1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 26
Chapter 10: On the River
July to September 1636, on the road
By the end of July, the villagers of Ruzuka were on the north side of the Klyazma River again, approaching the Volga. The crops, most of which had been planted before Czar Mikhail’s flight, were getting ripe and the villages were short of people. The radiotelegraph net had made rumor even faster — if not noticeably more accurate.
The operators looked out for one another. They also had a set of skills that made them difficult to replace. So the network carried the official messages but it also carried unofficial messages, what radio operators had seen or heard, private mail that was often encoded. Also, while it was by no means universal, the radio operators had what Sheremetev and his faction were likely to see as a liberal bias. They were almost universally literate, they had mostly been trained at the Dacha, so had been exposed to the corrupting influence of Bernie Zeppi and the up-timer books.
Which meant that even little villages out in the middle of nowhere were generally informed on the events of the day. Czar Mikhail had established himself in Ufa. He had sent the dirigible scouting, and even flown over Moscow. No one knew if Mikhail himself had been in the dirigible when it flew over Moscow in mid-July, but that the dirigible had done so was clear. And, according to rumor, it had sent Sheremetev into a rage.
Serfs were running east in droves and every time the dirigible went over, more ran. So at least the headman of Shalaevo, a village thirty miles west of the Volga, complained. Elena listened as politely as she could. She was, somewhat against her will, acting as the face for the village. With Stefan and Anatoly standing over her, there wasn’t much she could do except what they told her. She was really afraid now that they would leave her in the forest.
Elena, with Stefan looking over her shoulder, told the headman of Shalaevo, “Stefan, here, will negotiate with you for my serfs’ help with your harvest.” Then she retreated to the wagon.
The headman knew he needed their help in bringing in the crop, in exchange for which he offered a small part of the seed. But the bandits from Ruzuka had him over a barrel and they clearly knew it. Almost a quarter of the crop was the price they settled on. And, like any bandit would, they insisted that the seed they were taking be threshed first, because the people of Shalaevo would be able to do the rest of the threshing over the winter.
The people of Ruzuka spent two weeks in Shalaevo, then another two weeks in the next village on their way, and a week and a half in a third. By the time they were done, they had almost as much grain as they would have if they had stayed home. Harvest season was winding down. It was September now, and the villagers of Ruzuka made their way to the Volga.
As Stefan rode up to the shore of the Volga, he heard the boatmen singing. Born and raised in Russia, still Stefan had never heard a song more depressing. “Pull, pull, pull some more,” in tones of ultimate despair. There were now steam barges on the Volga, but they were still by far the minority. There were big boats on the Volga, almost ships, and large crews of the very poor to haul them up the river. Talking to the burlak, the boatmen who pulled the boats upriver by means of ropes attached to the boats and tied around their upper arms and chests, he learned where the boats put in. It was fall and cold, and the boats were not doing nearly as well as their owners had expected because a good number of the burlak had run off to join the czar at Ufa.
Balakhna was one of the stopping points for the boats. Stefan rode in and found Boris Petrovich, a factor for the boat owners that one of the burlak had told him about.
“Yes, we can take you downriver,” Boris told Stefan. “How many people do you have and how much equipment? Downriver is better than upriver at this time of year. It needs fewer pullers.”
They talked price and came to an agreement, some in paper money but mostly in silver and jewelry. Then Stefan went out and brought in the wagons. It would take two days to get all the gear loaded onto the ship.
Nikita Ivanovich Utkin shifted in his saddle. His butt hurt, but at least they were back in town. He looked over at Alexander Nikolayevich Volkov and grinned. The other man looked just as tired as he felt. They were followed by a platoon of soldiers, most of whom were still armed with single-shot muzzleloaders or even pikes. Nikita and Alexander each had AK4s, and Nikita wore a bandolier of chambers as a part of his outfit. Alexander insisted that uniform was not the right word when it was unique, and Nikita had to concede that there weren’t two outfits in the platoon that were alike.
Nikita looked back at the docks, and saw a crowd of peasants with wagons and ponies. It looked like this group of runaways had stolen their master blind. Well, he and Alexander would harry them back the way they had come. And if some of their goods got left here for him to pick up, so much the better.
Nikita pointed, and Alexander looked. “More game. And right here in Balakhna.”
“They are going to have to be disassembled, Father.” Stefan was talking to Father Yulian about the stowing of the wagons. “They take up too much room. We will pull off the wheels and take off the sides and roofs . . .”
“Oh, my God,” Izabella said. “It’s Nikita.”
Stefan looked up and felt his face pale. Nikita was a stuck-up little bastard. Full of himself and convinced that his lordly birth entitled him to pretty much anything he wanted. He had been a pain in the ass and a real danger from the day Stefan had met him . . . and he was riding in their direction, armed and with troops behind him.
On the other hand, the villagers of Ruzuka weren’t the same people they had been. They hadn’t been attacked since Gorki, but that was only because ever since Gorki they had maintained an alert guard. By now, every adult in the wagon train was armed with something and those who were carrying guns at least had a decent idea how to use them.
Stefan wasn’t any good with the guns, but he had a large knife in his belt and he could use it. It was hidden by the coat he wore, but he could reach it if he had to. And, knowing Nikita, he was very much afraid that he was about to have to.
As he watched, Nikita’s face changed as he recognized them. Nikita kicked his horse, ignoring the rest of the troops that were with him and rode at Stefan and the rest like he was going to ride them down.
He pulled up when he got to them and leapt off the horse, shouting, “What the hell are you doing here? Father has been worried sick ever since he got the message from Kiril Ivanovich.” He grabbed Izabella’s arm and that opened her coat, making the fact of her pregnancy blatantly apparent.
“Oh, my — Izabella, Father’s going to kill you,” Nikita said. “How could you betray the family this way? You have disgraced us all. Who did you give yourself to? One of the peasants? I’ll kill him myself.” He swung to look at Stefan.
Stefan held up his hands, disclaiming any responsibility . . . not that he thought it would do any good.
“You brute! You animal! You defiled my family.” Nikita reached into his jacket and pulled out a pistol. It was a chamber-loading flintlock pistol, and it used the same chambers as his chamber-loading rifle. Nikita cocked and opened the pan. Standing not more than six feet from Stefan.
No flintlock, chamber-loading or not, is a quick draw weapon. The pan must be charged before the weapon can be fired, and it is impractical to carry the thing around with the pan charged. Generally, the pan is charged just before a fight and with hope that it doesn’t have to be fired more than once. Standing next to the target while charging the weapon isn’t the best option.
Stefan saw what Nikita was doing, and knew time had run out. As soon as the pan was charged, the little idiot was going to shoot him just to prove he could. Stefan pulled his knife and lunged. The knife went in just under Nikita’s breast bone and angled up. It didn’t reach the heart, but it ripped the hell out of both lungs. Stefan clamped his left hand over the pistol in Nikita’s right, as he pulled the knife out for another thrust.
Izabella screamed and the battle was on.
Alexander was surprised when Nikita rode ahead. He knew Nikita well enough, but didn’t know his sister or his serfs. So he had no idea what had gotten into Nikita till he heard the shouting. His first response was amusement. That would take the little prick down a notch or two.
Then he saw Nikita draw his pistol and kicked his horse into a gallop.
The big, burly peasant moved a lot faster than a man that size should, and when the girl screamed, Alexander charged. It wasn’t a conscious decision. If he had thought for even a moment, he would have known that when you have rifles and the enemy have knives, you stand off and fire. But he was a member of the service nobility, born and bred to be a warrior. When under attack, you charged. So that’s what he did, and the troops charged after him.