The Ruling Passion
THE NEWLY RISEN SUN cleared the main range and flooded the wide mountain basin with golden light, which deepened to pastel shades of rose and mauve in the hollows of gaunt hills hemming it in on every side. Lonely in the bottom of the vast bare amphitheatre crouched an Afridi hamlet whose white-robed villagers stood herded in the council place by Dillon's Rajputs, bearded and martial on their chargers under the venomous black lances.
Dillon, a dark, tall young man with a distinctive charm of face and carriage, jx)ked with his riding cane at the dust and awaited the outcome of his raid resignedly and without hope. But he quickened abruptly as from among the houses was led curvetting a horse whose trappings of red leather and green velvet, gold-wire embroidered and gemmed with turquoise, set off to perfection its equine excellence. The sowar at its carved bit said:
“We found him in a goat byre that you would not think could hide an ass.” Dillon walked round the horse, his sensitive long face, his eyes of Irish grey, alight with admiration. It was a magnificent black stallion with a ripple in its mane and tail, a bull neck and a towering crest like no breed known to him. He offered it a shapely finger, saying caressing things in the soft brogue of County Mayo, and the horse cocked its ears and distended scarlet nostrils in a warm, jet velvet muzzle.
His senior native officer, Rissaldar Sawai Singh, clanked up and saluted. “ Huzoor. this headman did not lie. Yar Gul Mohammed is not here. A rat could not hide where we have not searched.” But Dillon, raptly intent upon the horse, neither saw nor h e a r d . The grizzled Rissaldar, coughing discreetly, gained at last his attention, and Dillon nodded. For six months he and a crack rissalah had hunted this Pathan freebooter with monotonous failure. He said to the Rissaldar: “Yet this must be his horse. Did you ever see* such a beast?”
"Never, huzoor. He is fit for an emperor to ride. It was the horse misled our spy; it was brought here yesterday, but the Pathan was to have come today. This I have learned from a hag byquestioning. But will he come now within five kos of this accursed village? Word travels in these hills like fire in summer grass.”
Dillon shook his head. "No use wasting more time here; that’s certain. Water and feed by half squadrons. We’ll give them six hours rest.”
AT TEN O’CLOCK of the blistering day he headed Calabar, his big dun Balkhi gelding, back through the naked Khyber hills toward his post of Miam Mameen, across the Indian border. In the drab mountain wilderness the column was a mere file of ants whose dust curled up in a lazy plume, through which the steel of bits and lance heads glittered. The glare of the sun was almost intolerable, and the hot air, through which the landscape quivered to the vision, parched the throat.
It was an old route they travelled. Ancient kings had raided India through that pass. He often pictured the barbaric hosts filling the valleys where the old road ran.
Somehow the splendor of Yar Gul Mohammed’s horse suggested irresistibly those long-dead warriors. Dillon wished he could show it to his father, and the thought brought a vision of the indomitable old gentleman, still breeding a few hunters on the remnants of his forfeited estate. He could see the lean figure in its faded riding kit, standing before some horse and holding forth his lifelong philosophy: "There’s nothing like horses. Look in your
history and you’ll see it. Men tire of women, wine and jxnver. but can you show me one who ever tired of horseflesh?”
He turned to delight his eye with the horse again. The road at this point bent sharply, close beneath the sheer wall of the open pass, and the trumpeter on the black horse had cleared the bend but the rest were out of sight behind it. Dillon was just in time to see a gaudily dressed Pathan rise from concealment among some boulders at the cliff foot, swing up on the black horse and knife the trumjxïter in a single movement, then wheel and bolt across the valley at a tearing gallop. The place was chosen perfectly, the coup made with consummate dash and skill. With an. oath of incredulous indignation. he wrenched round Calabar and at once was galloping, pistol in hand and, stung by flying stones, not ten lengths behind the Pathan.
He could have stopped the fugitive then and there. He drew down his hand for the shot. But the man crouched low in the saddle, his face beside his horse’s neck, making a mark so small that at that pace Dillon could not be sure of hitting it. He knew he could bring down the horse, but he did not pull the trigger. He could not. It simply was not in him to put a bullet into such a horse. He put away his pistol and spurred like a madman in pursuit, and in a billow of dust the two beasts tore across the stony plain.
Over his shoulder Dillon saw the entire rissalah. lance points a-glitter, racing behind him like a pack of hounds. Stones flew and hoofs furiously clattered, and slowly the black drew ahead till he could not have been sure of hitting him if he had tried.
