Read DRAWING LOTS WITH DEATH: CHAPTER X of Beasts‚ Men and Gods , free online book, by Ferdinand Ossendowski, on


Constant dangers develop one’s watchfulness and keenness of perception. We did not take off our clothes nor unsaddle our horses, tired as we were. I put my Mauser inside my coat and began to look about and scrutinize the people. The first thing I discovered was the butt end of a rifle under the pile of pillows always found on the peasants’ large beds. Later I noticed the employees of our host constantly coming into the room for orders from him. They did not look like simple peasants, although they had long beards and were dressed very dirtily. They examined me with very attentive eyes and did not leave me and my friend alone with the host. We could not, however, make out anything. But then the Soyot Governor came in and, noticing our strained relations, began explaining in the Soyot language to the host all about us.

“I beg your pardon,” the colonist said, “but you know yourself that now for one honest man we have ten thousand murderers and robbers.”

With this we began chatting more freely. It appeared that our host knew that a band of Bolsheviki would attack him in the search for the band of Cossack officers who were living in his house on and off. He had heard also about the “total loss” of one detachment. However, it did not entirely calm the old man to have our news, for he had heard of the large detachment of Reds that was coming from the border of the Usinsky District in pursuit of the Tartars who were escaping with their cattle south to Mongolia.

“From one minute to another we are awaiting them with fear,” said our host to me. “My Soyot has come in and announced that the Reds are already crossing the Seybi and the Tartars are prepared for the fight.”

We immediately went out to look over our saddles and packs and then took the horses and hid them in the bushes not far off. We made ready our rifles and pistols and took posts in the enclosure to wait for our common enemy. An hour of trying impatience passed, when one of the workmen came running in from the wood and whispered:

“They are crossing our swamp. . . . The fight is on.”

In fact, like an answer to his words, came through the woods the sound of a single rifle-shot, followed closely by the increasing rat-tat-tat of the mingled guns. Nearer to the house the sounds gradually came. Soon we heard the beating of the horses’ hoofs and the brutish cries of the soldiers. In a moment three of them burst into the house, from off the road where they were being raked now by the Tartars from both directions, cursing violently. One of them shot at our host. He stumbled along and fell on his knee, as his hand reached out toward the rifle under his pillows.

“Who are you?” brutally blurted out one of the soldiers, turning to us and raising his rifle. We answered with Mausers and successfully, for only one soldier in the rear by the door escaped, and that merely to fall into the hands of a workman in the courtyard who strangled him. The fight had begun. The soldiers called on their comrades for help. The Reds were strung along in the ditch at the side of the road, three hundred paces from the house, returning the fire of the surrounding Tartars. Several soldiers ran to the house to help their comrades but this time we heard the regular volley of the workmen of our host. They fired as though in a manoeuvre calmly and accurately. Five Red soldiers lay on the road, while the rest now kept to their ditch. Before long we discovered that they began crouching and crawling out toward the end of the ditch nearest the wood where they had left their horses. The sounds of shots became more and more distant and soon we saw fifty or sixty Tartars pursuing the Reds across the meadow.

Two days we rested here on the Seybi. The workmen of our host, eight in number, turned out to be officers hiding from the Bolsheviks. They asked permission to go on with us, to which we agreed.

When my friend and I continued our trip we had a guard of eight armed officers and three horses with packs. We crossed a beautiful valley between the Rivers Seybi and Ut. Everywhere we saw splendid grazing lands with numerous herds upon them, but in two or three houses along the road we did not find anyone living. All had hidden away in fear after hearing the sounds of the fight with the Reds. The following day we went up over the high chain of mountains called Daban and, traversing a great area of burned timber where our trail lay among the fallen trees, we began to descend into a valley hidden from us by the intervening foothills. There behind these hills flowed the Little Yenisei, the last large river before reaching Mongolia proper. About ten kilometers from the river we spied a column of smoke rising up out of the wood. Two of the officers slipped away to make an investigation. For a long time they did not return and we, fearful lest something had happened, moved off carefully in the direction of the smoke, all ready for a fight if necessary. We finally came near enough to hear the voices of many people and among them the loud laugh of one of our scouts. In the middle of a meadow we made out a large tent with two tepees of branches and around these a crowd of fifty or sixty men. When we broke out of the forest all of them rushed forward with a joyful welcome for us. It appeared that it was a large camp of Russian officers and soldiers who, after their escape from Siberia, had lived in the houses of the Russian colonists and rich peasants in Urianhai.

“What are you doing here?” we asked with surprise.

“Oh, ho, you know nothing at all about what has been going on?” replied a fairly old man who called himself Colonel Ostrovsky. “In Urianhai an order has been issued from the Military Commissioner to mobilize all men over twenty-eight years of age and everywhere toward the town of Belotzarsk are moving detachments of these Partisans. They are robbing the colonists and peasants and killing everyone that falls into their hands. We are hiding here from them.”

