"They'd hear the shooting and—"
"Not if we drop far enough behind."
"They'd hear shooting and Will, at any rate, would ride back."
"He couldn't! He'd have to look after the girl and the column."
"All the same—Will's—"
"I know he is. Very well. I'll arrange it another way. You wait behind here."
So I rode along slowly, and he spurred his horse to a trot. But he did not hold the trot long. I could hear him objurgating, coaxing, encouraging, explaining, and the shrill voices of women answering, as he tried at one and the same time to pass the unfortunates in the dark and to make them see the grim necessity for speed. Soon I grew as busy as he, bullying litter-bearers and mothers burdened with crying babies. In times of massacre and war, survivors are not necessarily those who enjoyed the best of it. Nearly-drowned men brought to life again would forego the process if the choice were theirs, and there were nearly twenty women who would have preferred death to that night's march. But I did not dare load my horse with babies, since it would likely be needed before dawn for sterner work.
It was more than an hour before Fred loomed in sight again, standing beside his horse in wait for me. He, too, had resisted the temptation to relieve mothers of their living loads (not that they ever expected it).
"How did you manage?" I asked, for I could tell by his air that the errand had been successful.
"I lied to him."
"Of course. What did you say?"
"Said if the straggling got bad you and I might fall a long way behind and fire our pistols, so as to give the impression Kurds are in pursuit. That would tickle up the rear-end to a run!"
"And he believed that?" Will knew as well as I Fred's not exactly subtle way of maneuvering to get the post of greatest danger for himself.
"He'd have believed anything! He's head-, heart-and heels-over-end in love with the girl, and she's as bad as he is. They're talking political economy and international jurisprudence. When I reached 'em they'd just arrived at the conclusion that the United States can save the world, maybe—maybe not, but nothing else can. I was decidedly de trop. They're pretty to watch. No, he hasn't kissed her yet—you could tell that even in the dark. It's my belief he won't for a long time; America's way with women is beyond belief. They're telling each other all they know, and like, and dislike, and believe, and hope. It 'ud take a bullet to divide their destinies. I delivered my message, and they were so devilish polite you'd think I was the parson come to marry 'em. They'd forgotten my very existence. When it dawned on 'em who I was they were so keen to be rid of me they'd have agreed to anything at all. So it was easy."
"No, it's bad. Will's a friend of mine. I hate to see him squandered on a woman. However, I did better than that."
As I spoke there loomed out of the darkness just ahead of us eight men surrounding something on the track, their rifles sticking up above their shoulders.
"I've found eight men with rifles all alike that fit the ammunition in the boxes. It's stolen Turkish government ammunition, by the way. The rifles come from the same source. The point is that a man caught with a stolen government rifle and ammunition in his possession would be tortured. Incidentally the men seem game. Therefore, if we have to fight a rear-guard action we can reasonably count on them. Haide!" he called to the eight men, and they picked up the case of cartridges, and resumed the march just ahead of us.
Fred lit his pipe contentedly, as he always is contented when he can make satisfactory arrangements to sacrifice himself unselfishly and pretend to himself he is a cynic. Whether because the armed guard of their own people put new courage in them, or because rifles at their rear made them more afraid, the stragglers gave less trouble for the next few hours. Perhaps they were growing more used to the march, and some of them were numb with anxiety, while not so weary yet that feet would not carry them forward.
Somewhere in advance a man with a high tenor voice began to sing a wild folk-song, of the sort that is common to all countries whose heritage is hope unstrangled. He and others like him with love and music in their brave hearts sang the tortured column through its night of agony, keeping alive faint hope that hell must have an end. Dawn broke sweet and calm. For it makes no matter if a nation writhes in agony, or man wreaks hate on man, the wind and the sky still whisper and smile; and the scent of wild flowers is not canceled by the stench of tired humanity.
Fred knocked his pipe out and rode to the top of shoulder of rock beside the track, beckoning to me to follow. We could see our column, astonishingly long drawn, winding like a line of ants in and out and over, following the leaders in a dream because there seemed nothing else to do or dream about. Once I thought I caught sight of Will on his horse, passing between trees, but I was not sure. Fred turned his horse about and looked in the direction we had come from. Presently, be nudged me.
"That smoke might be the castle we were in last night. See—it's red underneath. What'll you bet me Kurds don't show up in pursuit before the day's an hour old?"
That was nothing to bet about, and that kind of dawn is not the hour for roseate optimism.
"If they come," said I, "I hope I don't live to see what they'll do to the women."
Fred met my eyes and laughed.
"That's all right," he said. "You ride on. This rock commands the track. I'll follow later when pursuit's called off."
"Ride on yourself!" I answered, and he chuckled as he lighted his pipe again.
One of the men had a kerosene can filled with odds and ends of personal belongings. I turned them out in a hollow of the rock, and sent him to fill the can with drinking water at a spring. Then Fred and I chose stations, and Fred went to vast pains lecturing every one of us on how to keep cover. We had nothing to eat, and therefore no notion of putting up anything but a short fight. Our best point was the surprise that unexpected, organized resistance would be likely to produce on plundering Kurds.
It was pleasant enough where we lay, and reminded both of us of far less strenuous days. The little animals that are always curious to the point of their undoing came out and investigated our tracks as soon as the noise of the stragglers had ceased. The Armenians took no notice of the wild life; persecuted people seldom do, having their own hard case too much in mind; but Fred knew the name of nearly every bird and animal that showed itself, and even ceased smoking as his interest increased.
"Ever go fishing as a boy?" he asked.
"Get up before daylight and escape from the house by the back way—"
"Stealing bread and cheese from the pantry on the way out—"
"And stopping where the grass was long near the watering place to dig worms—"
"And unchain the dog with frantic efforts to keep him from barking—"
"Yes, but the rascal always would do it—bark and wake everybody! Lucky if nobody saw you as you slipped through the gate into the fields!"
"Ah! But then what a time the dog had—it was almost as good fun as the fishing to watch him scamper. And how hungry he got—and he ate more than his share of the bread and cheese, so that you'd have had to go home early because of the aching void if it hadn't been for the cottage where they gave a fellow milk out of a brown dish."
"Yumm! Didn't that country milk taste good! Snff—snff—they were mornings just like this at home when I went fishing. Cool and sweet and full of scent. Snff—snff !"
We sat still behind the ledge and let the air and scenery revive kind memories. The only noise was what our horses made cropping the grass in a hollow behind us, for the Armenians were well content to ruminate. Most likely they would have fallen asleep if we had not been there to keep an eye on them, for prolonged subjection to too much fear is soporific, so that tortured poor wretches sleep on the tightened rack.
I was very nearly asleep myself, having had practically none of it for two nights in succession, and had taken to watching the horses to keep my mind busy, when the movement of my horse's ears struck me as peculiar. Presently he ceased grazing and raised his head. I thought he was going to whinny, and turned to see Fred squinting down his rifle at something that was not in the range of my vision.
"Here they come!" he whispered.
As he spoke a Kurd stepped out from between the trees, and we could see that he had tied his horse to a branch in the gloom behind him. He had the long sleeves reaching nearly to the ground peculiar to his race, and the unmistakable sheeny nose and cruel lips. From the rifle that he carried cavalierly over his shoulder hung a woman's undergarment, with a dark stain on it that looked suspiciously like blood. My horse whinnied then, and his beast answered. At that he brought his rifle to the "ready" and nearly jumped out of his skin.
"I'm judge, jury, witness, prosecutor and executioner!" Fred whispered. "That man's dose is death, and he dies unshriven!"
Then he fired, and Fred could not miss at that range if he tried. The Kurd clapped a hand to his throat and fell backward, and one of our Armenians ran before we could stop him to seize the tied horse, and any other plunder. One of the things he brought back with him, besides the horse and rifle and ammunition belt, was a woman's finger with the ring not yet removed. He said he found it in the cartridge pouch.
In proof that organized defense was the last thing they reckoned on, nine more Kurds came galloping down the track pell-mell toward the place where they had heard the solitary rifle-shot, doubtless supposing their own man had come upon the quarry. We fired too fast, for the Armenians were not drilled men, but we dropped two horses and five Kurds, and the remaining four fled, with the riderless animals stampeding in their wake.
"What next?"' said I, as Fred wiped out his rifle-barrel.
"They'll return in greater force. We'd better change ground. D'you notice how this rock is covered by that other one a quarter of a mile to the right? Higher ground, too, and the last place they'll look—come on!"
The man with the water-can spilled it all, for the sake of his medley of possessions, and I had to send him all the way back for more. But we took up our new stand at last with the horses well hidden and enough to drink to last the day out, and then had to wait half an hour before any Kurds came back to the attack.
They came on the second time with infinite precaution, lurking among the trees on the outskirts of the clearing and firing several random shots at our old position in the hope of drawing our fire. Finally, they emerged from the forest thirty strong and rushed our supposed hiding-place at full gallop.
They were not even out of pistol range. Fred used the Mauser rifle taken from the dead Kurd, and then we both emptied our pistols at the fools, the Armenians meanwhile keeping up a savage independent fire so ragged and rapid that it might have been the battle of Waterloo.
The Kurds never knew whether or not we were another party or the first one. They never discovered whether our former post was deserted or not. We never knew how many of them we hit, for after about a dozen had tumbled out of the saddle the remainder galloped for their lives. For minutes afterward we heard them crashing and pounding away in the distance to find their friends.
