ALLAN SWINTON February 15 1927


ALLAN SWINTON February 15 1927


Bowed by years but rich in cunning was old Yar Gul Mohammed


THE bare, brown mountains to which the Khyber Pass deploys at its western end, quivered to the eye in the morning heat; the jagged peaks etched perfectly against the pitiless turquoise of the Indian sky. An age-old trail wound round the last grim bluff to join the great Pass Road, along which caravans have come to Peshawar from Kandahar and Samarkand since the glamorous days of Jehangir.

As the roofs of that colorful city slipped into view, the black eyes of Yar Gul Mohammed, the Mahsud, glittered with avid anticipation.

Yar Gul was happy, with that soul-satisfying happiness which comes of the consciousness of work well done; for, at long last, the blood-feud between the houses of Gul Mohammed and Hafiz Shah was finished, by the mercy of Allah, to the everlasting glory of the former clan.

When the feud had its beginning, no man knew; but for generations the two clans, their brownstone forts, with the watch-towers at the corners, within a long rifle shot of one another, had been at war. A life for a life. Always, a man squatted in either watch-tower, rifle in lap, awaiting a chance shot at his enemy, this patient vigil being diversified by raids of one kind or another; lying in wait on the local roads; yelling daylight assaults and stealthy midnight stalkings, one house defensive, the other offensive, reversing their positions whenever a man was bagged. In recent years, for one reason or another, the manhood

of both families had become depleted, till but old Yar Gul Mohammed and his great grandson, cn the one hand, remained to deal with Ishak Hafiz Shah, survivor, in

his turn, of his house, on the other.

The feud had languished with the death of Yar Gul’s brother— neatly potted by Ishak. Drugged with too many bowls of bhang, he had followed a recalcitrant ewe within good shooting distance of the other citadel, where Ishak improved the shining hour by lying at the loophole with his rifle.

One heavy ‘wop!’ of the long Martini— stolen years ago from a sleeping British soldier—had sent the hope of the house of Gul Mohammed to rest with the houris in paradise. The next move, according to the ethics of Pathan etiquette, being on Yar Gul Mohammed.

Yar Gul senior, a gentleman of some parts, though too decrepit to walk, lay all day in his tower, and, whenever he had ammunition to spare, lobbed bullets across the little valley to the house of Hafiz Shah. '

Though the fange was full fourteen hundred yards, by the direct intervention of Allah, so he believed, he had bagged Ishak as he leaned on the well parapet in his own courtyard.

So ended that one feud of the many which smoulder eternally among the homesteads in the inhospitable mountains just across the Northwest frontier of British Indiâ, and Yar Gul Mohammed, the younger, enjoyed the unwonted sensation of leaving the family fortress in the broad light of day, without stealth, and openly taking the trail to the frontier; instead of leaving by night and slipping across the border somewhere on the broken hillside where only by chance could he be sniped.

Though but twenty years old, the young Mahsud was six feet and one inch tall and built in proportion, with shaven head and long black, curled and fiercely upturned moustaches. His heavy turban of crimson silk was wound rakishly low over one eye, and its tasselled end hung almost to his heels. Tucked in its folds was a great pink rose from the family courtyard, and, behind his ear, another. He wore a long, pink silk kaftan, reaching to his knees, with, over it, a sleeveless vest of green Bokhara velvet, gold embroidered, its many buttons set with garnets and turquoise. His legs were clad in flapping trousers of spotless white linen, while on his feet, were shoes of soft red leather with up-curled toes, pierced and sewn with golden wire.

Across one broad shoulder, he carried a leather belt completely filled with cartridges, and, across the other, a

modern Lee Enfield rifle, bought for its weight in silver from a lousy Povindah camel man who had garnered it in the battlefields of Mesopotamia. It was now carven and inlaid of stock, bound with silver wire, studded with turquoise and hung on a broad sling of stamped red leather. He wore a tulwar a thousand years old, of fine Delhi steel, damascened with gold and hilted with ivory and turquoise.

Altogether, Yar Gul Mohammed was a swashbuckling figure of a man, enough, and he faced the morning with an arrogant and somewhat supercilious air.

