The owl he has eyes that are big for his size,
And the night like a book he deciphers;
"Too-woop!" he asserts, and "Hoo-woo-ip!" he cries,
And he means to remark he is awfully wise;
But he lags behind us, who are "on" to the lies
Of the hairy Himalayan knifers!
For eyes we be, of Empire, we,
Skinned and puckered and quick to see,
And nobody guesses how wise we be,
Nor hidden in what disguise we be,
A-cooking a sudden surprise we be
For hairy Himahlyan knifers!
After a time King urged his horse to a jog-trot, and the five Hillmen pattered in his wake, huddled so close together that the horse could easily have kicked more than one of them. The night was cold enough to make flesh creep; but it was imagination that herded them until they touched the horse's rump and kept the whites of their eyes ever showing as they glanced to left and right. The Khyber, fouled by memory, looks like the very birthplace of the ghosts when the moon is fitful and a mist begins to flow.
"Cheloh!" King called merrily enough; but his horse shied at nothing, because horses have an uncanny way of knowing how their riders really feel. They led mules and the spare horse, instead of dragging at their bridles, pressed forward to have their heads among the men, and every once and again there would sound the dull thump of a fist on a beast's nose—such being the attitude of men toward the lesser beasts.
They trotted forward until the bed of the Khyber began to grow very narrow, and Ali Masjid Fort could not be much more than a mile away, at the widest guess. Then King drew rein and dismounted, for he would have been challenged had he ridden much farther. A challenge in the Khyber after dark consists invariably of a volley at short range, with the mere words afterward, and the wise man takes precaution.
"Off with the mules' packs!" he ordered, and the men stood round and stared. Darya Khan, leaning on the only rifle in the party, grinned like a post-office letter box.
"Truly," growled Ismail, forgetting past expression of a different opinion, "this man is as mad as all the other Englishmen."
"Were you ever bitten by one?" wondered King aloud.
"Then, off with the packs—and hurry!"
Ismail began to obey.
"Thou! Lord of the Rivers! (For that is what Darya Khan means.) What is thy calling?"
"Badragga" (guide), he answered. "Did she not send me back down the Pass to be a guide?"
"And before that what wast thou?"
"Is that thy business?" he snarled, shifting his rifle-barrel to the other hand. "I am what she says I am! She used to call me 'Chikki'—the Lifter!—and I was! There are those who were made to know it! If she says now I am badragga, shall any say she lies?"
"I say thou art unpacker of mules' burdens!" answered King. "Begin!"
For answer the fellow grinned from ear to ear and thrust the rifle-barrel forward insolently. King, with the movement of determination that a man makes when about to force conclusions, drew up his sleeves above the wrist. At that instant the moon shone through the mist and the gold bracelet glittered in the moonlight.
"May God be with thee!" said "Lord of the Rivers" at once. And without another word he laid down his rifle and went to help off-load the mules.
King stepped aside and cursed softly. To a man who knows how to enforce his own authority, it is worse than galling to be obeyed because he wears a woman's favor. But for a vein of wisdom that underlay his pride he would have pocketed the bracelet there and then and have refused to wear it again. But as he sweated his pride he overheard Ismail growl:
"Good for thee! He had taught thee obedience in another bat of the eye!"
"I obey her!" muttered Darya Khan.
"I, too," said Ishmail. "So shall he before the week dies! But now it is good to obey him. He is an ugly man to disobey!"
"I obey him until she sets me free, then," grumbled Darya Khan.
"Better for thee!" said Ismail.
The packs were laid on the ground, and the mules shook themselves, while the jackals that haunt the Khyber came closer, to sit in a ring and watch. King dug a flashlight out of one of the packs, gave it to Ismail to hold, sat on the other pack and began to write on a memorandum pad. It was a minute before he could persuade Ismail that the flashlight was harmless, and another minute before he could get him to hold it still. Then, however, he wrote swiftly.
"In the Khyber, a mile below you.
