a translation of:

Mikhail Sholokhov
Sholokhov's first published story (1924) tells of the clash between a young Red commander and a wizened old anti-Soviet leader of a band of marauding Cossacks. An unexpected connection between the two results in death and tragedy, to the delight of the carrion birds.

Empty cartridge cases still reeking of burnt cordite, a mutton bone, a field map, an operations report, a medallioned bridle that smells of horse sweat, and a loaf of bread. All that's on the table. And on a rough-hewn bench coated with mildew from the damp wall sits the squadron commander, young Nikolai Koshevoi, his back firmly lodged against the windowsill. There is a pencil between his numb, stiff fingers. Among the out-of-date posters spread over the table lies a half-completed form. The hairy scrap of paper states, Koshevoi, Nikolai. Squadron Commander. Land Worker. Young Communist.

Slowly the pencil traces the figure "18" beside the word "age".

Nikolai is broad in the shoulders and looks older than he really is. It's those creases at the corners of his eyes, and his old-mannish stoop, that age him.

"He's only a kid, a mere boy, a greenhorn," they say jokingly in the squadron. "But just try to find someone else who could wipe out two bandit gangs without hardly losing a man, and lead his squadron through six months of battles and skirmishing as well as any veteran."

Ashamed of being only eighteen is Nikolai. His pencil always crawls to a standstill at that hated word "age" and his cheeks flush with annoyance. Nikolai's father was a Cossack; and so is he, by right of birth. He remembers, almost as in a dream, how at the age of five or six his father lifted him on to his cavalry mount.

"Hang on to the mane, son," he shouted. Nikolai's mother was smiling at him from the kitchen door, but her face paled as she stared at those little legs clamped over the horse's steep-sided back, and at his father holding the rein.

That was a long time ago now. Nikolai's father had disappeared in the war against the Germans and never been heard of since. His mother had died. From his father Nikolai had inherited his love of horses, a boundless valor, and a birthmark like his father's on the left leg, just above the ankle, a mole as big as a pigeon's egg. Until the age of fifteen he led a hand-to-mouth existence as a farmhand, then he got himself enlisted in a Red regiment that was passing through his village, put on one of their long greatcoats and went off to fight Wrangel. One day in summer, when Nikolai was bathing in the Don with the Military Commissar, the Commissar said to him, stammering and jerking his shell-shocked head, and slapping Nikolai's stooped, sun-blackened shoulders:

"You're l-l-lucky, you know. They say a birthmark is a sign of l-l-luck."

Nikolai gave him a radiant white-toothed grin, dived into the water and reappeared snorting.

"Come off it, mate!" he shouted. "I've been an orphan since I was a kid and sweated all my life as a laborer--some luck!"

And he swam away to the yellow sandbar embracing the Don.

The cottage where Nikolai was billeted stood on a cliff overlooking the river. From the windows could be seen the green sweep of the far bank and the burnished steel of the water. On stormy nights the waves beat at the foot of the cliff, the shutters moaned and sobbed, and to Nikolai it seemed that the water was creeping up through the chinks in the floor and shaking the cottage as it rose.

He had often made up his mind to move to a different billet but had somehow never got round to doing so. And now it was autumn.

One frosty morning he went out on to the steps of the porch, shattering the fragile silence with the clatter of his iron-tipped boots, walked down into the little cherry orchard and stretched out on the grass, which was all gray and tearful from the dew. He could hear the mistress of the house in the cowshed, urging her cow to keep still, and the deep, demanding cries of the calf, and the stream of the milk ringing against the side of the pail.

The wicket gate creaked and the watch-dog began to bark.

"Commander at home?" came the voice of the platoon sergeant.

Nikolai raised himself on one elbow.

"Over here! What's the matter now?"

"Messenger from the village. Says a band has broken through from the Sal District and taken the Grushino State Farm."

"Bring him to me."

The messenger tried to lead his horse towards the stable. But the animal was bathed in hot sweat and in the middle of the yard it sank down on its forelegs, then rolled over on its side and gasped out its last breath, gazing with glassy eyes at the watch-dog, which by now was almost choking with fury. The horse had died because the dispatch the messenger had brought was marked with three crosses and he had galloped it forty versts without a rest.

