Oh, a broken blade,
And an empty bag,
And a sodden kit,
And a foundered nag,
And a whimpering wind
Are more or less
Ground for a gentleman's distress.
Yet the blade will cut,
(He should swing with a will!)
And the emptiest bag
He may readiest fill;
And the nag will trot
If the man has a mind,
So the kit he may dry
In the whimpering wind.
Shades of a gallant past—confess!
How many fights were won with less?
"I think I envy you!" said Courtenay.
They were seated in Courtenay's tent, face to face across the low table, with guttering lights between and Ismail outside the tent handing plates and things to Courtenay's servant inside.
"You're about the first who has admitted it," said King.
Not far from them a herd of pack-camels grunted and bubbled after the evening meal. The evening breeze brought the smoke of dung fires down to them, and an Afghan—one of the little crowd of traders who had come down with the camels three hours ago—sang a wailing song about his lady-love. Overhead the sky was like black velvet, pierced with silver holes.
"You see, you can't call our end of this business war—it's sport," said Courtenay. "Two battalions of Khyber Rifles, hired to hold the Pass against their own relations. Against them a couple of hundred thousand tribesmen, very hungry for loot, armed with up-to-date rifles, thanks to Russia yesterday and Germany to-day, and all perfectly well aware that a world war is in progress. That's sport, you know—not the 'image and likeness of war' that Jorrocks called it, but the real red root. And you've got a mystery thrown in to give it piquancy. I haven't found out yet how Yasmini got up the Pass without my knowledge. I thought it was a trick. Didn't believe she'd gone. Yet all my mer swear they know she has gone, and not one of them will own to having seen her go! What d'you think of that?"
"Tell you later," said King, "when I've been in the 'Hills' a while."
"What d'you suppose I'm going to say, eh? Shall I enter in my diary that a chit came down the Pass from a woman who never went up it? Or shall I say she went up while I was looking the other way?"
"Help yourself!" laughed King.
"Laugh on! I envy you! I f the worst comes to the worst, you'll have had the best end of it. If you fail up there in the 'Hills' you'll get scoughed and be done with you. You'll at least have had a show. All we shall know of your failure will be the arrival of the flood! We'll be swamped ingloriously—shot, skinned alive and crucified without a chance of doing anything but wait for it! You're in luck—you can move about and keep off the fidgets!"
For a while, as he ate Courtenay's broiled quail, King did not answer. But the merry smile had left his eyes and he seemed for once to be letting his mind dwell on conditions as they concerned himself.
"How many men have you at the fort?" he asked at last.
"Two hundred. Why?"
"To a man."
"What's the use of talking?" answered Courtenay. "You know what it means when men of an alien race stand up to you and grin when they salute. They're my own."
King nodded. "Die with you, eh?"
"To the last man," said Courtenay quietly with that conviction that can only be arrived at in one way, and that not the easiest.
"I'd die alone," said King. "It'll be lonely in the 'Hills.' Got any more quail?"
And that was all he ever did say on that subject, then or at any other time.
"Here's to her!" laughed Courtenay at last, rising and holding up his glass. "We can't explain her, so let's drink to her! No heel-taps! Here's to Rewa Gunga's mistress, Yasmini!"
"May she show good hunting!" answered King, draining his glass; and it was his first that day. "If it weren't for that note of hers that came down the Pass, and for one or two other things, I'd almost believe her a myth—one of those supposititious people who are supposed to express some ideal or other. Not an hallucination, you understand—nor exactly an embodied spirit, either. Perhaps the spirit of a problem. Let y be the Khyber district, z the tribes, and x the spirit of the rumpus. Find x. Get me?"
"Not exactly. Got quinine in your kit, by the way?"
"What shall you do first after you get up the Pass? Call on your brother at Ali Masjid? He's likely to know a lot by the time you get there."
"Not sure," said King. "May and may not. I'd like to see him. Haven't seen the old chap in a donkey's age. How is he?"
"Well two days ago," said Courtenay. "What's your general plan?"
