"King - Of the Khyber Rifles"
by Talbot Mundy
Wolf met wolf in the dawning day
Where scent hung sweet over trodden clay,
And square each stood in the jungle way
Eyeing the other with ears laid back.
Still were the watchers. When foe greets foe
The wisest are quietest. Better to go--
Who stays to watch trouble woos trouble! But lo!
They trotted together to hunt one doe,
Eyeing each other with ears laid back.
WHEN KING awoke he lay on a comfortable bed in a cave he had never yet seen, but there was no trace of Yasmini, nor of the men who must have carried him to it. Barbaric splendor and splendor that was not by any means barbaric lay all about--tiger skins, ivory-legged chairs, graven bronze vases, and a yak-hair shawl worth a rajah's ransom.
The cave was spacious and not gloomy, for there was a wide door, apparently unguarded, and another square opening cut in the rock to serve as a window. Through both openings light streamed in like taut threads of Yasmini's golden hair--strings of a golden zither, on which his own heart's promptings played a tune.
He had no idea how long he had slept, but judged from memory of his former need of sleep and recognition of his present freshness--and from the fact that it was a morning sun that shone through the openings--that he must have slept the clock round.
It did not matter. He knew it did not matter in the least. He had no more plan than a mathematician has who starts to solve a problem, knowing that twice two is four in infinite combination. Like the mathematician, he knew that he must win.
No man ever won a battle or conceived a stroke of statesmanship, no great deed was ever accomplished without a first taste of the triumphant foreknowledge, such as comes only to men who have digged hard, hewing to the line, loyal to first principles. King had been loyal all his life.
The difference between first principles and the other thing could hardly be better illustrated than by comparing Yasmini's position with his. From her point of view he had no ground to stand on, unless he should choose to come and stand on hers. She had men, ammunition, information. He had what he stood in, and his only information had been poured into his ears for her ends.
Yet his heart sang inside him now; and he trusted it because that singing never had deceived him. He did not believe she would have left him alone at that stage of affairs unless through over-confidence. It is one of the absolute laws that over-confidence begets blindness and mistakes.
She had staked on what seemed to her the certainty of India's rising at the first signal of a holy war. She believed from close acquaintance that India was utterly disloyal, having made a study of disloyalty. And having read history she knew that many a conqueror has staked on such cards as hers, to win for lack of a better man to take the other side.
But King had studied loyalty all his life, and he knew that besides being the home of money-lenders, thugs and murderers, India is the very motherland of loyalty; that besides sedition she breeds gentlemen with stout hearts; that in addition to what one Christian Book calls "whoring after strange gods" India strives after purity. He knew that India's ideals are all imperishable, and her crimes but a kaleidoscope phase.
Not that he was analyzing thoughts just then. He was listening to the still small voice that told him half of his purpose was accomplished. He had probed Khinjan Caves, and knew the whole purpose for which the lawless thousands had been gathering and were gathering still. Remained, to thwart that purpose. And he had no more doubt of there being a means to thwart it than a mathematician has of the result of two times two, applied.
Like a mathematician, he did not waste time and confuse issues by casting too far ahead, but began to devote himself steadily to the figures nearest. Knots are not untied by wholesale, but are conquered strand by strand. He began at the beginning, where he stood.
He became conscious of human life near by and tip-toed to the door to look. A six-foot ledge of smooth rock ended just at the door and sloped in the other direction sharply downward toward another opening in the cliff side, three or four hundred yards away and two hundred feet lower down.
Behind him in a corner at the back of the cave was a narrow fissure, hung with a leather curtain, that was doubtless the door to Khinjan's heart; but the only way to the outer air was along that ledge above a dizzying precipice, so high that the huge waterfall looked like a little stream below. He was in a very eagle's aerie; the upper rim of Khinjan's gorge seemed not more than a quarter of a mile above him.
Round the corner, ten feet from the entrance, stood a guard, armed to the teeth, with a rifle, a sword, two pistols and a long curved Khyber knife stuck handy in his girdle. He spoke to the man and received no answer. He picked up a splinter of rock and threw it. The fellow looked at him then. He spoke again. The man transferred his rifle to the other hand and made signs with his free fingers. King looked puzzled. The man opened his mouth and showed that his tongue was missing. He had been made dumb, as pegs are made to fit square holes. King went in again, to wait on events and shudder.
Nor did he have long to wait. There came a sound of grunting, up the rock path. Then footsteps. Then a hoarse voice, growling orders. He went out again to look, and beheld a little procession of women, led by a man. The man was armed, but the women were burdened with his own belongings--the medicine chest--his saddle and bridle--his unrifled mule-pack--and, wonder of wonders! the presents Khinjan's sick had given him, including money and weapons. They came past the dumb man on guard and laid them all at King's feet just inside the cave.
