Once in a lifetime. Once is enough!—Hira Singh.
WELL, sahib, our journey was not nearly at an end, but my tale is; I can finish it by sundown. After that fight there was no more doubt of us; we were one again—one in our faith in our leader, and with men so minded such a man as Ranjoor Singh can make miracles seem like details of a day's work.
Turks who had been bayoneted and Turks slain by hailstones lay all about us, and we should have been dead, too, only that the hail was in our backs. As it was, ten of our men lay killed and more than thirty stunned, some of whom did not recover. Our little Greek doctor announced himself too badly injured to help any one, but when Ranjoor Singh began to choose a firing party for him, he changed his mind.
The four living donkeys were too bruised by the hail to bear a load, but the Turks had had some mules with them and we loaded our dead and wounded on those, gathered up the plunder, told off four troopers to each chest of gold, and dragged ourselves away. It was essential that we get back to the hills before dawn should disclose our predicament, for whatever Kurds should chance to spy us would never have been restrained by promises or by ritual of friendship from taking prompt advantage. A savage is a savage.
The moon came out from behind clouds, and we cursed it, for we did not want to be seen. It shone on a world made white with hail—on a stricken camp—dead animals—dead men. We who had swept down from the hills like the very spirit of the storm itself returned like a funeral cortege, all groaning, chilled to the bone by the searching wind, and it was beginning to be dawn when the last man dragged himself between the boulders into our camping ground. We looked so little like victors that the Syrians sent up a wail and Tugendheim began tugging at his mustaches, but Ranjoor Singh set them at once to feeding and grooming animals and soon disillusioned them as to the outcome of the night.
Now we began to pray for time, to recover from the effects of hail and chill. Some of the men began to develop fevers, and if Ranjoor Singh had not fiercely threatened the doctor, things might have gone from bad to worse. As it was, three men died of something the matter with their lungs, and five men died of wounds. Yet, on the other hand, we did not desire too much time, because (surest of all certainties) the Turks were going to send regiments in a hurry to wreak vengeance. Before noon, somebody rallied the remnants of the convoy we had beaten and brought them back to bury dead and look for property, and they looked quite a formidable body as I watched them from between the boulders. They soon went away again, having found nothing but tents torn to rags; but I counted more than four hundred, which rather lessened my conceit. It had been the storm that night that did the work, not we.
We could not burn our dead, for lack of sufficient wood, although we drove the Syrians out of camp to gather more; so we buried them in a trench, and covered them, and laid little fires at intervals along the new-stamped earth and set light to those. We did not bury them very deep, because a bayonet is a fool of a weapon with which to excavate a grave and a Syrian no expert digger in any case; so when the fires were burned out we piled rocks on the grave to defeat jackals.
The Kurdish chief returned on the fifth day and by that time, although most of us still ached, some of us looked like men again, and what with the plunder we had taken, and the chests of gold in full view, he was well impressed. He began by demanding the gold at once, and Ranjoor Singh surprised me by the calm courtesy with which he refused.
"Why should my brother seek to alter the terms of our bargain?" he asked.
For a long time the Kurd made no answer, but sat thinking for some excuse that might deceive us. Then suddenly he abandoned hope of argument and flew into a rage, spitting savagely and pouring out such a flood of words that Abraham could hardly translate fast enough.
"That pig you gave me for a hostage played a trick!" he shouted. "He and a man of mine knew Persian. They talked together. Then in the night they ran away, and your hostage went to Wassmuss, and has told him all the truth and more untruth into the bargain than ten other men could invent in a year! So Wassmuss threw in my teeth that letter you gave me, and I was laughed out of countenance by a heritage of spawn of Tophet!* And what has Wasmuss done but persuade three hundred Kurds of a tribe who are my enemies to accept this duty of escort at a great price! And so your Germans are gone into Persia already! Now give me the gold and my hostages back, and I will leave you to your own devices!"
[* Tophet—in the Bible, a place near Jerusalem associated with the worship of Molech; Tophet became a synonym for Hell. The Columbia Encyclopedia. For more information, see the Wikipedia article Tophet. The Biblical references to Tophet are: Isaiah 30:33, Jeremiah 7:31- 32, Jeremiah 19:6, and Jeremiah 19:11- 14. ]
It was an hour before Ranjoor Singh could calm him, and another hour again before cross-examination induced him to tell all the truth; and the truth was not reassuring. Wassmuss, he said, probably did not know yet that we had taken the gold, but the news was on the way, for spies had talked in the night with the ten Kurds whom he left with us to be guides and to help us keep peace. We had given those ten a Turkish rifle each and various other plunder, because they helped us in the fight, and they had promised in return to hold their tongues. But a savage is a savage, and there is no controverting it.
"What is Wassmuss likely to do?" Ranjoor Singh asked.
"Do?" said the Kurd. "He has done! He has set two tribes by the ears and sent them down to surround you and hem you in and starve you to surrender! So give me the gold, that I may get away with it before a thousand men come to prevent, and give me back my hostages!"
If what was happening now had taken place but a week before, Ranjoor Singh would have found himself in a fine fix, for all except I would have there and then denounced him for a bungler, or a knave. But now the other daffadars who clustered around him and me said one to the other, "Let us see what our sahib makes of it!" The men sent word to know what was being revealed through two long hours of talk, and Chatar Singh went back to bid them have patience.
"Is there trouble?" they asked, and he answered "Aye!"
"Tell our sahib we stand behind him!" they answered, and Chatar Singh brought that message and I think it did Ranjoor Singh's heart good,— not that he would not have done his best in any case.
"You have lost my hostage, and I hold yours," he told the Kurd, "so now, if you want yours back you must pay whatever price I name for them!"
"Who am I to pay a price?" the Kurd demanded. "I have neither gold nor goods, nor anything but three hundred men!"
"Where are thy men?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"Within an hour's ride," said the Kurd, "watching for the men who come from Wassmuss."
"You shall have back your hostages," said Ranjoor Singh, "when I and my men set foot in Persia!"
"How shall you reach Persia?" laughed the Kurd. "A thousand men ride now to shut you off! Nay, give me the gold and my men, and ride back whence you came!"
Then it was Ranjoor Singh's turn to laugh. "Sikhs who are facing homeward turn back for nothing less than duty!" he answered. "I shall fight the thousand men that Wassmuss sends. If they conquer me they will take the gold and your hostages as well."