They swept through a nullah and out again into a new valley, at sight of whose broad exjianse he cursed disgustedly. He knew now that the black had the legs of Calabar, and in the three miles of open galloping ahead would gain time to make good his concealment in the broken country on the other side. He had thrown away his heaven-sent chance. What a footling fool ! Despairingly he sat down to make the best of it, but for all his break-neck riding the chase slowly grew hojxdess.
They were quarter-way across the of>en, with perfect going ahead, when to his amazement the fugitive pulled his horse to its haunches, skidded perilously in an acute turn and headed up the valley, in this inexplicable manoeuvre sacrificing most of his lead. Now, why had he done that? In incredulous delight Dillon spurred after him, riding as he never had ridden before.
Soon they were in broken country, which Calabar, a trained pig-sticking horse, negotiated expertly, offsetting the black’s superior speed so that the latter no longer gained. At the valley head he disappeared into a nullah so deep as to give shadows from the sun, and by the time Dillon followed was out of sight round a bend. Clearing this in full career, Dillon was completely disconcerted to behold him halted by a barrier of rocks and waiting like a cornered wolf, eyes fierce above the black’s high crest and straight blade gleaming. At sight of his pursuer he charged headlong.
Taken by surprise, Dillon grabbed for the weapon handiest and whipped out his sword, barely in time to catch the first savage stroke. Then they were at it, stout Kabul tulwar against English rapier, driving in at each other with the sublime ferocity of a brace of strange Airedales. But before the blades had clashed a half dozen times, into the nullah with levelled lance shot a young sowar who had outdistanced the rest. The black was swerved cunningly, dodging the spear; but the flying horse collided with him, knocking him off balance and separating him from Dillon. The Pathan’s sword licked out and Rukan Singh pitched from the saddle, as round the bend thundered the rissalah, plugging the gut between the beetling rocks with eager Rajputs. They pulled up in a milling jam of lathered horses and slim, bearded men, whose eye-whites glistened under their rakish red and yellow turbans.
The fugitive reined back till the black’s quarters bumped the rock, and waited, panting above his reddened sword. He was a big clean-shaved Pathan swathed in vivid silks, with a great beaked nose and black ringlets round his ears, from which massive gold rings depended. At his neck was a chain of turquoises. Through a fringe of gold dangling from a black silk puggaree his eyes glinted, hard and fierce. Yet they were zestful, and Dillon thought he looked more like a man intent on some jxAlous sport than one about to lose his life.
Sweat-soaked, dust-smothered but exultant, Dillon sheathed his sword and covered him with his pistol, crying in Pushtu: "Get off thy horse and throw down thy sword, Yar Gul Mohammed!”
The fellow showed big white teeth and taunted: “Come and take my sword. If that thing had been loaded thou wouldst have shot me before this.”
Dillon fired so that the bullet spattered on the rock. "Make up thy mind,” he said. "Enough good men have died on thy account.”
“And is the pullani sahib cured of swordplay after one little scuffle?”
But Dillon was not to be drawn. “Throw down thy sword.”
The hot amber eyes met his, as deliberately the man took his measure and then looked past him at the crowd of hereditary enemies under the forest of their lances— Hindus, eager to make an end of any Moslem. For a moment Dillon expected him to charge, and his own finger tightened on the trigger. But the Pathan took one more hungry look around him, head up like a questing hound in futile hope of some alternative, then, seeing only steep bare rock and waiting foes, he shook his head. “We be of one mind in this,” he said. “Life has its savor, and while life remains there is yet always hope.” His sword rang on the stones and he climbed slowly from his jewelled saddle.
THE two dead Rajputs had been buried and the rissalah had resumed its march. Behind Dillon on the dead trumpeter’s horse the burly captive rode, his wrists handcuffed, his feet lashed to the stirrups and his reins tied to the bridle of a grim old Jamadar with his drawn sword across his pommel. Next came the black, champing and splendid with its gay caparison. Stark against turquoise sky in deathlike silence, the brown grandeur of the hills still oppressed the column on every' side.
The sun was at its zenith, the heat positively malignant. It clogged the limbs, blunted the senses, sapped one’s strength at its source. Dillon’s bridle buckles burned his hand; the dry bitterness of the dust was in his mouth and the rank, acrid odor of the sweat of horses filled his nostrils.
