“When I fire this pistol—”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
THESE LITTLE ONES
If Life were what the liars say
And failure called the tune
Mayhap the road to ruin then
Were cluttered deep wi’ broken men;
We’d all be seekers blindly led
To weave wi’ worms among the dead,
If Life were what the liars say And failure called the tune.
But Life is Father of us all
(Dear Father, if we knew!)
And underneath eternal arms Uphold.
We’ll mock the false alarms,
And trample on the neck of pain,
And laugh the dead alive again,
For Life is Father to us all, And thanks are overdue!
If Truth were what the learned say
And envy called the tune
Mayhap ‘twere trite what treason saith
That man is dust and ends in death;
We’d slay with proof of printed law
Whatever was new that seers saw,
If Truth were what the learned say
And envy called the tune.
But Truth is Brother of us all
(Oh, Brother, if we knew!)
Unspattered by the muddied lies
That pass for wisdom of the wise—
Compassionate, alert, unbought,
Of purity and presence wrought,—
Big Brother that includes us all
Nor knows the name of Few!
If Love were what the harlots say
And hunger called the tune
Mayhap we’d need conserve the joys
Weighed grudgingly to girls and boys,
And eat the angels trapped and sold
By shriven priests for stolen gold,
If Love were what the harlots say
And hunger called the tune.
But Love is Mother of us all
(Dear Mother, if we knew!)—
So wise that not a sparrow falls,
Nor friendless in the prison calls
Uncomforted or uncaressed.
There’s magic milk at Mercy’s breast,
And little ones shall lead us all
When Trite Love calls the tune!
Naturally, being what we were, with our friend Monty held in durance by a chief of outlaws, we were perfectly ready to kidnap Miss Vanderman and ride off with her in case she should be inclined to delay proceedings. It was also natural that we had not spoken of that contingency, nor even considered it.
“We never dreamed of your refusing to come with us,” said Will.
“We still don’t dream of it!” Fred asserted, and she turned her head very swiftly to look at him with level brows. Next she met my eyes. If there was in her consciousness the slightest trace of doubt, or fear, or admission that her sex might be less responsible than ours, she did not show it. Rather in the blue eyes and the athletic poise of chin, and neck, and shoulders there was a dignity beyond ours.
“Don’t let’s be ridiculous,” she said. “I shall do as I see fit.”
Fred’s neat beard has a trick of losing something of its trim when he proposes to assert himself, and I recognized the symptoms. But at the moment of that impasse the Armenians below us had decided that self-assertion was their cue, and there came great noises as they thundered with a short pole on the trap and made the stones jump that held it down.
At that signal several women emerged from behind the hanging blankets—young and old women in various states of disarray—and stood in attitudes suggestive of aggression. One did not get the idea that Armenians, men or women, were sheeplike pacifists. They watched Miss Vanderman with the evident purpose of attacking us the moment she appealed to them.
“If you don’t roll the stones away I think there’ll be trouble,” she said, and came and stood between Will and me. Fred got behind me, and began to whisper. I heard something or other about the trap, and supposed he was asking me to open it, although I failed to see why the request should be kept secret; but the women forestalled me, and in a moment they had the stones shoved aside and the men were emerging one by one through the opening.
Then at last I got Fred’s meaning. There was a second of indecision during which the Armenians consulted their women-folk, in two minds between snatching Miss Vanderman out of our reach or discovering first what our purpose might be. I took advantage of it to slip down the stone stairs behind them.
The opening in the castle wall was easy to find, for the star-lit sky looked luminous through the hole. Once outside, however, the gloom of ancient trees and the castle’s shadow seemed blacker than the dungeon had been. I groped about, and stumbled over loose stones fallen from the castle wall, until at last one of our own Zeitoonli discovered me and, thinking I might be a trouble-maker, tripped me up. Cursing fervently from underneath his iron-hard carcass I made him recognize me at last. Then he offered me tobacco, unquestionably stolen from our pack, and sat down beside me on a rock while I recovered breath.
It took longer to do that than he expected, for he had enjoyed the advantage of surprise while hampered by no compunctions on the ground of moderation. When the agony of windlessness was gone and I could question him he assured me that the horses were well enough, but that he and his two companions were hungry. Furthermore, he added, the animals were very closely watched—so much so that the other two, Sombat and Noorian, were standing guard to watch the watchers.
