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Hovhannes Tumanian: The Bet

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THE BET

1

Where the mountains meet they form a large gorge named Moot Dzor. Moot Dzor separates the Armenians from the Turks. On one side the Turkish nomads pitch their tents on the slopes, on the other the Armenians. But their bold young men steal across the deep gorge in the darkness of night and lift one another’s sheep, and drive away horses, cows and oxen. Overtaking the thieves in the pastures, the shepherds fall on them with staves. From time to time one hears a shrill drawn-out call spreading from one of the mountain sides. “He-e-e-lp!” And that ominous cry echoes over the mountains and immediately both sides are up in arms.


2

A Turk, Hapic-ogli by name, had put up his tent and made camp on one side of Moot Dzor. He gazed arrogantly and threateningly at the Armenians opposite. His men were the most notorious thieves in those mountains. Outlaws took refuge in his place and gangs of bandits passing through the mountains found hospitality under his roof.

3

One evening, he was reclining in his tent, talking with his usual guests—well-known robbers passing through the mountains. “Strange that your lads should leave those Armenians there in peace,” ventured one of the guests, a Kurd. “They’re none too easy to deal with,” replied the host. “What, them!?” “That’s right, them. There is a shepherd among them called Chati. I’ll call brave the man who challenges him single-handed,” said Hapic-ogli. “Pooh!” the bandit exclaimed scornfully and jerked upright touched to the quick. “What will you give me if I see to it that he does not see the light of another day and no smoke rises on yonder side in the morning?” “The blue horse goes as the reward!” “Your hand on it.” They shook hands and the bet was concluded.

4

The nights in Moot Dzor are terribly dark. That night was pitch black and a steady rain was falling. The Armenian camp was asleep. Now and then the shepherds’ faint calls were heard from here and there, indicating that they were alert. In the middle of the night there came a pounding of hoofs past the tents. The dogs barked and started in pursuit, the sheep bolted, the horses ran away, and the cattle dispersed. The shepherds shouted for help, guns spat fire, and all these terrors and shrieks mixing with the darkness, the torrential downpour and the thunder made it a truly infernal night. “They’ve drawn away the dogs. Protect the camp!” roared Chati, the giant shepherd. The cry “They’ve drawn away the dogs!” was taken up and echoed on all sides and terror seized the camp. For in the mountains everybody knows only too well what “They’ve drawn away the dogs” means. It is customary for one or two bandits to first break into a camp and scare the sheep, horses and cattle and create panic. The dogs give chase, and are thus led far away from the camp. Then, with the camp in turmoil and the dogs gone, their accomplices attack and take advantage of the confusion and the darkness to make off with the animals. The second attack was not long in coming, and a great commotion ensued. Fire-arms went into action, everything got confused in the darkness, and pandemonium broke loose in the valley. Nothing was visible in the pitch darkness. The lightning flashes would illuniinate the terrible scene for an instant, but the hunian eye could not discern anything in the chaos. Eyes could not see, but the reports of gunfire and the shepherds’ cries indicated the direction of the chase. By and by those sounds also receded, dwindled and died away. The rain continued steadily and the clouds cracked and rumbled over the distant mountains.

5

At daybreak the lads returned. From the distance their cheerful talk and peals of laughter could be heard through thick mist. They brought the cattle back safe and sound and then gathered together in the tent of Chati the shepherd to have breakfast. They had brought with them a Kurdish tunic, shield and sword. Soon the news spread that the boys had killed a Kurd, and curious mountaineers crowded in and about the tent. Chati’s mother was cooking a meal on the fire for the hungry shepherds and droning to herself: “My son, the fellow may have a mother, too... My son, his mother may be expecting him now... My son, she will say her son has not returned... My son, she will wait and he’ll not come...” Other women joined her, shaking their heads. Meanwhile the shepherds were recounting what had happened. “We grouped together from all sides and drove them down into the hollow. As we cornered them there, they left the livestock and took to their heels to a man. I pursued one and drove him up against a steep rock. Seeing there was no escape, he turned round, drew his sword and charged me crying: ‘Away! or I’ll cut you in two.’ Cut me in two, will you!? I whirled my cudgel, and struck him such a whacking blow on the shoulder!” “Bravo!” cried the listeners. “And he crashed to the ground,” said Chati bringing his story to an end. There was a peel of delighted laughter from the mountaineers.

6

A few weeks had passed since the event when one day the dogs barked violently. People came out and found an old Kurd calling from below the camp. “What do you want, good man?” “I want the tent of the shepherd Chati,” said the Kurd. He was brought to the tent. Chati put food before the guest. They made small talk until the old man had eaten his fill. When the Kurd had done, Chati asked: “I hope all is well. ‘What brings you here, good man?” “Some weeks ago a young Kurd was killed here,” said the old man. “That’s right,” replied the shepherd. “They say you killed him.” “That’s right, I did.” “I am his father,” said the old man. “I have come to tell you that you acted justly and fairly. You did not kill him on the road from an ambush. You did not kill him in the midst of flock. You did not kill him in his own home.... How many times did I tell him, ‘My son, lay off, stop all this mischief, give up those mates of yours. People have not toiled for you to loot....’ He did not listen to me. Evidently, such was his fate,” said the Kurd and then lowered his head and fell silent. “May you remain firm in your faith, for you speak fair,” the mountaineers voiced from all sides and then were quiet. “You have acted fairly,” went on the old man raising a thick voice from the bottom of his heart. “Only his mother. Wcll she is his mother after all.... She is eating her heart out.... Give me his clothes. Let me take them to her to shed her tears on, quench her longing and put her heart at peace. Chati produced the blood-stained tunic, shield and sword and handed them over to the old man. Then he presented him with a sheep, accompanied him past the dogs, and saw him off. “Well, good-bye, my boy,” said the old Kurd and left. “Fare thee well, good man!”