The Kurd looked amazed. Then he looked thoughtful. Then acquisitive —very acquisitive indeed. It seemed to me that he contemplated fighting us first, before the Wassmuss men could come. But Ranjoor Singh understood him better. That Kurd was no fool—only a savage, with a great hunger in him to become powerful.
"My men are seasoned warriors," said Ranjoor Singh, "and being men of our word first and last, we are good allies. Has my brother a suggestion?"
"What if I help you into Persia?" said the Kurd.
But Ranjoor Singh was wary. "Help me in what way?" he asked, and the Kurd saw it was no use to try trickery.
"What if I and my men fight beside you and yours, and so you win through to Persia?" asked the Kurd.
"As I said," said Ranjoor Singh, "you shall have back your hostages on the day we set foot in Persia."
"But the gold!" said the Kurd. "But the gold!"
"Half of the gold you shall have on the third day after we reach Persia," said Ranjoor Singh.
Well, sahib, as to that they higgled and bargained for another hour, Ranjoor Singh yielding little by little until at last the bargain stood that the Kurd should have all the gold except one chest on the seventh day after we reached Persia. Thus, the Kurds would be obliged to give us escort well on our way. But the bargaining was not over yet. It was finally agreed that after we reached Persia, provided the Kurds helped us bravely and with good faith, on the first day we would give them back their hostages; on the third day we would give them Tugendheim, to trade with Wassmuss against the Kurd's brother (thus keeping Ranjoor Singh's promise to Tugendheim to provide for him in the end); on the fifth day we would give them our Turkish officer prisoners, to trade with the Turks against Kurdish prisoners; and on the seventh day we would give them the gold and leave to go. We ate more bread and salt on that, and then I went to tell the men.
But I scarcely had time to tell them. Ranjoor Singh had out his map when I left him, and he and the Kurd were poring over it, he tracing with a finger and asking swift questions, and the Kurd with the aid of Abraham trying to understand. Yet I had hardly told the half of what I meant to say when Ranjoor Singh strode past me, and the Kurd went galloping away between the boulders to warn his own men, leaving us not only the hostages but the ten guides also.
"Make ready to march at once—immediately—ek dum!" Ranjoor Singh growled to me as he passed, and from that minute until we were away and well among the hills I was kept too busy with details to do much conjecturing. A body of soldiers with transport and prisoners, wounded and sick, need nearly as much herding as a flock of sheep, even after months of campaigning when each man's place and duty should be second nature. Yet oh, it was different now. There was no need now to listen for whisperings of treason! Now we knew who the traitor had been all along—not Ranjoor Singh, who had done his best from first to last, but Gooja Singh, who had let no opportunity go by for defaming him and making trouble!
"This for Gooja Singh when I set eyes on him!" said not one trooper but every living man, licking a cartridge and slipping it into the breech chamber as we started.
We did not take the track up which the Kurdish chief had galloped, but the ten guides led us by a dreadful route round almost the half of a circle, ever mounting upward. When night fell we camped without fires in a hollow among crags, and about midnight when the moon rose there was a challenge, and a short parley, and a Kurd rode in with a message from his chief for Ranjoor Singh. The message was verbal, and had to be translated by Abraham, but I did not get to hear the wording of it. I was on guard.
"It is well," said Ranjoor Singh to me, when he went the rounds and found me perched on a crag like a temple minaret, "they are keeping faith. The Wassmuss men are in the pass below us, and our friends deny them passage. At dawn there will be a fight and our friends will probably give ground. Two hours before dawn we will march, and come down behind the Wassmuss men. Be ready!"
The sahib will understand now better what I meant by saying Anim Singh has ears too big for his head. Because of his big ears, that could detect a foot-fall in the darkness farther away than any of us, he had been sent to share the guard with me, and now he came looming up out of the night to share our counsels; for since the news of Gooja Singh's defection there was no longer even a pretense at awkwardness in approaching Ranjoor Singh. Anim Singh had been among the first to fling distrust to the winds and to make the fact evident.
But into those great ears, during all our days and weeks and months of marching, Gooja Singh had whispered—whispered. The things men whisper to each other are like deeds done in the dark—like rats that run in holes—put to shame by daylight. So Anim Singh came now, and Ranjoor Singh repeated to him what he had just told me. Anim Singh laughed.
"Leave the Kurds to fight it out below, then!" said he. "While they fight, let us eat up distance into Persia, gold and all!"
Ranjoor Singh, with the night mist sparkling like jewels on his beard, eyed him in silence for a minute. Then:
"I give thee leave," he said, "to take as many men as share that opinion, and to bolt for your skins into Persia or anywhither! The rest of us will stay and keep the regiment's promise!"
That was enough for Anim Singh. I have said he is a Sikh with a soldier's heart. He wept, there on the ledge, where we three leaned, and begged forgiveness until Ranjoor Singh told him curtly that forgiveness came of deeds, not words. And his deeds paid the price that dawn. He is a very good man with the saber, and the saber he took from a Turkish officer was, weight and heft and length, the very image of the weapon he was used to. Nay, who was I to count the Kurds he slew. I was busy with my own work, sahib.
The fight below us began before the earliest color of dawn flickered along the heights. And though we started when the first rifle-shot gave warning, hiding our plunder and mules among the crags in charge of the Syrians, but taking Tugendheim with us, the way was so steep and devious that morning came and found us worrying lest we come too late to help our friends—even as once we had worried in the Red Sea!
But as we had come in the nick of time before, even so now. We swooped all unexpected on the rear of the Wassmuss men, taking ourselves by surprise as much as them, for we had thought the fight yet miles away. Echoes make great confusion in the mountains. It was echoes that had kept the Wassmuss men from hearing us, although we made more noise than an avalanche of fighting animals. Straightway we all looked for Wassmuss, and none found him, for the simple reason that he was not there; a prisoner we took told us afterward that Wassmuss was too valuable to be trusted near the border, where he might escape to his own folk. There is no doubt Wassmuss was prisoner among the Kurds,—nor any doubt either that he directs all the uprising and raiding and disaffection in Kurdistan and Persia. As Ranjoor Singh said of him—a remarkable man, and not to be despised.
