El Borak and Other Desert Adventures (54 page)

BOOK: El Borak and Other Desert Adventures
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Brent stared intently at the supple rider, etched against the sharp dawn. There was nothing of the Turanian or the Semite in Shirkuh’s features. In the Iranian highlands there must be many clans who kept their ancient Aryan lineage pure. Shirkuh, in European garments, and without that Oriental mustache, would pass unnoticed in any Western crowd, but for that primordial blaze in his restless black eyes. They reflected an untamable soul. How could he expect this barbarian to deal with him according to the standards of the Western world?

They were pressing on before sunup, and their trail always led up now, higher and higher, through knife cuts in solid masses of towering sandstone, and along narrow paths that wound up and up interminably, until Brent was gasping again with the rarefied air of the high places. At high noon, when the wind was knife-edged with ice, and the sun was a splash of molten fire, they reached the Pass of Nadir Khan — a narrow cut winding tortuously for a mile between turrets of dull-colored rock. A squat mud-and-stone tower stood in the mouth, occupied by ragged warriors squatting on their aerie like vultures. The troop halted until Muhammad ez Zahir was recognized. He vouched for the cavalcade, Shirkuh included, with a wave of his hand, and the rifles on the tower were lowered. Muhammad rode on into the pass, the others filing after him. Brent felt despairingly as if one prison door had already slammed behind him.

They halted for the midday meal in the corridor of the pass, shaded from the sun and sheltered from the wind. Again Shirkuh brought food to Brent, without comment or objection from the Afghans. But when Brent tried to catch his eye, he avoided the American’s gaze.

After they left the pass, the road pitched down in long curving sweeps, through successively lower mountains that ran away and away like gigantic stairsteps from the crest of the range. The trail grew plainer, more traveled, but night found them still among the hills.

When Shirkuh brought food to Brent that night as usual, the American tried to engage him in conversation, under cover of casual talk for the benefit of the
Afghan detailed to guard the American that night, who lolled near by, bolting chupatties.

“Is Rub el Harami a large city?” Brent asked.

“I have never been there,” returned Shirkuh, rather shortly.

“Is Abd el Khafid the ruler?” persisted Brent.

“He is emir of Rub el Harami,” said Shirkuh.

“And prince of the Black Tigers,” spoke up the Afghan guard unexpectedly. He was in a garrulous mood, and he saw no reason for secrecy. One of his hearers would soon be a slave in Rub el Harami, the other, if accepted, a member of the clan.

“I am myself a Black Tiger,” the guard boasted. “All in this troop are Black Tigers, and picked men. We are the lords of Rub el Harami.”

“Then all in the city are not Black Tigers?” asked Brent.

“All are thieves. Only thieves live in Rub el Harami. But not all are Black Tigers. But it is the headquarters of the clan, and the prince of the Black Tigers is always emir of Rub el Harami.”

“Who ordered my capture?” inquired Brent. “Muhammad ez Zahir?”

“Muhammad only does as he is ordered,” returned the guard. “None gives orders in Rub el Harami save Abd el Khafid. He is absolute lord save where the customs of the city are involved. Not even the prince of the Black Tigers can change the customs of Rub el Harami. It was a city of thieves before the days of Genghis Khan. What its name was first, none knows; the Arabs call it Rub el Harami, the Abode of Thieves, and the name has stuck.”

“It is an outlaw city?”

“It has never owned a lord save the prince of the Black Tigers,” boasted the guard. “It pays no taxes to any save him — and to Shaitan.”

“What do you mean, to Shaitan?” demanded Shirkuh.

“It is an ancient custom,” answered the guard. “Each year a hundredweight of gold is given as an offering to Shaitan, so the city shall prosper. It is sealed in a secret cave somewhere near the city, but where no man knows, save the prince and the council of imams.”

“Devil worship!” snorted Shirkuh. “It is an offense to Allah!”

“It is an ancient custom,” defended the guard.

Shirkuh strode off, as if scandalized, and Brent lapsed into disappointed silence. He wrapped himself in Shirkuh’s cloak as well as he could and slept.

They were up before dawn and pushing through the hills until they breasted a sweeping wall, down which the trail wound, and saw a rocky plain set in the midst of bare mountain chains, and the flat-topped towers of Rub el Harami rising before them.

They had not halted for the midday meal. As they neared the city, the trail became a well-traveled road. They overtook or met men on horses, men
walking and driving laden mules. Brent remembered that it had been said that only stolen goods entered Rub el Harami. Its inhabitants were the scum of the hills, and the men they encountered looked it. Brent found himself comparing them with Shirkuh. The man was a wild outlaw, who boasted of his bloody crimes, but he was a clean-cut barbarian. He differed from these as a gray wolf differs from mangy alley curs.

He eyed all they met or passed with a gaze half naive, half challenging. He was boyishly interested; he was ready to fight at the flick of a turban end, and gave the road to no man. He was the youth of the world incarnated, credulous, merry, hot-headed, generous, cruel, and arrogant. And Brent knew his life hung on the young savage’s changing whims.

Rub el Harami was a walled city standing in the narrow rock-strewn plain hemmed in by bare hills. A battery of field pieces could have knocked down its walls with a dozen volleys — but the army never marched that could have dragged field pieces over the road that led to it through the Pass of Nadir Khan. Its gray walls loomed bleakly above the gray dusty waste of the small plain. A chill wind from the northern peaks brought a tang of snow and started the dust spinning. Well curbs rose gauntly here and there on the plain, and near each well stood a cluster of squalid huts. Peasants in rags bent their backs over sterile patches that yielded grudging crops — mere smudges on the dusty expanse. The low-hanging sun turned the dust to a bloody haze in the air, as the troop with its prisoner trudged on weary horses across the plain to the gaunt city.

