Three enormous shaggy dogs leaped up out of the darkness and ran toward us. Shakro, who had been sobbing all the way, now shrieked, and threw himself on the ground. I flung the wet overcoat at the dogs, and stooped down to find a stick or a stone. I could feel nothing but coarse, prickly grass, which hurt my hands. The dogs continued their attack. I put my fingers into my mouth, and whistled as loud as I could. They rushed back, and at the same time we heard the sound of approaching steps and voices.
A few minutes later, and we were comfortably seated around a fire in the company of four shepherds, dressed in "touloups" or long sheepskin overcoats.
They scrutinized us keenly and rather suspiciously, and remained silent all the time I was telling them our story.
Two of the shepherds were seated on the ground, smoking, and puffing from their mouths clouds of smoke. The third was a tall man with a thick black beard, wearing a high fur cap. He stood behind us, leaning on a huge knotted stick. The fourth man was younger, and fair haired; he was helping the sobbing Shakro to get off his wet clothes. An enormous stick, the size of which alone inspired fear, lay beside each of the seated shepherds.
Ten yards away from us all the steppe seemed covered with something gray and undulating, which had the appearance of snow in spring time, just when it is beginning to thaw.
It was only after a close inspection that one could discern that this gray waving mass was composed of many thousands of sheep, huddled closely together, asleep, forming in the dark night one compact mass. Sometimes they bleated piteously and timidly.
I dried the overcoat by the fire, and told the shepherds all our story truthfully; even describing the way in which we became possessed of the boat.
"Where is that boat now?" inquired the severe-looking elder man, who kept his eyes fixed on me.
I told him.
"Go, Michael, and look for it."
Michael, the shepherd with the black beard, went off with his stick over his shoulder, toward the sea-shore.
The overcoat was dry. Shakro was about to put it on his naked body, when the old man said: "Go and have a run first to warm yourself. Run quickly around the fire. Come!"
At first, Shakro did not understand. Then suddenly he rose from his place, and began dancing some wild dance of his own, first flying like a ball across the fire, then whirling round and round in one place, then stamping his feet on the ground, while he swung his arms, and shouted at the top of his voice. It was a ludicrous spectacle. Two of the shepherds were rolling on the ground, convulsed with laughter, while the older man, with a serious, immovable face, tried to clap his hands in time to the dancing, but could not succeed in doing so. He watched attentively every movement of the dancing Shakro, while he nodded his head, and exclaimed in a deep bass voice:
"He! He'! That's right! He'! He'!"
The light fell full on Shakro, showing the variety of his movements, as at one moment he would coil himself up like a snake, and the next would dance round on one leg; then would plunge into a succession of rapid steps, difficult to follow with the eye. His naked body shone in the fire light, while the large beads of sweat, as they rolled off it, looked, in the red light of the fire, like drops of blood..
By now, all three of the shepherds were clapping their hands; while I, shivering with cold, dried myself by the fire, and thought that our adventures would gratify the taste of admirers of Cooper or of Jules Vernes; there was shipwreck, then came hospitable aborigines, and a savage dance round the fire. And while I reflected thus, I felt very uneasy as to the chief point in every adventure—the end of it.
When Shakro had finished dancing, he also sat down by the fire, wrapped up in the overcoat. He was already eating, while he stared at me with his black eyes, which had a gleam in them of something I did not like. His clothes, stretched on sticks, driven into the ground, were drying before the fire. The shepherds had given me, also, some bread and bacon.
Michael returned, and sat down without a word beside the old man, who remarked in an inquiring voice: "Well?"
"I have found the boat," was the brief reply.
"It won't be washed away?"
The shepherds were silent, once more scrutinizing us.
"Well," said Michael, at last, addressing no one in particular. "Shall we take them to the ataman, or straight to the custom house officers?"
"So that's to be the end!" I thought to myself.
Nobody replied to Michael's question. Shakro went on quietly with his eating, and said nothing.
"We could take them to the ataman—or we could take them to the custom house. One plan's as good as the other," remarked the old man, after a short silence.
"They have stolen the custom house boat, so they ought to be taught a lesson for the future."
"Wait a bit, old man," I began.
