“I go with that man!”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
LO HERE! LO THERE!
Ye shall not judge men by the drinks they take,
Nor by unthinking oath, nor what they wear,
For look! the mitered liars protest make
And drinking know they lie, and knowing swear.
No oath is round without the rounded fruit,
Nor pompous promise hides the ultimate.
In scarlet as in overalls and tailored suit
To-morrows truemen and the traitors wait
Untold by trick of blazonry or voice.
But harvest ripens and there come the reaping days
When each shall choose one path to bide the choice,
And ye shall know men when they face dividing ways.
To those who have never ridden knee to knee with outlaws full pelt into unknown darkness, with a burning house behind, and a whole horizon lit with the rolling glow of murdered villages, let it be written that the sensation of so doing is creepy, most amazing wild, and not without unrighteous pleasure.
There was a fierce joy that burned without consuming, and a consciousness of having crossed a rubicon. Points of view are left behind in a moment, although the proof may not be apparent for days or weeks, and I reckon our mental change from being merely hunters of an ancient castle and big game-tourists-trippers, from that hour. As we galloped behind Kagig the mesmerism of respect for custom blew away in the wind. We became at heart outlaws as we rode—and one of us a privy councilor of England!
The women, Maga included, were on in front. The night around and behind us was full of the thunder of fleeing cattle, for the Zeitoonli had looted the owner of the kahveh’s cows and oxen along with their own beasts and were driving them helter-skelter. The crackling flames behind us were a beacon, whistling white in the early wind, that we did well to hurry from.
It was Monty who called Kagig’s attention to the idiocy of tiring out the cattle before dawn, and then Kagig rode like an arrow until he could make the gipsies hear him. One long keening shout that penetrated through the drum of hoofs brought them to a walk, but they kept Maga in front with them, screened from our view until morning by a close line of mounted women and a group of men. The Turkish prisoners were all behind among the fifty Armenians from Zeitoon, looking very comfortless trussed up on the mounts that nobody else had coveted, with hands made fast behind their backs.
A little before dawn, when the saw-tooth tips of the mountain range on our left were first touched with opal and gold, we turned off the araba track along which we had so far come and entered a ravine leading toward Marash. Fred was asleep on horseback, supported between Will and me and snoring like a throttled dog. The smoke of the gutted kahveh had dwindled to a wisp in the distance behind us, and there was no sight or sound of pursuit.
No wheeled vehicle that ever man made could have passed up this new track. It was difficult for ridden horses, and our loaded beasts had to be given time. We seemed to be entering by a fissure into the womb of the savage hills that tossed themselves in ever-increasing grandeur up toward the mist-draped heights of Kara Dagh. Oftener than not our track was obviously watercourse, although now and then we breasted higher levels from which we could see, through gaps between hill and forest, backward along the way we had come. There was smoke from the direction of Adana that smudged a whole sky-line, and between that and the sea about a dozen sooty columns mushroomed against the clouds.
There was not a mile of the way we came that did not hold a hundred hiding-places fit for ambuscade, but our party was too numerous and well-armed to need worry on that account. Monty and Kagig drew ahead, quite a little way behind the gipsies still, but far in front of us, who had to keep Fred upright on his horse.
“My particular need is breakfast,” said I.
“And Will’s is the woman!” said Fred, admitting himself awake at last. Will had been straining in the stirrups on the top of every rise his horse negotiated ever since the sun rose. It certainly was a mystery why Maga should have been spirited away, after the freedom permitted her the day before.
“Rustum Khan has probably made off with her, or cut her head off!” remarked Fred by way of offering comfort, yawning with the conscious luxury of having slept. “I don’t see Rustum Khan. Let’s hope it’s true! That ‘ud give the American lady a better chance for her life in case we should overtake her!”
Will and Fred have always chosen the most awkward places and the least excuse for horseplay, and the sleep seemed to have expelled the last of the fever from Fred’s bones, so that he felt like a schoolboy on holiday. Will grabbed him around the neck and they wrestled, to their horses’ infinite disgust, panting and straining mightily in the effort to unseat each other. It was natural that Will should have the best of it, he being about fifteen years younger as well as unweakened by malaria. The men of Zeitoon behind us checked to watch Fred rolled out of his saddle, and roared with the delight of fighting men the wide world over to see the older campaigner suddenly recover his balance and turn the tables on the younger by a trick.
