Captain Ramon Borgia sat like a hawk perched atop his stallion. His long beak-like nose added to his predatory figure. He grinned carnivorously as his piercing eye glared through his spyglass. Down the mountain along the coast stood the last remnant of the Russian Empire in all of California. A tiny fishing town of Indians and Russians. Piterskaya gorka, it was called; Peter's Hill, named for the hill on which St. Peter was crucified. Borgia chuckled, figuring it was in honor of what the natives did to their earliest missionaries. Crucifixion would have been mercy!
A shabby, run-down village of crude huts. The only structure that seemed vaguely well-kept was the domed Orthodox church in the town's center. Borgia spat in disgust. A blight on the face of California! He took sadistic comfort knowing his men and he would put the heretic temple to the torch and its heathen acolytes to the business ends of their lances.
"Captain, I beg of you! Should we not be traveling south to attack the Americans?" Borgia hissed a sigh as he lowered his spyglass and turned to his lieutenant.
"All in good time, Lieutenant Jose-Marie," he forced a smile. Trying very hard not to show his frustration, and failing. "We must first remove this old, festering thorn from our sides before turning to our latest interlopers."
"But Captain, these people have bothered no one for decades!" insisted his younger, more pious, subordinate. "Their government abandoned them! Even the Americans have shunned them. Most of them are not even Russians but Indians, or else half-breeds! They don't even keep guns! What few of them hunt in the woods mostly use bows and arrows!" Borgia's fists clenched so tight he worried he might break his spyglass.
"Your compassion is touching, Lieutenant," he growled, trying to make it sound like a purr. "But of little use in a time of war!" he barked. Jose-Marie and the other lancers behind him were taken aback. Their horses whinnied and shuffled. Borgia's eyes were wild with fury and blood-lust. Even in their dashing, blue uniforms and clutching spears twice as tall as men, their commander's wrath still terrified them.
"These vodka-swilling DOGS should have been gone years ago!" he paused to look past his lieutenant at the hundred mounted men gathered atop the ridge. "Imagine the glory! Imagine the FAME we would win by driving the last of Imperial Russia from our sacred land, then swinging south to join Castro against President Polk's PIGS! We will be the heroes of California! NO! Champions of all MEXICO!" He roared, raising his lance high. A deafening cheer went up as his men mimicked his bravado.
Only Lt. Jose-Marie grimaced in disappointment, self-aware of how cowardly it made him look. To attack that village was not war, but wanton cruelty. Nothing short of murder! But Mexico was at war, California had been invaded, and he was a soldier. A soldier obeys his orders and does his duty. So moments later when Borgia spurred his mount and galloped for the path down the mountain, he followed along with the rest. Though he did not add to the cacophony of wild cheers and screams. Themselves barely audible over the rumbling roar of their horses hooves.
* * *
Peter Volka looked down upon his beloved wife's remains in the casket. Even in death his sweet Natasha was lovely as ever. A ray of sunlight shone through a high window and beamed down on her rave hair. If not for her copper complexion she might have been mistaken for a Russian, though only half on her father's side. The church was crowded with mourners, mostly Indians. She was the joy of his life, the light of his day. And had been the same to many in the village. He was not the only one who had lost someone, but the only one to have lost everything!
Volka and Father Ivan were the only full-blooded Russians left in the village of Peter's Hill. When the rest of the Russian-American Company pulled up stakes and left for Alaska, he had chosen to stay with his wife and her people. The townsfolk had all long-since converted to Orthodoxy and Father Ivan refused to abandon his flock. So there they were.
Volka was an old man, over fifty; though still lean and in fine shape. His milky-white hair and lined skin told a long and tragic tale. He had left Russia as an orphan to become a trapper. Had fought in Indian wars, been clawed by cougars, mauled by a bear, pierced by arrows, cleaved by tomahawks, and shot many times. Yet still he endured and thrived in spite of the odds against him in the American Northwest. Then, a mere ten years ago, a much younger woman saw good in him. Even as he stood trembling over her casket in the church he could not fathom what it was she saw that made him worthy of her. It had been a happy marriage, though she proved barren and gave him no sons. He had been confident she would find a man to give her many children when he was gone. A nasty fever had other plans.
The old trapper had seen men lose wives. He had seen them lose brothers, fathers, and even children. He lost his wife and had no children; none would be left to mourn him. He tried to say a prayer as he returned to his pew for Fr. Ivan to finish the service, but no words came out. He wanted to sob but no tears came. Even as his neighbors lined up to carry Natasha's casket out to the graveyard outside of town.
He was numb as frostbite when he rose to his feet and followed the procession out of the church. Felt no warmth from the sun as they exited the building. Fr. Ivan's words of comfort were only faint echoes as they walked. Volka barely even felt the rumble of hooves beneath his feet. A sudden cry went up, the blast of a pistol, and Natasha's casket cracked and splintered on the ground as the townsfolk scattered.