Yar Gul Mohammed called imperiously. “Oh, thou!” and he turned in the saddle. His prisoner, sitting his horse more like a prince among his own than a captive, requested: “Let me ride by thy side. I would talk with thee.”
Dillon signed the Jamadar to lead him up, and submitted to a cool frank scrutiny from two extraordinarily piercing gold-brown eyes, as the Pathan appraised the man who for six months had hunted him without respite.
Dillon returned the gaze with no less interest. The fellow’s face, but little darker than his own. was stamped with breeding and marked with the traditional resemblance of his race to birds of prey. The lips were red and curved, half cruel, half those of a dreamer, the olive skin was clear. “Where art thou taking me?” The prisoner asked at length.
“For trial in Peshawur.”
The Pathan nodded. “And after that?”
“What dost thou think? There are two dead sahibs and now my smears to be paid for.”
“They were slain in fight. They would not have died had they not molested me.”
“Thou plundered on our side the border. There is no war but of thy making.”
“This border! Pah! You English made it for thy purposes. It has stood for but fifty %'ears. The mountain men have levied tribute in the passes these two thousand. Why should the sirkar interfere? Thou lookest like a man. Why dost thou sell thy sword to guard these Jews and their stinking beasts?” Dillon did not reply; and he felt rebuked.
“And so I die?” concluded the Pathan by and by.
Dillon nodded, looking ahead at the brown slopes, quivering in the heat.
“What manner of death?” Yar Gul Mohammed asked at length.
Dillon remained silent, gazing at the Balkhi’s gaunt yellow ears till the fellow prompted, “On a rope?”
Dillon nodded again.
“A dog’s death,” his prisoner commented, and turned to eye Dillon quizzically, “But my neck is not yet in thy noose, and it is far to Peshawur.”
Thev rode on in silence.
It came to Dillon that he did not feel the jubilation warranted by his success. Then he remembered and voiced the question:
“Why didst thou turn and not go straight across that valley? But for that thou wouldst have got away?”
“I paid that price for having come to these strange hills where I do not know the ground. Didst thou ever see a horse that had galloped through a shale bed?”
Dillon had. He remembered the pitiful legs, gashed to the bone a hundred times by the knife-edged flakes, in the loose beds of which a horse sinks fetlock deep. He turned in the saddle and regarded Yar Gul Mohammed with incredulous and delighted admiration. This gaudy thief had thrown away his life rather than maim the great black horse by galloping it through the shale bed that Dillon had not observed filled the valley bottom. There was a man for you !
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The Pathan tried to gesture with a slim yellow hand gemmed with turquoise, but the shackle checked it with a click.
"So long as 1 live,” he explained, “I am far from death. And if I were free and that horse ruined, where should 1 find such another? Not this side of Paradise, I think.”
The point was well made with Dillon, in whose mind at once the horst: was uppermost. He said:
“That is the liest horse I have ever seen. How is he bred?”
"By a stallion of the breed of Olf, which I took from a flat-faced Tartar in the hills of Turkestan.”
"Olf," Dillon queried. ‘‘I know no such breed.”
‘The black breed of Olf, from the great plains of the Russ. 1 bred him to an iron grey of Hissar stock, the best mare in my father's stud. But though I cared for her till her time was come and the colt till he was five, my father would not yield him to me. Yet he was mine alone. He would come to my whistle through fire or down a mountain side. So I took him for myself and left that place.”
So that was the explanation of the sudden advent in the Shammu highlands of this till then unknown firebrand.
Dillon said: “A horse among a million. Yet he is not exactly perfect for the work where 1 come from. We need a longer neck, to give them balance. My father has a mare at home that I should like to breed to him. She had the bone and the quality, and also should give the foal the neck it needs.”
Yar Gul Mohammed said testily: "Neck! Umg neck ! How is this thou sayest?”
"We follow fast hounds across tilled country, and a horse must jump big walls and banks, not knowing what is on the other side. A long neck gives the proper balance.”
"Nevertheless I will ride my horse behind fiends through the pits of hell, and show his tail to any beast ever foaled. Where is this country? 1 may yet ride him there against these long-necked cattle of thine.”
TA 11,LON'S eyes shone at the thought.
That would be a sight worth seeing: ’f ar Gul Mohammed in his white satin pantaloons, with his waistcoat of orange velvet and his green sword belt, his gold fringe and his ringlets, galloping the black horse with the neighbors through the fields of Mayo. Almost he could hear the horn and the hounds’ hungry clamor, and see his father in his faded pink on old Shane Attock, changing feet atop a stone-faced bank. With empty eyes on a blue gap owning to the south he answered soberly: “It is far from here, many weeks over the black water.”
