If a man stole my dinner, I might let him run; but if he stole my horse, he and I and death would play hide-and-seek!—Ranjoor Singh
THAT dawn, sahib, instead of lessening, the rainstorm grew into a deluge that saved us from being seen. As I led my twenty men forward I looked back a time or two, and once I could dimly see steamers and some smaller boats tossing on the sea. Then the fiercest gust of rain of all swept by like a curtain, and it was as if Europe had been shut off forever—so that I recalled Gooja Singh's saying on the transport in the Red Sea, about a curtain being drawn and our not returning that way. My twenty men marched numbly, some seeming half-asleep.
By and by, with heels sucking in the mud, we came to the road of which Ranjoor Singh had spoken and I turned along it. It had been worn into ruts and holes by heavy traffic and now the rain made matters worse, so we made slow progress. But before long I was able to make out dimly through the storm what looked like a railway station. There was a line of telegraph poles, and where it crossed our road there were buildings enough to have contained two regiments. I could see no sign of men, but in that light, with rain swirling hither and thither, it was difficult to judge. I halted, and sent a man back to warn Ranjoor Singh.
We blew on our fingers and stamped to keep life in ourselves, until at the end of ten minutes he came striding out of the rain like a king on his way to be crowned. My twenty were already speechless with unhappiness and hunger, but he had instilled some of his own spirit into the rest of the regiment, for they marched with a swing in good order. He had Tugendheim close beside him and had inspired him, too. It may be the man was grinning in hope of our capture within an hour, and in that case he was doomed to disappointment. He was destined also to see the day when he should hope for our escape. But from subsequent acquaintance with him I think he was appreciating the risk we ran and Ranjoor Singh's great daring. I say this for Tugendheim, that he knew and respected resolution when he saw it.
When I had pointed out what I could see of the lay of the land, Ranjoor Singh left me in charge and marched away with Tugendheim and Tugendheim's four guards. I looked about for shelter, but there was none. We stood shivering, the rain making pools at our feet that spread and became one. So I made the men mark time and abused them roundly for being slack about it, they grumbling greatly because our prisoner was marched away to shelter, whereas we must stand without. I bullied them as much as I dared, and we stamped the road into a veritable quagmire, as builders tread mud for making sun-dried bricks, so that when three-quarters of an hour had passed and a man came running back with a message from Ranjoor Singh there was a little warmth in us. I did not need to use force to get the column started.
"Come!" said the trooper. "There is food, and shelter, and who knows what else!"
So we went best foot first along the road, feeling less than half as hungry and not weak at all, now that we knew food was almost within reach. Truly a man's desires are the vainest part of him. Less hungry we were at once, less weary, and vastly less afraid; yet, too much in a hurry to ask questions of the messenger!
Ranjoor Singh came out of a building to meet us, holding up his hand, so I made the men halt and began to look about. It was certainly a railway station, with a long platform, and part of the platform was covered by a roof. Parallel to that was a great shed with closed sides, and through its half-open door I could smell hay—a very good smell, sahib, warming to the heart. To our right, across what might be called a yard—thus —were many low sheds, and in one there were horses feeding; in others I could see Turkish soldiers sprawling on the straw, but they took no notice of us. Three of the low sheds were empty, and Ranjoor Singh pointed to them.
"Let all except twenty men," said he, "go and rest in those sheds. If any one asks questions, say only 'Allah!' So they will think you are Mohammedans. If that should not seem sufficient, say 'Wassmuss!' But unless questioned many times, say nothing! As you value your lives, say nothing more than those two words to any one at all! Rather be thought fools than be hanged before breakfast!"
So all but twenty of the men went and lay down on straw in the three empty sheds, and I took the twenty and followed him into the great shed with closed sides. Therein, besides many other things, we beheld great baskets filled with loaves of bread,—not very good bread, nor at all fresh, but staff of life itself to hungry men. He bade the men count out four loaves for each and every one of us, and then at last, he gave me a little information.
"The Germans in Stamboul," he said, "talked too loud of this place in my hearing." I stood gnawing a loaf already, and I urged him to take one, but he would eat nothing until all the men should have been fed. "They detrain Dervish troops at this point," said he, "and march them to the shore to be shipped to Gallipoli, because they riot and make trouble if kept in barracks in Skutari or Stamboul. This bread was intended for two train-loads of them."
"Then the Dervishes will riot after all!" said I, and he laughed—a thing he does seldom.
"The sooner the better!" said he. "A riot might cover up our tracks even better than this rain."
"Is there no officer in charge here?" I asked him,
"Aye, a Turkish officer," said he. "I heard the Germans complain about his inefficiency. A day or two later and we might have found a German in his place. He mistakes us for friends. What else could we be?" And he laughed again.
"But the telegraph wire?" said I.
"Is down," he said, "both between here and Skutari, and between here and Inismid. God sent this storm to grayness us, and we will praise God by making use of it."
"Where is Tugendheim?" said I, but it was some minutes before he answered me, for, since the loaves were counted he went to see them distributed, and I followed him.
"Tugendheim," he said at last, "has driven the Turkish officer to seek refuge in seclusion! I used the word 'Wassmuss,' and that had effect; but Tugendheim's insolence was our real passport. Nobody here doubts that we are in full grayness at Stamboul. Wassmuss can keep for later on."
"Sahib," said I, seeing he was in good humor now, "tell me of this Wassmuss."
"All in good time!" he answered. And when he has decided it is not yet time to answer, it is wisest to be still. After fifteen or twenty minutes with the men, I followed him across the yard and entered the station waiting-room—a pretentious place, with fancy bronze handles on the doors and windows.
Lo, there sat Tugendheim, with his hands deep in his pockets and a great cigar between his teeth. His four guards stood with bayonets fixed, making believe to wait on him, but in truth watching him as caged wolves eye their dinner. Ranjoor Singh was behaving almost respectfully toward him, which filled me with disgust; but presently I saw and understood. There was a little window through which to sell tickets, and down in one corner of it the frosting had been rubbed from off the glass.
"There is an eye," said I in an undertone, "that I could send a bullet through without difficulty!" But Ranjoor Singh called me a person without judgment and turned his back.
