Death roosts in the Khyber while he preens his wings!
"Seen her?" asked the general, with his hands behind him.
"No," said King, looking sharply sidewise at him and walking stride for stride. His hands were behind him, too, and one of them covered the gold bracelet on his other wrist.
The general looked equally sharply sidewise.
"Nor've I," he said. "She called me up over the phone yesterday to ask for facilities for her man Rewa Gunga, and he was in here later. He's waiting for you at the foot of the Pass—camped near the fort at Jamrud with your bandobast all ready. She's on ahead—wouldn't wait."
King listened in silence, and his prisoners, watching him through the barred compartment windows, formed new and golden opinions of him, for it is common knowledge in the "Hills" that when a burra sahib speaks to a chota sahib, the chota sahib ought to say, "Yes, sir, oh, yes!" at very short intervals. Therefore King could not be a chota sahib after all. So much the better. The "Hills" ever loved to deal with men in authority, just as they ever despised underlings.
"What made you go back for the prisoners?" the general asked. "Who gave you that cue?"
"It's a safe rule never to do what the other man expects, sir, and Rewa Gunga expected me to travel by his train."
"Was that your only reason?"
"No, sir. I had general reasons. None of 'em specific. Where natives have a finger in the pie there's always something left undone at the last minute."
"But what made you investigate those prisoners?"
"Couldn't imagine why thirty men should be singled out for special treatment. Rewa Gunga told me they were still at large in Delhi. Couldn't guess why. Had 'em arrested so's to be able to question 'em. That's all, sir."
"Not nearly all!" said the general. "You realize by now, I suppose, that they're her special men—special personal following?"
"Guessed something of that sort."
"Well—she's clever. It occurred to her that the safest way to get 'em up North was to have 'em arrested and deported. That would avoid interference and delay and would give her a chance to act deliverer at this end, and so make 'em grateful to her—you see? Rewa Gunga told me all this, you understand. He seems to think she's semi-divine. He was full of her cleverness in having thought of letting 'em all get into debt at a house of ill repute, so as to have 'em at hand when she wanted 'em."
"She must have learned that trick from our merchant marine," said King.
"Maybe. She's clever. She asked me over the phone whether her thirty men had started North. I sent a telegram in cypher to find out. The answer was that you had found 'em and rounded 'em up and were bringing 'em with you. When she called me up on the phone the second time I told her so, and I heard her chuckle with delight. So I emphasized the point of your having discovered 'em and saved 'em every wit whole and all that kind of thing. I asked her to come and see me, but she wouldn't,—said she was 'disguised and particularly did not want to be recognized, which was reasonable enough. She sent Rewa Gunga instead. Now, this seems important:
"Before I sent you down to Delhi—before I sent for you at all—I told her what I meant to do, and I never in my life knew a woman raise such terrific objections to working with a man. As it happened her objections only confirmed my determination to send for you, and before she went down to Delhi to clean up I told her flatly she would either have to work with you or else stay in India for the duration of the war."
The general did not notice that King was licking his lips. Nor, if he had noticed King's hand that now was in front of him pressing on something under his shirt, could he have guessed that the something was a gold-hilted knife with a bronze blade. King grunted in token of attention, and the general continued.
"She gave in finally, but I felt nervous about it. Now, without your getting sight of her—you say you haven't seen her?—her whole attitude has changed! What have you done? Bringing up her thirty men seems a little enough thing. Yet, she swears by you! Used to swear at you, and now says you're the only officer in the British army with enough brains to fill a helmet! Says she wouldn't go up the Khyber without you! Says you're indispensable! Sent Rewa Gunga round to me with orders to make sure I don't change my mind about you! What have you done to her—bewitched her?"
"Done nothing," said King.
"Well, keep on doing nothing in the same style and the world shall render you its best jobs, one after the other, in sequence! You've made a good beginning!"
"Know anything of Rewa Gunga, sir?"
"Nothing, except that he's her man. She trusts him, so we've got to, and you've got to take him up the Khyber with you. What she orders, he'll do, or you may take it from me she would never have left him behind. As long as she is on our side you will be pretty safe in trusting Rewa Gunga. And she has got to be on our side. Got to be! She's the only key we've got to Khinjan, and hell is brewing there this minute! She dare unlock the gates and ride the devil down the Khyber if she thought it worth her while! You're to go up the Khyber after her to convince her that there are better mounts than the devil and better fun than playing with hell-fire! The Rangar told me he had given you her passport—that right?"
As they turned at the end of the platform King bared his wrist and showed the gold bracelet.
"Good!" said the general, but King thought his face clouded. "That thing is worth more than a hundred men. Jack Allison wore that same bracelet, unless I'm much mistaken, on his way down in disguise from Bukhara. So did another man we both knew; but he died. Be sure not to forget to give it back to her when the show's over, King."