"Hunt!" said King. "Hunt for x and report. Hunt for the spirit of the coming ruction and try to scrag it! Live in the open when I can, sleep with the lice when it rains or snows, eat dead goat and bad bread, I expect; scratch myself when I'm not looking, and take a tub at the first opportunity. When you see me on my way back, have a bath made ready for me, will you—and keep to windward!"
"Certainly!" said Courtenay. "What's the Rangar going to do with that mare of his? Suppose he'll leave her at Ali Masjid? He'll have to leave her somewhere on the way. She'll get stolen. Gad! That's the brightest notion yet! I'll make a point of buying her from the first horse-thief who comes traipsing down the Pass!"
"Here's wishing you luck!" said King. "It's time to go, sir."
He rose, and Courtenay walked with him to where his party waited in the dark, chilled by the cold wind whistling down the Khyber. Rewa Gunga sat, mounted, at their head, and close to him his personal servant rode another horse. Behind them were the mules, and then in a cluster, each with a load of some sort on his head, were the thirty prisoners, and Ismail took charge of them officiously. Darya Khan, the man who had brought the letter down the Pass, kept close to Ismail.
"Are you armed?" King asked, as soon as he could see the whites of the Rangar's eyes through the gloom.
"You jolly well bet I am!" the Rangar laughed.
King mounted, and Courtenay shook hands; then he went to Rewa Gunga's side and shook hands with him, too.
"Good-by!" called King.
"Good-by and good luck!"
"Forward! March!" King ordered, and the little procession started.
"Oh, men of the 'Hills,' ye look like ghosts—like graveyard ghosts!" jeered Courtenay, as they all filed past him. "Ye look like dead men, going to be judged!"
Nobody answered. They strode behind the horses, with the swift silent strides of men who are going home to the "Hills"; but even they, born in the "Hills"' and knowing them as a wolf-pack knows its hunting-ground, were awed by the gloom of Khyber-mouth ahead. King's voice was the first to break the silence, and he did not speak until Courtenay was out of ear-shot. Then:
"Men of the 'Hills'!" he called. "Kuch dar nahin hai!"
"Nahin hai! Hah!" shouted Ismail. "So speaks a man! Hear that, ye mountain folk! He says, 'There is no such thing as fear!'"
In his place in the lead, King whistled softly to himself; but he drew an automatic pistol from its place beneath his armpit and transferred it to a readier position.
Fear or no fear, Khyber-mouth is haunted after dark by the men whose blood-feuds are too reeking raw to let them dare go home and for whom the British hangman very likely waits a mile or two farther south. It is one of the few places in the world where a pistol is better than a thick stick.
Boulder, crag and loose rock faded into gloom behind; in front on both hands ragged hillsides were beginning to close in; and the wind, whose home is in Allah's refuse heap, whistled as it searched busily among the black ravines. Then presently the shadow of the thousand-foot-high Khyber walls began to cover them, and King drew rein to count them all and let them close up. To have let them straggle after that point would be tantamount to murder probably.
"Ride last!" he ordered Rewa Gunga. "You've got the only other pistol, haven't you?"
Darya Khan, who had brought the letter, had a rifle; so King gave him a roving commission on the right flank.
They moved on again after five minutes, in the same deep silence, looking like ghosts in search of somebody to ferry them across the Styx. Only the glow of King's cheroot, and the lesser, quicker fire of Rewa Gunga's cigarette, betrayed humanity, except that once or twice King's horse would put a foot wrong and be spoken to.
But from five or ten yards away that might have been a new note in the gaining wind or even nothing.
After a while King's cheroot went out, and he threw it away. A little later Rewa Gunga threw away his cigarette. After that, the veriest five-year-old among the Zakka Khels, watching sleepless over the rim of some stone watch-tower, could have taken oath that the Khyber's unburied dead were prowling in search of empty graves. Probably their uncanny silence was their best protection; but Rewa Gunga chose to break it after a time.
"King sahib!" he called softly, repeating it louder and more loudly until King heard him. "Slowly! Not so fast!"
King did not check speed by a fraction, but the Rangar legged his mare into a canter and forced him to pull out to the left of the track and make room.