Nikolai read the village chairman's request for aid and went into the front room, buckling on his sword and thinking to himself: "Another band. And just as I was hoping to go and study somewhere... The Commissar's always on at me about it. You're a squadron commander, he says, and can't even spell properly. But was it my fault I never got through the parish school? Can't he see that? ... And now here's another band... More blood... I'm sick of living like this, I've had enough."

As he went out on to the steps, loading his carbine, the thoughts were still racing through his head, like horses over a well-worn track: "If only I could go to town... Just go and study..."

He strode towards the stable past the dead horse, glanced at the black ribbon of blood oozing from its dusty nostrils and turned away.

Mousy plantains curl over the hummocks and wind-licked ruts amid the bushy goose-foot and mallow. This track was once used for carting hay to the threshing barns that are dotted over the steppe like congealed splashes of amber; the main highway follows the hill, where the telegraph poles are. The poles march away into the whitish autumn murk, striding across gullies and ravines, and along with them, along the damp glistening track, an ataman leads his band--fifty Cossacks of the Don and the Kuban who have a grudge against Soviet rule. For three days, like wolves that have plundered a flock of sheep, they've been making their getaway by road and roadless steppe, and all this time Nikolai Koshevoi's detachment has been on their trail, watching out for them.

A hard-bitten lot they are, old army men, well seasoned, but all the same their ataman has to keep his wits about him. He stands up in his stirrups, scans the steppe with eyes that are like feeling hands, and counts the miles to the blue fringe of forest stretching away on the far side of the Don.

So he retreats, stealthy as a wolf, but Koshevoi's squadron is hard on his heels.

On fine summer days in the Donside steppes the wheat waves and rings like pure silver under the intense translucent sky. That's before the reaping, when the beard of the full-eared Garnovka wheat darkens like the fluff on the lip of a seventeen-year-old and the rye stretches up as though it would outgrow a man.

The bearded Cossack farmers sow their rye in strips on the loamy patches and sandy slopes and along the edges of the poplar groves. It never burgeons well; an acre won't yield more than six bushels, but they sow it because they can distil from it a spirit clearer than a maiden's tears, because this has been the custom for centuries, because their fathers and forefathers loved to drink, and because it was not for nothing that the Great Seal of the Don Cossack Army portrayed a drunken Cossack sitting stripped to the waist astride a barrel of wine. It's a wild and heady brew that goes around the villages and stanitsas in autumn and sends the Cossacks' tall red-topped hats swaying unsteadily along by the willow fences.

That's why the ataman himself is never sober; that's why the gun-crews and drivers all loll tipsily on their machine-gun carts.

It's seven years now since the ataman saw the smoke of his home fires. First, a German prison camp, then service with Wrangel, then Constantinople melting in the sun, then internment behind barbed wire, then a Turkish fellucca with its tarry, salt-caked lateen, then the rushes of the Kuban, and then--this marauding band.

That's what the ataman's life has been, if he cares to look back. His heart has hardened as the imprint of an ox's cloven hoof hardens by a steppeland pool in the heat of summer. A mysterious, hidden pain gnaws at his vitals, sickens every muscle, and he feels that this sickness can be neither forgotten nor drowned in drink. Yet still he drinks--never a day sober; for sweet and fragrant grows the rye in the Donside steppe with its black greedy belly upturned to the sun, and the brown-cheeked village women whose husbands are away make a brew so pure there's no telling it from spring water.

The first frost came at dawn. It silvered the broad leaves of the water-lilies and at day-break Lukich noticed frail mica-colored icicles on the wheel of his mill.

Lukich had been feeling rotten ever since morning; there were pains in the small of his back and the dull ache made his legs so iron-heavy that they seemed stuck to the ground. He shuffled about the mill, every movement an effort, as though his flesh had in some strange way become detached from the bones. A brood of mice scurried out from under the millet scourer. He stared bleary-eyed at one of the rafters, where a pigeon was cooing briskly. With nostrils that looked as if they had been molded out of steppeland loam the old man breathed in the musty odor of river slime and the smell of milled rye, listened to the unpleasant choking sound of the water sucking and licking at the piles, and tugged thoughtfully at his matted beard.

In the garden where he kept his bees Lukich lay down to have a rest. He went to sleep under his big sheepskin with his mouth hanging open and the warm sticky spit trickling on to his beard. Dusk daubed its shadows over the little cottage and the mill was soon enmeshed in milky shreds of mist...

When he awoke, two horsemen were riding towards him out of the forest. One of them shouted to him as he shuffled across the bee-garden.

