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CHAPTER VI
 

TIGERS AND "RED-BEARDS"

 

IN the meantime my Cossack, Rikoff, wandered day after day through the forest and always brought home with his game some interesting bits of news. He met suspicious-looking horsemen on Kentei Alin; he was fired at several times and once returned with a perforated hunting bag. For a long time I received no answers to my telegrams regarding these armed bands wandering through our forest, but finally a large detachment of Cossacks was sent us and their scouring expeditions on the slopes of Kentei Alin yielded some unexpected results.

The Cossacks had some engagements with small detachments of hungkutzes, during which they captured several wounded men. These small groups belonged to a bigger body which, according to the captives, made headquarters near the Korean frontier and which had as its leader a certain Chang Tso-lin, who was proven to be in the pay of the Japanese General Staff. After the Cossacks' initial operations the hungkutzes disappeared almost entirely from our neighbourhood; but one night the sound of crashing glass in my car wakened me with a start. I listened, but nothing further occurred. When I turned out in the morning, I found one of the windows shattered by a bullet which had lodged in the opposite wall of the car. It was a brass one from a carbine of large calibre, which my Cossacks recognized as a bullet used by the Chinese army. At first I could not fathom it at all and wondered whether the Chinese had declared war on Russia; but the explanation soon appeared. The leader of the hungkutzes, Chang Tso-lin, was in connivance with the Chinese Governors of the Provinces of Fengtien and Kirin and was being supplied by them with Government arms. When this fact was substantiated, the Chinese Viceroy of Manchuria was forced, as a result of Russian diplomatic representations, to resign and leave Moukden.

When the headman of Ho Lin heard of my night experience, he came to me and begged that I refrain from reporting it to the authorities, as he feared the hungkutzes might take vengeance on his villagers and also that they might try to do me harm, adding that they were already angry with me for having been instrumental in bringing the Cossacks to the place. I acquiesced in the request of the headman but, as a result of his warning and of some patent evidence of bad feeling on the part of certain natives around the works, I was always on guard and took the precaution never to go about without a revolver.

In the meantime the Army Staff demanded of me ever-increasing quantities of charcoal, which might not have been so bad if the railroad had not done the same, through their insistence that the various railway shops should all be supplied with charcoal. It pressed me hard to comply with these growing demands. Besides the Ural ovens three large brick ones were soon in full swing and a fourth was being constructed farther in the forest. In the area near the ovens the trees were already all cut off, so that our railway was kept very busy transporting the wood from the more distant parts of the concession. At the same time I ordered the construction of a new branch to the outlying forests, all of which forced me to take on new supplies of labourers. As it became impracticable to depend upon Harbin any longer for these increasing numbers, I had to engage whomsoever we could get in Ninguta, Imienpo and Kirin, where my assistants accepted everyone who asked for work without troubling about recommendations or guaranties, which were impossible to obtain under these conditions of speed and numbers.

Each day I visited all of the places where work was going on and personally inspected all the operations. Once, while superintending the construction of an oven on the fringe of the forest, I saw a black-collar thrush (Turdus torquatus) rise with a sharp cry from some bushes near by, and having my shotgun in my hand, threw it up and dropped the bird. The Chinese, with their enthusiasm for some of the least-expected matters, raised their thumbs in praise of my performance and rushed into the bushes to bring out the spoils. After this the labourers left me little peace, bringing me, every time I appeared with my shotgun near a group of them in the woods, empty bottles and tins and asking me with signs to fire at them as they threw them into the air. They were much impressed with my ability to break the bottles and spatter the tins full of holes, and would clap their hands and jump about like children in their enjoyment of it all. It always seemed to me advisable not to refuse them this pleasure, as the performance served as a good warning to the hunghutze members of our labour gangs.

And I had no doubt that we had some of these brigands right among us from many little things that occurred. On one occasion Lisvienko reported the finding of arms as well as the unexplained disappearance of some of the men. Matters had come to a point where we dared not leave the ovens for a moment without protection and consequently had to keep a Cossack guard over them day and night. But the serious question always occurred to me: what could this handful of soldiers surrounded by the Chinese mob really do, if the hungkutzes wished to seize our establishment?

One Sunday I went out along the railroad track to inspect the work in an outlying section and was carrying with me my Henel carbine fitted with a telescope. It was noon, hot and clear, with no one around. The forest shut in the track with its two walls, silent and motionless. Suddenly I noticed a movement in the bushes about one hundred yards ahead of me and saw that it was a wild boar, trying to extricate himself from a tangle of Virginia creepers and make his way to the track. As he finally broke through the brush, he scrambled up on the roadbed and headed right for me between the rails. The instant he sensed me and wheeled to make for cover again, presenting his whole flank for a target, I took advantage of the opportunity and rolled him down the ballast. When I came cautiously up to him, he was already dead. He was a beautiful specimen and weighed, as we found when we transported him to camp that evening, nearly five hundred pounds. He carried fine, large tusks, curving like two sickles high up over his snout.

