Since when did god take sides against the brave?— Ranjoor Singh.
DID the sahib ever chance to hear that Persian proverb—"Duzd ne giriftah padshah ast"? No? It means "The uncaught thief is king." Ho! but thenceforward that was a campaign that suited us! None could catch us, for we could come and go like the night wind, and the Turks are heavy on their feet. We helped ourselves to what we needed. And a reputation began to hurry ahead of us that made matters easier, for our numbers multiplied in men's imagination.
The Turks whom we had recently defeated gave Kurds the credit for it, and after the survivors had crawled back home whole Turkish regiments were ordered out by telegraph to hunt for raiding Kurds, not us! We cut all the wires we could find uncut, real Kurds having attended to the business already in most instances, and now, instead of slipping unseen through the land we began to leave our signature, and do deliberate damage.
None can beat Sikhs at such warfare as we waged across the breadth of Asiatic Turkey, and none could beat Ranjoor Singh as leader of it. We could outride the Turks, outwit them, outfight them, and outdare them. As the spring advanced the weather improved and our spirits rose; and as we began to take the offensive more and more our confidence increased in Ranjoor Singh until there might never have been any doubt of him, except that Gooja Singh was too conscious of his own faults to dare let matters be. He was ever on the watch for a chance to make himself safe at Ranjoor Singh's expense. He was a good enough soldier when so minded. All of us daffadars were developing into very excellent troop commanders, and he not least of us; but the more efficient he grew the more dangerous he was, for the very good reason that Ranjoor Singh scorned to take notice of his hate and only praised him for efficiency. Whereas he watched all the time for faults in Ranjoor Singh to take advantage of them.
So I took thought, and used discretion, and chose twelve troopers whom I drafted into Gooja Singh's command by twos and threes, he not suspecting. By ones and twos and threes I took them apart and tested them, saying much the same to each.
Said I, "Who mistrusts our sahib any longer?" And because I had chosen them well they each made the same answer. "Nay," said they, "we were fools. He was always truer than any of us. He surrendered in that trench that we might live for some such work as this!"
"If he were to be slain," said I, "what would now become of us?"
"He must not be slain!" said they.
"But what if he IS slain?" I answered. "Who knows his plans for the future?"
"Ask him to tell his plans," said they. "He trusts you more than any of us. Ask and he will tell."
"Nay," said I, "I have asked and he will not tell. He knows, as well as you or I, that not all the men of this regiment have always believed in him. He knows that none dare kill him unless they know his plans first, for until they have his plans how can they dispense with his leadership?"
"Who are these who wish to kill him?" said they. "Let there be court martial and a hanging!"
"Nay," said I, "let there be a silence and forgetting, lest too many be involved!"
They nodded, knowing well that not one man of us all would escape condemnation if inquiry could be carried back far enough.
"Let there be much watchfulness!" said I.
"Who shall watch Ranjoor Singh?" said they. "He is here, there and everywhere! He is gone before dawn, and perhaps we see him again at noon, but probably not until night. And half the night he spends in the saddle as often as not. Who shall watch him?"
"True!" said I. "But if we took thought, and decided who might— perhaps—most desire to kill him for evil recollection's sake, then we might watch and prevent the deed."
"Aye!" said they, and they understood. So I arranged with Ranjoor Singh to have them transferred to Gooja Singh's troop, making this excuse and that and telling everything except the truth about it. If I had told him the truth, Ranjoor Singh would have laughed and my precaution would have been wasted, but having lied I was able to ride on with easier mind—such sometimes being the case.
We had little trouble in keeping on the horizon whenever we sighted Turks in force; and then probably the distance deceived them into thinking us Turks, too, for we rode now with no less than five Turkish officers as well as a German sergeant. And in the rear of large bodies of Turks there was generally a defenseless town or village whose Armenians had all been butchered, and whose other inhabitants were mostly too gorged with plunder to show any fight. We helped ourselves to food, clothing, horses, saddlery, horse-feed, and anything else that Ranjoor Singh considered we might need, but he threatened to hang the man who plundered anything of personal value to himself, and none of us wished to die by that means.
We soon began to need medicines and a doctor badly, for we lost no less than eight-and-twenty men between the avenging of those Armenians in the desert and reaching the Kurdish mountains, and once we had more than forty wounded at one time. But finally we captured a Greek doctor, attached to the Turkish army, and he had along with him two mule-loads of medicines. Ranjoor Singh promised him seven deaths for every one of our wounded men who should die of neglect, and most of them began to recover very quickly.
If we had tried merely to plunder; or had raided the same place twice; or, if we had rested merely because we were weary; or, if we had once done what might have been expected of us, I should not now sit beneath this tree talking to you, sahib, because my bones would be lying in Asiatic Turkey. But we rode zigzag-wise, very often doubling on our tracks, Ranjoor Singh often keeping half a day's march ahead of us gathering information.
When we raided a town or village we used to tie our Turkish officers hand and foot and cover them up in a cart, for we wished them to be mistaken for Kurds, not Turks. And in almost the first bazaar we plundered were strange hats such as Kurds wear, that gave us when we wore them in the dark the appearance, perhaps, of Kurds who had stolen strange garments (for the Kurds wear quite distinctive clothes, of which we did not succeed in plundering sufficient to disguise us all).
In more than one town we had to fight for what we took, for there were Turkish soldiers that we did not know about, for all Ranjoor Singh's good scouting. Sometimes we beat them off with very little trouble; sometimes we had about enough fighting to warm our hearts and terrify the inhabitants. But in one town we were caught plundering the bazaar by several hundred Turkish infantry who entered from the far side unexpectedly; and if we had not burned the bazaar I doubt that we should have won clear of that trap. But the smoke and flame served us for a screen, and we got to the rear of the Turks and killed a number of them before galloping off into the dark.
But who shall tell in a day what took weeks in the doing? I do not remember the tenth part of it! We rode, and we skirmished, and we plundered, growing daily more proud of Ranjoor Singh, and most of us forgetting we had ever doubted him. Once we rode for ten miles side by side in the darkness with a Turkish column that had been sent to hunt for us! Perhaps they mistook our squeaky old carts for their cannon; that had camped for the night unknown to them! Next day we told some Kurds where to find the cannon, and doubtless the Kurds made trouble. We let the column alone, for it was too big for us —about two regiments, I think. They camped at midnight, and we rode on.
