Chapter 4          The King of the Bandits
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Chapter Four

The King of the Bandits

Dawn broke across the sky like an angry purple welt. Chaim Tomashov peered out of the window of his carriage as it clattered through the drowsy cobbled streets of Kasimierz and out into the countryside.

Reb Mendel rose to find his host gone without explanation, only a message that he would not return before nightfall. Reb Mendel spent most of the day in synagogue studying and praying. When he returned darkness had already fallen over Krakow, but Chaim Tomashov had still not returned. Malka Tomashov, however, seemed completely unperturbed. Towards midnight she suggested that they all go to sleep. There was no point in waiting up for him.

The following morning, as soon as he opened his eyes, Reb Mendel washed his hands and rushed to the window. The stars in the sky were just beginning to fade away. Chaim Tomashov’s mud-splattered carriage stood in the street below. The horses had been unhitched and taken away in the middle of the night. Reb Mendel dressed quickly and tiptoed down the stairs so as not to waken the sleeping household.

“Good morning, Reb Mendel,” the hearty voice of Chaim Tomashov called from the kitchen. “Come in here.”

Reb Mendel stepped into the kitchen and was immediately surrounded by the strong aroma of freshly brewed tea. Chaim Tomashov was sitting at the table, sipping from a steaming cup.

“We were very worried about you last night, Reb Chaim,” said Reb Mendel as he sat down at the table.

His worried eyes searched Chaim Tomashov’s face for a sign of news. Any news.

“Oh, there was no need to worry. I often come back late when I am out buying cattle. Did my wife seem worried to you?”

“No, she didn’t,” admitted Reb Mendel.

“Reb Mendel, I’ve thought it over, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the bandits who abducted your child were from this region. If Mzlateslavski had sent ruffians all the way from Pulichev he could have pointed you out to them in Pulichev. He wouldn’t have had to send along that scarlet packet to identify you.”

“That sounds reasonable.”

“I have arranged for us to meet with Boris Gopurok in his hideout. We leave tonight.”

“Boris Gopurok! The killer and plunderer? What can we gain from that?”

“He is the most powerful bandit in this part of Poland. They call him the King of the Bandits. If anyone around here knows what happened to Shloimele he does. He owes me a favor. Are you prepared for some rough traveling?”

“I’ll go anywhere and do anything if there’s even the slightest chance that it will help me find my Shloimele.”

The early winter frost stung at their ears as they slipped out of the house in the gathering evening shadows. They walked briskly for about an hour across the open fields to the south of Kasimierz.

Presently, they came to a small stream that flashed and glistened with reflected moonlight as it coursed down from the wooded hills in the distance. They followed the stream until they came to an ancient gnarled oak.

Chaim Tomashov abruptly sat down and motioned to Reb Mendel to follow suit. Reb Mendel sank down wearily and leaned back against the oak.

After a few minutes, a pair of shadowy figures appeared out of the darkness. They approached stealthily.

“Who are you?” one of them asked.

“I am Tomashov.”

“Whom do you wish to see?”


“Were you asked to come or do you come of your own accord?”

“I have sent a message to Gopurok. We have permission to come.”

“What is the signal word?”

“Wisdom lies in a sharpened sword.”

“Who is the other?”

“He is my guest.”

“Are you armed?”

“We are unarmed.”

“Jan, go see if they are armed.”

The second shadowy figure approached and looked them over closely. He then retraced his steps and whispered something to his companion.

“You may come along,” the first one said.

He led them into the forest. A short walk brought them to a rough track. An old cart pulled by tow horses waited for them there.

Reb Mendel and Chaim Tomashov were blindfolded and their wrists tightly bound. They were put into the well of the cart. One of the bandits snapped the reins, and the cart started up the track.

The cart was a ghostly form bumping and lurching over one rutted track after the other as its passengers sat in silence. The chill of the night air made them shiver. Low hanging branches brushed against their faces. Every once in a while, they were startled by the hooting of an owl or the sound of a forest animal scurrying into the underbrush after being surprised on its nocturnal outing.

Finally, the cart came to a stop. The blindfolds were removed from their eyes, and their wrists were untied.

They looked about them. They were in a large moonlit clearing. They pulled themselves out of the cart and stretched their sore limbs.

“Come quickly,” said the driver. “Gopurok awaits you.”

The driver hurried to the edge of the clearing and disappeared up a rocky slope. Reb Mendel and Chaim Tomashov scrambled after him. The other bandit stayed behind to keep watch.

At the top of the slope, hidden by a small stand of scrub trees, there was an entrance to a cave. The driver lit a torch and entered the cave, the others close behind him. The cave was dark and damp. It seemed to be deep, extending far into the hillside. The footsteps of the small group echoed soggily as they continued into the belly of the cave. The rapid flapping of bats’ wings echoed down from the distant roof.