He smiled, with that genial, face-transforming smile of his that has so often melted a road for him through sullen crowds. But the man in charge of the women did not grin. He was suffering. He growled at the women, and they went away like obedient animals, to sit half-way down the ledge and await further orders. He himself made as if to follow them, and the dumb man on guard did not pay much attention; he let women and man pass behind him, stepping one pace forward toward the edge to make more room. That was his last entirely voluntary act in this world.
With a suddenness that disarmed all opposition the other humped himself against the wall and bucked into the dumb man's back, sending him, weapons and all, hurtling over the precipice. With a wild effort to recover, and avenge himself, and do his duty, the victim fired his rifle, that was ready cocked. The bullet struck the rock above and either split or shook a great fragment loose, that hurtled down after him, so that he and the stone made a race of it for the waterfall and the caverns into which the water tumbled thousands of feet away. The other ruffian spat after him, and then walked back to where King stood.
"Now heal me my boils!" he said, grinning at first, doubtless from pleasure at the prospect. He was the same man who had stood on guard at the "guest-cave" when Ismail led King out to see the Cavern of Earth's Drink.
The temptation was to fling the brute after his victim. The temptation always is to do the wrong thing--to cap wrath with wrath, injustice with vengeance. That way wars begin and are never ended. King beckoned him into the cave, and bent over the chest of medical supplies. Then, finding the light better for his purpose at the entrance, he called the man back and made him sit down on the box.
The business of lancing boils is not especially edifying in itself; but that particular minor operation probably saved India. But for hope of it the man with boils would never have stood two turns on guard hand running and let the relief sleep on; so he would not have been on duty when the message came to carry King's belongings to his new cave of residence. There would have been no object in killing the dumb man, and so there would have been an expert with a loaded rifle to keep Muhammad Anim lurking down the trail.
Muhammad Anim came--like the devil, to scotch King's faith. He had followed the women with the loads. He stood now, like a big bear on a mountain track, swaying his head from side to side six feet away from King, watching the boils succumb to treatment. He grunted when the job was finished, and King jumped, nearly driving the lance into a new place in his patient's neck.
"Let him go!" growled Muhammad Anim. "Go, thou! Stand guard over the women until I come!"
The mullah turned a rifle this way and that in his paws, like a great bear dancing. The Mahsudi with a sore neck could have shot him, perhaps, but there are men with whom only the bravest dare try conclusions. In cold gray dawn it would have needed a martinet to make a firing squad do execution on Muhammad Anim, even with his hands tied and his back against a wall. A man whose boils had just been lanced was no match for him at all, even in broad daylight. The Hillman slunk away and did as he was told.
"What meant thy message?" growled the mullah. "There came a Pathan to me in the Cavern of Earth's Drink with word that yonder sits a hakim. What of it?"
King had almost forgotten the message he had sent to Muhammad Anim in the Cavern of Earth's Drink. But that was not why his eyes looked past the mullah's now, nor why he did not answer. The mullah did not look round, for he knew what was happening.
The very Orakzai Pathan who had sat next King in the Cavern of Earth's Drink, and who had carried the message for him, was creeping up behind the women and already had his rifle leveled at the man with boils.
"Aye!" said the mullah, watching King's eyes. "He has done well, and the road is clear!"
The man with boils offered no fight. He dropped his rifle and threw his hands up. In a moment the Orakzai Pathan was in command of two rifles, holding them in one hand and nodding and making signs to King from among the women, whom he seemed to regard as his plunder too. The women appeared supremely indifferent in any event. King nodded back to him. A friend is a friend in the "Hills," and rare is the man who spares his enemy.
"Why send that message to me?" asked Muhammad Anim.
"Why not?" said King. "If none know where the hakim is, how shall the hakim earn a living?"
"None comes to earn a living in the Hills," growled the mullah, swaying his head slowly and devouring King with cruel calculating eyes. "Why art thou here?"
"I slew a man," said King.
"Thou liest! It was my men who got the head that let thee in! Speak! Why art thou here?"
But King did not answer. The mullah resumed.
"He who brought me the message yesterday says he has it from another, who had it from a third, that thou art here because she plans a simultaneous rising in India, and thou art from the Punjab where the Sikhs all wait to rise. Is that true?"
"Thy man said it," answered King.
"What sayest thou?" the mullah asked.
"I say nothing," said King.
"Then hear me!" said the mullah. "Listen, thou." But he did not begin to speak yet. He tried to see past King into the cave and to peer about him into the shadows.
