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- BEASTS MEN AND GODS - 6/45 -
food for nothing and supplied us with guides, telling us with whom we might stop and where to hide in case of danger.
After several days we looked down from the high bank of the Yenisei upon the first steamer, the "Oriol," from Krasnoyarsk to Minnusinsk, laden with Red soldiers. Soon we came to the mouth of the river Tuba, which we were to follow straight east to the Sayan mountains, where Urianhai begins. We thought the stage along the Tuba and its branch, the Amyl, the most dangerous part of our course, because the valleys of these two rivers had a dense population which had contributed large numbers of soldiers to the celebrated Communist Partisans, Schetinkin and Krafcheno.
A Tartar ferried us and our horses over to the right bank of the Yenisei and afterwards sent us some Cossacks at daybreak who guided us to the mouth of the Tuba, where we spent the whole day in rest, gratifying ourselves with a feast of wild black currants and cherries.
THREE DAYS ON THE EDGE OF A PRECIPICE
Armed with our false passports, we moved along up the valley of the Tuba. Every ten or fifteen versts we came across large villages of from one to six hundred houses, where all administration was in the hands of Soviets and where spies scrutinized all passers-by. We could not avoid these villages for two reasons. First, our attempts to avoid them when we were constantly meeting the peasants in the country would have aroused suspicion and would have caused any Soviet to arrest us and send us to the "Cheka" in Minnusinsk, where we should have sung our last song. Secondly, in his documents my fellow traveler was granted permission to use the government post relays for forwarding him on his journey. Therefore, we were forced to visit the village Soviets and change our horses. Our own mounts we had given to the Tartar and Cossack who helped us at the mouth of the Tuba, and the Cossack brought us in his wagon to the first village, where we received the post horses. All except a small minority of the peasants were against the Bolsheviki and voluntarily assisted us. I paid them for their help by treating their sick and my fellow traveler gave them practical advice in the management of their agriculture. Those who helped us chiefly were the old dissenters and the Cossacks.
Sometimes we came across villages entirely Communistic but very soon we learned to distinguish them. When we entered a village with our horse bells tinkling and found the peasants who happened to be sitting in front of their houses ready to get up with a frown and a grumble that here were more new devils coming, we knew that this was a village opposed to the Communists and that here we could stop in safety. But, if the peasants approached and greeted us with pleasure, calling us "Comrades," we knew at once that we were among the enemy and took great precautions. Such villages were inhabited by people who were not the Siberian liberty-loving peasants but by emigrants from the Ukraine, idle and drunk, living in poor dirty huts, though their village were surrounded with the black and fertile soil of the steppes. Very dangerous and pleasant moments we spent in the large village of Karatuz. It is rather a town. In the year 1912 two colleges were opened here and the population reached 15,000 people. It is the capital of the South Yenisei Cossacks. But by now it is very difficult to recognize this town. The peasant emigrants and Red army murdered all the Cossack population and destroyed and burned most of the houses; and it is at present the center of Bolshevism and Communism in the eastern part of the Minnusinsk district. In the building of the Soviet, where we came to exchange our horses, there was being held a meeting of the "Cheka." We were immediately surrounded and questioned about our documents. We were not any too calm about the impression which might be made by our papers and attempted to avoid this examination. My fellow traveler afterwards often said to me:
"It is great good fortune that among the Bolsheviki the good-for- nothing shoemaker of yesterday is the Governor of today and scientists sweep the streets or clean the stables of the Red cavalry. I can talk with the Bolsheviki because they do not know the difference between 'disinfection' and 'diphtheria,' 'anthracite' and 'appendicitis' and can talk them round in all things, even up to persuading them not to put a bullet into me."
And so we talked the members of the "Cheka" round to everything that we wanted. We presented to them a bright scheme for the future development of their district, when we would build the roads and bridges which would allow them to export the wood from Urianhai, iron and gold from the Sayan Mountains, cattle and furs from Mongolia. What a triumph of creative work for the Soviet Government! Our ode occupied about an hour and afterwards the members of the "Cheka," forgetting about our documents, personally changed our horses, placed our luggage on the wagon and wished us success. It was the last ordeal within the borders of Russia.