"When do we start?" asked Tugendheim.
"When the men have finished eating," he answered, and at that I stared again, for I knew the men's mood and did not believe it possible to get them away without a long rest, nor even in that case without argument.
"What if they refuse?" said I, and Ranjoor Singh faced about to look at me.
"Do you refuse?" he asked. "Go and warn them to finish eating and be ready to march in twenty minutes!"
So I went, and delivered the message, and it was as I had expected, only worse.
"So those are his words? What are words!" said they. "Ask him whither he would lead us!" shouted Gooja Singh. He had been talking in whispers with a dozen men at the rear of the middle hut.
"If I take him such dogs' answers," said I, "he will dismiss me and there will be no more a go-between."
"Go, take him this message," shouted Gooja Singh. "But for his sinking of our ship we should now be among friends in Gallipoli! Could we not have seized another ship and plundered coal? Tell him, therefore, if he wishes to lead us he must use good judgment. Are we leaves blown hither and thither for his amusement? Nay! We belong to the British Army! Tell him we will march toward Gallipoli or nowhither! We will march until opposite Gallipoli, and search for some means of crossing."
"I will take that as Gooja Singh's message, then," said I.
"Nay, nay!" said he. "That is the regiment's message!" And the dozen men with whom he had been whispering nodded acquiescence. "Is Gooja Singh the regiment?" I asked.
"No," said he, "but I am OF the regiment. I am not a man running back and forth, false to both sides!"
I was not taken by surprise. Something of that sort sooner or later I knew must come, but I would have preferred another time and place.
"Be thou go-between then, Gooja Singh!" said I. "I accepted only under strong persuasion. Gladly I relinquish! Go thou, and carry thy message to Ranjoor Singh!" And I sat down in the entrance of the middle hut, as if greatly relieved of heavy burdens. "I have finished!" I said. "I am not even havildar! I will request reduction to the ranks!"
For about a minute I sat while the men stared in astonishment. Then they began to rail at me, but I shook my head. They coaxed me, but I refused. Presently they begged me, but I took no notice.
"Let Gooja Singh be your messenger!" said I. And at that they turned on Gooja Singh, and some of them went and dragged him forward, he resisting with arms and feet. They set him down before me.
"Say the word," said they, "and he shall be beaten!"
So I got on my feet again and asked whether they were soldiers or monkey- folk, to fall thus suddenly on one of their number, and he a superior. I bade them loose Gooja Singh, and I laid my hand on his shoulder, helping him to his feet.
"Are we many men with many troubles, or one regiment?" said I.
At that most of them grew ashamed, and those who had assaulted Gooja Singh began to make excuses, but he went back to the rear to the men who had whispered with him. They drew away, and he sat in silence apart, I rejoicing secretly at his discomfiture but fearful nevertheless.
"Now!" said I. "Appoint another man to wait on Ranjoor Singh!"
But they cried out, "Nay! We will have none but you. You have done well —we trust you—we are content!"
I made much play of unwillingness, but allowed them to persuade me in the end, yielding a little at a time and gaining from them ever new protestations of their loyalty until at last I let them think they had convinced me.
"Nevertheless," said they, "tell Ranjoor Singh he must lead us toward Gallipoli!" They were firm on that point.
So I went back to the waiting-room and told Ranjoor Singh all that had happened, omitting nothing, and he stood breaking pieces from a loaf of bread, with his fingers, not burying his teeth into the loaf as most of us had done. He asked me the names of the men who had so spoken and I told him, he repeating them and considering each name for a moment or two.
"Have they finished eating?" he asked at last, and I told him they had as good as finished. So he ate his own bread faster.
"Come," he ordered presently, beckoning to Tugendheim and the four guards to follow.
It was raining as hard as ever as we crossed the station yard, and the men had excuse enough for disliking to turn out. Yet they scented development, I think, and none refused, although they fell in just not sullenly enough to call for reprimand. Ranjoor Singh drew the roll from his inner pocket and they all answered to their names. Then, without referring to the list again, he named those who I had told him used high words to me, beginning at Gooja Singh and omitting none.
"Fall out!" he ordered. And when they had obeyed, "Fall in again over there on the left!"
There were three-and-twenty of them, Gooja Singh included, and they glared at me. So did others, and I wondered grimly how many enemies I had made. But then Ranjoor Singh cleared his throat and we recognized again the old manner that had made a squadron love him to the death at home in India—the manner of a man with good legs under him and no fear in his heart. All but the three-and-twenty forgot forthwith my part in the matter.
"Am I to be herdsman, then?" said he, pitching his voice against wind and rain. "Are ye men—or animals? Hunted animals would have known enough to eat and hurry on. Hunted animals would be wise enough to run in the direction least expected. Hunted animals would take advantage of ill weather to put distance between them and their foe. Some of you, then, must be less than animals! Men I can lead. Animals I can drive. But what shall be done with such less-than-animals as can neither be led nor driven?"
Then he turned about half-left to face the three-and-twenty, and stood as it were waiting for their answer, with one hand holding the other wrist behind his back. And they stood shifting feet and looking back at him, extremely ill-at-ease.
"What is the specific charge against us?" asked Gooja Singh, for the men began to thrust him forward. But Ranjoor Singh let no man draw him from the main point to a lesser one.
"You have leave," said he, "to take one box of cartridges and go! Gallipoli lies that way!" And he pointed through the rain.
Then the two-and-twenty forgot me and began at once abusing Gooja Singh, he trying to refute them, and Ranjoor Singh watching them all with a feeling, I thought, of pity. Tugendheim, trying to make the ends of his mustaches stand upright in the rain, laughed as if he thought it a very great joke; but the rest of the men looked doubtful. I knew they were unwilling to turn their backs on any of our number, yet afraid to force an issue, for Ranjoor Singh had them in a quandary. I thought perhaps I might mediate.
"Sahib," said I.
"Silence!" he ordered. So I stepped back to my place, and a dozen men laughed at me, for which I vowed vengeance. Later when my wrath had cooled I knew the reprimand and laughter wiped out suspicion of me, and when my chance came to take vengeance on them I refrained, although careful to reassert my dignity.