"Dear Old Man—I would like to run in and see you, but
circumstances don't permit. Several people sent you
their regards by me. Herewith go two mules and their
packs. Make any use of the mules you like, but store
the loads where I can draw on them in case of need.
I would like to have a talk with you before taking the
rather desperate step I intend, but I don't want to be
seen entering or leaving Ali Masjid. Can you come
down the Pass without making your intention known?
It is growing misty now. It ought to be easy. My men
will tell you where I am and show you the way. Why
not destroy this letter?
He folded the note and stuck a postage stamp on it in lieu of seal. Then he examined the packs with the aid of the flashlight, sorted them and ordered two of the mules reloaded.
"You three!" he ordered then. "Take the loaded mules into Ali Masjid Fort. Take this chit, you. Give it to the sahib in command there."
They stood and gaped at him, wide-eyed—then I came closer to see his eyes and to catch any whisper that Ismail might have for them. But Ismail and Darya Khan seemed full of having been chosen to stay behind; they offered no suggestions—certainly no encouragement to mutiny.
"To hear is to obey!" said the nearest man, seizing the note, for at all events that was the easiest task. His action decided the other two. They took the mules' leading-reins and followed him. Before they had gone ten paces they were all swallowed in the mist that had begun to flow southeastward; it closed on them like a blanket, and in a minute more the clink of shod hooves had ceased. The night grew still, except for the whimpering of jackals. Ismail came nearer and squatted at King's feet.
"Why, sahib?" he asked: and Darya Khan came closer, too. King had tied the reins of the two horses and the one remaining mule together in a knot and was sitting on the pack.
"Why not?" he countered.
Solemn, almost motionless, squatted on their hunkers, they looked like two great vultures watching an animal die.
"What have they done that they should be sent away?" asked Ismail. "What have they done that they should be sent to the fort, where the arrficer will put them in irons?"
"Why should he put them in irons?" asked King.
"Why not? Here in the Khyber there is often a price on men's heads!"
"And not in Delhi?"
"In Delhi these were not known. There were no witnesses in Delhi. In the fort at Ali Masjid there will be a dozen ready to swear to them!"
"Then, why did they obey?" asked King.
"What is that on the sahib's wrist?"
"Sahib—if she said, 'Walk into the fire or over that Cliff!' there be many in these 'Hills' who would obey without murmuring!"
"I have nothing against them," said King. "As long as they are my men I will not send them into a trap."
"Good!" nodded Ismail and Darya Khan together, but they did not seem really satisfied.
"It is good," said Ismail, "that she should have nothing against thee, sahib! Those three men are in thy keeping!"
"And I in thine?" King asked, but neither man answered him.
They sat in silence for five minutes. Then suddenly the two Hillmen shuddered, although King did not bat an eyelid. Din burst into being. A volley ripped out of the night and thundered down the Pass.
"How-utt! Hukkums dar?" came the insolent challenge half a minute after it—the proof positive that Ali Masjid's guards neither slept nor were afraid.
A weird wail answered the challenge, and there began a tossing to and fro of words, that was prelude to a shouted invitation:
English can be as weirdly distorted as wire, or any other supple medium, and native levies advance distortion to the point of art; but the language sounds no less good in the chilly gloom of a Khyber night.
Followed another wait, this time of half an hour. Then a man's footsteps—a booted, leather-heeled man, striding carelessly. Not far behind him was the softer noise of sandals. The man began to whistle Annie Laurie.
"Charles? That you?" called King.
"That you, old man?"
A man in khaki stepped into the moonlight. He was so nearly the image of Athelstan King that Ismail and Darya Khan stood up and stared. Athelstan strode to meet him. Their walk was the same. Angle for angle, line for line, they might have been one man and his shadow, except for three-quarters of an inch of stature.
"Glad to see you, old man," said Athelstan.
"Sure, old chap!" said Charles; and they shook hands.
"What's the desperate proposal?" asked the younger.
"I'll tell you when we are alone."