"Because, sahib, there are men among those boulders, and to go too fast is to make them think you are afraid! To seem afraid is to invite attack! Can we defend ourselves, with three firearms between us? Look! What was that?"
They were at the point where the road begins to lead up-hill, westward, leaving the bed of a ravine and ascending to join the highway built by British engineers. Below, to left and right, was pit-mouth gloom, shadows amid shadows, full of eerie whisperings, and King felt the short hair on his neck begin to rise.
So he urged his horse forward, because what Rewa Gunga said is true. There is only one surer key to trouble in the Khyber than to seem afraid—and that is to be afraid. And to have sat his horse there listening to the Rangar's whisperings and trying to see through shadows would have been to invite fear, of the sort that grows into panic.
The Rangar followed him, close up, and both horse and mare sensed excitement. The mare's steel shoes sent up a shower of sparks, and King turned to rebuke the Rangar. Yet he did not speak. Never, in all the years he had known India and the borderland beyond, had he seen eyes so suggestive of a tiger's in the dark! Yet they were not the same color as a tiger's, nor the same size, nor the same shape!
"Look at what?"
After a second or two he caught a glimpse of bluish flame that flashed suddenly and died again, somewhere below to the right. Then all at once the flame burned brighter and steadier and began to move and to grow.
"Halt!" King thundered; and his voice was as sharp and unexpected as a pistol-crack. This was something tangible, that a man could tackle—a perfect antidote for nerves.
The blue light continued on a zigzag course, as if a man were running among boulders with an unusual sort of torch; and as there was no answer King drew his pistol, took about thirty seconds' aim and fired. He fired straight at the blue light.
It vanished instantly, into measureless black silence.
"Now you've jolly well done it, haven't you!"' the Rangar laughed in his ear. "That was her blue light—Yasmini's!"
It was a minute before King answered, for both animals were all but frantic with their sense of their riders' state of mind; it needed horsemanship to get them back under control.
"How do you know whose light it was?" King demanded, when the horse and mare were head to head again.
"It was prearranged. She promised me a signal at the point where I am to leave the track!"
"Where's that guide?" demanded King; and Darya Khan came forward out of the night, with his rifle cocked and ready.
"Did she not say Khinjan is the destination?"'
"Aye!" the fellow answered.
"I know the way to Khinjan. That is not it. Get down there and find out what that light was. Shout back what you find!"
The man obeyed instantly and sprang down into darkness. But King had hardly given the order when shame told him he had sent a native on an errand he had no liking for himself.
"Come back!" he shouted. "I'll go."
But the man had gone, slipping noiselessly in the dark from rock to rock.
So King drove both spurs home, and set his unwilling horse to scrambling downward at an angle he could not guess, into blackness he could feel, trusting the animal to find a footing where his own eyes could make out nothing.
To his disgust he heard the Rangar follow immediately. To his even greater disgust the black mare overtook him. And even then, with his own mount stumbling and nearly pitching him headforemost at each lurch, he was forced to admire the mare's goatlike agility, for she descended into the gorge in running leaps, never setting a wrong foot. When he and his horse reached the bottom at last he found the Rangar waiting for him.
"This way, sahib!"
The next he knew sparks from the black mare's heels were kicking up in front of him, and a wild ride had begun such as he had never yet dreamed of. There was no catching up, for the black mare could gallop two to his horse's one; but he set his teeth and followed into solid night, trusting ear, eye, guesswork and the God of Secret Service men who loves the reckless.
Once in a minute or so he would see a spark, or a shower of them, where the mare took a turn in a hurry. Once in every two or three minutes he caught sight for a second of the same blue siren light that had started the race. He suspected that there were many torches placed at intervals. It could not be one man running. More than once it occurred to him to draw and shoot, but that thought died into the darkness whence it came. Never once while he rode did he forget to admire the Rangar's courage or the black mare's speed.
His own horse developed a speed and stamina he had not suspected, and probably the Rangar did not dare extend the mare to her limit in the dark; at all events, for ten, perhaps fifteen, minutes of breathless galloping he almost made a race of it, keeping the Rangar, either within sight or sound.
