Hunter of the East
by James Brian King
appear in this issue.
A half-hour’s march in the tracks of the horses brought the two men to their mounts. The horses had stayed together, but Lianozov immediately noticed that they were skittish. Lianozov’s own chestnut mare suddenly emitted a nervous neigh and trotted away from the others then wheeled sharply and trotted back.
Lianozov dropped to one knee, shouldered his carbine, and scanned the surrounding terrain over the sights of his weapon. Did the horses smell the tiger or were they still skittish from the attack that killed Kalita and Mezhakov?
Lianozov’s sweeping gaze did not reveal the tiger, though there were too many places the predator could be hiding; the horses had stopped in good grazing turf, but the broken ground included a lot of trees and too many clumps of heavy brush. He glanced at Shvernik, who was in similar stance, and nodded to the horses. The two men rose to their feet and slowly moved to the horses, continually scanning the close terrain for any movement, for a flash of orange.
Lianozov hesitated to mount his horse, afraid that the tiger would spring from cover as soon as his prey was vulnerable. So he waited.
Nothing; no movement, no flash of color. Even the horses appeared to be settling.
Lianozov motioned for Shvernik to mount, then mounted himself. Only when they trotted back in the direction of the hazels did Lianozov realize he was barely breathing. He breathed deep to fill yearning lungs, though his tenseness was hardly abated; they were going back to the hazels, to the dead kazak soldiers, to pick up the tracks of the tiger.
* * *
The attack came without warning, from ground that hardly appeared sufficient to conceal such a massive beast as the Siberian hunter.
They were perhaps half way back to the hazel grove before Lianozov relaxed his tense, combat-ready grip on his carbine and balanced the weapon’s weight across the fore part of his saddle.
But Lianozov had not relaxed his alertness: his eyes caught the abrupt movement of brush off to the right and he immediately gripped his carbine with both hands. He pivoted the barrel up — not fast enough — the rapid mass of fur and color lunged right at him! Aiming was impossible. The rifle fired — perhaps fearful instinct had taken over and signalled Lianozov to pull the trigger — just as the deadly mass of tiger struck him and bowled him out of the saddle.
Multiple, stabbing pains — and perhaps shock, overwhelmed his senses, though it could have been for no more than a matter of seconds — he could hear the screaming horses galloping away — before realization came to him that he was in deep trouble.
Oh, Lord — my eye! The beast gouged out my eye! Lianozov’s panicked voice screamed in his head.
No. His probing fingers revealed that he had suffered a gash above his right eye that ran from his forehead to his right ear. The torn flesh was hanging down over his eye and the wound was bleeding profusely.
What irony! — a wound so like the wound he had inflicted on the tiger ten years before.
The gash, though a nasty wound, was hardly the most painful. Lianozov wiped at the blood flowing into his left eye — with his left hand, for his right arm yielded only sharp pain when he attempted to move it — and stared at his leg through the interfering flow of blood; the final major source of pain was his right leg, slashed open for a length of ten centimeters just above the knee. Blood oozed out of the open flesh and already saturated the matted grass under his leg. He would have to tie a cloth around the limb to close up the wound...
He arrested all movement, even his breath.
Tiger. Ten meters away. He couldn’t see it directly, only in the peripheral vision of his left eye. He almost feared to turn his head to look at the beast, afraid that the Siberian was awaiting only that before he pounced.
Yet, Lianozov did turn to look.
The tiger stood, almost as if patiently waiting, with Josif’s head clamped within his powerful jaws. Shvernik’s lifeless eyes stared at Lianozov’s feet.
Lianozov suddenly began to tremble and, sweating profusely, he began again to breathe, rapid and shallow. I am the last. Now it will kill me.
That thought penetrated deep into Lianozov’s mind and triggered something, perhaps the warrior psyche within him, and another thought, firmer, bolder, resounded in his mind: I am a Cossack. I am not afraid of death. Emboldened by his sudden resolve, he reached to his waist belt with his left hand and awkwardly withdrew his service revolver.
He whispered, “You have brought poor, killed Josif Ivanovich to show me that I am the last.” Then, louder and with more energy, “Come, my Siberian enemy. Let us finish this.”
As if accepting the invitation, the tiger released Shvernik and the body flopped to the ground. It was not until the tiger stepped over the corpse that Lianozov realized the beast was wounded and favoring his right forelimb. The entry point of a bullet was clearly visible high in the beast’s shoulder; Lianozov’s one shot from the carbine.
He thumbed back the hammer and lifted the revolver to aim at the tiger’s eyes.
