1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 28
“Well, if he’s going with us, he’s no risk to any secrets that might be told,” said Stefan. “So what’s this all about?”
“We are going to need another front man. Elena will be useless now, even if we force her to continue with us,” said Father Yulian. “And Alexander here might just work. However, we would be better off with his cooperation. He seems like he might be willing to help us, but he is afraid of the consequences to his family if he willingly goes with us.”
“So I think we should kidnap him publicly from here. That will cover his family and then he can act as our front man. We still have the colonel’s seal, and I can write up papers for Alexander, once we decide on his role.”
“That would be fine, except that I am not of the colonel’s family. He would have no authority over me.”
“Not under your own name. But you could be Izabella’s cousin or something, escorting her.”
“My husband.” Isabella pointed at her waist. “I am clearly in need of one.”
“I . . .” Alexander stopped, with no notion of how to go on. “I don’t want to marry a girl already pregnant with another man’s child” was the truth, but probably not a wise comment to make. On the other hand, he couldn’t think of anything wise to say.
While he was trying to work that out through the pain, Izabella spoke. “Not a real marriage. It’s just the most believable story. Alexander can be from any of the minor nobility families, whether deti boyar or service nobility.” Both Alexander’s family and Izabella’s were deti boyar families. Alexander’s to the Cherakasky and Izabella’s to the Sheremetev family, so Alexander would know how to act the part.
“We’ll make him Alexander Nikolayevich . . . Orlav. And Papa married me off to him for a village and three hogs.”
There was, Alexander noted, considerable bitterness in the girl’s voice.
All in all, Alexander wasn’t convinced that this was a good idea. However, the alternatives weren’t looking all that good either.
The streltzi came back a few hours later, to find the villagers from Ruzuka on the loaded boats, with charged and ready muskets. Alexander negotiated a truce between the town’s streltzi and the invading villagers, and for the next day Balakhna was held in an armed truce while Stefan and Father Yulian negotiated with the burlak who pulled the boats up and down the Volga River when the wind wasn’t strong.
There were, by this time, dozens of steam-powered boats on the Russian river systems. But there were thousands of boats on the Russian rivers and most of them were propelled either by the wind or by men and women harnessed like draft animals. A good number of the burlak had already run east before the wagon train had reached Balakhna, and the owner of the boat they had rented had responded by working the ones that were left still harder. They weren’t happy and were looking for a way out.
The battle with the local streltzi had made it clear that the wagon train wasn’t legitimate, in spite of their papers, and the owner of the boat was no longer willing to rent his boat to them. The choice was to buy the boat or leave it.
The wagon train didn’t have the money to buy the boat, so they really didn’t have a lot of choice. They simply stole it.
“Can we rig the lines to teams of ponies?” Stefan asked Afanasy.
“For stretches of up to a couple of miles, you can. But there are places that a team of animals can’t negotiate,” Afanasy, the foreman of the burlak crew said. “That’s one reason that they use people. Also, ponies don’t react well to the currents on the river,” the man, in ragged clothing and an unkempt beard and hair with considerable body odor, explained. “It’s mostly easier just to load the livestock on the boat and have us pull it.”
Stefan wasn’t sure whether that was the truth or whether the burlak just wanted a job for the trip down the Volga to the Kama River. They would travel up the Kama to the Belaya River, which they would follow to Ufa.
“Mother’s not coming,” Izabella said, entering the little shack on the docks where Vera was working on organizing their supplies and equipment. “She refuses and I’m tired of arguing. Well, of being screamed at.”
Vera nodded and waved Izabella to a bench next to the window. It was covered with a thin sheet of tanned intestine, but it kept out the cold wind and let in a little light. She had heard the screaming, and the local priest had agreed to look after Elena till someone came to take her off their hands. Father Yulian had arranged that.
“Is everything on the boat?” Izabella asked.
