Hunter of the East
by James Brian King
appear in this issue.
|part 1 of 3|
Semyon Nikolayevich Lianozov, kapitan of the Tsar’s Ussuri Cossacks, dismounted from his horse and rubbed the mare’s sleek neck to calm her excitement. The mare’s nostrils flared widely to fill her lungs after the gallop across the muddy Manchurian hills that had carried her rider to yet another isolated, threatened stretch of the South Manchurian Railway.
When the mare was settled, Lianozov handed the reins to a young soldier and stepped through the sodden, newly green grasses toward the waiting patrol, his boots sinking into the deep mud from the recent snow melt and spring rains, to reach the narrow iron rails that connected St Petersburg to the vast, empty expanses of the Far Eastern lands of empire.
His soldiers said nothing as he examined the damage, the spikes that held the rails in place pried from the cross ties. Had the saboteurs not been observed and the damage discovered, the next train to roll across these rails on its lonely journey from St. Petersburg to Mukden in the east would have derailed, scattering its many train cars of troops, ammunition, and supplies down the hillside, killing hundreds and likely destroying the near-invaluable train itself.
Lianozov cast his eyes to the six Chunchuses, Chinese bandits, kneeling in the snow, their posture that of submission and supplication, then cast his glance across the bodies of seven other Chunchuses who lay dead on the muddy plain, shot as they had attempted to evade the Cossack patrol.
The kapitan’s harsh gaze swept back to those still alive. Meek they may appear, but Lianozov knew better of their true temperament; the Chunchuses were among the worst of criminals, brutal and merciless to any they chose as their victims, including their own Chinese people.
Lianozov’s gaze was drawn to one of the bandits who clasped his arm within his padded coat, then he spied the bloodied fingers in the mud, hacked from the bandit’s hand. Lianozov quickly drew his revolver then abruptly turned to glare at the officer of the patrol.
“We are Cossacks!” he spat forcefully through tightly curled lips. “Our reputation is built on our soldiering, not on our savagery!”
His hard eyes shifted to the bandits, then he lifted his revolver and aimed it at the forehead of the bandit who clenched his mangled hand within his coat. The crashing report of the forty-five caliber shot was a token manifestation of the power of the bullet that plowed through the bandit’s head and exploded from the back of his skull.
Lianozov watched the stricken bandit flop back on his deathbed of gore-spattered mud, then swept his hard, intent gaze across the remaining bandits and to his soldiers.
“These men are enemies of the motherland!” he shouted. Then, with less vehemence, “The Tsar of all the Russias requires that we shoot our enemies. Nothing more.”
Again, he raised his revolver.
* * *
Lianozov returned to his headquarters with the patrol, where he immediately ordered his second in command to telegraph up the line; the next train would need to be halted until the track was repaired.
The engineers who worked the fine locomotives built by Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia would not be surprised — delays were common and even expected on the Great Siberian and connecting railways. The railways, unlike the locomotives, were fully Russian: grandiose in conception, but poorly engineered and inferior in construction.
Sotnik Shvernik, lieutenant by western ranks, returned to find his commander slumped at his small desk, his forehead pressed into his hands.
“Podesaul,” Shvernik inquired with concern, addressing Lianozov by his traditional Cossack rank, “are you not well?”
Lianozov straightened and raised tired eyes to his second. “I am a soldier, Josif Ivanovich, a Cossack. Our brothers are gathering in force along the Yalu River to face the Japanese when our enemy invades Manchuria from Korea.” Lianozov exhaled loudly through his nostrils. “And here I am, again confined to the narrow irons of the railroad instead of riding the broad plains as a cavalry man should, just as it was during my full-time service.”
Lianozov realized he should have said “we,” for Josif Ivanovich Shvernik had served under him during much of those years. Both men were of the Ussuri Host of Cossacks headquartered in Vladivostok, that great trade port of the Russian Empire’s Far East shore that was the terminus of the Great Siberian Railway. As Cossacks they paid no taxes to the state; in exchange for their partial autonomy they gave twenty years of military service to the Tsar, five full-time and fifteen in reserves. Both men’s five years had been completed a decade before, patrolling the railroad and protecting the mostly Chinese work crews as they laid the rails across the mountains and plains of Siberia and Manchuria.
Shvernik looked thoughtful for a moment, then replied, “Our service is sworn to the Tsar.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Our duty is to serve where and how he requires. It is important only that we do the best we may in the task that is ours.”
Lianozov did not reply, though his expression soured as his eyes stared unflinchingly at his ranking underling; Shvernik’s words carried a tone of reprimand. After a quiet moment he said, “You have news, Josif Ivanovich.” A statement, not a question.
Shvernik furrowed his brow and nodded his head once. “It has begun, my kapitan. The news came along the wire only two hours ago. The battle for Manchuria has begun. The Japanese have crossed the Yalu. Their artillery bested ours, and General Kuropatkin’s entrenchments were overrun.” Shvernik appeared suddenly grieved. “The Tsar’s army was routed and they’re retreating north toward Liaoyang.” The young officer shook his head and sighed. “Perhaps you are right, kapitan. We should be there, fighting the Japanese.”
Lianozov immediately realized his error. His was the responsibility of command and he had carried himself poorly. He rose to his feet and stepped to his second, then laid a hand on the younger officer’s shoulder.