Our loot consisted of two wounded prisoners and four good horses, in addition to rifles and cartridges. We let the dead lie where they were for a warning to other scoundrels, and we looked on while our Armenians searched the bodies for anything likely to be of slightest use. They found almost nothing originally Kurdish, but more Armenian trinkets than would have stocked a traveling merchant's show-case, including necklaces and earrings.
Fred took the two prisoners aside and in Persian, which every Kurd can understand and speak after a fashion, offered them their choice between telling the whole truth or being handed over to Armenians. And as there isn't a bloody rascal in the world but suspects his intended victims of worse hankerings than his own, they loosed their tongues and told more than the truth, adding whatever they thought likely to please Fred.
"They say there were only about fifty of them in this raiding party to begin with, and several came to trouble before they met us. Seems there are Armenians hidden here and there who are able to give an account of themselves. Ten or twelve elected to stay near the castle we were in last night. They've burned it, but they have some captured women and propose to enjoy themselves. Shall we ride back and break in on the party?"
He meant what he said, but it was out of the question. "The party we've just trounced will give the alarm," I objected. "We'd only ride into a trap. Besides, you've no proof these prisoners are not lying to you."
"They say their raiding party is the only one within thirty miles. They rode ahead of the regiments to get first picking."
"We're none of us fit for anything but food and sleep," said I, and Fred had to concede the point.
Fortunately the food problem was solved for the moment by the Kurds, who had a sort of cheese with them whose awful taste deprived one of further appetite. We ate, and tied our two wounded prisoners on one horse; and as we had nothing to treat their wounds with except water they finished their trip in exquisite discomfort. Surprise that we should attend to their wounds at all, added to their despondency after they had time to consider what it meant. There was only one burden to their lamentation:
"What are you going to do with us? We will tell what we know! We will name names! We are your slaves! We kiss feet! Ask, and we will answer!"
They thought they were being kept alive for torture, and we let them keep on thinking it. Fred tied their horse to his own saddle and towed them along, singing at the top of his lungs to keep the rest of us awake; and for all his noise I fell asleep until he reached for his concertina and, the humor of the situation dawning on him, commenced a classic of his own composition, causing the morning to re-echo with irreverence, and making all of us except the prisoners aware of the fact that life is not to be taken seriously, even in Armenia. The prisoners intuitively guessed that the song had reference to ways and means they would rather have forgotten.
"Ow! My name it is 'orrible 'Enery 'Emms, And I 'ails from a 'ell of a 'ole! The things I 'ave thought an' the deeds I 'ave did Are remarkable lawless an' better kep' hid, So if Morgan you think of, an' Sharkey an' Kidd, Forget 'em! To name such beginners as them's An insult, so shivver my soul! Yow! In every port o' the whole seven seas I 'ave two or three wives on the rates, For I'm free wi' my fancy an' fly wi' my picks, And I've promised 'em plenty, an' given 'em nix, But have left ev'ry one in a 'ell of a fix! 'Ooever said Bluebeard was brother to me's Either jealous or misunderstates!
"Wow! For awful atrocity, murder an' theft, For battery, arson and hate, >From breakin' the Sabbath to coveting cows, An' false affidavits an' perjurin' vows, I'm adept at whatever the law disallows, And the gallowsmen gape at the noose that I left, For I flit while the bally fools wait!"
Fred kept us awake all right. Like most of his original songs, that one had sixty or seventy verses.
Chapter Twelve "America's way with a woman is beyond belief!"
Did caution keep the gates of Greece, Ye saints of "safety first!" Twixt Thessaly and Locris when Leonidas' thousand men Died scornful of the proffered peace Of Xerxes the accurst? Watch ye have kept, ward ye have kept, But watch and ward were vain If love and gratitude have slept While ye stood guard for gain.
Or ye, who count the niggard cost In time and coin and gear Of succoring the under-dog, How often have ye seen a hog, Establishing his glutton boast, Survive a famine year? Fast ye have kept, feast ye have made; Vain were the deeds and doles If it was fear that ye obeyed To save your coward souls.
Ye banish beauty to the stews For lack of eyes that see, And stifle joy with deadly rote As empty as the texts ye quote, The while forgiveness ye refuse Lest wrath dishonored be. Gray are your days, drab are your ways, Strong are your fashioned bars, But, ye who ask if service pays - Who polishes the stars?
Spring in Armenia is almost as much like heaven as heaven itself could be, if it were not for the unspeakable Turk, but his blight rests on everything. I could have kept awake that morning without Fred's irreverent music, simply for sake of the scenery, if its freshness had been untainted. But there hung a sickly, faint pall of smoke that robbed the green landscape of all liveliness. One breathed weariness instead of wine.
We could not possibly have lost the way, because our crawling column had left a swath behind it of trampled grass and trodden crossing-places where the track wound and rewound in a game of hide-and-seek with tinkling streams. But we began to wonder, nevertheless, why we caught up with nobody.
It was drawing on to ten in the morning, and I had dozed off for about the dozenth time, with my horse in pretty much the same condition, when I heard Will's voice at last, and looked up. He was standing alone on a ledge overlooking the track, but I could see the ends of rifles sticking up close by. If we had been an enemy, we should have stood small chance against him.
"Where are the rest of you?" I asked, and he laughed!
"Women, kids and wounded all swore a pitched battle was raging behind them. Most of them wanted to turn back and lend a hand. I thought you guys mighty cruel to put all that scare into a crowd in their condition—but I see—"
"Guests, America! My country's at peace with Turkey! Where shall we stow our guests?"
"There's a village below here."
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. But behind him was the apex of a spur thrust out in midcurve of the mountainside, and one could not see around that. We had emerged out of the straggling outposts of the forest high above the plain, and to our right the whole panorama lay snoozing in haze. The path by which we had turned our backs on Monty and Kagig went winding away and away below, here and there an infinitesimal thin line of slightly lighter color, but more often suggested by the contour of the hills. Our Zeitoonli in their zeal to return to their leader had been evidently cutting corners. If the smudge of smoke to the right front overhung Marash, then we were probably already nearer Zeitoon than when we and Kagig parted company.
"Come up and see for yourselves," said Will.
Fred passed the line that held his prisoners in tow to an Armenian, and we climbed up together on foot. Around the corner of the spur, within fifty feet of where Will stood, was an almost sheer escarpment, and at the foot of that, a thousand feet below us, with ramparts of living rock on all four sides, crouched a little village fondled in the bosom of the mountains.
"They've piled down there and made 'emselves at home. The place was deserted, prob'ly because it 'ud be too easy to roll rocks down into it. But I can't make 'em listen. Ours is a pretty chesty lot, with guts, and our taking part with 'em has stiffened their courage. They claim they're goin' to hold this rats' nest against all the Turks and Kurds in Asia Minor!"
"That's where the rest of us are," said Will
"Where's Miss Vanderman?"
"Asleep—down in the village. The're all asleep. You guys go down there and sleep, too. I'll follow, soon as I've posted these men on watch. That small square hut next the big one in the middle is ours. She's in the big one with a crowd of women. Now don't make a fool row and wake her! Tie your horses in the shade where you see the others standing in line; there's a little corn for them, and a lot of hay that the owners left behind."
So we undertook not to wake the lady, and left Will there carefully choosing places, in which the men fell fast asleep almost the minute his back was turned. Sleep was in the air that morning—not mere weariness of mind and limb that a man could overcome, but inexplicable coma. Whole armies are affected that way on occasion. There was a man once named Sennacherib.
"Sleepy hollow!" said Fred, and as he spoke his horse pitched forward, almost spilling him; the rope that held the prisoners in tow was all that saved the lot of them from rolling down-hill. Fred dismounted, and drove the horse in front of him with a slap on the rump, but the beast was almost too sleepy to make the effort to descend.
There was no taint of gas or poison fumes. The air tasted fresh except for the faint smoke, and the birds were all in full song. Yet we all had to dismount, and to let the prisoners walk, too, because the horses were too drowsy to be trusted. The path that zigzagged downward to the village was dangerous enough without added risk, and the eight Armenian riflemen refused point-blank to lead the way unless they might drive the animals ahead of them.
Even so, neither we nor they were properly awake ,when we reached the village. We tied up the horses in a sort of dream—fed them from instinct and habit—and made our way to the hut Will had pointed out like men who walked in sleep.
Nobody was keeping watch. Nobody noticed our arrival. Men and women were sleeping in the streets and under the eaves of the little houses. Nothing seemed awake but the stray dogs nosing at men's feet and hunting hopelessly among the bundles.
The little house Will had reserved for our use contained a stool and a string-cot. On the stool was food—cheese and very dry bread; and because even in that waking dream we were conscious of hunger, we ate a little of it. Then we lay down on the floor and fell asleep—we, and the prisoners, and the eight Armenian riflemen. Within a quarter of an hour Will followed us into the house, but we knew nothing about that. Then he, too, fell asleep, and until two or three hours after dark we were a village of the dead.
To this day there is no explaining it. Certainly no human watch or ward saved us from destruction at the hands of roving enemies. I was awakened at last by a brilliant light, and the effort made by our two prisoners, still tied together, to crawl across my body. I threw them off me, and sat up, rubbing my eyes and wondering where I was.