The prisoner craned round in his saddle and regarded hungrily his horse, dancing on tireless feet behind him. When he grew cramped in this position, he squirmed round the other way.
Dillon raised his hand for a halt and ordered the Jamadar, Rit Singh:
"Put the prisoner on his own horse; and see there can bo no mishap while it is done.” The Pathan whipped about, his face transfigured, his big teeth gleaming and his eyes alight. He said in a new, vibrant voice: "For that Allah will reward thee, brother, among the houris in His Paradise.”
At the sword's point the change was made to his green velvet saddle, and when they had bound his feet in the stirrups of carved silver the column marched, with the black between Rit Singh and Dillon.
The prisoner bent above the horse’s neck, smoothing it with his shackled hands and speaking tenderly in mellow Pushtu, and the beast pricked its ears and quivered. It made Calabar, fine charger that he was, look common. Dillon said:
"I have known some good ones, but none like him. A man might live ten lifetimes and not see such another.” He leaned and laid his hand beside Yar Gul Mohammed’s on the sleek black withers.
The Pathan turned his head, and the fierce, tawny eyes behind the dangling fringe met the Irish grey under the khaki vizor in an instant of perfect harmony. Then the two straightened in their saddles and for a little time neither spoke.
Yar Gul Mohammed said: "It is written that thou also art of those to whom a horse is more than merely beast.”
Dillon stared straight ahead. Incredibly, his eyes were moist. All at once Yar Gul Mohammed turned to regard him with redoubled interest.
“By Allah, light comes to a mystery. Thou hadst a loaded pistol in thy hand, and I not ten lengths running from thee, yet thou didst not shoot. Why was that, brother?”
Dillon looked away uncomfortably and did not reply, and Yar Gul Mohammed went on :
"Nevertheless I know the reason. That also will be written to thy eternal favor. For God knows there be many men, but fewer horses such as this. Tell me, what comes to him when I am hanged?”
Dillon was brought back to realities with a jolt. He replied reluctantly: "He is forfeit to the sirkar."
“Is he not then thine, as his captor?” “That is not our custom. He will be sold to the highest bidder.”
“And wilt thou buy him?”
“I am a poor man. There are twenty rissalahs of horse in Peshawur. and every officer will bid up to his last gold mohur for such a charger. He will go for twenty times what I could pay.”
The captive sat the dancing horse awhile in silence.
"Brother,” he said by and by, “I would not have my horse go after I am dead to any who can pay the price. I will give him to thee, here and now, before we cross the border into India.”
Dillon’s heart leapt, but sank at once. “How can that be? I am an officer of the sirkar on sirkari business.”
Rit Singh, the grizzled Jamadar who led the black, said unexpectedly:
" Huzoor, forgive an old man’s impertinence. 'fhe sirkar’s law is dry-as-dust and foolishness. Take the horse. Wouldst thou have some greasy merchant ride him with the women in Peshawur mall every morning? And would any man in this rissalah breathe a word that would take such a beast from the head of it?”
“Well spoken, thakur!” Yar Gul Mohammed cried. “We be three men of one mind. Brother, give me what money thou hast with thee here, so that when men ask it will be no lie to say that thou hadst him at a bargain from an Afghan across the border who had no further use for him. Halt thy men and get thy gear upon him, for I would see him for what time is left me as he will be, leading this Hindu rissalah, ridden by a man.”
Dillon whipped himself to an indignation that was false to his true feelings. The thing was preposterous, a breach of duty. It was grafting, collusion, frank chicanery, for all his men to see.
Yar Gul Mohammed said“Put up thy hand and give the order, to make glad a man who soon will dance on nothing at a rope’s end.”
Dillon raised his hand and the column halted.
They put the captive on the trumpeter’s horse again, replacing the black’s red leather and green velvet with the polished pigskin and bright silver of Dillon’s regimental appointments. Dillon’s eyes shone at the sight. There was not such another charger in the cavalry. No, nor in the train of any prince in Rajputana.
But when the time came to mount, a strong and curious diffidence restrained him, almost as if he contemplated sacrilege.
Yar Gul Mohammed said: "By Allah,
that naked gear of thine becomes him more than did mine own, and that the best in all Bokhara. Perhaps his new rider will as well replace the old. Up, brother, and make my heart glad.”