And at that very second, as Will landed feet first on the gravel panting for breath, Maga Jhaere arrived full gallop from the rear, managing her ugly gray stallion with consummate ease. Her black hair streamed out in the wind, and what with the dew on it and the slanting sun-rays she seemed to be wearing all the gorgeous jewels out of Ali Baba’s cave. She was the loveliest thing to look at—unaffected, unexpected, and as untamed as the dawn, with parted lips as red as the branch of budding leaves with which she beat her horse.
But the smile turned to a frown of sudden passion as she saw Will land on the ground and Fred get ready for reprisals. She screamed defiance—burst through the ranks of the nearest Zeitoonli—set her stallion straight at us—burst between Fred and me—beat Fred savagely across the face with her sap-softened branch—and wheeled on her beast’s haunches to make much of Will. He laughed at her, and tried to take the whip away. Seeing he was neither hurt nor indignant, she laughed at Fred, spat at him, and whipped her stallion forward in pursuit of Kagig, breaking between him and Monty to pour news in his ear.
“A curse on Rustum Khan!” laughed Fred, spitting out red buds. “He didn’t do his duty!”
He had hardly said that when the Rajput came spurring and thundering along from the rear. He seemed in no hurry to follow farther, but drew rein between us and saluted with the semi-military gesture with which he favored all who, unlike Monty, had not been Colonels of Indian regiments.
“I tracked Umm Kulsum through the dark!” he announced, rubbing the burned nodules out of his singed beard and then patting his mare’s neck. “I saw her ride away alone an hour before you reached that fork in the road and turned up this watercourse. ‘By the teeth of God,’ said I, ‘when a good-looking woman leaves a party of men to canter alone in the dark, there is treason!’ and I followed.”
I offered the Rajput my cigarette case, and to my surprise he accepted one, although not without visible compunction. As a Muhammadan by creed he was in theory without caste and not to be defiled by European touch, but the practises of most folk fall behind their professions. A hundred yards ahead of us Maga was talking and gesticulating furiously, evidently railing at Kagig’s wooden-headedness or unbelief. Monty sat listening, saying nothing.
“What did you see, Rustum Khan?” asked Fred.
“At first very little. My eyes are good, but that gipsy-woman’s are better, and I was kept busy following her; for I could not keep close, or she might have heard. The noise of her own clumsy stallion prevented her from hearing the lighter footfalls of my mare, and by that I made sure she was not expecting to meet an enemy. ‘She rides to betray us to her friends!’ said I, and I kept yet farther behind her, on the alert against ambush.”
“She rode until dawn, I following. Then, when the light was scarcely born as yet, she suddenly drew rein at an open place where the track she had been following emerged out of dense bushes, and dismounted. From behind the bushes I watched, and presently I, too, dismounted to hold my mare’s nostrils and prevent her from whinnying. That woman, Maga Jhaere, knelt, and pawed about the ground like a dog that hunts a buried bone!”
In front of us Maga was still arguing. Suddenly Kagig turned on her and asked her three swift questions, bitten off like the snap of a closing snuff-box lid. Whether she answered or not I could not see, but Monty was smiling.
“I suspect she was making signals!” growled Rustum Khan. “To whom—about what I do not know. After a little while she mounted and rode on, choosing unerringly a new track through the bushes. I went to where she had been, and examined the ground where she had made her signals. As I say, my eyes are good, but hers are better. I could see nothing but the hoof-marks of her clumsy gray brute of a stallion, and in one place the depressions on soft earth where she had knelt to paw the ground!”
Monty was beginning to talk now. I could see him smiling at Kagig over Maga’s head, and the girl was growing angry. Rustum Khan was watching them as closely as we were, pausing between sentences.
“It may be she buried something there, but if so I did not find it. I could not stay long, for when she rode away she went like wind, and I needed to follow at top speed or else be lost. So I let my mare feel the spurs a time or two, and so it happened that I gained on the woman; and I suppose she heard me. Whether or no, she waited in ambush, and sprang out at me as I passed so suddenly that I know not what god of fools and drunkards preserved her from being cut down! Not many have ridden out at me from ambush and lived to tell of it! But I saw who she was in time, and sheathed my steel again, and cursed her for the gipsy that she half is. The other half is spawn of Eblis!”
A hundred yards ahead of us Kagig had reached a decision, but it seemed to be not too late yet in Maga’s judgment to try to convert him. She was speaking vehemently, passionately, throwing down her reins to expostulate with both hands.
“Kagig isn’t the man you’d think a young woman would choose to be familiar with,” Fred said quietly to me, and I wondered what he was driving at. He is always observant behind that superficial air of mockery he chooses to assume, but what he had noticed to set him thinking I could not guess.