His brother nodded and stood a step aside. The three who had taken the note to the fort came closer—partly to call attention to themselves, partly to claim credit, partly because the outer silence frightened them. They elbowed Ismail and Darya Khan, and one of them received a savage blow in the stomach by way of retort from Ismail. Before that spark could start an explosion Athelstan interfered.
"Ismail! Take two men. Go down the Pass out of car-shot, and keep watch! Come back when I whistle thus—but no sooner!"
He put fingers between his teeth and blew until the night shrilled back at him. Ismail seized the leather bag and started to obey.
"Leave that bag. Leave it, I say!"
"But some man may steal it, sahib. How shall a thief know there is no money in it?"
"Leave it and go!"
Ismail departed, grumbling, and King turned on Darya Khan.
"Take the remaining man, and go up the Pass!" he ordered. "Stand out of ear-shot and keep watch. Come when I whistle!"
"But this one has a belly ache where Ismail smote him! Can a man with a belly ache stand guard? His moaning will betray both him and me!" objected "Lord of the Rivers."
"Take him and go!" commanded King.
King was careful now not to show his bracelet.
But there was something in his eye and in his attitude—a subtle suggestive something-or-other about him—that was rather more convincing than a pistol or a stick. Darya Khan thrust his rifle-end into the hurt man's stomach for encouragement and started off into the mist.
"Come and ache out of the sahibs' sight!" he snarled.
In a minute King and his brother stood unseen, unheard in the shadow by a patch of silver moonlight. Athelstan sat down on the mule's pack.
"Well?" said the younger. "Tell me. I shall have to hurry. You see I'm in charge back there. They saw me come out, but I hope to teach 'em a lesson going back."
Athelstan nodded. "Good!" he said. "I've a roving commission. I'm ordered to enter Khinjan Caves."
His brother whistled. "Tall order! What's your plan?"
"Haven't one—yet. Know more when I'm nearer Khinjan. You can help no end."
"How? Name it!"
"I shall go up in disguise. Nobody can put the stain on as well as you. But tell me something first. Any news of a holy war yet?"
His brother nodded. "Plenty of talk about one to come," he said. "We keep hearing of that lashkar that we can't locate, under a mullah whose name seems to change with the day of the week. And there are everlasting tales about the 'Heart of the Hills."'
"No explanation of 'em?" Athelstan asked him.
"None! Not a thing!"
"D'you know of Yasmini?"
"Heard of her of course," said his brother.
"Has she come up the Pass?"
His brother laughed. "No, neither she nor a coach and four."
"I have heard the contrary," said Athelstan.
"Heard what, exactly?"
"She's up the Pass ahead of me."
"She hasn't passed Ali Masjid!" said his brother, and Athelstan nodded.
"Are the Turks in the show yet?" asked Charles.
"Not yet. But I know they're expected in."
"You bet they're expected in!" The younger man grinned from ear to ear. "They're working both tides under to prepare the tribes for it. They flatter themselves they can set alight a holy war that will put Timour Ilang to shame. You should hear my jezailchies talk at night when they think I'm not listening!"
"The jezailchies'll stand though," said Athelstan.
"Stake my life on it!" said his brother. "They'll stick to the last man!"
"I can't tell you," said Athelstan, "why we're not attacking brother Turk before he's ready. I imagine Whitehall has its hands full. But it's likely enough that the Turk will throw in his lot with the Prussians the minute he's ready to begin. Meanwhile my job is to help make the holy war seem unprofitable to the tribes, so that they'll let the Turk down hard when he calls on 'em. Every day that I can point to forts held strongly in the Khyber is a day in my favor. There are sure to be raids. In fact, the more the merrier, provided they're spasmodic. We must keep 'em separated—keep 'em from swarming too fast—while I sow other seeds among 'em."
His brother nodded. Sowing seeds was almost that family's hereditary job. Athelstan continued:
"Hang on to Ali Masjid like a leech, old man! The day one raiding lashkar gets command of the Khyber's throat, the others'll all believe they've won the game. Nothing'll stop 'em then! Look out for traps. Smash 'em on sight. But don't follow up too far!"