King nodded and grunted. "What's the news from Khinjan, sir?"
"Nothing specific, except that the place is filling up. You remember what I told you about the 'Heart of the Hills' being in Khinjan? Well, they say now that the 'Heart of the Hills' has been awake for a long time, and that when the heart stirs the body does not lie quiet long. No use trying to guess what they mean; go and find out. And remember—the whole armed force at my disposal in this Province isn't more than enough to tempt the tribes to conclusions! It's a case for diplomacy. It's a case where diplomacy must not fail."
King said nothing, but the chin-strap mark on his cheek and chin grew slightly whiter, as it always does under the stress of emotion. He can not control it, and he has dyed it more than once on the eve of happenings, there being no more wisdom in wearing feelings on one's face than on a sleeve.
"Here comes your engine," said the general. "Well—there are two battalions of Khyber Rifles up the Pass and they're about at full strength. They've got word already that you are gazetted to them. They'll expect you. By the way, you've a brother in the K.R., haven't you?"
"At Ali Masjid, sir."
"Give him my regards when you see him, will you?"
"Thank you, sir."
"There's your engine whistling. You'd better hurry, Good-by, my boy. Get word to me whenever possible. Good luck to you! Regards to your brother! Good-by!"
King saluted and stood watching while the general hurried to the waiting motor-car. When the car whirled away in a din of dust he returned leisurely to the train that had been shortened to three coaches. Then he gave the signal to start up the spur-track, that leads to Jamrud, where a fort cowers in the very throat of the dreadfulest gorge in Asia—the Khyber Pass.
It was not a long journey, nor a very slow one, for there was nothing to block the way except occasional men with flags, who guarded culverts and little bridges. The Germans would know better than to waste time or effort on blowing up that track, but there might be Northern gentlemen at large, out to do damage for the sport of it, and the sepoys all along the line were posted in twos, and awake.
It was low-tide under the Himalayas. The flood that was draining India of her armed men had left Jamrud high and dry with a little nondescript force stranded there, as it were, under a British major and some native officers. There were no more pomp and circumstance; no more of the reassuring thunder of gathering regiments, nor for that matter any more of that unarmed native helplessness that so stiffens the backs of the official English.
Frowning over Jamrud were the lean "Hills," peopled by the fiercest fighting men on earth, and the clouds that hung over the Khyber's course were an accent to the savagery.
But King smiled merrily as he jumped out of the train, and Rewa Gunga, who was there to meet him, advanced with outstretched hand and a smile that would have melted snow on the distant peaks if he had only looked the other way.
"Welcome, King sahib!" he laughed, with the air of a skilled fencer who admires another, better one. "I shall know better another time and let you keep in front of me! No more getting first into a train and settling down for the night! It may not be easy to follow you, and I suspect it isn't, but at least it jolly well can't be such a job as leading you! I trust you had a comfortable journey?"
"Thanks," said King, shaking hands with him, and then turning away to unlock the carriage doors that held his prisoners in. They were baying now like wolves to be free, and they surged out, like wolves from a cage, to clamor round the Rangar, pawing him and struggling to be first to ask him questions.
"Nay, ye mountain people; nay!" he laughed. "I, too, am from the plains! What do I know of your families or of your feuds? Am I to be torn to pieces to make a meal?"
At that Ismail interfered, with the aid of an ash pick-handle, chance-found beside the track.
"Hill-bastards!" he howled at them, beating at them as if they were sheaves and his cudgel were a flail. "Sons of nameless mothers! Forgotten of God! Shameless! Brood of the evil one! Hands off!"
King had to stop him, not that he feared trouble, for they did not seem to resent either abuse or cudgeling in the least—and that in itself was food for thought; but broken shoulders are no use for carrying loads.
Laughing as if the whole thing was the greatest joke imaginable, Rewa Gunga fell into stride beside King and led him away in the direction of some tents.
"She is up the Pass ahead of us," he announced. "She was in the deuce of a hurry, I can assure you. She wanted to wait and meet you, but matters were too jolly well urgent, and we shall have our bally work cut out to catch her, you can bet! But I have everything ready—tents and beds and stores—everything!"
King looked over his shoulder to make sure that Ismail was bringing the little leather bag along.
"So have I," he said quietly.
"I have horses," said Rewa Gunga, "and mules and—"
"How did she travel up the Khyber?" King asked him, and the Rangar spared him a curious sidewise glance.
"On a horse. You should have seen the horse!"
"What escort had she?"
Rewa Gunga chuckled and then suddenly grew serious.