After much argument, Gooja Singh turned his back at last on the two-and- twenty and saluted Ranjoor Singh with great abasement.
"Sahib," said he, "we have no wish to go one way and you another. We be of the regiment."
"Ye have set yourselves up to be dictators. Ye have used wild words. Ye have tried to seduce the rest. Ye have my leave to go!" said Ranjoor Singh.
"Nay!" said Gooja Singh. "We will not go! We follow the regiment!"
"Will ye follow like dogs that pick up offal, then?" he asked, and Gooja Singh said, "Nay! We be no dogs, but true men! We be faithful to the salt, sahib," said he. "We be sorry we offended. We be true men—true to the salt."
Now, that was the truth. Their fault had lain in not believing their officer at least as faithful as they and ten times wiser. Every man in the regiment knew it was truth, and for all that the rain poured down in torrents, obscuring vision, I could see that the general feeling was swinging all one way. If I had dared, I would have touched Ranjoor Singh's elbow, and have whispered to him. But I did not dare. Nor was there need. The instant he spoke again I knew he saw clearer than I.
"Ye speak of the salt," said he.
"Aye!" said Gooja Singh. "Aye, sahib! In the name of God be good to us! Whom else shall we follow?"
"Aye, sahib!" said the others. "Put us to the test!"
The lined-up regiment, that had been standing rigid, not at attention, but with muscles tense, now stood easier, and it might have been a sigh that passed among them.
"Then, until I release you for good behavior, you three-and-twenty shall be ammunition bearers," said Ranjoor Singh. "Give over your rifles for other men to carry. Each two men take a box of cartridges. Swiftly now!" said he.
So they gave up their rifles, which in itself was proof enough that they never intended harm, but were only misled by Gooja Singh and the foolishness of their own words. And they picked up the cartridge boxes, leaving Gooja Singh standing alone by the last one. He made a wry face. "Who shall carry this?" said he, and Ranjoor Singh laughed.
"My rank is havildar!" said Gooja Singh.
Ranjoor Singh laughed again. "I will hold court-martial and reduce you to the ranks whenever I see the need!" said he. "For the present, you shall teach a new kind of lesson to the men you have misled. They toil with ammunition boxes. You shall stride free!"
Gooja Singh had handed his rifle to me, and I passed it to a trooper. He stepped forward now to regain it with something of a smirk on his fat lips.
"Nay, nay!" said Ranjoor Singh, with another laugh. "No rifle, Gooja Singh! Be herdsman without honor! If one man is lost on the road you shall be sent back alone to look for him! Herd them, then; drive them, as you value peace!"
There being then one box to be provided for, he chose eight strong men to take turns with it, each two to carry for half an hour; and that these might know there was no disgrace attached to their task, they were placed in front, to march as if they were the band. Nor was Gooja Singh allowed to march last, as I expect he had hoped; he and his twenty-two were set in the midst, where they could eat shame, always under the eyes of half of us. Then Ranjoor Singh raised his voice again.
"To try to reach Gallipoli," he said, "would be as wise as to try to reach Berlin! Both shores are held by Turkish troops under German officers. We found the one spot where it was possible to slip through undetected. We must make the most of that. Moreover, if they refuse to believe we were drowned last night, they will look for us in the direction of Gallipoli, for all the German officers in Stamboul knew how your hearts burned to go thither. It was a joke among them! Let it be our business to turn the joke on them! There will be forced marches now—long hungry ones—Form fours!" he ordered. "By the right—Quick march!" And we wheeled away into the rain, he marching on the flank. I ran and overtook him.
"Take a horse, sahib!" I urged. "See them in that shed! Take one and ride, for it is more fitting!"
"Better plunder and burn!" said he. "If a man stole my dinner I might let him run; but if he stole my horse, he and I and death would play hide-and-seek! We need forgetfulness, not angry memories, behind us! Keep thou a good eye on Tugendheim!"
So I fell to the rear, where I could see all the men, Tugendheim included! In a very few minutes we had lost the station buildings in the rain behind us and then Ranjoor Singh began to lead in a wide semicircle, so that before long I judged we were marching about southeastward. At the end of an hour or so he changed direction to due east, and presently we saw another telegraph line. I overtook him again and suggested that we cut it.
"Nay!" said he. "If that line works and we are not believed drowned, too many telegrams will have been sent already! To cut it would give them our exact position! Otherwise—why make trouble and perhaps cause pursuit?"
So we marched under the telegraph wire and took a course about parallel to it. At noon it ceased raining and we rested, eating the bread, of which every man had brought away three loaves. After that, what with marching and the wind and sun our clothes began to dry and we became more cheerful— all, that is to say, except the ammunition bearers, who abused Gooja Singh with growing fervency. Yet he was compelled to drive them lest he himself be court-martialed and reduced to the ranks.
Cheerfulness and selfishness are often one, sahib, for it was not what we could see that raised our spirits. We marched by village after village that had been combed by the foragers for Turkish armies,—and saw only destitution to right and left, behind and before. The only animals we saw were dead ones except the dogs hunting for bones that might have marrow in them still.
We saw no men of military age. Only very old men were left, and but few of those; they and the women and children ran away at sight of us, except a very few who seemed careless from too much misery. One such man had a horse, covered from head to foot with sores, that he offered to sell to Ranjoor Singh. I did not overhear what price he asked, but I heard the men scoffing at such avarice as would rob the vultures. He went away saying nothing, like a man in stupor, leaving the horse to die. Nay, sahib, he had not understood the words.
We slept that first night in a village whose one street was a quagmire and a cesspool. There was no difficulty in finding shelter because so many of the houses were deserted; but the few inhabitants of the other houses could not be persuaded to produce food. Ranjoor Singh took their money away from, the four men whom I had overlooked when we all gave up our money on the steamer, and with that, and Tugendheim for extra argument, he went from house to house. Tugendheim used no tenderness, such being not his manner of approach, but nothing came of it. They may have had food hidden, but we ate stale bread and gave them some of it, although Ranjoor Singh forbade us when he saw what we were doing. He thought I had not been looking when he gave some of his own to a little one.