In the door stood Kagig, with a lantern in his right hand thrust forward into the room. His eyes were ablaze with excitement, and between black beard and mustache his teeth showed in a grin mixed of scorn and amusement.
Next I beard Will's voice: "Jimminy!" and Will sat up. Then Fred gave tongue:
"That you, Kagig? Where's Monty? Where's Lord Montdidier?"
Kagig strode into the room, set the lantern on the floor, struck the remnants of the food from off the little stool, and sat down. I could see now that he was deathly tired.
"He is in Zeitoon," he answered.
Noises from outside began then to assert themselves in demonstration that the village was awake at last—also that the population had swollen while we slept. I could hear the restless movement of more than twice the number of horses we had had with us.
Kagig began to laugh—a sort of dry cackle that included wonder as well as rebuke. He threw both hands outward, palms upward, in a gesture that complemented the motion of shoulders shrugged up to his ears.
"All around—high hills! From every side from fifty places rocks could have been rolled upon you! So—and so you sleep!"
"I set guards!" Will exploded.
"Eleven guards I found—all together in one place—fast asleep!"
He showed his splendid teeth and the palms of his hands again in actual enjoyment of the situation. For the first time then I saw there was wet blood on his goat-skin coat.
He made a gesture of impatience.
"It is nothing—nothing. My servant has attended to it."
So Kagig had a servant. I felt glad of that. It meant a rise from vagabondage to position among his people.
Of all earthly attainments, the first and most desirable and last to let go of is an honest servant—unless it be a friend. (But the difference is not so distinct as it sounds.)
A huge fear suddenly seized Fred Oakes.
"You said Monty is in Zeitoon—alive or dead? Quick, man! Answer!"
"Should I leave Zeitoon," Kagig answered slowly, unless I left a better man in charge behind me? He is alive in Zeitoon—alive—alive! He is my brother! He and I love one purpose with a strong love that shall conquer! You speak to me of Lord what-is-it? Hah! To me forever he is Monty, my brother—my—"
"Where's Miss Vanderman?" I interrupted.
"Here!" she said quietly, and I turned my head to discover her sitting beside Will in the shadow cast by Kagig's lantern. She must have entered ahead of Kagig or close behind him, unseen because of his bulk and the tricky light that he swung in his right hand.
Kagig went on as if he had not heard me.
"There is a castle—I think I told you?—perched on a crag in the forest beside Zeitoon. My men have cut a passage to it through the trees, for it had stood forgotten for God knows how long. Later you shall understand. There came Arabaiji, riding a mule to death, saying you and this lady are in danger of life at the hands of my nation. I did not believe that, but Monty—he believed it."
"And I'll wager you found him a hot handful!" laughed Fred. "Not so hot. Not so hot. But very determined. Later you shall understand. He and I drove a bargain."
"Dammit!" Fred rose to his feet. "D'you mean you used our predicament as a club to drive him with?"
Kagig laughed dryly.
"Do you know your friend so little, and think so ill of me? He named terms, and I agreed to them. I took a hundred mounted men to find you and bring you to Zeitoon, spreading them out like a fan, to scour the country. Some fell in with a thing the Turks call a hamidieh regiment; that is a rabble of Kurds under the command of Tenekelis."
"What are they?"
"Tenekelis? The word means 'tin-plate men.' We call them that because of the tin badges given them to wear in their head-dress. In no other way do they resemble officers. They are brigands favored by official recognition, that is all. Their purpose is to pillage Armenians. While you slept in this village, and your watchmen slept up above there, that whole rabble of bandits with their tin-plate officers passed within half a mile, following along the track by which you came! If you had been awake—and cooking—or singing—or making any sort of noise they must have heard you! Instead, they turned down toward the plain a little short distance too soon—and my men met them—and there was a skirmish—and I rallied my other men, and attacked them suddenly. We accounted for two of the tin-plate men, and so many of the thing they call a regiment that the others took to flight. Jannam! (My soul!) But you are paragons of sleepers!"
"Do you never sleep?" I asked him.
"Shall a man keep watch over a nation, and sleep?" he answered. "Aye—here a little, there a little, I snatch sleep when I can. My heart burns in me. I shall sleep on my horse on the way back to Zeitoon, but the burning within will waken me by fits and starts."
He got up and stood very politely in front of Gloria Vanderman, removing his cossack kalpak for the first time and holding it with a peculiar suggestion of humility.
"You shall be put to no indignity at the hands of my people," he said. "They are not bad people, but they have suffered, and some have been made afraid. They would have kept you safe. But now you shall have twenty men if you wish, and they shall deliver you safely into Tarsus. If you wish it, I will send one of these gentlemen with you to keep you in countenance before my men; they are foreigners to you, and no one could blame you for fearing them. The gentleman would not wish to go, but I would send him!"
She shook her head, pretty merrily for a girl in her predicament.
"I was curious to meet you, Mr. Kagig, but that's nothing to the attraction that draws me now. I must meet the other man—is it Monty you all call him—or never know a moment's peace!"
"You mean you will not go to Tarsus?"
"Of course I won't!"
"Of course!" laughed Fred. "Any young woman—"
"Of course?" Kagig repeated the extravagant gesture of shrugged shoulders and up-turned palms. "Ah, well. You are American. I will not argue. What would be the use?"
He turned his back on us and strode out with that air that not even the great stage-actors can ever acquire, of becoming suddenly and utterly oblivious of present company in the consciousness of deeds that need attention. Generals of command, great captains of industry, and a few rare statesmen have it; but the statesmen are most rare, because they are trained to pretend, and therefore unconvincing. The generals and captains are detested for it by all who have never humbled themselves to the point where they can think, and be unselfishly absorbed. Kagig stepped out of one zone of thought into the next, and shut the door behind him.
A minute later we heard his voice uplifted in command, and the business of shepherding those women and children was taken out of our hands by a man who understood the business. The intoxicating sounds that armed men make as they evolve formation out of chaos in the darkness came in through open door and windows, and in another moment Kagig was back again with a hand on each door-post.
"You have brought all those cartridges!"
He thrust out both hands in front of him, and made the knuckles of every finger crack like castanets. In another second he was gone again. But we knew we were now forgiven all our sins of omission.
Somewhere about midnight, with a nearly full moon rising in a golden dream above the rim of the ravine, we started. And no wheeled vehicle could have followed by the track we took. It was no mean task for men on foot, and our burdened animals had to be given time. Whether or not Kagig slept, as he had said he would, on horse-back, he kept himself and our prisoners out of sight somewhere in the van; and this time the rear was brought up by a squadron of ragged irregular horse that would have made any old campaigner choke with joy to look at them.
Drill those men knew very little of—only sufficient to make it possible to lead them. No two men were dressed alike, and some were not even armed alike, although stolen Turkish government rifles far predominated. But they wore unanimously that dare-devil air, not swaggering because there is no need, that has been the key to most of the sublime surprises of all war. The commander, whose men sit that way in the saddle and toss those jokes shoulder over shoulder down the line, dare tackle forlorn hopes that would seem sheer leap-year lunacy to the martinet with twenty times their number.
"Who'd have thought it?" said Fred. "We've all heard the Turk was a first-class fighting man, but I'd rather command fifty of these, than any five hundred Turks I ever saw.
There was no gainsaying that. Whoever had seen armies with an understanding eye must have agreed.
"Turks don't hate Armenians for their faults," I answered. "From what I know of the Turk he likes sin, and prefers it cardinal. If Armenians were mere degenerates, or murdering ruffians like the Kurds, the Turk would like them."
"Then if a Turk liked me, you'd doubt my social fitness?"
"Sure I would, if he liked you well enough to attract attention. The fact that the Turk hates Armenians is the best advertisement Armenians have got."
We were entering the heart of savage hills that tossed themselves in ever increasing grandeur up toward the mist-draped crags of Kara Dagh, following a trail that was mostly watercourse. The simple savagery of the mountains laid naked to view in the liquid golden light stirred the Armenians behind us to the depths of thought; and theirs is a consciousness of warring history; of dominion long since taken from them, and debauched like pearls by swine; of hope, eternally upwelling, born of love of their trampled fatherland. They began to sing, and the weft and woof of their songs were grief for all those things and a cherished, secret promise that a limit had been set to their nation's agony.
In his own way, with his chosen, unchaste instrument Fred is a musician of parts. He can pick out the spirit of old songs, even when, as then, he hears them for the first time, and make his concertina interpret them to wood and wind and sky. Indoors he is a mere accompanist, and in polite society his muse is dumb. But in the open, given fair excuse and the opportunity, he can make such music as compels men's ears and binds their hearts with his in common understanding.
Because of Fred's concertina, quite without knowing it, those Armenians opened their hearts to us that night, so that when a day of testing came they regarded us unconsciously as friends. Taught by the atrocity of cruel centuries to mistrust even one another, they would surely have doubted us otherwise, when crisis came. Nobody knows better than the Turk how to corrupt morality and friendship, and Armenia is honeycombed with the rust of mutual suspicion. But real music is magic stuff. No Turk knows any magic.
At dawn, twisting and zigzagging in among the ribs of rock-bound hills, we sighted the summit of Beirut Dagh all wreathed in jeweled mist. Then the only life in sight except ourselves was eagles, nervously obsessed with goings-on on the horizon. I counted as many as a dozen at one time, wheeling swiftly, and circling higher for a wider view, but not one swooped to strike.
