Nathan’s eyes flew open. Sounds, screams and gunshots penetrated the cold air of his upstairs bedroom. The pungent smell of smoke invaded his nose. He coughed.
Am I having a nightmare? Shadows danced wildly across the ceiling and down the walls.
Heart pounding, he threw off his covers, jumped out of bed, and rushed to the window. His little brother, Israel, followed.
“What is it, Nathan?” Israel whispered.
Nathan pulled his brother against the wall behind him.
“Hey! I want to see!”
“Shush, Israel.” Nathan looked through the window at the valley below, his heart racing. Men in long coats and fur hats were running through the village brandishing swords and raising rifles.
The Bukolovs’ and the Gorbenkos’ houses were burning. Bodies lay on the ground. He couldn’t tell who they were, but he knew they were friends.
Momma rushed into the room. “Get away from that window, Nathan!”
“Those are Cossack soldiers, Momma!”
“Cossacks,” echoed Israel.
“Get dressed, Nathan. Hurry.”
Nathan hesitated at the window.
“Now!” she shouted, grabbing him with such force he lost his balance. “Get dressed. Bring your coat.”
Nathan turned from the window.
Momma pulled Israel’s clothes from the hook behind the door, hurried him into them, and down the stairs.
Nathan shoved his trembling hands into his shirt, the horrible scenes replaying in his mind—houses ablaze, soldiers on horseback, dead bodies, his friends in terror.
Why are the Cossacks here? What do they want?
He pushed his feet into his boots, jumped up, and hurried to the chest at the foot of the bed. Lifting the lid, he pulled out a knife in its sheath and shoved it into his right boot. He reached back for a leather bag containing lead balls and patches, and a powder horn. He fastened the pouch and powder horn to his belt. The firelight danced across his father’s pistol. He picked up the gun and balanced it in his right hand.
Momma said I can’t use it until I’m older. She doesn’t know I’ve taken it out when I’ve gone hunting and practiced shooting it. I’m sixteen. I’m a man. Why should I have to wait? The thought calmed him.
Nathan shoved the unloaded gun into his belt, went back to the window, and stared at the nightmare below. He turned away and tried to close his mind against the violence. His rifle, loaded and ready to fire leaned against the wall in the corner. He slipped his arm through the sling, hefted the rifle on his shoulder, and grabbed his coat. He ran down the stairs.
The back door banged in the cold January wind. Nathan pushed his right shoulder against the door and forced his way through. A bitter gust whipped down from the Caucasus Mountains and hit him full in the face, pushing him off balance.
Nathan gasped as acrid fumes attacked his nose and stung his eyes. He blinked away the tears and peered through the smoke. Momma moved like a ghost across the yard, her robe billowing behind her. Her long, black hair blew wildly in the wind. She was only halfway across the yard pulling Israel by the hand.
Why isn’t she already in the root cellar? Then he knew the answer—she had waited until he was out of the house.
Nathan lowered his head and fought his way after her. A few meters from the cellar, he froze when he heard the piercing squeal of his terrified horse. He turned toward the barn. “Aza, I’m here. I’m coming,” he yelled.
Before he reached the barn a woman’s scream ran a chill up his spine. The sound was cut short, followed by an ominous silence. Nathan felt sick.
He glanced toward the cellar. He couldn’t see Momma or Israel. Fearing the worst, he turned and stumbled toward the underground room. His eyes still stinging, he stumbled to the entrance, using his rifle as a crutch to keep him upright.
“Momma?” he whispered.
Silence. His heart stopped.
“I hear you, Nathan. We’re all right.”
Nathan staggered down the steps with relief. His mind swirled with images and terrible sounds. His thoughts returned to Aza. He turned back to the steps.
“Nathan, stay here!”
“I must go to Aza, Momma. I heard him scream. He’s panicked, he could hurt himself.”
“What can you do for him, Nathan?”
“I can calm him down and turn him loose into the woods. If they set the barn on fire, he’ll die. He’ll be safe in the woods. I must go!”
“You’re more important than your horse. I, we need you here with us. Stay, Nathan. I couldn’t bear to lose you.”
Nathan was torn. Breathing a heavy sigh in resignation as he pulled the cellar door shut, he let his eyes adjust to the dark. He leaned his rifle against the wall.
Momma wrapped her arms around her older son. Nathan felt her shiver. He knew she was more afraid than cold. Had she heard the scream?