"The 'Hills' are her escort, King sahib. She is mistress in the 'Hills.' There isn't a murdering ruffian who would not lie down and let her walk on him! She rode away alone on a thoroughbred mare and she jolly well left me the mare's double on which to follow her. Come and look."
Not far from where the tents had been pitched in a cluster a string of horses winnied at a picket rope. King saw the two good horses ready for himself, and ten mules beside them that would have done credit to any outfit. But at the end of the line, pawing at the trampled grass, was a black mare that made his eyes open wide. Once in a hundred years or so a viceroy's cup, or a Derby is won by an animal that can stand and look and move as that mare did.
"Just watch!" the Rangar boasted; hooking up the bit and throwing off the blanket. And as he mounted into the native-made rough-hide saddle a shout went up from the fort and native officers and half the soldiery came out to watch the poetry of motion.
The mare was not the only one worth watching; her rider shared the praise. There was something unexpected, although not in the least ungainly, about the Rangar's seat in the saddle that was not the ordinary, graceful native balance and yet was full of grace. King ascribed the difference to the fact that the Rangar had seen no military service, and before the inadequacy of that explanation had asserted itself he had already forgotten to criticize in sheer admiration.
There was none of the spurring and back-reining that some native bloods of India mistake for horse-manship. The Rangar rode with sympathy and most consummate skill, and the result was that the mare behaved as if she were part of him, responding to his thoughts, putting a foot where he wished her to put it and showing her wildest turn of speed along a level stretch in instant response to his mood.
"Never saw anything better," King admitted ungrudgingly, as the mare came back at a walk to her picket rope.
"There is only one mare like this one," laughed the Rangar. "She has her."
"What'll you take for this one?" King asked him. "Name your price!"
"The mare is hers. You must ask her. Who knows? She is generous. There is nobody on earth more generous than she when she cares to be. See what you wear on your wrist!"
"That is a loan," said King, uncovering the bracelet. "I shall give it back to her when we meet."
"See what she says when you meet!" laughed the Rangar, taking a cigarette from his jeweled case with an air and smiling as he lighted it. "There is your tent, sahib."
He motioned with the cigarette toward a tent pitched quite a hundred yards away from the others and from the Rangar's own; with the Rangar's and the cluster of tents for the men it made an equilateral triangle, so that both he and the Rangar had privacy.
With a nod of dismissal, King walked over to inspect the bandobast, and finding it much more extravagant than he would have dreamed of providing for himself, he lit one of his black cheroots, and with hands clasped behind him strolled over to the fort to interview Courtenay, the officer commanding.
It so happened that Courtenay had gone up the Pass that morning with his shotgun after quail. He came back into view, followed by his little ten-man escort just as King neared the fort, and King timed his approach so as to meet him. The men of the escort were heavily burdened; he could see that from a distance.
"Hello!" he said by the fort gate, cheerily, after he had saluted and the salute had been returned.
"Oh, hello, King! Glad to see you. Heard you were coming, of course. Anything I can do?"
"Tell me anything you know," said King, offering him a cheroot which the other accepted. As he bit off the end they stood facing each other, so that King could see the oncoming escort and what it carried. Courtenay read his eyes.
"Two of my men!" he said. "Found 'em up the Pass. Gazi work I think. They were cut all to pieces. There's a big lashkar gathering somewhere in the 'Hills,' and it might have been done by their skirmishers, but I don't think so."
"A lashkar besides the crowd at Khinjan?"
"Who's supposed to be leading it?"
"Can't find out," said Courtenay. Then he stepped aside to give orders to the escort. They carried the dead bodies into the fort.
"Know anything of Yasmini?" King asked, when the major stood in front of him again.
"By reputation, of course, yes. Famous person—sings like a bulbul—dances like the devil—lived in Delhi—mean her?"
King nodded. "When did she start up the Pass?" he asked.
"How d'ye mean?" Courtenay demanded sharply.
"To-day or yesterday?"
"She didn't start! I know who goes up and who comes down. Would you care to glance over the list?"
"Know anything of Rewa Gunga?" King asked him.
"Not much. Tried to buy his mare. Seen the animal? Gad! I'd give a year's pay for that beast! He wouldn't sell and I don't blame him."
"He goes up the Khyber with me," said King. "He's what the Turks would call my youldash."
"And the Persians a hamrah, eh? There was an American here lately—merry fellow—and I was learning his language. Side partner's the word in the States. I can imagine a worse side partner than that same man Rewa Gunga—much worse."
"He told me just now," said King, "that Yasmini went up the Pass unescorted, mounted on a mare the very dead spit of the black one you say you wanted to buy."
"I'm sorry, King. I'm sorry to say he lied."