"Certainly, they ought not to have stolen the boat. If they are not punished now, they will probably do something worse next time." The old man interrupted me, without paying any heed to my protestations.
The old man spoke with revolting indifference. When he had finished speaking, his comrades nodded their heads in token of assent.
"Yes, if a man steals, he has to bear the consequences, when he's caught—— Michael! what about the boat? Is it there?"
"Oh, it's there all right!"
"Are you sure the waves won't wash it away?"
"Well, that's all right. Then let it stay there. Tomorrow the boatmen will be going over to Kertch, and they can take it with them. They will not mind taking an empty boat along with them, will they? Well—so you mean to say you were not frightened, you vagabonds? Weren't you indeed? La! la! la!
"Half a mile farther out, and you would have been by this time at the bottom of the sea! What would you have done if the waves had cast you back into the sea? Ay, sure enough, you would have sunk to the bottom like a couple of axes. And that would have been the end of you both!"
As the old man finished speaking, he looked at me with an ironical smile on his lips.
"Well, why don't you speak, lad?" he inquired.
I was vexed by his reflections, which I misinterpreted as sneering at us. So I only answered rather sharply: "I was listening to you."
"Well-and what do you say?" inquired the old man.
"Why are you rude to me? Is it the right thing to be rude to a man older than yourself?"
I was silent, acknowledging in my heart that it really was not the right thing.
"Won't you have something more to eat?" continued the old shepherd.
"No, I can't eat any more."
"Well, don't have any, if you don't want it. Perhaps you'll take a bit of bread with you to eat on the road?"
I trembled with joy, but would not betray my feelings.
"Oh, yes. I should like to take some with me for the road," I answered, quietly. "I say, lads! give these fellows some bread and a piece of bacon each. If you can find something else, give it to them too." "Are we to let them go, then?" asked Michael.
The other two shepherds looked up at the old man.
"What can they do here?"
"Did we not intend to take them either to the ataman or to the custom house?" asked Michael, in a disappointed tone.
Shakro stirred uneasily in his seat near the fire, and poked out his head inquiringly from beneath the overcoat. He was quite serene.
"What would they do at the ataman's? I should think there is nothing to do there just now. Perhaps later on they might like to go there?"
"But how about the boat?" insisted Michael.
"What about the boat?" inquired the old man again. "Did you not say the boat was all right where it was?" "Yes, it's all right there," Michael replied.
"Well, let it stay there. In the morning John can row it round into the harbor. From there, someone will get it over to Kertch. That's all we can do with the boat."
I watched attentively the old man's countenance, but failed to discover any emotion on his phlegmatic, sun-burned, weather-beaten face, over the features of which the flicker from the flames played merrily.
"If only we don't get into trouble." Michael began to give way.
"There will be no trouble if you don't let your tongue wag. If the ataman should hear of it, we might get into a scrape, and they also. We have our work to do, and they have to be getting on. Is it far you have to go?" asked the old man again, though I had told him once before I was bound for Tiflis.
"That's a long way yet. The ataman might detain them; then, when would they get to Tiflis? So let them be getting on their way. Eh?"
"Yes, let them go," all the shepherds agreed, as the old man, when he had finished speaking, closed his lips tightly, and cast an inquiring glance around him, as he fingered his gray beard.
"Well, my good fellows, be off, and God bless you!" he exclaimed with a gesture of dismissal. "We will see that the boat goes back, so don't trouble about that!"
"Many, many thanks, grandfather!" I said taking off my cap.
"What are you thanking me for?"
"Thank you; thank you!" I repeated fervently.
"What are you thanking me for? That's queer! I say, God bless you, and he thanks me! Were you afraid I'd send you to the devil, eh?"
"I'd done wrong and I was afraid," I answered.
"Oh!" and the old man lifted his eyebrows. "Why should I drive a man farther along the wrong path? I'd do better by helping one along the way I'm going myself. Maybe, we shall meet again, and then we'll meet as friends. We ought to help one another where we can. Good-bye!" He took off his large shaggy sheepskin cap, and bowed low to us. His comrades bowed too.
We inquired our way to Anapa, and started off. Shakro was laughing at something or other.