The priest and the widower froze in unison. Volka's gaze never left the shattered casket, or the limp, delicate hand protruding from the side of it. He noticed the mounted lancers in his peripheral vision, as he did the body of the murdered Indian who had received the pistol shot moments ago. Fr. Ivan began shouting his objections, some of them in words a priest should not use. All around him the world had descended into chaos.
Running women and children scampered for shelter only to be trampled by hooves, impaled on lances, or downed by pistol shots. A woman with an infant in her arms had just made it through the door of her hut when a lance skewered mother and child alike. Some of the men emerged from their homes with bows to loose some desperate arrows, few found their mark. One old Indian brandished a rusted old musket and leveled it at a Mexican with a hooked nose and fancier uniform than the others. He pulled the trigger only for it to explode in his hands. The old man wailed in agony, his fingers mangled and his eyes gouged by powder and metal. The big-nosed officer, who had frozen in terror when he saw the weapon pointed at him, gave a hearty laugh before ending the Indian's misery with a swift thrust of his lance.
To Volka, it was a scene all-too-familiar. He had seen many of such massacres by Russian trappers and Indians, he had even taken part in some; to his everlasting shame. Memories of the slaughter of the innocents at Sitka in the Sappling Fort flashed before his eyes, his earliest experience in America. Neither Russian trappers nor Indian braves were much interested in taking prisoners on the warpath. Such was the life he had chosen as a boy. Such was the life he had hoped and prayed he had left behind. Such was the life that found it's way back to him.
* * *
Borgia reigned his mount to a halt before a shattered coffin in the dirt outside the town's church. A dozen of his men had rallied with him, including the melancholy Lt. Jose-Marie, who had yet to fire his weapon, and his lance was still shiny and clean. Not only was Borgia's lance dripping with blood, but he was down to his last bullet. Which he paused to load into his pistol as the Russian clergyman unleashed a storm of obscenity and vulgarity that was unbecoming of any priest. The old priest's Spanish was barely understandable, but Borgia could tell he was calling him a Philistine and his soldiers Pharaoh's army, and assuring him they would meet the same fate as both Biblical menaces.
The two figures before him and his men were a most bizarre pair. The priest wore thick and elaborate robes and a beard so long and thick his mouth was barely visible! Beside him was another bearded figure. Short, old, and clad in buckskins; most likely a trapper. Borgia snickered, at the elderly frontiersman, whose gaze was locked upon the broken casket at his mount's feet. Doubtless a senile simpleton. Fur trappers were a dying breed whose success had spelled their own doom as the beaver population dwindled. Some of the Americans invading California to the south were even trappers. It would be a pleasure to kill yet another foreign interloper who sought to exploit Mexican soil for it's wealth!
"Lt. Jose-Marie, kill this loud-mouth priest!" Borgia sighed in annoyance. As he suspected, his subordinate turned to him in wide-eyed horror.
"Captain! He is a priest!"
"A HEATHEN PRIEST!" Borgia roared. "A HERETIC! AND AN ENEMY OF CALIFORNIA AND ALL OF MEXICO!" he paused to catch his breath and eye the rest of his men. All were staring at Jose-Marie with contempt. "That is a direct order, Lieutenant. Now DO IT!" Borgia eyed the priest and noticed for the first time that the old trapper was now looking at him. Something about his eyes made him feel uneasy. He turned his glare back to Jose-Marie, still gaping in speechless shock. Borgia thumbed back the hammer of his pistol and his glare blazed even hotter over his hawk-like nose. "If you refuse," he growled. "I will take it as desertion in the face of the enemy."
Lt. Jose-Marie's eyes fell as his pistol-hand went up. With a deep breath he took aim for the priest, who had now gone silent and crossed himself. He met the lieutenant's pitiful gaze of remorse with sternness. The soldier had his orders, but both knew it was no excuse. His thumb shakily went up to pull back the hammer, but folded back down in defeat. His pistol-arm slumped to his side.
"Captain, I beg of you! Spare his life!" The lieutenant was cut off by the blast of Borgia's pistol. Jose-Marie's body fell limp from the saddle.
"Filthy coward!" Borgia spat. "A disgrace to California!" He smirked darkly as the enlisted men around him huffed laughs of agreement. With a swift upward motion, his left hand went up with his lance and buried its tip in the priest's throat. An instant later he retracted it and the clergyman fell dead. The old trapper, who seemed to be in a trance until that moment, suddenly drew up his hand and with the flick of the wrist sent a small knife flying into Borgia's throat. The captain dropped both weapons to grasp his neck. Desperate to stem the tide of warm blood but knowing it was in vain. With the last of his strength he eyed his shocked soldiers, thrust his finger towards his killer and gasped. Mouthing the words "kill him!" before toppling from his horse.
