AMONG THE Balia tribesmen it was commonly said that Nadir Din, of the village of Dakka in the Durani District, was cunning enough to cheat Satan in his sleep. Nadir Din knew of his reputa-
tion and was proud of it. And when it chanced that the Royal Highland Cavalry were in the neighborhood of Dakka at a season when Nadir Din had made a comer in bhoosa, he thought he saw his way to fostering this reputation at the expense of Quartermaster-Sergeant Macpherson, whose duty it was to look after the provisioning of the regiment.
On the face of it, Nadir Din was in a strong position. Bhoosa, which is dried hay and sold by the maund, is almost as essential as water to a cavalry regiment. Nadir Din had a virtual monopoly of the all-important substance. When, therefore, he donned the full white trousers, gold-embroidered vest and dark green turban that were his ceremonial dress, and sallied forth to visit the camp of the R. H. C., who were known to be running short of bhoosa, he was confident of being able to procure his own price without trouble.
Far less confident was Saki Khan of the same village, who accompanied him. Saki Khan also had something he hoped to sell. In his case it was a pony. One of the officer sahibs, he had learned, was desirous of buying a young pony that might be trained for polo, and Saki Khan had a beast he thought might suit. At least he pretended to think it might suit. In his secret heart he knew that the ill-shapen little brute he led past the scornful eyes of R. H. C. sentries would be about as much use to Second-Lieutenant Pickering for polo purposes as a blind donkey.
Nadir Din was scornful. He told Saki Khan that even he, who was acknowledged to be the astutest bargainer in the Durani Area and able to cheat Satan in his sleep, would never dare to attempt to sell such an apology for a pony to an officer sahib; least of all to an officer sahib in a cavalry regiment who, presumably, knew something about horses.
“What price are you asking for this offspring of a mule and a goat without manners?” he asked.
Saki Khan said he thought of asking 300 rupees. Pricked by Nadir Din’s sneers, he hinted that that would be less of a swindle than Nadir Din selling bhoosa at fifteen annas a maund to Macpherson Sahib.
“Macpherson Sahib will buy my bhoosa and be thankful to get it,” Nadir Din said. “But when Pickering Sahib sees your pony he will chase you and it out of the camp with a stick unless he is altogether a fool.”
The latter part of his prophecy came true, with the minor variation that it was Pickering’s syce who did the chasing and not Pickering himself. But the former part was not fulfilled. At the end of four hours of head shakings, hand wavings and walkings away, the bhoosa was still
unsold. Nadir Din was still holding out for fifteen annas a maund, and Quartermaster-Sergeant Macpherson, who was canny even for a Scots quartermaster, was refusing to bid more than ten annas.
At last Nadir Din rose to his feet. He knew he had only to wait long enough to get the price he wanted.
“Salaam, sahib,” he said. “Since you don’t wish to avail yourself of this chance of buying the sweetest bhoosa in Asia at a price that is merely nominal, there is no more to be said. I must sell it elsewhere.”
Macpherson lit his pipe, his eyes on the sample maund Nadir Din had brought into the E. P. tent that served as office. He turned to the babu whose unenviable task it was to act as interpreter.
“Tell him ma horses couldna eat yon mildewed rubbish. It’s full of sand an’ wud give the puir beasts the colic. An’ ye can tell him also I’ll no be wantin’ his bhoosa at all. I’m goin’ tae send round tae some o’ the ither villages.”
The babu translated from Doric into Pushtu. Nadir Din only grinned.
“No other village within fifty miles has any bhoosa for
sale. If the sahib enquires he will find I speak the truth.” Informed of the meaning of this remark, Macpherson snorted angrily.
“Then tell him I’ll send tae the big Supply an’ Transport depot at Ul. Quartermaster-Sergeant Brown who’s in charge there is an auld friend of mine. He’ll let me have all the bhoosa I require at a reasonable price. I’d rather have bought it locally tae save the cost of transport, but it canna be helped.”