“Josif Ivanovich, I was wrong to say what I did. Do not think we shirk from the fight. The Tsar honored the Cossacks by charging them with the defense of the railway. It is the single route by which soldiers and materiel of war — ”
A rising commotion outside drew Lianozov’s attention and he strode briskly to the entrance and stepped through it. The day was waning. The sun was not yet set, but the spring cool of night was rapidly chilling the air. A soldier, the source of the commotion, was running toward the patrol substation office from the perimeter fence, still yelling, urging nearby soldiers to alarmed scurrying. His words finally became clear to Lianozov: “Tiger, Tiger! It has taken Shkuro!”
Tiger. The muscles of Lianozov’s stomach tightened as the hairs on his scalp stood out from his head. He glanced back at Shvernik; their shared glance offered to each the same silent, haunted memory of the terrible hunter of the east.
* * *
Lianozov studied the tiger’s tracks as well as the spoor left by the dragged body of the dead Cossack in the fiery orange cast of dawn’s light. The paw prints pressed deep into the mud were huge, larger than Lianozov’s hand even with his fingers spread apart. A familiar tingling sensation arced up his spine and ended with the hairs on the back of his scalp seeming to stand out; this man-eater had to be well over 200 kilograms — a monster indeed.
The Siberian predator knew his prey well enough to remove his kill to a distant location before settling down to his feast; the tracks headed east toward mountainous country that bordered the central Manchurian plain.
The hunting party had departed the guard station at the first hint of dawn. They were four: Lianozov, Shvernik, and two privates, kazaks by Cossack rank, Kalita and Mezhakov; man-eating tiger or no, the patrols guarding the rails had to be maintained. Besides, this was not India — an army of beaters strung out in a line was not always effective in forested, mountainous country. In Manchuria, the Siberian was more often hunted by a few men armed with rifles, intellect, and cunning.
Lianozov remounted his sturdy mare. Behind him, one of the kazaks quietly chuckled at a quip whispered between himself and the other kazak.
Lianozov wheeled his mount in the track and turned to face the horse soldiers. “Silence!” he hissed, intent that the harshness of his voice not carry. “The Siberian stalks and ambushes his prey. You must remain fully alert with all your wits about you!”
Lianozov gulped back the sudden rage that rose to his tongue from deep within him, though his next words were still tinged with ire: “If you do not, the man-eater will carry you from the saddle and have his incisors in your neck before the fact even penetrates your thick skull that you are a dead man.”
Kalita, with proper deference to his noble officer, responded chastened and meek, “We beg pardon, Podesaul. We will remain diligent.”
Lianozov did not soften his rigid glare, though he did nod his head before turning back to the tracks. As he did he caught Shvernik’s eye. Sotnik Shvernik’s thoughts — accusations — were silently apparent on the man’s expression: Why did you bring these two? They have no skill stalking tiger. Did you bring them to hunt — or as bait?
Why did he bring them? Without beaters, surely Josif’s and his rifles were sufficient to hunt this tiger. A sudden clenching in his gut told him his answer: the tiger invoked a fear within him like nothing else ever had. He had hunted a Siberian tiger before. He had survived, but many had not.
Ten years ago, when he and Shvernik were serving their full-time service, their regiment was assigned to protect Chinese labor crews then building the Great Siberian Railway after hundreds of workers had been taken as prey by the big cats.
Perhaps the Siberian predators were responding to the invasion of their territorial hunting grounds. Perhaps man was simply a new and plentiful food source. Whichever the case, the Chinese coolies had to be protected if work was to proceed.
With thousands of soldiers deployed and several tigers shot, the predation largely stopped. Except for the very region in which Lianozov had been stationed. The tiger evaded every patrol. Every hunt came home unsuccessful.
So, Lianozov took Shvernik and eight kazaks and entered the forest from which the tiger always came. Six days later five of them came out of the forest, haunted — and hunted. With no experience and no knowledge of hunting tigers, the Siberian predator had taken five of their party — one each day of the hunt.
On the last day, the tiger had selected Lianozov. But Lianozov had spotted the flash of orange just before the big cat struck and had raised his rifle and fired. The bullet gouged open the top of the big cat’s scalp and took off most of an ear. Only three meters from his prey, the cat veered and disappeared into the underbrush.
Shaken, afraid, and frustrated by their inability to kill the predator, the Cossacks abandoned the hunt. That was ten years ago and more than 800 kilometers to the north near the Zeya River but, by the twisting in Lianozov’s gut, it might as well have been yesterday.
* * *
An hour after sun-up, still following the tiger’s spoor, the Cossacks approached a grove of hazel shrubs. The hazels were thick, well watered where they had taken root in a narrow valley formed between two round-topped hills. It was just the sort of secluded, sheltered location a tiger would seek to settle down to its feast.
Tigers were capable of consuming a large amount of meat in one feeding. Would this one strip all the meat from poor Shkuro’s corpse? Lianozov certainly hoped not. If there were meat left, a tiger whose hunger was sated would usually stretch out near the kill for a nap and finish the meal when it awakened.
Lianozov glanced at Shvernik and observed in his underling’s pensive face the same silent question as his own: could they be so lucky as to surprise this Siberian hunter dozing?
Copyright © 2007 by James Brian King