But then the mare swerved suddenly behind a boulder and was gone. He spurred round the same great rock a minute later, and was faced by a blank wall of shale that brought his horse up all standing. It led steep up for a thousand feet to the sky-line. There was not so much as a goat-track to show in which direction the mare had gone, nor a sound of any kind to guide him.
He dismounted and stumbled about on foot for about ten minutes with his eyes two feet from the earth, trying to find some trace of hoof. Then he listened, with his ear to the ground. There was no result.
He knew better than to shout, for that would sound like a cry of distress, and there is no mercy whatever in the "Hills" for lost wanderers, or for men who seem lost. He had not a doubt there were men with long jezails lurking not far away, to say nothing of those responsible for the blue torchlight.
After some thought be mounted and began to hunt the way back, remembering turns and twists with a gift for direction that natives might well have envied him. He found his way back to the foot of the road at a trot, where ninety-nine men out of almost any hundred would have been lost hopelessly; and close to the road he overtook Darya Khan, hugging his rifle and staring about like a scorpion at bay.
"Did you expect that blue light, and this galloping away?" he asked.
"Nay, sahib; I knew nothing of it! I was told to lead the way to Khinjan."
"Come on, then!"
He set his horse at the boulder-strewn slope and had to dismount to lead him at the end of half a minute. At the end of a minute both he and the messenger were hauling at the reins and the horse had grown frantic from fear of falling backward. He shouted for help, and Ismail and another man came leaping down, looking like the devils of the rocks, to lend their strength. Ismail tightened his long girdle and stung the other two with whiplash words, so that Darya Khan overcame prejudice to the point of stowing his rifle between some rocks and lending a hand. Then it took all four of them fifteen minutes to heave and haul the struggling animal to the level road above.
There, with eyes long grown used to the dark, King stared about him, recovering his breath and feeling in his pockets for a fresh cheroot and matches. He struck a match and watched it to be sure his hand did not shake before he spoke, because one of Cocker's rules is that a man must command himself before trying it on others.
"Where are the others?" he asked, when he was certain of himself.
"Gone!" boomed Ismail, still panting, for he had heaved and dragged more stoutly than had all the rest together.
King took a dozen pulls at the cheroot and stared about again. In the middle of the road stood his second horse, and three mules with his baggage, including the unmarked medicine chest. Close to them were three men, making the party now only six all told, including Darya Khan, himself and Ismail.
"Gone whither?" he asked.
Ismail's voice was eloquent of shocked surprise.
"They followed! Was it then thy baggage on the other mules? Were they thy men? They led the mules and went!"
"Who ordered them?"
"Allah! Need the night be ordered to follow the Day?"
"Who told them whither to go?"
"Who told the moon where the night was?" Ismail answered.
"I am thy man! She bade me be thy man!"
King bethought him of his wrist, that was heavy with the weight of gold on it. He drew back his sleeve and held it up.
"May God be with thee!" boomed all five men at once, and the Khyber night gave back their voices, like the echoing of a well.
King took his reins and mounted.
"What now?" asked Ismail, picking up the leather bag that he regarded as his own particular charge.
"Forward!" said King. "Come along!"
He began to set a fairly fast pace, Ismail leading the spare horse and the others towing the mules along. Except for King, who was modern and out of the picture, they looked like Old Testament patriarchs, hurrying out of Egypt, as depicted in the illustrated Bibles of a generation ago—all leaning forward—each man carrying a staff—and none looking to the right or left.
After a time the moon rose and looked at them from over a distant ridge that was thousands of feet higher than the ragged fringe of Khyber wall. The little mangy jackals threw up their heads to howl at it; and after that there was pale light diffused along the track, and they could see so well that King set a faster pace, and they breathed hard in the effort to keep up. He did not draw rein until it was nearly time for the Pass to begin narrowing and humping upward to the narrow gut at Ali Masjid. But then he halted suddenly. The jackals had ceased howling, and the very spirit of the Khyber seemed to hold its breath and listen.