A massive door loomed up ahead of them and blocked their way. The driver knocked sharply on the door three times, waited a moment, then knocked four more times. The door swung open soundlessly on its well-oiled hinges.

Reb Mendel and Chaim Tomashov were dazzled by the spectacle of the huge inner chamber of the cave. The walls were paneled with wood and hung with paintings and tapestries. The floors were completely covered by many hand-woven Persian carpets and crowded with elegant and expensive furniture. And the light! The cavernous chamber was ablaze with the light of many crystal chandeliers. Along the walls were great stacks of cartons and crates of every size and description.

“Gopurok’s treasure!” Chaim Tomashov whispered to Reb Mendel. “There must be millions here.”

“Welcome, Tomashov,” a voice boomed from the far end of the chamber. A giant man was rising from a gigantic thronelike armchair. This must be Boris Gopurok, Reb Mendel thought. Gopurok towered over everyone around him and dwarfed them with his massive bulk. He came towards Chaim Tomashov with his hand outstretched in welcome.

“Welcome to my humble abode, Tomashov!” Gopurok said and burst out laughing. He threw back his head and roared with laughter. Peal after peal of uncontrollable laughter. All of his henchmen joined in his laughter until the chamber rocked with the sound. Suddenly, Gopurok abruptly stopped laughing. In an instant, the chamber became absolutely still.

“Come, my friends,” Gopurok said seriously. “Let us retire to my library where we can talk in private. Look about you. Am I not a connoisseur of the arts? Do you see that painting over there? It is a genuine Tintoretto, a gift from Graf Pustalski and his family.”

Gopurok burst into laughter once again. He rocked back and forth, slapping his thigh, convulsed by the hilarity of his own humor. He led them into a small room formed by the stacked crates of booty and bade them to sit.

“Tomashov, do you realize that you are one of the few people to see my palace that will live to remember it?”

“Yes, I do,” said Chaim Tomashov.

“It is a great privilege. A great privilege indeed.”

“I value your friendship very highly, Boris. I am honored by it.”

“Bah, Tomashov! Don’t mock me. We are not friends. Nor have we ever been. I am in your debt for the kindness you once showed my father.”

“Your words grieve me, Boris,” said Chaim Tomashov in a solemn voice. “I had thought I was coming to you in friendship, but if it is as a creditor come to collect his debt that I must come, so be it.”

“Much better, Tomashov, much better. Now we can do business. Tell me what you want me to do for you so that the account can be settled once and for all.”

Chaim Tomashov cleared his throat.

“This gentleman with me is Reb Mendel, the rabbi of Pulichev. He is a friend of mine. He needs help, Boris, and I think you might be able to help him.”

“A Jewish priest, you say?” Gopurok mused, his fingers combing through his tangled beard. “I don’t like priests. They are not honest. You can’t trust them.”

“Reb Mendel is an honorable man,” Chaim Tomashov said, ignoring the irony of Gopurok’s words. “I can vouch for him.”

Gopurok grunted.

“Well, what do you want?” he asked.

Chaim Tomashov looked Gopurok directly in the eye.

“Do you recall ever meeting a priest called Zbigniew Mzlateslavski?” he asked.

Gopurok was silent for several long moments.

“No,” he said at last.

“Well,” continued Chaim Tomashov, “let me tell you a story.”

Briefly, he reviewed all the important details of the affair. Gopurok did not interrupt.

“I appeal to you, Boris,” he concluded, “to take pity on my friend and return his lost child to him.”

Gopurok leaped to his feet. He grabbed Chaim Tomashov by the back of the neck and lifted him off his feet. A long knife had suddenly appeared in his other hand and he pressed the flat side of the blade against Chaim Tomashov’s throat. An evil glint shone in his eyes.

“How dare you suggest that I would dirty my hands by abducting children?” roared Gopurok.

“You misunderstood me, Boris, my good friend,” said Chaim Tomashov, struggling to remain calm. “I did not suspect for one moment that you were involved yourself. But you are the King, Boris. Is that not so?”

Gopurok released him and the knife disappeared.

“Nothing happens in this whole region without the knowledge of the King,” continued Chaim Tomashov, as he gingerly fingered his bruised throat. “I thought that perhaps—”

The giant cut Chaim Tomashov off with an imperious wave of his hand. He threw him a dark look and returned to his chair. He fixed his stare on Reb Mendel’s frightened face, but it was obvious that his thoughts were very far away.

“Naturally, I have heard something of this affair,” he said at last. “But I really didn’t want to know anything about it. It was too dirty for me. Believe me, Tomashov, I do not know who abducted this child or who paid them to do it. I only know that a large sum exchanged hands and that the child has been taken to a foreign country. He is well and in good hands. I don’t think he will ever be brought back to Poland.”

“Can you possibly make inquiries? Can you find out more information, something that might help us find the child?”

“I have told you everything I know. That is the best I can do for you. Be happy that you leave with your lives.” He turned to Reb Mendel. “You have my deepest sympathy.”

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