“‘Take your squadron and go find him, Rustum Khan!’ And I, Sahib, obeyed my Lord Bahadur’s orders.”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
“TO-MORROW WE DIE”
All that is cynical; all that refuses
Trust in an altruist aim;
Every specious plea that excuses
Greed in necessity’s name;
Studied indifference; scorn that amuses;
Cleverness, shifting the blame;
Selfishness, pitying trust it abuses—
Treason and these are the same.
Finally, when the last lees ye shall turn from
(E’en intellectuals flinch in the end!)
Ashes of loneliness then ye shall learn from—
All that’s worth keeping’s the faith of a friend.
Never to be forgotten is that journey to Zeitoon. We threaded toward the heart of opal mountains along tracks that nothing on wheels—not even a wheel-barrow—could have followed. Perpetually on our right there kept appearing brilliant green patches of young rice, more full of livid light than flawless emeralds. And, as in all rice country, there were countless watercourses with frequently impracticable banks along which fugitives felt their way miserably, too fearful of pursuit to risk following the bridle track.
There is a delusion current that fugitives go fast. But it stands to reason they do not; least of all, unarmed people burdened with children and odds and ends of hastily snatched household goods. We found them hiding everywhere to sleep and rest lacerated feet, and there was not a mile of all that distance that did not add twenty or thirty stragglers to our column, risen at sight of us out of their lurking places. We scared at least as many more into deeper hiding, without blame to them, for there was no reason why they should know us at a distance from official murderers. Hamidieh regiments, the militia of that land, wear uniforms of their own choosing, which is mostly their ordinary clothes and weapons added.
With snow-crowned Beirut Dagh frowning down over us, and the track growing every minute less convenient for horse or man, word came from the rear that the hamidieh were truly on our trail. Then we had our first real taste of what Armenians could do against drilled Turks, and even before Fred and I could get in touch with Will and Gloria we realized that whether or not we took part with them there was going to be no stampede by the men-folk.
Nothing would persuade Gloria to go on to Zeitoon and announce our coming. Kagig came galloping back and found us four met together by a little horsetail waterfall. He ordered her peremptorily to hurry and find Monty, but she simply ignored him. In another moment he was too bent on shepherding the ammunition cases to give her a further thought.
Men began to gather around him, and he to issue orders. They had either to kill him or obey. He struck at them with a rawhide whip, and spurred his horse savagely at every little clump of men disposed to air their own views.
“You see,” he laughed, “unanimity is lacking!” Then his manner changed back to irritation. “In the name of God, effendim, what manner of sportmen are you? Will not each of you take a dozen men and go and destroy those cursed Turks?” (They call every man a Turk in that land who thinks and acts like one, be he Turk, Arab, Kurd or Circassian.)
It was all opposed to the consul’s plan, and lawless by any reckoning. To attack the troops of a country with which our own governments were not at war was to put our heads in a noose in all likelihood. Perhaps if he had called us by any other name than “sportmen” we might have seen it in that light, and have told him to protect us according to contract. But he used the right word and we jumped at the idea, although Gloria, who had no notions about international diplomacy, was easily first with her hat in the ring.
“I’ll lead some men!” she shouted. “Who’ll follow me?” Her voice rang clear with the virtue won on college playing fields.
“Nothing to it!” Will insisted promptly. “Here, you, Kagig—I’ll make a bargain with you!”
“Watch!” Fred whispered. “Will is now going to sell two comrades in the market for his first love! D’you blame him? But it won’t work!”
“Send Miss Vanderman to Zeitoon with an escort and we three—”
“What did I tell you?” Fred chuckled.
“—will fight for you all you like!”
But Gloria had a dozen men already swarming to her, with never a symptom of shame to be captained by a woman; and others were showing signs of inclination. She turned her back on us, and I saw three men hustle a fourth, who had both feet in bandages, until he gave her his rifle and bandolier. She tossed him a laugh by way of compensation, and he seemed content, although he had parted with more than the equivalent of a fortune.
“That girl,” said Kagig, from the vantage point of his great horse, “is like the brave Zeitoonli wives! They fight! They can lead in a pinch! They are as good as men—better than men, for they think they know less!”
Fred swiftly gathered himself a company of his own, the older men electing to follow his lead. Gloria had the cream of the younger ones—men who in an earlier age would have gone into battle wearing a woman’s glove or handkerchief—twenty or thirty youths blazing with the fire of youth. Will went hot-foot after her with most of the English-speaking contingent from the mission schools. Kagig had the faithful few who had rallied to him from the first—the fighting men of Zeitoon proper, including all the tough rear-guard who had sent the warning and remained faithfully in touch with the enemy until their chief should come.