He swaggered along, hand on sword hilt, singing in a clear, thin, minor wail, till he came to a house of stone, where the trail entered the Great Pass Road between Jumrod and Peshawar, and a Gurkha sentry stood by the sign which marked the Indian frontier. Here, with a twinge of regret, he surrendered his weapons, receiving therefore a brass tally, exactly as more sophisticated man checks his hat at an hotel; for the British Raj allows no man to go openly armed in the streets of Peshawar. But for this, that jewelled city would have an hundred murders for the one which it now has.

This done, Yar Gul took the main road, and, after an hour or so, passed the great, rank-smelling caravanserai at the western gate and entered the city. Here, he dropped his swinging stride for a lazy saunter, as befitted a gentleman at his leisure, and wandered through the bazaars, rubbing shoulders impartially with the amazing throng of gaudy, picturesque Mohammedan cutthroats which ever gathers in Peshawar from all central Asia.

Through the street of the jewellers he went, and purchased nose rings studded with rubies for his women in the brown-stone changar, paying regally from a bag of rupees and gold mohurs which he dragged from beneath his cummerbund.

As he turned from the stall, a fat Bengali babu collided with him violently. Yar Gul Mohammed’s black eyes glittered. He smote the babu savagely in the mouth with the back of his hand, kicking him into the gutter as he flinched. In the days before the British, who take an unreasonably censorious attitude in the matter of murder, he would have disembowelled such scum with an underhand slash of the long Pathan knife; but then again, in in those days, a greasy Bengali money-lender would have been at pains that he collided with no six foot Semitic gentleman from the mountains. Thus works the great law of compensation.

The babu cringed and whined, scuttling off precipitately, while Afghan, Afridi, Mahsud, Uzbeg and Yusufzai who stood around, grinned evilly—for the Bengali has been fair game for them down all the ages.

Yar Gul continued his stroll till, at the line of dives which stands between the serai of the dancing boys and the coppersmiths’ quarter, he bent his tall head at a door and entered, calling for bhang, a maddening concoction of hemp and water, which he drank at a gulp, following with another. Then, from within, he heard the rattle of dice and the murmur of voices, so thrust with his foot at the door and entered.

CQUATTED on the floor around a low carved table, ^ two Pathans were playing punkit, a game wherein thirteen seeds are shaken in a box divided into two compartments, one red and one black. Each player has a

colour, and, when the box is opened, must place in the pool rupees equal to the number of seeds in his side of the box. This done they toss a coin for the pot. As a gambling game it is satisfying, being second only to poker as a means of easing the pocket.

As Yar Gul entered, the coin fell, and with a deep throated should of ‘Allah!’ a huge and bearded man raked in the pot. His companion muttered and rose with an expressive gesture. The winner spread his hands in deprecation as his late opponent left, but catching the eye of Yar Gul Mohammed, which had brightened visibly, he rumbled.

“Ho, 0 Bhai! Allah is great! Behold. In one day I am returned to mine own country after many years; and no man can contend with meat punkitl”

Yar Gul wasted no words. Dragging out his bundle of money, he flung it with a swagger on the mat and dropped cross-legged to face the stranger who laughed largely.

He was a burly, genial-looking Mahsud, more gorgeously dressed even than his new opponent, and all his raiment was obviously new.

They began to play. Yar Gul lost steadily, and, between throws, gathered that the other was just returned from many years spent as a stoker on a ‘B. & 0.’ liner—a Pathan will occasionally take to this work for sake of the wages—and that he was returning to his home for all time, having accumulated much wealth.

About the time the stranger had finished the recital of his wanderings, Yar Gul, with a curse, reached for his gold embroidered slippers and flung them on the mat. The other swore regally, looked at them and passed across a generous sum in payment; for the Pathan is a gentleman in all his dealings with his equals, if ever a bully to the weaker and a braggart with the stronger.

But the luck was with the stranger, and in the end Yar Gul stood up stripped to his white linen trousers, bareheaded.

“Brother,” he said evenly, “at the frontier I have weapons; a good rifle, a tulwar. Come!”

With a regretful sigh for the delights of the city, the favored of Allah deferred to the loser’s privilege, stuffed Yar Gul’s money into his belt and made a bundle of all his apparel. Then together they took the road to the border, Yar Gul very tall, clean-cut and muscular in his white trousers and sleek, brown skin, and the other more mature, huge and burly, black-hearded and jovial with much bhang and charas.