"Where is she?" he asked. "Her man Rewa Gunga went yesterday, with three men and a letter to carry down the Khyber. But where is she?"
So he had slept the clock round! King did not answer. He blocked the way into the cave and looked past the mullah at a sight that fascinated, as a serpent's eyes are said to fascinate a bird. But the mullah, who knew perfectly well what must be happening, did not trouble to turn his head.
The Orakzai Pathan crouched among the women, and the women grinned. The Mahsudi, having surrendered and considering himself therefore absolved from further responsibility at least for the present, spat over the precipice and fingered gingerly the sore place where his boils had been. He yawned and dropped both hands to his side; and it was at that instant that the Pathan sprang at him.
With arms like the jaws of a vise he pinned the Mahsudi's to his side, and lifted him from off his feet. The fellow screamed, an the Pathan shouted "Ho!" But he did no murder yet. He let his victim grow fully conscious of the fate in store for him, holding him so that his frantic kicks were squandered on thin air. He turned him slowly, until he was upside-down; and so, perpendicular, face-outward, he hove him forward like a dead log. He stood and watched his victim fall two or three thousand feet before troubling to turn and resume both rifles; and it was not until then, as if he had been mentally conscious of each move, that the mullah turned to look, and seeing only one man nodded.
"Good!" he grunted. "Shabash!" (Well done!)
Then he turned his head to stare into King's face, with the scrutiny of a trader appraising loot. Fire leaped up behind his calculating eyes. And without a word passing between them, King knew that this man as well as Yasmini was in possession of the secret of the Sleeper. Perhaps he knew it first; perhaps she snatched the keeping of the secret from him. At all events he knew it and recognized King's likeness to the Sleeper, for his eyes betrayed him. He began to stroke his beard monotonously with one hand. The rifle, that he pretended to be holding, really leaned against his back and with the free hand he was making signals.
King knew well he was making signals. But he knew too that in Yasmini's power, her prisoner, he had no chance at all of interfering with her plans. Having grounded on the bottom of impotence, so to speak, any tide that would take him off must be a good tide. He pretended to be aware of nothing, and to be particularly unaware that the Pathan, with a rifle in each hand, was pretending to come casually up the path.
In a minute he was covered by a rifle. In another minute the mullah had lashed his hands. In five minutes more the women were loaded again with his belongings and they were all half-way down the track in single file, the mullah bringing up the rear, descending backward with his rifle ready against surprise, as if he expected Yasmini and her men to pounce out any minute to the rescue.
They entered a tunnel and wound along it, stepping at short intervals over the bodies of three stabbed sentries. The Pathan spurned them with his heel as he passed. In the glare at the tunnel's mouth King tripped over the body of a fourth man and fell with his chin beyond the edge of a sheer precipice.
They were on a ledge above the waterfall again, having come through a projection on the cliff's side, for Khinjan is all rat-runs and projections, like a sponge or a hornet's nest on a titanic scale.
The Pathan laughed and came back to gather him like a sheaf of corn. The great smelly ruffian hugged him to himself as he set him on his feet.
"Ah! Thou hakim!" he grinned. "There is no pain in my shoulder at all! Ask of me another favor when the time comes! Hey, but I am sick of Khinjan!"
He gave King a shove along the path in the general direction of the mullah. Then he seized the dead body by the legs, and hurled it like a slung shot, watching it with a grin as it fell in a wide parabola. After that he took the dead man's rifle, and those of the three other dead men, that he had hidden in a crevice in the rock, and loaded them all on a woman in addition to King's saddle that she carried already.
"Come!" he said. "Hurry, or Bull-with-a-beard yonder will remember us again. I love him best when he forgets!"
They soon reached another cave, at which the mullah stopped. It was a dark ill-smelling hole, but he ordered King into it and the Pathan after him on guard, after first seeing the women pile all their loads inside. Then he took the women away and went off muttering to himself, swaggering, swinging his right arm as he strode, in a way few natives do.
"Let us hope he has forgotten these!" the Pathan grinned, touching the pile of rifles. "Weight for weight in silver they will bring me a fine price! He may forget. He dreams. For a mullah he cares less for meat and money than any I ever saw. He is mad, I think. It is my opinion Allah touched him."
"What is that, under thy shirt?" King asked.
The Pathan grinned, and undid the button. There was a second shirt underneath, and to that on the left breast were pinned two British medals.
"Oh, yes!" he laughed. "I served the raj! I was in the army eleven years!"
"Why did you leave it?" King asked, remembering that this man loved to hear his own voice.