She sank to her knees, pulling Nathan down. “I know you’re afraid,” she whispered.
Nathan tensed. “I’m not afraid. I’m a man—the man of the house. You’ve said this yourself.” He pulled away from her. “You say I’m brave and strong. You tell me I’m like Papa, but you treat me like a little boy.”
“Nathan, you’re both. You’re my little boy, but at the same time you’re a man. Can you understand?”
Ignoring her question he said, “Papa should be here to protect us. I didn’t even get to tell him good-bye.”
“Don’t be angry, Nathan. He loved you very much. He loved all of us.” She slipped her arms around him again saying, “It was an accident. There was no chance for anyone to say good-bye. Dying wasn’t his choice. You’re a man, Nathan. You look just like him—tall and strong, yet gentle. You have his black, wavy hair, hazel eyes, even his strong chin. What would I do without you?”
Nathan didn’t say anything. He couldn’t stay mad at her. Her soft voice melted his heart.
Even when she’s afraid, she comforts me. Momma’s right. About all of it. It isn’t her fault Papa died.
His anger, no longer directed at her, receded.
“Momma, are we going to be all right?” asked Israel.
“I pray we will, son. Who can know with certainty?”
“I’m scared, Momma,” Israel said.
“I know, son, I know.”
Nathan felt her arms leave him. In a few seconds, he felt her rocking against him. He knew she was holding Israel.
The woman’s scream crept into Nathan’s mind again. He put his hands over his ears as if he could silence it.
Was it Vasile’s mother?
Vasile was his best friend. It didn’t matter to Vasile that Nathan was a Jew. The two of them hunted elk, roe deer, wild boar, rabbit, and birds almost every day and rode their horses all over the surrounding countryside. They raced. Aza was faster and Nathan always won.
Where is Vasile? Is he alive? Is he hiding in his cellar? Does he have his rifle?
Nathan was the better shot even though he was two years younger. The men in the village used to wager on which boy would bring in the most game.
The wind howling through the spaces in the cellar door pulled Nathan from his thoughts. He realized he couldn’t dwell on Vasile and his family. It was too painful.
His thoughts turned toward the village. Gagra sat at the base of the Caucasus Mountains in northern Georgia, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Tonight was one of the rare times the mountains let the Arctic winds assault the village.
The Cossacks seem to have blown in like a whirlwind. Why have they attacked us? What is here that they want? Women? Food? Weapons? Many of the houses are already damaged and there are few families.
Nathan stroked the handle of Papa’s pistol. His father found it after the Turks raided the village. He told Nathan a Turkish soldier must have dropped the gun. The rifle and ammunition bag were gifts to Papa from a woman who lost her husband during the raid. That was when Papa became the village hunter.
I’m the hunter now.
A strong gust rattled the cellar door, startling Nathan. When it died down, he could hear the terror of the night—constant gunfire, men cursing, women wailing. The sight of the burning house flooded his mind again.
Please God, don’t let them burn our house.
Time crept past. The gunfire died down and the yells ceased. Suddenly, there was the sound of hoof beats on the road—many horses at a gallop. The sound faded into the night.
“Momma, I think the Cossacks have gone. I’ll see if it’s safe now.”
“No, son.” She pulled Nathan to her and held him tight. “Wait a few minutes more. Maybe the fires will die down.”
“The wind’s too strong, Momma,” he protested. “The fires will burn all night. I need to see.” He tried to pull away from her.
She tightened her hold on him. “What can you do if it isn’t safe, Nathan?”
What can I do? I must do what Papa would do. I must be a man like Papa.
“I’ll be careful,” he said pulling free of her.
He reached for his rifle, crept up the steps, and pushed the door open just enough to see into the yard. The fires from the burning village houses cast an eerie glow on the thick smoke swirling in the wind. He breathed a sigh of relief as he realized their home was still standing.
“The house and barn look to be all right,” he whispered to his mother. “Aza is safe. I won’t be gone long.”
Before she could protest, he pushed open the door and stepped into the yard. He let the door go just as Momma cried, “No, Nathan!”
He crossed the yard in a crouch, the rifle gripped tightly in his hands. The wind pushed at him with angry fingers. The back door was shut.
This is good. Perhaps no one has gone inside.
He slipped into the house, pulled the door closed, and stood still listening for any sounds. There were none except from the outside. The smell of smoke was strong. The blaze of fires lit the room with an odd glow. Through a window, he could see the village. A strange peace filled the house in contrast to the nightmare outside.