"Sure," said Charles.
"Help me with the stain now, will you?"
With his flash-light burning as if its battery provided current by the week instead of by the minute, Athelstan dragged open the mule's pack and produced a host of things. He propped a mirror against the pack and squatted in front of it. Then he passed a little bottle to his brother, and Charles attended to the chin-strap mark that would have betrayed him a British officer in any light brighter than dusk. In a few minutes his whole face was darkened to one hue, and Charles stepped back to look at it.
"Won't need to wash yourself for a month!" he said. "The dirt won't show!" He sniffed at the bottle. "But that stain won't come off if you do wash—never worry! You'll do finely."
"Not yet, I won't!" said Athelstan, picking up a little safety razor and beginning on his mustache. In a minute he had his upper lip bare. Then his brother bent over him and rubbed in stain where the scrubby mustache had been.
After that Athelstan unlocked the leather bag that had caused Ismail so much concern and shook out from it a pile of odds and ends at which his brother nodded with perfect understanding. The principal item was a piece of silk—forty or fifty yards of it—that he proceeded to bind into a turban on his head, his brother lending him a guiding, understanding finger at every other turn. When that was done, the man who had said he looked in the least like a British officer would have lied.
One after another he drew on native garments, picking them from the pile beside him. So, by rapid stages he developed into a native hakim—by creed a converted Hindu, like Rewa Gunga,—one of the men who practise yunani, or modern medicine, without a license and with a very great deal of added superstition, trickery and guesswork.
"I wouldn't trust you with a ha'penny!" announced his brother when he had done.
"Really? As good as all that?"
"The part to a T."
"Well—take these into the fort for me, will you?" His brother caught the bundle of discarded European clothes and tucked them under his arm. "Now, re-member, old man! This is the biggest show there has ever been! We've got to hold the Khyber, and we can't do it by riding pell-mell into the first trap set for us! We must smash when the fighting starts—but we mayn't miss! We mayn't run past the mark! Be a coward, if that's the name you care to give it. You needn't tell me you've got orders to hunt skirmishers to a standstill, because I know better. I know you've just had your wig pulled for laming two horses!"
"How d'you know that?"
"Never mind! I've been seconded to your crowd. I'm your senior, and I'm giving you orders. This show isn't sport, but the real red thing, and I want to count on you to fight like a trained man, not like a natural-born fool. I want to know you're holding Ali Masjid like Fabius held Rome, by being slow and wily, just for the sake of the comfortable feeling it will give me when I'm alone among the 'Hills.' Hit hard when you have to, but for God's sake, old man, ware traps!"
"All right," said his brother.
"Then good-by, old man!"
They stood facing and shook hands. Where had been a man and his reflection in the mist, there now seemed to be the same man and a native. Athelstan King had changed his very nature with his clothes. He stood like a native—moved like one; even his voice was changed, as if—like the actor who dyed himself all over to act Othello—he could do nothing by halves.
"I'm going to try to get in without my men seeing me!" said the younger.
"If they do see you, they'll shoot!"
"Yes, and miss! Trust a Khyber jezailchi not to hit much in the dark! It'll do 'em good either way. I'll have time to give 'em the password before they fire a second volley. They're not really dangerous till the third one. Good-by!"
Officers in that force are not chosen for their clumsiness, or inability to move silently by night. His foot-steps died in the mist almost as quickly as his shadow. Before he had been gone a minute the Pass was silent as death again, and though Athelstan listened with trained ears, the only sound he could detect was of a jackal cracking a bone fifty or sixty yards away.
He repacked the loads, putting everything back carefully into the big leather envelopes and locking the empty hand-bag, after throwing in a few stones for Ismail's benefit. Then he went to sit in the moonlight, with his back to a great rock and waited there cross-legged to give his brother time to make good a retreat through the mist. When there was no more doubt that his own men, at all events, had failed to detect the lieutenant, he put two fingers in his mouth and whistled.