The Siberian abruptly ceased all movement. It stood rigid, staring unflinching through its terror-inducing golden orbs.
Lianozov had no hope of killing the beast — he couldn’t even manage a steady aim — before it rent him with its claws, but the tiger’s caution elicited a sense satisfaction within him; the tiger had learned to fear the weapons of men.
After what seemed like several long minutes the tiger slowly turned and circled to Lianozov’s right.
Enduring the stabbing pains from right leg and arm, Lianozov pivoted to keep the predator to his front.
Again the beast froze. Then, after another lengthy wait, it settled to its belly, its golden orbs staring into Lianozov’s own eyes.
With a sense of great relief Lianozov lowered his left arm into his lap — the pistol had become extremely heavy and his arm had begun to tremble from fatigue.
The tiger abruptly tensed and began to rise, but Lianozov just as quickly raised the revolver. The tiger waited only seconds before relaxing again to his belly and Lianozov again rested his weapon in his lap.
“Tell me, hunter of the east,” Lianozov quietly asked, “how long is this going to take?”
* * *
It soon became an excruciatingly uncomfortable game of waiting. Lianozov could find no comfortable position. Once the shock wore off he was overcome with exhaustion and he dared not lie down. Sitting soon became unbearable. His rump was past all feeling. His lower back hurt from sitting with nothing to lean back against. He dared not curl his right leg, afraid that the movement would cause the bleeding to resume.
Yet the big cat sat there all afternoon with hardly the slightest movement except for its twitching tail, just staring at its next kill with those terrible eyes.
By late evening Lianozov was periodically shaking his head with violent motions to keep from nodding off to sleep, for that moment would be the very moment of death.
He leaned forward in stretching motions to relieve the painful tension in his lower back. He began to weep, perhaps from the pain, perhaps from exhaustion. As he considered which it was, his eyes were drawn to his fallen comrade.
“You were right, Ivanovich,” he muttered through his cries. “I am sorry, my friend, so sorry. We should have buried Mezhakov and Kalita. Now the tiger will have us all.”
He glared violently at the tiger. “You cursed beast!” he screamed through his tears. “If you don’t attack soon I’m going to toss my revolver into the brush and crawl into your jaws myself!”
* * *
It seemed only seconds later that Lianozov burst from a nodding slumber that caused him to jerk his whole body — which elicited a pained groan due to the stabs from his right arm —
— the tiger!
A quick scan of the moonlit shadows of the night revealed that the beast was not in sight.
When had it gone? Surely before Lianozov had actually nodded off to sleep. In any case, it brought him no relief. The tiger would surely come back. It had to — the beast was a hunter and the hunt was not finished.
Lianozov released his weary muscles and he slumped onto his back. He knew he would drift back to sleep. He knew the tiger would return and kill him. It was over. The tiger was the victor. He was too tired to care.
He again woke at the first hint of the new day’s sun, shivering from night’s chill.
Alive. The tiger had not returned.
A sudden notion — a hope beyond hope — flared in his mind and seemed to spread through his body to his very extremities: the beast had abandoned the hunt.
For a moment he didn’t know what to think or what to do. Then a second notion all but overwhelmed him — he would live if he could only escape the tiger’s domain.
But not yet.
He holstered his revolver and drew his heavy knife from its scabbard. He turned a sad gaze to Shvernik’s body and quietly said, “A promise, comrade. And I will honor that promise even if it kills me.” With that he awkwardly maneuvered his torn and broken body close to Shvernik’s corpse and began breaking up the soil.
* * *
Kapitan Semyon Nikolayevich Lianozov thrust his arms into his uniform coat held for him by a hospital orderly. His release from hospital was today. He had been in hospital for well over a year fighting aggressive infection in his leg and now scarred face.
His recovery had been a long ordeal. Disease had impaired the vision in his right eye before the infection was finally stayed; the tiger had taken the eye after all. The infection had almost cost him his leg as well. The surgeon had repeatedly demanded that the leg be amputated but Lianozov had soundly refused; it was his one victory over the tiger.
The war was over. The Americans’ President Roosevelt had helped to end a conflict that had cost Russia terribly. The Japanese now controlled the Liaotung Peninsula and had dominance in Manchuria.
Lianozov understood that the defeat was a terrible blow to the Tsar’s plans for Russian dominance in the east, yet he could not bring himself to share the remorse of his Russian compatriots. He yearned for only one thing: to return to his home near Vladivostok and never again venture into the Siberian wilderness.
He would never again challenge the dominion of the hunter of the east.
Copyright © 2007 by James Brian King