Seeing no Wassmuss, it occurred to me at last to listen to orders! Ranjoor Singh was shouting to me as if to burst his lungs. The Kurds were fighting on foot, taking cover behind boulders, and he was bidding me take my command and find their horses.
I found them, sahib, within an ace of being too late. They had left them in a valley bottom with a guard of but twenty or thirty men, who mistook us at first for Kurds, I suppose, for they took no notice of us. I have spent much time wondering whence they expected mounted Kurds to come; but it is clear they were so sure of victory for their own side that it did not enter their heads to suspect us until our first volley dropped about half of them.
Then the remainder began to try to loose the horses and gallop away, and some of them succeeded; but we captured more than half the horses and began at once to try to get them away into the hills. But it is no easy matter to manage several hundred frightened horses that were never more than half tamed in any case, and many of them broke away from us and raced after their friends. Then I sent a messenger in a hurry to Ranjoor Singh, to say the utmost had been attempted and enough accomplished to serve his present purpose, but the messenger was cut down by the first of a crowd of fugitive Kurds, who seized his reins and fought among themselves to get his horse.
Seeing themselves taken in the rear, the Kurds had begun to fall back in disorder, and had actually burst through our mounted ranks in a wild effort to get to their own horses; for like ourselves, the Kurds prefer to fight mounted and have far less confidence in themselves on foot. Ranjoor Singh, with our men, all mounted, and our Kurdish friends, were after them— although our friends were too busy burdening themselves with the rifles and other belongings of the fallen to render as much aid as they ought. to help, and glad I was to have him. A brave good daffadar is Chatar Singh, and now that all suspicion of our leader was weaned out of him, I could ask for no better comrade on a dark night. Night did I say? That was a night like death itself, when a man could scarcely see his own hand held thus before his face —cold and rainy to make matters worse.
We had two Kurds to show us the way, and, I suppose because our enemies had had enough of it, we were not fired on once, going or coming. Our train of mules clattered and stumbled and our Syrians kept losing themselves and yelling to be found again. Weary men and animals ever make more noise than fresh ones; frightened men more than either, and we were so dead weary by the time we got back that my horse fell under me by Ranjoor Singh's side.
Of all the nights I ever lived through, except those last we spent in the trench in Flanders before our surrender, that was the worst. Hunger and cold and fear and weariness all wrought their worst with me; yet I had to set an example to the men. My horse, as I have told, fell beside Ranjoor Singh; he dragged me to my feet, and I fell again, dizzy with misery and aching bones. Yet it was beginning to be dawn then, and we had to be up and off again. Our dead were buried; our wounded were bound up; the Kurds would be likely to begin on us again at any minute; there was nothing to wait there for. We left little fires burning above the long grave (for our men had brought all our dead along with them, although our Kurdish friends left theirs behind them) and I took one of the captured horses, and Ranjoor Singh although we captured one apiece—which is all a man can manage besides his own and a rifle.
By that time it was three in the afternoon already and the pass forked about a dozen different ways, so that we lost the Kurds at last, they scattering to right and left and shooting at us at long range from the crags higher up. We were all dead beat, and the horses, too, so we rested, the Kurds continuing to fire at us, but doing no damage. They fired until dusk.
Our own three hundred Kurdish friends were not very far behind Ranjoor Singh, and I observed when they came up with us presently that he took up position down the pass behind them. They were too fond of loot to be trusted between us and that gold! They were so burdened with plunder that some of them could scarcely ride their horses. Several had as many as three rifles each, and they had found great bundles of food and blankets where the enemy's horses had been tethered. Their plundering had cost them dear, for they had exposed themselves recklessly to get what their eyes lusted for. They had lost more than fifty men. But we had lost more than twenty killed, and there was a very long tale of wounded, so that Ranjoor Singh looked serious as he called the roll. The Greek doctor had to work that night as if his own life depended on it—as in fact it did! We made Tugendheim help him, for, like all German soldiers, he knew something of first aid.
Then, because the Kurds could not be trusted on such an errand, Ranjoor Singh sent me back with fifty men to bring on the Syrians and our mules and belongings, and the gold. He gave me Chatar Singh
I left my horse, and climbed a rock, and looked for half a minute. Then I knew what to do; and I wonder whether ever in the world was such a running fight before. I had only lost one man; and it was quite another matter driving the Kurds' horses up the valley in the direction they wished to take, to attempting to drive them elsewhere. Being mounted ourselves, we could keep ahead of the retreating Kurds very easily, so we adopted the same tactics again and again and again.
First we drove the horses helter-skelter up the valley a mile or two. Then we halted, and hid our own horses, and took cover behind the rocks to wait for the Kurds; and as they came, making a good running fight of it, dodging hither and thither behind the boulders to try to pick off Ranjoor Singh's men, we would open fire on their rear unexpectedly, thus throwing them into confusion again,—and again,—and again.
We opened fire always at too great distance to do much material damage, I thinking it more important to preserve my own men's lives and so to continue able to demoralize the Kurds, and afterward Ranjoor Singh commended me for that. But I was also acutely aware of the risk that our bullets might go past the Kurds and kill our own Sikhs. I am not at all sure some accidents of that nature did not happen.
So when we had fired at the Kurds enough to make them face about and so expose their rear to Ranjoor Singh, we would get to horse again and send the Kurdish horses galloping up the pass in front of us. Finally, we lost sight of most of the Kurdish horses, led on. I slept on the march. Nay, I had no eyes for scenery just then!
After that the unexpected, amazing, happened as it so often does in war. We were at the mercy of any handful who cared to waylay us, for the hillsides shut us in, and there was cover enough among the boulders to have hidden a great army. It was true we had worsted the Wassmuss men utterly; I think we slew at least half of them, and doubtless that, and the loss of their horses, must have taken much heart out of the rest. But we expected at least to be attacked by friends of the men we had worsted—by mountain cutthroats, thieves, and plunderers, any fifty of whom could have made our march impossible by sniping us from the flanks.
But nothing happened, and nobody attacked us. As we marched our spirit grew. We began to laugh and make jokes about the enemy hunting for lost horses and letting us go free. For two days we rode, and camped, and slept a little, and rode on unmolested, climbing ever forward to where we could see the peaks that our friendly chief assured us were in Persia. For miles and miles and everlasting miles it seemed the passes all led upward; but there came a noon at last when we were able to feel, and even see—when at least we knew in our hearts that the uphill work was over. We could see other ranges, running in other directions, and mountains with tree-draped sides. But chiefly it was our hearts that told us we were really in sight of Persia at last.