"Oh, I had furlough, and the bastard who stood next me in the ranks was the son of a dog with whom my father had a blood-feud. The blind fool did not know me. He received his furlough on the same day as I. I would not lay finger on him that side of the border, for we ate the same salt. I knifed him this side the border. It was no affair of the British. But I was seen, and I fled. And having slain a man, and having no doubt a report had gone back to the regiment, I entered this place. Except for a raid now and then to cool my blood I have been here ever since. It is a devil of a place."
Now the art of ruling India consists not in treading barefooted on scorpions--not in virtuous indignation at men who know no better--but in seeking for and making much of the gold that lies ever amid the dross. There is gold in the character of any man who once passed the grilling tests before enlistment in a British-Indian regiment. It may need experience to lay a finger on it, but it is surely there.
"I heard," said King, "as I came toward the Khyber in great haste (for the police were at my heels)--"
"Ah, the police!" the Pathan grinned pleasantly. The inference was that at some time or other he had left his mark on the police.
"I heard," said King, "that men are flocking back to their old regiments."
"Aye, but not men with a price on their heads, little hakim!"
"I could not say," said King. To seem to know too much is as bad as to drink too much. "But I heard say that the sirkar has offered pardons to all deserters who return."
"Hah! The sirkar must be afraid. The sirkar needs men!"
"For myself," said King, "a whole skin in the 'Hills' seems better than one full of bullet holes in India."
"Hah! But thou art a hakim, not a soldier!"
"True!" said King.
"Tell me that again! Free pardons? Free pardons for all deserters?"
"So I heard."
"Ah! But I was seen to slay a man of my own regiment."
"On this side of the border or that?" asked King artfully.
"On this side."
"Ah, but you were seen."
"Ay! But that is no man's business. In India I earned my salt. I obeyed the law. There is no law here in the 'Hills.' I am minded to go back and seek that pardon! It would feel good to stand in the ranks again, with a stiff-backed sahib out in front of me, and the thunder of the gun-wheels going by. The salt was good! Come thou with me!"
"The pardon is for deserters," King objected, "not for political offenders."
"Haugh!" said the Pathan, bringing down his flat hand hard on the hakim's thigh. "I will attend to that for thee. I will obtain my pardon first. Then will I lead thee by the hand to the karnal sahib and lie to him and say, 'This is the one who persuaded me against my will to come back to the regiment!'"
"And he will believe? Nay, I would be afraid!" said King.
"Would a pardon not be good?" the Pathan asked him. "A pardon and leave to swagger through the bazaars again and make trouble with the daughters and wives of fat traders--a pardon--Allah! It would be good to salute the karnal sahib again and see him raise a finger, thus; and to have the captain sahib call me a scoundrel--or some worse name if he loves me very much, for the English are a strange race--"
"Thou art a dreamer!" said King. "Untie my hands; the thong cuts me."
The Pathan obeyed.
"Dreamer, am I? It is good to dream such dreams. By Allah, I've a mind to see that dream come true! I never slew a man on Indian soil, only in these 'Hills.' I will go to them and say 'Here I am! I am a deserter. I seek that pardon!' Truly I will go! Come thou with me, little hakim!"
"Nay," said King, "I have another thought."
"You, who were seen to slay a man a yard this side of the border--"
"Nay; half a mile this side!"
"Half a mile, then. You who were seen to slay a fellow soldier of your regiment, and I who am a political offender, do not win pardons so easily as that."
"Would they hang us?"
That was the first squeamishness the Pathan had shown of any kind, but men of his race would rather be tortured to death than hanged in a merciful hempen noose.
"They would hang us," said King, "unless we came bearing gifts."
"Gifts? Has Allah touched thee? What gifts should we bring? A dozen stolen rifles? A bag of silver? And I am the dreamer, am I?"
"Nay," said King. "I am the dreamer. I have seen a good vision."
"There are others in these 'Hills'--others in Khinjan who wear British medals?"
The Pathan nodded.
"How many?" asked King.
"Hundreds. Men fight first on one side, then on the other, being true to either side while the contract lasts. In all there must be the makings of many regiments among the 'Hills.'"
King nodded. He himself had seen the chieftains come to parley after the Tirah war. Most of them had worn British medals and had worn them proudly.
"If we two," he said, speaking slowly, "could speak with some of those men and stir the spirit in them and persuade them to feel as thou dost, mentioning the pardon for deserters and the probability of bonuses to the time-expired for reenlistment; if we could march down the Khyber with a hundred such, or even with fifty or with twenty-five or with a dozen men--we would receive our pardon for the sake of service rendered."
The Pathan thumped him on the back so hard that his eyes watered.
"We would have to use much caution," King advised him, when he was able to speak again.
