Have you ever seen twenty camels rolling all at once with their legs in the air, preparatory to making breakfast off dry thorns that you wouldn't dare handle with gloves on? If so, you'll understand that they're the perfect opposite of every other useful beast that lives.
But not all the camels were turned out. Grim chose Mujrim—Ali Baba's eldest son—a black-bearded, forty-year-old giant—two of the younger men, Narayan Singh and me; and with the lady Ayisha's beast in tow with the empty shibrayah set off directly the sun was a span high over the nearest dune.
We rode almost straight toward the sun, and in five minutes it appeared how close we were to the village whence danger might be expected. It was a straggling, thatched, squalid-looking cluster of huts, surrounded by a mud wall with high, arched gates. Only one minaret like a candle topped with an extinguisher pretended to anything like architecture, and even from where we were you could see the rubbish-heaps piled outside the wall to reek and fester. There was a vulture on top of the minaret, and kites and crows—those inevitable harbingers of man—were already busy with the day's work.
The village Arabs are perfunctory about prayer, unless unctuous strangers are in sight, who might criticize. So, although we approached at prayer-time, it was hardly a minute after we rose in view over a low dune before a good number of men were on the wall gazing in our direction. And before we had come within a mile of the place the west gate opened and a string of camel-men rode out.
The man at their head was the sheikh by the look of him, for we could see his striped silk head-dress even at that distance, and he seemed to have a modern rifle as against the spears and long-barreled muskets of the others. There were about two-score of them, and they rode like the wind in a half circle, with the obvious intention of surrounding us. Grim led straight on.
They rode around and around us once or twice before the man in the striped head-gear called a halt. He seemed disturbed by Grim's nonchalance, and asked our business with not more than half a challenge in his voice.
"Water," Grim answered. "Did Allah make no wells in these parts?"
It doesn't pay to do as much as even to suggest your real reason for visiting an Arab village, for they won't believe you in any case.
"What have you in the shibriyah?"
"Come and see."
The Sheikh Mahommed Abbas drew near alone, suspiciously, with his cocked rifle laid across his lap. His men began moving again, circling around us slowly—I suppose with the idea of annoying us; for that is an old trick, to irritate your intended victim until some ill-considered word or gesture gives excuse for an attack. But we all sat our camels stock-still, and, following Grim's example, kept our rifles slung behind us.
The sheikh was a rather fine-looking fellow, except for smallpox marks. He had a hard eye, and a nose like an eagle's beak; and that sort of face is always wonderfully offset by a pointed black beard such as he wore. But there was something about the way he sat his camel that suggested laziness, and his lips were not thin and resolute enough to my mind, to match that beard and nose. I would have bet on three of a kind against him sky-high, even if he had passed the draw.
He drew aside the curtain of the shibrayah gingerly, as if he expected a trick mechanism that might explode a bomb in his face.
"Mashallah! Where is the woman?" he exclaimed.
I found out then that I was right as to the way to play that supposititious poker hand. Grim had doped him out too, and answered promptly without changing a muscle of his face.
"Wallahi! Should I bring my wife to this place?"
"Allah! Thy wife?"
"It was Ali Higg's wife according to the tale!"
"Some fools swallow tales as the dogs eat the offal thrown to them! By the beard of God's Prophet, whom do you take me for?"
"Kif?* How should I know?" [* What?]
"Go and ask the kites, then, at Dat Ras!"
"You are he? You are he who slew the—Shi ajib!* Now I think of it they did say he was beardless. Nay! Are you—Speak! Who are you?" [* This is strange!]
"Does your wife wander abroad while you herd cattle?" Grim asked him.
"Allah forbid! But—"
"Is my honor likely less than yours?"
"Then you are Ali Higg?"
"Your honor travels abroad with a scant escort!"
"Let us see, then, whether it is not enough! A tale was told me of a black-faced liar on a Bishareen dromedary who fled hither from El-Kalil last night to persuade the dogs of this place to bark in some hunt of his. There was mention made of a woman. My men pursued him along the road, but fear gave him wings. Hand him over!"
"Allah! He is my guest."
"Or let us see whether I cannot fire one shot and summon enough men to eat this place!"
"That is loud talk. They tell me you travel with but twenty."
You didn't have to be much of a thought-reader to know what was passing in that sheikh's mind. Supposing that Grim were really the notorious Ali Higg, he might easily have left Hebron with twenty men and have been joined by fifty or a hundred others in the night. Or there might be others on the way to meet him now. It was a big risk, for Ali Higg's vengeance was always the same; he simply turned a horde of men loose to work their will on the inhabitants of any village that defied him. The sheikh was not quite sure yet that he really sat face to face with the redoubtable robber, yet did not dare put that doubt to the test.
"Is that all Your Honor wants?" he asked. "Just that messenger?"
"Him and his camel—and another thing."
"What else, then? We are poor folk in this place. There has been a bad season. We have neither corn nor money."
"If I needed corn or money I would come and take them," Grim answered. "I have no present need. I give an order."
"Allah! What then?"
"It pleases me to camp yonder."
He made a lordly motion with his head toward the west.
"This side your village, then, all this day until sundown, none of your people venture."
"But our camels go to graze that way."
"Not this day. Today yours graze to the eastward."
"There is poor grazing to the eastward."
"Nevertheless, whoever ventures to the westward all this day does so in despite of me, and the village pays the price!"
"Let Allah witness!" answered Grim.
And his face was an enigma; but half the puzzle was already solved because there was no suggestion of weakness there. It was the best piece of sheer bluffing on a weak hand that I had ever seen.
"Will Your Honor not visit my town and break bread with me?" asked Mahommed Abbas.
"If I visit that dung-hill it will be to burn it," Grim answered. "Send me out that black-faced liar and the Bishareen. I am not pleased to wait long in the sun."
"If we obey the command do we not merit Your Honor's favor?"
That was a very shrewd question. A weak man with a weak hand would have walked into that trap by betraying the spirit of compromise. On the other hand an ordinary bluffer would have blundered by overdoing the high hand.
"Consider what is known of me," Grim answered. "How many have disobeyed me and escaped? How many have obeyed and regretted it? But by the beard of Allah's Prophet," he thundered suddenly, "I grow weary of words! What son of sixty dogs dares keep me waiting in the desert while he barks?"
Mahommed Abbas did not like that medicine, especially in front of all his men. But they had ceased circling long ago and were waiting stock-still at a respectful distance; for the name of Ali Higg meant evidently more to them than the honor of their own sheikh—which at best depends on the sheikh's own generalship. It was a safe bet that if he had called on them to attack that minute they would have declined.
So he gave the dignified Arab salute, which Grim deigned to acknowledge with the slightest possible inclination of the head, and led his men away.
"What would you have done if he had called your bluff?" I asked Grim, as soon as they were all out of earshot.
"Dunno," he said, smiling. "I've learned never to try a bluff unless I'm pretty sure of my man. That guy doesn't own many chips. As a last resort I'd have to admit I'm a government officer—if they hadn't killed us all first!"
We sat our camels there for about three quarters of an hour before half a dozen of Mahommed Abbas' men appeared with Rafiki's messenger riding the Bishareen between them. His face when they handed him over was the color of raw liver, and if ever a man was too scared to try to escape it was he. Ali Baba's two sons got one on either side of him without making him feel any better, for he too was a Hebron man and knew them and their reputation. There was nothing improbable about their throwing in their lot with the greater robber Ali Higg.
Then the sheikh's men tried to load gifts on Grim—chickens, a live sheep, melons, vegetables, and camel milk in a gourd. Grim did not even deign to acknowledge them in person, but made a gesture to Narayan Singh, who promptly took charge of the prisoner himself and sent Ali Baba's sons back for the presents. They had the good grace to find fault with everything, vowing that the sheep especially was only fit for vultures. However, with a final sneer or two anent the donor's manners they bore sheep and all along behind us back to camp.
"Is it well?" called Ali Baba, watching on the ridge of a dune, and coming to life like a heron as soon as we drew near.
"All's well," said Grim.
"Father of cunning! What now?" the old man answered.
"Let that Mother of Snakes Beware"
The terms that Grim had imposed on Abbas Mahommed were perfectly well understood by every one concerned. The Arab is an individualist of fervid likes and dislikes and the thing that perhaps he hates most of all is to be observed by strangers; he does not like it even from his own people. So there was nothing incomprehensible, but quite the reverse, about that requirement that none from the village should trespass in our direction all that day. And, of course, only a bold robber conscious of his power to enforce them would have dared to insist on such terms. But it was a good thing that Mahommed Abbas did not call the bluff.
As it was, we slept all morning undisturbed, with only four watchers posted, relieved at intervals of one hour. And the only disturbance we suffered was from the lady Ayisha, who insisted that the black-faced prisoner was hers, camel and all, and that he should be taken to Petra for summary execution. She threatened Grim with all sorts of dire reprisals in case he should let the man go.