Then wounded and all gathered together, with Ranjoor Singh in the midst of us, and sang the Anand, our Sikh hymn of joy, our Kurdish friends standing by and wondering (not forgetting nevertheless to watch for opportunity to snatch that gold and run!)
And there, on the very ridge dividing Persia from Asiatic Turkey, it was given to us to understand at last a little of the why and wherefore of our marching unmolested. We came to a crack in a rock by the wayside. And in the crack had been thrust, so that it stood upright, a gnarled tree-trunk, carried from who knows how far. And there, crucified to the dry wood was our daffadar Gooja Singh, with his flesh all tortured and torture written in his open eyes—not very long dead, for his flesh was scarcely cold— although the birds had already begun on him. Who could explain that? We sat our horses in a crowd, and gaped like fools!
At last I said, "Leave him to the birds'." but Ranjoor Singh said "Nay!" Ramnarain Singh, who had ever hated Gooja Singh for reasons of his own, joined his voice to mine; and because they had no wish to offend me the other daffadars agreed. But Ranjoor Singh rose into a towering passion over what we said, naming me and Ramnarain Singh in one breath as men too self-righteous to be trusted!
"What proof have we against him?" he demanded.
"Try him by court martial!" Ramnarain Singh screwed up courage to answer. "Call for witnesses against him and hear them!"
"Who can try a dead man by court martial?" Ranjoor Singh thundered back. "He left us to go and be our hostage, for our safety—for the safety of your ungrateful skins! He died a hostage, given by us to savages. They killed him. Are ye worse savages than they? Which of our dead lie dishonored anywhere? Have they not all had burning or else burial? Are ye judges of the dead? Or are ye content to live like men? Take him down, and lay him out for burial! His brother daffadars shall dig his grave!"
Aye, sahib. So he gave the order, and so we obeyed, saying no more, but digging a trench for Gooja Singh with bayonets, working two together turn and turn about, I, who had been all along his enemy, doing the lion's share of the work and thinking of the talks he and I had had, and the disputes. And here was the outcome! Aye.
It was not a very deep trench but it served, and we laid him in it with his feet toward India, and covered him, and packed the earth down tight. Then we burned on the grave the tree to which he had been crucified, and piled a great cairn of stone above him. There we left him, on the roof of a great mountain that looks down on Persia.
It was perhaps two hours, or it may have been three, after burying Gooja Singh (we rode on in silence, thinking of him, our wounded groaning now and then, but even the words of command being given by sign instead of speech because none cared to speak) that we learned the explanation, and more with it.
We found a good place to camp, and proceeded to make it defensible and to gather fuel. Then some of the women belonging to our Kurdish friends overtook us, and with them a few of our Kurdish wounded and some unwounded ones who had returned to glean again on the battle-field. These brought with them two prisoners whom we set in the midst, and then Abraham was set to work translating until his tongue must have almost fallen out with weariness. Bit by bit, we pieced a tale together that had reason in it and so brought us understanding.
Our first guess had been right; the Turks had already sent (some said a full division) to wreak vengeance for our plundering of the gold. The Kurds of those parts, who fight among themselves like wild beasts, nevertheless will always stand together to fight Turks; therefore those who had been attacking us were now behind us with thousands of other Kurds from the tribes all about, waiting to dispute the passes with the common enemy. They considered us an insignificant handful, to be dealt with later on. The women said the battle had not begun; and the prisoners bade our Kurds swallow tribal enmity and hurry to do their share! The chief listened to them, saying nothing. Has the sahib ever watched a savage thinking while lust drew him one way and pride another? Truly an interesting sight!
But the rest of the men were too interested to learn the reason of Gooja Singh's torture and death to care for the workings of a Kurdish chief's conscience. They crowded closer and closer, interrupting with shouted questions and bidding each other be still. So Ranjoor Singh said a word to Abraham and he changed the line of questioning. The truth was soon out.
Gooja Singh, it seemed, probably not believing we had one chance in a million, decided to contrive safety for himself. So with one Kurd to help him, he escaped in the night, and went and found Wassmuss in a Kurdish village in the mountains. He told Wassmuss who we were, and whence we were, and what we intended. So Wassmuss (who must be a very remarkable man indeed), although a prisoner, exerted so much persuasion forthwith that three hundred Kurds consented to escort the party of Germans there and then to Afghanistan. He promised them I know not what reward, but the point is they consented, and within eight hours of Gooja Singh's arrival the German party was on its way.
Then Wassmuss sent the thousand Kurds to deal with us; but, as I have told, we beat them. And that made the Kurds who held Wassmuss prisoner extremely angry with Gooja Singh; so they made him prisoner, too. And then, by signal and galloper and shouts from crag to crag came word that the Turks were marching in force to invade the mountains, and instantly they turned on Gooja Singh and would have torn him in pieces for being a spy of the Turks, sent on ahead to prepare the way. But some cooler head than the rest urged to put him to the torture, and they agreed.
Whether or not Gooja Singh declared under torture that we were Turks we could not get to know, but it is certain that the Kurds decided we were Turks, whatever Wassmuss swore to the contrary; and doubtless he swore furiously! And because they believed us to be Turks, they let us be for the present, sure that we would try to make our way back if they could keep the main Turkish forces from regaining touch with us. And Gooja Singh they presently crucified in a place where we would almost surely see him, thinking thus to surprise us with the information that all was known, and to frighten us into a state of comparative harmlessness—a favorite Kurdish trick.
That did not account for everything. It did not account for our victory over Turks in the hail-storm and our plunder of the Turks' camp and capture of the gold. But none had seen that raid because of the storm, and the spies who had said they talked with our men in the night were now disbelieved. Our presence in the hills and Gooja Singh's escape was all set down to Turkish trickery; and doubtless they did not believe we truly had gold with us, or they would have detached at least a party to follow us up and keep in touch.