We gave our horses all the care we could, but that was none too much, and we had to procure new mounts very frequently. Often we picked up a dozen at a time in the towns and villages, slaying those we left behind lest they be of use to the enemy. Once we wrought a miracle, being nearly at a standstill from hard marching, and almost surrounded by regiments sent out to cut us off. We raided the horse-lines of a Turkish regiment that had camped beside a stream, securing all the horses we needed and stampeding the remainder! Thus we escaped through the gap that regiment had been supposed to close. We got away with their baked bread, too, enough to last us at least three days! That was not far from Diarbekr.
By the time we reached the Tigris and crossed it near Diarbekr we were happy men; for we were not in search of idleness; all most of us asked was a chance to serve our friends, and making trouble for the Turks was surely service! One way and another we made more trouble than ten times our number could have made in Flanders. Every one of us but Gooja Singh was happy.
We crossed the Tigris in the dark, and some of us were nearly drowned, owing to the horses being frightened. We had to abandon our carts, so we burned them; and by the light of that fire we saw great mounds of Turkish supplies that they intended to float down the river to Baghdad on strange rafts made of goatskins. The sentries guarding the stores put up a little fight, and five more of us were wounded, but finally we burned the stores, and the flames were so bright and high that we had to gallop for two miles before we could be safe again in darkness. So we crossed at a rather bad place, and there was something like panic for ten minutes, but we got over safely in the end, wounded and all. We floated the wounded men and ammunition and rations for men and horses across on some of those strange goatskin rafts that go round and round and any way but forward. We found them in the long grass by the river-bank.
At a town on the far side we seized new carts, far better than our old ones. And then, because we might have been expected to continue eastward, we turned to the south and followed the course of the Tigris, straight into Kurdish country, where it did us no good to resemble either Turks or Kurds; for we could not hope to deceive the Kurds into thinking we were of their tribe, and Turks and Kurds are open enemies wherever the Turks are not strong enough to overawe. They were all Kurds in these parts, and no Turks at all, so that our problem became quite different. After two days' riding over what was little else than wilderness, Ranjoor Singh made new dispositions, and we put the Kurdish headgear in our knapsacks.
In the first place, the wounded had been suffering severely from the long forced marches and the jolting of the springless carts. Some of them had died, and the Greek doctor had grown very anxious for his own skin. Ranjoor Singh summoned him and listened to great explanations and excuses, finally gravely permitting him to live, but adding solemn words of caution. Then he ordered the carts abandoned, for there was now no road at all. The forty Turkish soldiers (in their Syrian clothes) were made to carry the wounded in stretchers we improvised, until some got well and some died; those who did not carry wounded were made to carry ammunition, and some of our own men who had tried to disregard Ranjoor Singh's strict orders regarding women of the country were made to help them. That arrangement lasted until we came to a village where the Kurds were willing to exchange mules against the rifles we had taken from the Kurds, one mule for one rifle, we refusing to part with any cartridges.
After that the wounded had to ride on mules, some of them two to a mule, holding each other on, and the cartridge boxes were packed on the backs of other mules, except that men who tried to make free with native women were invariably ordered to relieve a mule. Then we had no further use for the forty Turks, so we turned them loose with enough food to enable them to reach Diarbekr if they were economical. They went off none too eagerly in their Syrian clothes, and I have often wondered whether they ever reached their destination, for the Kurds of those parts are a fierce people, and it is doubtful which they would rather ill-treat and kill, a Turk or a Syrian. The Turks have taught them to despise Armenians and Syrians, but they despise Turks naturally. (All this I learned from Abraham, who often marched beside me.)
"Those Turks we have released will go back and set their people on our trail," said Gooja Singh, overlooking no chance to throw discredit.
"If they ever get safely back, that is what I hope they will do!" Ranjoor Singh answered. "We will disturb hornets and pray that Turks get stung!"
He would give no explanation, but it was not long before we all understood. Little by little, he was admitting us to confidence in those days, never telling at a time more than enough to arouse interest and hope.
Rather than have him look like a Turk any longer, we had dressed up Abraham in the uniform of one of our dead troopers; and when at last a Kurdish chief rode up with a hundred men at his back and demanded to know our business, Ranjoor Singh called Abraham to interpret. We could easily have beaten a mere hundred Kurds, but to have won a skirmish just then would have helped us almost as little as to lose one. What we wanted was free leave to ride forward.
"Where are ye, and whither are ye bound? What seek ye?" the Kurd demanded, but Ranjoor Singh proved equal to the occasion.
"We be troops from India," said he. "We have been fighting in Europe on the side of France and England, and the Germans and Turks have been so badly beaten that you see for yourself what is happening. Behold us! We are an advance party. These Turkish officers you see are prisoners we have taken on our way. Behold, we have also a German prisoner! You will find all the Turks between here and Syria in a state of panic, and if plunder is what you desire you would better make haste and get what you can before the great armies come eating the land like locusts! Plunder the Turks and prove yourselves the friends of French and English!"
Sahib, those Kurds would rather loot than go to heaven, and, like all wild people, they are very credulous. There are Kurds and Kurds and Kurds, nations within a nation, speaking many dialects of one tongue. Some of them are half-tame and live on the plains; those the Turks are able to draft into their armies to some extent. Some of the plainsmen, like those I speak of now, are altogether wild and will not serve the Turks on any terms. And most of the hillmen prefer to shoot a Turk on sight. I would rather fight a pig with bare hands than try to stand between a Kurd and Turkish plunder, and it only needed just those few words of Ranjoor Singh's to set that part of the world alight!
We rode for very many days after that, following the course of the Tigris unmolested. The tale Ranjoor Singh told had gone ahead of us. The village Kurds waited to have one look, saw our Turkish prisoners and our Sikh turbans, judged for themselves, and were off! I believe we cost the Turkish garrisons in those parts some grim fighting; and if any Turks were on our trail I dare wager they met a swarm or two of hornets more than they bargained for!