NADIR DIN’S smile lost a little of its complacency when he heard this. He’d forgotten the big S. and T. depot at Ul. It looked as if his monopoly was not quite so complete as he imagined.
But perhaps Macpherson Sahib was only bluffing to make him reduce the price. Ul was a long way off and he’d admitted he’d prefer to buy locally. There could be no harm in waiting a few days.
“As the sahib wishes,” he said blandly. “Whether he buys or not is of no consequence to me. I can always sell the bhoosa elsewhere.”
East and West looked at one another and each tried to read the other’s thoughts. But they were well matched when it came to driving a bargain. Nadir Din’s expression of indifference as he left the tent was only to be equalled by the indifference with which Quartermaster-Sergeant Macpherson watched him go.
Saki Khan greeted Nadir Din on his return to Dakka.
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“Well, father of cunning! Have you succeeded in swindling Macpherson Sahib into buying your bhoosa?”
A good businessman never admits failure. Nadir Din laughed.
“Of course. In a few days time he is going to buy all my bhoosa at the price I asked. And what of you, Saki Khan? Have you burdened Pickering Sahib with the ottspring of a mule and a goat that bears a faint resemblance to a pony?”
Saki Khan, who was still smarting from the blows of Pickering’s syce, lied manfully.
“That sahib was breathless with delight when he saw my pony. He intends to buy it shortly for three hundred rupees; in the meantime he has charged me to keep it carefully. So you see, Nadir Din, you are not the only one who can make a shrewd bargain.”
Nadir Din was not deceived. Easy as were the sahib-log to cheat—excepting, of course, Quartermaster-Sergeant Macpherson—he did not believe that even one of them would be so foolish as to pay anything at all for Saki Khan’s pony.
But then Fate took a hand in the game. She caused a loose stone to turn under the foot of Second-Lieutenant Pickering, who had rather imprudently gone alone to shoot pigeon in the neighborhood of Dakka, precipitating him on to a ledge twelve feet below with a wrenched ankle and other minor injuries.
Pickering lay on that ledge for fifteen hours, while troopers of the R. H. C. searched in the wrong direction. He was hungry and thirsty and in pain, and was greatly perturbed by the sight of three vultures hovering in the sky directly above where he lay. Vultures, he had been told, had a prophetic instinct. They waited till you were too weak to move on and then they came down to sample your eyes by way of hors d’oeuvres.
By the end of fifteen hours Pickering had resigned himself to the worst. Had it been possible he would have made his will. There seemed no hope. He had shouted until he could shout no more; the spot was lonely and difficult of approach and the vultures had come perceptibly lower.
At last help appeared in the shape of Saki Khan, who had heard of the missing sahib and had sallied forth to help. Luck or his intimate knowledge of the Dakka hills had guided him in the right direction. He had brought a rope. Descending, he tied it under the officer’s armpits and in a very short time had hauled him to a place of safety.
NATURALLY Pickering was grateful.
Saki Khan had saved him from a horrible death; he must be suitably rewarded. Being a young man of generous disposition and private means, Pickering was prepared to do the handsome thing.
He had recognized his rescuer as the Balia tribesman who had had the effrontery to try to sell him the worst caricature of a pony he had ever seen. At the time he had disliked both Saki Khan and the pony. Now. however, things were different.
“If that pony of yours is still for sale,” he remarked as he hobbled toward the Dakka road, where help awaited, on Saki Khan’s shoulder, “I will buy it. What is more, I will pay four hundred rupees. It is a reward, you understand, for having saved my life. The custom of the sahib-log is to repay those who have assisted them in full measure.” Thus the matter was settled. That evening Saki Khan found himself richer by 400 rupees, while Pickering was the poorer in that he had become possessed of a pony even his syce was ashamed to ride.
Naturally Saki Khan broadcast the story of his success throughout the village ot Dakka. If he told the story once he told it a hundred times. Among those who listened and envied was Nadir Din.