The clearest thing of all that the disjointed scraps of tale betrayed was that we were in luck! If the Kurds believed us to be Turks, they were likely to let us wander at will, if only for the very humor and sport of hunting us down when we should try to break back. "No need to waste more labour setting this camp to rights!" said I. "We shall rest a little and be up and away again!" And the wounded groaned, and some objected, but I proved right. Ranjoor Singh was no man to study comfort when opportunity showed itself. We rested two hours, and during those two hours our friend the Kurdish chief made tip his mind, and he and Ranjoor Singh struck a new bargain.
"Give me the gold!" said he. "Keep the hostages and ten of my men to guide you, and send them back when you are two days into Persia. I go to fight against the Turks!"
Well, they bargained, and bargained. Ranjoor Singh offered him his choice of a chest of gold then and there, or four-fifths of the whole in Persia; and in the end he agreed to take three chests of gold then and there, and to leave us the hostages and thirty men to see us on our way. "For," said Ranjoor Singh, "how should the hostages and my prisoners return to you safely otherwise?"
So we kept two chests of gold, and found them right useful presently. And we said good-by to him and his men, and put out our own fires and rode eastward. And of the next few days there is nothing to tell except furious marching and very little sleep—nor much to eat either.
Once we were well into Persia we bought food right and left, paying fabulous prices for it with gold from our looted chests. Here and there we traded a plundered rifle for a new horse, sometimes two new horses. Here and there a wounded man would die and we would burn his body (for now there was fuel in plenty). Day after day, night after night, Ranjoor Singh kept in the saddle, hunting tirelessly for news of the party of Germans on ahead of us. Their track was clear as daylight, and on the fifth day (or was it the sixth) after we entered Persia he learned at last that we were only a day or two behind them. Like us, they were in a hurry; but unlike us, they had no Ranjoor Singh to force the pace and do the scouting, so that for all their long lead we were overtaking them.
Like us, they seemed wary of the public eye, for they followed lonely routes among the wooded foothills; but their Kurdish horsemen left a track no blind man could have missed, and although they plundered a little as they went, they spent gold, too, like water, so that the villagers were in a strange mood. Most of the plundering was done by their Kurdish escort who, it seemed, kept returning to steal the money paid by the Germans for provisions. Sometimes when we offered gold we would be mocked. But on the whole, we began to have an easy time of it—all but the wounded, who suffered tortures from the pace we held. We secured some carts at one village and put our wounded in them, but the carts were springless, and there were no roads at all, so that it was better in those days to be a dead man than a sick or wounded one! There was no malingering!
After a few days (I forget how many, for who can remember all the days and distances of that long march?) Abraham got word of a great Christian mission station where thousands of Christians had sought safety under the American flag. He and his Syrians elected to try their fortune there, and we let them go, all of us saluting Abraham, for he was a good brave man, fearful, but able to overcome his fear, and intelligent far beyond the ordinary. We let the Syrians take their rifles and some ammunition with them, because Abraham said they might be called on perhaps to help defend the mission.
Not long after that, we let our Kurds go, giving up our Turkish officer prisoners and Tugendheim as well. We all knew by that time what our final goal was, and Tugendheim begged to be allowed to go with us all the way. But Ranjoor Singh refused him.
"I promised you to the Kurd, and the Kurd will trade you to Wassmuss against his brother," he said. "Tell Wassmuss whatever lies you like, and make your peace with your own folk however you can. Here is your paper back."
Tugendheim took the paper. (You remember, sahib, he had signed a receipt in conjunction with the Turkish mate and captain of that ship in which we escaped from Stamboul.) Well, he took the paper back, and burned it in the little fire by which I was sitting facing Ranjoor Singh.
"Let me go with you!" he urged. "It will be rope or bullet for me if ever I get back to Germany!"
"Nevertheless," said Ranjoor Singh, "I promised to deliver you to Wassmuss when we made you prisoner in the first place. I must keep my word to you!"
"I release you from your word to me!" said Tugendheim.
"And I promised you to the Kurdish chief."
"The Kurdish chief?" said Tugendheim. "What of him? What of it? Why, why, why—he is a savage—scarcely human—not to be weighed in the scales against a civilized man! What does such a promise as that amount to?" And he stood tugging at his mustaches as if he would tear them out.
"I have some gold left," said Ranjoor Singh, when he was sure Tugendheim had no more to say, "and I had seriously thought of buying you for gold from these Kurds. There may be one of them who would take on himself the responsibility of speaking for his chief. But since you hold my given word so light as that I must look more nearly to my honor. Nay, go with the Kurds, Sergeant Tugendheim!"
Tugendheim made a great wail. He begged for this, and he begged for that. He begged us to give him a letter to Wassmuss explaining that we had compelled him by threats of torture. He begged for gold. And Ranjoor Singh gave him a little gold. Some of us put in a word for him, for on that long journey he had told many a tale to make us laugh. He had suffered with us. He had helped us more than a little by drilling the Syrians, and often his presence with us had saved our skins by convincing Turkish scouts of our bona fides. We thought of Gooja Singh, and had no wish that Tugendheim should meet a like fate. So, perhaps because we all begged for him, or perhaps because he so intended in the first place, Ranjoor Singh relented.
"The Persians hereabouts," he said, "all tell me that a great Russian army will come down presently from the north. Have I heard correctly that you meditated escape into Russia?"
Tugendheim answered, "How should I reach Russia?"
"That is thy affair!" said Ranjoor Singh. "But here is more gold," and he counted out to him ten more golden German coins. "You must ride back with these Kurds, but I have no authority over them. They are not my men. They seem to like gold more than most things."
So Tugendheim ceased begging for himself and rode away rather despondently in the midst of the Kurds; and we followed about a day and a half behind the German party with their strange box-full of machinery. There were many of us who could talk Persian, and as we stopped in the villages to beg or buy curdled milk, and as we rounded up the cattle-herdsmen and the women by the wells, we heard many strange and wonderful stories about what the engine in that box could do. I observed that Ranjoor Singh looked merry-eyed when the wildest stories reached him; but we all began to reflect on the disastrous consequences of letting such crafty people reach Afghanistan. For, as doubtless the sahib knows, the emir of Afghanistan has a very great army; and if he were to decide that the German side is after all the winning one he might make very much trouble for the government of India.