But setting every other consideration aside the man would have been dangerous company on the journey. He was putting two and two together in his own mind, and was not nearly as frightened as he had been. But in Hebron he could do no harm, for once the Dead Sea should be behind us it would not matter how many people knew of Grim's errand, since we should travel faster than rumor possibly could across the desert.
But if he should get one chance to talk with the lady Ayisha's men, and even cause them to suspect that Grim might be in league in some way with the British authorities, it would be all up with our prospect of deceiving folk in future. There was danger enough as it was that one of Ali Baba's men might make some chance remark that would inform Ayisha or her escort.
Grim decided finally to let the man escape and gave Narayan Singh and me instructions how to do it. But first he satisfied Ayisha by giving loud orders to every one to watch the man, and by telling her that he didn't care what she did with him after we reached Petra. Then, late in the afternoon, when Mujrim had rounded up the camels, a dispute was intentionally started about an old well, and whether a good trail to the southward did not make a circuit past it. The prisoner was asked, and he said he knew the well. Grim called him a father of lies, which he certainly was, and sent him off on the worst of the camels between Narayan Singh and me to prove his words. Ali Baba kept the Bishareen.
He led us a long way out into the desert among lumpy dunes in which the salt lay in strata, and where no sweet-water well could possibly be, or ever could have been. It was pretty obvious that all he wanted was a chance to escape from us, and he began offering bribes the minute we were out of sight of the camp.
The bribes were all in the nature of promises, however. He hadn't a coin or a thing except the clothes he wore, Ali Baba's gang having attended to that thoroughly.
"The wool-merchant—my master—is a rich man," he urged. "Let me go and he will be your friend for ever after."
"We have no need of friends," Narayan Singh answered. "This man and I, being spies in the government service, on the other hand, are men whose friendship is of value. You can serve us in a certain matter."
"Then give me money!" he retorted instantly. "He who serves the government nowadays receives pay."
"The way to receive pay," said I, "is to take this letter to the governor of Hebron, who will then know that a certain man is pretending to be Ali Higg. Thus you will do the government a great service, and may receive the difference in price between the Bishareen camel and that mean brute you ride now."
"We waste time. There is no well out here. Give me the letter!"
He was gone in a minute, headed straight for Hebron, and Narayan Singh and I fired several shots in the air to let Ayisha know what a desperate pursuit we had engaged in. When we rode into camp again, trying to look shamefaced, they had about finished packing up, so Grim had time to call us terrible names for Ayisha's benefit—names that it would not have been safe to apply to any of Ali Baba's men if he had chosen them for the job.
Those thieves would stand for any kind of devilry, and were willing to undertake all risks at Grim's bidding. Jail, fighting, hardship, meant to them no more than temporary inconvenience. But to have asked them to let a prisoner escape, and submit to shameful abuse for it afterward in the presence of a woman and strangers, would have been more than Arab loyalty could stand.
And, mother of me, how that woman Ayisha did revile us! If ever she had doubted we were Indians she was sure of it now. She swept with her tongue the whole three hundred million Indians into one vile horde and de-sexed, disinherited, declassed, and damned the lot of us. Before you think you know anything about abuse, wholesale or retail, you should hear a lady of the desert proclaim displeasure. I wouldn't be surprised to know that the very camels blushed.
It was all Narayan Singh could stand, for Ali Baba and his gang laughed derisively, and no true son of the East can endure to be laughed at.
"Let that mother of snakes beware!" he growled in my ear; and as it turned out in the end, he did not forget the grudge he owed her.
We were off again a good hour before sundown, and Mahommed Abbas sent out a screen of camel-men to follow us for several miles. They fired about twenty shots when we were well out of range, and boasted, as we learned afterward, of having put Ali Higg and a hundred men to rout.
But that did no harm. It reduced the real Ali Higg's prestige for a while all over the countryside; and in these days of League of Nations and mandates and whatnot it is hard enough in all conscience for brave villagers with muskets to find something to make up songs about. De Crespigny knew the truth about it as soon as our "escaped" man got to Hebron.
Before midnight we were well south of the Dead Sea and far beyond the border up to which the British mandate was supposed to be going to extend whenever the League of Nations Council should stop arguing. We were something like two thousand feet below sea-level now; but although the heat all day long under the tents had been almost intolerable, the night air was actually chilly because of the tremendous evaporation. The earth was throwing off the heat it had absorbed all day, and chill drafts crept from the mountaintops to take its place.
And as we crossed the imaginary border in pure, mellow moonlight, with our three bells clanging, you could have told its approximate whereabouts by the change that came over the gang. Even Grim's back, away ahead on the leading camel, assumed a jauntier swing. Old Ali Baba, next ahead of me, began to look ten years younger, and his sons and grandsons started singing—about Lot's wife acceptably enough, for we were near the fabled site of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Prophet of Islam, who had nothing if not an eye for local color, incorporated that old story in the Koran.
The pillar of salt that used to be called Lot's wife, and that "stood there until this day," when the Old Testament writer penned his narrative, has fallen into the Dead Sea in recent memory. But all that did was to set loose imagination that had hitherto been tied to one landmark, and Ali Baba pointed out to me a dozen upright piles of argillaceous strata glistening in moonlight, every one of which he swore was either Lot's wife or one of her handmaidens.
"Such should be the fate of many other women," he asserted piously. "It would save a great deal of trouble."
The lady Ayisha heard that remark, and the things she said for the next ten minutes about men in general and old Ali Baba in particular were as poisonous as the brimstone that once rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah. She seemed to have no sense of being under obligation for the escort, but rather to think we were all in her debt for the privilege—a circumstance which appeared to me to bode ill for the manners of the gentry we proposed to visit.
Thereafter—I suppose since she considered she had utterly routed and reduced me to submission after the messenger's escape she summoned me to her side, thrusting the shibrayah curtains apart and beckoning with the fingers turned downward, Bedouin fashion. We conversed quite amicably for more than an hour, she mocking my Arabic pronunciation, but asking innumerable questions about India—who my mother was, for instance, and whether my father used to beat her much; what physic was used in India for date-boils; why I had not stayed at home; wasn't I afraid of meeting Ali Higg; and were there such great ones as he in India?
So, as there wasn't one chance in ten million of her knowing anything at all about India, I saw fit to explain that as a cockroach is to Allah so was Ali Higg to dozens of Indian bandits I had known. I told her tales of men's head piled mountains high, and of roads of corpses over which rajahs drove their chariots; of arenas full of tigers into which living prisoners were thrown once a week; and of a sheer cliff more than a mile high, over which women were tossed to alligators.
She took it all in, but doubted demurely at the end of it whether all those princely Indian terrorists added together could, as she put it, "reach to the middle of the thigh of Ali Higg"!
I asked her how she had come to marry the gentleman, and she answered with becoming pride that he had plundered her from the Bagdad caravan; but I think she meant by that a caravan of Bedouin on their way from Bagdad to wherever the grazing and thieving were good. She had a way of her own of enlarging things. Finally she asked me whether I carried good poison in my chest of medicines, and I told her I had some that could reach down to hell and kill the ifrits.
"Wallah!" she answered. "If you two eunuchs hadn't lost that prisoner we could have tested some of it on him!"
After that she dismissed me, I suppose that she might meditate on poison in the moonlight. I rode forward to take counsel with Grim, and some time during the night she got word with one of Ali Baba's younger sons. We had hardly camped an hour after dawn in the red-hot foothills east of the Dead Sea when Narayan Singh caught him rifling my chest, and he had the impudence to ask which were poisons and which not. Narayan Singh threatened an appeal to Grim, and the man apologized; but I saw Ayisha giving him sweetmeats in her tent not long afterward.
She had none of the ordinary Moslem woman's notions of privacy. A whole Bedouin family will live in a black tent ten by twelve, and though she had picked up wondrous ideas of high estate since her infancy, the desert upbringing remained. Her tent was pitched each day in the midst of ours, and she ordered every one about, Grim included, as if we were her husband's purchased slaves. And because it was Grim's idea to make use of her to gain access to her husband we all put up with it, fetching and carrying without a murmur—that is to say, all except one of us.
Whenever Narayan Singh had to do her bidding his great black beard rumbled with discontent; and as that only amused her she ordered him about more than any one, the others aiding and abetting by inventing things for him to be told to do. But it hardly paid her in the long run.
On the third day, when we camped by an old well that Ali Baba swore was the identical one made by the angel Gabriel to provide water for Hagar and Ishmael—there are twenty or thirty of those identical wells in Palestine alone, to say nothing of Arabia—she began to take a particular fancy to Grim and to treat him with more respect, giving him the title of prince on occasion, and abusing the men for not attending more swiftly to his needs.
Now, whatever the alleged custom of other lands may be—and I refuse to be committed on that point—there is no doubt whatever about the East. There it is the woman who makes the first advances. Grim took to sleeping in a tent with Mujrim and Ali Baba.