Rustum Khan threw away the cigarette I had given him, and went on with his tale.
“That woman has no virtue.”
“How do you know?” demanded Will.
“She laughed when I cursed her! Then she asked me what I had seen.”
“What did you say?”
“To test her I said I had seen her lover, and would know him again by his smell in the dark!”
“What did she say to that?’
“She laughed again. I tell you the woman has no shame! Then she said if I would tell that tale to Kagig as soon as I see him she would reward me with leave to live for one whole week and an extra hour in which to pray to the devil——meaning, I suppose, that she intends to kill me otherwise. Then she wheeled her stallion—the brute was trying to tear out the muscles of my thigh all that time—and rode away—and I followed—and here I am!”
“How much truth is there in your assertion that you saw her lover?” Will demanded.
“None. I but said it to test her.”
“Why in thunder should she want it believed?”
“God knows, who made gipsies!”
At that moment the advance-guard rode into an open meadow, crossed by a shallow, singing stream at which Kagig ordered a halt to water horses. So we closed up with him, and he repeated to us what he had evidently said before to Monty.
“Maga says—I let her go scouting—she says she met a man who told her that Miss Gloria Vanderman and a party of seven were attacked on the road, but escaped, and now have doubled on their tracks so that they are far on their return to Tarsus.”
Rustum Khan met Monty’s eyes, and his lips moved silently.
“What do you know, sirdar?” Monty asked him.
“The woman lies!”
Maga was glaring at Rustum Khan as a leopardess eyes an enemy. As he spoke she made a significant gesture with a finger across her throat, which the Rajput, if he saw, ignored.
“To what extent?” demanded Kagig calmly.
“Wholly! I followed her. She met no man, although she pawed the ground at a place where eight ridden horses had crossed soft ground a day ago.”
Kagig nodded, recognizing truth—a rather rare gift.
If the Rajput’s guess was wrong and Maga did know shame, at any rate she did not choose that moment to betray it.
“Oh, very well!” she sneered. “There were eight horses. They were galloping. The track was nine hours old.”
Kagig nodded without any symptom of annoyance or reproach.
“There is an ancient castle in the hills up yonder,” he said, “in which there may be many Armenians hiding.”
He took it for granted we would go and find out, and Maga recognized the drift.
“Very well,” she said. “Let that one go, and that one,” pointing at Fred and me.
“You’ll appreciate, of course,” said Monty, “that it’s out of the question for us to go forward until we know where that lady is.”
Kagig bowed gravely.
“I am needed at Zeitoon,” he answered.
Then Maga broke in shrilly, pointing at Will:
“Take that one for hostage!” she advised. “Bring him along to Zeitoon. Then the rest will follow!”
Kagig looked gravely at her.
“I shall take this one,” he answered, laying a respectful hand on Monty’s sleeve. “Effendi, you are an Eenglis lord. Be your life and comfort on my head, but I need a hostage for my nation’s sake. You others—I admit the urgency—shall hunt the missionary lady. If I have this one”—again he touched Monty—”I know well you will come seeking him! You, effendi, you understand my—necessity?”
Monty nodded, smiling gravely. There was a fire at the back of Monty’s eyes and something in his bearing I had never seen before.
“Then I go with my colonel sahib!” announced Rustum Khan. “That gipsy woman will kill him otherwise!”
“Better help hunt for the lady, Rustum Khan.”
“Nay, colonel sahib bahadur—thy blood on my head! I go with thee—into hell and out beyond if need be!”
“You fellows agreeable?” asked Monty. “There is no disputing Kagig’s decision. We’re at his mercy.”
“We’ve got to find Miss Vanderman!” said Will.
“You are not at my mercy, effendi,” grumbled Kagig. The man was obviously distressed. “You are rather at my discretion. I am responsible. For my nation’s sake and for my honor I dare not lose you. Who has not seen how a cow will follow the calf in a wagon? So in your case, if I hold the one—the chief one—the noble one—the lord—the cousin of the Eenglis king” (Monty’s rank was mounting like mercury in a tube as Kagig warmed to the argument)—”you others will certainly hunt him up-hill and down-dale. Thus will my honor and my country’s cause both profit!”
Monty smiled benignantly.
“It’s all one, Kagig. Why labor the point? I’m going with you. Rustum Khan prefers to come with me.” Kagig looked askance at Rustum Khan, but made no comment. “One hostage is enough for your purpose. Let me talk with my friends a minute.”