Instead of having to fight our way through that country, we were well received. Wherever we found Kurds, either in tents or in villages, the unveiled women would give us DU, as they call their curds and whey, and barley for our horses, and now and then a little bread. When other persuasion failed, we could buy almost anything they had with a handful or two of cartridges. They were a savage people, but not altogether unpleasing.
Once, where the Tigris curved and our road brought us near the banks, by a high cliff past which the river swept at very great speed, we took part in a sport that cost us some cartridges, but no risk, and gave us great amusement. The Kurds of those parts, having heard in advance of our tale of victory, had decided, to take the nearest loot to hand; so they had made an ambuscade down near the river level, and when we came on the scene we lent a hand from higher up.
Rushing down the river at enormous speed (for the stream was narrow there) forced between rocks with a roar and much white foam the goatskin rafts kept coming on their way to Mosul and Baghdad, some loaded with soldiers, some with officers, and all with goods on which the passengers must sit to keep their legs dry. The rafts were each managed by two men, who worked long oars to keep them in mid-current, they turning slowly round and round.
The mode of procedure was to volley at them, shooting, if possible, the men with oars, but not despising a burst goatskin bag. In case the men with oars were shot, the others would try to take their place, and, being unskillful, would very swiftly run the raft against a rock, when it would break up and drown its passengers, the goods drifting ashore at the bend in the river in due time.
On the other hand, when a few goatskin bags were pierced the raft would begin to topple over and the men with oars would themselves direct the raft toward the shore, preferring to take their chance among Kurds than with the rocks that stuck up like fangs out of the raging water. No, sahib, I could not see what happened to them after they reached shore. That is a savage country.
One of our first volleys struck a raft so evenly and all together that it blew up as if it had been torpedoed! We tried again and again to repeat that performance, until Ranjoor Singh checked us for wasting ammunition. It was very good sport. There were rafts and rafts and rafts—kyaks, I think they call them—and the amount of plunder those Kurds collected on the beach must have been astonishing.
We gave the city of Mosul a very wide berth, for that is the largest city of those parts, with a very large Turkish garrison. Twenty miles to the north of it we captured a good convoy of mules, together with their drivers, headed toward Mosul, and the mules' loads turned out to consist of good things to eat, including butter in large quantities. We came on them in the gathering dusk, when their escort of fifty Turkish infantry had piled arms, we being totally unexpected. So we captured the fifty rifles as well as the mules; and, although the mule-drivers gave us the slip next day, and no doubt gave information about us in Mosul, that did not worry us much. We cut two telegraph wires leading toward Mosul that same night; we cut out two miles of wire in sections, riding away with it, and burned the poles.
After that, whenever we could catch a small party of men, Turks excepted (for that would have been to give the Turks more information than we could expect to get from them), Ranjoor Singh would ask questions about Wassmuss. Most of them would glance toward the mountains at mention of his name, but few had much to tell about him. However, bit by bit, our knowledge of his doings and his whereabouts kept growing, and we rode forward, ever toward the mountains now, wasting no time and plundering no more than expedient.
We saw no more living Armenians on all that long journey. The Turks and Kurds had exterminated them! We rode by burned villages, and through villages that once had been half-Armenian. The non-Armenian houses would all be standing, like to burst apart with plunder, but every single one that had sheltered an Armenian family would lie in ruins. God knows why! On all our way we found no man who could tell us what those people had done to deserve such hatred. We asked, but none could tell us.
One town, through which we rode at full gallop, had Armenian bodies still lying in the streets, some of them half-burned, and there were Kurds and Turks busy plundering the houses. Some of them came out to fire at us, but failed to do us any harm, and, the wind being the right way, we set a light to a dozen houses at the eastward end. Two or three miles away we stopped to watch the whole town go up in flames, and laughed long at the Turks' efforts to save their loot.
As we drew near enough to the mountains to see snow and to make out the lie of the different ranges, we ceased to have any fear of pursuit. There was plenty of evidence of Turkish armies not very far away; in fact, at Mosul there was gathering a very great army indeed; but they were all so busy killing and torturing and hunting down Armenians that they seemed to have no time for duty on that part of the frontier. Perhaps that was why the Germans had sent Wassmuss, in order that the Turks might have more leisure to destroy their enemies at home! Who knows? There are many things about this great war to which none know the answer, and I think the fate of the Armenians is one of them.
But who thought any more of Armenians when the outer spurs of the foot- hills began to close around us? Not we, at any rate. We had problems enough of our own. What lay behind us was behind, and the future was likely to afford us plenty to think about! Too many of us had fought among the slopes of the Himalayas now to know how difficult it would be for Turks to follow us; but those mountaineers, who are nearly as fierce as our mountaineers of northern India, and who have ever been too many for the Turks, were likely to prove more dangerous than anything we had met yet.
We had enough food packed on our captured mules to last us for perhaps another eight days when we at last rode into a grim defile that seemed to lead between the very gate-posts of the East—two great mountains, one on either hand, barren, and ragged, and hard. We were being led at that time by a Kurdish prisoner, who had lain by the wayside with the bellyache. Our Greek doctor had physicked him, and he was now compelled to lead us under Ranjoor Singh's directions, with his hands made fast behind him, he riding on a mule with one of our men on either hand. By that time Ranjoor Singh had picked up enough information at different times, and had added enough of it together to know whither we must march, and the Kurd had nothing to do but obey orders.
We had scarcely ridden three hundred yards into the defile of which I speak, remarking the signs of another small body of mounted men who had preceded us, when fifty shots rang out from overhead and we took open order as if a shell had burst among us. Nobody was hit, however, and I think nobody was intended to be hit. I saw that Ranjoor Singh looked unalarmed. He beckoned for Abraham, who looked terrified, and I took Abraham by the shoulder and brought him forward. There came a wild yell from overhead, and Ranjoor Singh made Abraham answer it with something about Wassmuss. In the shouting that followed I caught the word Wassmuss many times.
Presently a Kurdish chief came galloping down, for all the world as one of our Indian mountaineers would ride, leaping his horse from rock to rock as if he and the beast were one. I rode to Ranjoor Singh's side, to protect him if need be, so I heard what followed, Abraham translating.