Considering the customs of that land—the savage, accepted way in which women swap owners when tribes are at war, and between times when the raids are made on caravan routes—it would be altogether wide of the mark to blame her too severely. Grim is a good-looking fellow, even in the khaki officer's uniform that makes most Christians look alike. Disguised as an Arab he takes the eye of any man, to say nothing of women.
The lines of his face are just deep enough to accent the powerful curve of his nose and chin; and his eyes, with their baffling color, arrest attention. Then he stands, too, in that gear like a scion of an ancient race, firmly, on strong feet, with his head held high and arms motionless—not fidgeting with one or both hands, as white men usually do. The wonder really is that Ayisha did not betray her designs on him sooner.
Narayan Singh grew as nervous as a hen in the presence of snakes, for he foresaw how Grim's star would surely wane from the moment any such woman as Ayisha should establish a claim on him; and he did not quite realize the full extent of Grim's resourcefulness in making the most of a situation. Old Ali Baba's advice, on the other hand, was just what he would have given to any of his sons.
"Let Ali Higg keep his wives within reach if he hopes to call them his! Wallahi! I would laugh to see the Lion of Petra tearing his clothes with rage for such a matter as this!"
And all the gang agreed.
Ayisha began to question Grim openly about his home and belongings. She wanted to know how many wives he had, and he told her none, which made her all the more determined. If he had affected squeamishness she would have despised him, and that would have been the end of her usefulness; for scorn is very close indeed to hate, and hate to spitefulness in the land where she was raised. But he did nothing of the sort. He was as frank as she was, and did his fencing, as you might say, with a club.
"The desert is full of women!" he told her on one occasion when she made more than usually open overtures.
"But not such as I am!"
"A woman's heart lies under her ribs, and who shall read it?" he answered.
"A pig can read some things!" she retorted; for he always managed to keep just clear of the point where frankness might have merged into poetry.
Her own four armed attendants seemed to take the whole affair rather speculatively. She was probably in position to have them crucified on her return to Petra in case they should offer unacceptable advice. And it may be they would have looked favorably on the chance to transfer allegiance from Ali Higg to Grim, who had crucified nobody yet; as Ayisha's servants they would doubtless go with her, should she change owners.
She asked me repeatedly for love potions, to be slipped into Grim's food or into his drink, and was so importunate about it that, after consulting Grim, I gave her some boric powder. The next morning Grim told her that her eyes were like a young gazelle's, so my reputation as a hakim rose several degrees.
"Is he mad?" growled Narayan Singh. "Ah, each man has his weakness! He and I have played with death a dozen times, but I never knew him lose his head. So he is woman-crazed? What next, I wonder!"
The girl had lots of encouragement, for, not counting the younger men, who were hell bent for any kind of mischief, and constantly egged her on, old Ali Baba spent half of each day in the tent expounding to Grim the ethics of such situations; and they were as simple as the code of Moses.
"Love thy neighbor's wife if she will let you. Defeat thy neighbor in all ways whenever possible. On these two hang all amusement and prosperity."
And Grim was much too wise to pretend to Ali Baba any other motive than expedience. It would not have paid to take the old rascal too much into his confidence, because most Arabs overplay their hand; but he did drop a hint or two; and from what he told me I should say it was Ayisha's persistent love-making that provided the first suggestion of a plan in his mind for bringing Ali Higg to terms.
But I'm sure the plan did not really take shape until we reached the sun-baked railway-line that drags its rusty length behind wild hills all the way from Damascus down to Mecca.
Some say that the very steel of the rails is sacred because it was built to carry pilgrims to the Prophet's tomb. But some say not. And those who lost the carrying trade on account of it, and the tribes that used to lie in wait in mountain-passes for the Damascus caravan in the month of pilgrimage, say distinctly not. Between these two opinions there is a third, that of the gentry who declare it is a curse, to be turned back on the heads of those who use it.
During four nights we climbed unlovely hills, avoiding villages—to the disgust of Ali Baba's gang, who would dearly have loved to pick a quarrel somewhere and loot. They had a thousand excuses for taking another trail, declaring that Grim had lost the way or would lose it; that there was sweeter water elsewhere; or that the hills were not so steep and hard on the camels. But the moon was nearly full by then, and Grim seemed to carry a map of the district in his head.
Whether he went by guesswork, or really knew, we turned up finally a few miles from El-Maan at the exact spot he had aimed for, and pitched camp soon after dawn within fifty yards of the track. There was no water in that place and the gang grumbled badly; but it was not long before the reason of his choice was fairly obvious.
Tracks across the desert have a way of curving from point to point, no more following a straight course than the cow-paths do in other lands. Where there is a rock, or some peculiar conformation of the ground to attract attention, men and beasts will head for it, attracted somewhat after the fashion of a compass-needle by a lodestone or lump of iron.
There was a rock shaped like a flattened egg beyond the track, two or three hundred yards away from us. It stood all alone in a dazzling wilderness that was doubtless green at certain seasons of the year, but now was bone-dry and glittering with flakes of mica. Close beside that ran a track worn by camels and horses, and the shadow of that great rock in a weary land was plainly a halting-place.
Our men wanted to cross over and take advantage of the shade it would give as the sun climbed higher, but Grim refused to let them; whereat Ayisha went into a shrewish rage, and ordered her four men to take up her tent and pitch it over by the rock whether Grim permitted it or not. So they obeyed her, and Grim said nothing.
The rest of us set about cooking breakfast after the morning prayers were over. My prayer-mat was next Narayan Singh's, and it was interesting to hear him curse the Prophet sotto voce while pretending to vie with those robbers in fervid protestations of faith in Islam. But more than the Prophet he cursed Ayisha, praying to his Hindu pantheon to wreak all wrath on her.
It was a diluted pantheon, of course, because he was a Sikh; he wasn't able to call on as many animal-shaped gods with as many arms and teeth as a Bengali could have urged into action; but he did his best with the technical resources at his disposal.
Without pretending to be a judge of other men's creeds, I thought at the time that he made a pretty workman-like hash of that lady's prospects, so far as his particular formula could do it. I jotted down some of his suggestions to the gods for future reference, and purpose to teach them to the U.S. Army mule-skinners next time this country goes to war.
While we were eating breakfast in a circle in front of the tents, all sticking our right hands into a common mess-pan and eating like wolves—you have to be awfully careful not to use your left hand, and unless you eat fast you'll get less than your share—there came five men on camels out of a wady—a shallow valley that lay like a cut throat with red rocks on its edge something over a mile away beyond the egg-shaped rock. They were armed—as everybody is in those parts who hopes to live—and in a hurry.
Ayisha and her people did not see them, because the great rock was in the way, but we left off eating to watch, and Grim went into his tent to use field-glasses without being seen. It is not unheard of for an Arab sheikh to use Zeiss binoculars, but it might make a stranger suspicious.
The five men came on at a gallop, sending up the dust in clouds like a cruiser's smoke-screen. They seemed to take it for granted that we were friends, for we were in full view and far outnumbered them, yet they did not check for an instant, and that in itself was a suspicious circumstance.
They came to a halt ten yards away from Ayisha's tent, and stared at her in silence, realizing, apparently for the first time, that they had come within rifle-shot of strangers. We could see her talking to them, but could not hear what she said. Perhaps that was as well. I think that even Grim with his poker face in perfect working order would have been flustered if he had been given time to think. The surprise, when it came, made him brace himself to meet it; and, once committed, he played with the sky for a limit as usual.
One thing was quite clear: Ayisha had made herself known to them, and they were properly impressed. They dismounted from their camels, and, after bowing to her as respectfully as any lord of the desert decently could do to a woman, they left their beasts kneeling and started all together toward us.
So Grim went out to meet them, even outdoing their measured dignity, striding as if the desert were his heritage. But he went only as far as the railway track, and waited; to have gone a step farther would have made them think themselves his superiors. Ali Baba, Mujrim, Narayan Singh, and I, went out and stood behind him at a properly respectful distance.
"Him and Me—Same Father!"
Every detail of a man's bearing is watched carefully in that land. Every action has its value. The etiquette of the desert is more strict, and more dangerous to neglect, than that of palaces, although it is simpler and more to the point, being based on the instinct of self-preservation.
The Arabs who approached us, having ridden straight into a trap for all they knew, for they had expected friends and found strangers, were even more than usually observant of formality. They were fierce, fine-looking fellows, possessed of that dignity that only warfare with the desert breeds, and they saluted Grim with the punctilio of men who know the meaning of a fight to him who doubtless understands it too. A very different matter, that, to raising your Stetson on Broadway, with two cops on the corner and the Stars and Stripes floating from the hotel roof. They eyed Grim the while in the same sort of way that men who might be charged with trespass look at the game warden, waiting for him to speak first.
"Allah ysabbak bilkhair!" he rolled out at last.
"Allah y'a fik, ya Ali Higg!" they answered one after the other.
And then the oldest of them—a black-bearded stalwart with extremely aquiline nose and dark-brown eyes that fairly gleamed from under the linen head-dress, took on himself the role of spokesman.
"O Ali Higg! May Allah give you peace!"