Once, as we turned into a track that they told us led to El Oghlu, we saw on a hill to our left a small square building, gutted by fire. Twenty yards away from it, on top of the same round hill, strange fruit was hanging from a larger oak than any we had seen thereabouts —fruit that swung unseemly in the tainted wind.
"Turks!" announced one of Kagig's men, riding up to brag to us. "That square building is the guard-house for the zaptieh, put there by the government to keep check on robbers. They are the worst robbers!"
The man spoke English with the usual mission-school air suggestive of underdone pie. As a rule they go to school at such great sacrifice, and then so limited for funds, that they have to get by heart three times the amount an ordinary, undriven youth can learn in the allotted time. But by heart they have it. And like the pie they call to mind, only the surface of their talk is pale. Because their heart is in the thing, they under-stand.
"By hanging Turkish police," said Fred, "you only give the Turks a good excuse for murdering your friends."
"Come!" said the man of Zeitoon. "See."
He led the way down a path between young trees to a clearing where a swift stream gamboled in the sun. Down at the end of it, where the grass sloped gently upward toward the flanks of a great rock was a little row of graves with a cross made of sticks at the head of each—clearly not Turkish graves.
"Three men—eleven women," our guide said simply.
"You mean that the Turkish police—"
"There were fifteen on their way to Zeitoon. One survived, and reached Zeitoon, and told. Then he died, and we rode down to avenge them all. The Turks took the three men and beat them on the feet with sticks until the soles of their feet swelled up and burst. Then they made them walk on their tortured feet. Then they beat them to death. Shall I say what they did to the women?"
"What did you do to the Turks?" said I.
"Hanged them. We are not animals—we simply, hanged them."
Somewhere about noon we rode down a gorge into the village of El Oghlu. It was a miserable place, with a miserable, tiny kahveh in the midst of it, and Kagig set that alight before our end of the column came within a quarter of a mile of it. We burned the rest of the village, for he sent back Ephraim to order no shelter left for the regiments that would surely come and hunt us down. But the business took time, and we were farther than ever behind Kagig when the last wooden roof began to cockle and crack in the heat.
Will and Gloria were somewhere on in front, and Fred and I began to put on speed to try to overtake them. But from the time of leaving the burned village of El Oghlu there began to be a new impediment.
"We are not taking the shortest way," said Ephraim. "The shortest way is too narrow—good for one or two men in a hurry, but not for all of us."
We were gaining no speed by taking the easier road. There began to be vultures in evidence, mostly half-gorged, flopping about from one orgy to the next. And out from among the rocks and bushes there came fugitive Armenians—famished and wounded men and women, clinging to our stirrups and begging for a lift on the way to Zeitoon. Zeitoon was their one hope. They were all headed that way.
Fred detached a dozen mounted men to linger behind on guard against pursuit, and the rest of us overloaded our horses with women and children, giving up all hope of overtaking Gloria and Will, forgetting that they had come first on the scene. In my mind I imagined them riding side by side, Will with his easy cowboy seat, and Gloria looking like a boy except for the chestnut hair. But that imagination went the way of other vanities.
There was neither pleasure nor advantage in striding slowly beside my laboring horse, nor any hope of mounting him again myself. So I walked ahead and, being now horseless, ceased to be mobbed by fugitives. At the end of an hour I overtook two horses loaded with little children; but there was no sign of Gloria and Will, and losing zest for the pursuit as the sun grew stronger I sat down by the ways-side on a fallen tree.
It was then that I heard voices that I recognized. The first was a woman's.
"I'm simply crazy to know him."
A man's, that I could not mistake even amid the roar of a city, answered her.
"You've a treat in store. Monty is my idea of a regular he-man."
"Is he good-looking?"
"Yes. Stands and looks like a soldier. I've seen a plainsman in Wyoming who'd have matched him to a T all except the parted hair and the mustache."
"I like a mustache on a tall man."
"It suits Monty. The first idea you get of him is strength—strength and gentleness; and it grows on you as you know him better. It's not just muscles, nor yet will-power, but strength that makes your heart flutter, and you know for a moment how a woman must feel when a fellow asks her to be his wife. That's Monty."
I got up and retraced a quarter of a mile, to wait for Fred where I could not accuse myself of "listening in."
"Fred," I said, when he overtook me at last and we strode along side by side, "you were right. America's way with a woman is beyond belief!"
I told him what I had heard, and he thought a while.
"How about Maga Jhaere's way, when she and Will and the Vanderman meet?" he said at last, smiling grimly.
Chapter Thirteen "'Take your squadron and go find him, Rustum Khan!' And I, sahib, obeyed my lord bahadur's orders."
"TO-MORROW WE DIE"
All that is cynical; all that refuses Trust in an altruist aim; Every specious plea that excuses Greed in necessity's name; Studied indifference; scorn that amuses; Cleverness, shifting the blame; Selfishness, pitying trust it abuses— Treason and these are the same. Finally, when the last lees ye shall turn from (E'en intellectuals flinch in the end!) Ashes of loneliness then ye shall learn from— All that's worth keeping's the faith of a friend.
Never to be forgotten is that journey to Zeitoon. We threaded toward the heart of opal mountains along tracks that nothing on wheels—not even a wheel-barrow—could have followed. Perpetually on our right there kept appearing brilliant green patches of young rice, more full of livid light than flawless emeralds. And, as in all rice country, there were countless watercourses with frequently impracticable banks along which fugitives felt their way miserably, too fearful of pursuit to risk following the bridle track.
There is a delusion current that fugitives go fast. But it stands to reason they do not; least of all, unarmed people burdened with children and odds and ends of hastily snatched household goods. We found them hiding everywhere to sleep and rest lacerated feet, and there was not a mile of all that distance that did not add twenty or thirty stragglers to our column, risen at sight of us out of their lurking places. We scared at least as many more into deeper hiding, without blame to them, for there was no reason why they should know us at a distance from official murderers. Hamidieh regiments, the militia of that land, wear uniforms of their own choosing, which is mostly their ordinary clothes and weapons added.
With snow-crowned Beirut Dagh frowning down over us, and the track growing every minute less convenient for horse or man, word came from the rear that the hamidieh were truly on our trail. Then we had our first real taste of what Armenians could do against drilled Turks, and even before Fred and I could get in touch with Will and Gloria we realized that whether or not we took part with them there was going to be no stampede by the men-folk.
Nothing would persuade Gloria to go on to Zeitoon and announce our coming. Kagig came galloping back and found us four met together by a little horsetail waterfall. He ordered her peremptorily to hurry and find Monty, but she simply ignored him. In another moment he was too bent on shepherding the ammunition cases to give her a further thought.
Men began to gather around him, and he to issue orders. They had either to kill him or obey. He struck at them with a rawhide whip, and spurred his horse savagely at every little clump of men disposed to air their own views.
"You see," he laughed, "unanimity is lacking!" Then his manner changed back to irritation. "In the name of God, effendim, what manner of sportmen are you? Will not each of you take a dozen men and go and destroy those cursed Turks?" (They call every man a Turk in that land who thinks and acts like one, be he Turk, Arab, Kurd or Circassian.)
It was all opposed to the consul's plan, and lawless by any reckoning. To attack the troops of a country with which our own governments were not at war was to put our heads in a noose in all likelihood. Perhaps if he had called us by any other name than "sportmen" we might have seen it in that light, and have told him to protect us according to contract. But he used the right word and we jumped at the idea, although Gloria, who had no notions about international diplomacy, was easily first with her hat in the ring.
"I'll lead some men!" she shouted. "Who'll follow me?" Her voice rang clear with the virtue won on college playing fields.
"Nothing to it!" Will insisted promptly. "Here, you, Kagig—I'll make a bargain with you!"
"Watch!" Fred whispered. "Will is now going to sell two comrades in the market for his first love! D'you blame him? But it won't work!"
"Send Miss Vanderman to Zeitoon with an escort and we three—"
"What did I tell you?" Fred chuckled.
"—will fight for you all you like!"
But Gloria had a dozen men already swarming to her, with never a symptom of shame to be captained by a woman; and others were showing signs of inclination. She turned her back on us, and I saw three men hustle a fourth, who had both feet in bandages, until he gave her his rifle and bandolier. She tossed him a laugh by way of compensation, and be seemed content, although he had parted with more than the equivalent of a fortune.
"That girl," said Kagig, from the vantage point of his great horse, "is like the brave Zeitoonli wives! They fight! They can lead in a pinch! They are as good as men—better than men, for they think they know less!"
Fred swiftly gathered himself a company of his own, the older men electing to follow his lead. Gloria had the cream of the younger ones—men who in an earlier age would have gone into battle wearing a woman's glove or handkerchief—twenty or thirty youths blazing with the fire of youth. Will went hot-foot after her with most of the English-speaking contingent from the mission schools. Kagig had the faithful few who had rallied to him from the first—the fighting men of Zeitoon proper, including all the tough rear-guard who had sent the warning and remained faithfully in touch with the enemy until their chief should come.
That left for me the men who knew no English, and Ephraim was enough of a politician to see the advantage to himself of deserting Fred's standard for mine; for Fred could talk Armenian, and give his own orders, but I needed an interpreter. I welcomed him at the first exchange of compliments, but met him eye to eye a second later and began to doubt.