In that shuddersome ravine unusual sounds will rattle along sometimes from wall to wall and gully to gully, multiplying as they go, until night grows full of thunder. So it was now that they heard a staccato cannonade—not very loud yet, but so quick, so pulsating, so filling to the ears that he could judge nothing about the sound at all, except that whatever caused it must be round a corner out of sight.
At first, for a few minutes King suspected it was Rewa Gunga's mare, galloping over hard rock away ahead of him. Then he knew it was a horse approaching. After that he became nearly sure he was mistaken altogether and that the drums were being beaten at a village—until he remembered there was no village near enough and no drums in any case.
It was the behavior of the horse he rode, and of the led one and the mules, that announced at last beyond all question that a horse was coming down the Khyber in a hurry. One of the mules brayed until the whole gorge echoed with the insult, and a man hit him hard on the nose to silence him.
King legged his horse into the shadow of a great rock. And after shepherding the men and mules into another shadow, Ismail came and held his stirrup, with the leather bag in the other hand. The bag fascinated him, because he did not know what was in it, and it was plain that he meant to cling to it until death or King should put an end to curiosity.
King drew his pistol. Ismail drew in his breath with a hissing sound, as if he and not King were the marksman. King notched the foresight against the corner of a crag, at a height that ought to be an inch or two above an oncoming horse's ears, and Ismail nodded sagely. Whoever now should gallop round that rock would be obliged to cross the line of fire. Such are the vagaries of the Khyber's night echoes that it was a long five minutes yet before a man appeared at last, riding like the night wind, on a horse that seemed to be very nearly on his last legs. The beast was going wildly, sobbing, with straggled ears.
Instead of speaking, King spurred out of the shadow and blocked the oncoming horseman's way, making his own horse meet the other shoulder to breast, knocking most of the remaining wind out of him. At risk of his own life, Ismail seized the man's reins. The sparks flew, and there was a growled oath; but the long and the short of it was that the rider squinted uncomfortably down the barrel of King's repeating pistol.
"Give an account of yourself!" commanded King.
The man did not answer. He was a jezailchi of the Khyber Rifles—hook-nosed as an osprey—black-bearded—with white teeth glistening out of a gap in the darkness of his lower face. And he was armed with a British government rifle, although that is no criterion in that borderland of professional thieves where many a man has offered himself for enlistment with a stolen government rifle in his grasp.
The waler he rode was an officer's charger. The poor brute sobbed and heaved and sweated in his tracks as his rightful owner surely had never made him do.
"Whither?" King demanded.
The jezailchi growled the one-word answer with one eye on King, but the other eye still squinted down the pistol barrel warily.
"Have you a letter?"
The man did not answer.
"You may speak to me. I am of your regiment. I am Captain King."
"That is a lie, and a poor one!" the fellow answered. "But a very little while ago I spoke with King sahib in Ali Masjid Fort, and he is no cappitin, he is leftnant. Therefore thou art a liar twice over—nay, three times! Thou art no officer of Khyber Rifles! I am a jezailchi, and I know them all!"
"None the less," said King, "I am an officer of the Khyber Rifles, newly appointed. I asked you, have you a letter?"
"Let me see it."
"I order you!"
"Nay! I am a true man! I will eat the letter rather!"
"Tell me who wrote it, then."
But the fellow shook his head, still eying the pistol as if it were a snake about to strike.
"I have eaten the salt!" he said. "May dogs eat me if I break faith! Who art thou, to ask me to break faith? An arrficer? That must be a lie! The letter is from him who wrote it, to whom I bear it—and that is my answer if I die this minute!"
King let his reins fall and raised his left wrist until the moonlight glinted on the gold of his bracelet under the jezailchi's very eyes.
"May God be with thee!" said the man at once.
"From whom is your letter, and to whom?" asked King, wondering what the men in the clubs at home would say if they knew that a woman's bracelet could outweigh authority on British sod; for the Khyber Pass is as much British as the air is an eagle's or Korea Japanese, or Panama United States American, and the Khyber jezailchis are paid to help keep it so.