"Aye! If Bull-with-a-beard got wind of it he would have us crucified. And if she heard of it--"
He was silent. Apparently there were no words in his tongue that could compass his dread of her revenge. He was silent for ten minutes, and King sat still beside him, letting memory of other days do its work--memory of the long, clean regimental lines, and of order and decency and of justice handed out to all and sundry by gentlemen who did not think themselves too good to wear a native regiment's uniform.
"In two days I could do the drill again as well as ever," he said at last. Then there was silence again for fifteen minutes more. "I could always shoot," he murmured; "I could always shoot."
When Muhammad Anim came back they had both forgotten to replace the lashing on King's wrists, but the mullah seemed not to notice it.
"Come!" he ordered, with a sidewise jerk of his great ugly head, and then stood muttering impatiently while they obeyed.
He had twice the number of women with him, but none of them the same; and he had brought five ruffians to guard them, who pounced on the captured rifles and claimed one apiece, to the Pathan's loud-growled disgust. Then the women were made to gather up King's belongings, and at a word from the mullah they started in single file--the mullah leading, then the two men, then King, then the Orakzai Pathan, and then the other three. The Pathan began to whisper busily to the man next behind and noticing that King looked straight forward and contented himself; his heart was singing within him unexplainedly; he wanted to sing and dance, as once David did before the ark. He did not feel in the least like a prisoner.
They marched downward through interminable tunnels and along ledges poised between earth and heaven, until they came at last to the tunnel leading to the one entrance to Khinjan Caves. Just before they entered it two more of the mullah's men came up with them, leading horses. One horse was for the mullah, and they helped King mount the other, showing him more respect than is usually shown a prisoner in the "Hills."
Then the mullah led the way into the tunnel, and he seemed in deadly fear. The echo of the hoof-beats irritated him. He eyed each hole in the roof as if Yasmini might be expected to shoot down at him or drench him with boiling oil and hurried past each of them at a trot, only to draw rein immediately afterward because the noise was too great.
It became evident that his men had been at work here too, for at intervals along the passage lay dead bodies. Yasmini must have posted the men there, but where was she? Each of them lay dead with a knife wound in his back, and the mullah's men possessed themselves of rifles and knives and cartridges, wiping off blood that had scarcely cooled yet.
When they came to the end of the tunnel it was to find the door into the mosque open in front of them, and twenty more of Muhammad Anim's men standing guard over the eyelashless mullah. They had bound and gagged him. At a word from Muhammad Anim they loosed him; and at a threat from the hairless one gave a signal that brought the great stone door sliding forward on its oiled bronze grooves.
Then, with a dozen jests thrown to the hairless one for consolation, and an utter indifference to the sacredness of the mosque floor, they sought outer air, and Muhammad Anim led them up the Street of the Dwellings toward Khinjan's outer ramparts. They reached the outer gate without incident and hurried into the great dry valley beyond it. As they rode across the valley the mullah thumbed a long string of beads. Unlike Yasmini, he was praying to one god; but he seemed to have many prayers. His back was a picture of determined treachery--the backs of his men were expressions of the creed that "He shall keep who can!" King rode all but last now and had a good view of their unconsciously vaunted blackguardism. There was not a hint of honor or tenderness among the lot, man, woman or mullah. Yet his heart sang within him as if he were riding to his own marriage feast!
Last of all, close behind him, marched his friend, the Orakzai Pathan, and as they picked their way among the boulders across the mile-wide moat the two contrived to fall a little to the rear. The Pathan began speaking in a whisper and King, riding with lowered head as if he were studying the dangerous track, listened with both ears.
"She sent her man Rewa Gunga toward the Khyber with a message," he whispered. "He took a few men with him, and he is to send them with the message when they reach the Khyber, but he is to come back. All he went for is to make sure the message is not intercepted, for Bull-with-a-beard is growing reckless these days. He knew what was doing and said at once that she is treating with the British, but there were few who believed that. There are more who wonder where she hides while the message is on its way. None has seen her. Men have swarmed into the Cavern of Earth's Drink and howled for her, but she did not come. Then the mullah went to look for his ammunition that he stored and sealed in a cave. And it was gone. It was all gone. And there was no proof of who had taken it!
"Hakim, there be some who say--and Bull-with-a-beard is one of them--that she is afraid and hides. Men say she fears vengeance for the stolen ammunition, because it was plenty for a conquest of India. So men say. So say these here, for I have asked them."
"And thou?" asked King, struggling to keep the note of exultation from his voice. He did not believe she was hiding. She might be staring into a crystal in some secret cave--she might be planning new mischief of any kind. But afraid she was surely not. And just as surely he could vow she was working out her own undoing.