"And to you peace!" Grim answered.
I could not see Grim's face, of course, since I stood behind him, but I did not detect the least movement of surprise or nervousness. He stood as if he were used to being called by that name, but the rest of us did not dare look at one another. Once across that railway-line we were in the real Ali Higg's preserves. It occurred to me at the moment as vastly safer to pose as the U.S. President in Washington.
Still, Grim had not actually accepted the situation yet. I held my breath, trying to remember to look like a product of Lahore University.
"We were on our way to El-Maan, O Ali Higg, not knowing that your honor had a hand in this affair."
"Since when is a lion not called a lion?" demanded Grim. "Who gave thee leave to name me?"
"Pardon, O Lion of Petra! But the woman yonder, boasting with proper pride that she is Your Honor's wife, bade us approach and pay respect."
On my left I heard Narayan Singh muttering obscenities through set teeth. On the right old Ali Baba wore a twinkle in a wicked eye; the rest of his face was as emotionless as the face of the desert; but when an old man is amused not even the crow's-feet can do less than advertise the fact.
"A woman's tongue is like a camel bell," said Grim. "It clatters unceasingly, and none can silence without choking it. But art thou a woman?"
"Pardon, O Lion of Petra!"
There followed a long pause. When men meet in the desert it is only those from the West who are in any hurry to betray their business. There being an infinity of time, that man is a liar who proclaims a shortage of it.
"Will the sun not rise tomorrow?" asks the East.
Grim stood like a statue; and, judging by my own feelings, who had nothing at all to do but look on, I should say that was a test of strength.
"Last week the train was punctual at El-Maan—three hours after sunrise," said the spokesman at last.
On lines where there is only one train a week it is not unusual for its arrival to be the chief social event on the country-side, but that hardly seemed to me to account for the way those five men had been driving their camels. However, as Grim knew no more of their business than the rest of us, and needed desperately to find out, he was careful to ask no questions.
No desert responds to the inquisitive folk who camp on its edge and demand to be told; but it will tell you all it knows if you keep quiet and govern yourself in accordance with its moods. The men who live in the desert are of the same pattern—fierce, hot, cold, intolerant, cruel, secretive, given to covering their tracks, and yet not without oases that are better than much fine gold to the man who knows how to find them. They enjoy a proverb better than some other men like promises.
"Allah marks the flight of birds. Shall He not decree a train's journey?" said Grim.
"Inshallah, Lion of Petra! The train will come, when that is written, and that which is written shall befall. It is said there are sons of corruption on the train, who bear much wealth with them.
"It were a pity to leave all the looting to those who got to El-Maan soonest. They who slay will claim the booty.
"Or does Your Honor intend to arrive afterward and claim a share, leaving the labor to those who seek labor? In that case we crave permission to join Your Honor's party. It may be we can help enforce Your Honor's just demands, and be recompensed accordingly?"
"Wallahi!" Grim answered after a long pause. "Who sets himself to plunder trains without my leave? Have I been such short time in Petra that men doubt who rules here? Have I not said the train shall pass El-Maan and come thus far? Who dares challenge me? Do I wait here for nothing? Shall I be satisfied with a string of empty cars?"
The Arab turned and conferred for a moment with his four friends. They shook their heads.
"O Lord of the Desert," he said after a minute, "none has heard of this decree. Your Honor's messenger may have failed or have fallen into bad hands on the way. Word has not come that you reserve this train for your own profit. There will be fifty men at El-Maan now waiting to slay certain passengers and plunder others."
Grim had evidently made up his mind and had set full sail on the course indicated. I confess I shuddered at the prospect; but I never saw a man look more pleased than Ali Baba, and Narayan Singh's face betrayed militant admiration. Nor have I ever heard such a streak of fulminous bad language as Grim swore then, calling earth and all its elements to witness the brimstone anger of a robber chief.
"Go ye," he thundered, "and tell those sons of swine that I say the train shall pass to this point. And as to what happens thereafter that is my affair. Bid any and all who chose to dispute my word to look first to their wives and goods. I have spoken."
The five men fell back a pace in consternation, no doubt partly affected for the sake of flattery; but they were quite obviously disconcerted.
"Wallahi! If we go on such an errand who shall save our lives? Who are we to come between wolves and their prey?"
"Say ye are my messengers," retorted Grim. "Let any touch a messenger of mine who dares."
"But they will not believe us."
"That is their affair. It is Allah's way to make blind those who it is written are to be destroyed."
"Nay, Lion of Petra, give a man to go with us—one whom they will know and recognize. Then all shall be well."
Have I ever said that Grim is a genius? He can take longer chances in a crisis with a more unerring aim than any man I ever knew. Surely he took one then.
"Nay," he laughed. "I will send them a woman. Let us see who will dare gainsay the woman."
That was simply supreme genius. It even pleased Narayan Singh, since the tables were turned on Ayisha. The only reason she could possibly have had for telling these men that Grim was Ali Higg was to score off him, either by capturing him for herself, or in the alternative by ruining him for rejecting her advances. It was not clear yet which of the two she hoped to accomplish; perhaps, little savage that she was, she would have been content with either alternative and had simply chosen to force the issue.
At any rate Grim had passed the buck back to her. He sent me over to the rock to fetch her, and I found her smiling serenely, like the Sphinx, only with more than a modicum of added mischief.
"Woman, the Lion of Petra summons you," said I.
She laughed at that as if the world were at her feet—got up, and stretched herself, and yawned like a lazy cat that sees the milk being set down in a saucer—straightened her dress, and nodded knowingly to her four men. She had evidently reached an understanding with them.
"I hasten to do my lord's bidding," she answered, and followed me back.
It calls for all your presence of mind to remember to walk in front of a woman who is addressed as often as not as princess; but if I had walked behind her they would have suspected me at once of being no true Moslem.
I returned and stood behind Grim, and she stood in front of him, so that I was able to see her face. It was as good as a show to see her swallow back surprise and wonder at him open-eyed, as he played the part she had foisted on him and loaded her with the responsibility.
"Go with these men, Ayisha, and tell those swine at El-Maan that I say the train shall pass unharmed as far as this point. Moreover, say that none may trespass. What shall take place here is my affair. The range of my rifle is the measure of the line across which none may come.
"Stay with them, Ayisha, until the train leaves El-Maan. Then you may leave your camel and return hither on the train. That is my order."
She was bluffed. And she recognized it with a sort of dog-like glance of admiration. We had all her baggage, for one thing, and it represented more wealth than any Bedouin woman would let go willingly.
Now if she were to reverse what she had said, and refuse to advertise Grim as Ali Higg, these five men and probably others would surely denounce her to her real husband. She had no choice. But she was sharp-witted, and made the most of the situation even so.
"Shall I go alone, my lord? Alone with these strangers?"
"Take two of your servants."
But what she wanted to make sure of was that Grim might not decamp with her baggage and leave her to face the consequences. It seems you can fall in love in the desert without putting too much faith in masculine nature.
"Nay, give me two men I can trust. Give me that and that one."
She selected old Ali Baba and me; and it was a shrewd choice, for unless Grim was a more than usually yellow-minded rascal he was surely not going to leave the captain of his gang behind. And no doubt she supposed I was valuable to Grim because of the friendly, confidential way in which he always treated me. In other words, she proposed to have two first-class hostages.
Grim gave her three. He sent Ali Baba, me, and Mujrim, and mounted her on the Bishareen dromedary, that men might know she was one whom her lord delighted to honor. She tried to get a chance to whisper to him, but he was too alert and acted exactly as if he had known her all his life, needing no explanations or assurances.
So off we nine rode beside the railway track, she leading, since she was chief emissary, and the last I saw of Grim for a few hours he was squatting in the circle of remaining men, talking to them as calmly as if nothing had happened.
Well, there was nothing for me to do but ride forward and watch points. I was a hostage without responsibility.
If Ayisha should chose to turn on us and hand me over to the crowd at El-Maan I believed I would have wit enough to denounce her in return; and it might be that as a Darwaish I could claim immunity. Failing that, I found myself able to hope with a really acute enthusiasm that my shrift at the crowd's hands might be short. I did not want to be crucified, or pulled in pieces by camels; but if mine was to be the casting vote, of the two the camels had it.
There were other points to be considered. I had a rifle slung behind me, and two bandoliers. However, it was highly unlikely I would have a chance to use the rifle, which is an awkward weapon at close quarters when surrounded.
But hidden under my coat I had two repeating-pistols and a knife. Since a man can't prevent himself from making plans when there is nothing else to think about, I made up my mind finally in case of trouble to let them take the rifle and the knife; they might then suppose me to be disarmed. After that, if the trouble should be due to Ayisha's treason, I would execute her, and shoot myself in the head with the same pistol rather than submit to torture.
At the end of the first mile I drew alongside Ali Baba and passed him my second pistol. It did not seem any of my business to advise him what to do with it beyond hiding it under his clothes. The old rascal's eyes glittered as his hand closed on it, and it seemed to me he understood; and so he did, but not what I intended.
