When Men Were Men
by Nikolaj Hajtov
(translated from Bulgarian by Michael Holman)

I was a right daredevil in my young days. Bold as brass and blood on the boil. Not big, just tough. A Martini-Henry barked from my shoulder, daggers in my belt - two and sometimes three — and a revolver here at my side. Everyone knew me, and when I took anything on, there was no messing about. If a bride needed stealing, it was me they called in. No time for cooings and wooings in those far-off days when men were men.

This neighbour of mine had took a fancy to a young lass in Nastan, and one day he called me round.

'What would be your price,' he asked, 'for getting her to the hodja?'

'A hundred levs each for me and my two mates, plus a couple of hundred extra for drink. Five hundred and she's yours.'

He agreed to it and a few days later off we went to Nastan. When us four strangers turned up in the village, the news soon got about. 'They're coming to get you,' the girl was warned. So she stayed inside. And her brother loaded his rifle. 'Just let them try!' he said. 'I'll blow their brains out!' A whole day we waited, then another, but still she didn't come out.

On the third day along came Shoukri, an old friend of mine from Nastan, and told us what's up. 'Look sharp!' he said. 'They've gone ploughing up at Blatnishte.' 'And the girl?' 'She's with them,' he said. All the better! Out there in the fields she wouldn't stand a chance. Her brother was a tough nut it's true, but there were four of us and only one of him.

We stocked up with wine and rakiya and crept off along the road to Blatnishte. When we got there we hid by a spring under some huge great pine trees and sat ourselves down to wait. Quite close the field was, so we could see them ploughing, the girl and her brother. 'How about a drop of rakiya?' I says to the others. 'She won't be taking them oxen of hers to the water till midday. We can grab her then.'

That's what I said anyway, but things turned out quite different. A young goatherd spotted us creeping around at the edge of the field, shinned up a pine tree and began yelling for help.

'He-e-e-ey ! Aga Sheba-a-a-an !' (Her brother was called Sheban just like me.j 'They're hiding in the hollow!' he yelled. 'They're after your sister! Watch ou-u-u-ut!'

'That's torn it,' I says to my mates. 'Come on, into the open!’

Her brother caught sight of us, shoved his sister behind him, grabbed his axe and stood there, waiting.

'Get you back where you came from!' he hollered. 'Or I'll have your guts for garters!' And he started pelting us with stones to keep us off. We kept moving forward though - it needed more than stones to stop us — and I hollered back at him:

'You haven't a chance! We'll wipe the floor with you! And if anybody's guts get used for garters, it'll be yours. Drop that axe,' I tells him, 'and scram! She won't come to no harm, your sister. She's coming to town with us.'

'Get back !' he yelled. 'Or I'll hammer your swedes!'

My mates went weak at the knees, but I kept going. One hand on my dagger, the other on my revolver.

'We'll see whose swedes get hammered,' I yelled back, and threw myself at him. Down came the axe - nearly took my head off, it did - but I jumped to one side, and it got me in the arm, just below me elbow. Clean through the sleeve it went, right to the bone. That was my left arm done for, so I grabbed him with my right. I got him round the neck and threw him on his back. Aye, I was tough in those days. There was no holding me! I pinned him down with my knee, grabbed hold of a lump of wood and clobbered him over the head. Split his head right open. Then I took off his sash and we tied him to a tree, so he couldn't move. Bandaged his head with the sash too, just like a turban. But when we got to looking for the girl we found she'd done a bunk. Scarpered. While we was dealing with her brother. What to do next?

I laid into the bridegroom. ‘Got eyes in your head, haven't you?' I shouted. 'What do you think they're for, you miserable donkey!'

Anyhow we hunted around a bit and found her in a copse of hornbeam. Lying there quiet as a mouse, with her veil pulled over her head. We pounced on her, but she fought like fury. Four against one it was, yet she gave as good as she got. In the end we caught her by the plaits and she gave in. Then we took her back to her brother in the field. He'd had enough and wanted us to untie him.

'Please let me go!' he begged. 'Please don't leave me to die tied to this tree! ‘

So we let him go. Took pity on him. You should have seen him run! Like greased lightning. He forgot his plough and his sister, and in a flash he'd disappeared in the hollow.

