Hunter of the East
by James Brian King
appear in this issue.
|part 2 of 3|
Lianozov quietly dismounted and then crouched to strip some blades of grass, then tossed them in the air: the moderate breeze was blowing from the northeast, as it had the majority of times he had checked it since his party had entered the rugged hill country. A soft breeze in hill country can be treacherous, as the air currents can be shifty and unreliable, but there was nothing to do about it but follow the current wind direction and move in against it.
Lianovoz silently motioned for the remaining Cossacks to dismount, then shifted to the left and led the hunting party and their horses up the incline of the hill; they would enter at the mid-point of the grove, using a scattered copse of tall, Red Pines that grew higher up the hillside as cover.
When they reached the trees Lianozov handed the reins of his mount over to kazak Mezhakov and motioned for Schvernik to hand his to Kalita.
Lianozov noted that the two kazaks stared at him intently; the tension in their muscles was clear. Good. The Siberian was deserving of their respectful fear. Just to be sure, he pressed a finger against his lips, then raised his finger to place it next to his eye and swept his gaze left and right, his finger following. The kazaks both nodded their heads; they would keep a sharp lookout.
Lianozov grasped the leather strap that crossed his chest and lifted his Mosin-Nagant carbine from behind his back.
The weapon fired a thirty-caliber round and, though the Russian cartridge it fired had more powder behind it than most other western-made cartridges of equal caliber, he lamented the lack of a large game rifle. Then, steeling himself to the task and to the fact that his service-issue carbine would have to do, he slowly and quietly worked the bolt to chamber the first round from the magazine. The sound of another locking bolt drew his gaze to his lieutenant. Shvernik, carbine in hand, nodded his readiness, though his eyes betrayed his dread.
Lianozov felt it too, a terrible clutching in his belly, a pressure against his lungs that made breathing difficult. Memory. His nights were still troubled by the haunting memory of the horrible deaths of five men so many years ago; through his own arrogance and inexperience, he had thrown them into the teeth and claws of that other hunter of the east.
Lianozov effortfully firmed his spine and his resolve, but also softened the punch of his self-accusation; had there truly been a choice — then or now? Once a big cat gets a taste for human flesh they hunt humans more than all other prey. Lianozov was Podesaul, a kapitan of many men. It was his obligation to protect them. Duty demanded that he hunt the hunter.
Lianozov carefully approached the hazels, checking the ground before each foot step; the cat must receive no warning of their approach.
Noise. Surely it was the tiger — finishing poor Shkuro!
Lianozov glanced at Shvernik in time to see him seat the butt of his carbine firmily against his shoulder before he took his next step — careless! — the crack from dry, winter-killed foliage seemed like a gunshot — a rumpus in the hazels — the tiger was making a run for it!
Lianozov settled to one knee and trained his carbine on the fleeting flash of the animal, following its flight through the disturbed branches of the hazels. He would shoot it as it cleared the shrubs.
A high-pitched squeal of ire and indignation emanated from the hazels just before the beast shot from the foliage — and Lianozov checked his shot: the beast was a wild pig.
The animal was of good size, close to 140 kilograms, and still had its thick, bristly brown winter coat. The boar — definitely a male by its dangerous tusks in both upper and lower jaws — wheeled around to face the two Cossacks. He squeeled his fury again and tossed his tusk-filled snout at the human intruders.
Lianozov again seated his carbine, afraid the enraged boar was going to charge, but the animal wheeled awkwardly and trotted away down the narrow valley on its short legs, grunting and squealing as it fled.
Lianozov looked to Shvernik to see him grinning. He sensed it himself, a deep relief that it was not the man-eater, though in reality, had the boar charged it could have killed one of them with its slashing, razor-sharp tusks before they shot it down.
Lianozov motioned to enter the shrubs, and Shvernik’s grin quickly faded. They both suspected what they would find, yet it was still gruesome and heart-sickening.
Poor Shkuro lay face down in the blood darkened, trampled foliage. The boar had made a mess of one shoulder and had chewed off an ear and most of a cheek. Given time, the ugly scavenger would have eaten every scrap it could tear from the corpse, probably including the poor man’s uniform. Its feeding was quite different from that of the tiger.
Big cats are fussy eaters. The tiger had used its claws to carefully strip Shkuro’s uniform and his skin from his buttocks and thighs — ribbons of his skin were gathered at his knees like strips of torn cloth. Shkuro’s exposed bones showed no teeth or claw marks; tigers don’t rend and tear meat from the bone as a wolf would. Instead, tigers rasp flesh away from bone with their rough tongues. And they don’t gulp chunks of meat down their maw. Instead, they carefully chew their meal before swallowing. This hunter had reduced Shkuro’s buttocks and thighs to exposed and bloodied hips and femurs.