I never got the pistol back. He understood that a fool and his repeater are soon parted. When I asked him for it afterward he vowed he had lost it, and called his son Mujrim in addition to Allah and Mohammed and all the saints to witness that he spoke virgin truth, and, moreover, that he never lied, and would rather die ten times over than play a trick on me. I have heard since that he has become a very good shot with a repeating-pistol, but has difficulty in stealing suitable ammunition.
Ayisha wasted no breath on conversation on the way, but whipped her camel to its utmost speed after the first mile, so that we had our work cut out to keep up with her. It is aggravating to ride a big beast and try in vain to overtake a little one; but she had been born to the game, and there wasn't a man in the party who could have won a race against her, whichever of the animals she rode; for the camel knows quicker than a horse whether his rider understands the art or not. And art it is, as surely as painting or music—art that can be tediously learned in a degree, but must be born in you if you are ever to excel at it.
The desert was all red sand now and dreary beyond human power to imagine. The clouds of dust we kicked up followed us, and even the cloths we kept across our mouths and nostrils did not keep it out. You felt like a mummy riding a race in hell, and how the camels managed to breathe I can't guess. The sun on our right hand was just at the angle where it struck your eyes under the kuffiyi.
But I was the only one who seemed at all distressed by any of those inconveniences; the others accepted them as in the natural order of things, and my camel, realizing how I felt, galloped last in the worst of the dust.
El-Maan itself was a picture of green trees above a mud wall; but we did not visit it, for the station, with its hideous red water-tanks, was a mile and a half to the eastward of the place—a miserable, bleak, unpainted iron roof and buildings, with a place alongside that had once been a Greek hotel.
At present it looked like a camel-mart; but there were dozens of horses there too, gaudily turned out like the camels with red worsted trimmings on saddles and bridles. And as for the fifty men our five new acquaintances had spoken of, there were a hundred and fifty if one, all herded in groups, each with a rifle over his arm or slung across his shoulder. Their talk ceased as we rode along the track, and those who were on the platform—about half of them—eyed Ayisha with as much curiosity as a Bedouin taken by surprise ever permits himself to betray.
She did not give them much time for reflection, and wasted none whatever on conciliation, but affronted them from camel-back, having learned that method, no doubt, from her rightful lord and master. It was obvious from the first that they all knew her by sight.
"Wallahi! Good meat for the crows ye will all be presently! Has the Lion of Petra lost his teeth that jackals hunt ahead of him? Did the men of Dat Ras profit by coming between him and his prey? Go, look at Rat Das and count the splinters of men's bones! So shall your bones lie—ye who tempt the wrath of Ali Higg!"
She rode along the line, showing her little teeth like pomegranate seeds in a sneer that would have made a passport clerk take notice; and her voice was raised to a shrill, harpy scream that rasped under the iron roof, so that none could have pretended he did not hear.
"The Lion claims this train! The Lion of Petra lies in wait for it at a place of his own choosing! Who dares forestall him? Who dares slay one passenger, or loot one truck? Who dares? Stand out, whoever dares, that I may take his name back to the Lion of Petra!"
Nobody did stand out. They all herded closer together, as if in fear that any one left on the edge of the crowd might be assumed to challenge her authority. Yet they looked capable of plundering a city, that company of stately cutthroats. Perhaps some of them had seen what actually happened when Ali Higg raided Dat Ras. Certainly they came from scattered settlements, on which Ali Higg could take detailed vengeance whenever it suited him.
"Ye know me! I wait here for the train. I shall ride on it to where the Lion of Petra waits. Who dares interfere with me or follow? Let him name himself! Who dares?"
Her savagery fed itself on threats, and increased as she felt herself grow mistress of the situation. Partly the primitive love of power, partly the animal instinct to subject and oppress—pride on top of that, and something of her sex, too, glorying in giving orders to the self-styled sterner members—drove her to increasing frenzy.
And it was not fear alone that impressed the crowd and impelled it to obedience, for those highland Bedouins are, after all, too practical for that. We were but nine all told, to their seven or eight score, and they might have enforced the logic of that first, and left the threatened consequences for afterward, but for the appeal of the spectacular.
It bewildered them to be harangued confidently by a woman—they who were used to watching women carry loads. There was something revolutionary about it that took their breath away, and swept their own determination into limbo.
As always, the men in the background, who felt they could avoid recognition, were the only ones who ventured to raise objection. One or two of them started to laugh, that being the best answer all the world over to any threat, and if the laugh had spread that would likely have been the end of us. I had unslung my rifle and held it in full view resting on my thigh, being minded to look as murderous as possible, but she stole all my thunder by suddenly snatching the rifle away and drawing back its bolt to cock the spring with that almost effortless adroitness that comes of long use.
"Who laughs at the Lion of Petra's threat?" she screamed, raising herself in the saddle to survey the crowd. "Who laughs? He shall die by the hand of a woman! Who laughs, I say?"
But nobody wanted to die by a woman's hand; and nobody chose to slay the woman, because of the certainty of vengeance dealt by an expert in terrorism. I know I didn't doubt she would have used the rifle, and I don't suppose they did. If she couldn't be laughed out of countenance the only alternative was bloodshed, and none dared show fight.
Old Ali Baba worked his camel closer, and, because an Arab must boast at every opportunity, began to whisper in my ear.
"Wallahi! Was I not wise? It was I who told her if she wanted our Jimgrim she should tell the world she is his wife and he the veritable Ali Higg! It takes an old man's tongue to guide the cleverest woman!"
The train screamed then in the distance, and a Syrian station agent in tattered khaki uniform went through the wholly unnecessary process of letting down a signal. We got off the track and rode our camels round on to the platform. The crowd gave way before us, and Ayisha thrust herself this and that way among them, breaking up groups, striking me over the wrist with the stick she had for flogging the camel because I tried to regain the rifle.
By the time the rusty, creaking, groaning rattletrap of a train drew up there was not an element of cohesion left in the crowd. She knew too much to drive them away to where they might have regained something of determination, but let them stand there under her eye where they could see in herself the ruthless symbol of Ali Higg's ruthlessness. And not even the sight of the frightened passengers, in a panic because of tales that had been told them up the line, could restore their plunder-lust.
As a matter of fact that was a romantic little mixed train when you come to think of it. The Arab engine-driver, piloting his charge through no-man's land, where the bones of former train crews lay bleaching, simply because he was an engine-driver and that was his job; the freight in locked steel cars consigned by optimists who hoped it might reach its destination; the four guards armed with worn-out rifles that they did not dare use; the four passenger-cars with their window-glass all shot away; the half-dozen Arab artisans carried along for makeshift repairs en route; and the more than brave—the too-fatalist-to-care-much passengers wondering which of their number had an enemy at every halting-place; and along with that the formalism—the observance of conventions such as blowing the whistle and pulling down the signal, on a track that carried one train one way once a week; it made you feel like taking off your hat to it all, reminding me in a vague way of those Roman legionaries who kept up the semblance of their civilization after the power of Rome had waned.
I rode over beside the engine-driver and warned him to pull out before trouble started. But he had to take in water first. And he seemed to be an expert in symptoms of lawlessness. Leaning his grimy head and shoulders out of the cab, he looked the crowd over, spat, and showed his yellow teeth in a grin that vaguely reminded me of Grim's good-humored smile.
"Mafish!" he remarked, summing up the situation in two syllables. "Nothing doing!"
I would have given, and would give now, most of what I own for that man's ability to pass such curt, comprehensive judgment without reservation, equivocation, or hesitation. I rather suspect that it can only be learned by sticking to your job when the rest of the world has been fooled into thinking it is making history out of talk and treason.
There was nothing whatever but water for the train to wait for. Nobody had business at El-Maan, for the simply sufficient reason that you can't do business where governments don't function, where all want everything for nothing, and whoever could pay won't.
The engine-driver's grimier assistant swung the water-spout clear and climbed back over the cab, cursing the view, crowds, coal-dust, prospect—everything. He meant it too. When he said he wished the devil might pitch me into hell and roast me forever he wasn't exaggerating. But I got off my camel and boarded the engine nevertheless. Ayisha had handed over her mount to Ali Baba and entered the caboose, ignoring the protests of the uniformed conductor who, having not much faith in fortune, did not care whom he offended. But he might as well have insulted a camel as Ayisha, for all he would have gained by it.
My friend the engine-driver blew the whistle; somebody on the platform tooted a silly little horn; a signal descended in the near distance and we started just as I caught sight of Mujrim coming to take my camel.
Then it occurred to some bright genius that even if they might not loot the train there was no embargo on rejoicing; and there was only one way to do that. What they saw fit to rejoice about I don't know, but one shot rang in the air, and a second later fifty bullets pierced the dinning iron roof.
That made such a lovely noise and so scared the passengers that they could not resist repeating it, and by the time we had hauled abreast of the distance-signal there was not much of the roof left.