"I?" said the Pathan. "I swear she is afraid of nothing. If she has taken all the ammunition, then we shall hear from it again and from her too!"
"And what of me?" asked King. "What will the mullah do with me?"
"His men say he is desperate. His own are losing faith in him. He snatched thee to be a bait for her, having it in mind that a man whom she hides in her private part of Khinjan must be of great value to her. He has sworn to have thee skinned alive on a hot rock should she fail to come to terms!"
That being not such a comforting reflection, King rode in silence for a while, with the Pathan trudging solemnly beside his stirrup keeping semblance of guard over him. When they reached the steep escarpment he had to dismount, although the mullah in the lead tried to make his own beast carry him up the lower spur and was mad-angry with his men for laughing when the horse fell back with him.
Far in the rear King and the Pathan shoved and hauled and nearly lost their horse a dozen times at that. But once at the top the mullah set a furious pace and the laden women panted in their efforts to keep up, the men taking less notice of them than if they had been animals.
The march went on in single file until the sun died down in splendid fury. Then there began to be a wind that they had to lean against, but the women were allowed no rest.
At last at a place where the trail began to widen, the mullah beckoned King to ride beside him. It was not that he wished to be communicative, but there were things King knew that he did not know, and he had is own way of asking questions.
"Damned hakim!" he growled. "Pill-man! Poulticer! That is a sweeper's trade of thine! Thou shalt apply it at my camp! I have some wounded and some sick."
King did not answer, but buttoned his coat closer against the keen wind. The mullah mistook the shudder for one of another kind.
"Did she choose thee only for thy face?" he asked. "Did she not consider thy courage? Does she know thee well enough to ransom thee?"
Again King did not answer, but he watched the mullah's face keenly in the dark and missed nothing of its expression. He decided the man was in doubt--even racked by indecision.
"Should she not ransom thee, hakim, thou shalt have a chance to show my men how a man out of India can die! By and by I will lend thee a messenger to send to her. Better make the message clear and urgent! Thou shalt state my terms to her and plead thine own cause in the same letter. My camp lies yonder."
He motioned with one sweep of his arm toward a valley that lay in shadow far below them. As far as the slope leading down to it was visible in the moonlight it was littered with what the "Hills" call "hell-stones," that will neither lie flat nor keep on rolling, and are dangerous to man and beast alike. Nothing else could be made out through the darkness but a few twisted tamarisk trees, that served to make the savagery yet more savage and the loneliness more desolate. The gloom below the trees was that of the very underdepths of hell itself.
The mullah pointed to a rock that rose like a shadow from the deeper blackness.
"Yes," said King, "I have seen." And the mullah stared at him. Then he shouted, and the top of the rock turned into a man, who gave them leave to advance, leaning on his rifle as one who had assured himself of their identity long minutes ago.
As they approached it the rock clove in two and became two great pillars, with a man on each. And between the pillars they looked down into a valley lit by fires that burned before a thousand hide tents, with shadows by the hundred flitting back and forth between them. A dull roar, like the voice of an army, rose out of the gorge.
"More than four thousand men!" said the mullah proudly.
"What are four thousand for a raid into India?" sneered King, greatly daring.
"Wait and see!" growled the mullah; but he seemed depressed.
He led the way downward, getting off his horse and giving the reins to a man. King copied him, and part-way sliding, part stumbling down they found their way along the dry bed of a water-course between two spurs of a hillside, until they stood at last in the midst of a cluster of a dozen sentries, close to a tamarisk to which a man's body hung spiked. That the man had been spiked to it alive was suggested by the body's attitude.
Without a word to the sentries the mullah led on down a lane through the midst of the camp, toward a great open cave at the far side, in which a bonfire cast fitful light and shadow. Watchers sitting by the thousand tents yawned at them, but took no particular notice.
The mouth of the cave was like a lion's fringed with teeth. There were men in it, ten or eleven of them, all armed, squatting round the fire.
"Get out!" growled the mullah. But they did not obey. They sat and sneered at him.
"Have ye tents?" the mullah asked, in a voice like thunder.
"Aye!" But they did not go yet.
One of the men, he nearest the mullah, got on his feet, but he had to step back a pace, for the mullah would not give ground and their breath was in each other's faces.
"Where are the bombs? And the rifles? And the many cartridges?" he demanded. "We have waited long, Muhammad Anim. Where are they now?"
The others got up, to lend the first man encouragement. They leaned on rifles and surrounded the mullah, so that King could only get a glimpse of him between them. They seemed in no mood to be treated cavalierly--in no mood to be argued with. And the mullah did not argue.