And now there was no longer any doubt that the machine slung in the box between two mules was a wireless telegraph, and that most of the other mules were loaded with accessories. The tales we heard could not be made to tally with any other explanation. And what, said we, was to prevent the Germans in Stamboul from signaling whatever lies they could invent to this party in Afghanistan, supposing they should ever reach the country? Yet when we argued thus with Ranjoor Singh, he laughed.
And then, after about a week of marching, came Tugendheim back to us, ragged and thirsty and nearly dead, on a horse more dead than he. He had bought himself free from the Kurds with the gold Ranjoor Singh gave him; but because he had no more gold the Persians had refused to feed him. "How should he find his way alone to meet the Russians," he said, "whose scouts would probably shoot him on sight in any case?" So we laughed, and let him rest among our wounded and be one of us,—aye, one of us; for who were we to turn him away to starve? He had served us well, and he served us well again.
Has the sahib heard of Bakhtiari Khans? They are people as fierce as Kurds, who live like the Kurds by plundering. The Germans ahead of us, doubtless because Persia is neutral in this war and therefore they had no conceivable right to be crossing the country, chose a route that avoided all towns and cities of considerable size. And Persia seems to have no army any more, so that there was no official opposition. But the Bakhtiari Khans received word of what was doing, and after that there were new problems. But for the fact that Tugendheim was with us in his ragged German uniform we should have had more trouble than we did.
At first the Khans were content with blackmail, holding up the Germans at intervals and demanding money. But I suppose that finally their money all gave out, and then the Khans put threats into practise. But before actual skirmishing began the Khans would come to us, after getting money from the Germans, and it was only the fact that we had Tugendheim to show that convinced them we belonged to the party ahead. Ranjoor Singh claimed that our transit fee had been paid for us already, and the Khans did not deny it.
But they caught up the Germans again and demanded money from them because of us who were following, and I have laughed many a time to think of the predicament that put them in. For could they deny all knowledge of us? In that case they might he denying useful allies in their hour of need. If the Bakhtiari Khans should annihilate us their own fate would not be likely to tremble in the balance very long. Yet if they admitted knowledge of us, what might that not lead to? And how was it possible for them to know really who we were in any case?
Finally, they sent one of their Kurdish servants back to find us and ask questions. And to him we showed Tugendheim, and spoke to him at great length in Persian, of which he understood very little; so that when he overtook his own party again (if he ever did, for the Khans were on the prowl and very cruel and savage), they may have been more in the dark about us than ever.
At last the Bakhtiari Khans began guerrilla warfare, and the Kurds who were escorting the Germans retaliated by burning and plundering the villages by which they passed—which incensed the Khans yet more, because they did not belong to that part of Persia and had counted on the plunder for themselves. From time to time we caught a Bakhtiari Khan, and though they spoke poor Persian, some of us could understand them. They explained that the Persian government, being very weak, made use of them to terrorize whatever section of the country seemed rebellious—surely a sad way to govern a land!
There were not very many of the Khans. They are used to raiding in parties of thirty to fifty, or perhaps a hundred. I think there were not many more of them than of the German party and us combined; and at that the Bakhtiari Khans were all divided into independent troops. So that the danger was not so serious as it seemed. But guerrilla warfare is very trying to the nerves, and if we had not had Ranjoor Singh to lead us we should have failed in the end; for we were fighting in a strange land, with no base to fall back on and nothing to do but press forward.
The Kurds, too, who escorted the Germans, began to grow sick of it. Little parties of them began to pass us on their way home, giving us a wide berth, but passing close enough, nevertheless, to get some sort of protection from our proximity, and the numbers of those parties grew and grew until we laughed at the thought of what anxiety the Germans must be suffering. Yet Ranjoor Singh grew anxious, too, for the Khans grew bolder. It began to look as if neither Germans nor we would ever reach half-way to the Afghan border. Ranjoor Singh was the finest leader men could have, but we were being sniped eternally, men falling wounded here and there until scarcely one of us but had a hurt of some kind—to say nothing of our sick. Men grew sick from bad food, and unaccustomed food, and hard riding and exposure. Our little Greek doctor took sick and died, and we had nothing but ignorance left with which to treat our ailments. We began to be a sorry-looking regiment indeed. Nevertheless, the ignorance helped, for at least we did not know how serious our wounds were. I myself received one bullet that passed through both ankles, and it is not likely I shall ever walk again without a limp. Yet if I can ride what does that matter so long as the government has horses? And if a man limps in both feet wherein is he the loser? Mine was a slight wound compared to some of them. We had come to a poor pass, but Ranjoor Singh's good sense saved the day again.
There came a day when the Bakhtiari Khans gave us a terrible last attention and then left us—as it turned out for good (although we did not know then it was for good). We watched their dust as their different troops gathered together and rode away southward. I suppose they had received word of better opportunity for plunder somewhere else; they took little but hard knocks from us, and doubtless any change was welcome. When we had seen the last of them, and had watched the vultures swoop down on a horse they had left behind, we took new heart and rode on; and it so happened that the Germans chose that occasion for a rest. Their dwindling Kurdish escort was growing mutinous and they took advantage of a village with high mud walls to get behind cover and try to reestablish confidence. Perhaps they, too, saw the Bakhtiari Khans retiring in the distance, for we were close behind them at that time—so close that even with tired horses we came on them before they could man the village wall. We knocked a hole in the wall and had a good wide breach established in no time, to save ourselves trouble in case the gates should prove too strongly held; and leaving Anim Singh posted in the breach with his troop, Ranjoor Singh sent a trooper with a white flag to the main gate.
After ten or fifteen minutes the German commanding officer rode out, also with a white flag, and not knowing that Ranjoor Singh knew German, he spoke English. (Tugendheim had taken his tunic off and—all sweaty and trembling had hidden behind the ranks disguised with a cloth tied about his head.) I sat my horse beside Ranjoor Singh, so I heard all.
"Persia is neutral territory!" said the German.
"Are you, then, neutral?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"Are you?" asked the German. He was a handsome bullet-headed man with a bold eye, and I knew that to browbeat or trick him would be no easy matter. Nevertheless he still had so many Kurds at his back that I doubted our ability to get the better of him in a fight, considering our condition.
"I could be neutral if I saw fit," answered Ranjoor Singh, and the German's eyes glittered.
"If you are neutral, ride on then!" he laughed. I saw his eye teeth. It was a mean laugh.