“But I am sure they are fools,” he added.
This man Arabaiji had been an excellent servant, but decidedly supercilious toward the others from the time when he first came to us in the khan at Tarsus. Regarding himself as intelligent, which he was, he usually refused to concede that quality, or anything resembling it, to his companions.
“That is why I was looking for you when you hit me in the dark with that club of a fist of yours,” I answered. “I wanted to speak with you alone because I know you are not a fool.”
He felt so flattered that he promptly let his pipe go out.
“While Sombat and Noorian are keeping an eye on the horses, I want you to watch for trouble up above here,” I said. “In case the people of this place should seek to make us prisoner, then I want you to gallop, if you can get your horse, and run otherwise, to the nearest—”
He checked me with a gesture and one word.
“What about him?” I demanded.
“If I were to bring Turks here, Kagig would never rest until my fingers were pulled off one by one!”
“If you were to bring Turks here, or appeal to Turks,” said I, “Kagig would never get you.”
“Unless he should find your dead carcass after my friends and I had finished with it!”
He lighted his pipe again by way of reestablishing himself in his own esteem, and it glowed and crackled wetly in the dark beside me in response to the workings of his intelligence.
“In case of trouble up here, and our being held prisoner, go and find other Armenians, and order them in Kagig’s name to come and rescue us.”
“Those who obey Kagig are with Kagig,” he answered.
“Surely not all?”
“All that Kagig could gather to him after eleven years!”
“In that case go to Kagig, and tell him.”
“Kagig would not come. He holds Zeitoon.”
“Are you a fool?”
“Not I! The other two are fools.”
“Then do you understand that in case these people should make us prisoner—”
He nodded. “They might. They might propose to sell you to the Turks, perhaps against their own stolen women-folk.”
“Then don’t you see that if you were gone, and I told them you had gone to bring Kagig, they would let us go rather than face Kagig’s wrath?”
“But Kagig would not come.”
“I know that. But how should they know it?”
I knew that he nodded again by the motion of the glowing tobacco in his pipe. It glowed suddenly bright, as a new idea dawned on him. He was an honest fellow, and did not conceal the thought.
“Kagig would not send me back to you,” he said. “He is short of men at Zeitoon.”
“Never mind,” said I. “In case of trouble up above here, but not otherwise, will you do that?”
“Gladly. But give it me in writing, lest Kagig have me beaten for running from you without leave.”
That was my turn to jump at a proposal. I tore a sheet from my memorandum book, and scribbled in the dark, knowing he could not read what I had written.
“This writing says that you did not run away until you had made quite sure we were in difficulties. So, if you should run too soon, and we should not be in difficulties after all, Kagig would learn that sooner or later. What would Kagig do in that case?”
“He would throw me over the bridge at Zeitoon—if he could catch me! Nay! I play no tricks.”
“Good. Then go and hide. Hide within call. Within an hour, or at most two hours we shall know how the land lies. If all should be well I will change that writing for another one, and send you to Kagig in any case. No more words now—go and hide!”
He put his pipe out with his thumb, and took two strides into a shadow, and was gone. Then I went back through the gap in the dungeon wall, and stumbled to the stairs. Apparently not missing me yet, they had covered up the trap, and I had to hammer on it for admission. They were not pleased when my head appeared through the hole, and they realized that I had probably held communication with our men. I suppose Fred saw by my face that I had accomplished what I went for, because he let out a laugh like a fox’s bark that did nothing toward lessening the tension.
On the other hand it was quite clear that during my absence Miss Vanderman had not been idle. Excepting the two men who had admitted me, every one was seated—she on the floor among the women, with her back to the wall, and the rest in a semicircle facing them. Two of the women had their arms about her, affectionately, but not without a hint of who controlled the situation.
“What have you been doing?” Fred demanded, and he laughed at Gloria Vanderman with an air of triumph.
“Making preparations,” I said, “to take Miss Vanderman to Tarsus.”
I wish I could set down here a chart of the mixed emotions then expressed on that young lady’s face. She did not look at Will, knowing perhaps that she already had him captive of her bow and spear. Neither did Will look at us, but sat tracing figures with a forefinger in the dust between his knees, wondering perhaps how to excuse or explain, and getting no comfort.