It was that identical Sunday, when I had had such unusual luck, that Rikoff saddled his horse and went off for a very different kind of a hunt. I had not seen him before he left and only learned that he had gone into the mountains when Sergeant Lisvienko came and reported to me that Rikoff's horse had come in from the forest riderless, with broken reins and covered with foam. As something serious had evidently befallen the Cossack, we at once started out to search for him. When we did not find him at the outset, I offered a large reward to anyone who should discover him; but he seemed to have disappeared like a stone in the sea. Only after three days did we secure any likely trace, when a Chinese beggar came in and reported having seen the bloody body of a Russian soldier near a little stream falling into the Ho Lin. Without many words Sergeant Lisvienko put the beggar into a saddle, mounted himself and ordered the man to lead the way. With two Cossacks I followed him. For a long time our unusual guide with his unusual transport wandered about in the forest, until we made out the rocky summit of Kentei Alin, when he dismounted and began searching among the bushes. He trudged back and forth several times across a marshy place overgrown with bushes and high grass, returning each time to the stream bank and making back out over the open again, until finally he stopped and signalled us to come.

As we joined him, we saw a sad, heartrending picture; for there on the grass, which was all trampled and in some places uprooted, lay Rikoff with his grey military blouse torn to shreds and soaked in blood. The moment we saw that his skull was smashed and his whole face covered with deep wounds, made by animal claws, we realized at once that he was the victim of a tiger. The beast of prey had very evidently tortured the man, as all the joints of the feet and the hands were twisted and bitten through. Also, as we found neither his cap nor his carbine anywhere near him but only his hunting knife close to his mangled right hand, it was evident that the tiger had first attacked him away from this spot and that the awful fight had been carried on and finished here. Examining carefully every inch of the ground near the scene of the final struggle, we found his cap at a distance of some fifty yards and a little farther on the broken carbine and could reconstruct the whole, terrible drama that had been enacted here without audience and without hope. It was clear that the tiger had suddenly attacked Rikoff, so that he had no time to shoot but had struck the beast with the stock of his carbine and broken it. Over a large area we found traces of an inexorable fight—trampled ground and coagulated blood on leaves and grass that marked the trail of the Cossack's last, tragic journey.

We were already preparing to raise him up and place him on one of the horses, when Lisvienko stopped thoughtfully and asked:

"But why is his knife still by his hand? Pie was not the one to leave an enemy free when holding a knife in his hand. I want to have a further look about this place."

Saying this, he made a sign to one of the Cossacks, and the two of them, with their rifles ready, walked away. As the other Cossack and the beggar were helping me fasten the body of Rikoff on the spare horse, I could see the caps of Lisvienko and his mate moving among the bushes. It was only a moment, however, before they both disappeared and shortly afterwards shouted to us to come and join them. I snatched my carbine and ran to them. What I saw surpassed anything I could have imagined. In a little forest meadow on trampled, tall grass lay the body of the tiger. His hide was pierced in several places with deep knife wounds and it was evident that he had been dead for a few days. When the Cossacks turned him over, I saw clearly enough what had ended the fight. His belly was slit and part of his entrails were on the grass. Palpably, after having lost so much blood from all his wounds, he left the arena and dragged himself away from his adversary, who, with his joints broken and his skull smashed by the terrible teeth, was passing his last moments on this forest plain, which had witnessed such an indescribably fierce and primitive contest between the man and the beast.

Through his sorrow Lisvienko still gave signs of pleasurable pride.

"He was a valiant lad," he said, with a shake of his head, "a true Cossack!"

Sadly we brought back to Ho Lin the body of Rikoff and the skin of the tiger. That same evening, after having written my short, official report on the matter, I sent the body of Rikoff to Harbin under the charge of Sergeant Shum and one of his men to report to his commanding officer and to take part in the burial services of their companion.

After I had despatched the body of Rikoff from Udzimi and had returned to Ho Lin, some one knocked at the door of my car. A Russian workman whom I did not know entered in response to my: "Come in!" He was a type not infrequent in Russia, a mixture of Slav, Mongol and Tzigany—an old man with thick, grey hair, stiff as the bristles of a brush; with fiery, piercing black eyes, an eaglelike beak of a nose and thick, ruddy lips. He had a strange name, Zvon or Bell, and was a storekeeper in one of the coal depots. Afterwards I learned from my assistant that he was a good, conscientious worker. On entering, he stood before me like a soldier at attention and, in a solemn voice, asked me to release him from duty. When I inquired his reasons, he hesitated and mumbled something incoherently.

"Come, speak your mind!" I said sternly.

"The fact is that, whenever I arrive in a new place, I always cast lots to know if everything will be favourable, …"

"Well?"