"Come here, Granfer!"

Lukich gave him a suspicious look and stopped. In these troubled years he had seen more than enough of these armed men who took flour and fodder without asking, and for all of them he had a hearty dislike.

"Get a move on, you old goat."

Lukich stepped out from between the hand-wrought hives, silently munching his faded lips, and halted at some distance from the strangers, eyeing them warily.

"We're Reds, Grandad. You needn't be afraid of us," the ataman declared peaceably. "We've been chasing a band and got left behind by the others. Mebbe you've seen our detachment passing hereabouts?"

"Somebody went by."

"Where did they go, Grandad?"

"Plagued if I know."

"Any of 'em stay behind at the mill?"

"No one here," Lukich replied curtly and turned his back.

"Just a minute, old man." The ataman heaved himself out of the saddle, swayed drunkenly on his bow-legs and with a strong whiff of home-brew on his breath said: "We're liquidating Communists, Grandpa... Mark that! As for who we are, that's none of your business!" He stumbled and dropped the rein. "It'll be your job to supply enough grain for seventy horses and keep quiet... And quick about it! Understand? Where's your grain?"

"Nothing here," Lukich said, looking away.

"What's in that barn?"

"Just rubbish, I reckon... I've got no grain."

"Very well, then. Come along!"

The ataman seized the old man by his collar, propelled him with his knee towards the crooked, sunken barn and flung open the door. The bins were full of wheat and barley.

"Isn't that grain, you old scoundrel?"

"Yes, son, it's grain... It's the left-overs. I've been saving it up all the year. And you want to feed it to horses..."

"So our horses can starve, for all you care, eh? Who're you for--the Reds? Asking for a bullet, are you?"

"Oh, have mercy on me, son! What have I done wrong?' Lukich pulled off his old cap, dropped to his knees and seized the ataman's hairy hands, trying to kiss them.

"Speak! Do you love the Reds?"

"Forgive me, gentle son! Pardon my foolish words. Have mercy, don't kill me," the old man quavered, groveling at the ataman's feet.

"Swear that you're not for the Reds... No, don't cross yourself! Eat dirt!"

The old man scooped up a handful of dirt and munched it with his toothless gums, moistening it with his tears.

"All right, now I believe you. Get up, old one!"

And the ataman laughed as he watched the old man's helpless efforts to rise on his stiff legs. The other horsemen rode up and ransacked the bins of barley and wheat, scattering what was left under their horses' hooves and carpeting the yard with golden grain.

Daybreak was gray and misty, wrapped in a murky wetness.

Lukich slipped past the sentry, and not by the road but by a path that he alone knew struck out for the village dozing wearily in expectation of the dawn.

He hobbled as far as the village windmill and was about to cross the cattle track into a side-lane, when the vague shapes of horsemen loomed up in front of him.

"Who's there?" the challenge rang out urgently in the stillness.

"It's me." Lukich mumbled, and began to tremble.

"Who is it? Where's your pass? What are you hanging around here for?"

"I'm the miller... From the watermill over there. I've got business in the village."

"What business? Now then, off you go to see the commander! Forward march!" one of the horsemen shouted, riding at Lukich.

The old man felt the horse's warm lips on his neck and limped along as fast as he could into the village.

They halted on the square, outside a small tiled cottage. His escort heaved himself grunting out of the saddle, tethered his horse to the fence and clumped up the steps with his sabre rattling at his side.

"Follow me!"

There was a light showing in the windows. They entered.

The tobacco smoke made Lukich sneeze. Pulling off his cap, he made a hurried sign of the cross towards the front corner of the room.

"We've just picked up this old feller on his way to the village."

Nikolai lifted his tousled head from the table and asked sleepily but sternly: "Where were you going?"

Lukich stepped forward with a joyful gasp.

"Why, it's you, son! Our own folk. And I thought it was them devils again... I was so darn frightened I was afraid to ask. I'm the miller. You stopped at my mill when you were passing through Mitrokha's Wood. I gave you some milk to drink, laddie. Don't you remember?"

"Well, what have you got to tell us?"

"This is what I want to tell you, lad. After dark yesterday that gang of bandits, they stopped at my mill and took all the grain for their horses. They wanted to kill me. Their head man, he says, 'Swear you're one of us!' and he made me eat dirt."

"Where are they now?"