“Pretty much. We pulled the wheels off the wagons once we got them into the boat and arranged. It will take a few days once we get where we’re going to get them reassembled,” Vera said.
“Why are we taking them anyway? It’s all rivers from here.”
“Two reasons. First, they are likely to be useful once we get to Ufa. Father Yulian says we will apply to Czar Mikhail for new lands, and we will probably have to travel overland to get to them. But mostly it’s because after all the work we put in on them, Stefan isn’t willing to just abandon them. Besides a cabin on wheels is still a cabin, and we are going to need places to stay till we get real houses built.”
There was shouting from outside and the two women got up and went out, to see Boris Petrovich storming up the dock with a couple of men behind him.
“Stefan,” Vera called, “get your gun!”
“You get off my boat! I just rented it and not to go to Ufa!” shouted Boris Petrovich, the factor. He was a fat, florid man with a red face and a short beard.
Several of the men of the village came to the side of the boat, carrying their guns. Stefan and Anatoly had the rifled AK3s, and other men from the villages had older muskets, including a couple of matchlocks.
Suddenly, Boris Petrovich stopped. He looked at the guns and then at the two large men who had come with him carrying cudgels. Those men were now backing away and while they hadn’t actually dropped the cudgels, they were no longer holding them in anything like a threatening manner.
Boris Petrovich’s head turned this way and that till he saw Vera and Izabella. Then he started toward them.
“Stop!” Stefan shouted.
“Your women are down here,” Boris shouted back, still approaching the women.
“And your streltzi commander is up here,” Stefan answered back. “You’ve already lost one. Do you want to explain how you lost two?”
“Besides,” Vera said, pulling a long pistol from her dress, “we aren’t helpless.”
Alexander was helped — or dragged — to the railing, where he struggled to hold himself up. “Ivan, Petr, what are you doing?”
The two toughs looked a bit shamefaced.
Alexander looked at Boris Petrovich. “They have the guns, Boris. I don’t see much we can do about it at the moment.”
“And there’s not going to be anything you can do about it, either. We’re taking him with us,” Stefan said. “We’ll let him go once we get to Ufa, if we don’t run into any problems along the way.”
“Maybe even before that,” added Father Yulian. “We’ll see how things go.”
“In the meantime, get off this dock and stop threatening our women, or I’ll shoot you,” said Stefan.
The Ruzukans finished the loading and set out, being pulled by the burlak. And as the docks receded, Boris Petrovich took back the dock, and standing on the end of it shouted, “You’re murderers and thieves! Kidnappers too!”
As soon as the pirates left, Boris Petrovich sent a runner to the nearest radiotelegraph station, but it would take the boy a while to get there. The boy who was given the message wasn’t in any great hurry to deliver it, so once he was out of sight he stopped running and made his way at a “brisk” stroll. Nikita hadn’t been popular in the village, and there was something romantic about Czar Mikhail, even to those who didn’t go off to Ufa.
The radio man sent the message, but there were a lot of messages these days and he wasn’t all that fond of Nikita, having met the young punk. So he managed to send the message to the boy’s father in Moscow, rather than to the commanding officer in Bor or Nizhny Novgorod. It took some time for the message to reach the colonel and more time for it to get to Nikita’s commanding officer. Meanwhile, the sun was setting and the boat that the pirates had stolen — with the help of a lot of the burlaks — was floating down the Volga at about eight knots, mostly by virtue of the river’s current.
The sun had set and they pulled the boat over to the side and loaded on the burlaks. Then they pushed the boat back out, and raised the sail. There was a breeze, but not much of one and the ship barely had enough way for steerage. It was dark, but not dark enough for comfort, as they sailed down the river, past the mouth of the Moscova River, past Nizhny Novgorod, then a few minutes later past Bor.
Stefan looked over the deck with their wagons disassembled and people sleeping. There was still close to a thousand miles to Ufa by river. But they were on their way and there was no going back.
Perhaps there never had been.