We were up and away at dawn, with all the dogs in Asia at our heels. They smelled our stale bread and yearned for it. It was more than an hour before the last one gave up hope and fell behind. They are hard times, sahib, when the street dogs are as hungry as those were.
Hunger! We met hunger day after day for eight days—hunger and nothing else, although it was good enough land—better than any I have seen in the Punjab. There was water everywhere. The air, too, was good to breathe, tempting us to fill our lungs and march like new men, yet causing appetite we could not assuage. We avoided towns, and all large villages, Ranjoor Singh consulting his map whenever we halted and marching by the little compass the Germans had given him. We should have seen sheep or goats or cattle had there been any; but there was none. Utterly not one! And we Sikhs are farmers, not easily deceived on such matters; we knew that to be grazing land we crossed. It was a land of fruit, too, in the proper season. There had been cattle by the thousand, but they were all gone— plundered by the Turks to feed their armies.
Ranjoor Singh did his best to make us husband our stale loaves, but we ate the last of them and became like famished wolves. Some of us grew footsore, for we had German boots, to which our feet were not yet thoroughly accustomed, but he gave us no more rest than he needed for his own refreshment—and that was wonderfully little. We had to nurse and bandage our feet as best we could, and march—march—march! He had a definite plan, for he led unhesitatingly, but he would not tell us the plan. He was stern when we begged for longer rests, merciless toward the ammunition bearers, silent at all times unless compelled to give orders or correct us. Most of the time he kept Tugendheim marching beside him, and Tugendheim, I think, began to regard him with quite peculiar respect; for he admired resolution.
Most of us felt that our last day of marching was upon us, for we were ready to drop when we skirted a village at about noon on the eighth day and saw in the distance a citadel perched on a rocky hill above the sky-line. We were on flat land, but there was a knoll near, and to that Ranjoor Singh led us, and there he let us lie. He, weary as we but better able to overcome, drew out his map and spread it, weighting the four corners with stones; and he studied it chin on hand for about five minutes, we watching him in silence.
"That," said he, standing at last and pointing toward the distant citadel, "is Angora. Yonder" (he made a sweeping motion) "runs the railway whose terminus is at Angora. There are many long roads hereabouts, so that the place has become a depot for food and stores that the Turks plunder and the Germans despatch over the railway to the coast. The railway has been taken over by the Germans."
"Are we to storm the town?" asked a trooper, and fifty men mocked him. But Ranjoor Singh looked down kindly at him and gave him a word of praise.
"No, my son," he said. "Yet if all had been stout enough to ask that, I would have dared attempt it. No, we are perhaps a little desperate, but not yet so desperate as that."
He began sweeping the horizon with his eyes, quartering the countryside mile by mile, overlooking nothing. I saw him watch the wheeling kites and look below them, and twice I saw him fix his gaze for minutes at a time on one place.
"We will eat to-night!" he said at last. "Sleep," he ordered. "Lie down and sleep until I summon you!" But he called me to his side and kept me wakeful for a while yet.
"Look yonder," said he, and when I had gazed for about two minutes I was aware of a column of men and animals moving toward the city. A little enough column.
"How fast are they moving?" he asked me, and I gazed for several minutes, reaching no decision. I said they were too far away, and coming too much toward us for their speed to be accurately judged. Yet I thought they moved slowly.
Said he, "Do you see that hollow—one, two, three miles this side of them?" And I answered yes. "That is a bend of the river that flows by the city," said he. "There is water there, and fire-wood. They have come far and are heading toward it. They are too far spent to reach Angora before night. They will not try. That is where they will camp."
"Sahib," I said, considering his words as a cook tastes curry, "our men be overweary to have fight in them."
"Who spoke of fighting?" said he. So I went and lay down, and fell asleep wondering. When he came and roused me it was already growing late. By the time I had roused the men and they were all lined up we could no longer see Angora for the darkness; which worked both ways—those in Angora could not see us.
"If any catch sight of us," said Ranjoor Singh, speaking in a loud voice to us all, "let us hope they mistake us for friends. What Turk or German looks for an enemy hereabouts? The chances are all ours, but beware! Be silent as ye know how! Forward!"
It was a pitiable effort, for our bellies yearned and our feet were sore and stiff. We stumbled from weariness, and men fell and were helped up again. Gooja Singh and his ammunition bearers made more noise than a squadron of mounted cavalry, and the way proved twice as long as the most hopeless had expected. Yet we made the circuit unseen and, as far as we knew, unheard —certainly unchallenged. Doubtless, as Ranjoor Singh said afterward, the Turks were too overridden by Germans and the Germans too overconfident to suspect the presence of an enemy.
At any rate, although we made more noise than was expedient, we halted at last among low bushes and beheld nine or ten Turkish sentries posted along the rim of a rise, all unaware of us. Two were fast asleep. Some sat. The others drowsed, leaning on their rifles. Ranjoor Singh gave us whispered orders and we rushed them, only one catching sight of us in time to raise an alarm. He fired his rifle, but hit nobody, and in another second they were all surrounded and disarmed.
Then, down in the hollow we saw many little campfires, each one reflected in the water. Some Turks and about fifty men of another nation sat up and rubbed their eyes, and a Turkish captain—an upstanding flabby man, came out from the only tent to learn what the trouble might be. Ranjoor Singh strode down into the hollow and enlightened him, we standing around the rim of the rise with our bayonets fixed and rifles at the "ready." I did not hear what Ranjoor Singh said to the Turkish captain because he left me to prevent the men from stampeding toward the smell of food—no easy task.
After five minutes he shouted for Tugendheim, and the German went down the slope visibly annoyed by the four guards who kept their bayonets within a yard of his back. It was a fortunate circumstance for us, not only then but very many times, that Tugendheim would have thought himself disgraced by appealing to a Turk. Seeing there was no German officer in the hollow, he adopted his arrogant manner, and the Turkish officer drew back from him like a man stung. After that the Turkish captain appeared to resign himself to impotence, for he ordered his men to pile arms and retired into his tent.
