a rifle, three hundred cartridges, an ax, a knife, a sheepskin overcoat, tea, salt, dry bread and a kettle. I penetrated into the heart of the wood to an abandoned half-burned hut. From this day I became a genuine trapper but I never dreamed that I should follow this role as long as I did. The next morning I went hunting and had the good fortune to kill two heathcock. I found deer tracks in plenty and felt sure that I should not want for food. However, my sojourn in this place was not for long. Five days later when I returned from hunting I noticed smoke curling up out of the chimney of my hut. I stealthily crept along closer to the cabin and discovered two saddled horses with soldiers' rifles slung to the saddles. Two disarmed men were not dangerous for me with a weapon, so I quickly rushed across the open and entered the hut. From the bench two soldiers started up in fright. They were Bolsheviki. On their big Astrakhan caps I made out the red stars of Bolshevism and on their blouses the dirty red bands. We greeted each other and sat down. The soldiers had already prepared tea and so we drank this ever welcome hot beverage and chatted, suspiciously eyeing one another the while. To disarm this suspicion on their part, I told them that I was a hunter from a distant place and was living there because I found it good country for sables. They announced to me that they were soldiers of a detachment sent from a town into the woods to pursue all suspicious people.
"Do you understand, 'Comrade,'" said one of them to me, "we are looking for counter-revolutionists to shoot them?"
I knew it without his explanations. All my forces were directed to assuring them by my conduct that I was a simple peasant hunter and that I had nothing in common with the counter-revolutionists. I was thinking also all the time of where I should go after the departure of my unwelcome guests. It grew dark. In the darkness their faces were even less attractive. They took out bottles of vodka and drank and the alcohol began to act very noticeably. They talked loudly and constantly interrupted each other, boasting how many bourgeoisie they had killed in Krasnoyarsk and how many Cossacks they had slid under the ice in the river. Afterwards they began to quarrel but soon they were tired and prepared to sleep. All of a sudden and without any warning the door of the hut swung wide open and the steam of the heated room rolled out in a great cloud, out of which seemed to rise like a genie, as the steam settled, the figure of a tall, gaunt peasant impressively crowned with the high Astrakhan cap and wrapped in the great sheepskin overcoat that added to the massiveness of his figure. He stood with his rifle ready to fire. Under his girdle lay the sharp ax without which the Siberian peasant cannot exist. Eyes, quick and glimmering like those of a wild beast, fixed themselves alternately on each of us. In a moment he took off his cap, made the sign of the cross on his breast and asked of us: "Who is the master here?"
I answered him.
"May I stop the night?"
"Yes," I replied, "places enough for all. Take a cup of tea. It is still hot."
The stranger, running his eyes constantly over all of us and over everything about the room, began to take off his skin coat after putting his rifle in the corner. He was dressed in an old leather blouse with trousers of the same material tucked in high felt boots. His face was quite young, fine and tinged with something akin to mockery. His white, sharp teeth glimmered as his eyes penetrated everything they rested upon. I noticed the locks of grey in his shaggy head. Lines of bitterness circled his mouth. They showed his life had been very stormy and full of danger. He took a seat beside his rifle and laid his ax on the floor below.
"What? Is it your wife?" asked one of the drunken soldiers, pointing to the ax.
The tall peasant looked calmly at him from the quiet eyes under their heavy brows and as calmly answered:
"One meets a different folk these days and with an ax it is much safer."
He began to drink tea very greedily, while his eyes looked at me many times with sharp inquiry in them and ran often round the whole cabin in search of the answer to his doubts. Very slowly and with a guarded drawl he answered all the questions of the soldiers between gulps of the hot tea, then he turned his glass upside down as evidence of having finished, placed on the top of it the small lump of sugar left and remarked to the soldiers:
"I am going out to look after my horse and will unsaddle your horses for you also."
"All right," exclaimed the half-sleeping young soldier, "bring in our rifles as well."
The soldiers were lying on the benches and thus left for us only the floor. The stranger soon came back, brought the rifles and set them in the dark corner. He dropped the saddle pads on the floor, sat down on them and began to take off his boots. The soldiers and my guest soon were snoring but I did not sleep for thinking of what next to do. Finally as dawn was breaking, I dozed off only to awake in the broad daylight and find my stranger gone. I went outside the hut and discovered him saddling a fine bay stallion.
"Are you going away?" I asked.
"Yes, but I want to go together with these ---- comrades,'" he whispered, "and afterwards I shall come back."
I did not ask him anything further and told him only that I would wait for him. He took off the bags that had been hanging on his saddle, put them away out of sight in the burned corner of the cabin, looked over the stirrups and bridle and, as he finished saddling, smiled and said:
"I am ready. I'm going to awake my 'comrades.'" Half an hour after the morning drink of tea, my three guests took their leave. I remained out of doors and was engaged in splitting wood for my stove. Suddenly, from a distance, rifle shots rang through the woods, first one, then a second. Afterwards all was still. From the place near the shots a frightened covey of blackcock broke and came over me. At the top of a high pine a jay cried out. I listened for a long time to see if anyone was approaching my hut but everything was still.
On the lower Yenisei it grows dark very early. I built a fire in my stove and began to cook my soup, constantly listening for every noise that came from beyond the cabin walls. Certainly I understood at all times very clearly that death was ever beside me and might claim me by means of either man, beast, cold, accident or disease. I knew that nobody was near me to assist and that all my help was in the hands of God, in the power of my hands and feet, in the accuracy of my aim and in my presence of mind. However, I listened in vain. I did not notice the return of my stranger. Like yesterday he appeared all at once on the threshold. Through the steam I made out his laughing eyes and his fine face. He stepped into the hut and dropped with a good deal of noise three rifles into the corner.
"Two horses, two rifles, two saddles, two boxes of dry bread, half a brick of tea, a small bag of salt, fifty cartridges, two overcoats, two pairs of boots," laughingly he counted out. "In truth today I had a very successful hunt."
In astonishment I looked at him.
"What are you surprised at?" he laughed. "Komu nujny eti tovarischi? Who's got any use for these fellows? Let us have tea and go to sleep. Tomorrow I will guide you to another safer place and then go on."
THE SECRET OF MY FELLOW TRAVELER
At the dawn of day we started forth, leaving my first place of refuge. Into the bags we packed our personal estate and fastened them on one of the saddles.
"We must go four or five hundred versts," very calmly announced my fellow traveler, who called himself "Ivan," a name that meant nothing to my mind or heart in this land where every second man bore the same.
"We shall travel then for a very long time," I remarked regretfully.
"Not more than one week, perhaps even less," he answered.
That night we spent in the woods under the wide spreading branches of the fir trees. It was my first night in the forest under the open sky. How many like this I was destined to spend in the year and a half of my wanderings! During the day there was very sharp cold. Under the hoofs of the horses the frozen snow crunched and the balls that formed and broke from their hoofs rolled away over the crust with a sound like crackling glass. The heathcock flew from the trees very idly, hares loped slowly down the beds of summer streams. At night the wind began to sigh and whistle as it bent the tops of the trees over our heads; while below it was still and calm. We stopped in a deep ravine bordered by heavy trees, where we found fallen firs, cut them into logs for the fire and, after having boiled our tea, dined.
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