Nathan checked each room. Clear. He ran up the stairs. Satisfied everything was in place he returned to the kitchen. He took one last look around and stepped out the door. As he turned to shut the door, his rifle was jerked from his hand. He froze, his heart pounding, his breath suspended. He felt a pistol jab into his back.
“Well, well. Who do we have here?” asked a deep, raspy voice. “Put your hands behind your head and turn around slowly.”
Nathan obeyed. As he turned, he gazed into the piercing eyes of a Cossack soldier.
The Cossack pointed his revolver at Nathan’s head. He looked the boy up and down. His eyes settled on the pistol. Without taking his eyes off Nathan, he backed up two steps, crouched down, and laid the rifle on the ground. “Hand me that pistol,” the Cossack commanded, “grip first. No sudden moves.”
The soldier examined it. “An unloaded pistol? Why?”
Nathan didn’t respond.
“I asked you a question.”
“I didn’t have time to load it.”
“Where are the balls and powder?”
Nathan pulled back his coat, revealing the bag and powder horn.
“This is a Turkish gun. Where did you get it?”
“My father gave it to me.”
“Your father? Where is he?” The soldier’s voice was tense.
“He’s dead!” Nathan hissed through gritted teeth. Anger burned deep within him.
Why isn’t Papa here? He should be here to protect us.
“I see. So it’s a keepsake?” he asked as he slid the pistol in his waist.
Nathan said nothing.
“And is the rifle empty as well?”
“Ah, you intended to use it against me, no doubt.”
Nathan eyed his enemy.
He’s older. Maybe fifteen years older than me. About the same height. Fur hat makes him look taller. The ankle-length coat hides his build. His rifle is slung over his shoulder, but his pistol is pointed at me.
The light flickered across the Cossack’s face. He looked grotesque and misshapen. With quick steps, he came so close that Nathan could feel his breath. He felt the pressure of the Cossack’s pistol pressing into his belly.
“You’re well-armed for a boy. Do you have any other weapons?”
“Where is it?”
“In my boot.”
The soldier stepped back. “You’re right-handed. Use your left hand and hand it to me, handle first.”
Nathan knelt and wrapped his fingers around the knife’s handle.
Can I overtake this Cossack?
Nathan could win a fight with any boy in the village, but he knew he couldn’t win against a trained Cossack. He inched the knife out of its sheath. The Cossack leaned forward, touching the pistol barrel to the top of Nathan’s head.
Nathan froze. The hair on his neck stood up. His hand trembled.
“You wouldn’t be thinking of trying something would you, little man? Please don’t be foolish. I’d hate to hurt you. Do we understand each other?”
The Cossack backed away, his pistol still aimed at Nathan. “Lay it on the ground and stand up.”
When it was on the ground the two stared at each other for several seconds.
“Now hand it to me,” he said cocking his pistol.
The Cossack looked at the knife. “And this . . . your father’s also?
“These weapons make you a threat to me.” He shoved the knife into his coat pocket. “Now tell me, where were you going, back to the cellar?”
Nathan didn’t respond.
He’s been watching me.
“I was just about to enter your house when I saw you leave the cellar. I decided to wait and see what you were going to do. I suspect there’s someone there who waits for your return. Perhaps your mother?”
He knows about Momma!
Nathan’s shoulders slumped. What would such a man do to her? He shuddered at the thought. Then what—kill her? Kill Israel? Kill me? The old men of the village tell stories of Cossack raids and the things they do. Again the woman’s scream echoed in his mind.
“Do you have a horse?” the Cossack asked.
He’s taking my horse? He’s taking everything. How can I be a man without a horse?
“In the barn?”
“Start walking,” the Cossack said, waving his pistol toward the barn. After Nathan passed, he bent down and retrieved the rifle.
Nathan glanced toward the village and shivered. Fires sent grotesque shadows flying across the buildings. The acrid taste of the smoke stung his throat. Worst of all, the horrible scream echoed in his mind. Did this Cossack make her scream? What can I do? He knows where Momma is. I’m trapped. How can I protect her? I can’t do anything. Nathan pushed open the barn door and spoke to his horse in a soft voice. “It’s me, Aza. Don’t be afraid.” Aza threw his head back, his eyes wild. “It’s all right.” Nathan held his hand out, coaxing Aza to come to him. The horse moved forward, nudging Nathan’s hand. “That’s a good boy,” he said rubbing Aza’s nose. “It’s okay.”