Almost at once he heard sandals come pattering from both directions. As they emerged out of the mist he sat silent and still. It was Darya Khan who came first and stood gaping at him, but Ismail was a very close second, and the other three were only a little behind. For full two minutes after the man with the sore stomach had come they all stood holding one another's arms, astonished. Then—
"Where is he?" asked Ismail.
"Who?" said King, the hakim.
"Our sahib—King sahib—where is he?"
Even his voice was so completely changed that men who had been reared amid mutual suspicion could not recognize it.
"But there are his loads! There is his mule!"
"Here is his bag!" said Ismail, pouncing on it, picking it up and shaking it. "It rattles not as formerly! There is more in it than there was!"
"His two horses and the mule are here," said Darya Khan.
"Did I say he took them with him?" asked the hakim, who sat still with his back to a rock. "He went because I came! He left me here in charge! Should he not leave the wherewithal to make me comfortable, since I must do his work? Hah! What do I see? A man bent nearly double? That means a belly ache! Who should have a belly ache when I have potions, lotions, balms to heal all ills, magic charms and talismans, big and little pills—and at such a little price! So small a price! Show me the belly and pay your money! Forget not the money, for nothing is free except air, water and the Word of God! I have paid money for water before now, and where is the mullah who will not take a fee? Nay, only air costs nothing! For a rupee, then—for one rupee I will heal the sore belly and forget to be ashamed for taking such a little fee!"
"Whither went the sahib? Nay—show us proof!" objected Darya Khan; and Ismail stood back a pace to scratch his flowing beard and think.
"The sahib left this with me!" said King, and held up his wrist. The gold bracelet Rewa Gunga had given him gleamed in the pale moonlight.
"May God be with thee!" boomed all five men together.
King jumped to his feet so suddenly that all five gave way in front of him, and Darya Khan brought his rifle to the port.
"Hast thou never seen me before?" he demanded, seizing Ismail by the shoulders and staring straight into his eyes.
"Nay, I never saw thee!"
He turned his head, to show his face in profile.
"Nay, I never saw thee!"
"Thou, then! Thou with the belly! Thou! Thou!"
They all denied ever having seen him.
So he stepped back until the moon shone full in his face and pulled off his turban, changing his expression at the same time.
"Ma'uzbillah! (May God protect us!)"
"Now ye know me?"
"Hee-yee-yee!" yelled Ismail, hugging himself by the elbows and beginning to dance from side to side. "Hee-yee-yee! What said I? Said I not so? Said I not this is a different man? Said I not this is a good one—a man of unexpected things? Said I not there was magic in the leather bag? I shook it often, and the magic grew! Hee-yee-yee! Look at him! See such cunning! Feel him! Smell of him! He is a good one—good!"
Three of the others stood and grinned, now that their first shock of surprise had died away. The fourth man poked among the packs. There was little to see except gleaming teeth and the whites of eyes, set in hairy faces in the mist. But Ismail danced all by himself among the stones of Khyber road and he looked like a bearded ghoul out for an airing.
"Hee-yee-yee! She smelt out a good one! Hee-yee-yee! This is a man after my heart! Hee-yee-yee! God preserve me! God preserve me to see the end of this! This one will show sport! Oh-yee-yee-yee!"
Suddenly be closed with King and hugged him until the stout ribs cracked and bent inward and King sobbed for breath among the strands of the Afridi's beard. He had to use knuckles and knees and feet to win freedom, and though he used them with all his might and hurt the old savage fiercely, he made no impression on his good will.
"After my own heart, thou art! Spirit of a cunning one! Worker of spells! Allah! That was a good day when she bade me wait for thee!"
King sat down again, panting. He wanted time to get his breath back and a little of the ache out of his ribs, but he did not care to waste any more minutes, and his eyes watched the faces of the other four men. He saw them slowly waken to understanding of what Ismail meant by "worker of spells" and "magic in the bag" and knew that he had even greater hold on them now than Yasmini's bracelet gave him.
"Ma'uzbillah!" they murmured as Ismail's meaning dawned and they recognized a magician in their midst. "May God protect us!"