"Whence are ye?" said the Kurd. "And whither? And what will ye?" They are inquisitive people, and they always seem to wish to know those three things first.
"I have told you already, I ride from Farangistan,* and I seek Wassmuss. These are my men," said Ranjoor Singh.
[* Farangistan (Hindi)—Europe. Literally "Land of the Franks" (Frankistan). Platt's Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English. ]
"No more may reach Wassmuss unless they have the money with them!" said the Kurd, very truculently. "Two days ago we let by the last party of men who carried only talk. Now we want only money!"
"Who was ever helped by impatience?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"Nay," said the Kurd, "we are a patient folk! We have waited eighteen days for sight of this gold for Wassmuss. It should have been here fifteen days ago, so Wassmuss said, but we are willing to wait eighteen more. Until it comes, none else shall pass!"
I was watching Ranjoor Singh very closely indeed, and I saw that he saw daylight, as it were, through darkness.
"Yet no gold shall come," he answered, "until you and I shall have talked together, and shall have reached an agreement."
"Agreement?" said the Kurd. "Ye have my word! Ride back and bid them bring their gold in safety and without fear!"
"Without fear?" said Ranjoor Singh. "Then who are ye?"
"We," said the Kurd, "are the escort, to bring the gold in safety through the mountain passes."
"So that he may divide it among others?" asked Ranjoor Singh, and I saw the Kurd wince. "Gold is gold!" he went on. "Who art thou to let by an opportunity?"
"Speak plain words," said the Kurd.
"Here?" said Ranjoor Singh. "Here in this defile, where men might come on us from the rear at any minute?"
"That they can not do," the Kurd answered, "for my men watch from overhead."
"Nevertheless," said Ranjoor Singh, "I will speak no plain words here."
The Kurd looked long at him—at least a whole minute. Then he wiped his nose on the long sleeve of his tunic and turned about. "Come in peace!" he said, spurring his horse.
Ranjoor Singh followed him, and we followed Ranjoor Singh, without one word spoken or order given. The Kurd led straight up the defile for a little way, then sharp to the right and uphill along a path that wound among great boulders, until at last we halted, pack-mules and all, in a bare arena formed by a high cliff at the rear and on three sides by gigantic rocks that fringed it, making a natural fort.
The Kurd's men were mostly looking out from between the rocks, but some of them were sprawling in the shadow of a great boulder in the midst, and some were attending to the horses that stood tethered in a long line under the cliff at the rear. The chief drove away those who lay in the shadow of the boulder in the midst, and bade Ranjoor Singh and me and Abraham be seated. Ranjoor Singh called up the other daffadars, and we all sat facing the Kurd, with Abraham a little to one side between him and us, to act interpreter. That was the first time Ranjoor Singh had taken so many at once into his confidence and I took it for a good sign, although unable to ignore a twinge of jealousy.
"Now?" said the Kurd. "Speak plain words!"
"You have not yet offered us food," said Ranjoor Singh.
The Kurd stared hard at him, eye to eye. "I have good reason," he answered. "By our law, he who eats our bread can not be treated as an enemy. If I feed you, how can I let my men attack you afterward?"
"You could not," said Ranjoor Singh. "We, too, have a law, that he with whom we have eaten salt is not enemy but friend. Let us eat bread and salt together, then, for I have a plan."
"A plan?" said the Kurd. "What manner of a plan? I await gold. What are words?"
"A good plan," said Ranjoor Singh.
"And on the strength of an empty boast am I to eat bread and salt with you?" the Kurd asked.
"If you wish to hear the plan," said Ranjoor Singh. "To my enemy I tell nothing; however, let my friend but ask!"
The Kurd thought a long time, but we facing him added no word to encourage or confuse him. I saw that his curiosity increased the more the longer we were silent; yet I doubt whether his was greater than my own! Can the sahib guess what Ranjoor Singh's plan was? Nay, that Kurd was no great fool. He was in the dark. He saw swiftly enough when explanations came.
"I have three hundred mounted men!" the Kurd said at last.
"And I near as many!" answered Ranjoor Singh. "I crave no favors! I come with an offer, as one leader to another!"
The Kurd frowned and hesitated, but sent at last for bread and salt, for all our party, except that he ordered his men to give none to our prisoners and none to the Syrians, whom he mistook for Turkish soldiers. If Ranjoor Singh had told him they were Syrians he would have refused the more, for Kurds regard Syrians as wolves regard sheep.
"Let the prisoners be," said Ranjoor Singh, "but feed those others! They must help put through the plan!"
So the Kurd ordered our Syrians, whom he thought Turks, fed too, and we dipped the flat bread (something like our Indian chapatis) into salt and ate, facing one another.
"Now speak, and we listen," said the Kurd when we had finished. Some of his men had come back, clustering around him, and we were quite a party, filling all the shadow of the great rock.
"How much of that gold was to have been yours?" asked Ranjoor Singh, and the Kurd's eyes blazed. "Wassmuss promised me so-and-so much," he answered, "if I with three hundred men wait here for the convoy and escort it to where he waits."
"But why do ye serve Wassmuss?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"Because he buys friendship, as other men buy ghee,* or a horse, or ammunition," said the Kurd. "He spends gold like water, saying it is German gold, and in return for it we must harry the British and Russians."
[* ghee (Hindi)—a clarified semifluid butter used especially in Indian cooking. The American Heritage Dictionary. ]
"Yet you and I are friends by bread and salt," said Ranjoor Singh, "and I offer you all this gold, whereas he offers only part of it! Nay, I and my men need none of it—I offer it all!"
"At what price?" asked the Kurd, suspiciously. Doubtless men who need no gold were as rare among these mountains as in other places!
"I shall name a price," said Ranjoor Singh. "A low price. We shall both be content with our bargain, and possibly Wassmuss, too, may feel satisfied for a while."
"Nay, you must be a wizard!" said the Kurd. "Speak on!"
"Tell me first," said Ranjoor Singh, "about the party who went through this defile two days ahead of us."
