I was never a marauder but always, with a stupid tingling in my breast, loved to secretly shake down strangers' pockets, cases and portfolios, especially if I thought there was a serious catch in their French dresses, skins and furs. Yes, there were often costly things to be had, but still more interesting were the papers, which usually concerned our brothers, rather than anyone else. I am not talking about Bolshevik propaganda leaflets, which were useless to us, but their orders and directives that were a revelation to me. These included the strict warning, which I found in the brief case of the leading Cherkasy 'Battler Against Banditry', Yasha Halperovych, who had, imprudently, dared to travel as far as Kremenchuk by car. No one had even dreamed that this insignificant town would become a governing centre and, let us bow to Kholodnyi Yar and its foresters, because it was thanks to them that it had become imperative to create a new provincial centre near to this 'fiendish nest of bandits'. Many officials were drawn to this little town, members of district and party committees, police governors, war committee members, and all the other commies and committees engendered by the commune.
But I am not interested in that. I want to talk about Yasha Halperovych, who had dared to travel on such a dangerous road, accompanied only by four police guards, if we include the chauffeur. He had only dared to make this triumphal journey in an open-topped American Pierce-Arrow because the main roads were swarming with regular detachments of Reds who arrived daily, in echelons, at Bobrynska Station. They streamed like ants in the direction of Chyhyryn, Kamyanka, Cherkasy, Zvenyhorodka and Znamyanka. They were not tall men, these crooked legged, arrogant, impudent Muscovites, accompanied by the taller Latvians with ice cold eyes, the wolfish and eternally hungry Chinese, who the villagers named 'the blind ones', and the ugly Chuvashes and Bashkyrs. All of them had one enigmatic and terrifying word on the tip of their tongues, "Khalodnyar". All of them thought and conjectured that Kholodnyi Yar must have an unusual power to have drawn them here from distant fronts, but no one could unravel its enigma. The Muscovites said that Kholodnyi Yar was an ancient fortress of Prince Dolhorukii and that all the people there were giants who had long arms. The Chuvashes and Bashkyrs believed that it was the name of a great war leader, like Genghis Khan, who was so opposed to any kind of restraint that he did not wish to acknowledge communism. The Chinese believed, until they saw the place, that it was surrounded by a great wall where, even though it was cold, there was an abundance of goods and food which its inhabitants did not want to share. The Latvians did not think anything, they were gunmen just waiting for their orders.
So Yasha Halperovych bravely, with a forceful wind behind him, sped down the road in his open topped Pierce-Arrow and had not gone far when, shortly after Holovkivka, some horse men came to meet him, they were wearing horned caps with big fabric stars on their brows. Yasha Halperovych ordered his driver to stop in order to ask the riders if they had heard of any opposition on the road ahead.
“Which military unit?” he enquired in his severe commander's voice, noting how the riders surrounded the car on all sides. It was clear that they had never seen such a car before.
"Can't you see for yourself," suggested one of the riders, bending over Halperovych, his face almost sparkling with laughter.
“I said, which military unit are you from?”
“Special operation forces," replied the impudent rider. Adding, “Or do I look like a werewolf?"
I almost laughed out loud while watching this comedy, for in truth the rider was my ensign, his nickname was Vovkulaka, meaning werewolf. I was sitting on my horse in the forest by the road side so as not to alarm the Chekists with my long hair and beard.
"Please hand over your documents!" Vovkulaka pointed the muzzle of his Carbine to the left breast pocket of Halperovych's jacket.
"How dare you?" shrieked Yasha Halperovych, as his face, which had turned the colour of beetroot with anger, suddenly drained to a chalk white hue. He saw that the riders, who were admiring the car on all sides, had, in a moment, trained their guns on him. A long cavalry sabre was held to the chauffeur's throat and, when the driver's Adam's apple twitched in agitation, a thread of blood trickled down his neck. Yasha understood everything and his intense, confident veneer suddenly withered away.
One of the Chekists did command my respect though. He raised his right hand to his breast pocket, as if reaching for his documents, and suddenly produced a gun, a small toy like revolver, as if it had just slipped out of his sleeve and into his palm. He placed the Cobold to his neck and squeezed the trigger. The shot was almost silent, my Mudei farts louder, particularly after a bucket of barley, but this shot was quieter than an ant sneezing, thank God, because the sound of a shot ringing out was not part of our plan. The head of the Chekist jerked and, startled but already dead, he fell back, tranquilly, on to the seat, calling forth, not only respect, but approval in me.
The lads, in order not to besmirch such a wonderful vehicle with blood, pulled the dazed Halperovych from it, together with the two semi-conscious Chekists and took them into the forest. Vovkulaka, sat next to the chauffeur and ordered him to follow them in the car.
In truth, from my vantage point in the woods, I had worked out who had fallen into our net. When I checked their documents my heart sang.
From Raven's Way. A novel by Vasyl Shkliar. Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj. Now available.