The whole camp counted only sixteen rifles and three bombs, belonging to a Tartar who was traveling with his Kalmuck guide to his herds in Western Mongolia. We explained the aim of our journey and our intention to pass through Mongolia to the nearest port on the Pacific. The officers asked me to bring them out with us. I agreed. Our reconnaissance proved to us that there were no Partisans near the house of the peasant who was to ferry us over the Little Yenisei. We moved off at once in order to pass as quickly as possible this dangerous zone of the Yenisei and to sink ourselves into the forest beyond. It snowed but immediately thawed. Before evening a cold north wind sprang up, bringing with it a small blizzard. Late in the night our party reached the river. Our colonist welcomed us and offered at once to ferry us over and swim the horses, although there was ice still floating which had come down from the head-waters of the stream. During this conversation there was present one of the peasant’s workmen, red-haired and squint-eyed. He kept moving around all the time and suddenly disappeared. Our host noticed it and, with fear in his voice, said:

“He has run to the village and will guide the Partisans here. We must cross immediately.”

Then began the most terrible night of my whole journey. We proposed to the colonist that he take only our food and ammunition in the boat, while we would swim our horses across, in order to save the time of the many trips. The width of the Yenisei in this place is about three hundred metres. The stream is very rapid and the shore breaks away abruptly to the full depth of the stream. The night was absolutely dark with not a star in the sky. The wind in whistling swirls drove the snow and sleet sharply against our faces. Before us flowed the stream of black, rapid water, carrying down thin, jagged blocks of ice, twisting and grinding in the whirls and eddies. For a long time my horse refused to take the plunge down the steep bank, snorted and braced himself. With all my strength I lashed him with my whip across his neck until, with a pitiful groan, he threw himself into the cold stream. We both went all the way under and I hardly kept my seat in the saddle. Soon I was some metres from the shore with my horse stretching his head and neck far forward in his efforts and snorting and blowing incessantly. I felt the every motion of his feet churning the water and the quivering of his whole body under me in this trial. At last we reached the middle of the river, where the current became exceedingly rapid and began to carry us down with it. Out of the ominous darkness I heard the shoutings of my companions and the dull cries of fear and suffering from the horses. I was chest deep in the icy water. Sometimes the floating blocks struck me; sometimes the waves broke up over my head and face. I had no time to look about or to feel the cold. The animal wish to live took possession of me; I became filled with the thought that, if my horse’s strength failed in his struggle with the stream, I must perish. All my attention was turned to his efforts and to his quivering fear. Suddenly he groaned loudly and I noticed he was sinking. The water evidently was over his nostrils, because the intervals of his frightened snorts through the nostrils became longer. A big block of ice struck his head and turned him so that he was swimming right downstream. With difficulty I reined him around toward the shore but felt now that his force was gone. His head several times disappeared under the swirling surface. I had no choice. I slipped from the saddle and, holding this by my left hand, swam with my right beside my mount, encouraging him with my shouts. For a time he floated with lips apart and his teeth set firm. In his widely opened eyes was indescribable fear. As soon as I was out of the saddle, he had at once risen in the water and swam more calmly and rapidly. At last under the hoofs of my exhausted animal I heard the stones. One after another my companions came up on the shore. The well-trained horses had brought all their burdens over. Much farther down our colonist landed with the supplies. Without a moment’s loss we packed our things on the horses and continued our journey. The wind was growing stronger and colder. At the dawn of day the cold was intense. Our soaked clothes froze and became hard as leather; our teeth chattered; and in our eyes showed the red fires of fever: but we traveled on to put as much space as we could between ourselves and the Partisans. Passing about fifteen kilometres through the forest we emerged into an open valley, from which we could see the opposite bank of the Yenisei. It was about eight o’clock. Along the road on the other shore wound the black serpent-like line of riders and wagons which we made out to be a column of Red soldiers with their transport. We dismounted and hid in the bushes in order to avoid attracting their attention.

All the day with the thermometer at zero and below we continued our journey, only at night reaching the mountains covered with larch forests, where we made big fires, dried our clothes and warmed ourselves thoroughly. The hungry horses did not leave the fires but stood right behind us with drooped heads and slept. Very early in the morning several Soyots came to our camp.

“Ulan? (Red?)” asked one of them.

“No! No!” exclaimed all our company.

“Tzagan? (White?)” followed the new question.

“Yes, yes,” said the Tartar, “all are Whites.”

“Mende! Mende!” they grunted and, after starting their cups of tea, began to relate very interesting and important news. It appeared that the Red Partisans, moving from the mountains Tannu Ola, occupied with their outposts all the border of Mongolia to stop and seize the peasants and Soyots driving out their cattle. To pass the Tannu Ola now would be impossible. I saw only one way to turn sharp to the southeast, pass the swampy valley of the Buret Hei and reach the south shore of Lake Kosogol, which is already in the territory of Mongolia proper. It was very unpleasant news. To the first Mongol post in Samgaltai was not more than sixty miles from our camp, while to Kosogol by the shortest line not less than two hundred seventy-five. The horses my friend and I were riding, after having traveled more than six hundred miles over hard roads and without proper food or rest, could scarcely make such an additional distance. But, reflecting upon the situation and studying my new fellow travelers, I determined not to attempt to pass the Tannu Ola. They were nervous, morally weary men, badly dressed and armed and most of them were without weapons. I knew that during a fight there is no danger so great as that of disarmed men. They are easily caught by panic, lose their heads and infect all the others. Therefore, I consulted with my friends and decided to go to Kosogol. Our company agreed to follow us. After luncheon, consisting of soup with big lumps of meat, dry bread and tea, we moved out. About two o’clock the mountains began to rise up before us. They were the northeast outspurs of the Tannu Ola, behind which lay the Valley of Buret Hei.