"What do you know of them?" asked the Kurd.
"This," said Ranjoor Singh. "We have followed them from Mosul, learning here a little and there a little. What is it that they have with them? Who are they? Why were they let pass?"
"They were let pass because Wassmuss gave the order," the Kurd answered. "They are Germans—six German officers, six German servants— and Kurds—twenty-four Kurds of the plains acting porters and camp-servants—many mules—two mules bearing a box slung on poles between them."
"What was in the box?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"Nay, I know not," said the Kurd.
"Nevertheless," said Ranjoor Singh, "my brother is a man with eyes and ears. What did my brother hear?"
"They said their machine can send and receive a message from places as far apart as Kabul and Stamboul. Doubtless they lied," the Kurd answered.
"Doubtless!" said Ranjoor Singh. By his slow even breathing and apparent indifference, I knew he was on a hot scent, so I tried to appear indifferent myself, although my ears burned. The Kurds clustering around their leader listened with ears and eyes agape. They made no secret of their interest.
"They said they are on their way to Kabul," the Kurd continued, "there to receive messages from Europe and acquaint the emir and his ruling chiefs of the true condition of affairs."
"How shall they reach Afghanistan?" asked Ranjoor Singh. "Does a road through Persia lie open to them?"
"Nay," said the Kurd. "Persia is like a nest of hornets. But they are to receive an escort of us Kurds to take them through Persia. We mountain Kurds are not afraid of Persians."
"Which Kurds are to provide the escort?" Ranjoor Singh asked him, and the Kurd shook his head.
"Nay," he said, "that none can tell. It is not yet agreed. There is small competition for the task. There are better pickings here on the border, raiding now and then, and pocketing the gold of this Wassmuss between-whiles! Who wants the task of escorting a machine in a box to Kabul?"
"Nevertheless," said Ranjoor Singh, "I know of a leader and his men who will undertake the task."
"Who, then?" said the Kurd.
"I and my men!" said Ranjoor Singh; and I held my breath until I thought my lungs would burst. "Persia!" thought I. "Afghanistan!" thought I. "And what beyond?"
"Ye are not Kurds," the chief answered, after he had considered a while. "Wassmuss said the escort must consist of three hundred Kurds or he will not pay."
"The payment shall be arranged between me and thee!" said Ranjoor Singh. "You shall have all the gold of this next convoy, if you will ride back to Wassmuss and agree that you and your men shall be the escort to Afghanistan."
"Who shall guard this pass if I ride back?" the Kurd asked.
"I!" said Ranjoor Singh. "I and my men will wait here for the gold. Leave me a few of your men to be guides and to keep peace between us and other Kurds among these mountains. Ride and tell Wassmuss that the gold will not come for another thirty days."
"He will not believe," said the Kurd.
"I will give you a letter," said Ranjoor Singh.
"He will not believe the letter," said the Kurd.
"What is that to thee, whether he believes it or not?" said Ranjoor Singh. "At least he will believe that Turks brought you the letter, and that you took it to him in good faith. Will he charge you with having written it?"
"Nay," said the Kurd, nodding, "I can not write, and he knows it."
"Do that, then," said Ranjoor Singh. "Ride and agree to be escort for these Germans and their machine to Afghanistan. Leave me here with ten or a dozen of your men, who will guide me after I have the gold to where you shall be camping with your Germans somewhere just beyond the Persian border. I will arrange to overtake you after dusk—perhaps at midnight. There I will give you the gold, and you shall ride away. I and my men will ride on as escort to the Germans."
"What if they object?" said the Kurd.
"Who? The men with the box, or Wassmuss?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"Nay," said the Kurd, "Wassmuss will be very glad to get a willing escort. He is in difficulty over that. There will be no objection from him. But what if the men with the box object to the change of escorts?"
"We be over two hundred, and they thirty!" answered Ranjoor Singh, and the Kurd nodded.
"After all," he said, "that is thy affair. But how am I to know that you and your men will not ride off with the gold? Nay, I must have the gold first!"
Ranjoor Singh shook his head.
"Then I and my men will stay here and help seize the gold," the Kurd said meaningly.
"Nay!" said Ranjoor Singh. "For then you would fight me for it!"
"Thou and I have eaten bread and salt together!" said the Kurd.
"True," said Ranjoor Singh, "therefore trust me, for I am a Sikh from India."
"I know nothing of Sikhs, or of India," said the Kurd. "Gold I know in the dark, by its jingle and weight, but who knows the heart of a man?"
"Then listen," said Ranjoor Singh. "If you and your men seize the gold, you must bear the blame. When the Turks come later on for vengeance, you will hang. But if I stay and take the gold, who shall know who I am? You will be able to prove with the aid of Wassmuss that neither you nor your men were anywhere near when, the attack took place."
"Then you will make an ambush?" said the Kurd.
"I will set a trap," said Ranjoor Singh. "Moreover, consider this: You think I may take the gold and keep it. How could I? Having taken it from the Turks, should I ride back toward Turkey? Whither else, then? Shall I escape through Persia, with you and your Kurds to prevent? Nay, we must make a fair bargain as friend with friend—and keep it!"
"If I do as you say," said the Kurd, "if I take this letter to Wassmuss, and agree with him to escort those Germans across Persia, what, then, if you fail to get the gold? What if the Turks get the better of you?"
"Dead men can not keep bargains!" answered Ranjoor Singh. "I shall succeed or die. But consider again: I have led these men of mine hither from Stamboul, deceiving and routing and outdistancing Turkish regiments all the way. Shall I fail now, having come so far?"
"Insha' Allah!" said the Kurd, meaning, "If God wills."
"Since when did God take sides against the brave?" Ranjoor Singh asked him, and the Kurd said nothing; but I feared greatly because they seemed on the verge of a religious argument, and those Kurds are fanatics. If anything but gold had been in the balance against him, I believe that Kurd would have defied us, for, although he did not know what Sikhs might be, he knew us for no Moslems. I saw his eyes look inward, meditating treachery, not only to Wassmuss, but to us, too. But Ranjoor Singh detected that quicker than I did.