"There're still there. They've got vodka with 'em and they're guzzling it in my front room, the unclean devils. So I ran over here to report to you, Your Honor. Mebbe you'll be able to deal with them."

"Tell the boys to saddle up!" Nikolai rose from the bench with a smile at the old man and reached wearily for his greatcoat.

The dawn came.

Nikolai, grey-cheeked from so many sleepless nights, galloped up to the machine-gun cart.

"As soon as we attack, let 'em have it on the right flank. We've got to smash their wing."

He rode back to the squadron, which was drawn up in open order.

Beyond a clump of stunted oaks a column of horsemen appeared, riding along the highway four abreast with their machine-gun carts in the middle.

"Charge!" Nikolai yelled, and as a rumble of hooves rose behind him lashed his stallion into a gallop.

The machine-gun on the edge of the wood broke into a mad chatter and smartly, as if at exercises the riders on the highway swung into formation for the counter-charge.

A wolf sprang out of the thickets on the hillside, its coat bristling with burrs. It listened for a moment, with its head thrust forward. Shots were crackling not far away and the roar of shouting came in a long surging wave.

Crack! A shot sounded in the alder thickets and from somewhere on the other side of the hill the echo muttered back across the ploughed land: crack!

And again more shots. Crack! Crack! Crack!. And back across the hill.

The wolf stood there for a while, then loped unhurriedly into the yellow clump of unmown rushes in the gully.

"Hold out! Don't leave the machine-guns! Into the wood! Into the wood, curse your mothers' blood!" the ataman bellowed, rising in his stirrups.

But the drivers and gunners were already hacking at the traces, and the bandits' line, raked by constant machine-gun fire, was breaking into uncontrollable flight.

The ataman turned his horse and saw a lone rider flying towards him, saber whirling, cloak spread out like wings. By the field-glasses dangling from his chest and the fine black cloak the ataman guessed that this was no ordinary Red Army man galloping towards him, and he reined in his horse. From a distance he made out the young, beardless face, convulsed with fury, the eyes narrowed in the wind. The ataman's horse danced and reared under him as he tugged at the pistol caught in his sash and shouted:

"Come on, you hairless puppy! Brandish your saber! ...I'll brandish you!"

He fired into the black cloak as it loomed up before him. The horse galloped another twenty yards and fell, but Nikolai threw off his cloak and ran towards the ataman, firing as he went. Nearer and nearer...

Beyond the trees someone screamed like an animal and broke off. The sun went behind a cloud and shadows glided over the steppe, the highway, and the woods that the winds and autumn had laid bare.

"He's just a stripling, a hot-headed puppy, and death shall have him for it!" the ataman muttered to himself. He waited until the lad's magazine was empty, then loosed the reins and swooped like a hawk.

Leaning out of his saddle, he swung his saber and felt the sudden weakening of the body as it collapsed under the blow and slumped obediently to the ground. The ataman dismounted, ripped the field-glasses off the dead man, glanced at the legs, still quivering in agony, looked round and squatted down to take off his victim's chrome-leather boots. With his foot grinding into the dead man's knee he deftly slipped off one of the boots. But on the other leg the sock seemed to have rucked up and the second boot would not come off. With an angry curse he tugged again and pulled off boot and sock together. Just above the ankle he saw a mole as big as a pigeon's egg. Slowly, as though afraid to waken the lad, he turned the cold face towards him, soaking his hands in the blood that foamed from the mouth. He stared hard for a moment, then seized the angular shoulders in an awkward embrace.

"Son!" he said dully. "My Nikolai! My own flesh and blood!"

His face darkening, he shouted:

"Speak! Just one word! How? Why?"

He fell forward, peering into the dying eyes; he lifted the blood-stained lids and shook the limp, unresisting body... But Nikolai had his teeth firmly clenched on the bluish tip of his tongue, as though afraid he might unwittingly speak of something immeasurably great and important.

The ataman clasped his son's cold hands to his breast and kissed them, then gripped the barrel of his pistol between his teeth and, as the cold steel grew clammy with his breath, fired straight into his own mouth.

In the evening, when riders appeared beyond the trees and the wind brought the sound of voices, of neighing horses and jingling stirrup-irons, a carrion kite rose reluctantly from the ataman's shaggy head, soared up and melted into the grey, autumnally faded sky.


Translation by Robert Daglish

For more on Sholkhov, visit:
107 Years of Sholokhov
see also:
Biography of Mikhail Sholokhov

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