That left for me the men who knew no English, and Ephraim was enough of a politician to see the advantage to himself of deserting Fred’s standard for mine; for Fred could talk Armenian, and give his own orders, but I needed an interpreter. I welcomed him at the first exchange of compliments, but met him eye to eye a second later and began to doubt.
“I’m going to hold these men in reserve,” I told him, “until I know where they’ll do most good. You know this country? Take high ground, then, where we can overlook what’s going on and get into the fight to best advantage.”
“But the others will get the credit,” he began to object.
“I’ll ask Kagig for another interpreter. Wait here.”
At that he yielded the point and explained my orders to the men, who began to obey them willingly enough. But he went on talking to them rapidly as we diverged from the path the others had taken and ascended a trail that wild goats would have reveled in, along the right flank of where fighting was likely to take place. I did not doubt he was establishing notions of his own importance, and with some success.
Firing commenced away in front and below us within ten minutes of the start, but it was an hour before I could command the scene with field-glasses, and ten minutes after that before I could make out the positions of our people, although the enemy were soon evident—a long, irregular, ragged-looking line of cavalry thrusting lances into every hole that could possibly conceal an Armenian, and an almost equally irregular line of unmounted men in front of them, firing not very cautiously nor accurately from under random cover.
It became pretty evident, after studying the positions for about fifteen minutes and sweeping every contour of the ground through glasses, that the enemy had no chance whatever of breaking through unless they could outflank Kagig’s line. I held such impregnable advantage of height and cover and clear view that the men I had with me were ample to prevent the turning of our right wing. Our left flank rested on the brawling Jihun River that wound in and out between the rice fields and the rocky foot-hills. There lay the weakness of our position, and more than once I caught sight of Kagig spurring his horse from cover to cover to place his men. Once I thought I recognized Fred, too, over near the river-bank; but of Will or of Gloria I saw nothing.
It was obvious that if reserves were needed anywhere it would be over on that left flank by the fordable Jihun. Ephraim saw that, and proceeded to preach it like gospel to the men before consulting me. Then, arrogant in the consciousness of majority approval, he came and advised me.
“Those—ah—hamidieh not coming this—ah—way. We cross over to—ah—other side. Then Kagig is being pleased with us. I give orders—yes?”
He did not propose to wait for my consent, but I detained him with a hand on his shoulder. It would have taken us two hours to get into position by the river-bank.
“Find out how many of the men can ride,” I ordered.
Taken by surprise he called out the inquiry without stopping to discover my purpose first. It transpired there were seventeen men who had been accustomed to horseback riding since their youth. That would leave nine men for another purpose. I separated sheep from goats, and made over the nine to Ephraim.
“You and these nine stay here,” I ordered, “and hold this flank until Kagig makes a move.” I did not doubt Kagig would fall back on Zeitoon as soon as he could do that with advantage. Neither did I doubt Ephraim’s ability to spoil my whole plan if he should see fit. Yet I had to depend on his powers as interpreter.
There are two ways of relieving a weak wing, and the obvious one of reenforcing it is not of necessity the best. I could see through the glasses a bowl of hollow grazing ground in which the dismounted Kurds had left their horses; and I could count only five men guarding them. Most of the horses seemed to be tied head to head by the reins, but some were hobbled and grazing close together.
“Tell these seventeen men I have chosen that I propose to creep up to the enemy’s horses and steal or else stampede them,” I ordered.
Ephraim hesitated. Glittering eyes betrayed fear to be left out of an adventure, disgust to see his own advice ignored, and yet that he was alert to the advantage of being left with a lone command.
“But we should—ah—cross to the—ah—other side and—ah—help Kagig,” he objected. Perhaps he hoped to build political influence on the basis of his own account to Kagig afterward of how he had argued for the saner course.
“Please explain what I have said—exactly!”
He continued to hesitate. I could see the Kurdish riflemen responding to orders from their rear and beginning to concentrate in the direction of our left wing. Our center, where Gloria and Will were probably concealed by rocks and foliage, poured a galling fire on them, and they had to reform, and detach a considerable company to deal with that; but two-thirds of their number surged toward our left, and if my plan was to succeed almost the chief element was time.
“But Kagig will—”
One of the men had a hide rope, very likely looted from the village we had burned. I took it from him and tied a running noose in the end. Then I made the other end fast to the roots of a tree that had been rain-washed until they projected naked over fifty feet of sheer rock.