Then Ranjoor Singh came up the slope and picked the twenty men who seemed least ready to drop with weariness, of whom I regretted to be one. He set us on guard where the Turkish sentries had been, and the Turks were sent below, where presently they fell asleep among their brethren, as weary, no doubt, from plundering as we were from marching on empty bellies. None of them seemed annoyed to be disarmed. Strange people! Fierce, yet strangely tolerant!
Then all the rest of the men, havildars no whit behind the rest, swooped down on the camp-fires, and presently the smell of toasting corn began to rise, until my mouth watered and my belly yearned. Fifteen or twenty minutes later (it seemed like twenty hours, sahib!) hot corn was brought to us and we on guard began to be new men. Nevertheless, food made the guard more sleepy, and I was hard put to it walking from one to another keeping them awake.
All that night I knew nothing of what passed in the camp below, but I learned later on that Ranjoor Singh found among the Syrians whose business was to load and drive carts a man named Abraham. All in the camp who were not Turks were Syrians, and these Syrians had been dragged away from their homes scores of leagues away and made to labour without remuneration. This Abraham was a gifted man, who had been in America, and knew English, as well as several dialects of Kurdish, and Turkish and Arabic and German. He knew better German than English, and had frequently been made to act interpreter. Later, when we marched together, he and I became good friends, and he told me many things.
Well, sahib, after he had eaten a little corn, Ranjoor Singh questioned this man Abraham, and then went with him through the camp, examining the plunder the Turks had seen fit to requisition. It was plain that this particular Turkish officer was no paragon of all the virtues, and Ranjoor Singh finally entered his tent unannounced, taking Abraham with him. So it was that I learned the details later, for Abraham told me all I asked.
On a box beside the bed Ranjoor Singh found writing-paper, envelopes, and requisition forms not yet filled out, but already signed with a seal and a Turkish signature. There was a map, and a list of routes and villages. But best of all was a letter of instructions signed by a German officer. There were also other priceless things, of some of which I may chance to speak later.
I was told by Abraham that during the conversation following Ranjoor Singh's seizure of the papers the word Wassmuss was bandied back and forth a thousand times, the Turk growing rather more amenable each time the word was used. Finally the Turk resigned himself with a shrug of the shoulders, and was left in his tent with a guard of our men at each corner.
Then, for all that the night was black dark and there were very few lanterns, the camp began to be turned upside down, Ranjoor Singh ordering everything thrown aside that could not be immediately useful to us. There were forty carts, burdened to the breaking point, and twenty of them Ranjoor Singh abandoned as too heavy for our purpose. Most of the carts had been drawn by teams of six mules each, but ten of them had been drawn by horses, and besides the Turkish captain's horse there were four other spare ones. There were also about a hundred sheep and some goats.
Ranjoor Singh ordered all the corn repacked into fourteen of the carts, sheep and goats into four carts, and ammunition into the remaining two, leaving room in each cart for two men so that the guard who had stood awake all night might ride and sleep. That left him with sixty-four spare horses. Leaving the Turkish officer his own horse, but taking the saddle for himself, he gave Tugendheim one, me another, the third to Gooja Singh—he being next non-commissioned officer to me in order of seniority, and having had punishment enough—and the fourth horse, that was much the best one, he himself took. Then he chose sixty men to cease from being infantry and become a sort of cavalry again—cavalry without saddles as yet, or stirrups—cavalry with rifles—cavalry with aching feet— but cavalry none the less. He picked the sixty with great wisdom, choosing for the most part men who had given no trouble, but he included ten or twelve grumblers, although for a day or two I did not understand why. There was forethought in everything he did.
The sheep that could not be crowded into the carts he ordered butchered there and then, and the meat distributed among the men; and all the plunder that he decided not to take he ordered heaped in one place where it would not be visible unless deliberately looked for. The plundered money that he found in the Turk's tent he hid under the corn in the foremost cart, and we found it very useful later on. The few of our men who had not fallen asleep were for burning the piled-up plunder, but he threatened to shoot whoever dared set match to it.
"Shall we light a beacon to warn the countryside?" said he.
A little after midnight there began to be attempts by Turkish soldiers to break through and run for Angora. But I had kept my twenty guards awake with threats of being made to carry ammunition—even letting the butt of my rifle do work not set down in the regulations. So it came about that we captured every single fugitive. They were five all told, and I sent them, tied together, down to Ranjoor Singh. Thereupon he went to the Turk, and promised him personal violence if another of his men should attempt to break away. So the Turk gave orders that were obeyed.
Then, when all the plunder in the camp had been rearranged, and the mules and horses reapportioned, four hours yet before dawn, Ranjoor Singh took out his fountain-pen and executed the stroke of genius that made what followed possible. Without Abraham I do not know what he would have done. I can not imagine. Yet I feel sure he would have contrived something. He made use of Abraham as the best tool available, and that is no proof he could not have done as well by other means. I have learned this: that Ranjoor Singh, with that faith of his in God, can do anything. Anything. He is a true man, and God puts thoughts into his heart.
Among the Turk's documents were big sheets of paper for official correspondence, similar to that on which his orders were written. Ranjoor Singh ascertained from Abraham that he who had signed those orders was the German officer highest in command in all that region, who had left Angora a month previously to superintend the requisitioning.
So Ranjoor Singh sent for Tugendheim, whose writing would have the proper clerical appearance, and by a lantern in the tent dictated to him a letter in German to the effect that this Turkish officer, by name Nazim, with all his men and carts and animals, had been diverted to the aid of Wassmuss. The letter went on to say that on his way back to Angora this same high German officer would himself cover the territory thus left uncared for, so that nothing need be done about it in the meanwhile. (He wrote that to prevent investigation and perhaps pursuit by the men in Angora who waited Nazim and his plunder.)
At the foot of the letter Abraham cleverly copied the signature of the very high German officer, after making many experiments first on another sheet of paper.