"Will you come and listen while I have it out with him?"
King threw away his less-than-half-consumed cheroot and they started to walk together toward King's camp. After a few minutes they arrived at a point from which they could see the prisoners lined up in a row facing Rewa Gunga. A less experienced eye than King's or Courtenay's could have recognized their attitude of reverent obedience.
"He'll make a good adjutant for you, that man," said Courtenay; but King only grunted.
At sight of them Ismail left the line and came hurrying toward them with long mountainman's strides.
"Tell Rewa Gunga sahib that I wish to speak to him!" King called, and Ismail hurried back again.
Within two minutes the Rangar stood facing them, looking more at ease than they.
"I was cautioning those savages!" he explained. "They're an escort, but they need a reminder of the fact, else they might jolly well imagine themselves mountain goats and scatter among the 'Hills'!"
He drew out his wonderful cigarette case and offered it open to Courtenay, who hesitated, and then helped himself. King refused.
"Major Courtenay has just told me," said King, "that nobody resembling Yasmini has gone up the Pass recently. Can you explain?"
"You see, I've been watching the Pass," explained Courtenay.
The Rangar shook his head, blew smoke through his nose and laughed.
"And you did not see her go?" he said, as if he were very much amused.
"No," said Courtenay. "She didn't go."
"Can you explain?" asked King rather stiffly.
"Do you mean, can I explain why the major failed to see her? 'Pon my soul, King sahib, d'you want me to insult the man? Yasmini is too jolly clever for me, or for any other man I ever met; and the major's a man, isn't he? He may pack the Khyber so full of men that there's only standing room and still she'll go up without his leave if she chooses! There is nobody like Yasmini in all the world!"
The Rangar was looking past them, facing the great gorge that lets the North of Asia trickle down into India and back again when weather and the tribes permit. His eyes had become interested in the distance. King wondered why—and looked—and saw. Courtenay saw, too.
"Hail that man and bring him here!" he ordered.
Ismail, keeping his distance with ears and eyes peeled, heard instantly and hurried off. He went like the wind and all three watched in silence for ten minutes while he headed off a man near the mouth of the Pass, stopped him, spoke to him and brought him along. Fifteen minutes later an Afridi stood scowling in front of them with a little letter in a cleft stick in his hand. He held it out and Courtenay took it and sniffed.
"Well—I'll be blessed! A note"—sniff—sniff—"on scented paper!" Sniff—sniff! "Carried down the Khyber in a split stick! Take it, King—it's addressed to you."
King obeyed and sniffed too. It smelt of something far more subtle than musk. He recognized the same strange scent that had been wafted from behind Yasmini's silken hangings in her room in Delhi. As he unfolded the note—it was not sealed—he found time for a swift glance at Rewa Gunga's face. The Rangar seemed interested and amused.
"Dear Captain King," the note ran, in English. "Kindly
be quick to follow me, because there is much talk of a
lashkar getting ready for a raid. I shall wait for
you in Khinjan, whither my messenger shall show the way.
Please let him keep his rifle. Trust him, and Rewa
Gunga and my thirty whom you brought with you. The
messenger's name is Darya Khan.
He passed the note to Courtenay, who read it and passed it back.
"Are you the messenger who is to show this sahib the road to Khinjan?" he asked.
"But you are one of three who left here and went up the Pass at dawn! I recognize you."
"Aye!" said the man. "She met me and gave me this letter and sent me back."
"How great is the lashkar that is forming?" asked Courtenay.
"Some say three thousand men. They speak truth. They who say five thousand are liars. There is a lashkar."
"And she went up alone?" King murmured aloud in Pashtu.
"Is the moon alone in the sky?" the fellow asked, and King smiled at him.
"Let us hurry after her, sahib!" urged Rewa Gunga, and King looked straight into his eyes, that were like pools of fire, just as they had been that night in the room in Delhi. He nodded and the Rangar grinned.
"Better wait until dawn," advised Courtenay. "The Pass is supposed to be closed at dusk."
"I shall have to ask for special permission, sir."
"Granted, of course."
"Then, we'll start at eight to-night!" said King, glancing at his watch and snapping the gold case shut.
"Dine with me," said Courtenay.
"Yes, please. Got to pack first. Daren't trust anybody else."
"Very well. We'll dine in my tent at six-thirty," said Courtenay. "So long!"
"So long, sir," said King, and each went about his own business, King with the Rangar, and Ismail and all thirty prisoners at his heels, and Courtenay alone, but that much more determined.
"I'll find out," the major muttered, "how she got up the Pass without my knowing it. Somebody's tail shall be twisted for this!"
But he did not find out until King told him, and that was many days later, when a terrible cloud no longer threatened India from the North.