"I'm going to hold these men in reserve," I told him, "until I know where they'll do most good. You know this country? Take high ground, then, where we can overlook what's going on and get into the fight to best advantage."
"But the others will get the credit," he began to object.
"I'll ask Kagig for another interpreter. Wait here."
At that he yielded the point and explained my orders to the men, who began to obey them willingly enough. But he went on talking to them rapidly as we diverged from the path the others had taken and ascended a trail that wild goats would have reveled in, along the right flank of where fighting was likely to take place. I did not doubt be was establishing notions of his own importance, and with some success.
Firing commenced away in front and below us within ten minutes of the start, but it was an hour before I could command the scene with field-glasses, and ten minutes after that before I could make out the positions of our people, although the enemy were soon evident —a long, irregular, ragged-looking line of cavalry thrusting lances into every hole that could possibly conceal an Armenian, and an almost equally irregular line of unmounted men in front of them, firing not very cautiously nor accurately from under random cover.
It became pretty evident, after studying the positions for about fifteen minutes and sweeping every contour of the ground through glasses, that the enemy had no chance whatever of breaking through unless they could outflank Kagig's line. I held such impregnable advantage of height and cover and clear view that the men I had with me were ample to prevent the turning of our right wing. Our left flank rested on the brawling Jihun River that wound in and out between the rice fields and the rocky foot-hills. There lay the weakness of our position, and more than once I caught sight of Kagig spurring his horse from cover to cover to place his men. Once I thought I recognized Fred, too, over near the river-bank; but of Will or of Gloria I saw nothing.
It was obvious that if reserves were needed anywhere it would be over on that left flank by the fordable Jihun. Ephraim saw that, and proceeded to preach it like gospel to the men before consulting me. Then, arrogant in the consciousness of majority approval, he came and advised me.
"Those—ah—hamidieh not coming this—ah—way. We cross over to—ah —other side. Then Kagig is being pleased with us. I give orders—yes?"
He did not propose to wait for my consent, but I detained him with a hand on his shoulder. It would have taken us two hours to get into position by the river-bank.
"Find out how many of the men can ride," I ordered.
Taken by surprise he called out the inquiry without stopping to discover my purpose first. It transpired there were seventeen men who had been accustomed to horseback riding since their youth. That would leave nine men for another purpose. I separated sheep from goats, and made over the nine to Ephraim.
"You and these nine stay here," I ordered, "and hold this flank until Kagig makes a move." I did not doubt Kagig would fall back on Zeitoon as soon as he could do that with advantage. Neither did I doubt Ephraim's ability to spoil my whole plan if be should see fit. Yet I had to depend on his powers as interpreter.
There are two ways of relieving a weak wing, and the obvious one of reenforcing it is not of necessity the best. I could see through the glasses a bowl of hollow grazing ground in which the dismounted Kurds had left their horses; and I could count only five men guarding them. Most of the horses seemed to be tied head to head by the reins, but some were hobbled and grazing close together.
"Tell these seventeen men I have chosen that I propose to creep up to the enemy's horses and steal or else stampede them," I ordered.
Ephraim hesitated. Glittering eyes betrayed fear to be left out of an adventure, disgust to see his own advice ignored, and yet that he was alert to the advantage of being left with a lone command.
"But we should—ah—cross to the—ah—other side and—ah—help Kagig," he objected. Perhaps he hoped to build political influence on the basis of his own account to Kagig afterward of how be had argued for the saner course.
"Please explain what I have said—exactly!"
He continued to hesitate. I could see the Kurdish riflemen responding to orders from their rear and beginning to concentrate in the direction of our left wing. Our center, where Gloria and Will were probably concealed by rocks and foliage, poured a galling fire on them, and they had to reform, and detach a considerable company to deal with that; but two-thirds of their number surged toward our left, and if my plan was to succeed almost the chief element was time.
"But Kagig will—"
One of the men had a hide rope, very likely looted from the village we had burned. I took it from him and tied a running noose in the end. Then I made the other end fast to the roots of a tree that had been rain-washed until they projected naked over fifty feet of sheer rock.
"Now," I said, "explain what I said, or I'll hang you in sight of both sides!"
I wondered whether he would not turn the tables and hang me. I knew I would not have been willing to lessen Kagig's chances by shooting any of them if they had decided to take Ephraim's part. But the politician in the man was uppermost and he did not force the issue.
"All right, effendi—oh, all right!" he answered, trying to laugh the matter off.
"Explain to them, then!"
I made him do it half a dozen times, for once we were on our way along the precipitous sides of the hills the only control I should have would be force of example, aided to some extent by the sort of primitive signals that pass muster even in a kindergarten. If they should talk Turkish to me slowly I might understand a little here and there, but to speak it myself was quite another matter; and in common with most of their countrymen, though they understood Turkish perfectly and all that went with it, they would rather eat dirt than foul their months with the language of the hated conqueror.
But, once explained, the plan was as obvious as the risk entailed, and they approved the one as swiftly as they despised the other. The Kurds below were not oblivious to the risk of reprisals from the hills, and we spent five minutes picking out the men posted to keep watch, making careful note of their positions. At the point where we decided to debouch on to the plain there were two sentries taking matters fairly easy, and I told off four men to go on ahead and attend to those as silently as might be.
Then we started—not close together, for the Kurds would certainly be looking out for an attack from the hills in force, and would not be expecting individuals—but one at a time, two Armenians leading, and the rest of them following me at intervals of more than fifty yards.
At the moment of starting I gave Ephraim another order, and within two hours owed my life and that of most of my men to his disobedience.
"You stay here with your handful, and don't budge except as Kagig moves his line! Few as you are, you can hold this flank safe if you stay firm."
He stayed firm until the last of my seventeen had disappeared around the corner of the cliff; and five minutes later I caught sight of him through the glasses, leading his following at top speed downward along a spur toward the plain. The Kurds on the lookout saw him too and, concentrating their attention on him, did not notice us when we dodged at long intervals in full sunlight across the face of a white rock.
There was little leading needed; rather, restraining, and no means of doing it. Instead of keeping the formation in which we started off, those in the rear began to overtake the men in front and, rather than disobey the order to keep wide intervals, to extend down the face of the hill, so that within fifteen minutes we were in wide-spaced skirmishing order. Then, instead of keeping along the hills, as I had intended, until we were well to the rear of the Kurdish firing-line, they turned half-left too soon, and headed in diagonal bee line toward the horses, those who had begun by leading being last now, and the last men first. Being shorter-winded than the rest of them and more tired to begin with, that arrangement soon left me a long way in the rear, dodging and crawling laboriously and stopping every now and then to watch the development of the battle. There was little to see but the flash of rifles; and they explained nothing more than that the Kurds were forcing their way very close to our center and left wing.
Not all the fighting had been done that day under organized leadership. I stumbled at one place and fell over the dead bodies of a Kurd and an Armenian, locked in a strangle-hold. That Kurd must have been bold enough to go pillaging miles in advance of his friends, for the two had been dead for hours. But the mutual hatred had not died off their faces, and they lay side by side clutching each other's throats as if passion had continued after death.
The sight of Ephraim and his party hurrying across their front toward Kagig's weak left wing had evidently convinced the Kurds that no more danger need be expected from their own left. There can have been no other possible reason why we were unobserved, for the recklessness of my contingent grew as they advanced closer to the horses, and from the rear I saw them brain one outpost with a rock and rush in and knife another with as little regard for concealment as if these two had been the only Kurds within eagle's view. Yet they were unseen by the enemy, and five minutes later we all gathered in the shelter of a semicircle of loose rocks, to regain wind for the final effort.
"Korkakma!" I panted, using about ten per cent. of my Turkish vocabulary, and they laughed so loud that I cursed them for a bunch of fools. But the man nearest me chose to illustrate his feeling for Turks further by taking the corner of his jacket between thumb and finger and going through the motions of squeezing off an insect—the last, most expressive gesture of contempt.
The horses were within three hundred yards of us. On rising ground between us and the Kurdish firing-line was a little group of Turkish officers, and to our right beyond the horses was miscellaneous baggage under the guard of Kurds, of whom more than half were wounded. I could see an obviously Greek doctor bandaging a man seated on an empty ammunition box.
But our chief danger was from the mounted scoundrels who were so busy murdering women and children and wounded men half a mile away to the rear. They had come along working the covert like hunters of vermin, driving lances into every possible lurking place and no doubt skewering their own wounded on occasion, for which Armenians would afterward be blamed. We could hear them chorusing with glee whenever a lance found a victim, or when a dozen of them gave chase to some panic-stricken woman in wild flight. Through the glasses I could see two Turkish officers with them, in addition to their own nondescript "tin-plate men"; and if officers or men should get sight of us it was easy to imagine what our fate would be.
That thought, and knowledge that Gloria Vanderman and Will and Fred were engaged in an almost equally desperate venture within a mile of me (evidenced by dozens of wild bullets screaming through the air) suggested the idea of taking a longer chance than any I had thought of yet. A moment's consideration brought conviction that the effort would be worth the risk. Yet I had no way of communicating with my men!