If my guess was correct, Gloria Vanderman was about equally distracted between the alternative ignominy of submitting her free will to Armenians or else to us. Compassion for the women in their predicament weighed one way—knowledge that our friend Monty was in durance vile contingent on her actions pulled heavily another Fred was frankly enjoying himself, which influenced her strongly toward the Armenian side, she being young and, doubtless the idol of a hundred heart-sick Americans, contemptuous of forty-year-old bachelors.
“Of course we shall not let you go!” one of the Armenians assured her in quite good English, and I began fumbling at the pistol in my inner pocket, for if Arabaiji was to run to Zeitoon, then the sooner the better. But it needed only that imputation of helplessness to tip the beam of Miss Gloria’s judgment.
“You can attend to the sick ones. You can play music for us all. Doubtless these other two have qualifications.”
I was too busy admiring Gloria to know what effect that announcement had on Fred and Will. She shook herself free from the women, and stood up, splendid in the flickering yellow light. There was a sort of swift move by every one to be ready against contingencies, and I judged it the right moment to spring my own surprise.
“When I fire this pistol,” I said, producing it, “a man will start at once for Zeitoon to warn Kagig. He has a note in his pocket written to Kagig. Judge for yourselves how long it will take Kagig and his men to reach this place!”
The nearest man made a very well-judged spring at me and pinned my elbows from behind. Another man knocked the pistol from my hand. The women seized Gloria again. But Fred was too quick—drew his own pistol, and fired at the roof.
“Twice, Fred!” I shouted, and he fired again.
“There!” said I. “Do what you like. The messenger has gone!”
And then Gloria shook herself free a last time, and took command.
“Is that true?” she demanded.
I nodded. “The best of our three men was to start on his way the minute he heard the second shot.”
Then I was sure she was Boadicea reincarnate, whether the old-time British queen did or did not have blue eyes and brown hair.
“I will not have brave men brought back here on my account! Kagig must be a patriot! He needs all his men! I don’t blame him for making a hostage of Lord Montdidier! I would do the same myself!”
Will had evidently given her a pretty complete synopsis of our adventure while I was outside talking with Arabaiji. It is always a mystery to the British that Americans should hold themselves a race apart and rally to each other as if the rest of the Anglo-Saxon race were foreigners, but those two had obeyed the racial rule. They understood each other—swiftly—a bar and a half ahead of the tune.
“This old castle is no good!” she went on, not raising her voice very high, but making it ring with the wholesomeness of youth, and youth’s intolerance of limits. “The Turks could come to this place and burn it within a day if they chose!”
“The Turks won’t trouble. They’ll send their friends the Kurds instead,” Fred assured her.
“Ah-h-h-gh!” growled the Armenians, but she waved them back to silence.
“How much food have you? Almost none! How much ammunition?”
“Ah-h-h-h!” they chorused in a very different tone of voice.
“D’you mean you’ve got cartridges here?” Fred demanded.
“Fifty cases of cartridges for government Mauser rifles!” bragged the man who was nearest to Will.
“Gee! Kagig ‘ud give his eyes for them!” (Will devoted his eyes to the more poetic purpose of exchanging flashed encouragement with Gloria.)
“Men, women and children—how many of you are there?”
“Who knows? Who has counted? They keep coming.”
“No, they don’t. You’ve set a guard to keep any more away for fear the food won’t last—I know you have! Well—what does it matter how many you are? I say let us all go to Zeitoon and help Kagig!”
“Oh, bravo!” shouted Fred, but it was Will’s praise that proved acceptable and made her smile.
“Second the motion!”
I added a word or two by way of make-weight, that did more as a matter of fact than her young ardor to convince those very skeptical men and women. No doubt she broke up their determination to sit still, but it was my words that set them on a course.
“Kagig will be angry when he comes. He’s a ruthless man,” said I, and the Armenians, men as well as women, sought one another’s eyes and nodded.
“Kagig must be more of a ruthless bird than we guessed!” Will whispered.
Counting women, there was less than a score of refugees in the room, and if we had only had them to convince, our work was pretty nearly done. There was the guard among the trees down-hill that we knew about still to be converted, or perhaps coerced. But just at the moment when we felt we held the winning hand, there came a ladder thrust down through the hole in the corner of the roof, and a man whom they all greeted as Ephraim began to climb down backward. He was so loaded with every imaginable kind of weapon that he made more noise than a tinker’s cart.