In the stone house, Yar Gul redeemed his arms, and the two, marching a little way up the trail to the shade of a boulder, squatted once more. Silently, the stranger examined the weapons, his face lighting up at their excellence. Then he said:

“Brother, Allah forbid that I should be harsh! All that I have gained to-day will I stake on one throw against these.”

Yar Gul nodded grimly. Thirty seconds later the other rose and thrust the ancient tulwar through his sash, slinging the rifle and cartridge belt over one shoulder. Yar Gul stood, a little blankly, watching. Such an ending to such a morning!

The big man hesitated, gazing regretfully back at the roads of Peshawar. He looked towards the mountains, then back at the city, till at length he spoke:

“Oh, Brother, may thy fortune change! I go to the house of my fathers, which I have not seen these many years. Salaam!”

He swung off up the path. But Y ar Gul called : “Brother, I, too, go by that path! The Prophet saith, ‘Pleasant are companions upon a lonely road!’ ”

Thus they travelled together. His companion talked continually of his travels, till they rounded the bluff.

“Behold,” he then said; “though it is full fifteen summers since I walked this trail, these hills are as familiar as the face of a wife of fifty years. Allah! It is hot! But to., be back is good. The Black Water is full of weariness. How far takest thou this trail, son of misfortune? I must leave it ere long; for there is an ancient feud against my house, and perchance my face is as familiar to Yar Gul Mohammed as these hills are to me!”

Yar Gul stiffened but he controlled himself, saying, “Our house lies ten miles to the northward. Soon we must part. What is thy name, brother, that I may return and seek thee in the serai?”

The big man answered: “Yakub Hafiz Shah,” and took his hand off the hilt of the tulwar which had been but lately Yar Gul’s own. “What do men call thee?”

“Yar Gul Mohammed!” said that worthy grimly, and grabbed the sword-hilt venomously.

But, ere it was clear, Yakub had his wrist, and they fought there in the dust like wildcats, snarling, tearing, biting and gouging frenziedly. To and fro, they staggered, till, with a furious wrench, Yakub so twisted Yar Gul’s wrist that the ,sword fell from his numbed hand. Then, seizing his opportunity, Yakub let go the wrist and snatched the sword hilt. But, as he did so, his antagonist with a despairing heave broke loose and, leaping over the line of boulders by the trail, went bounding madly down the stony hillside.

Yakub promptly squatted in the dust, unslung the rifle, pumped in a round and sighted carefully at the

flying figure of his house’s ancient enemy. “Crack!” Yar Gul leaped, as his ribs were seared, and ran on, doubling desperately. “Crack!” again. A clean miss; and thereafter Yakub methodically sniped till the bounding figure in the spotless trousers went to cover in a deep ravine.

Most Pathans would have dropped Yar Gul at the first shot, but fifteen years stoking is bad for marksmanship, so Yar Gul escaped.

At once, Yakub took to the boulders. Both men melted into the hillside, and, till dusk, were no more seen.

With the darkness, each crept warily to his own stonebuilt home.

What transpired within the manless changar of Ishak Hafiz Shah, none know. Instead of eight tall brothers, Yakub found but women and a stripling.

But, in the house of Gul Mohammed, was much cursing, as the women bathed the young man’s side, while he told of the return of the long-forgotten Yakub Hafiz Shah from across the Black Water, and of his winning their best rifle together with all the other gear.

Wizened, bleary and white-bearded, Old Yar Gul sat shivering with malaria and cursing evilly at the passing of the short-lived triumph of his house. Then he called to his favorite wife: “Y’Allah! Ill fortune to us!” He gibbered in his beard. “Bring me the old rifle!”

Handling the ancient Martini, he swore again regretfully for the highly efficient weapon which had allowed him to pepper his enemy’s house at long range. But the best had to be made of a bad job, so he sat and cleaned the old gun, while Yar Gul rested.

AT THE break of dawn, he called crackedly to his - women, and they carried his wizened form up the worn stone steps to the tower, disposing him on a heap of bhusa and giving him the Martini, a pile of cartridges and a really excellent pair of field glasses made in Jena, Germany, and purchased for their weight in gold from the same Bovindah who had supplied the late lamented Lee Enfield. For it seemed to Yar Gul Mahommed the elder, that, though the next move was rightly to the ex-stoker, a little peace might be a good thing for his own house; so thought to dispose of the unsuspected cadet of his enemy without delay.