I saw Ali Baba and Mujrim take advantage of the excitement to start back with the camels; and two minutes later about twenty men decided to follow them at a safe distance. The rest had begun to scatter before the train was out of sight, and I never again saw one of the five gentry who had introduced us to the whole proceedings.
Then my friend the engine-driver found time to be a little curious.
"What'n hell?" he asked, in the lingua franca that all Indians are supposed to understand.
So I answered him in the mother argot at a venture, and he bit.
"There's a man down the line a piece who'll blow your train to hell," said I, "unless you pull up when he flags you."
"Son of a gun, eh?"
"Where you learn English?"
"States," said I. "You been there too?"
"Sure pop! Goin' back some time."
"Not if you don't stop her when you get the hint, you won't. That guy down there ahead means business."
I don't think he would have dared try to run the gauntlet in any case, for the best the engine could do with that load behind it was a wheezy twenty miles an hour, and the track was so out of repair that even that speed wasn't safe. I was willing to bet Grim hadn't lifted a rail or placed any obstruction in the way, but the driver had no means of knowing that.
"Son of a gun, eh?" he repeated. "What in 'ell's 'e want?"
"Nothing, if you pay attention to him. All he hankers for is humoring. He wants to talk."
"Uh! What in 'ell's a matter with him?"
"Nothing, but he'll put a crimp in your machinery unless you stay and chin with him."
"I give him dry steam. He'll run like the devil."
"Don't you believe it. He's wise. Better humor him."
"Shucks! I shoot him. I shot lots o' men."
"No need to shoot," said I. "This is love stuff. He's got a lady in the last car."
"Oh, gal on the train, eh? All right. You climb back along the cars an' kick her off soon as you see him."
"Gosh! I'd sooner kick a nest of hornets!"
"You her brother?"
"Not so's you'd notice it."
"She's got my gun. Barring that we're not real close related."
"Uh! Those damned Bedouin fellers can't shoot for nuts. Let 'em fire away. I take a chance."
"Ever hear of Ali Higg?" I asked him.
He turned his head from peering down the blistering hot track, wiped the sweat from his face and hands with a filthy rag, and looked at me keenly.
"Why? You know him?"
"Yes. I asked if you do."
"Son of a gun! Him and me—same father!"
"You mean he's your brother?"
"He's the man you've got to pull up for."
"His gal on the train?"
He resumed his vigil, leaning over the side of the engine with one hand on the throttle-lever.
"All right," he said. "I stop for him. Son of a gun! If he bust my train I kill the sucker!"
I never posed as much of a diplomatist, but it seemed wise to me in the circumstances not to offer any further information or ask questions. But I was curious. It was possible that Ali Higg's brother had been given the task of running that train for the reason that no lesser luminary would have one chance in a thousand of reaching the destination.
I never found out whether my guess was right or not, and never left off rating that engine-driver in any case as one of the world's heroes. I've a notion there is a book that might be written about him and his train.
A polished black dot in the distance soon increased into the flattened egg-shaped rock, and then we saw Grim standing on the track with all his men.
That is the safest place to stop a train from, because you avoid a broadside from the car-windows. True to his word the driver came to a standstill, and Grim came up to speak with him just as I jumped off. I waited, expecting to see a contretemps.
"Ya Ali Higg! You fool!" said the driver. "You would kill your own brother? You let me go!"
"Hah! You recognize me, then?" said Grim, coolly enough on the surface.
But his poker mask was off. In that land of polygamy and deportations it is frequent enough that one brother does not know the other by sight; but it must be disconcerting, all the same, to have a supposititious brother sprung on you. He gave a perceptible start, as he had not done when first addressed as Ali Higg that day.
"Mashallah!" swore the driver. "I would know thine evil face with the meat stripped off it! Nevertheless, thou and I are brothers and this is my train. So let me go!"
Grim watched Ayisha jump out of the caboose with my rifle in her hand, and turn to take aim at the open door, through which the conductor's voice came croaking blasphemy.
"All right," he said. "Since thou and I are brothers, go thy way! Allah ysallmak!"
The driver did not wait for a second hint, but shoved the lever over so hard that the wheels spun and the whole train came within an ace of bucking off the track. And before the caboose had passed us Ayisha was alongside Grim abusing him for not having broken the locks off the steel freight-cars.
"I am a robber's wife!" she said, stamping her foot indignantly. "What sort of robber are you that let such loot pass free?"
"Shall I rob my mother's son?" Grim asked her. "God forbid!"
Then he turned to me, wondering.
"Can you beat it?" he said.
"You Got Cold Feet?"
We did not have to wait long for Ali Baba, Mujrim, and the camels, for they had not been fools enough to dawdle, with a hundred and fifty balked freebooters within rifle-shot, whose resilient pride was likely to breed anger. You can't lead camels any more than horses as fast as you can ride them; unless stampeded they tow loggily; but the fact that two or three dozen mounted Arabs had elected to follow along behind and watch from a safe distance what might happen to the train had lent Ali Baba wings.
And the same fact gave us wings too. We were up and away at once, headed eastward toward Petra, I perched on top of a baggage beast until Ali Baba could cut across at an angle and overtake us.
So those who watched no doubt confirmed the story of Ali Higg's presence on the scene. Had they not from the horizon seen the train stopped? Did they not with their own eyes see us scoot for Petra? And who else than the redoubtable Ali Higg would be likely to own such a string of splendid camels—he who could take what he coveted, and never coveted anything except the best?
The evidence of identity was strong enough for a judge and jury. Men have been hanged in America on less.
But that didn't help make the rest of our course any clearer than a fog off Sandy Hook. The real Ali Higg was in Petra like a dragon in a cave, and from all accounts of him he was not the sort of gentleman likely to lavish sweet endearments on a rival who had stolen not only his thunder, but his name as well.
"When in doubt go forward" is good law; but which is forward and which backward when you stand in the middle of a circle of doubt is a point that invites argument; and as soon as I could get my own camel I rode up beside Grim to find out whether our leader had a real plan or was only guessing.
But he seemed in no doubt at all, only satisfied, with the air of a scientist who has at last found the key to a natural puzzle. I found him chuckling.
"That explains a hundred things," he said.
"Why, my likeness to Ali Higg. It's evidently so. I've often been kept awake wondering why strangers—Bedouins mostly—would show me such deference until they found out who I really am, and after that would have to be handled without gloves. It bothered me. It looked as if I had some natural gift that I couldn't identify, and that got smothered as soon as I put mere brains to work.
"But I see now; they mistook me for the robber, and the reaction when they found out I was some one less like the devil made them act like school-kids who think they can guy the teacher. Now I understand, I'll do better."
"The point is," said I, "that you're established as the robber now, and here we are riding straight for his den. Can we fight him and his two hundred?"
"Fighting is a fool's game ten times out of nine," he answered. "That's to say, it's always a fool who starts the fight. The wise man waits until fighting is the only resource that's left to him."
"Why not wait, then, and watch points?"
"Because we're not dealing with a wise man; he's only clever and drastic. If we wait word's bound to reach him that some one's posing as himself, and he'll sally forth to make an example of us—do a good job of it too!
"I'd hate to be caught out in the desert with twenty men by Ali Higg! He's a rip-roaring typhoon. But the worst typhoon the world ever saw had a soft spot in the middle.
"You know what the Arab say? 'A dog can scratch fleas, but not worms in his belly!' We've got to be worms in the belly of Ali Higg, and where the man is there will be his belly also. We've got to stage what the movie people call a close-up."
Almost every one in the outfit had a different view of the situation, although all agreed that Grim was the man to stay with. Narayan Singh, growling in my ear incessantly, scented intrigue, and his Sikh blood tingled at the thought; he began to look more tolerantly on Ayisha as a mere instrument whom Grim would find some chance of using.
"For the cleverest woman whom the devil ever sent to ruin men is after all but a lie that engulfs the liar. I know that man Jimgrim. She will dig a pit, but he will not fall into it. It may be that we shall all die together, but what of that?"
Ayisha, on the other hand, was getting nervous. Grim avoided her. She was reduced to questioning others, edging the little Bishareen alongside each in turn. She seemed no longer able to suffer the close confinement of the shibriyah, but endured the scorching sun and desert flies with less discomfort than the rest of us betrayed, camels included.
"What will he do? Is he mad? Does he think that the Lion of Petra is a camel to be managed with a rope and a stick?
"I have given him his chance; because of my words men already fear him. Why doesn't he plunder, then, and run to his own home? Why doesn't he talk with me and let me tell him what to do next? I know all these people—all their villages—everything!"
"All women know too much, yet never what is needful," Ali Baba answered.
He was frankly jubilant. Son and grandson of robbers by profession, father and grandfather of educated thieves, life meant lawlessness to him, and he could see nothing but honest pleasure and the chance of profit in Grim's predicament. He loved Grim, as all Arabs do love the foreigner who understands them, deploring nothing except that unintelligible loyalty to a Western code of morals that according to Ali Baba's lights consisted of pure foolishness. And now, as he saw it, Grim stood committed to a course that could only lead to trickery. And all trickery must pave the way for plunder. And plundering was fun.