"May God protect me! I have need of it!" said King. "What shall my new name be? Give ye me a name!"
"Nay, choose thou!" urged Ismail, drawing nearer. "We have seen one miracle; now let us hear another!"
"Very well. Khan is a title of respect. Since I wish for respect, I will call myself Khan. Name me a village the first name you can think of—quick!"
"Kurram," said Ismail, at a hazard.
"Kurram is good. Kurram I am! Kurram Khan is my name henceforward! Kurram Khan the dakitar!"
"But where is the sahib who came from the fort to talk?" asked the man whose stomach ached yet from Ismail and Darya Khan's attentions to it.
"Gone!" announced King. "He went with the other one!"
"Went whither? Did any see him go?"
"Is that thy affair?" asked King, and the man collapsed. It is not considered wise to the north of Jamrud to argue with a wizard, or even with a man who only claims to be one. This was a man who had changed his very nature almost under their eyes.
"Even his other clothes have gone!" murmured one man, he who had poked about among the packs.
"And now, Ismail, Darya Khan, ye two dunder-heads!—ye bellies without brains!—when was there ever a dakitar—a hakim, who had not two assistants at the least? Have ye never seen, ye blinder-than-bats—how one man holds a patient while his boils are lanced, and yet another makes the hot iron ready?"
They had both seen that often.
"Then, what are ye?"
They gaped at him. Were they to work wonders too? Were they to be part and parcel of the miracle? Watching them, King saw understanding dawn behind Ismail's eyes and knew he was winning more than a mere admirer. He knew it might be days yet, might be weeks before the truth was out, but it seemed to him that Ismail was at heart his friend. And there are no friendships stronger than those formed in the Khyber and beyond—no more loyal partnerships. The "Hills" are the home of contrasts, of blood-feuds that last until the last-but-one man dies, and of friendships that no crime or need or slander can efface. If the feuds are to be avoided like the devil, the friendships are worth having.
"There is another thing ye might do," he suggested, "if ye two grown men are afraid to see a boil slit open. Always there are timid patients who hang back and refuse to drink the medicines. There should be one or two among the crowd who will come forward and swallow the draughts eagerly, in proof that no harm results. Be ye two they!"
Ismail spat savagely.
"Nay! Bismillah! Nay, nay! I will hold them who have boils, sitting firmly on their bellies—so—or between their shoulders—thus—when the boils are behind! Nay, I will drink no draughts! I am a man, not a cess-pool!"
"And I will study how to heat hot irons!" said Darya Khan, with grim conviction. "It is likely that, having worked for a blacksmith once, I may learn quickly! Phaughghgh! I have tasted physic! I have drunk Apsin Saats! (Epsom Salts.)"
He spat, too, in a very fury of reminiscence.
"Good!" said King. "Henceforward, then, I am Kurram Khan, the dakitar, and ye two are my assistants, Ismail to hold the men with boils, and Darya Khan to heat the irons—both of ye to be my men and support me with words when need be!"
"Aye!" said Ismail, quick to think of details, "and these others shall be the tasters! They have big bellies, that will hold many potions without crowding. Let them swallow a little of each medicine in the chest now, for the sake of practise! Let them learn not to make a wry face when the taste of cess-pools rests on the tongue—"
"Aye, and the breath comes sobbing through the nose!" said Darya Khan, remembering fragments of an adventurous career. "Let them learn to drink Apsin Saats without coughing!"
"We will not drink the medicines!" announced the man who had a stomach ache. "Nay, nay!"
But Ismail hit him with the back of his hand in the stomach again and danced away, hugging himself and shouting "Hee-yee-yee!" until the jackals joined him in discontented chorus and the Khyber Pass became full of weird howling. Then suddenly the old Afridi thought of something else and came back to thrust his face close to King's.
"Why be a Rangar? Why be a Rajput, sahib? She loves us Hillmen better!"
"Do I look like a Hillman of the 'Hills'?" asked King.