As soon as the light was good enough, he thrust the old Martini through the loophole and settled down to hope

that his long absence from the hills had made Yakub less wary than he should be.

But the latter, too, was not slow to take up his responsibilities. One of Yar Gul’s women had just come up to him with a steaming bowl of stewed mutton, rice and garlic, into which the old man dipped his talons greedily, when a faint ‘pop,’ sounded, followed by a whistle and a spurt of dust that flew up from the plain close to the changar.

At fourteen hundred yards, even the Lee Enfield is not accurate, and functions with a howitzer-like action which drops the bullet from the sky. Nevertheless, Yar Gul was uneasy; he remembered the lucky shot which had sent Ishak to his fathers, and every time that faint ‘pop’ sounded, wheezed fervent maledictions into his greasestained beard.

All morning long, at intervals, the bullets fell and Yar Gul was reminded forcibly that it was the possession of the more efficient weapon which had enabled him to polish off most of the rival clan in the last few years, the lack of men in his own house being chiefly due to an

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attack of smallpox which had descended upon the changar; and, when later in the day a vicious crack followed by a smart ‘thwack!’ on the watchtower, perilously near the loophole, said that Yakub was out among the boulders within seven or eight hundred yards, his bad old eyes fairly blazed with rage. For the old Martini was not good for more than five hundred, and made a big puff of white smoke at that.

The house of Yar Gul lay very low that day—there are wells in all Pat.han forts— and not till full night did Yar Gul, the younger, sally forth to milk the ewes.

For three days, Yakub kept them close, approaching his sniping post by a circuitous route, and not once did they catch sight of him. But every hour or so a bullet would ‘thwack!’ against their walls, and sire and grandson would curse malevolently.

Yakub seemed determined to persevere until he had ended the feud for good, and they had an unpleasant feeling that it was only a matter of so much time before he was successful. So, they held councils of war, discussing ways and means.

It was hopeless to lie out at night and try to get their man as he lay in his post, for the ground sloped from their fort to his, and they would surely be sniped from the rival changar if they attempted to get near enough for the old rifle to be reliable. But at last, on the third evening, an idea struck the old man, and he called eagerly to young Yar Gul, who lay disconsolately on a charpoy in the big bare main room of the cha ngar.

For long they talked, the boy at first shaking his head determinedly, but, at last, his grandfather made his point and they busied themselves with preparations for their plans to end the deadlock.

At the dark of night, when the moon had just set, Yar Gul, the younger, ^allied forth with his decrepit grandparent slung on his back in the bight of a linen sari, much as a baby is hung to a scale for weighing. The dried up body of the old ruffian looked very small, his useless legs dangling ludicrously from the bundle, and his long betrd trailing.

On top of him. was a bundle of food, and his grandson bore the old Martini in his hand.

They entered the velvet darkness and were swallowed up, the hooded women shooting the bolts in the great nahurwood gate precipitately, for fear of the ghosts and bhoots and djinns which all men know are abroad in the hills when the moon has set.

Inside, the boys of nine or ten fingered the old eight-foot jezails with curly stocks, which had been loaded that they might uphold the tradition of their house should aught unexpected befall.

Outside, the two Yar Guls clambered among the rocks in the whispering night. For an hour, they went in utter silence but for the old man’s whispered word—he seemed to know his way instinctively about the soot black mountain—until at last he called a halt. The other unslung the sari and lowered him to the ground.

There, high on the hillside overlooking the wide valley, he installed his grandparent comfortably between two boulders, with a greasy sheepskin poshtin beneath him and another for cover. He disposed the food of cold curry and jerked mutton within reach, and hunted for a suitable rock on which the old Martini could be rested to cover the hillside below.

When all was done, the two exchanged the greetings of their creed, the old man pulled the stinking poshtin over his head and disposed himself for sleep. His grandson returned to the changar at once.

\A7ITH the first faint streak of dawn, ’ ’ Yakub Hafiz Shah was abroad. He breakfasted largely on chaputties and curds and spiced, stewed ■ mutton, and

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then, picking up his recently acquired and really beautifully embellished rifle, cleaned it lovingly with a piece of soft hide. This done, wrapping the breach carefully, he slipped out of the wicket and took the trail which he had discovered led to a good place from which to snipe his foe without exposing him to them en route.