His sons and grandsons in varying degree saw matters from the old man's viewpoint, although, having had rather less experience of it, they were not quite so confident of Grim's generalship; but they made up for that by perfectly dog-like devotion to "the old man, their father," whose word and whose interpretation of the Koran was the only law they knew.
What tickled their fancy most was Ali Baba's cleverness in egging on Ayisha to advertise Grim as Ali Higg. Again and again on the march that day, in spite of the grilling heat, and thirst and flies, they burst into roars of laughter over it, chaffing Ayisha's four men unmercifully.
And after a while Mahommed, the youngest of Ali Baba's sons, regarded by all the others as the poet of the band and therefore the least responsible and most to be humored in his whims, made up a song about it all. It called for something more than boisterous spirits; it needed the fire of enthusiasm and ingrained pluck to set them all singing behind him in despite of the desert heat and the dazzling, bleak, unwatered view. They sang the louder in defiance of the elements.
"Lord of the desert is Ali Higg! Akbar! Akbar! * Lord of the gardens of grape and fig. Akbar! Akbar! Lord of the palm and clustered date. Mishmish,** olive and water sate Hunger and thirst in Ali's gate! Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!
"Lion of lions and lord of lords! Akbar! Akbar! Chief of lances, prince of swords! Akbar! Akbar! Red with blood is the realm he owns! Bzz-u-wzz-uzz the blood-fly drones! Crack-ak-ak-ak! The crunching bones! Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!
"Jackals feed on Ali's trail! Akbar! Akbar! Speed and strength and numbers fail! Akbar! Akbar! Swooping along in a cloud of sand, Killing and conquering out of hand Hasten the slayers of Ali's band! Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!
"Camel and horse and fat-tail sheep, Akbar! Akbar! Ali's kite-eyed herdsmen keep! Akbar! Akbar! Gold and silver and gems of the best, Amber and linen and silks attest What are the profits of Ali's quest! Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!
"Fair are the fortunes of Ali's men! Akbar! Akbar! Each has slave-women eight or ten! Akbar! Akbar! Ho! Where the dust of the desert swirls Over the plain as his cohort whirls, Oho! the screams of the plundered girls! Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!"
——————- * Akbar means "great."
** Mishmish—apricot. In that land of drought and desolation the highest compliment you can pay a man is to call him lord of water and ripening fruit. ——————-
There was any amount more of it, but most of the rest was not polite enough for print, because the Arab likes to enter into details. It sounded much better in Arabic, anyhow. And more and more frequently as the song grew lurid and they warmed to the refrain they made their point by changing the third Akbar into Jimgrim:
"Akbar! Akbar! Jimgrim Ali Higg!"
It suited their sense of humor finely to announce to the wind and the kites that Grim, the strict, straight, ethical American was a ravisher of virgins and a slitter of offenseless throats, who knew no mercy—a man without law in this world or prospect of peace in the next.
When we reached an oasis about noon—sweet water and thirty or forty palm-trees—and simply had to camp there because the camels were exhausted after a night and half a day of strenuous marching, they were still so full of high spirits that they had to work them off somehow; and unwittingly I provided the excuse.
I was on the lee side of a camel, opening a boil in Mujrim's leg with his razor, when I caught sight of one of the younger men trying to burgle the medicine-chest. I yelled at him, and naturally gashed my patient's leg, who rose in giant wrath and with enormous fairness smote the real culprit.
The resulting blasphemous bad language brought Ali Baba to the scene at once as peacemaker, with all the gang behind him; and in a minute they had all joined hands, with Mahommed standing in the center, and were dancing like a lot of pouter-pigeons, singing a new song about Mujrim's leg, and a razor, and blood on the sand, and palm-trees, and a saint, and my superhuman ability to let daylight into the very heart of boils. You don't have to believe any one who tells you that Arabs haven't humor.
There were the ruins of half a dozen mud-walled huts near the spring in that oasis. There had once been a sort of rampart and a gate, but there was hardly enough of that left to show where it stood. The only building still quite intact was a stone tomb of about the height of a man, with a plastered cupola roof; and Ali Baba, who always knew everything, swore that was a great saint's grave, and that there was much virtue and good luck to be gained by praying inside the tomb. So they all took turns to go in and pray fervently—two-bow prayers as they called them—reciting thereafter such scripture as Ali Baba thought suitable and could remember.
Hunting about in the ruins I found indubitable human bones. Ayisha, when asked about it, said that Ali Higg had raided the place several months ago and killed or captured every one.
"Because he is lord of the waters," she explained, and seemed to think that reason unassailable.
There was quite a dispute at that place as to who should stand first guard while the rest of us slept, but Grim settled it by casting lots with date-stones in a way that was new, but that seemed to satisfy every one—especially as the first watch fell to Narayan Singh and me.
"That is because the rest of us said our prayers," explained Ali Baba piously.
But I think it was really because Grim knew how to play tricks with the date-stones.
The Sikh and I kept making the circuit of the palm-trees and talking to keep each other from getting too sleepy, for there is no time when desire to sleep so loads you down as in the noon heat after a long march. You very often can't sleep then because of the very heat that makes you drowsy; but the glare has been so trying to your eyes that you yearn to shut them, and inertia sits on your spine and shoulders like a load of lead.
"Thou and I must watch that woman, sahib," said Narayan Singh. "Our Jimgrim will make use of her; but how shall he do that if her heart changes? As long as she hopes to snare him I am not afraid of her. But what if it should be she who grows afraid as we get nearer to Ali Higg's nest? A woman afraid is worse than a man with a dagger in the dark. Suppose she bolts to Ali Higg and lays information against us—what then?"
I tried to argue him out of his anxiety, because I wanted to sleep when my turn came. My habit of never looking for trouble is a lovely one until trouble starts; but the Sikh, being only a heathen, could not be persuaded; so I had to promise him that, turn about, four hours on and four off, he and I would watch Ayisha faithfully until such time as Grim should make other disposition of our services or there should be no more need.
"And I think, sahib, that it will be best to shoot or stab her without argument if she turns treacherous."
But I never stabbed or shot a woman yet. I have a loose-kneed prejudice against it. I said so.
"Then, sahib, if it be your turn on watch, and you detect treachery, summon me, and I will send her to Jehannum." [Hell]
"I think we ought to speak to Jimgrim about it," I objected. "He might have other plans."
The Sikh turned that over in his mind during one whole circuit of the palm-trees, stroking his great beard with his right hand the while as if the friction would inspire his brain.
"Jimgrim will say she is a woman and therefore must not be killed in any event," he answered at last. "But that is of the nature of his error, all men suffering delusion in some form, since none is perfect. If we submit the problem to him he will answer wrongly; but we shall then have received orders, which, as faithful men, we must not disobey.
"As concerns ourselves, being men without specific orders on that point, the question is simple: Of that woman and that man, if the one must live and the other die, which shall it be? And I say Jimgrim shall live, if I die afterward even by his hand for it."
It sounded logical. The arguments with which an unselfish, honest fellow deceives himself into wrong-doing always do bear quite a lot of investigation. But I was at sea before the mast once, where I learned painfully that the captain commands the ship; not even the notions of the buckiest bucko mate amount to as much as a barnacle's bootlace if the old man disagrees from them.
"What makes you think he doesn't understand the obvious danger of Ayisha?" said I.
"No man from the West ever understood a woman of the East," he answered.
That being obviously true—Adam did not understand Eve, and no man from anywhere has understood any woman since—I had to rack my brains for a different argument.
"There are two sure ways of discovering treason," I said at last. "One way is to pick a quarrel with the person you suspect. But the safer way is to seem very friendly.
"Now—why don't you make love to her? You're a fine, big, handsome man. I don't suppose she'll prefer you in her heart to Jimgrim, but she'll not be ashamed to appear to respond, and if she has evil intentions she will surely seek to take advantage of your passion to forward her own plans. Seeking to make use of you, she will betray herself."
"So speaks the jackal to the tiger. 'This way, sahib! That way, sahib! A broad-horned sambhur to be killed, worthy of your honor's strength!' Why don't you make love to her?"
"Because I'm afraid," said I quite frankly. "If I thought I could get away with it I'd try. But she'd laugh at me, whereas your attentions might flatter her."
"You think so?"
He stroked his great beard again, and twisted his mustache.
"I'm sure of it."
"Atcha. We shall see. I will give the trollop that one chance. It may be she will preserve her head on her shoulders yet by confiding in me; for if I can forewarn Jimgrim of her plans I will reckon it beneath my dignity to use a sword on her. So. It is settled. We shall see."
You know that warm glow of vanity that sweeps over you when another fellow concedes your plan to be better than his? It is rather like the effect of certain drugs—a highly agreeable sensation while it lasts.
But it was tempered in my case by that reference he had made to a jackal, and I'm still left wondering how much justice there was in the insinuation. Narayan Singh and I are friends right down to this minute, but I am none the less conscious of a query that seems to spoil confidence a little.