"Nay, not now. But he who can work one miracle can work another. Change thy skin once more and be a true Hillman!"
"Aye!" King laughed. "And fall heir to a blood-feud with every second man I chance upon! A Hill-man is cousin to a hundred others, and what say they in the 'Hills'?—'to hate like cousins,' eh? All cousins are at war. As a Rangar I have left my cousins down in India. Better be a converted Hindu and be despised by some than have cousins in the 'Hills'! Besides—do I speak like a Hillman?"
"Aye! Never an Afridi spake his own tongue better!"
"Yet—does a Hillman slip? Would a Hillman use Punjabi words in a careless moment?"'
"Therefore, thou dunderhead, I will be a Rangar Rajput,—a stranger in a strange land, traveling by her favor to visit her in Khinjan! Thus, should I happen to make mistakes in speech or action, it may be overlooked, and each man will unwittingly be my advocate, explaining away my errors to himself and others instead of my enemy denouncing me to all and sundry! Is that clear, thou oaf?"
"Aye! Thou art more cunning than any man I ever met!"
The great Afridi began to rub the tips of his fingers through his straggly beard in a way that might mean anything, and King seemed to draw considerable satisfaction from it, as if it were a sign language that he understood. More than any one thing in the world just then he needed a friend, and he certainly did not propose to refuse such a useful one.
"And," he added, as if it were an afterthought, instead of his chief reason, "if her special man Rewa Gunga is a Rangar, and is known as a Rangar through out the 'Hills,' shall I not the more likely win favor by being a Rangar too? If I wear her bracelet and at the same time am a Rangar, who will not trust me?"
"True! Thou art a magician!"
"True!" agreed Ismail.
But the moon was getting low and Khyber would be dark again in half an hour, for the great crags in the distance to either hand shut off more light than do the Khyber walls. The mist, too, was growing thicker. It was time to make a move.
King rose. "Pack the mule and bring my horse!" he ordered and they hurried to obey with alacrity born of new respect, Darya Khan attending to the trimming of the mule's load in person instead of snarling at another man. It was a very different little escort from the one that had come thus far. Like King himself, it had changed its very nature in fifteen minutes!
They brought the horse, and King laughed at them, calling the idiots—men without eyes.
"The saddle?" Ismail suggested. "It is a government arrficer's saddle."
"Stolen!" said King, and they nodded. "Stolen along with the horse!"
"Then the bridle?"
"Stolen too, ye men without eyes! Ye insects! A Stolen horse and saddle and bridle, are they not a passport of gentility this side of the border?"
"I am Kurram Khan, the dakitar, but who in the 'Hills' would believe it? Look now—look ye and tell me what is wrong?"
He pointed to the horse, and they stood in a row and stared.
"Shorten those stirrups, then, six holes at the least! Men will laugh at me if I ride like a British arrficer!"
"Aye!" said Ismail, hurrying to obey.
"Aye! Aye! Aye!" agreed the others.
"Now," he said, gathering the reins and swinging into the saddle, "who knows the way to Khinjan?"
"Which of us does not!"
"Ye all know it? Then ye all are border thieves and worse! No honest man knows that road! Lead on, Darya Khan, thou Lord of Rivers! Do thy duty as badragga and beware lest we get our knees wet at the fords! Ismail, you march next. Now I. You other two and the mule follow me. Let the man with the belly ache ride last on the other horse. So! Forward march!"
So Darya Khan led the way with his rifle, and King's face glowed in cigarette light not very far behind him as he legged his horse up the narrow track that led northward out of the Khyber bed.
It would be a long time before he would dare smoke a cigar again, and his supply of cigarettes was destined to dwindle down to nothing before that day. But he did not seem to mind.
"Cheloh!" he called. "Forward, men of the mountains! Kuch dar nahin hai!"
"Thy mother and the spirit of a fight were one!" swore Ismail just in front of him, stepping out like a boy going to a picnic. "She will love thee! Allah! She will love thee! Allah! Allah!"
The thought seemed to appal him. For hours after that he climbed ahead in silence.