"Ye dogs!" he growled at them, and he strode through them to the fire and chose himself a good, thick burning brand. "Ye sons of nameless mothers!"
Then he charged them suddenly, beating them over head and face and shoulders, driving them in front of him, utterly reckless of their rifles. His own rifle lay on the grown behind him, and King kicked its stock clear of the fire.
"Oh, I shall pray for you this night!" Muhammad Anim snarled. "What a curse I shall beg for you! Oh, what a burning of the bowels ye shall have! What a sickness! What running of the eyes! What sores! What boils! What sleepless nights and faithless women shall be yours! What a prayer I will pray to Allah!"
They scattered into outer gloom before his rage, and then came back to kneel to him and beg him withdraw his curse. He kicked them as they knelt and drove them away again. Then, silhouetted in the cave mouth, with the glow of the fire behind him, he stood with folded arms and dared them shoot. He lacked little in that minute of being a full-grown brute at bay. King admired him, with reservations.
After five minutes of angry contemplation of the camp he turned on a contemptuous heel and came back to the fire, throwing on more fuel from a great pile in a corner. There was an iron pot in the embers. He seized a stick and stirred the contents furiously, then set the pot between his knees and ate like an animal. He passed the pot to King when he had finished, but fingers had passed too many times through what was left in it and the very thought of eating the mess made his gorge rise; so King thanked him and set the pot aside.
Then, "That is thy place!" Muhammad Anim growled, pointing over his shoulder to a ledge of rock, like a shelf in the far wall. There was a bed upon it, of cotton blankets stuffed with dry grass. King walked over and felt the blankets and found them warm from the last man who had lain there. They smelt of him too. He lifted them and laughed. Taking the whole in both hands he carried it to the fire and threw it in, and the sudden blaze made the mullah draw away a yard; but it did not make him speak.
"Bugs!" King explained, but the mullah showed no interest. He watched however, as King went back to the bed, and subsequent proceedings seemed to fascinate him.
Out of the chest that one of the women had set down King took soap. There was a pitcher of water between him and the fire; he carried it nearer. With an improvised scrubbing brush of twigs he proceeded to scrub every inch of the rock-shelf, and when he had done and had dried it more or less, he stripped and began to scrub himself.
"Who taught thee thy squeamishness?" the mullah asked at last, getting up and coming nearer. It was well that King's skin was dark (although it was many shades lighter than his face, that had been stained so carefully). The mullah eyed him from head to foot and looked awfully suspicious, but something prompted King and he answered without an instant's hesitation.
"Why ask a woman's questions?" he retorted. "Only women ask when they know the answer. When I watched the with the firebrand a short while ago, oh, mullah, I mistook thee for a man."
The mullah grunted and began to tug his beard. But King said no more and went on washing himself.
"I forgot," said the mullah then, "that thou art her pet. She would not love thee unless they smell was sweet."
"No," said King quite cheerfully--going it blind, for he did not know what had possessed him to take that line, but knew he might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb--"No, if I stank like thee she would not love me."
The mullah snorted and went back to the fire, but he took King's cake of soap with him and sat examining it.
"Tauba!" he swore suddenly as if he had made a gruesome discovery. "Such filthy stuff is made from the fat of pigs!"
"Doubtless!" said King. "That is why she uses it, and why I use it. She is a better Muhammadan than thou. She would surely cleanse her skin with the fat of pigs!"
"Thou art a shameless one!" said the mullah, shaking his head like a bear.
"I am what Allah made me!" answered King, and then, for the sake of the impression, he went through the outward form of muslim prayer, spreading a mat and omitting none of the genuflections. When he had finished he unfolded his own blankets that a woman had thrown down beside the chest and spread them carefully on the rock-shelf. But though he was allowed to climb up and lie there, he was not allowed to sleep--nor did he want to sleep--for more than an hour to come.
The mullah came over from the fire again and stood beside him, glaring like a great animal and grumbling in his beard.
"Does she surely love thee?" he asked at last, and King nodded, because he knew he was on the trail of information.
"So thou art to ape the Sleeper in his bronze mail, eh? Thou art to come to life, as she was said to come to life, and the two of you are to plunder India? Is that it?"
King nodded again, for a nod is less committal than a word; and the not was enough to start the mullah off again.
"I saw the Sleeper and his bride before she knew of either! It was I who let her into Khinjan! It was I who told the men she is the 'Heart of the Hills' come to life! She tricked me! But this is no hour for bearing grudges. She has a plan and I am minded to help."
King lay still and looked up at him, sure that treachery was the ultimate end of any plan the mullah Muhammad Anim had. India has been saved by the treachery of her enemies more often than ruined by false friends. So has the world, for that matter.