The bark of a rifle shot quickly followed by the heart-chilling scream of a large cat tore Lianozov’s attention from the grisly kill. Before he even cleared the hazel shrubs he knew the Siberian had jumped Mezhakov and Kalita. He burst from the foliage and immediately trained his carbine at the pines higher up the slope of the hill. Then a terror he had not experienced in ten years paralyzed his muscles and his psyche.
No more than sixty meters up the hill stood the tiger, Kalita’s corpse firmly clamped at the neck in his strong jaws. The cat truly was a monster, easily 300 kilograms of muscle, claws, and teeth.
But it was not the cat’s size and proximity that siezed Lianozov with suffocating fright; it was the Siberian’s poorly healed scalp and missing ear.
The tiger abruptly stopped, its large golden orbs fixed on Lianozov. It seemed to Lianozov that the Siberian predator stared deep into his own eyes... and recognized his old enemy.
Suddenly the beast released Kalita’s body and sprinted for the cover of the Red Pines, though it veered in a circuitous route to use every rise of ground and every bush as cover.
The crack of Shvernik’s carbine freed Lianozov from his chains of terror and he quickly shouldered his carbine and fired at the fleeing beast. He worked the bolt and fired again, but he knew he would require the hand of fate to hit the quickly disappearing tiger as it plunged into the foliage at the base of the pines.
Lianozov was hesitant to look at Shvernik, afraid his friend would confirm what he himself had seen — surely it could not be the same hunter from ten years ago and 800 kilometers distant. But Shvernik’s wide-eyed expression of amazement was confirmation enough.
* * *
Shvernik stabbed at the wet ground with his heavy knife, using it to break up the wet loam before scooping it out with his hands.
Lianozov laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “They were Cossacks. I know this, Ivanovich. But there is no time. We must find the horses and pursue the hunter.” Ten years ago they had delayed to bury their dead; it had only served the tiger by giving him the initiative.
Shvernik ignored his commander for a full minute, attacking the soil with his blade. Finally, he stopped and sat unmoving for a moment before asking, “Do you think the beast knew we would approach from the pines?”
Lianozov shook his head. “I don’t know. Perhaps... perhaps it simply chose the pines as a place to nap.”
Shvernik was silent for another long moment. When he spoke again his voice cracked with emotion: “Why has it come here to haunt us?”
Lianozov hesitated to answer; the Siberian again had the initiative. But somehow the killing of the two kazaks had strengthened Lianozov’s resolve, just as it had sapped Shvernik’s. He finally answered, “Perhaps the northern Siberian winters have been harsh. Perhaps game is hunted out and it has moved south for better hunting.”
“Where there are more Cossacks to eat,” Shvernik said with bitterness, then resumed digging.
Lianozov sighed, then said, “Ivanovich, we must go after the horses.”
Shvernik abruptly spun his upper body and tilted his head to glare at his kapitan. With a firm voice he replied, “You and I will not escape this demon, this hunter of the east. Did you not see it in his eyes? He recognized us. He knows who we are. We can at least deprive the beast of the flesh of Mezhakov and Kalita, give them a proper burial.” Shvernik returned to his digging. “There will be no one to do that for us.”
“No!” Lianozov exclaimed fiercely. “We will not choose to be the hunted. We will hunt. We must not surrender to it. But we must go now!”
Shvernik continued digging, ignoring his commander.
Suddenly angry, Lianozov shouted, “You will obey, Sotnik Shvernik, or-”
The lieutenant quickly thrust himself to his feet and turned to face his kapitan. “Do not say it, Semyonushka!” Shvernik gulped, wide-eyed. “I am your friend, and a loyal Cossack. If you accuse me of mutiny and threaten to shoot me, we would no longer be friends.” He stared intently at his kapitan for a moment, then said in a manner implying surrender, “I will obey, my kapitan.” He cast a quick glance at the the two dead kazaks then returned a firmer gaze to Lianozov. “But I must make one demand — on our friendship if you make it necessary.”
He hesitated, but Lianozov remained silent. Shvernik continued, even more demandingly: “If one of us falls prey to the tiger, the other buries the dead if he can and returns here to see a proper burial done for these men, our fallen comrades.”
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by James Brian King