I pointed to the Turkish officers clustered together watching the effort of their firing-line. From where we lay to the horses would be three hundred yards; from the horses to those officers would be about two hundred and fifty yards farther at an angle of something like forty degrees. Counting their orderlies and hangers-on we outnumbered that party by two to one; and "the fish starts stinking from the head" as the proverb says. With the head gone, the whole Kurdish firing-line would begin to be useless.
I tried my stammering Turkish, but the men were in no mood to be patient with efforts in that loathly tongue. None of them knew a word in English. I tried French—Italian—smattering Arabic—but they only shook their heads, and began to think nervousness was driving me out of hand. One of them laid a soothing hand on my shoulder, and repeated what sounded like a prayer.
To lose the confidence of one's men under such circumstances at that stage of the game was too much. I grew really rattled, and at random, as a desperate man will I stammered off what I wanted to say in the foreign tongue that I knew best, regardless of the fact that Armenians are not black men, and that there is not even a trace of connection between their language and anything current in Africa. Zanzibar and Armenia are as far apart as Australia and Japan, with about as much culture in common.
To my amazement a man answered in fluent Kiswahili! He had traded for skins in some barbarous district near the shore of Victoria Nyanza, and knew half a dozen Bantu languages. In a minute after that we had the plan well understood and truly laid; and, what was better, they had ceased to believe me a victim of nerves—a fact that gave me back the nerve that had been perilously close to vanishing.
We paid no more attention to the firing-line, nor to the mounted Kurds who were drawing the coverts nearer and nearer to us. It was understood that we were to sacrifice ourselves for our friends, and do the utmost damage possible before being overwhelmed. We shook hands solemnly. Two or three men embraced each other. The five who by common consent were reckoned the best rifle shots lay down side by side with me among the rocks, and the remainder began crawling out one by one on their stomachs toward the horses, with instructions to take wide open order as quickly as possible, with the idea of making the Kurds believe our numbers were greater than they really were.
When I judged they were half-way toward the horses we six opened fire on the Turkish officers. And every single one of us missed! At the sound of our volley the devoted horse-thieves rose to their feet and rushed on the horse-guards, forgetting to fire on them from sheer excitement, and as a matter of fact one of them was shot dead by a horse-guard before the rest remembered they had deadly weapons of their own.
I remedied the first outrageous error to a slight extent by killing the Turkish colonel's orderly, missing the commander himself by almost a yard. My five men all missed with their second shots, and then it was too late to pull off the complete coup we had dared to hope for. The entire staff took cover, and started a veritable hail of fire with their repeating pistols, all aimed at us, and aimed as wildly as our own shots had been.
Meanwhile the mounted Kurds at the rear had heard the firing and were coming on full pelt, yelling like red Indians. I could see, in the moment I snatched for a hurried glance in that direction, that the purpose of cutting loose and stampeding the horses was being accomplished; but even that comparatively simple task required time, and as the Kurds galloped nearer, the horses grew as nervous as the men who sought to loose them.
But conjecture and all caution were useless to us six bent on attacking the colonel and his staff. We crawled out of cover and advanced, stopping to fire one or two shots and then scrambling closer, giving away our own paucity of numbers, but increasing the chance of doing damage with each yard gained. And our recklessness had the additional advantage of making the staff reckless too. The colonel kept in close hiding, but the rest of them began dodging from place to place in an effort to outflank us from both sides, and I saw four of them bowled over within a minute. Then the remainder lay low again, and we resumed the offensive.
The next thing I remember was hearing a wild yell as our party seized a horse apiece and galloped off in front of the oncoming Kurds—straight toward Kagig's firing-line. That, and the yelling of the horsemen in pursuit drew the attention of the riflemen attacking Kagig to the fact that most of their horses were running loose and that there was imminent danger to their own rear. I only had time to get a glimpse of them breaking back, for the Turkish colonel got my range and sent a bullet ripping down the length of the back of my shooting jacket. That commenced a duel——he against me—each missing as disgracefully as if we were both beginners at the game of life or death, and I at any rate too absorbed to be aware of anything but my own plight and of oceans of unexplained noise to right and left. I knew there were galloping horses, and men yelling; but knowledge that the Turkish military rifle I was using must be wrongly sighted, and that my enemy had no such disadvantage, excluded every other thought.
I had used about half the cartridges in my bandolier when a Kurd's lance struck me a glancing blow on the back of the head. His horse collapsed on top of me, as some thundering warrior I did not see gave the stupendous finishing stroke to rider and beast at once.
There followed a period of semi-consciousness filled with enormous clamor, and upheavings, and what might have been earthquakes for lack of any other reasonable explanation, for I felt myself being dragged and shaken to and fro. Then, as the weight of the fallen horse was rolled aside there surged a tide of blissful relief that carried me over the border of oblivion.
When I recovered my senses I was astride of Rustum Khan's mare, with a leather thong around my shoulders and the Rajput's to keep me from falling. We were proceeding at an easy walk in front of a squadron of ragged-looking irregulars whom I did not recognize, toward the center of the position Kagig had held. Kagig's men were no longer in hiding, but standing about in groups; and presently I caught sight of Fred and Will and Kagig standing together, but not Gloria Vanderman. A cough immediately behind us made me turn my head. The Turkish colonel, who had fought the ridiculously futile duel with me, was coming along at the mare's tail with his hands tied behind him and a noose about his neck made fast to one of the saddle-rings.
"Much obliged, Rustum Khan!" I said by way of letting him know I was alive. "How did you get here?"
"Ha, sahib! Not going to die, then? That is good! I came because Colonel Lord Montdidier sahib sent me with a squadron of these mountain horsemen—fine horsemen they are—fit by the breath of Allah to draw steel at a Rajput's back!"
"He sent you to find me?"
"Ha, sahib. To rescue you alive if that were possible."
"How did he know where I was?"
"An Armenian by name of Ephraim came and said you had gone over to the Turks. Certain men he had with him corroborated, but three of his party kept silence. My lord sahib answered 'I have hunted, and camped, and fought beside that man—played and starved and feasted with him. No more than I myself would he go over to Turks. He must have seen an opportunity to make trouble behind the Turks' backs. Take your squadron and go find him, Rustum Khan!' And I, sahib, obeyed my lord bahadur's orders."
"Where is Lord Montdidier now?"
"Who knows, sahib. Wherever the greatest need at the moment is."
"Tell me what has happened."
"You did well, sahib. The loosing of the horses and the shooting behind their backs put fear into the Kurds. They ceased pressing on our left wing. And I—watching from behind cover on the right wing—snatched that moment to outflank them, so that they ran pell-mell. Then I saw the mounted Kurds charging up from the rear, and guessed at once where you were, sahib. The Kurds were extended, and my men in close order, so I charged and had all the best of it, arriving by God's favor in the nick of time for you, sahib. Then I took this colonel prisoner. Only once in my life have I seen a greater pile than his of empty cartridge cases beside one man. That was the pile beside you, sahib! How many men did you kill, and he kill? And who buried them?"
"Where is Miss Vanderman?" I asked, turning the subject.
"God knows! What do I know of women? Only I know this: that there is a gipsy woman bred by Satan out of sin itself, who will make things hot for any second filly in this string! Woe and a woman are one!"
Not caring to listen to the Indian's opinions of the other sex any more than he would have welcomed mine about the ladies of his own land, I made out my injuries were worse than was the case, and groaned a little, and grew silent.
So we rode without further conversation up to where Fred and Will were standing with Kagig, and as I tumbled off into Fred's arms I was greeted with a chorus of welcome that included Gloria's voice.
"That's what I call using your bean!" she laughed, in the slangy way she had whenever Will had the chance to corrupt her Boston manners.
"It feels baked," I said. "I used it to stop a Kurd's lance with. Hullo! What's the matter with you?"
"I stopped a bullet with my forearm!"
She was sitting in a sort of improvised chair between two dwarfed tree-trunks, and if ever I saw a proud young woman that was she. She wore the bloody bandage like a prize diploma.
"And I've seen your friend Monty, and he's better than the accounts of him!"
I glanced at Will, alert for a sign of jealousy.
"Monty is the one best bet!" he said. And his eyes were generous and level, as a man's who tells the whole truth.
Chapter Fourteen "Rajput, I shall hang you if you make more trouble!"
"LO, THIS IS THE MAN—" (Psalm 52)
Choose, ye forefathers of to-morrow, choose! These easy ways there be Uncluttered by the wrongs each other bears, And warmly we shall walk who can not see How thin some other fellow's garment wears, Nor need to notice whose.
Choose, ye stock-owners in to-morrow, choose! The road these others tread Is littered deep with jetsam and the bones Of their dishonored dead. What altruism for defeat atones? Have ye not much to lose?
Choose, ye inheritors of ages, choose! What owe ye to the past? The burly men who Magna Charta wrung >From tyranny entrenched would stand aghast To see the ripples from that stone they flung, They, too, had selfish views.
Choose, ye investors in the future, choose! Ye need pick cautious odds; To-morrow's fruit is seeded down to-day, And unwise purpose like the unknown gods Tempts on a wasteful way. "Ware well what guide ye use!
We went and bivouacked by the brawling Jihun under a roof of thatch, whose walls were represented by more or less upright wooden posts and debris; for Kagig would not permit anything to stand even for an hour that Turks could come and fortify. None of us believed that the repulse of that handful of Kurdish plunderers and the capture of a Turkish colonel would be the end of hostilities—rather the beginning.