“Now,” I said, “explain what I said, or I’ll hang you in sight of both sides!”
I wondered whether he would not turn the tables and hang me. I knew I would not have been willing to lessen Kagig’s chances by shooting any of them if they had decided to take Ephraim’s part. But the politician in the man was uppermost and he did not force the issue.
“All right, effendi—oh, all right!” he answered, trying to laugh the matter off.
“Explain to them, then!”
I made him do it half a dozen times, for once we were on our way along the precipitous sides of the hills the only control I should have would be force of example, aided to some extent by the sort of primitive signals that pass muster even in a kindergarten. If they should talk Turkish to me slowly I might understand a little here and there, but to speak it myself was quite another matter; and in common with most of their countrymen, though they understood Turkish perfectly and all that went with it, they would rather eat dirt than foul their months with the language of the hated conqueror.
But, once explained, the plan was as obvious as the risk entailed, and they approved the one as swiftly as they despised the other. The Kurds below were not oblivious to the risk of reprisals from the hills, and we spent five minutes picking out the men posted to keep watch, making careful note of their positions. At the point where we decided to debouch on to the plain there were two sentries taking matters fairly easy, and I told off four men to go on ahead and attend to those as silently as might be.
Then we started—not close together, for the Kurds would certainly be looking out for an attack from the hills in force, and would not be expecting individuals—but one at a time, two Armenians leading, and the rest of them following me at intervals of more than fifty yards.
At the moment of starting I gave Ephraim another order, and within two hours owed my life and that of most of my men to his disobedience.
“You stay here with your handful, and don’t budge except as Kagig moves his line! Few as you are, you can hold this flank safe if you stay firm.”
He stayed firm until the last of my seventeen had disappeared around the corner of the cliff; and five minutes later I caught sight of him through the glasses, leading his following at top speed downward along a spur toward the plain. The Kurds on the lookout saw him too and, concentrating their attention on him, did not notice us when we dodged at long intervals in full sunlight across the face of a white rock.
There was little leading needed; rather, restraining, and no means of doing it. Instead of keeping the formation in which we started off, those in the rear began to overtake the men in front and, rather than disobey the order to keep wide intervals, to extend down the face of the hill, so that within fifteen minutes we were in wide-spaced skirmishing order. Then, instead of keeping along the hills, as I had intended, until we were well to the rear of the Kurdish firing-line, they turned half-left too soon, and headed in diagonal bee line toward the horses, those who had begun by leading being last now, and the last men first. Being shorter-winded than the rest of them and more tired to begin with, that arrangement soon left me a long way in the rear, dodging and crawling laboriously and stopping every now and then to watch the development of the battle. There was little to see but the flash of rifles; and they explained nothing more than that the Kurds were forcing their way very close to our center and left wing.
Not all the fighting had been done that day under organized leadership. I stumbled at one place and fell over the dead bodies of a Kurd and an Armenian, locked in a strangle-hold. That Kurd must have been bold enough to go pillaging miles in advance of his friends, for the two had been dead for hours. But the mutual hatred had not died off their faces, and they lay side by side clutching each other’s throats as if passion had continued after death.
The sight of Ephraim and his party hurrying across their front toward Kagig’s weak left wing had evidently convinced the Kurds that no more danger need be expected from their own left. There can have been no other possible reason why we were unobserved, for the recklessness of my contingent grew as they advanced closer to the horses, and from the rear I saw them brain one outpost with a rock and rush in and knife another with as little regard for concealment as if these two had been the only Kurds within eagle’s view. Yet they were unseen by the enemy, and five minutes later we all gathered in the shelter of a semicircle of loose rocks, to regain wind for the final effort.
“Korkakma!” I panted, using about ten per cent. of my Turkish vocabulary, and they laughed so loud that I cursed them for a bunch of fools. But the man nearest me chose to illustrate his feeling for Turks further by taking the corner of his jacket between thumb and finger and going through the motions of squeezing off an insect—the last, most expressive gesture of contempt.
The horses were within three hundred yards of us. On rising ground between us and the Kurdish firing-line was a little group of Turkish officers, and to our right beyond the horses was miscellaneous baggage under the guard of Kurds, of whom more than half were wounded. I could see an obviously Greek doctor bandaging a man seated on an empty ammunition box.