Nor was Ephraim the only new arrival. Man after man came down backward after him, each man cursed richly for treading on his predecessor’s fingers—a seeming endless chain of men that did not cease when the room was already uncomfortably overcrowded. Some of these men wore clothes that suggested Russia, but the majority were in rags. The ladder swayed and creaked under them, and finally, at a word from Ephraim, the last-comers sat on the upper rungs, bending the frail thing with their weight into a complaining loop.
Several of the newcomers had torches, and their acrid smoke turned the twice-breathed air of the place into evil-tasting fog.
Three men put their faces close to Ephraim’s and proceeded to enlighten him as to what had passed. He seemed to be recognized as some sort of chieftain, and carried himself with a commanding air, but so many men talked at once, and all in Armenian, that we could not pick out more than a word or two here and there. Even Fred, with his gift of tongues, could hardly make head or tail of it.
We three pressed through the swarm and took our stand beside Gloria, not hesitating to thrust the other women aside. They dragged at their men-folk to call attention to us, but the argument was too hot to be missed, and the women clawed and screamed in vain.
“I believe we could get out!” I shouted in Will’s ear. But he shook his head. At least six men were standing on the trap, and we could not have driven them off it because there was no other space on the floor that they could occupy. So I turned to Fred.
“Couldn’t we shake those ruffians off the ladder, and climb up it and escape?” I shouted. But Fred shook his head, and went on listening, trying to follow the course of the dispute.
At last somebody with louder lungs than any other man made Ephraim understand that it was I who sent the messenger to Zeitoon. Instantly that solved the problem to his mind. I should be hanged, and that would be all about it. He gesticulated. The men swarmed down off the ladder to the already overcrowded floor, and mistaking Will for me several men started to thrust him forward. A face appeared through the hole in the roof and its owner was sent running for a rope. I had not recovered my pistol, and my rifle was slung at my back where I could not possibly get at it for the crowd. But Fred had a Colt repeater handy in his hip-pocket and he promptly screwed the muzzle of it into Ephraim’s ear. What he said to him I don’t know, but Ephraim’s convictions underwent a change of base and he began to yell for silence. The men who had seized Will let go of him just as the rope with a disgusting noose in the end was lowered through the roof. And then Ossa was imposed on Pelion.
A new face appeared at the hole. Not that we could see the face. We could only see the form of a man who shook the bloody stump of a forearm at us, and shrieked unintelligible things. After thirty seconds even the men in the far corner were aware of him, and then there was stony silence while he had his say. He repeated his message a dozen times, as if he had it by heart exactly, spitting foam out of his mouth and never ceasing to shake the butchered stump of an arm. At about the dozenth time he fainted and fell headlong down the ladder bringing up on the shoulders of the men below.
“What does he say?” I bellowed in Fred’s car. But Fred was forcing his way closer to Gloria, to tell her.
“He says the Kurds are coming! He says two regiments of Kurdish cavalry have been turned loose by the Turks with orders to ‘rescue’ Armenians. They are on their way, riding by night for a wonder. They cut both his hands off, but he got away by shamming dead.
He says they are cutting off the feet of people and bidding them walk to Tarsus. They are taking the women and girls for sale. Old women and very little children they are making what they call sport with. Have you heard of Kurds? Their ideas of sport are worse than the Red-man’s ever were.”
Every tongue in the room broke loose. In another second every man was still. They looked toward Ephraim. He who could order a hanging so glibly should shoulder the new responsibility.
But Ephraim was not ready with a plan, and could not speak English. Wild-eyed, he seized the lapel of my coat in trembling fingers, and with a throat grown suddenly parched, crackled a question at me in Armenian. I could have understood Volopuk easier.
“What does he say, Fred?”
“He wants to know how soon Kagig can be here.”
“Kagig!” Ephraim echoed, clutching at my collar. “Yes, yes, yes! Kagig! Come—how soon?”
“We shall be all right,” said another man in English over on the far side of the room. His hoarse voice sounded like a bellow in the silence. “Kagig will come presently. Kagig will butcher the Kurds. Kagig will certainly save us.”
“Kagig!” Ephraim insisted. “Come—how soon?”
But I knew Kagig would not come, that night or at any time, and Ephraim shook me in frenzied impatience for an answer.