Kagig nodded, and we four drew aside.
“Now,” demanded Fred, who knew the signs, “what special quixotry do you mean springing?”
“Shut up, Fred. There’s no need for you fellows to follow Kagig another yard. He’ll be quite satisfied if he has me in keeping. That will serve all practical purposes. What you three must do is find Miss Vanderman if you can, and take her back to Tarsus. There you can help the consul bring pressure to bear on the authorities.”
“Rot!” retorted Fred. “Didums, you’re drunk. Where did you get the drink?”
Monty smiled, for he held a card that could out-trump our best one, and he knew it. In fact he led it straight away.
“D’you mean to say you’d consider it decent to find that young woman in the mountains and drag her to Zeitoon at Kagig’s tail, when Tarsus is not more than three days’ ride away at most? You know the Turks wouldn’t dare touch you on the road to the coast.”
“For that matter,” said Fred, “the Turks ‘ud hardly dare touch Miss Vanderman herself.”
“Then leave her in the hills!” grinned Monty. “Kagig tells me that the Kurds are riding down in hundreds from Kaisarich way. He says they’ll arrive too late to loot the cities, but they’re experts at hunting along the mountain range. Why not leave the lady to the tender ministrations of the Kurds!”
“One ‘ud think you and Kagig knew of buried treasure! Or has he promised to make you Duke of Zeitoon?” asked Will. “Tisn’t right, Monty. You’ve no call to force our band in this way.”
“Name a better way,” said Monty.
None of us could. The proposal was perfectly logical.
Three of us, even supposing Kagig should care to lend us some of his Zeitoonli horsemen, would be all too few for the rescue work. Certainly we could not leave a lady unprotected in these hills, with the threat of plundering Kurds overhanging. If we found her we could hardly carry her off up-country if there were any safer course.
“Time—time is swift!” said Kagig, pulling out a watch like a big brass turnip and shaking it, presumably to encourage the mechanism.
“The fact is,” said Monty, drawing us farther aside, for Rustum Khan was growing restive and inquisitive, “I’ve not much faith in Kagig’s prospects at Zeitoon. He has talked to me all along the road, and I don’t believe he bases much reliance on his men. He counts more on holding me as hostage and so obliging the Turkish government to call off its murderers. If you men can rescue that lady in the hills and return to Tarsus you can serve Kagig best and give me my best chance too. Hurry back and help the consul raise Cain!”
That closed the arguments, because Maga Jhaere slipped past Kagig and approached us with the obvious intention of listening. She had discovered a knowledge of English scarcely perfect but astonishingly comprehensive, which she had chosen to keep to herself when we first met—a regular gipsy trick. Fred threw down the gauntlet to her, uncovering depths of distrust that we others had never suspected under his air of being amused.
“Now, miss!” he said, striding up to her. “Let us understand each other! This is my friend.” He pointed to Monty. “If harm comes to him that you could have prevented, you shall pay!”
Maga tossed back her loose coils of hair and laughed.
“Never fear, sahib!” Rustum Khan called out. “If ought should happen to my Colonel sahib that Umm Kulsum shall be first to die. The women shall tell of her death for a generation, to frighten naughty children!”
“You hear that?” demanded Fred.
Maga laughed again, and swore in some outlandish tongue.
“I hear! And you hear this, you old—” She called Fred by a name that would make the butchers wince in the abattoirs at Liverpool. “If anything happens to that man,—she pointed to Will, and her eyes blazed with lawless pleasure in his evident discomfort—”I myself—me—this woman—I alone will keel—keel—keel—torture first and afterwards keel your friend ‘at you call Monty! I am Maga! You have heard me say what I will do! As for that Rustum Khan—you shall never see him no more ever!”
Kagig pulled out the enormous watch again. He seemed oblivious of Maga’s threats—not even aware that she had spoken, although she was hissing through impudent dazzling teeth within three yards of him.
“The time,” he said, “has fleed—has fled—has flown. Now we must go, effendi!”
“I go with that man!” announced Maga, pointing at Will, but obviously well aware that nothing of the kind would be permitted.
“Maga, come!” said Kagig, and got on his horse. “You gentlemen may take with you each one Zeitoonli servant. No, no more. No, the ammunition in your pockets must suffice. Yes, I know the remainder is yours; come then to Zeitoon and get it! Haide—Haide! Mount! Ride! Haide, Zeitoonli! To Zeitoon! Chabuk!”