But our chief danger was from the mounted scoundrels who were so busy murdering women and children and wounded men half a mile away to the rear. They had come along working the covert like hunters of vermin, driving lances into every possible lurking place and no doubt skewering their own wounded on occasion, for which Armenians would afterward be blamed. We could hear them chorusing with glee whenever a lance found a victim, or when a dozen of them gave chase to some panic-stricken woman in wild flight. Through the glasses I could see two Turkish officers with them, in addition to their own nondescript “tin-plate men”; and if officers or men should get sight of us it was easy to imagine what our fate would be.
That thought, and knowledge that Gloria Vanderman and Will and Fred were engaged in an almost equally desperate venture within a mile of me (evidenced by dozens of wild bullets screaming through the air) suggested the idea of taking a longer chance than any I had thought of yet. A moment’s consideration brought conviction that the effort would be worth the risk. Yet I had no way of communicating with my men!
I pointed to the Turkish officers clustered together watching the effort of their firing-line. From where we lay to the horses would be three hundred yards; from the horses to those officers would be about two hundred and fifty yards farther at an angle of something like forty degrees. Counting their orderlies and hangers-on we outnumbered that party by two to one; and “the fish starts stinking from the head” as the proverb says. With the head gone, the whole Kurdish firing-line would begin to be useless.
I tried my stammering Turkish, but the men were in no mood to be patient with efforts in that loathly tongue. None of them knew a word in English. I tried French—Italian—smattering Arabic—but they only shook their heads, and began to think nervousness was driving me out of hand. One of them laid a soothing hand on my shoulder, and repeated what sounded like a prayer.
To lose the confidence of one’s men under such circumstances at that stage of the game was too much. I grew really rattled, and at random, as a desperate man will I stammered off what I wanted to say in the foreign tongue that I knew best, regardless of the fact that Armenians are not black men, and that there is not even a trace of connection between their language and anything current in Africa. Zanzibar and Armenia are as far apart as Australia and Japan, with about as much culture in common.
To my amazement a man answered in fluent Kiswahili! He had traded for skins in some barbarous district near the shore of Victoria Nyanza, and knew half a dozen Bantu languages. In a minute after that we had the plan well understood and truly laid; and, what was better, they had ceased to believe me a victim of nerves—a fact that gave me back the nerve that had been perilously close to vanishing.
We paid no more attention to the firing-line, nor to the mounted Kurds who were drawing the coverts nearer and nearer to us. It was understood that we were to sacrifice ourselves for our friends, and do the utmost damage possible before being overwhelmed. We shook hands solemnly. Two or three men embraced each other. The five who by common consent were reckoned the best rifle shots lay down side by side with me among the rocks, and the remainder began crawling out one by one on their stomachs toward the horses, with instructions to take wide open order as quickly as possible, with the idea of making the Kurds believe our numbers were greater than they really were.
When I judged they were half-way toward the horses we six opened fire on the Turkish officers. And every single one of us missed! At the sound of our volley the devoted horse-thieves rose to their feet and rushed on the horse-guards, forgetting to fire on them from sheer excitement, and as a matter of fact one of them was shot dead by a horse-guard before the rest remembered they had deadly weapons of their own.
I remedied the first outrageous error to a slight extent by killing the Turkish colonel’s orderly, missing the commander himself by almost a yard. My five men all missed with their second shots, and then it was too late to pull off the complete coup we had dared to hope for. The entire staff took cover, and started a veritable hail of fire with their repeating pistols, all aimed at us, and aimed as wildly as our own shots had been.
Meanwhile the mounted Kurds at the rear had heard the firing and were coming on full pelt, yelling like red Indians. I could see, in the moment I snatched for a hurried glance in that direction, that the purpose of cutting loose and stampeding the horses was being accomplished; but even that comparatively simple task required time, and as the Kurds galloped nearer, the horses grew as nervous as the men who sought to loose them.
But conjecture and all caution were useless to us six bent on attacking the colonel and his staff. We crawled out of cover and advanced, stopping to fire one or two shots and then scrambling closer, giving away our own paucity of numbers, but increasing the chance of doing damage with each yard gained. And our recklessness had the additional advantage of making the staff reckless too. The colonel kept in close hiding, but the rest of them began dodging from place to place in an effort to outflank us from both sides, and I saw four of them bowled over within a minute. Then the remainder lay low again, and we resumed the offensive.