Dillon bit his lip, gathered the reins and swung into the saddle.
“March a little ahead, that I may see him move,” the prisoner said. “Thy bit is strange to him, but I swear he holds his head the better for it. His name is ‘Suliman.’ after a mighty king. Guard him well in thy camps at night, for every Pathan in the hills will try to lift him.”
A FTER THE TRIAL. Dillon took a month’s leave and went pig-sticking, and while so engaged received the preposterous news that the regiment was to be disbanded and replaced by tanks and airplanes. It was a completely unexpected blow and it turned his world topsy-turvy.
When his leave expired, he arrived at railhead in late afternoon and rode Suliman up alone, leaving the syces to follow leading the rest of his string.
With the last of a gorgeous sunset he reached the walled serai that for 2.000 years has sheltered caravans at the Indus crossing by Mian Mameen. It was a place whose romance never failed to thrill him, and he turned in as he had often done before, to watch the Central Asian nomads swarming about their evening fires. The sounds of many beasts, the thud of picket mauls and the vociferations of hairy merchants and their women merged in a never-waning hubbub; smokes rose and cook pots frothed; a myriad rank smells gripped his nostrils. It was hard to realize that soon there would be no more of India for him.
Suliman suddenly grew restive and fought for his head, and a group of Pa thans at a fire turned to stare at him. A foppishly dressed youth with curled hair and a rose behind his ear stood up and laid a hand on his neck. Suliman stood still and quivered, with ears cocked and enquiring nostrils. The youth said, looking up at Dillon with the arrogance of all his breed:
“A fine horse, sahib. Whence did he come?”
The answer came to Dillon’s lips involuntarily:
“I had him at a bargain from an Afghan across the border who had no further use for him.”
A burly fellow with his head muffled in a puggaree of saffron damask burst into deepvoiced laughter, and Dillon turned to meet a pair of keen eyes flecked with gold that instantly reminded him of Yar Gul Mohammed. But that debonair freebooter had died ten days ago, at sunrise on the gallows of Peshawur gaol. The man continued to gaze at him and chuckle, and Dillon wheeled Suliman and forced him through the gate between the gabbling beggars clustered there. The horse was hard to handle, and he bent to pat the black arch of his mighty neck. The incident had revived his memories of Yar Gul Mohammed. He saw again the strong, steady eyes, meeting his own as their hands lay together on Suliman’s sleek withers, and heard him say: “Thou also art of those to whom a
horse is more than merely beast.”
Dillon knew that this was so; and if he had loved Suliman before, his feeling for him now might be called a passion, for the horse was the one thing of all that he had loved in India that he was not forced to leave behind. S he would be all that was left him of his life of the last twelve years.
Yet for all the poignancy of that realization, he was conscious also of a certain happiness, as yet not fully born but quickened and growing. Since his mother died he had been haunted by the thought of his father’s loneliness. That would be ended now. There would be the quaint house and the friendly faces, the peat smoke and the blue hills and the hunting with his father through the fields of Ballaclue.
He skirted the fortress wall in the dull gold of the afterglow and turned in at the gate. The sentry, beard curled and eyewhites gleaming, stood to attention beneath his jxmnoned lance. Crossing the parade ground, the place seemed strangely quiet. No sowars stalked to and fro. No horses squealed from the lines. Dillon dismounted in the little garden before his quarters, where the scent of roses and of jasmine filled the air. In response to his query, the servant who had hurried up replied: "Eight days
ago, huzoor. They rode out suddenly, and they have not returned.”
The rissalah was in the hills, leaving only its sick and the guard behind it. He might have missed the regiment’s last fight. It seemed incredible.
He changed and went over to the mess and sat down with his mail and a drink to wait for dinner. There was a letter from headquarters granting the leave he had requested. By great luck he had six months home leave due him; he was taking it, and his resignation would take effect before it expired.
Then his eyes widened and the glass stopped at his lips as he stared at the next letter. It was the rissalah's marching orders. Yar Gul Mohammed was free again. Eight days ago he had clubbed a guard and got clean away.
The punkhas wheezed and the small lizards chattered while Dillon sat motionless and stared before him. Yar Gul Mohammed had cheated them again. Well, luck to the spunky devil. He was glad he was done with the business.
The bearer murmured, “ Khanah taire," and absently he went in to dinner.
There would not be many more dinners for him in that old messroom. The thought hurt. His world was changed, his life swung into a new orbit. He was going home to Ballaclue. And Yar Gul Mohammed, worthy opponent . .