“Saddle your horse,” commanded the Cossack.
“Are you going to steal him?”
“Why would I steal your horse? I can only ride one at a time.”
“Why do you want me to saddle him?”
“You ask too many questions, boy. Just do it.”
Nathan reached for a bridle, slipped the noseband over Aza’s nose, and placed the bit in his mouth. He pulled the headpiece over Aza’s ears and whispered, “It’s all right, Aza. Everything is just fine.” I know you know better. Nathan’s eyes searched the barn for a way to escape, but there was no way out. He slipped the throat lash under Aza’s cheeks and stroked his mane. The horse whinnied as Nathan saddled him. You know we’re going somewhere don’t you, boy. So do I, but where? Taking a last look at the barn, he hoped and prayed there was some way of escape. Something he could do. Nothing. I can’t do a single thing. He has my weapons. He’ll shoot me if I try to rush him. I’m trapped.
The Cossack watched—his pistol didn’t waver. “You handle your horse with skill. Can you ride him as well?”
Nathan shrugged his shoulders.
“Never mind, I’ll see how good you can ride very soon.”
“You’re taking me with you? I won’t go!”
“You don’t have a choice, little man. Ah, yet you do. You can die by my gun. Would you want that? Would you be of benefit to your mother then? Have you forgotten what you’ve seen this night? What you’ve heard? You know it’s not by accident your house still stands. Nor that your mother is safe in the cellar. She’ll have a night and day to think about you—to worry about what has happened to you. We’ll return tomorrow night to discuss your ransom with her.”
“My ransom? You’re kidnapping me?”
“We’ve wasted enough time. My comrades wait for me.” The Cossack grabbed Nathan’s arm, pulling him toward the door.
Nathan jerked his arm free. Aza moved back with nervous steps.
“Aha! You’re a strong one. You think you’re as strong as I am? Don’t flatter yourself, little man. I’ve no more patience. You’re my prisoner. Now bring your horse out,” said the Cossack as he backed out the door.
“Come, Aza. It’s okay, boy.”
“My horse is tied to the post in front of your house. Walk your horse there. Don’t try anything. My pistol’s on you. Now go.”
The smoke and fires made Aza skittish. Nathan held the reins tight, spoke to him, and rubbed his nose. At the hitching post, Nathan glanced back at the cellar. Momma, I should have listened to you. But what difference would it have made? At least you have the house. It could’ve been your scream I heard. He shuddered.
“Don’t worry about her,” said the Cossack. “She’ll be all right. Get on your horse, boy. Don’t try anything.”
Nathan climbed on Aza. The horse relaxed under him.
The Cossack untied his own horse. He mounted, his pistol aimed at Nathan. “We have some distance to cover. Circle around the barn. We’ll ride through the woods to the north of the village then turn east to the road going toward the mountains. Ride slow, I don’t want to draw anyone’s attention. I’ll be right behind you with my pistol pointed at your horse. If you try anything, I’ll shoot him.”
For several minutes they rode through the trees. The firelight flickered on the trees, casting weird shadows all around. Nathan looked from side to side straining to see a friend, someone who might be able to help. It was eerie. The only movement were women mourning over their dead. On the north side of the village, Nathan turned his horse east. They came to the road.
The Cossack nudged his horse beside Nathan’s. Without warning, he tossed Nathan’s rifle into the air. Nathan snatched it with his left hand and held Aza’s reins in the other.
“Good reflexes.” The Cossack smiled. “You and your horse make a good team.”
Nathan looked away. He acts as if this is a game.
“I remember your rifle is loaded. Don’t be foolish. Now put your horse to a gallop towards the mountains. I’ll see how well you ride.”
“Go, Aza!” shouted Nathan as he leaned forward in his saddle. He gripped the reins tightly, and jabbed his heels into Aza’s flanks.
The Cossack followed close behind. The glow of the fires disappeared and the wails of the women subsided as the village faded into the night. The only sounds were the horses’ hooves pounding the dirt and the cold winter wind. Run like the wind, Aza. I know this country very well. Nathan looked over his shoulder. The Cossack was a horse length behind. I could go into the woods on my right. By the time he realizes what’s happened, I’ll be lost in the darkness. If he stops to listen for me he’ll lose me. If he follows, the noise of his horse will cover my sounds and I’ll lose him. I can circle around the village, stay on the seashore, and go into cliffs. No, I can’t! He’ll head straight for Momma. What would Papa do? I’m trapped. TRAPPED!