"Let us neglect no points," he said, and the Kurd brought his mind back with an effort from considering plans against us. "It would be possible for me to get that gold, and for other Kurds—not you or your men, of course, but other Kurds—to waylay me in the mountains. Therefore let part of the agreement be that you leave with me ten hostages, of whom two shall be your blood relations."
The Kurd winced. He was a little keen man, with, a thin face and prominent nose; not ill-looking, but extremely acquisitive, I should say.
"Wassmuss holds my brother hostage!" he answered grimly, as if he had just then thought of it.
"I have a German prisoner here," said Ranjoor Singh, with the nearest approach to a smile that he had permitted himself yet, "and Wassmuss will be very glad to exchange him against your brother when the time comes."
"Ah!" said the Kurd, and—
"Ah!" said Ranjoor Singh. He saw now which way the wind blew, and, like all born cavalry leaders, he pressed his advantage.
"Do the Turks hold any of your men prisoner?" he asked.
"Aye!" said the Kurd. "They hold an uncle of mine, and my half-brother, and seven of my best men. They keep them in jail in fetters."
"I have five Turkish prisoners, all officers, one a bimbashi,* whom I will give you when I hand over the gold. The Turks will gladly trade your men against their officers," Ranjoor Singh assured him. "You shall have them and the German to make your trade with."
[* bimbashi, binbashi (Turkish)—a major in the Turkish army. Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. ]
It was plain the Kurd was more than half-convinced. His men who swarmed around him were urging him in whispers. Doubtless they knew he would keep most, if not all, of the gold for himself, but the safety of their friends made more direct appeal and I don't think he would have dared neglect that opportunity for fear of losing their allegiance. Nevertheless, he bargained to the end.
"Give me, then, ten hostages against my ten, and we are agreed!" he urged.
"Nay, nay!" said Ranjoor Singh. "It is my task to fight for that gold. Shall I weaken my force by ten men? Nay, we are already few enough! I will give you one—to be exchanged against your ten at the time of giving up the gold in Persia."
"Ten!" said the Kurd. "Ten against ten!"
"One!" said Ranjoor Singh, and I thought they would quarrel and the whole plan would come to nothing. But the Kurd gave in.
"Then one officer!" said the Kurd, and I trembled, for I saw that Ranjoor Singh intended to agree to that, and I feared he might pick me. But no. If I had thought a minute I would not have feared, yet who thinks at such times? The men who think first of their charge and last of their own skin are such as Ranjoor Singh; a year after war begins they are still leading. The rest of us must either be content to be led, or else are superseded. I burst into a sweat all over, for all that a cold wind swept among the rocks. Yet I might have known I was not to be spared.
After two seconds, that seemed two hours, he said to the Kurd, "Very well. We are agreed. I will give you one of my officers against ten of your men. I will give you Gooja Singh!" said he.
Sahib, I could have rolled among the rocks and laughed. The look of rage mingled with amazement on Gooja Singh's fat face was payment enough for all the insults I had received from him. I could not conceal all my merriment. Doubtless my eyes betrayed me. I doubt not they blazed. Gooja Singh was sitting on the other side of Ranjoor Singh, partly facing me, so that he missed nothing of what passed over my face—as I scarcely intended that he should. And in a moment my mirth was checked by sight of his awful wrath. His face had turned many shades darker.
"I am to be hostage?" he said in a voice like grinding stone.
"Aye," said Ranjoor Singh. "Be a proud one! They have had to give ten men to weigh against you in the scale!"
"And I am to go away with them all by myself into the mountains?"
"Aye," said Ranjoor Singh. "Why not? We hold ten of theirs against your safe return."
"Good! Then I will go!" he answered, and I knew by the black look on his face and by the dull rage in his voice that he would harm us if he could. But there was no time just then to try to dissuade Ranjoor Singh from his purpose, even had I dared. There began to be great argument about the ten hostages the Kurd should give, Ranjoor Singh examining each one with the aid of Abraham, rejecting one man after another as not sufficiently important, and it was two hours before ten Kurds that satisfied him stood unarmed in our midst. Then he gave up Gooja Singh in exchange for them; and Gooja Singh walked away among the Kurds without so much as a backward look, or a word of good-by, or a salute.
"He should be punished for not saluting you," said I, going to Ranjoor Singh's side. "It is a bad example to the troopers."
"Kuch—Kuch—," said he. "No trouble. Black hearts beget black deeds. White hearts, good deeds. Maybe we all misjudged him. Let him prove whether he is true at heart or not."
Observe, sahib, how he identified himself with us, although he knew well that all except I until recently had denied him title to any other name than traitor. "Maybe we all misjudged," said he, as much as to say, "What my men have done, I did." So you may tell the difference between a great man and a mean one.
"Better have hanged him long ago!" said I. "He will be the ruin of us yet!" But he laughed.
"Sahib," I said. "Suppose he should get to see this Wassmuss?"
"I have thought of that," he answered. "Why should the Kurds let him go near Wassmuss? Unless they return him safely to us we can execute their hostages; they will run no risk of Wassmuss playing tricks with Gooja Singh. Besides, from what I can learn and guess from what the Kurds say, this Wassmuss is to all intents and purposes a prisoner. Another tribe of Kurds, pretending, to protect him, keep him very closely guarded. The best he can do is to play off one tribe against another. Our friend said Wassmuss holds his brother for hostage, but I think the fact is the other tribe holds him and Wassmuss gets the blame. I suspect they held our friend's brother as security for the gold he is to meet and escort back. There is much politics working in these mountains."
"Much politics and little hope for us!" said I, and at that he turned on me as he never had done yet. No, sahib, I never saw him turn on any man, nor speak as savagely as he did to me then. It was as if the floodgates of his weariness were down at last and I got a glimpse of what he suffered— he who dared trust no one all these months and miles.
"Did I not say months ago," he mocked, "that if I told you half my plan you would quail? And that if I told the whole, you would pick it to pieces like hens round a scrap of meat? Man without thought! Can I not see the dangers? Have I no eyes—no ears? Do I need a frog to croak to me of risks whichever way I turn? Do I need men to hang back, or men to lend me courage?"
"Who hangs back?" said I. "Nay, forward! I will die beside you, sahib!"