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Dillon put down his knife and fork and stared across the table with lips parted and unseeing eyes. That man with his head swathed in saffron, who had laughed, and whose eyes had been so irresistibly like Yar Gul Mohammed's. He was Yar Gul Mohammed ! That was just the sort of thing the nervy devil would do. He had not done the obvious and fled across the border where 3,000 cavalry would swarm to hunt him. He had slipped quietly south. It was just about six days by the road from Peshawur.
And he had not come to Mian Mameem for nothing. Dillon’s face darkened and his hand closed on his chair arm. He had come for Suliman; he had been waiting in the caravanserai for his return.
Dillon’s mind raced. If he raided the serai tonight with what smears he had he would not get his man, for every Pathan in the place would aid the fugitive and there would be 500 willing ruffians with their long knives in the dark against his twenty Rajputs.
Yar Gul Mohammed had come for his horse; Dillon was sure of that. He had made a study of Pathans. They were horse-lifters and rifle sneaks par excellence. He knew how they would tackle such a matter, and he conceived a surer way to recapture him.
DILLON ate his dinner, though it was straw in his mouth. There was no hurry; it was not yet full dark. Afterward lie went to his quarters and changed into khaki, pocketed a loaded pistol and a torch, and slipped out by the back entrance. He skirted the parade ground and made his way stealthily into the stable housing his three chargers and his polo ponies. Inside, it was completely dark, (xlorous of horses and friendly with their breathings and the munching of their fodder. He rolled a hay bale into Suliman’s box and set it in a comer for a seat. The horse whinnied and nuzzled his chest. Alone in the friendly dark, he could give vent to feelings daylight kept suppressed, and he slid his arm round its neck and pressed himself with passion against it.
Yar Gul Mohammed was coming for his horse; he was quite positive of that. He would be waiting for him with his pistol and his torch. Afterward he was going home to Ireland, with his black horse, to his father and the old life on the place at Ballaclue. As he sat down on the hay to wait, he swallowed and his hands shk a little.
One by one the horses finished feeding and lay down. Dillon lost all count of time. Now and then he dozed.
He was awakened with a jerk by a horse plunging to his feet. Another followed and another till they were all up. They held so still that he knew they must be standing, heads high and ears cocked, listening.
A latch clicked and a line of starlit sky appeared. The black beside him snorted. There was a gentle whistle, and the horse whinnied eagerly. Dillon’s hair moved. He sttxxl up, torch in hand, his finger on the trigger.
The dexjr opened, framing a rectangle of stars, while the horse made gentle chuckles in his throat and pawed the straw. From the dark a vibrant voice said softly :
“Aha, so thou hast not forgotten? Softly then, softly.” A bit jingled. "Soon thou shalt have galloping enough.”
Dillon stood in his comer in the impenetrable dark not ten feet from the two of them, and the sweat poured down his face as he strove with all his will to keep from doing murder. For it had come to him that if he killed Yar Gul Mohammed, as he itched to do, or captured him, it would be not because he might inflame 300 miles of hills to war. not to avenge O’Keefe and FitzStephen. but solely because the man had come to repossess the big horse that was his own and for which three times in thirty days he had jeopardized his life. Dillon did not care one jot for anything but that, and but for that would not have raised a hand against him.
And he prayed he would not yield to such a shame.
“As far as the gate,” he told himself, over and over. “As far as the gate. Let him take his chance at the gate; then it’ll be he or I.”
Hoofs rang on the tiles outside the box. He saw the black’s great crest against the stars, saw a man’s silhouette swing up and heard the hoofs deliberately walk away.
Then he ran to the saddle room, clicked on his torch and snatched down Manifest’s equipment. He bridled him and was tightening the girths when at the gate there broke out an angry clamor of shouts and horses’ feet. He swung into the saddle and galloped for it, pulling up in a shower of sparks.
By a guard-lantern’s yellow light he saw a sowar holding Suliman, while two more Rajputs with drawn swords stood over a man prostrate on the ground. The Jamadar caught Manifest’s bridle and his sword gleamed threateningly. Then he recognized his commander.
“ Huzoor, excuse. I thought thou wert another of these dogs; we have two of them already. Jagan Singh caught this boy here skulking with a knife and we grew suspicious and stood all men ready.” He held high his light, to reveal the dandy youth who in the serai that afternoon had spoken to him of Suliman. Dishevelled and handcuffed, the young Moslem scowled at him sullenly.