"What are you doing here?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"Minding my business," said the German pointedly.
"Then I will mind mine and investigate," said Ranjoor Singh, and he turned to me as if to give an order, at which the German changed his tactics in a hurry.
"My business is simple," said the German. "Perfectly simple and perfectly neutral. We have a wireless installation with us. It is all ready to set up in this village. In a few moments we shall be receiving messages from Europe, and then we shall inform the inhabitants of these parts how matters stand. As neutrals they are entitled to that information." Their eyes met, each seeking to read the other's mind, and the German misunderstood, as most Germans I have met do misunderstand.
"Before we can receive a message we shall send one," said the German. "Before I came out to meet you, I gave the order to get in touch with Constantinople and signal this: That we are being interfered with and our lives are endangered on neutral territory by troops belonging to British India, and therefore that all British Indian prisoners-of-war in Germany should be made hostages for our safety. That means," he went on, "that unless we signal every day that all is well, a number of your countrymen in Germany corresponding to the number of my party will be lined up against a wall and shot."
"So that message has been sent?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"Yes," said the German.
"Then send this message also," said Ranjoor Singh: "That the end has certainly come. Then close up your machine because unless you wish to fight for your existence there will be no more messages sent or received by you between here and Afghanistan."
I thought that a strange message for Ranjoor Singh to bid him send. I did not believe that one of us, however weary, was willing to accept relief at the price of our friends' lives. Nevertheless, I said nothing, having learned it is not wise to draw too swift conclusions when Ranjoor Singh directs the strategy.
But the German evidently thought so, too, for his eyes looked startled, and I took comfort from that.
"I understand you wish to reach Afghanistan?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"That is our eventual destination," said the German.
"Very well," said Ranjoor Singh. "Pack up your machine. Then I will permit your journey to the Afghan border, unhampered by me, on two conditions."
"What two conditions?" asked the German.
"That your machine shall remain packed up until you reach Afghanistan, and that your doctor shall divide his services until then equally between your men and mine."
"And after that, what?" asked the German.
"I have nothing to do with Afghanistan," said Ranjoor Singh. "Keep the bargain and you are free as far as I am concerned to do what you like when you get there."
So we had a doctor again at last, for the German agreed to the terms. Not one of us but needed medical aid, and the men were too glad to have their hurts attended, to ask very many questions; but they were certainly surprised, and suspicious of the new arrangement, and I did not dare tell them what I had overheard for fear lest suspicion of Ranjoor Singh be reawakened. I refused even to tell the other daffadars, which caused some slight estrangement between them and me. However, Ranjoor Singh was as conscious of that risk as I, and during all the rest of the long march he kept their camp and ours, their column and ours half an hour's ride apart —sometimes even farther—sometimes half a day apart, to the disgust of the doctor, who had that much more trouble, but with the result of preventing greater friction.
To tell of all that journey across Persia would be but to remember weariness—weariness of horse and men. Sometimes we were attacked; more often we were run away from. We grew sick, our wounds festered and our hearts ached. Horses died and the vultures ate them. Men died, and we buried or burned their bodies according or not as we had fuel. We dried, as it were, like the bone-dry trail we followed, and only Ranjoor Singh's heart was stout; only he was brave; only he had a song on his lips. He coaxed us, and cheered us, and rallied us. The strength of the regiment was but his strength, and as for the other party, who hung on our flank, or lagged behind us or preceded us by half a day, their Kurds deserted by fives and tens until there was scarcely a corporal's guard remaining.
They must have been as weary as we, and as glad as we when at last at the end of a long drawn afternoon, we saw an Afghan sentry.
Has the sahib ever seen an Afghan sentry?
This one was grey and old and sat on his grey pony like a huddled ape with a tattered umbrella over his shoulder and his rifle across his knees. He looked less like a sentry than like a dead man dug up and set there to scare the birds away. But he was efficient, no doubt of that. He had seen us and passed on word of us the minute we showed on the sky-line, and the hills all about him were full of armed men waiting to give us a hot reception if necessary and to bar farther progress in any case.
So there we had to camp, just over the Afghan border, but farther apart from the Germans than ever—two, three miles apart, for now it became Ranjoor Singh's policy to know nothing whatever about them. The Afghans provided us with rations and sent us one of their own doctors dressed in the uniform of a tram-car conductor, and their highest official in those parts, whose rank I could not guess because he was arrayed in the costume of a city of London policeman, asked innumerable questions, first of Ranjoor Singh and then of each of us individually. But we conferred together, and stuck to one point, that we knew nothing. Ranjoor Singh did not know better than we. The more he asked the more dumb we became until, perhaps with a view to loosing our tongues, the Afghans who mingled among us in the camp began telling what the Germans were saying and doing on the rise two miles away.
They had their machine set up, said they. They were receiving messages, said they, with this wonderful wireless telegraph of theirs. They kept receiving hourly news of disasters to the Allied arms by land and sea. And we were fearfully disturbed about all this, because we knew how important it must be for India's safety that Afghanistan continue neutral. And why should such savages continue neutral if they were once persuaded that the winning side was that of the Central Powers? Nevertheless, Ranjoor Singh continued to grow more and more contented, and I wondered. Some of the men began to murmur.
In that camp we remained, if I rightly remember, six days. And then came word from Habibullah Kahn, the Afghan emir, that we might draw nearer Kabul. So, keeping our distance from the Germans, we helped one another into the saddle (so weak most of us were by that time) and went forward three days' march. Then we camped again, much closer to the Germans this time, in fact, almost within shouting distance; and they again set up their machine, causing sparks to crackle from the wires of a telescopic tower they raised, to the very great concern of the Afghans who were in and out of both camps all day long. One message that an Afghan told me the Germans had received, was that the British fleet was all sunk and Paris taken. But that sort of message seemed to me familiar, so that I was not so depressed by it as my Afghan informant had hoped. He went off to procure yet more appalling news to bring me, and no doubt was accommodated. I should have had burning ears, but that about that time, their emir came, Habibullah Kahn, looking like a European in his neatly fitting clothes, but surrounded by a staff of officers dressed in greater variety of uniforms than one would have believed to exist. He had brought with him his engineers to view this wonderful machine, but before approaching either camp—perhaps to show impartiality—he sent for the German chief and one, and for Ranjoor Singh and one. So, since the German took his doctor, Ranjoor Singh took me, he and I both riding, and the emir graciously excusing me from dismounting when I had made him my salaam and he had learned the nature of the wound.