By the time the first rays shot from a blazoned mountain sunrise, he was comfortably ensconced upon an eminence, covering the rival fort and all the slope between.

Affectionately regarding the prospect, he slipped in a round and, sighting carefully, tried to lob it into the top of the tower. Introductions concluded, he then settled down to wait for the chance he knew, sooner or later, would come.

But, soon, he saw a distant figure on the slope behind the changer of Yar Gul Mohammed. It was far outside rifle shot. Hurriedly producing an ancient folding spy glass, such as was supplied to Brit’sh officers in the early days of the East India Company, he concluded, with a muttered oath, that it was his late companion at punkit, Yar Gul Mohammed, proceeding at a long trot westward, obviously headed for the border by a circuitous route; and, probably, thought Yakub, with a belt full of gold to buy a good rifle, for the houseof Gul Mohammed' was rich, as riches go in those bare hills.

After a moment’s chagrined pondering, Yakub’s face lighted. He chuckled delightedly in his beard and then got quickly to his feet and hurried back along the trail to his own house, but swung south as soon as he was safe from observation from the enemy’s fort.

He traveled fast, and, in a little, turned west and began the ascent of the long slope to the jagged skyline high above him. For he knew Yar Gul Mohammed must soon swing south to make the border, and that, unless he took the next valley which was unlikely—it would have made a thirty miles trip—must inevitably use the valley on the other side of the ridge. There was of course plenty of cover there, but nevertheless, a man on the very crest of the ridge, would get a good chance at what ever moved in the valley.

So Yakub strained every nerve to top the slope.

High up across the valley, facing the ridge, up whose reverse Yakub toiled, Yar Gul Mahommed, the elder, lay snugly in his sheepskin, munching his food.

The old Martini was poked over the rock before him, and his beady, black eyes flickered up and down the long slope of the opposing ridge, on the top of which the glow of the rising sun was just appearing. He seemed like some old, old hawk, stiff winged and wet of feather, watching from its eerie, his eyes none dimmed by the years which had sapped his body.

Back at the foot of the valley, Yar Gul, the younger, having completed his part of the scheme, lay under a boulder and prayed that Yakub had done what they had betted he would, and had not taken the other alternative and followed him.

DY THE time Yakub was three-quarO ters up the slope, he was wet with perspiration, and panting, but he did not slacken his pace till at last he made the crest. Here, he adopted a more cautious manner, crouching, and slipping stealthily from boulder to boulder.

By now, the sun was up, flooding the naked rocks with glaring light and avid heat. Yakub stalked swiftly on, aiming for a projecting bluff commanding all the valley.

Across the gully, Yar Gul the elder’s black eyes flickered up and down the ridge, till at long, long last he grinned and muttered in his greasy beard, A white dot dodged among the distant boulders.

He cuddled the hot stock of the old Martini, and lovingly laid sights on the tiny figure. But he did not fire. For

Yakub was a thousand yards away, and the old rifle was not safe at that distance. So he lay and covered his man, praying that he would not stop till he was at least in sporting range.

YAKUB was in high good humor. Already, he could see the valley, birdwise. He would make the top of the high bluff, and wait there comfortably for the ending of the ancient feud.

Soon, Yar Gul divined to where his foe was heading, and rubbed his clawlike hands in glee. Six or seven hundred he thought. A long, long shot—but the conditions were ideal, and he knew his rifle well.

At last, Yakub dropped in the lee of a boulder on the very top of the bluff, unslung the Lee Enfield and laid it on the ground before him, stretching luxuriously in his weariness.

He was perfectly covered from all the valley, and at peace with the world.

LJTGH on the opposing ridge, old Yar

-*■ Gul Mohammed, ancient enemy of his house, squinted along his rifle for the hundredth time, as if loth to end the delectable situation in which he found himself. But in the end, with an evil smile the greasy old villain pressed the trigger. The dull, heavy ‘wop!’ of the black powder came clearly to the ears of Yakub Hafiz Shah.

That was the last thing he noted in this life, for the bullet took him fairly in the chest and his burly body leaped up and hurtled down the steep flank of the bluff, while his genial soul departed in search of the long promised houris in the Mohammedan paradise.

Across the gorge, Yar Gul Mohammed gibbered in his beard. And, high in the turquoise, which canopied the mountains, a vulture ceased its eternal wheeling, closed its great wings and started on a long swoop to the still white form in the valley bottom.