Beneath a lowering arch, flanked by squat watchtowers, an iron-bolted gate stood open, guarded by a dozen swashbucklers whose girdles bristled with daggers. They clicked the bolts of their German rifles and stared arrogantly about them, as if itching to practice on some living target.

The troop halted, and the captain of the guard swaggered forth, a giant with bulging muscles and a henna-stained beard.

“Thy names and business!” he roared, glaring intolerantly at Brent.

“My name you know as well as you know your own,” growled Muhammad ez Zahir. “I am taking a prisoner into the city, by order of Abd el Khafid.”

“Pass, Muhammad ez Zahir,” growled the captain. “But who is this Kurd?”

Muhammad grinned wolfishly, as if at a secret jest.

“An adventurer who seeks admission — Shirkuh, of the Jebel Jawur.”

While they were speaking, a richly clad, powerfully built man on a white mare rode out of the gate and halted, unnoticed, behind the guardsmen. The henna-bearded captain turned toward Shirkuh who had dismounted to get a pebble out of his stallion’s hoof.

“Are you one of the clan?” he demanded. “Do you know the secret signs?”

“I have not yet been accepted,” answered Shirkuh, turning to face him. “Men tell me I must be passed upon by the council of imams.”

“Aye, if you reach them! Does any chief of the city speak for you?”

“I am a stranger,” replied Shirkuh shortly.

“We like not strangers in Rub el Harami,” said the captain. “There are but three ways a stranger may enter the city. As a captive, like that infidel dog yonder; as one vouched for and indorsed by some established chief of the city; or” — he showed yellow fangs in an evil grin — “as the slayer of some fighting man of the city!”

He shifted the rifle to his right hand and slapped the butt with his left palm. Sardonic laughter rose about them, the dry, strident, cruel cackling of the hills. Those who laughed knew that in any kind of fight between a stranger and a man of the city every foul advantage would be taken. For a stranger to be forced into a formal duel with a Black Tiger was tantamount to signing his death warrant. Brent, rigid with sudden concern, guessed this from the vicious laughter.

But Shirkuh did not seem abashed.

“It is an ancient custom?” he asked naively, dropping a hand to his girdle.

“Ancient as Islam!” assured the giant captain, towering above him. “A tried warrior, with weapons in his hands, thou must slay!”

“Why, then —”

Shirkuh laughed, and as he laughed, he struck. His motion was as quick as the blurring stroke of a cobra. In one movement he whipped the dagger from his girdle and struck upward under the captain’s bearded chin. The Afghan had no opportunity to defend himself, no chance to lift rifle or draw sword. Before he realized Shirkuh’s intention, he was down, his life gushing out of his sliced jugular.

An instant of stunned silence was broken by wild yells of laughter from the lookers-on and the men of the troop. It was just such a devilish jest as the bloodthirsty hill natures appreciated. There is humor in the hills, but it is a fiendish humor. The strange youth had shown a glint of the hard wolfish sophistication that underlay his apparent callowness.

But the other guardsmen cried out angrily and surged forward, with a sharp rattle of rifle bolts. Shirkuh sprang back and tore his rifle from its saddle scabbard. Muhammad and his men looked on cynically. It was none of their affair. They had enjoyed Shirkuh’s grim and bitter jest; they would equally enjoy the sight of him being shot down by his victim’s comrades.

But before a finger could crook on a trigger, the man on the white mare rode forward, beating down the rifles of the guards with a riding whip.

“Stop!” he commanded. “The Kurd is in the right. He slew according to the law. The man’s weapons were in his hands, and he was a tried warrior.”

“But he was taken unaware!” they clamored.

“The more fool he!” was the callous retort. “The law makes no point of that. I speak for the Kurd. And I am Alafdal Khan, once of Waziristan.”

“Nay, we know you, my lord!” The guardsmen salaamed profoundly.

Muhammad ez Zahir gathered up his reins and spoke to Shirkuh.

“Your luck still holds, Kurd!”

“Allah loves brave men!” Shirkuh laughed, swinging into the saddle.

Muhammad ez Zahir rode under the arch, and the troop streamed after him, their captive in their midst. They traversed a short narrow street, winding between walls of mud and wood, where overhanging balconies almost touched each other over the crooked way. Brent saw women staring at them through the lattices. The cavalcade emerged into a square much like that of any other hill town. Open shops and stalls lined it, and it was thronged by a colorful crowd. But there was a difference. The crowd was too heterogenous, for one thing; then there was too much wealth in sight. The town was prosperous, but with a sinister, unnatural prosperity. Gold and silk gleamed on barefooted ruffians
whose proper garb was rags, and the goods displayed in the shops seemed mute evidence of murder and pillage. This was in truth a city of thieves.

The throng was lawless and turbulent, its temper set on a hair trigger. There were human skulls nailed above the gate, and in an iron cage made fast to the wall Brent saw a human skeleton. Vultures perched on the bars. Brent felt cold sweat bead his flesh. That might well be his own fate — to starve slowly in an iron cage hung above the heads of the jeering crowd. A sick abhorrence and a fierce hatred of this vile city swept over him.

As they rode into the city, Alafdal Khan drew his mare alongside Shirkuh’s stallion. The Waziri was a bull-shouldered man with a bushy purple-stained beard and wide, ox-like eyes.

“I like you, Kurd,” he announced. “You are in truth a mountain lion. Take service with me. A masterless man is a broken blade in Rub el Harami.”

“I thought Abd el Khafid was master of Rub el Harami,” said Shirkuh.

“Aye! But the city is divided into factions, and each man who is wise follows one chief or the other. Only picked men with long years of service behind them are chosen for Abd el Khafid’s house troops. The others follow various lords, who are each responsible to the emir.”

BOOK: El Borak and Other Desert Adventures
9.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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