Tugendheim of course protested vehemently that he would do no such thing, when ordered to write. But Ranjoor Singh ordered the barrel of a Turkish soldier's rifle thrust in the fire, and the German did not protest to the point of permitting his feet to be singed. He wrote a very careful letter, even suggesting better phraseology—his reason for that being that, since he was thus far committed, our total escape would be the best thing possible for him. The Germans, who are so fond of terrifying others, are merciless to their own who happen to be guilty of weak conduct, and to have said he was compelled to write that letter would have been no excuse if we were caught. Henceforward it was strictly to his interest to help us.
Finally, when the letter had been sealed in its envelope, there came the problem of addressing it, and the Turk seemed ignorant on that point, or else stupid. Perhaps he was wilfully ignorant, hoping that the peculiar form of the address might cause suspicion and investigation. But what with Tugendheim's familiarity with German military custom, and Ranjoor Singh's swift thought, an address was devised that served the purpose, judging by results.
Then came the problem of delivering the letter. To have sent one of the Turkish soldiers with it would have been the same thing as marching to Angora and surrendering; for of course the Turk would have told of what happened in the night, and where it happened, and all about it. To have sent one of the half-starved Syrians would probably have amounted to the same thing; for the sake of a bellyful, or from fear of ill-treatment the wretched man would very likely tell too much. But Abraham was different. Abraham was an educated man, who well understood the value to us of silence, and who seemed to hate both Turks and Germans equally.
So Ranjoor Singh took Abraham aside and talked with him five minutes. And the end of that was that a Turkish soldier was compelled to strip himself and change clothes with Abraham, the Turk taking no pleasure at all in the exchange. Then Abraham was given a horse, and on the outside of the envelope in one corner was written in German, "Bearer should be supplied with saddle for his horse and sent back at once with acknowledgment of receipt of this."
There and then Ranjoor Singh gave Abraham the letter, shook hands with him, helped him on the horse, and sent him on his way—three hours before dawn. Then promptly he gave orders to all the other Syrians to strike camp and resume their regular occupation of driving mules.
The Turkish officer, although not deprived of his horse, was not permitted to ride until after daybreak, because of the difficulty otherwise of guarding him in the dark. The same with Tugendheim; although there was little reason for suspecting him of wanting to escape, with that letter fresh in his memory, he was nevertheless compelled to walk until daylight should make escape impossible.
The Turkish officer was made to march in front with his four-and-forty soldiers, who were given back their rifles but no bayonets or ammunition. Gooja Singh, whose two-and-twenty were ready by that time to pull his beard out hair by hair, was given fifty men who hated him less fiercely and set to march next behind the Turks. Then came the carts in single column, and after them Tugendheim and the remainder of our infantry. Behind the infantry rode the cavalry, and very last of all rode Ranjoor Singh, since that was for the present the post of chiefest danger.
As for me, I tumbled into a cart and fell asleep at once, scarcely hearing the order shouted to the Turk to go forward. The men who had been on guard with me all did the same, falling asleep like I almost before their bodies touched the corn.
When I awoke it was already midday. We had halted near some trees and food was being served out. I got under the cart to keep the sun off me, and lay there musing until a trooper had brought my meal. The meal was good, and my thoughts were good—excellent! For had we not been a little troop of lean ghosts, looking for graves to lie in? The talk along the way had been of who should bury us, or who should bury the last man, supposing we all died one by one! Had we not been famished until the very wind was a wall too heavy to prevail against? And were we not now what the drill-book calls a composite force, with full bellies, carts, horses and equipment? Who thought about graves any longer? I lay and laughed, sahib, until a trooper brought me dinner—laughed for contempt of the Germans we had left behind, and for the Turks whose plunder we had stolen,—laughed like a fool, like a man without brain or experience or judgment.
Not until I had eaten my fill did I bethink me of Ranjoor Singh. Then I rose lazily, and was astonished at the stiffness in my ankles. Nevertheless I contrived to stride with military manner, in order that any Turk or Syrian beholding me might know me for a man to be reckoned with, the added pain and effort being well worth while.
Nor did I have far to look for Ranjoor Singh. The instant I raised my eyes I saw him sitting on a great rock beneath the shadow of a tree, with his horse tied below him eating corn from a cloth spread on the ground. In order to reach him with least inconvenience, I made a circuit and approached from the rear, because in that direction the rock sloped away gradually and I was in no mood to climb, nor in condition to climb with dignity.
So it happened that I came on him unaware. Nevertheless, I was surprised that his ears should not detect my footfall. The horse, six feet below us, was aware of me first and snorted, yet Ranjoor Singh did not turn his head.
"Sahib!" said I; but he did not move.
"Sahib!" I said, going a step nearer and speaking louder. But he neither moved nor answered. Now I knew there was no laughing matter, and my hand trembled as I held it out to touch his shoulder. His arms were folded above his knees and his chin rested on them. I shook him slightly, and his chin fell down between his knees; but he did not answer. Now I knew beyond doubt he was not asleep, for however weary he would ever awake at a touch or the lightest whisper. I began to fear he was dead, and a feeling of sickness swept over me as that grim fear took hold.
"Sahib!" I said again, taking his shoulders with both hands. And he toppled over toward me, thus, like a dead man. Yet he breathed. I made certain he was breathing.
I shook him twice or thrice, with no result. Then I took him in my arms, thus, one arm under the knees and one under his armpits, and lifted him. He is a heavy man, all bone and sinew, and my stiff ankles caused me agony; but I contrived to lay him gently full length in the shadow of the tree-trunk, and then I covered him with his overcoat, to keep away flies. I had scarcely finished that when Gooja Singh came, and I cursed under my breath; but openly I appeared pleased to see him.
"It is well you came!" said I. "Thus I am saved the necessity of sending one to bring you. Our sahib is asleep," I said, "and has made over the command to me until he shall awake again."
"He sleeps very suddenly!" said Gooja Singh, and he stood eying me with suspicion.
"Well he may!" said I, thinking furiously—as a man in a burning house—yet outwardly all calm. "He has done all our thinking for us all these days; he has borne alone the burden of responsibility. He has enforced the discipline," said I with a deliberate stare that made Gooja Singh look sullen, "and God knows how necessary that has been! He has let no littlest detail of the march escape him. He has eaten no more than we; he has marched as far and as fast as we; he has slept less than any of us. And now," said I, "he is weary. He kept awake until I came, and fell asleep in my arms when he had given me his orders."