"I seek life for you all, not death," he answered, but he spoke so sadly that I think in that minute his hope and faith were at lowest ebb.
"Nevertheless," I answered, "if need be, I will die beside you. I will not hang back. Order, and I obey!" But he looked at me as if he doubted.
"Boasting," he said, "is the noise fools make to conceal from themselves their failings!"
What could I answer to that? I sat down and considered the rebuff, while he went and made great preparation for an execution and a Turkish funeral. So that there was little extra argument required to induce one of our Turkish officer prisoners—the bimbashi himself, in fact—to write the letter to Wassmuss that Ranjoor Singh required. And that he gave to the Kurdish chief, and the Kurd rode away with his men, not looking once back at the hostages he had left with us, but making a great show of guarding Gooja Singh, who rode unarmed in the center of a group of horsemen. That instant I began to feel sorry for Gooja Singh, and later, when we advanced through those blood-curdling mountains I was sorrier yet to think of him borne away alone amid savages whose tongue he could not speak. The men all felt sorry for him too, but Ranjoor Singh gave them little time for talk about it, setting them at once to various tasks, not least of which was cleaning rifles for inspection.
I took Abraham to interpret for me and went to talk with our ten hostages, who were herded together apart from the other ten armed Kurds. They seemed to regard themselves as in worse plight than prisoners and awaited with resignation whatever might be their kismet. So I asked them were they afraid lest Gooja Singh might meet with violence, and they replied they were afraid of nothing. They added, however, that no man could say in those mountains what this day or the next might bring forth.
Then I asked them about Wassmuss, and they rather confirmed Ranjoor Singh's guess about his being practically a prisoner. They said he was ever on the move, surrounded and very closely watched by the particular tribe of Kurds that had possession of him for the moment.
"First it is one tribe, then another," they told me. "If you keep your bargain with our chief and he gets this gold, we shall have Wassmuss, too, within a week, for we shall buy the allegiance of one or two more tribes to join with us and oust those Kurds who hold him now. Hitherto the bulk of his gold has been going into Persia to bribe the Bakhtiari Khans and such like, but that day is gone by. Now we Kurds will grow rich. But as for us"— they shrugged their shoulders like this, sahib, meaning to say that perhaps their day had gone by also. I left them with the impression they are very fatalistic folk.
There was no means of knowing how long we might have to wait there, so Ranjoor Singh gave orders for the best shelter possible to be prepared, and what with the cave at the rear, and plundered blankets, and one thing and another we contrived a camp that was almost comfortable. What troubled us most was shortage of fire-wood, and we had to send out foraging parties in every direction at no small risk. The Kurds, like our mountain men of northern India, leave such matters to their women-folk, and there was more than one voice raised in anger at Ranjoor Singh because he had not allowed us to capture women as well as food and horses. Our Turkish prisoners laughed at us for not having stolen women, and Tugendheim vowed he had never seen such fools.
But as it turned out, we had not long to wait. That very evening, as I watched from between two great boulders, I beheld a Turkish convoy of about six hundred infantry, led by a bimbashi on a grey horse, with a string of pack-mules trailing out behind them, and five loaded donkeys led by soldiers in the midst. They were heading toward the hills, and I sent a man running to bring Ranjoor Singh to watch them.
It soon became evident that they meant to camp on the plains for that night. They had tents with them, and they pitched a camp three-quarters of a mile, or perhaps a mile away from the mouth of our defile, at a place where a little stream ran between rocks. It was clear they suspected no treachery, or they would never have chosen that place, they being but six hundred and the hills full of Kurds so close at hand. Nevertheless, they were very careful to set sentries on all the rocks all about, and they gave us no ground for thinking we might take them by surprise. Seeing they outnumbered us, and we had to spare a guard for our prisoners and hostages, and that fifty of our force were Syrians and therefore not much use, I felt doubtful. I thought Ranjoor Singh felt doubtful, too, until I saw him glance repeatedly behind and study the sky. Then I began to hope as furiously as he.
The Turks down on the plain were studying the sky, too. We could see them fix bayonets and make little trenches about the tents. Another party of them gathered stones with which to re-enforce the tent pegs, and in every other way possible they made ready against one of those swift, sudden storms that so often burst down the sides of mountains. Most of us had experienced such storms a dozen times or more in the foot-hills of our Himalayas, and all of us knew the signs. As evening fell the sky to our rear grew blacker than night itself and a chill swept down the defile like the finger of death.
"Repack the camp," commanded Ranjoor Singh. "Stow everything in the cave."
There was grumbling, for we had all looked forward to a warm night's rest.
"To-night your hearts must warm you!" he said, striding to and fro to make sure his orders were obeyed. It was dark by the time we had finished, Then he made us fall in, in our ragged overcoats—aye, ragged, for those German overcoats had served as coats and tents and what-not, and were not made to stand the wear of British ones in any case—unmounted he made us fall in, at which there was grumbling again.
"Ye shall prove to-night," he said, "whether ye can endure what mules and horses never could! Warmth ye shall have, if your hearts are true, but the man who can keep dry shall be branded for a wizard! Imagine yourselves back in Flanders!"
Most of us shuddered. I know I did. The wind had begun whimpering, and every now and then would whistle and rise into a scream. A few drops of heavy rain fell. Then would come a lull, while we could feel the air grow colder. Our Flanders experience was likely to stand us in good stead.
Tugendheim and the Syrians were left in charge of our belongings. There was nothing else to do with them because the Syrians were in more deathly fear of the storm than they ever had been of Turks. Nevertheless, we did not find them despicable. Unmilitary people though they were, they had inarched and endured and labored like good men, but certain things they seemed to accept as being more than men could overcome, and this sort of storm apparently was one of them. We tied the mules and horses very carefully, because we did not believe the Syrians would stand by when the storm began, and we were right. Tugendheim begged hard to be allowed to come with us, but Ranjoor Singh would not let him. I don't know why, but I think he suspected Tugendheim of knowing something about the German officers who were ahead of us, in which case Tugendheim was likely to risk anything rather than continue going forward; and, having promised him to the Kurdish chief, it would not have suited Ranjoor Singh to let him escape into Turkey again.
