Art by Noah Bailey
by R. T. Lawton
A debt is an obligation that must be repaid lest it hang over a man’s head for all eternity, even following him, along with his winding sheet, into the grave. Here, in the Wild Country below the Terek River, both Cossack and Chechen pride themselves as free men, living by their honor and courage. To have an unpaid debt is to have a liability on their honor, a nagging loss of some of their well-loved freedom.
I, as a nine-year-old Nogai boy, from the smaller split of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, had my own debt to repay, but had no idea on how to do this, as I had no money, no wealth to make this payment. All I owned were the clothes on my back, a knife, and the few coins I earned each year from traveling with an Armenian trader of goods. He was the man I had attached myself to in order to escape the hard lot of an orphan, hoping to find a better life out in the open world of the steppes. Those few coins I earned would never be enough to release my debt. I needed to find another way.
That spring, we took up temporary lodging among the Tereski Cossacks as we had always done for this time of year. On the morning of our arrival, my master, the Armenian, had laid out his trade goods on wool blankets and Persian-weaved carpets spread on the ground in front of our tent. Clusters of silver jewelry and silken scarves of all colors for the women, inlaid flintlock pistols and sharp knives with curved blades for the men, plus other items of trade we had brought up from the Turkic lands to the south. All was ready for the bartering to begin.
With nothing else for me to do, I was sent to take our riding horses and pack animals to graze with the Cossack herd on grasslands outside the fort. Using lead ropes, I walked our string of horses down the dusty roads of the enclosed village, past painted wood houses and wattle-fenced yards and out through the main gates of the log stockade.
The young Cossack on guard barely raised his head to acknowledge our passing. Perhaps it was the warmth of the sun that made him so lackadaisical, or it could have been the bottle of chikhir—that strong wine made by Cossack women—which rested in the crook of his arm. A quick glance told me the bottle was almost empty. For him to be so inattentive meant there had not yet been any of the usual spring raiding parties from the Chechen side of the river. Otherwise the young guard would have been more alert and paying close attention to detail.
Out on the tall grasses of the steppes, I removed the lead ropes, released our horses one by one, and watched them trot out to join the herd. The Cossacks had some excellent horses of their own, but then they had always been keen on the fine points of a good horse and would venture much to acquire the best, especially if they didn’t have to barter or pay for it. Even in these later years, high regard was given to the man who raided his enemy’s herds in the dead of night and brought away the fastest, strongest animals. Such a man needed courage and a strong heart to drive these stolen horses at breakneck speed over the rolling steppes by whatever moonlight shone down between dark clouds scudding across a windy sky. It was a dangerous game with rich rewards for the successful and death waiting for those who were unlucky enough to be caught by the owners of those stolen horses.
And that’s when I first noticed him here, the white stallion watching the newcomers to his herd, judging as to whether he had any contenders for leadership among the new arrivals. He stood fifteen hands high and had a proud bearing to his posture, with the wind flowing through his mane.
Art by Eric Fisher
by Michael A. Black
I was looking down at the three sets of dinosaur tracks, trying to envision the scene in my mind, when the first rounds bounced off the rocks about thirty yards in back of us with the unmistakable accompanying staccato bark of a rifle on full auto.
“Hit the dirt!” I said, recalling my old army training. As I flattened out I glanced around and saw my grad students were still upright and looking dumbfounded. The Indian laborers we’d hired began to scatter. I yelled again for everyone to get down and this time it seemed to register. The students ducked and squatted. More gunshots sounded, but I saw no rounds bouncing anywhere close. After a few more seconds of silence, I began scanning the sloping mountain before us. A dark form rose up, silhouetted by the afternoon sun, a man holding a rifle, his long shaggy hair hanging down around his shoulders. He stood motionless for close to thirty seconds, then raised the weapon over his head with his right arm and emitted a war cry.
“Get outta here,” the silhouette shouted. “You’re trespassing on sacred ground.”
The voice was unmistakable: Sammo One Horse. “This is the land where the giants walked,” he continued. “The Ahke. Now get out.”
I made it a point never to argue with a man with a rifle, but I wanted some assurance that he wouldn’t open up on us. I figured old Sammo could have hit us with his first shots if he’d wanted to.
“Mr. One Horse,” I yelled back. “It’s Rick Strohm. We mean no harm or disrespect, but we do have permission from the Tribal Council to be here.”
Old Sammo snapped the stock of the rifle back against his shoulder, aiming it directly at me.
“Listen, whachitshoo, I ain’t here to argue.”
“We’re unarmed,” Judy Raincloud, one of my grad students yelled. “You can’t threaten us.”
“Judy,” I said. “He’s doing a pretty good job of doing just that.” I shifted and yelled back up to him. “Okay, we’ll leave.”
I felt the sweat trickle down my back as I waited. A full thirty seconds later old Sammo finally spoke again.
“Better listen to him, little rainbow girl,” he said. His voice boomed down over us from his perch on the peak. He adjusted his stance and I saw he was wearing blue jeans and a tan chambray shirt that was stained with perspiration. “Now, all of you got one minute to get your stuff and get the hell outta here or this crazy Injun is gonna start having some real target practice.” For emphasis, he fired off another quick burst into the air and then disappeared.
I waited about forty seconds and then got to my feet and began dusting myself off. “Everybody grab your stuff and pack up. We’re leaving.”
Judy came running up to me accompanied by Randy Crawford, another grad student. Unlike Judy, he wasn’t Native American.