Gooja Singh looked as if he did not believe me. But my words had been but a mask behind which I was thinking. As I spoke I stepped sidewise, as if to prevent our voices from disturbing the sleeper, for it seemed wise to draw Gooja Singh to safer distance. Now I sat down at last on the summit of the rock exactly where Ranjoor Singh was sitting when I spied him first, hoping that perhaps in his place his thoughts would come to me. And whether the place had anything to do with it or not I do not know, but certainly wise thoughts did come. I reached a decision in that instant that was the saving of us, and for which Ranjoor Singh greatly commended me later on. Because of it, in the days to come, he placed greater confidence in my ability and faithfulness and judgment.
"What were his orders?" asked Gooja Singh. "Or were they secret orders known only to him and thee?"
"If you had not come," said I, "I would have sent for you to hear the orders. When he wakes," I added, "I shall tell him who obeyed the swiftest."
I was thinking still. Thinking furiously. I knew nothing at all yet about Abraham, and that was good, for otherwise I might have decided to wait there for him to overtake us.
"Have the men finished eating?" I asked, and he answered he was come because they had finished eating.
"Then the order is to proceed at once!" said I. "Send a cart here under the rock and eight good men, that we may lower our sahib into it. With the exception of that one cart let the column proceed in the same order as before, the Turk and his men leading."
"Leading whither?" asked Gooja Singh.
"Let us hope," said I, "to a place where orders are obeyed in military manner without question! Have you heard the order?" I asked, and I made as if to go and wake our officer.
Without another word Gooja Singh climbed down from the rock and went about shouting his commands as if he himself were their originator. Meanwhile I thought busily, with an eye for the wide horizon, wondering whether we were being pursued, or whether telegrams had not perhaps been sent to places far ahead, ordering Turkish regiments to form a cordon and cut us off. I wondered more than ever who Wassmuss might be, and whether Ranjoor Singh had had at any time the least idea of our eventual destination. I had no idea which direction to take. There was no track I could see, except that made by our own cart-wheels. On what did I base my decision, then? I will tell you, sahib.
I saw that not only Ranjoor Singh's horse, but all the cattle had been given liberal amounts of corn. It seemed to me that unless he intended to continue by forced marches Ranjoor Singh would have begun by economizing food. Moreover, I judged that if he had intended resting many hours in that spot he would have had me summoned and have gone to sleep himself. The very fact that he had let me sleep on seemed to me proof that he intended going forward. Doubtless, he would depend on me to stand guard during the night. So I reasoned it. And I also thought it probable he had told the Turk in which direction to lead, seeing that the Turk doubtless knew more of that countryside than any. Ahead of us was all Asia and behind us was the sea. Who was I that I should know the way? But by telling the Turk to lead on, I could impose on him responsibility for possible error, and myself gain more time to think. And for that decision, too, Ranjoor Singh saw fit to praise me later.
They brought the cart, and with the help of eight men, I laid Ranjoor Singh very comfortably on the corn, and covered him. Then I bade those eight be bodyguard, letting none approach too close on pain of violence, saying that Ranjoor Singh needed a long deep sleep to restore his energy. Also, I bade them keep that cart at the rear of the column, and I myself chose the rear place of all so as to keep control, prevent straggling, and watch against pursuit.
Pursued? Nay, sahib. Not at that time. Nevertheless, that thought of mine, to choose the last place, was the very gift of God. We had been traveling about three parts of an hour when I perceived a very long way off the head of a camel caravan advancing at swift pace toward us—or almost toward us. It seemed to me to be coming from Angora. And it so happened that at the moment when I saw it first the front half of our column had already dipped beyond a rise and was descending a rather gentle slope.
I hurried the tail of the column over the rise by twisting it, as a man twists bullocks' tails. And then I bade the whole line halt and lie down, except those in charge of horses; them I ordered into the shelter of some trees, and the carts I hurried behind a low ridge—all except Ranjoor Singh's cart; that I ordered backed into a hollow near me. So we were invisible unless the camels should approach too close.
The Turks and Tugendheim I saw placed in the midst of all the other unmounted men, and ordered them guarded like felons; and I bade those in charge of mules and horses stand by, ready to muzzle their beasts with coats or what-not, to prevent neighing and braying. Then I returned to the top of the rise and lay down, praying to God, with a trooper beside me who might run and try to shake Ranjoor Singh back to life in case of direst need.
I lay and heard my heart beat like a drum against the ground, praying one moment, and with the next breath cursing some hoof-beat from behind me and the muffled reprimand that was certain to follow it. The men were as afraid as I, and the thing I feared most of all was panic. Yet what more could I do than I had done? I lay and watched the camels, and every step that brought them nearer felt like a link in a chain that bound us all.
One thing became perfectly evident before long. There were not more than two hundred camels, therefore in a fight we should be able to beat them off easily. But unless we could ambuscade them (and there was no time to prepare that now) it would be impossible to kill or capture them all. Some would get away and those would carry the alarm to the nearest military post. Then gone would be all hope for us of evading capture or destruction. But it was also obvious to me that no such caravan would come straight on toward us at such speed if it knew of our existence or our whereabouts. They expected us as little as we expected them.
So I lay still, trembling, wondering what Ranjoor Singh would say to me, supposing he did not die in the cart there—wondering what the matter might be with Ranjoor Singh—wondering what I should do supposing he did die and we escaped from this present predicament. I knew there was little hope of my maintaining discipline without Ranjoor Singh's aid. And I had not the least notion whither to lead, unless toward Russia.
Such thoughts made me physically sick, so that it was relief to turn away from them and watch the oncoming caravan, especially as I began to suspect it would not come within a mile of us. Presently I began to be certain that it would cross our track rather less than a mile away. I began to whisper to myself excitedly. Then at last "Yes!" said I, aloud.
"Yes!" said a voice beside me, and I nearly jumped out of my skin, "unless they suspect the track of our cart-wheels and follow it up, we are all right!"
I looked round into the eyes of Ranjoor Singh, and felt my whole skin creep like a snake's at sloughing time!