* * *
Volka acted quickly. The moment Borgia hit the dirt he drew both pistols behind his back, hidden by the folds of his buckskin coat. He fired both at the two nearest lancers, downing both. The sudden ruckus caused the horses to kick and whinny, which bought Volka precious time. Flipping the pistols in his hands to hold them by the barrels, he swung them up and flung them at the heads of two other foes. The solid wood and iron struck both men in the sides of their faces, near the eyes. A faint cracking noise was heard from both before they fell. Sensing the pistols training on him, Volka rolled aside as several shots peppered the ground where he was standing. He dove for Jose-Marie's body, retrieved the lieutenant's loaded pistol and stood in time to fire in unison with another attacker. The lancer's shot missed, Volka's didn't.
Having sensed a flanking foe, the trapper allowed the momentum of the pistol shot to spin him around to catch the lance of a galloping Mexican with his hands and deflect its tip. He then shifted his weight, dragged the man from his horse and slammed him to the ground with a thud. Not taking any chances, he took the spent pistol by the barrel and caved the fallen enemy's skull. Another warlike cry in Spanish caused Volka to rise, draw his tomahawk, dodge another lance-thrust and bury the head of his weapon in the belly of a lancer before dragging him to the ground. He ripped the tomahawk from the fallen foe's gut only to cleave his skull to the teeth.
Yet another lancer came galloping with spear at the ready. Volka snatched up his latest victim's pistol, took aim, and fired. Metal clicked, but no explosion. Empty! Mere seconds before the lance should have skewered him, he chucked the empty pistol at the lancer's head. It knocked him over backwards, swinging the lance high and out of his grasp as he fell. Volka caught the lance in midair, strode to the fallen lancer, swiftly inserted and retracted the tip from his heart, then spun to dodge and impale another attacking lancer.
A pistol shot rang out and a bullet zipped past Volka's head. He turned to heave the long lance at his oncoming foe. It struck home and sent him flying from his horse. Volka's foot struck something and he looked down to see he had circled back to Borgia's corpse. In a fluent motion he knelt to retrieve his knife from the captain's throat then rose to deflect an oncoming lance with his tomahawk and slice the attacker's belly with his knife. More lancers took notice of him and charged gallantly to their deaths.
Around the village, the tide began to turn. The Mexican attackers watched in horror as a single, elderly man in buckskins slaughtered an increasing number of their comrades. The defenders watched in awe as their neighbor, an old man, felled one foe after another. The Indians took heart and fought back in the defense of their homes and loved ones with renewed vigor. They cheered in defiance and loosed even more arrows. More of them found home. One very fat Mexican sergeant with a particularly bloody lance was soon perforated with arrows and fell to resemble a large blue porcupine.
All of while more lancers fell to Volka's tomahawk and knife. At times he looted pistols from fallen enemies. At times they were even loaded. But even unloaded flintlock pistols could still be deadly missiles. Eventually the hundred lancers Borgia had led into the village had been whittled down to less than twenty! Spanish cries of "RETREAT!" went up and the few remaining lancers wheeled to gallop for their lives. Arrows caught a few more as they fled. Soon they were only a trail of dust streaking up the mountain.
A cheer went up from the men of the village, men raised their hands and roared triumphantly in Russian. Some even approached Volka as he stood dazed in the street. He regarded the greetings, cheers, and pats on the shoulder mechanically. But soon the men's eyes fell on the carnage, and the jovial cheer faded to somber silence. So many had died. Many husbands were made widowers, many wives made widows. Couples childless, sons and daughters orphaned. The ruthless interlopers had spared no one. Sobs, cries, and prayers went up across the town. Wounded were tended to as best they could, the dead were gathered to be carried to the graveyard. The lancers were piled in a field outside town and left for carrion. With his neighbors busy with their own departed loved ones, it fell to Volka to scoop Natasha up in his arms one last time, carry her to the cemetery and bury her.
Few slept as the sun set on that sorrowful day. Volka sat in silence at the door of the church until sun-up. Anticipating another raid. About an hour after daylight hooves thundered down the mountain and the entire town readied for another onslaught. Volka cried out for the men to hold their fire as he recognized the approaching riders. They were not Mexicans but Americans. About a hundred of them, none in uniform, all armed, and waving a flag with what looked like a bear stenciled on it. Volka greeted their leader as he reigned his horse to a halt in front of him. A burly man in buckskins and a coon-skin cap. Likely a fellow trapper.
"We see you boys have had you a Mexican problem," the leader said.
"We have," Volka replied in English.
"Seems you can handle yourselves," he paused to look back at his men. They all exchanged glances and nodded before their leader turned back to Volka. "Care to join us and help give the Mexicans a Bear problem?" he finished with a wink.
Volka turned to the men of the village and translated. Their hard stares gave him the answer. He turned back to the American leader and nodded.