The next thing I remember was hearing a wild yell as our party seized a horse apiece and galloped off in front of the oncoming Kurds—straight toward Kagig’s firing-line. That, and the yelling of the horsemen in pursuit drew the attention of the riflemen attacking Kagig to the fact that most of their horses were running loose and that there was imminent danger to their own rear. I only had time to get a glimpse of them breaking back, for the Turkish colonel got my range and sent a bullet ripping down the length of the back of my shooting jacket. That commenced a duel——he against me—each missing as disgracefully as if we were both beginners at the game of life or death, and I at any rate too absorbed to be aware of anything but my own plight and of oceans of unexplained noise to right and left. I knew there were galloping horses, and men yelling; but knowledge that the Turkish military rifle I was using must be wrongly sighted, and that my enemy had no such disadvantage, excluded every other thought.
I had used about half the cartridges in my bandolier when a Kurd’s lance struck me a glancing blow on the back of the head. His horse collapsed on top of me, as some thundering warrior I did not see gave the stupendous finishing stroke to rider and beast at once.
There followed a period of semi-consciousness filled with enormous clamor, and upheavings, and what might have been earthquakes for lack of any other reasonable explanation, for I felt myself being dragged and shaken to and fro. Then, as the weight of the fallen horse was rolled aside there surged a tide of blissful relief that carried me over the border of oblivion.
When I recovered my senses I was astride of Rustum Khan’s mare, with a leather thong around my shoulders and the Rajput’s to keep me from falling. We were proceeding at an easy walk in front of a squadron of ragged-looking irregulars whom I did not recognize, toward the center of the position Kagig had held. Kagig’s men were no longer in hiding, but standing about in groups; and presently I caught sight of Fred and Will and Kagig standing together, but not Gloria Vanderman. A cough immediately behind us made me turn my head. The Turkish colonel, who had fought the ridiculously futile duel with me, was coming along at the mare’s tail with his hands tied behind him and a noose about his neck made fast to one of the saddle-rings.
“Much obliged, Rustum Khan!” I said by way of letting him know I was alive. “How did you get here?”
“Ha, sahib! Not going to die, then? That is good! I came because Colonel Lord Montdidier sahib sent me with a squadron of these mountain horsemen—fine horsemen they are—fit by the breath of Allah to draw steel at a Rajput’s back!”
“He sent you to find me?”
“Ha, sahib. To rescue you alive if that were possible.”
“How did he know where I was?”
“An Armenian by name of Ephraim came and said you had gone over to the Turks. Certain men he had with him corroborated, but three of his party kept silence. My lord sahib answered ‘I have hunted, and camped, and fought beside that man—played and starved and feasted with him. No more than I myself would he go over to Turks. He must have seen an opportunity to make trouble behind the Turks’ backs. Take your squadron and go find him, Rustum Khan!’ And I, sahib, obeyed my lord bahadur’s orders.”
“Where is Lord Montdidier now?”
“Who knows, sahib. Wherever the greatest need at the moment is.”
“Tell me what has happened.”
“You did well, sahib. The loosing of the horses and the shooting behind their backs put fear into the Kurds. They ceased pressing on our left wing. And I—watching from behind cover on the right wing—snatched that moment to outflank them, so that they ran pell-mell. Then I saw the mounted Kurds charging up from the rear, and guessed at once where you were, sahib. The Kurds were extended, and my men in close order, so I charged and had all the best of it, arriving by God’s favor in the nick of time for you, sahib. Then I took this colonel prisoner. Only once in my life have I seen a greater pile than his of empty cartridge cases beside one man. That was the pile beside you, sahib! How many men did you kill, and he kill? And who buried them?”
“Where is Miss Vanderman?” I asked, turning the subject.
“God knows! What do I know of women? Only I know this: that there is a gipsy woman bred by Satan out of sin itself, who will make things hot for any second filly in this string! Woe and a woman are one!”
Not caring to listen to the Indian’s opinions of the other sex any more than he would have welcomed mine about the ladies of his own land, I made out my injuries were worse than was the case, and groaned a little, and grew silent.
So we rode without further conversation up to where Fred and Will were standing with Kagig, and as I tumbled off into Fred’s arms I was greeted with a chorus of welcome that included Gloria’s voice.
“That’s what I call using your bean!” she laughed, in the slangy way she had whenever Will had the chance to corrupt her Boston manners.
“It feels baked,” I said. “I used it to stop a Kurd’s lance with. Hullo! What’s the matter with you?”
“I stopped a bullet with my forearm!”
She was sitting in a sort of improvised chair between two dwarfed tree-trunks, and if ever I saw a proud young woman that was she. She wore the bloody bandage like a prize diploma.
“And I’ve seen your friend Monty, and he’s better than the accounts of him!”
I glanced at Will, alert for a sign of jealousy.
“Monty is the one best bet!” he said. And his eyes were generous and level, as a man’s who tells the whole truth.