He, being master of himself by training, and used to sleeping when he saw fit, volunteered to take the first four-hour watch on Ayisha, so I got as much sleep as the flies and the snores of the rest of the gang would permit, and awoke toward evening to the sound of unaccustomed voices outside my tent. There was one voice with a squeak in it like a rusty wheel that I had certainly never heard before.
It seemed we had made some prisoners. There were three seedy-looking camels kneeling over by Grim's tent, and three almost as seedy-looking individuals were talking to Grim in the midst of our camp, with most of our gang seated in a semicircle listening. Grim had out his traveling water-pipe for the sake of effect, and was puffing away at it while he meditated on the information that was being drawn forth gradually. Ayisha was seated on the mat beside him.
The man with the squeak in his voice, who did most of the talking, was a very dark-skinned fellow with a short, coal-black, curly beard. He had little gold rings in his ears, and in spite of the filthy condition of his clothes he wore an opulent look—the sort that suggests intimate acquaintance with the fabled riches of the East. I have seen a Moor, who hadn't a coin with which to bless himself, create exactly the same impression by simply being dark and handsome.
He was eating dates while he talked, so I suppose Grim had been to some pains to make him feel welcome. But he hadn't been there long.
"Wallahi!" he said as I joined the circle. "But Your Honor is surely Ali Higg, and that is the lady Ayisha! Your Honor is pleased to pretend otherwise, but am I blind? I, who come straight from Petra where Your Honor paid me, am not thus easily deceived!
"Lo, the good camels! It was easy to make a wide circuit, and reach this place a day ahead of me; but what is Your Honor's purpose? What do you want with me, O Lion of Petra?"
"Nevertheless," said Grim, "I am not Ali Higg, who styles himself Lion of Petra."
"Is that not the lady Ayisha?" he retorted. "True, I have only seen you in the dark, but have I not seen her at the least ten times? Was it not she who had my servant flogged on a former occasion because he likened her to other women?"
Grim said nothing to that. Ayisha drew the embroidered head-cloth over her face, I suppose to hide a smile.
"For what purpose did you visit Petra?" Grim inquired.
"Mashalla! Did I not receive payment from Your Honor? I do not understand!"
"It is I who do not understand," said Grim. "Repeat to me what you did at Petra."
"But Your Honor knows!"
"Very well. Return with me to Petra. I have reasons for asking."
"Wallahi! If it suits Your Honor's humor to make me tell you a tenth time what I have nine times said already, I have a tongue that wags. But I see that another has been telling tales of me behind my back, making me out a liar for his own purposes. Inshallah, it shall be found that my tale varies by less than the ten-thousandth part of the width of a hair from what I have told already."
"Proceed," said Grim. "I listen."
"Thus then: While in Jaffa, having received Your Honor's letter by the hand of Shabbas Ali, requesting me to spy on the British troops, I made all haste, laying aside my own affairs and journeying wherever the trail of information led me. I asked questions, but was not content with asking. I went and looked. I made friends with subordinate officials, some of whom I bribed to show me written orders removed from the desks of commanding officers.
"I ascertained all particulars and found this to be the fact: That whereas there are small bodies of troops scattered in certain places, those are needed for local protection of the places where they are; and that whereas there is at Ludd an army of more than twenty thousand men, with guns, great store of supplies, cavalry, and aeroplanes, that army is held in readiness to go to Egypt and cannot for the present be sent against you. Moreover, the long march, so difficult for guns and supply-wagons, from there to Petra, would not be attempted during the hot season. So Your Honor is safe from attack."
"Uh! So you say!" Grim grunted.
You could almost hear the wheels click inside his head as he tried to puzzle out what use to make of this man. One thing was clear enough: the Lion of Petra was well informed. It was nothing less than fact that on no account could an expedition be undertaken against him for a long time. And it was fair, therefore, to presume that in his Petra fastness the robber chief would be feeling confident, and would be that much more difficult to bluff.
But it is one advantage of that land that you may be deliberate without causing impatience or losing respect. Rather the contrary; the Arab values your decisions all the more for being reached after several minutes of silent thought.
Neither our own gang nor the prisoner was in the least disturbed by Grim's taking his time, and only Narayan Singh, still postponing his sleep, was anxious when Ayisha leaned her head close to Grim's and whispered. Grim did not nod or shake his head or make any recognition of her presence—for a real Arab would not have dreamed of doing so—but it was she who gave him the right suggestion, although her intention was totally different from his.
"You lie," he said suddenly.
"There is an army making ready now to march on Petra."
"As Allah is my witness, there is no such thing."
"You shall return to Petra."
"But Your Honor knows I am in great haste. My own small affairs at Jaffa, God knows, have been neglected. How shall I spare time to return to Petra?"
"And there you shall reverse your story."
"You shall tell the very numbers and equipment of the army that makes ready."
"May He who never sleeps preserve me! Am I mad, or dreaming? In Petra I have told Your Honor a true tale; shall I return to Petra in order to tell you a lie? O Lord of the limits of the desert, listen to me! I have property in Jaffa; I must attend to it."
"I know you have. By the wharf where the Greeks land melons from Egypt, isn't it? Three godowns and a cafe on the corner? A nice property."
He paused, and I think he was turning over in his mind just how far it would be wise to go with all those others listening; for every word he let fall was sure to be discussed and discussed again at the next halting-place.
"Which is better—to return to Petra and obey, or to lose that property?"
"How shall I lose it? Hah! Your Honor is pleased to joke. You will invade Palestine as far as Jaffa?"
"For those who live under British protection and yet spy against the British are not so well treated by them as those who spy on their behalf."
"Maybe. When they are caught! When they have caught a fox they may skin him."
"And I am not Ali Higg, the Lion of Petra."
"Then who in the name of the Prophet are you, with the Lion's wife at your side?"
"That is none of your business. You come back to Petra with me. No, not your men; they go on. You alone. I have spoken."
In vain the man protested. He did not believe for a moment that Grim was not Ali Higg, and he felt sure that he was being kidnaped for some frightful fate, although Grim's mildness of demeanor must have puzzled him; for according to accounts the real Lion of Petra was a roaring beast.
Grim assigned two men to watch him, and gave the order to strike camp, refusing to listen to any further argument. And since the man's camels were too exhausted to march at once he ordered all three left behind at the oasis and put the prisoner on one of our baggage animals.
Just as we were ready to start he walked over to the two men and threatened them with frightful torture unless they hurried westward the minute the camels were fit to move on. It was pretty obvious that they were only too glad to obey; and Yussuf, our prisoner, made obedience more certain by shouting messages to them to be delivered to friends in Jaffa.
So Narayan Singh cast appraising eyes on the shibriyah, and curled up in it like a big dog, without troubling to ask Ayisha's permission. Sleep was his first intention, but he was for killing two birds with one stone; I did not realize at the time what a chance that was going to provide for making the first advances to the lady.
I rode forward beside Grim, who guided us with a compass on his wrist until the stars came out; and for hours on end we went side by side, saying nothing, listening to the monotonous jangle of his camel bell and the obligato of the bells behind. It was music that suited our mood, harmonizing perfectly with the solemn marvel of a desert sunset and the velvety, cool silence of the starlit night.
"That man Yussuf had me guessing," he said at last. "I couldn't place him. Knew his face, but that was all. Then she whispered something about his being a wind that carries smells from one village to the next and back again, spying against both sides at the same time. Then I remembered. He used to spy for us against the Turks and sell them information about us at the same time. Nearly got shot for it, but was let off because his services had really been valuable. I remember his being sent down to Jaffa and told to stay put."
"But what in thunder are you going to do with him?" I asked. "He thinks you're Ali Higg"
"Wonder what Ali Higg will say when he's confronted by Ali Higg!"
"Wonder what he'll do, you mean, don't you!"
"What d'you keep looking back for?"
"Just keeping tabs on Ayisha."
"No need to worry about her. Now we've got Yussuf on our string it's a cinch we can use her whichever way the cat jumps. She'll be afraid he'll tell tales about her."
"Hell!" I said. "It seems to me this whole procession's crazy! The best we've got with us is a gang of professional thieves.
"The farther we go the more we load up with sure-fire traitors. First Ayisha; she'd cut throats at so much per. Her four men, who'd change sides once an hour if they were made afraid that often. Now this Yussuf—a professional spy, whose habit you say is to betray both sides."
"Pretty good outfit, I'll tell the world," he answered.
"Good for what?"
"You got cold feet?"
"I've got cold judgment. We're crazy. We haven't a chance in a million of getting the best of an outlaw with two hundred men."
"We can try, can't we?"
"Yes, and die, can't we!"
"Well—we might do worse. I'd sooner croak in harness than have an eight-horse funeral. But say, if you don't like it you go back and join those two fellows at the oasis. There'll be no hard words."
But I felt too afraid of my own opinion of myself to turn back at that stage of the game.
"He Cools His Wrath in the Moonlight, Communing with Allah!"