'All right then,' I says to our bride, 'come along my little rabbit, we're going to marry you to this fine young fellow here.'

To that little slobberchops ? Never!' she said, and spat in his face. 'You'll never catch me marrying him!'

We threw ourselves onto her again and started dragging her up the hill. She had other ideas, though. She didn't want to come at all. So we got hold of her nice thin plaits and yanked half of them out by the roots. She still wasn't having any. In the end we caught her by the arms and legs and heaved her up in the air. And we carried her like that, all arms and legs, right the way to the Djindjov pond. I've stolen a fair number of brides in my time, but never a woman like her! Tough, I'll say she was, and stubborn as a mule. But a fine piece of woman, broad in the beam and firm in the waist. Well stacked up front too, drive you wild just to look at it all. I could hardly keep my hands off her.

Once into the wood we turned off towards Grohotno. We was expecting her brother back with extra helpers chasing after us, so rather than take the direct route to Dyovlen we cut through the forest. We got tired of carrying our bride, so we put her down and took to dragging her instead. Her trousers got ripped to shreds. At one point the bridegroom was all for jacking it in.

'Might be better to let her go,' he says. 'She's a wild beast, not a woman.'

'What! So she can tell everyone how she got the better of us? You must be going soft in the head!' So off we went again, downhill this time, all the way to the river near Grohotno. We was wanting to turn off by Hamam Springs for Dyovlen, so we needed to get over t'other side. It wouldn't be easy though, not with the river almost bursting its banks and the water seething and frothing something awful. The nearest bridge was in the village, so that wasn't a lot of good to us. Like it or not, we'd have to take a dip. My two mates, the ones as was helping, they didn't fancy the idea, so they turned back. Scared of the water! Can't say the bride was too keen on a swim, neither. So I said to the bridegroom: 'Toss her over your shoulder,' I says. All very well, but she was a big lass and he hardly came up to her chin. Not built for 'tossing', he wasn't. So I told him to kneel down. 'Kneel down,' I says, 'and get her on your back.’ He knelt down, but still she wasn't having any. I tried to shove her onto him, but with my gammy arm, I couldn't budge her. She'd dug her heels in and wasn't moving. So out comes my dagger and up against her breast it went! 'Right,' I says, 'see if spilling a little blood won't help!' I presses the dagger and she bends back, I presses harder and she bends further, till she's lying right across the bridegroom's back. Then up he gets and into the river with her! Holding on tight now, she was - didn't have much choice.

'Keep going!' I yells, 'and don't turn round! I've got her feet!'

He took a couple of steps and then - oops! he tumbled into a hole and disappeared under the muddy water, bride and all. And I was left holding her stockings! 'Bloody hell!' I thinks, 'that's the end of our beautiful bride!' And I dives into the water after them. I wasn't a bad swimmer, so I wasn't afraid of water. But there wasn't only water in that river, there was rocks and bloody great lumps of wood as well! Terrible! One branch stabbed you in the belly, another cracked into your shoulder and a third nearly broke your back. If anybody's life needed saving, it was mine. With two hands I'd have been all right, but with only one. . . . Anyhow, I managed to get my teeth into the girl's leg, caught hold of a tree-root with my hand and heaved myself onto the bank. Two hours we lay there without a word, black and blue and numb with cold, with the moon looking down at us. ... Midday, it was, when we'd dealt with her brother, the whole afternoon we'd spent catching the girl and lugging her through the forest, and by the time we got to the last bit the moon was up. A good while we sat there.

Then I said to her, 'Come on,' I says, 'we'd best be getting along.'

But the girl still wasn't having any. 'I'm not moving from here!' she says. 'You can drown me in the river for all I care.'

So I tried being nice to her. 'Come along Emine, my little chicken. Don't make things difficult for us. We could get rough, you know. . . .'

Still it was 'No!' Then she started telling me about her brother being a robber over the border in Greece and how he'd shower me with gold if I let her go. Begged me to let her go, she did, because she'd never agree to marry that little wretch over there, so I might as well give up trying to make her.

The bridegroom, he'd properly got the wind up. Sitting and waiting, and looking to me for help.

'Up you get,' I says to her again. 'It's marriage for you, my girl! To this fine young man here.'