"From the karnal sahib (colonel) at Landi Kotal, whose horse I ride," said the jezailchi slowly, "to the arrficer at Jamrud. To King sahib, the arrficer at Ali Masjid I bore a letter also, and left it as I passed."
"Had they no spare horse at Ali Masjid? That beast is foundered."
"There are two horses there, and both lame. The man who thou sayest is thy brother is heavy on horses."
King nodded. "What is in the letter?" he asked.
"Nay! Have I eyes that can see through paper?"
"Thou hast ears that can listen!" answered King.
"In the letter that I left at Ali Masjid there is news of the lashkar that is gathering in the 'Hills,' above Ali Masjid and beyond Khinjan. King sahib is ordered to be awake and wary."
"And to lame no more horses jumping them over rocks!"
"Nay, the karnal sahib said he is to ride after no more jackals with a spear!"
"Same old game!" said King to himself. "What knowest thou of the lashkar that is gathering?"
"I? Oh, a little. An uncle of mine, and three half-brothers, and a brother are of its number! One came at night to tempt me to join—but I have eaten the salt. It was I who first warned our karnal sahib. Now, let me by!"
"Nay, wait!" ordered King. But he lowered his pistol point.
To hold up a despatch rider was about as irregular as any proceeding could be; but it was within his province to find out how far the Khyber jezailchis could be trusted and within his power more than to make up the lost time. So that the irregularity did not trouble him much.
"Does this other letter tell of the lashkar, too?"
"Am I God, that I should know? But of what else should the karnal sahib write?"
"What is the object of the rising?" King asked him next; and the man threw his head back to laugh like a wolf. Laughter, at night in the Khyber, is an insult. Ismail chattered into his beard; but King sat still.
"Object? What but to force the Khyber and burst through into India and loot? What but to plunder, now that English backs are turned the other way?"
"Who said their backs are turned?" demanded King.
"Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ho! Hear him!"
The Khyber echoed the mockery away and away into the distance.
"Their backs are this way and their faces that! The kites know it! The vultures know it! The little jackals know it! The little butchas in the valley villages all know it! Ask the rocks, and the grass—the very water running from the 'Hills'! They all know that the English fight for life!"
"And the Khyber jezailchis? What of them?" King asked.
"They know it better than any!"
"They make ready, even as I."
"For what Allah shall decide! We ate the salt, we jezailchis. We chose, and we ate of our own free will. We have been paid the price we named, in silver and rifles and clothing. The arrficers the sirkar sent us are men of faith who have made no trouble with our women. What, then, should the Khyber jezailchis do? For a little while there will be fighting—or, if we be very brave and our arrficers skillful, and Allah would fain see sport, then for a longer while. Then we shall be overridden. Then the Khyber will be a roaring river of men pouring into India, as my father's father told me it has often been! India shall bleed in these days—but there will be fighting in the Khyber first!"
"And what of her? Of Yasmini?" King asked.
"Thou wearest that—and askest what of her? Nay—tell!"
"Should she order the jezailchis to be false to the salt—?"
"Such a question!"
The man clucked into his beard and began to fidget in the saddle. King gave him another view of the bracelet, and again he found a civil answer.
"We of the Rifles have her leave to be loyal to the salt, for, said she, otherwise how could we be true men; and she loves no liars. From the first, when she first won our hearts in the 'Hills,' she gave us of the Rifles leave to be true men first and her servants afterward! We may love her—as we do!—and yet fight against her, if so Allah wills—and she will yet love us!"
"Where is she?" King asked him suddenly, and the man began to laugh again.
"Let me by!" he shouted truculently. "Who am I to sit a horse and gossip in the Khyber? Let me by, I say!"
"I will let you by when you have told me where she is!"
"Then I die here, and very likely thou, too!" the man answered, bringing his rifle to the port in front of him so quickly that he almost had King at a disadvantage. As it was, King was quick enough to balance matters by covering him with the pistol again. The horses sensed excitement and began to stir. With a laugh the jezailchi let the rifle fall across his lap, and at that King put the pistol out of sight.