When we had crossed the valley of the river Amyl, Happiness smiled on us. Near the ferry we met a member of the militia from Karatuz. He had on his wagon several rifles and automatic pistols, mostly Mausers, for outfitting an expedition through Urianhai in quest of some Cossack officers who had been greatly troubling the Bolsheviki. We stood upon our guard. We could very easily have met this expedition and we were not quite assured that the soldiers would be so appreciative of our high-sounding phrases as were the members of the "Cheka." Carefully questioning the militiaman, we ferreted out the route their expedition was to take. In the next village we stayed in the same house with him. I had to open my luggage and suddenly I noticed his admiring glance fixed upon my bag.
"What pleases you so much?" I asked.
He whispered: "Trousers . . . Trousers."
I had received from my townsmen quite new trousers of black thick cloth for riding. Those trousers attracted the rapt attention of the militiaman.
"If you have no other trousers. . . ." I remarked, reflecting upon my plan of attack against my new friend.
"No," he explained with sadness, "the Soviet does not furnish trousers. They tell me they also go without trousers. And my trousers are absolutely worn out. Look at them."
With these words he threw back the corner of his overcoat and I was astonished how he could keep himself inside these trousers, for they had such large holes that they were more of a net than trousers, a net through which a small shark could have slipped.
"Sell me," he whispered, with a question in his voice.
"I cannot, for I need them myself," I answered decisively.
He reflected for a few minutes and afterward, approaching me, said: "Let us go out doors and talk. Here it is inconvenient."
We went outside. "Now, what about it?" he began. "You are going into Urianhai. There the Soviet bank-notes have no value and you will not be able to buy anything, where there are plenty of sables, fox-skins, ermine and gold dust to be purchased, which they very willingly exchange for rifles and cartridges. You have each of you a rifle and I will give you one more rifle with a hundred cartridges if you give me the trousers."
"We do not need weapons. We are protected by our documents," I answered, as though I did not understand.
"But no," he interrupted, "you can change that rifle there into furs and gold. I shall give you that rifle outright."
"Ah, that's it, is it? But it's very little for those trousers. Nowhere in Russia can you now find trousers. All Russia goes without trousers and for your rifle I should receive a sable and what use to me is one skin?"
Word by word I attained to my desire. The militia-man got my trousers and I received a rifle with one hundred cartridges and two automatic pistols with forty cartridges each. We were armed now so that we could defend ourselves. Moreover, I persuaded the happy possessor of my trousers to give us a permit to carry the weapons. Then the law and force were both on our side.
In a distant village we bought three horses, two for riding and one for packing, engaged a guide, purchased dried bread, meat, salt and butter and, after resting twenty-four hours, began our trip up the Amyl toward the Sayan Mountains on the border of Urianhai. There we hoped not to meet Bolsheviki, either sly or silly. In three days from the mouth of the Tuba we passed the last Russian village near the Mongolian-Urianhai border, three days of constant contact with a lawless population, of continuous danger and of the ever present possibility of fortuitous death. Only iron will power, presence of mind and dogged tenacity brought us through all the dangers and saved us from rolling back down our precipice of adventure, at whose foot lay so many others who had failed to make this same climb to freedom which we had just accomplished. Perhaps they lacked the persistence or the presence of mind, perhaps they had not the poetic ability to sing odes about "roads, bridges and gold mines" or perhaps they simply had no spare trousers.
TO THE SAYANS AND SAFETY
Dense virgin wood surrounded us. In the high, already yellow grass the trail wound hardly noticeable in among bushes and trees just beginning to drop their many colored leaves. It is the old, already forgotten Amyl pass road. Twenty-five years ago it carried the provisions, machinery and workers for the numerous, now abandoned, gold mines of the Amyl valley. The road now wound along the wide and rapid Amyl, then penetrated into the deep forest, guiding us round the swampy ground filled with those dangerous Siberian quagmires, through the dense bushes, across mountains and wide meadows. Our guide probably did not surmise our real intention and sometimes, apprehensively looking down at the ground, would say:
"Three riders on horses with shoes on have passed here. Perhaps they were soldiers."
His anxiety was terminated when he discovered that the tracks led off to one side and then returned to the trail.
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