'Him? Never! Fine young man indeed! Let me go! You can kill me, but I'm not moving from here.'

Then I got out my revolver and pointed it straight at her.

'Eight's my score so far - you'll be number nine. On your feet, I say, or you'll be joining the rest!'

That scared her, and she got up. On and on we walked, and soon it started getting light. I could see we'd already passed Hamam Springs and were going down Crooked Hill towards Dyovlen. All night we'd been walking, up hill and down dale, through bushes and bracken till we was properly tousled and tangled. It was all right for us men to walk about in rags - or in nothing at all for that matter - but the girl couldn't be seen in town looking like that.

So I had a word with the bridegroom.

'You get along and bring her some clothes,' I says. 'We can't go taking her into Dyovlen all dog-eared and torn.'

But he took me to one side and started whispering in my ear:

'Fine,' he says, 'but how about leaving us on our own for a moment. So I can try a bit of the old charm like, to soften her up.'

'Why not,' I says, and a bit further on I loosened me belt and called over to him. 'You keep going,' I says. 'Got something I must see to - call of nature.'

They went on, and I stayed back. I kept an eye on them though. A bit further up the road they stopped. It looked like the bridegroom said something to her and then he trips her up, throws himself on top of her and tries to get her legs apart. But she isn't having no nonsense. She bends her knees and gives an almighty kick. Arse over head goes the bridegroom — one, two, three somersaults in the air, I can't rightly remember how many it was. You stupid young twerp, I thought to meself. Shouldn't go messing around if you don't know how. Anyhow, I caught them up and off we went once more. I sent the bridegroom to fetch the clothes, and me and Emine, we sat ourselves down just above Dyovlen to wait for him to come back. She was glaring at me, real wild.

'What's the big idea, letting that little driveller come slobbering over me?' she says. 'I won't have him! Kill me, if you want, but I'm not going to Dyovlen!'

'Oh yes you are,' I tells her, 'I'll make damn sure of it! Getting paid good money for it, I am.'

'You'll get your money, all right,' she says. 'My brother will give you all the gold you need. You just let me go, that's all I ask."

'No,' I says, 'I've promised, and promises are something money won't buy. You're going with me to Dyovlen!'

'With you,' she says, 'I'd go anywhere. But I'm not going nowhere with him!'

'Good God!' I thought, 'that's quite a change of tune!' Got a wife at home, I had, but this little piece was something special. White as milk and eyes like two daggers searing your flesh! And those breasts! Two great mountains of fire sizzling through her blouse!

'Do you want to?' she asked. 'Take me then!' It was a sin, but it was sweet, my friend! I up-ended her on one side of the meadow, and we was right over yon side by the time we was through. Not a blade of grass left standing. 'So far, so good,' I says to meself. 'But where do we go from here? If you keep her for yourself, you'll bring shame upon your trade. If you give her the push, it'll be like a knife in her heart.'

She could see I was having second thoughts. 'Well, am I going with you?' she asks, with those eyes boring into me. Got me on the hook, she had, bloody woman' It's times like that two hearts come in handy -one for honour and the other for love. But however much you hack it and slash it, the damned thing will never split'

In the end I plumped for honour and I told her ;

'You're not coming with me,' I says. 'You're going with him! . . . And that's that!'

'Not with him, I'm not!' she says. 'Oh yes you are!' I tells her.

'Never!' And she made a run for it. She was looking into my eyes one minute, and the next she'd scarpered. I threw myself flat and grabbed hold of her foot. And before I could get up or turn round, she was off, curving and twisting like a regular whirlwind, dragging me after her, over the stones and through thorns and prickles. She threshed the whole field with me, poor lass, but I'd hooked on to that ankle and I wasn't letting go. In the end she tripped and fell, all foaming at the mouth. I'd taken quite a bashing too, but there was nothing I could do about it. So we sat ourselves down and had a little rest. Then I said to her:

'Well, now are you going?' I says. 'Ouf! Do what you like with me !' she says. A bit later the bridegroom turned up again. We got the girl dressed and set off for Dyovlen. Over the bridge, and we'd be home and dry, as they say. Another good job done, I thinks to myself, that's the life for me! Bring out the flags!