"Fool!" hissed Ismail in his ear; but King knows the "Hills" better in some ways than the savages who live in them; they, for instance, never seem able to judge whether there will be a fight presently or not.
"Why won't you tell me where she is?" he asked in his friendliest voice, and that would wheedle secrets from the Sphynx.
"Her secrets are her own, and may Allah help her guard them! I will tear my tongue out first!"
"Enviable woman!" murmured King. "Pass, friend!" he ordered, reining aside. "Take my spare horse and leave me that weary one, so you will recover the lost time and more into the bargain."
The man changed horses gladly, saying nothing. When he had shifted the saddle and mounted, he began to ride off with a great air, not so much as deigning to scowl at Ismail. But he had not ridden a dozen paces when he sat round in the saddle and drew rein.
"Sahib!" he called. "Sahib!"
King waited. He had waited for this very thing and could afford to wait a minute longer.
"Hast thou—is there—does the sahib—I have not tasted—"
He made a sign with his hand that men recognize in pretty nearly every land under the sun.
"So-ho!" laughed King, patting his hip pocket, from which the cap of a silver-topped flask had been protruding ever since he put the pistol out of sight. "So our copper's hot, eh?"
"May Allah do more to me if my throat is not lined with the fires of Eblis!"
"But the Kalamullah!" King objected. "What saith the Prophet?"
"The Prophet forbade the faithful to drink wine," said the jezailchi. "He said nothing about whiskey, that I ever heard!"
"Mine is brandy," said King.
"May Allah bless the sahib's sons and grandsons to the seventh generation! May Allah—"
"Tell me about Yasmini first! Where is she?"
King tapped the flask in his pocket.
"Nay! My throat is dry, but it shalt parch! I know not! As to where she is, I know not!"
"Remember, and I will give you the whole of it!"
He drew the flask out of his pocket and rode a little way toward the man.
"None can overhear. Tell me now."
"Nay, sahib! I am silent!"
"Have you passed her on your way?"
The man shook his head—shook it until the whites of his eyes were a streak in the middle of his dark face; and when a Hillman is as vehement as that he is surely lying.
King set the flask to his own lips and drank a few drops.
"Salaam, sahib!" said the jezaitchi, wheeling his horse to ride away.
King let him ride twenty paces before calling to him to halt.
"Come back!" he ordered, and rode part of the way to meet him.
"I but tried thee, friend!" he said, holding out the flask.
"Allah then preserve me from a second test!"
The jezailchi seized the flask, clapped it to his lips and drained it to the last drop while King sat still in the moonlight and smiled at him.
"God grant the giver peace!" he prayed, handing the flask back. The kindly East possesses no word for "Thank you." Then he wheeled the horse in a sudden eddy, as polo ponies turn on the Indian plains, and rode away down the wind as if the Pass were full of devils in pursuit of him.
King watched him out of sight and then listened until the hoof-beats died away and the Pass grew still again.
"The jezailchis'll stand!" he said, lighting a new cheroot. "Good men and good luck to 'em!"
Then he rode back to his own men.
"Where starts the trail to Khinjan?" he asked; not that he had forgotten it, but to learn who knew.
"This side of Ali Masjid!" they answered all together.
"Two miles this side. More than a mile from here," said Ismail. "What next? Shall we camp here? Here is fuel and a little water. Give the word—"
"Nay-forward!" ordered King.
"Forward?" growled Ismail. "With this man it is ever 'forward!' Is there neither rest nor fear? Has she bewitched him? Hai! Ye lazy ones! Ho! Sons of sloth! Urge the mules faster! Beat the led horse!"
So in weird wan moonlight, King led them forward, straight up the narrowing gorge, between cliffs that seemed to fray the very bosom of the sky. He smoked a cigar and stared at the view, as if he were off to the mountains for a month's sport with dependable shikarris whom he knew. Nobody could have looked at him and guessed he was not enjoying himself.
"That man," mumbled Ismail behind him, "is not as other sahibs I have known. He is a man, this one! He will do unexpected things!"
"Forward!" King called to them, thinking they were grumbling. "Forward, men of the 'Hills'!"