"A jihad when the right hour comes will raise the tribes," the mullah growled. "She and thou, as the Sleeper and his mate, could work wonders. But who can trust her? She stole that head! She stole all the ammunition! Does she surely love thee?"
King nodded again, for modesty could not help him at that juncture. Love and boastfulness go together in the "Hills."
"She shall have thee back, then, at a price!"
King did not answer. His brown eyes watched the mullah's, and he drew his breath in little jerks, lest by breathing aloud he should miss one word of what was coming.
"She shall have thee back against Khinjan and the ammunition! She and thou shall have India, but I shall be the power behind you! She must give me Khinjan and the ammunition! She must admit me to the inner caves, whence her damned guards expelled me. I must have the reins in my two hands, so! Then, thou and she shall have the pomp and glitter while I guide!"
King did not answer.
King murmured something unintelligible.
"Otherwise, I and my men will storm Khinjan, and she and thou shall go down Earth's Drink lashed together!"
King shuddered, not because he felt afraid, but because some instinct told him to make the mullah think him afraid. He was far too interested to be fearful.
"Ye shall both be tortured before the plunge into the river! She shall be tortured in the Cavern of the Earth's Drink before the men!"
King shuddered again, this time without an effort. He could imagine the thousands watching grimly while the flayer used his knife.
"I have men in Khinjan! I have as many as she! On the day I march there will be a revolt within. She would better agree to terms!"
King lay looking at him, like a prisoner on the rack undergoing examination. He did not answer.
"Write thou a letter. Since she loves thee, state thine own case to her. Tell her that I hold thee hostage, and that Khinjan is mine already for a little fighting. In a month she can not pick out my men from among her own. Her position is undermined. Tell her that. Tell her that if she obeys she shall have India and be queen. If she disobeys, she shall die in the Cavern of Earth's Drink!"
"She is a proud woman, mullah," answered King. "Threats to such as shee--?"
The mullah mumbled and strode back and forth three times between King's bed and the fire, with his fists knotted together behind him and his head bent, as Napoleon used to walk. When he stood beside the bed again at last it was with his mind made up, as his clenched fists and eyes indicated.
"Make thine own terms with her!" he growled. "Write the letter and send it! I hold thee; she holds Khinjan and the ammunition. I am between her and India. So be it. She shall starve in there! She shall lie in there until the war is over and take what terms are offered her in the end! Write thine own letter! State the case, and bid her answer!"
"Very well," said King. He began to see now definitely how India was to be saved. It was none of his business to plan yet, but to help others' plans destroy themselves and to sow such seed in the broken ground as might bear fruit in time.
The mullah left him, to squat and gaze into the fire, and mutter, and King lay still. After a while the mullah went and carried a great water bowl nearer to the fire and, as King had done, stripped himself. Then he heaped great fagots on the fire--wasteful fagots, each of which had cost some woman hours of mountain climbing. And in the glow of the leaping flame he scrubbed himself from head to foot with King's soap. Finally, with a feat of strength that nearly forced an exclamation out of King, he lifted the great water bowl in both hands and emptied the whole contents over himself. Then he resumed his smell garments without troubling to dry his body, and got out a Quran from a corner and began to read it in a nasal singsong that would have kept dead men awake. King lay and watched and listened.
Reading scripture only seemed to fire the mullah's veins. For him sleep was either out of reach or despicable, perhaps both. He seemed in a mood to despise anything but conquest and strode back and forth up and down the cave like a caged bear, muttering to himself.
After a time he went to the mouth of the cave, to stand and stare out at the camp where the thousand fires were dying fitfully and wood smoke purged the air of human nastiness. The stars looked down on him, and he seemed to try to read them, standing with fists knotted together at his back.
And as he stood so, six other mullah's came to him and began to argue with him in low tones, he browbeating them all with furious words hissed between half-closed teeth. They were whispering still when King fell asleep. It was courage, not carelessness, that let him sleep--courage and a great hope born of the mullah's perplexity.
He dreamed that he was writing, writing, writing, while the torturers made a hot fire ready in the Cavern of Earth's Drink and whetted knives on the bridge end while the organ played The Marseillaise. He dreamed Yasmini came to him and whispered the solution to it all, but what she whispered he could not catch, although she whispered the same words again and again and seemed to be angry with him for not listening.
And when he awoke at last he had fragments of his blanket in either hand, and the sun was already shining into the jaws of the cave. The camp was alive and reeked of cooking food. But the mullah was gone, and so was all the money the women had brought, together with his medicines and things from Khinjan.
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