Kagig, when Gloria asked him what he proposed to do with Rustum Khan's prisoner, smiled cynically and ordered him searched by two of the Zeitoonli standing guard. Rustum Khan was standing just out of low ear-shot absorbed in contemplation of the lie of the country. I noticed that Fred began to look nervous, but he did not say anything. Will was too busy fussing with Gloria's wound, making a new bandage for it and going through the quite unnecessary motions of keeping up her spirits, to observe any other phenomena. An Armenian woman named Anna, who had attached herself to Gloria because, she said, her husband and children had been killed and she might as well serve as weep, sat watching the two of them with quiet amusement.
The Turk offered no further objection than a shrug of his fatalist shoulders and a muttered remark about Ermenie and bandits. Even when the mountaineers laughed at the chink of stolen money in all his pockets he did not exhibit a trace of shame. They shook him, and pawed him, and poured out gold in little heaps on the ground (out of the magnanimity of his official heart he had doubtless left all silver coin for his hamidieh to pouch); but Kagig only had eyes for the papers they pulled out of his inner pocket and tossed away. He pounced on them.
"Hah!" he laughed. "There! Did I tell you? These are his orders —signed by a governor's secretary—countersigned by the governor himself—to 'set forth with his troops and rescue Armenians in the Zeitoon district.' Rescue them! Have you seen? Did you observe his noble rescue work? Here—see the orders for yourselves! Observe how the Stamboulis propose to prove their innocence after the event!"
Since they were written in Turkish they were of no conceivable use to any one but Fred and Rustum Khan. Fred glanced over them, and shouted to Rustum Khan to come and look. That was a mistake, for it called the Rajput's attention to what had been happening to his prisoner. He came striding toward us with his black beard bristling and eyes blazing with anger.
"Who searched him?" he demanded.
"He was searched by my order," Kagig answered in the calm level voice that in a man of such spirit was prophetic of explosion.
"Who gave thee leave to order him searched, Armenian?"
"I left you his money," Kagig answered with biting scorn, pointing to the little heaps of gold coin on the ground.
I had no means of knowing what peaks of friction had already been attained between the two, and it was not likely that I should instantly choose sides against the man who within the hour had saved my life at peril of his own. But Will saw matters in another light, and Fred began humming through his nose. Will left Gloria and walked straight up to Rustum Khan. He had managed to shave himself with cold Jihun water and some laundry soap, and his clean jaw suggested standards set up and sworn to since ever they gave the name of Yankee to men possessed by certain high ideals.
"Kagig needs no leave from any one to order prisoners searched!" he said, shaping each word distinctly.
Rustum Khan spluttered, and kicked at a heap of coin.
"Perhaps you have bargained for your share of all loot? I have heard that in America men—"
'Rajput!" said Kagig, looking down on him from slightly higher ground, "I will hang you if you make more trouble!"
At that I interfered. I was not the only one in Rustum Khan's debt; it was likely his brilliant effort at the critical moment had saved our whole fighting line. Besides, I saw the Turk grinning to himself with satisfaction at the rift in our good will.
"Suppose we refer this dispute to Monty," I proposed, reasoning that if it should ever get as far as Monty, tempers would have died away meanwhile. Not that Monty could not have handled the problem, tempers and all.
"I refer no points of honor," growled the Rajput. "I have been insulted."
"Rot!" exclaimed Fred, getting to his feet. When his usually neat beard has not been trimmed for a day or two he looks more truculent than he really is. "I've been listening. The insolence was on the other side."
"Do you deny Kagig's right to question prisoners?" I asked, thinking I saw a way out of the mess.
"Can I not question him?" Rustum Khan turned on me with a gesture that made it clear he held me to no friendship on account of service rendered.
He strode toward his prisoner, with heaven knows what notion in his head, but Fred interposed himself. The likeliest thing at that moment was a blow by one or the other that would have banished any chance of a returning reign of reason. Rustum Khan turned his back to the Turk and thrust out his chest toward Fred as if daring him to strike. Even the kites seemed to expect bloodshed and circled nearer.
It was Gloria who cut the Gordian knot. It was her unwounded hand, not Fred's, that touched the Rangar's breast.
"Rustum Khan," she said, "I think better of you than to believe you would take advantage of our ignorance. You're a soldier. We are only civilians trying to help a tortured nation. We know nothing of Rajput customs. Won't you go to Lord Montdidier and tell him about it, and ask him to decide? We'll all obey Monty, you know."
Rustum Khan looked down at her bandaged wrist, and then into violet eyes that were not in the least degree afraid of him but only looking diligently for the honor he so boasted.
"Who can refuse a beautiful young woman?" he said, beginning to melt. But he refused to meet her eyes again, or even to acknowledge our existence.
"I give you the prisoner!" He made her a motion of arrogant extravagance with his right hand as if performing the act of transfer. Then he turned on his heel with a little simultaneous mock salute, and striding to his bay mare, mounted and rode away.
Kagig took over the prisoner at once without comment and began to question him under a tree twenty yards away, paying no attention to the riflemen who matched one another, laughing, for the plundered money. We four went back to the shelter of the thatch roof, for the plan was to remain behind with the company of Zeitoonli whom Kagig had placed carefully at vantage points, and give stragglers a chance to save themselves before we resumed the journey to Zeitoon.
Naturally enough, Rustum Khan and his fiery unreason was the subject we discussed, and Fred laid law down as to how he should be dealt with whenever the chance should come to bring him to book. But Rustum Khan was a bagatelle compared to what was coming, if we had only known it. While we talked I saw Gregor Jhaere, the attaman of gipsies, ride down the track on a brown mule and dismount within ten yards of Kagig. He hobbled his mule, and went and sat close by Kagig and the Turk, engaging in a three-cornered talk with them. Kagig seemed to have expected him, for there was no sign of greeting or surprise.
There was nothing disturbing about Gregor's arrival on the scene; he was evidently helping Kagig to cross-examine the Turk and check up facts. Within their limits gipsies are about the best spies obtainable because of their ability to take advantage of credulity and their own immeasurable unbelief in protest or appearances. It was the individual who followed Gregor at a distance, and dismounted from a gray stallion quite a long way off in order not to draw attention to herself, who made my blood turn cold. I caught sight of Maga Jhaere first because the others had their backs toward her. Then the expression of my face brought Fred to his feet. By that time Magi had vanished out of view unaware that any one had seen her, creeping like a pantheress from rock to rock.
"What's the matter?" Fred demanded, sitting down again, ill-tempered with himself for being startled.
"How exciting!" said Gloria. "I'm crazy to meet her."
But Will looked less excited and more anxious than I had ever seen him, and we all three laughed.
"All right!" he said. "I tell you it's no joke. That woman believes she's got her hooks in."
We tried to go on talking naturally, but lapsed into uncomfortable silence as the minutes dragged by and no Maga put in her appearance. Fred began humming through his nose again in that ridiculous way that he thinks seems unconcerned, but that makes his best friends yearn to smite him hip and thigh.
"I guess you were mistaken," Will said at last, spreading out his shoulders with relief at the mere suggestion. But I was facing the direction of Zeitoon, as he was not, and again the expression of my face betrayed the facts.
There were two large stones leaning together, with a small triangular gap between them, less than thirty feet from where we sat. In that gap I could see a pair of eyes, and nothing else. They had almost exactly the expression of a panther's that is stalking, not its quarry, but its mortal foe. In spite of having seen Maga approaching, I would have believed them an animal's eyes, only that from experience I knew an animal's eyes betray fear and anger without reason, whereas these blazed with the desperate reasoning that holds fear in contempt. Panthers can hate, be afraid, sweep fear aside with anger, and plan painstakingly for murderous attack; but it is only behind human eyes that one may recognize the murder—purpose based on argument.
"I see her," I said. "I suspect she's got a pistol, and—"
I had not known until that moment that the short hair was standing up the back of my head, but I felt it go down with a creepy cold chill as I spoke. Then once more it rose. Knowing she was seen and recognized, Maga got to her feet and stood on the larger of the two stones, looking down on us. Her hands were on her hips, and I could see no weapon, but her lips moved in voiceless imprecation.
"Are you Maga Jhaere?" asked Gloria, first of us all to recover some measure of self-command.
Maga nodded. She was barefooted, clothed only in bodice and leather jacket and a rather short ochre-colored skirt that blew in the gaining wind and showed the outline of her lithe young figure. Her long black hair billowed and galloped in the wind behind her.
"I am Maga Jhaere," she said slowly, addressing Gloria. "Who are you?"
"My name is Gloria Vanderman."
"And that man beside you—who is he?"
Gloria did not answer. Will looked more embarrassed than the devil caught in daylight, and Fred recovered his mental equilibrium sufficiently to chuckle.
"Is he your husband?"
"Then what you want with 'im?"
No one said a word. Only, Fred made a movement with his hand behind him that Maga noticed and spurned with a toss of her chin.
"You coming to Zeitoon?"
Gloria nodded. Glancing over toward Kagig I saw that he was aware of Maga and was watching her out of the corner of his eye while he talked with Gregor and the Turk. They were both getting angry with the Turk and using gestures suggestive of impending agony by way of emphasis. The Turk was growing fidgety.
Maga spread her arms out as if she were embracing all the universe and called it hers.