The man on the ground, who had been stunned by being hurled headlong from Suliman, rolled over and got groggily to his feet. Dillon took the light from Jagan Singh and held it up. It was the man of that afternoon in the serai, with the saffron turban and Yar Gul Mohammed’s piercing eyes. Yet it was not Yar Gul Mohammed but a Pathan much older, with a greystreaked beard.
Dillon made the Jamadar bring the two into the guardhouse, then asked the elder man in Pushtu:
"And who art thou, who steals my horse?”
The youth burst out hysterically:
“Is it theft to take thine own? The horse is ours. My brother stole it from us.”
“Quiet, thou!” the old man ordered, and faced Dillon with unstudied dignity. “I am Bilas Khan of Jilkat in the Mandi hills. This horse was born to a mare of mine, and my son. Yar Gul Mohammed, desired him greatly. I íe could have had him as my gift, but the hothead did not wait for that. He claimed him with great outcry, as by right, and I do not yield to upstart manners in my sons. Before I could teach him this, the fool lifted him and (led. When at last I had news of them in these southern hills I crossed the range to bid him home again and keep the horse, for he was to me as the apple of my eye; but he already had been taken. And the word was abroad that his horse Suliman marched at the head of this rissalah, so I came for that which is my own. And had I had with me he whom they hanged in Peshawur instead of this blunderer, there would have been ere now a dead sentry at thy gate and a black horse less in thy rissalah. I íe was a man, that one !”
Dillon said: “He was a great fool also; for he thought he could defy the whole might of the sirkar. But knowest thou not that he did not hang, but—”
Outside from the dark broke a startled cry and the clatter of galloping, and they all dashed out to see the sowar who had been holding Suliman huddled on the ground, clasping his stomach. And Suliman was gone.
Dillon had been overwrought for days, and now there boiled up in him the black, unreasoning rage that is latent in all Irish. With an oath he dropped the lantern he was carrying, swung up on Manifest and dashed him forward, following in the first light of the rising moon the dust of the fleeing Suliman.
'“TOPPING THE RISE, he saw the road sweep broad and white down to the ferry landing. Empty. But the telltale dust hung above one of the foot trails that meander from it across the broken ground to the old ford road that the caravans used centuries ago. Along this they tore till it ran out in thorn and txmlders at a point still high above
the Indus; and there perforce pulled up in furious indecision.
The moon by now had cleared the mountains and the light was excellent; but there was neither sign nor sound of any fugitive, only the dark range across the sweeping valley, the yap, yap of a jackal and the shrilling of cicadas. It was as if the earth had swallowed Suliman and his rider.
Then Manifest cocked his ears toward the river and gave a small, friendly nicker, and following his direction Dillon pushed through the thorn to the cliff brink above the stream. Below, at the water’s edge, was Suliman, with the thief stretched along his neck, gripping his nostrils so that he should not neigh. As Dillon drove Manifest headlong down the steep, soft slope, the man sat up and launched Suliman straight into the stream.
Hock-deep in rubble on the treacherous declivity, Manifest lost his footing, and horse and man rolled down in an avalanche of debris; and when, bruised and dust smothered, Dillon clawed to his feet at the bottom, Manifest rose awkwardly and refused to move. A hind leg was drawn up to his belly, too wrenched even to put down.
Dillon turned from him, raging. The stream was high, swirling ominously at his feet and stretching off in the moonlight like beaten silver, embossed with flotsam and etched with eddies. Suliman, his rider still on his back, was swimming in a long slant for the farther shore, and without hesitation Dillon waded in and struck out after him.
As the cold of the snow-fed stream gripped his sweating body, the fury left him and his mind functioned again. He realized that he had never seen the river higher and that there was more than a chance of missing the point below and being swept into the Antha rapids. But he entertained no thought of turning back. He was a splendid swimmer and he had a pistol in his pocket. If he could beat Suliman by so much as ten yards to the landing, the thief would be at his mercy as he came ashore. With a look around to take his bearings, he stretched out doggedly to swim.
Out in the level stream there was a sense of quiet, of infinite remoteness.
By the time they were halfway across he was abreast of Suliman—he dared not go too close for fear of a flung knife—and he had realized that he was going to win, when he became aware that something was amiss with the horse. His pace had slackened and he was being rapidly swept down stream. He was panicking badly, and regularly his head went under.