“So you see I have sold my pony while
you have not yet sold your bhoosa," Saki Khan crowed. “Who now is the best maker of bargains?”
“It was only because of Pickering Sahib’s gratitude you sold the beast,” Nadir Din pointed out with truth.
“No matter how it came about, the pony is sold while your bhoosa is not,” Saki Khan retorted. “You should pray to Allah to send you a chance of helping Macpherson Sahib, then he might buy the bhoosa out of gratitude.”
Nadir Din retired to ponder the matter. He took with him three brothers and two cousins who had a family interest in the sale of the bhoosa. And the conclusion they came to was that direct action might be more profitable than troubling Allah with their prayers.
THREE EVENINGS later the direct action was taken. Quartermaster-Sergeant Macpherson, strolling alone beyond the confines of the R. H. C. camp, was pounced upon by five masked dacoits, bound and blindfolded and carried away into the hills. He was in a predicament even more unpleasant than Pickering’s had been. Lying helpless in the cave into which the dacoits had carried him, he thought of the wife and bairns he never expected to see
But his pessimism was unjustified. By a remarkable and very fortunate coincidence Nadir Din had chanced to be in the vicinity of the cave when the dacoits aí rived. And though they were five and he was only one, he did not hesitate to come to the rescue. His method of doing so was to fire his gun a great many times into the air, at the same time shouting at the top of his voice that he was Nadir Din, the friend of the sahibs.
The dacoits defended the cave stoutly. Their method of doing so was to fire their guns a great many times into the air, at the same time shouting that the attacker was Nadir Din, the friend of the sahibs.
To Quartermaster-Sergeant Macpherson it sounded as if a fearsome battle was being waged on his behalf. For some time the issue seemed in doubt. But at last three of the dacoits shouted out that they’d been mortally wounded by Nadir Din’s bullets and the party fled—the stricken men being presumably helped by their companions.
Nadir Din ran into the cave and cut Macpherson’s bonds.
“Allah be praised I was able to save you, sahib! Those devils would assuredly have put you to death with torture had I not come. They were a party of dacoits from the Bajaur Hills; devils who hate the sahiblog.”
Macphei son crushed his hand in a mighty grip.
“Yon was a guid bit o’ wark. Gosh! I’d gien masel’ up for deid.”
Plainly he suspected nothing. Nadir Din waited hopefully for his gratitude to find practical expression. But since Macpherson had no Pushtu and Nadir Din had no Doric, he had to wait until they had returned to the R. H. C. camp. Then Macpherson sent for the babu to interpret.
“Tell him Ah’m verra grateful. Ah’d like to gie him a reward, but Ah’m no a rich mon, ye understand. Ask him what he wants.”
He waited anxiously while the babu put the question. When Nadir Din’s reply had been translated, his face cleared wonderfully.
“Wants me to buy his bhoosa at fifteen annas the maund, does he? Well, Ah call that verra reasonable. Ah’ll tak the lot. It’s a big price, but wan guid tum desairves anither. An’ anyway it’s the Government that pays for the bhoosa an' no masel’. Get the requisition forrm made out at once.” The contract was made out and sealed with Nadir Din’s thumbprint. After he had ■gone rejoicing on his way, Macpherson went to 4he Mark III field telephone that con-
nected the R. H. C. camp with the Supply and Transport Depot at Ul.
“Are ye there, Brown?. . . Ah was speakin’ to ye about bhoosa the ither momin’ . Do ye mind repeatin’ what ye said?”
He heard the faint voice from the Supply Depot.
‘‘Can’t let you have a maund. There’s a
famine threatened owing to the lateness of the rains. Prices will be rocketing in a week or two. Down here we’re offering two rupees a maund and can’t buy even at that price . . . I’m sorry.”
‘‘Ay, Ah thocht that was whit ye told me,” said Quartermaster Sergeant Macpherson, and rang off.
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