Dragon's Heart

The Trans-Siberian Express reached the shores of Lake Baikal the next day. Forty miles wide, the lake stretched five hundred miles to the north. In the past, the train had continued on tracks laid across the frozen waters in winter, and on ferries in summer. Now, it traveled around the southern edge by means of tunnels dynamited through the mountainous shoreline.
Sunset colored the snowy hills with ravishing hues when the train stopped at Ulan-Ude for the overland connection to Mongolia on the eastern shore.
Romelle and her party boarded the first in a convoy of three troika sledges equipped with hoods for protection from the cold. The few other passengers, all bound for Russian settlements along the way, occupied the other two. Thick sable lap robes were provided for needed warmth.
Each pulled by three sturdy horses, the troikas set out as late winter's early night closed in. They traveled for two nights and a day, stopping only to rest, feed and water the horses. They dined inside the sledges on hard cheese, herring in thick cream, and wine. Nearly everyone but Romelle drank vodka to ward off the piercing cold, although none appeared to be inebriated. Romelle never saw Chavadzy take a drink.
On the first day, their trail ascended through high mountains crowded with pine forests. The Cossacks loudly thanked God for clear weather and no sudden snows. On the second morning, they descended. Romelle awakened at dawn to the racket of sledge runners scraping through shallow snow covering a rocky surface as they came to a treeless waste.
They were transferred from the sledges at the edge of this plain to springless, horse-drawn vehicles of a type known as a tarantass. These would carry them to Kiakhta, the last Russian town before the frontier.
At noontime, the party halted at a primitive posting house, no more than a large log cabin, where they warmed themselves at the fire. Tea was served from an enormous samovar on a buffet generously covered with more cheese, creamed herring, and bottles of vodka and wine. A welcome addition was fresh loaves of steaming hot bread soaked with butter. Romelle tried it, but the butter reeked. Rebel ate all of hers.
Shortly thereafter, they set out again on the road, a wilderness track lately improved by the government along part of an old fur-trappers' trail known for generations as the Kupetski Trace.
The lighter tarantass was less comfortable than the troika sledge, but Romelle's discomfort was somewhat compensated for by her first sight of a caravan from China. It was bearing a cargo of tea and spices to the Trans-Siberian Railway for shipment to the Europe.
Everything began to have what Brad termed a "Mongolian" look, from the people who hailed them in villages of huts along the way to the exotic trappings of the horses and mules of the multiplying caravans.
The last night, they crossed a wide, frozen river in the moonlight - the great Selenga.
Fifty meters from the opposite shore, the tarantass occupied by Romelle and Brad began to vibrate. The horses whinnied and reared, giving the wagon a violent wrench. The two passengers tumbled about inside. Rebel barked frantically, fighting his way from under a shifting pile of sables.
Chavadzy and Orlov, wedged together in one wagon with the other three Cossacks behind, suffered the same surprise. In a body, they jumped free of their tarantass. One Cossack helped the driver loose their horses from the triple yoke. Another snatched poles anchored to the sides of the wagon for just such an occasion.
"The ice is breaking up!" Romelle heard Chavadzy shout. "Get out of there!"
Romelle's driver was already unyoking their horses when Chavadzy came to his aid. Suddenly, Orlov was in the tarantass, sweeping Romelle upward, leaping with her to the ice. Brad was close behind, with Rebel in his arms. The third Cossack slid to his side and snatched Rebel away.
"Stay with me, Lieutenant!" Chavadzy yelled. "Madame, stay close to Orlov. Watch us. Do as we do."
The horses freed, Chavadzy vaulted nimbly on to one of them. Brad sprang up behind him. They stood like circus riders. One Cossack tossed Chavadzy a pole.
Orlov helped Romelle to mount before doing so himself. He stood, like Chavadzy, and gave Romelle his hand. His strong grip lifted her like a feather. She clung to his waist, steadying with a foot on the horse's rump.
"Follow!" shouted Chavadzy.
The ice was breaking into floes beneath them.
With one hand, Chavadzy held the reins tautly, ordering Brad to grip him firmly around the waist. Their horse plunged into the water. With the pole, Chavadzy balanced himself like a master of the tightrope, swimming the beast the short distance to shore.
"That was an extraordinary feat," said Brad admiringly when they dismounted. "I used to ride with a Marine cavalry unit, but I never saw anything like that!"
"An old Cossack trick," explained Chavadzy proudly. "I once trained with a unit of Don Cossacks in the Crimea. They swim their horses across flooded rivers that way, poling like boats."
The rest of the party was close behind. Somewhat to Chavadzy's chagrin, Orlov and Romelle were perfectly dry, whereas he and Brad were soaking wet. The point was not lost on Orlov, who jumped down with Romelle in his arms, his face a study in triumph.
Rebel arrived in a state of high dudgeon, doubtless feeling he could have swum it alone instead of being stuffed into the chest of the belted greatcoat worn by his Cossack. He looked for Romelle, and was not happy to find her standing with Orlov.  

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