After some talk, the emir asked us bluntly whence we came and what our business might be, and Ranjoor Singh answered him we were escaped prisoners of war. Then he turned on the German, and the German told him that because the British had seen fit to cut off Afghanistan from all true news of what was happening in the world outside, therefore the German government, knowing well the open mind and bravery and wisdom of the emir and his subjects, had sent himself at very great trouble and expense to receive true messages from Europe and so acquaint with the true state of affairs a ruler and people with whom Germany desired before all things to be on friendly terms.
After that we all went down in a body—perhaps a hundred men, with the emir at our head, to the German camp; and there the German and his officers displayed the machine to the emir, who, with a dozen of his staff around him, appeared more amused than astonished.
So the Germans set their machine in motion. The sparks made much crackling from the wires, at which the emir laughed aloud. Presently the German chief read off a message from Berlin, conveying the Kaiser's compliments to his highness, the emir.
"Is that message from Berlin?" the emir asked, and I thought I heard one of his officers chuckle.
"Yes, Your Highness," said the German officer.
"Is it not relayed from anywhere?" the emir asked, and the German stared at him swiftly—thus, as if for the first time his own suspicion were aroused.
"From Stamboul, Your Highness—relayed from Stamboul," he said, as one who makes concessions.
The emir chuckled softly to himself and smiled.
"These are my engineers," said he, "all college trained. They tell me our wireless installation at Kabul, which connects us through Simla with Calcutta and the world beyond, is a very good one, yet it will only reach to Simla, although I should say it is a hundred times as large as yours, and although we have an enormous dynamo to give the energy as against your box of batteries."
The Germans, who were clustered all about their chief, kept straight faces, but their eyes popped round and their mouths grew stiff with the effort to suppress emotion.
"This, Your Highness, is the last new invention," said the German chief.
"Then my engineers shall look at it," said the emir, "for we wish to keep abreast of the inventions. As you remarked just now, we are a little shut off from the world. We must not let slip such opportunities for education." And then and there he made his engineers go forward to inspect everything, he scarce concealing his merriment; and the Germans stood aside, looking like thieves caught in the act while the workings were disclosed of such a wireless apparatus as might serve to teach beginners.
"It might serve perhaps between one village and the next, while the batteries persisted," they said, reporting to the emir presently. The emir laughed, but I thought he looked puzzled-perplexed, rather than displeased. He turned to Ranjoor Singh:
"And you are a liar, too?" he asked.
"Nay, Your Royal Highness, I speak truth," said Ranjoor Singh, saluting him in military manner.
"Then what do you wish?" asked the emir. "Do you wish to be interned, seeing this is neutral soil on which you trespass?"
"Nay, Your Royal Highness," answered Ranjoor Singh, with a curt laugh, "we have had enough of prison camps."
"Then what shall be done with you?" the emir asked. "Here are men from both sides, and how shall I be neutral?"
The German chief stepped forward and saluted.
"Your Royal Highness, we desire to be interned," he said. But the emir glowered savagely.
"Peace!" said he. "I asked you nothing, one string of lies was enough! I asked thee a question," he said, turning again to Ranjoor Singh.
"Since Your Royal Highness asks," said Ranjoor Singh, "it would be a neutral act to let us each leave your dominions by whichever road we will!"
The emir laughed and turned to his attendants, who laughed with him.
"That is good," said he. "So let it be. It is an order!"
So it came about, sahib, that the Germans and ourselves were ordered hotfoot out of the emir's country. But whereas there was only one way the Germans could go, viz, back into Persia, there to help themselves as best they could, the road Ranjoor Singh chose was forward to the Khyber Pass, and so down into India.
Aye, sahib, down into India! It was a long road, but the Afghans were very kind to us, providing us with food and blankets and giving some of us new horses for our weary ones, and so we came at last to Landi Kotal at the head of the Khyber, where a long-legged English sahib heard our story and said "Shabash!" to Ranjoor Singh—that means "Well done!" And so we marched down the Khyber, they signaling ahead that we were coming. We slept at Ali Masjib because neither horses nor men could move another yard, but at dawn next day we were off again. And because they had notice of our coming, they turned out the troops, a division strong, to greet us, and we took the salute of a whole division as we had once taken the salute of two in Flanders, Ranjoor Singh sitting his charger like a graven image, and we—one hundred three-and-thirty men and the prisoner Tugendheim, who had left India eight hundred strong-reeling in the saddle from sickness and fatigue while a roar went up in Khyber throat such as I scarcely hope to hear again before I die. Once in a lifetime, sahib, once is enough. They had their bands with them. The same tune burst on our ears that had greeted us that first night of our charge in Flanders, and we—great bearded men—we wept like little ones. They played "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary."
Then because we were cavalry and entitled to the same, they gave us "Bonnie Dundee" and the horses cantered to it; but some of us rolled from the saddle in sheer weakness. Then we halted in something like a line, and a general rode up to shake hands with Ranjoor Singh and to say things in our tongue that may not be repeated, for they were words from heart to heart. And I remember little more, for I, too, swooned and fell from the saddle.
The shadows darkened and grew one into another. Hira Singh sat drawing silently in the dust, with his injured feet stretched out in front of him. A monkey in the giant tree above us shook down a little shower of twigs and dirt. A trumpet blared. There began much business of closing tents and reducing the camp to superhuman tidiness.
"So, sahib," he said at last, "they come to carry me in. It is time my tale is ended. Ranjoor Singh they have made bahadur. God grant him his desire! May my son be such a man as he, when his day comes.
"Me! They say I shall be made commissioned officer—the law is changed since this great war began. Yet what did I do compared to what Ranjoor Singh did? Each is his own witness and God alone is judge. Does the sahib know what this war is all about?
"I believe no two men fight for the same thing. It is a war in each man's heart, each man fighting as the spirit moves him. So, they come for me. Salaam, sahib. Bohut salaam. May God grant the sahib peace. Peace to the sahib's grandsons and great-grandsons. With each arm thus around a trooper's neck will the sahib graciously excuse me from saluting?"