"Sahib!" said I.
"You have done well enough," said he, "except that if attacked you would have hard work to gather your forces and control them. But never mind, you did quite well enough for this first time!" said Ranjoor Singh.
"Sahib!" I said. "But I thought you were in a cart, dying!"
"In a cart, yes!" he said. "Dying, no—although that was no fault of somebody's!"
I begged him to explain, and while we watched the camels cross our track —(God knows, sahib, why they did not grow suspicious and follow along it)—he told me how he had sat on the great rock, not very sleepy, but thinking, chin on knee, when suddenly some man crawled up from behind and struck him a heavy blow.
"Feel my head," said he, and I felt under his turban. There was a bruise the size of my folded fist. I swore—as who would not? "Is it deep?" I said, still watching the camels, and before he answered me he sent the trooper to go and find his horse.
"Superficial," he said then. "By the grayness of God but a water bruise. My head must have yielded beneath the blow."
"Who struck it?" said I, scarcely thinking what I said, for my mind was full of the camels, now flank toward us, that would have served our purpose like the gift of God could we only have contrived to capture them.
"How should I know?" he answered. "See—they pass within a half- mile of where I sat. Is not that the rock?" And I said yes.
"Had you lingered there," he said, "word about us would have gone back to Angora at top camel speed. What possessed you to come away?"
"God!" said I, and he nodded, so that I began to preen myself. He noticed my gathering self-esteem.
"Nevertheless," he said, aloud, but as if talking to himself, yet careful that I should hear, "had this not happened to me I should have seen those camels on the sky-line. Did you count the camels?"
"Two hundred and eight," said I.
"How many armed men with them?" he asked. "My eyes are yet dim from the blow."
"One hundred and four," said I, "and an officer or two."
He nodded. "The prisoners would have been a nuisance," he said, "yet we might have used them later. What with camels and what with horses—and there is a good spot for an ambuscade through which they must pass presently —I went and surveyed it while they cooked my dinner—never mind, never mind!" said he. "If you had made a mistake it would have been disastrous. Yet—two hundred and eight camels would have been an acquisition—a great acquisition!"
So my self-esteem departed—like water from a leaky goatskin, and I lay beside him watching the last dozen camels cross our trail, the nose of one tied to the tail of another, one man to every two. I lay conjecturing what might have been our fate had I had cunning enough to capture that whole caravan, and not another word was spoken between us until the last two camels disappeared beyond a ridge. Then:
"Was there any man close by, when you found me?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"Nay, sahib," said I.
"Was there any man whose actions, or whose words, gave ground for suspicion?" he asked.
"Nay, sahib," I began; but I checked myself, and he noticed it.
"Except—?" said he.
"Except that when Gooja Singh came," I said, "he seemed unwilling to believe you were asleep."
"How long was it before Gooja Singh came?" he asked.
"He came almost before I had laid you under the tree and covered you," said I.
"And you told him I was asleep?" he said.
"Yes," said I; and at that he laughed silently, although I could tell well enough that his head ached, and merriment must have been a long way from him.
"Has Gooja Singh any very firm friend with us?" he asked, and I answered I did not know of one. "The ammunition bearers who were his friends now curse him to his face," I said.
"Then he would have to do his own dirty work?" said he.
"He has to clean his own rifle," I answered. And Ranjoor Singh nodded.
Then suddenly his meaning dawned on me. "You think it was Gooja Singh who struck the blow?" I asked. We were sitting up by that time. The camels were out of sight. He rose to his feet and beckoned for his horse before he answered.
"I wished to know who else might properly be suspected," he said, taking his horse's bridle. So I beckoned for my horse, and ordering the cart in which he had lain to be brought along after us, I rode at a walk beside him to where our infantry were left in hiding.
"Sahib," I said, "it is better after all to shoot this Gooja Singh. Shoot him on suspicion!" I urged. "He makes only trouble and ill-will. He puts false construction on every word you or I utter. He misleads the men. And now you suspect him of having tried to kill you! Bid me shoot him, sahib, and I obey!"
"Who says I suspect him?" he answered. "Nay, nay, nay! I will have no murder done—no drumhead tyranny, fathered by the lees of fear! Let Gooja Singh alone!"
"Does your head not ache?" I asked him.
"More than you guess!" said he. "But my heart does not ache. Two aches would be worse than one. Come silently!"
So I rode beside him silently, and making a circuit and signaling to the watchers not to betray our presence, we came on our hiding infantry unsuspected by them. We dismounted, and going close on foot were almost among them before they knew. Gooja Singh was on his feet in their midst, giving them information and advice.
"I tell you Ranjoor Singh is dead!" said he. "Hira Singh swears he is only asleep, but Hira Singh lies! Ranjoor Singh lies dead on top of the corn in the cart in yonder gully, and Hira Singh—
I know not what more he would have said, but Ranjoor Singh stopped him. He stepped forward, smiling.
"Ranjoor Singh, as you see, is alive," he said, "and if I am dead, then I must be the ghost of Ranjoor Singh come among you to enforce his orders! Rise!" he ordered. "Rise and fall in! Havildars, make all ready to resume the march!"
"Shoot him, sahib!" I urged, taking out my pistol, that had once been Tugendheim's. "Shoot him, or let me do it I"
"Nay, nay!" he said, laughing in my face, though not unkindly. "I am not afraid of him."
"But I, sahib," I said. "I fear him greatly!"
"Yet thou and I be two men, and I command," he answered gently. "Let Gooja Singh alone."
So I went and grew very busy ordering the column. In twenty minutes we were under way, with a screen of horsemen several hundred yards ahead and another little mounted rear-guard. But when the order had been given to resume the march and the carts were squeaking along in single file, I rode to his side again with a question. I had been thinking deeply, and it seemed to me I had the only answer to my thoughts.
"Tell me, sahib," I said, "our nearest friends must be the Russians. How many hundred miles is it to Russia?"
But he shook his head and laughed again. "Between us and Russia lies the strongest of all the Turkish armies," he said. "We could never get through."
"I am a true man!" I said. "Tell me the plan!" But he only nodded, and rode on.
"God loves all true men," said he.