When Nathan and the Cossack had galloped about five minutes, the Cossack yelled, “Slow your horse! We’re close to the camp now. I can see the fires through the trees.”
Nathan pulled back on the reins. “Easy, Aza. Easy, boy.” Searching the trees, he saw the fires on their right.
The Cossack said, “Give me your reins”.
Nathan hesitated. He shivered as the reality of the situation bore down on him.
“Your reins!” commanded the Cossack as he grabbed them from Nathan’s hands. He led Nathan down a narrow path into the camp.
“Nikolai.” A voice came through the night. “We thought you had deserted us or some wench had pulled you off into the woods.” There was much laughter.
His name is Nikolai.
“You think I’m a fool, eh? You wish my share of the loot would go to you, you pig of a man.” More laughter as Nikolai jumped off his horse. “I’ve a prize. I saw this young one come out of a cellar and I couldn’t resist the urge to capture him. I need someone to tend to my horse and shine my boots.” He threw back his head and laughed. “He’ll make a fine Cossack, no?”
Nikolai pulled Nathan off Aza. There were at least fifty men in the camp. One of them reached for Aza’s reins. Nathan grabbed them first; his eyes flashed with anger. Nikolai stepped between them. “You needn’t worry, little man. He’ll be rubbed down and fed. You and your horse are both safe here with me.”
Shaking with anger, Nathan stared at the ground. “Why should I trust you?” he said under his breath. “You’ve kidnapped me.”
“A fine specimen, Nikolai,” thundered an enormous man. He walked up to Nathan and stared down at him with a wide grin. “You have courage, son.”
Nathan could not take his eyes off of him. He must be the leader. He’s huge.
“You have a son now, Nikolai. He is your first. Congratulations.”
Nathan wondered at the comment. A son?
“Thank you, Commander.”
Nikolai pulled Nathan’s arm. “Come, sit by the fire and warm yourself. I’ve a warmer coat and hat for you. A man’s coat. A Cossack’s coat. You’re hungry, no?”
Nathan nodded. He wasn’t sure he could find his voice. Several of the men crowded around to get a better look at him.
“Give the lad some room,” said Nikolai. He motioned the men back. They didn’t hesitate.
He must have authority.
“He’s cold and hungry. He needs some good Cossack rations.” More laughter. Nikolai disappeared.
Nathan remained by the fire. It felt good. He hoped its warmth would help him to stop shivering. It didn’t. He felt many pairs of eyes staring at him.
Nikolai returned with a hat and coat identical to his. He put the hat on Nathan’s head and gave it a firm pat to settle it in place. He smiled at the soldiers and winked. “Take off that boy’s coat and put on this one.” He turned so only Nathan could hear him. “I know you’re full of fear,” he whispered. “Your world is different now. You have much to learn and see. You’ll now get a man’s education.”
Nathan put on the coat. It was big and heavy. The warmth was instant. He felt different in the Cossack hat and coat. It was strange.
“Sit. I’ll get you some fine food.”
Nathan sat shivering and waiting. His thoughts raced. What does he want with me? What does he mean man’s education?
Nikolai brought some bread, cheese, and some kind of hard meat. Nathan hadn’t tasted meat like it before. He didn’t know how hungry he was until he took the first bite. He ate quickly.
“Look at this appetite!” laughed Nikolai. “You’ll be a full grown man in a week at this rate. Come with me. I’ll show you your bed.”
Nathan followed him to a large tree where Aza was tied.
Nikolai tossed him a woolen blanket and pointed to a place under the tree. “Sleep there. The tree will stop the wind. You’ll find the blanket adequate. Sleep well. Tomorrow night we’ll visit with your mother, although I suspect nothing will be accomplished with her.” He took Nathan’s rifle and fired it into the air. He tossed it back to Nathan and winked.
Why does he wink at me? Nathan leaned his rifle against the tree, lay down, and pulled the blanket over him. The camp was noisy, but after a short time, all the men settled on the ground. Nathan listened to the crackling of the campfire and for the first time since the nightmare started, he cried. Thoughts ran through his mind like a herd of horses. What does the Cossack want to accomplish with Momma? It was clear he was Nikolai’s property now. He didn’t know what that meant, but he knew he would find out. Nathan thought of being home in his bed. Overtaken by exhaustion, he slept and dreamed of Momma, Israel, fires, and screams.