The ten Kurds who had been left with us as guides and to help us keep peace among the mountains all volunteered to lend a hand in the fight, and Ranjoor Singh accepted gladly. The hostages, on the other hand, were a difficult problem; for they detested being hostages. They would have made fine allies for Tugendheim, supposing he had meditated any action in our rear. They could have guided him among the mountains with all our horses and mules and supplies. And suppose he had made up his mind to start through the storm to find Wassmuss with their aid, what could have prevented him? He might betray us to Wassmuss as the price of his own forgiveness. So we took the hostages with us, and when we found a place between some rocks where they could have shelter we drove them in there, setting four troopers to guard them. Thus Tugendheim was kept in ignorance of their whereabouts, and with no guides to help him play us false. As for the Greek doctor, we took him with us, too, for we were likely to need his services that night, and in truth we did.
We started the instant the storm began—twenty minutes or more before it settled down to rage in earnest. That enabled us to march about two-thirds of the way toward the Turkish camp and to deploy into proper formation before the hail came and made it impossible to hear even a shout. Hitherto the rain had screened us splendidly, although it drenched us to the skin, and the noise of rain and wind prevented the noise we made from giving the alarm; but when the hail began I could not hear my own foot-fall. Ranjoor Singh roared out the order to double forward, but could make none hear, so he seized a rifle from the nearest man and fired it off. Perhaps a dozen men heard that and began to double. The remainder saw, and followed suit.
The hail was in our backs. No man ever lived who could have charged forward into it, and not one of the Turkish sentries made pretense at anything but running for his life. Long before we reached their posts they were gone, and a flash of lightning showed the tents blown tighter than drums in the gaining wind and white with the hailstones. When we reached the tents there was hail already half a foot deep underfoot where the wind had blown it into drifts, and the next flash of lightning showed one tent—the bimbashi's own—split open and blown fluttering into strips. The bimbashi rushed out with a blanket round his head and shoulders and tried to kick men out of another tent to make room for him, and failing to do that he scrambled in on top of them. Opening the tent let the wind in, and that tent, too, split and fluttered and blew away. And so at last they saw us coming.
They saw us when we were so close that there was no time to do much else than run away or surrender. Quite a lot of them ran away I imagine, for they disappeared. The bimbashi tried to pistol Ranjoor Singh, and died for his trouble on a trooper's bayonet. Some of the Turks tried to fight, and they were killed. Those who surrendered were disarmed and driven away into the storm, and the last we saw of them was when a flash of lightning showed them hurrying helter-skelter through the hail with hands behind their defenseless heads trying to ward off hailstones. They looked very ridiculous, and I remember I laughed.
I? My share of it? A Turkish soldier tried to drive a bayonet through me. I think he was the last one left in camp (the whole business can only have lasted three or four minutes, once we were among them). I shot him with the repeating pistol that had once been Tugendheim's—this one, see, sahib —and believing the camp was now ours and the fighting over, I lay down and dragged his body over me to save me from hailstones, that had made me ache already in every inch of my body. I rolled under and pulled the body over in one movement; and seeing the body and thinking a Turk was crawling up to attack him, one of our troopers thrust his bayonet clean through it. It was a goodly thrust, delivered by a man who prided himself on being workmanlike. If the Turk had not been a fat one I should not be here. Luckily, I had chosen one whose weight made me grunt, and because of his thickness the bayonet only pierced an inch or two of my thigh.
I yelled and kicked the body off me. The trooper made as if to use the steel again, thinking we were two Turks, and my pointing a pistol at him only served to confirm the belief. But next minute the lightning showed the true facts, and he came and sat beside me with his back to the hail, grinning like an ape.
"That was a good thrust of mine!" he bellowed in my ear. "But for me that Turk would have had your life!"
When I had cursed his mother's ancestors for a dozen generations in some detail the truth dawned on him at last. I took his weapon away from him while he bound a strip of cloth about my thigh, for I knew the thought had come into his thick skull to finish me off and so save explanation afterward. I would gladly have let him go with nothing further said, for I knew the man's first intention had been honest enough, but did not dare do that because he would certainly suppose me to be meditating vengeance. So I flew into a great rage with him, and drove him in front of me until we found a dead mule —whether killed by hail or bullet I don't know—and he and I lay between the mule's legs, snuggling under its belly, until the storm should cease and I could take him before Ranjoor Singh.
I did not know where the gold was, nor where anything or anybody was. I could see about three yards, except when the lightning flashed; and then I could see only stricken plain, with dead animals lying about, and fallen tents lumpy with the men who huddled underneath, and here and there a live animal with his rump to the hail and head between his forelegs.
When the storm ceased, suddenly, as all such mountain hail-storms do, I ordered my trooper in front of me and went limping through the darkness shouting for Ranjoor Singh, and I found him at last, sitting on the rump of a dead donkey with the ten boxes of gold coin beside him—quite little boxes, yet only two to a donkey load.
"I have the gold," he said. "What have you?"
"A stab," said I, "and the fool who gave it me!" And I showed my leg, with the blood trickling down. "I had killed a Turk," said I, "and this muddlehead with no discernment had the impudence to try to finish the job. Behold the result!"
He was one great bruise from head to foot from hailstones, yet with all he had to think about and all his aches, he had understanding enough to spare for my little problem. He saw at once that he must punish the man in order to convince him his account with me was settled.
"Be driver of asses," he ordered, "until we reach Persia! There were five asses. One is dead. It is good we have another to replace the fifth!"
There goes the trooper, sahib—he yonder with the limp. He and I are as good friends to-day as daffadar and trooper can be, but he would have slain me to save himself from vengeance unless Ranjoor Singh had punished him that night. But my tale is not of that trooper, nor of myself. I tell of Ranjoor Singh. Consider him, sahib, seated on the dead ass beside ten chests of captured gold, with scarcely a man of us fit to help him or obey an order, and himself bleeding in fifty places where the hail had pierced his skin. We were drenched and numbed, with the spirit beaten out of us; yet I tell you he wiped the blood from his nose and beard and made us save ourselves!