"Then—if you ar-re coming to Zeitoon—you choose first a 'usband. There are—many 'usbands. Some 'ave lost a wife—some 'ave sick wife—some not yet never 'ad no wife. Plenty Armenians—also two other men there—but you let that one—Will—alone! Choose a 'usband —marry,'im—then you come to Zeitoon! If you come without a 'usband —I will keel you—do you understand?"
"Now then, America!" grinned Fred in a stage aside that Maga could hear as clearly as if it had been intended for her. "Let's see the eagle scream for liberty!"
"Eagle scream?" said Maga, almost screaming herself. "What you know about eagles? You ol' fool! That man Will is thinking you ar-re 'is frien'. You ar-re not 'is frien'! Let 'im come with me, an' I will show 'im what ar-re eagles—what is freedom—what is knowledge —what is life! I know. You ol' fool, you not know! You ol' fool, you marry that woman—then you can bring 'er to Zeitoon an' she is safe! Otherwise—"
She reached in the bosom of her blouse and drew out, not the mother-o'-pearl-plated pistol that I feared, but a knife with an eighteen-inch blade of glittering steel. Instantly Fred covered her with his own repeater, but she laughed in his face.
"You ol' fool, you ar-re afraid to shoot me!"
If she meant that Fred would feel squeamish about shooting before she hurled the knife, then she was certainly right. But she knew better than to make one preliminary motion. And Kagig knew better than to permit further pleasantries. I saw him whisper to Gregor, and the gipsy attaman started on hands and knees to creep round behind her. But Maga's eyes were practised like those of all other wild creatures in detecting movement behind her as well as in front. She spat, and gave vent to a final ultimatum.
"You 'ave 'eard. I said—you let that man Will Yerr-kees alone! An' don't you dare come to Zeitoon without a 'usband!"
Then she turned and dodged Gregor, and ran for her gray stallion—mounted the savage brute with a leap from six feet away, and rode like the wind toward the gut of the pass that shut off Zeitoon from our view. A minute later a shell from a small-bore cannon screamed overhead, and burst a hundred yards beyond us on a sheet of rock.
"Not bad for a ranging shot!" said Fred, suddenly as self-possessed as if the world never held such a thing as an untamed woman.
"Observe, you sportmen all!" Kagig exclaimed, getting to his feet. "The Turkish nobility are proceeding to rescue poor Armenians. Behold, their charity comes even from the cannon's mouth! It is time to go now, lest it overtake us! No cannon can come in sight of Zeitoon. Follow me."
With his usual sudden oblivion of everything but the main objective Kagig mounted and rode away, followed by Gregor in charge of the prisoner, and by a squadron or so of mounted Zeitoonli who attempted no formation but came cantering as each detachment realized that their leader was on the move. We found ourselves last, without an armed man between us and the enemy, although without a doubt there were still dozens of fugitive poor wretches who had not had the courage or perhaps the strength to overtake us yet.
Kagig had had the forethought to leave comparatively fresh mules for us to ride, and there was not any particular reason for hurry. Will went ahead, with Gloria and Anna beside him on one mule—Gloria laughing him out of countenance because of his nervousness on her account, but he insistent on the danger in case of repeated gun-fire. Fred rode slowly beside me in the rear, for we still hoped to encourage a few stray fugitives to come out of their hiding holes and follow us to safety.
A second cannon shot, not nearly so well aimed as the first had been, went screaming over toward our left and landed without bursting among low bushes. A third and a fourth followed it, and the last one did explode. That was plainly too much for some one who had dodged into hiding when the second shot fell; we saw him come rushing out from cover like a lunatic, unconscious of direction and only intent on shielding the top of his head with his hands.
"Is the poor devil hurt?" I said, wondering. But Fred broke into a roar of laughter; and he is not a heartless man—merely gifted more than usual with the hunter's eye that recognizes sex and species of birds and animals at long range. I can see farther than Fred can, but at recognizing details swiftly I am a blind bat compared to him.
"The martyred biped!" he laughed. "Peter Measel by the God of happenings!"
We rode over toward him, and Peter it was, running with his eyes shut. He screamed when we stopped him, and sobbed instead of talking when we pulled him in between our mules and offered him two stirrup leathers to hold. He seemed to think that standing between the mules would protect him from the artillery fire, and as we were not in any hurry we took advantage of that delusion to let him recover a modicum of nerve.
And the moment that began to happen he was the same sweet Peter Measel with the same assurance of every other body's wickedness and his own divinity, only with something new in his young life to add poignancy.
"What were you doing there?" demanded Fred, as we got him to towing along between us at last.
"I was looking for her."
"For Maga Jhaere."
Fred allowed his ribs to shake in silent laughter that annoyed the mule, and we had to catch Measel all over again because the beast's crude objections filled the martyred biped full of the desire to run.
"Somebody must save that girl!" he panted. "And who else can do it? Who else is there?"
"There's only you!" Fred agreed, choking down his mirth.
"I'm glad you agree with me. At least you have that much blessedness, Mr. Fred. D'you know that girl was willing to be a murderess? Yes! She tried to murder Rustum Khan. Rustum Khan ought to be hanged, for he is a villain—a black villain! But she must not have blood on her hands—no, no!"
"Why didn't she murder him?" demanded Fred. "Qualms at the last moment?"
"No. I'm sorry to say no. She has no God-likeness yet. But that will come. She will repent. I shall see to that. It was I who prevented her, and she all but murdered me! She would have murdered me, but Kagig held her wrist; and to punish her he gave an order that I should preach to her morning, afternoon, and evening—three times a day. So I had my opportunity. There was a guard of gipsy women set to see that she obeyed."
"Continue," said Fred. "What happened?"
"She broke away, and came down to see the fighting."
"Why did you follow her? Weren't you afraid?"
"Oh, Mr. Fred, if you only knew! Yet I felt impelled to find her. I could not trust her out of sight."
"Why not? She seems fairly well able to look after herself."
"Oh, I can not allow wickedness. I must make it to cease! It entered my head that she intended to find Kagig!"
"Well? Why not?"
"Oh, Mr. Fred—tell me! You may know—you perhaps as well as any one, for you are such an ungodly man! What are her relations with Kagig? Does he—is he—is there wickedness between them?"
"Dashed if I know. She's a gipsy. He's a fine half-savage. Why should it concern you?"
"Oh, I could not endure it! It would break my heart to believe it!"
"Then why think about it?"
"How can I help it? I love her! Oh, I love her, Mr. Fred! I never loved a woman in all my life before. It would break my heart if she were to be betrayed into open sin by Kagig! Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do? I love her! What shall I do?"
"Do?" said Fred, looking forward in imagination to new worlds of humor, "why—make love, if you love her! Make hot love and strong!"
"Will you help me, Mr. Fred?" the biped stammered. "You see, she's rather wild—a little unconventional—and I've never made love even to a sempstress. Will you help me?"
"Certainly!" Fred chuckled. "Certainly. I'll guarantee to marry her to you if you'll dig up the courage. Have you a ring?"
Peter Measel produced a near-gold ring with a smirk almost of recklessness, a plain gold ring whose worn appearance called to mind the finger taken from a dead Kurd's cartridge pouch. It may be that Measel bought it, but neither Fred nor I spoke to him again, for half an hour.
Chapter Fifteen "Scenery to burst the heart!"
THE REBEL'S HYMN
The seeds that swell within enwrapping mould, Gray buds that color faintly in the northing sun, Deep roots that lengthen after winter's rest, The flutter of year's youth in April's breast As young leaves in the warming hour unfold— These and my heart are one!
Go dam the river-course with carted earth; Or bind with iron bands that riven stone That century on century has slept Until into its heart a tendril crept, And in the quiet majesty of birth New nature broke into her own! Or bid the sun stand still! Or fashion wings To herd the heaven's stars and make them be Subservient to will and rule and whim! Or rein the winds, and still the ocean's hymn! More surely ye shall manage all these things Than chain the Life in me!
Great mountains shedding the reluctant snow, Vision of the finish of the thing begun, Spirit of the beauty of the torrent's song, Unconquerable peal of carillon, And secrets that in conquest overflow— These and my heart are one!
Yet another night we were destined to spend on the Zeitoon road, for we had not the heart to leave behind us the stragglers who balked fainting in the gut of the pass. Some were long past the stage where anything less than threats could make impression on them, and only able to go forward in a dull dream at the best. But there were numbers of both men and women unexpectedly capable of extremes of heroism, who took the burden of misery upon themselves and exhibited high spirits based on no evident excuse. Nothing could overwhelm those, nothing discourage them.
"To Zeitoon!" somebody shouted, as if that were the very war-cry of the saints of God. Then in a splendid bass voice he began to sing a hymn, and some women joined him. So Fred Oakes fell to his old accustomed task, and played them marching accompaniments on his concertina until his fingers ached and even he, the enthusiast, loathed the thing's bray. In one way and another a little of the pall of misery was lifted.
Kagig sent us down bread and yoghourt at nightfall, so that those who had lived thus far did not die of hunger. Women brought the food on their heads in earthen crocks—splendid, good-looking women with fearless eyes, who bore the heavy loads as easily as their mountain men-folk carried rifles. They did not stay to gossip, for we had no news but the stale old story of murder and plunder; and their news was short and to the point.