Dillon followed him and they were swept swiftly on, in company with a buffalo’s bloated corpse and a fragment of thatched hut-roof carrying two hens. The horse’s distress did not abate, and in his concern nearer and nearer Dillon drew till they were not ten yards apart. The man on Suliman’s back was a dark still mass of garments, motionless behind the laboring head.
Presently his voice came clear across the gurgle of the water: “Is it thou, then, brother?”
“It is I, Yar Gul Mohammed. What ails him?”
“The rein is round his leg, and I have no knife to cut it. Fear not; my wound bleeds and I have no strength left.”
Without hesitation Dillon swam to Suliman’s head and felt down the rein that with each stroke of the entangled leg snatched his nose under with a gurgle. Unless it was freed, and quickly, the horse would drown. He tried to pull off the bridle, but it was the kind that is drawn on over the nose, with for throat latch a silver chain, and the tight rein held it fast. He dived, working down the thrashing leg to where the rein crossed it, and tried unavailingly to work it higher and give the limb more play.
The horse was frantic now, and Dillon scared.
“Canst thou not aid him?” he cried urgently. “If we miss the point we shall all drown.”
“Alas, I cannot swim.”
“Then come off his back and tow alongside.”
Obediently the Pathan rolled off and
towed, a supine mass of streaming garments, holding on by the mane. But still the laboring head went under regularly, and try as he would Dillon could not help.
Then he turned on his back and tried to hold up the laboring nose, and found to his delight that he could do so, enough to keep the nostrils above water. The horse stopped panicking and began to swim as was best permitted by his hampered leg and the snatch at his head.
But it was too late. The point they must make was still so far that at this pace inevitably they must be swept past it.
The Pathan’s voluminous clothes were a sullen drag, and Dillon cried despairingly: “Try and shed thy garments; that may help him. There is no chance this way. Unless he is eased we shall all drown together.”
Yar Gul Mohammed said: “I have no
Awhile they labored in silence. Then the Pathan raised his voice again, “It must be that this was written from the first; this horse is not for me. But go thou with God !” He let go the mane and, thus relieved, Suliman at once rose in the water. At that moment Dillon again was tugging at the bridle, and there came a momentary slackness in which he wrenched it past his ears. The horse at once settled down to swim in a clean slant for the shore.
Dillon swirled round and struck out for the mass of garments that was Yar Gul Mohammed, writhing feebly close to the buffalo corpse. He took the chance of a frantic clutch that would drown both of them, seized the head from behind and with a last look at the point lay down to swim for his life.
'“THEY LAY ON the sandy spit in the pale light of the moon, while Suliman grazed close by among the thorn. Yar Gul Mohammed was conscious now, and Dillon ceased working and relaxed his burning limbs.
Presently the Pathan heaved to his elbow, and Dillon unpocketed his pistol. But the other shook his head, bare now of silken puggaree and turquoise earrings.
“This game of ours is played out at last. Thy star outrises mine. But would I had died in the stream ! It is ill to hang.”
Dillon stared out across the stream, level and solemn in the silver light. The crop, crop of the grazing horse and the stream’s gurgle came through the steady shrilling of the night things’ chorus. By and by he said: “Is there any oath that would bind thee, Yar Gul Mohammed?”
“Oath, brother? Aye, there is such an oath.”
“And if it were certain that thy father would receive thee, wouldst thou go home and swear never to cross the southern range again?”
“If a man could live his life again, how many things would he leave undone that he has done?”
“Art thou strong enough to ride?”
The Pathan answered wonderingly: “Now that I bleed no longer, in a little time I shall be able. I am hard to kill.”
“Swear me this oath and hide in the reeds till thou art stronger. Then ride to Garuli village—thou canst be there by daylight— and to thee by that time will come thy father and thy younger brother. They have crossed the range to bid thee welcome home again, and believe that thou wert hanged.” “Can these things be?”
“Swear as I ask.”
Yar Gul Mohammed swore.
Dillon stood up. “Hide in the reeds till thou art strong. I go to meet the pursuit across the ferry and to say that thou art drowned.” He ran from the spit and set off up the towing path toward the ferry landing.
By and by he was crossing a little swamp where a creek found the river, and a cool, sharp smell came from his footprints in the deep mud, like the smell of the sod in Ireland when a hunter labors through a boggy meadow. And suddenly Dillon’s spirits rose. The eagerness of boyhood entered him. For he remembered that, in a little time, he, too, was going home.—The End