No, not flags, not yet awhile, my friend. . . .! Just coining up to the bridge, we were, when some character with his jacket pulled over his head jumped out and started screaming at us.

'Stop! One step further and I'll blow your brains out!' There was a dirty great gun staring me in the face not ten paces away. And a bandaged head as well. Aha! I thought, her brother again. He must have known we'd be coming over the bridge into Dyovlen, so he'd been waiting for us by the river. My neighbour the bridegroom was walking along behind and when he saw what was up, in a flash he was over the hedge. That left me standing there in the middle of the road. One arm in a sling and my revolver right round the back where I couldn't reach it. He'd blast me to kingdom come, that devil would, before I'd be able to get anywhere near it.

'Stay where you are!' he shouted, pointing his gun straight at me, and moving forward to grab his sister. And then, believe this if you will, that young sister of his, who we'd spent all night hauling through the bushes and tearing to shreds, went and jumped in between us! All on her own, with no help from me.

With my good hand I grabbed her round the waist and called out to her brother:

'One step further and we'll be in the river, me and your sister!'

Down below that old river was boiling away something terrible! He froze in his tracks. Backwards we went, step by step, me and his sister, across the bridge to the other side. I'd got her real tight - I wasn't letting her go this time! And all he could do was stand there and gawp. No chase, no shooting, no nothing. . . .! It was the first time in my life I'd seen a real live mummy. White as a sheet, all the blood gone out of his face, standing there like a lump of stone. Then he threw down his gun, put his hand over his eyes and began to blubber. I'd never seen a man blubber. That was the first time. ... I felt like giving his sister back to him and moving out, but that wouldn't have done no good- After all, what you want to do and what you can do is two different things - not the same at all, they aren't. . . .

So in the end we got her to Dyovlen. We took her straight to the hodja to get her wed.

'Woman,' he says, 'will you take this man to be your husband?'

'Him? Never!'

Then the hodja too began cursing her. 'Good God ! You are a stubborn wench! You get yourself torn to shreds, and still you won't say yes. Sheban, take her back to the forest and leave her there for a while. Maybe that will knock some sense into her head.'

That scared her, and she gave in. They were wedded on the spot. . . .

Two months and a bit they stayed together, that's all. One day round came Emine to see my old woman. 'Why don't you take me to the fields with you?' she says. 'So you can teach me to sow maize.' Her husband had let her out. (It was the first time - he hadn't let her out before.) So off she went with my old woman to learn how to sow maize. My old woman came back alone, without the lass from Nastan. She'd got across the river and cleared off back to her village.

A short while later word came that she wanted to speak to me. I went to see her, and this is what she said:

'Help me to get shot of that driveller, and I'll give you whatever you want,' she says. 'What will you give me?' I asks. 'Two gold coins,' she answers, 'material enough for three pairs of leggings, and some leather for tsuruoulis. . .. That's what she said she'd give me.

'If that's your offer,' I says, 'the job's as good as done!'

Then I went back to Dyovlen and had a word with my neighbour. 'Why not throw her over and be done with it?' I says to him. 'Whatever you do, she'll never come back of her own free will. If you want her back, we'll have to go stealing her again, like we did last time.' 'Not on your life!' he says. 'I'm not going through all that again, even if I stay a bachelor the rest of my days.' 'If that's how you feel,' I says to him, 'give her up as a bad job. We'll see if we can't steal you another - meek and mild - one you can get along with, like.'

'And what will be your price this time?'

'A hundred each for me and my two mates, and a couple of hundred for drink. Five hundred in all.'

'Very well!' he says. 'And you can go and tell that wild beast in Nastan that I'm through with her.'

'That you'll have to do yourself,' I tells him. 'Come along to Nastan with me and get the hodja to divorce you. Then you can do what you please.'

So we went back to Nastan, got him divorced, and later we fetched him another one. Money for jam, it was, not like the first time: a tug at her plaits and she was meek as a mouse. . . .

And the first one, she gave me the two gold coins and the other things she said. ... A fair number of women I've stolen in my time, my friend, but that little vixen left the rest standing. Really got under my skin, she did. A whole lot of woman whichever way you grabbed her!

. . . Still I remember and regret the day I lost her. But as I said once before, what you want to do and what you can do is two different things - not the same at all, they aren't. . .