"The omens were very bad," he continued. "I tried fortune-telling with stones and found that they pointed to three deaths. Two have already gone—Kazik and Rikoff. …"

"Kazik is not dead," I interrupted, for at this time he was still alive and was in the sanitorium in Russia.

"He will die," the old man whispered with conviction. "I consulted the omens for him and the answer was that he will die."

"What is it then? Are you afraid for yourself?"

He thought for a moment and answered in a low voice:

"Certainly I am afraid, because death can strike everyone. We are in an alien, strange land, and our Cossacks cannot defend us, for they are too few. Yet I have not come here to ask you to release me, sir, since this could be done by the technical assistants. …"

Again I noticed the expression of trouble in his face.

"Then what is it you want?" I asked with a little impatience.

"I came to warn you, sir, for I read from the stones that a danger will soon threaten you. Perhaps, sir, you are to be this third one, unless you choose to leave here in time."

"Thank you for your warning and your advice," I answered, as I shook hands with him.

I learned on the following day that he had already left and, not seeing him around as a reminder, I soon forgot all about his warning and continued in my regular way of life.

Just about this time I ordered my car moved out to a new branch of our railway and took along with me Lisvienko, two Cossacks and the soldier-porter. I was returning from an inspection of the track and some new work in the forest just as the sun was settling behind the mountains, when suddenly I heard a volley, followed immediately by a second one. On scanning the rocky ridge above us, I saw several riders who had dismounted and were shooting into my car and a small building put up for the railway men. The Cossacks and my soldier cook tumbled out at the first volley and immediately answered the fire with the skill and calmness of old soldiers accustomed to fighting hunghutzes. Some muffled cries reached us, as we saw a man or two fall and roll on the steep, bare rocks, while the others retreated over the summit. I ran into the car and snatched up my Mauser with the wooden case that can be attached to the handle to make of the weapon practically an automatic carbine with ten rounds. Joining my men, who were prone on one side of the railway embankment, I looked about for a target. One appeared unexpectedly in the person of a Chinese who came riding round a shoulder of rock, mounted on a white horse. As he was gesticulating and giving orders to others of the brigands who gathered near him from both directions, we felt sure that he was the leader. He stood out strongly in the last rays of the setting sun, and Lisvienko, watching him, whispered across to me:

"We shall make an end of him!"

"All right," I replied, as I laid my aim.

In response to our two shots, which rang almost simultaneously, both rider and horse went down. The now frightened hunghutzes retreated, carrying their leader with them and urged along by our continuing fire.

The boldness of these banditti induced me to send in a very definite report to the General Staff, urging the necessity of delivering the neighbourhood of Ho Lin and Udzimi from these hunghutze bands. Yielding to my request, they despatched two days later from the nearest large station a strong detachment of Cossacks under the command of a captain, which at once began scouring the forest as far as Kentei Alin. They met, however, only small groups of the brigands and succeeded in making prisoners of all of them. The nearest Chinese official, accompanied by a guard and by executioners, came to take over charge of the prisoners and to pass judgment upon them. He had the brigands all chained together, carried them along to Imienpo and summarily executed them.

Before their departure, however, the brigands spent a night in a small building where the tools of the labourers were kept during non-working hours. Late in the evening Lisvienko came to me and proposed that we go to have a look at the hunghutzes, adding:

"You will see, sir, what sort of people they are. In spite of the fact that they know the executioner will tomorrow lop off their heads, they calmly play games and laugh and joke. They are wooden puppets, not human beings!" he concluded, as he spat in disgust and anger.

As we opened the door, we found the hunghutzes, with their feet encased in heavy, individual wooden stocks, sitting around a small smoking oil lamp playing dominoes and punctuating their careless laughter with wild gesticulations. After glancing at us in a mocking manner, they turned back and continued their evidently entertaining conversation. Lisvienko, knowing Chinese, translated for me some of these veritable "gallows jokes."

One of the prisoners, who was stout and very ruddy, seemed to find reason for twitting the others and plenty of material for laughter in the fact that the executioner would be likely to find a great deal of real difficulty with his neck, as he would never be able to sever it with a single stroke; while those of the others would be easygoing for him, as they were all thin and as emaciated as smoked fish.

Early the next morning we watched these callous jesters with the chains on their necks marching away to Udzimi, from where they were to make their final journey to the execution grounds.

After this combined work of the Cossacks and the officials, I thought that we should have no further trouble in our concession, but I found, unfortunately, that I was mistaken. No sooner had the Cossack detachment left than word came in to me that a gang of hunghutzes had attacked a small store of flour and beans well into the forest, robbed it and burned it down. Almost every day the Cossacks were fired upon by this invisible enemy, which lay in wait everywhere, behind bushes in the undergrowth, behind the great rocks which had in past ages rolled down from the mountain cliffs and even from cover near the forest operations or around the plant itself. With our limited forces it was impossible to capture these snipers, whose boldness grew with each succeeding escapade.