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Title: The Daughter of Erlik Khan
Author: Robert E. Howard
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The Daughter of Erlik Khan
Robert E. Howard



"And now who will follow me to plunder greater than any of ye ever
dreamed?"

"Show us!" demanded one of the hundred warriors. "Show us this
plunder, before we slay thee."

El Borak scoffed. "Shall I show you the stars by daylight?" he
demanded. "Yet the stars are there, and men see them in their proper
time. Follow me, and you shall see this plunder!"

"He lies!" came a voice from the warriors. "Let us slay him!"

El Borak looked them over with his steely eyes and asked pointedly,
"And which of you shall lead?"

* * *

I

THE TALL ENGLISHMAN, Pembroke, was scratching lines on the earth with
his hunting knife, talking in a jerky tone that indicated suppressed
excitement: "I tell you, Ormond, that peak to the west is the one we
were to look for. Here, I've marked a map in the dirt. This mark here
represents our camp, and this one is the peak. We've marched north far
enough. At this spot we should turn westward--"

"Shut up!" muttered Ormond. "Rub out that map. Here comes Gordon."

Pembroke obliterated the faint lines with a quick sweep of his open
hand, and as he scrambled up he managed to shuffle his feet across the
spot. He and Ormond were laughing and talking easily as the third man
of the expedition came up.

Gordon was shorter than his companions, but his physique did not
suffer by comparison with either the rangy Pembroke or the more
closely knit Ormond. He was one of those rare individuals at once
lithe and compact. His strength did not give the impression of being
locked up within himself as is the case with so many strong men. He
moved with a flowing ease that advertised power more subtly than does
mere beefy bulk.

Though he was clad much like the two Englishmen except for an Arab
headdress, he fitted into the scene as they did not. He, an American,
seemed almost as much a part of these rugged uplands as the wild
nomads which pasture their sheep along the slopes of the Hindu Kush.
There was a certitude in his level gaze, and economy of motion in his
movements, that reflected kinship with the wilderness.

"Pembroke and I were discussing that peak, Gordon," said Ormond,
indicating the mountain under discussion, which reared a snow cap in
the clear afternoon sky beyond a range of blue hills, hazy with
distance. "We were wondering if it had a name."

"Everything in these hills has a name," Gordon answered. "Some of them
don't appear on the maps, though. That peak is called Mount Erlik
Khan. Less than a dozen white men have seen it."

"Never heard of it," was Pembroke's comment. "If we weren't in such a
hurry to find poor old Reynolds, it might be fun having a closer look
at it, what?"

"If getting your belly ripped open can be called fun," returned
Gordon. "Erlik Khan's in Black Kirghiz country."

"Kirghiz? Heathens and devil worshipers? Sacred city of Yolgan and all
that rot."

"No rot about the devil worship," Gordon returned. "We're almost on
the borders of their country now. This is a sort of no man's land
here, squabbled over by the Kirghiz and Moslem nomads from farther
east. We've been lucky not to have met any of the former. They're an
isolated branch off the main stalk which centers about Issik-kul, and
they hate white men like poison.

"This is the closest point we approach their country. From now on, as
we travel north, we'll be swinging away from it. In another week, at
most, we ought to be in the territory of the Uzbek tribe who you think
captured your friend."

"I hope the old boy is still alive." Pembroke sighed.

"When you engaged me as Peshawar I told you I feared it was a futile
quest," said Gordon. "If that tribe did capture your friend, the
chances are all against his being still alive. I'm just warning you,
so you won't be too disappointed if we don't find him."

"We appreciate that, old man," returned Ormond. "We knew no one but
you could get us there with our heads still on our bally shoulders."

"We're not there yet," remarked Gordon cryptically, shifting his rifle
under his arm. "I saw hangel sign before we went into camp, and I'm
going to see if I can bag one. I may not be back before dark."

"Going afoot?" inquired Pembroke.

"Yes; if I get one I'll bring back a haunch for supper."

And with no further comment Gordon strode off down the rolling slope,
while the other men stared silently after him.

He seemed to melt rather than stride into the broad copse at the foot
of the slope. The men turned, still unspeaking, and glanced at the
servants going about their duties in the camp--four stolid Pathans and
a slender Punjabi Moslem who was Gordon's personal servant.
* * *

The camp with its faded tents and tethered horses was the one spot of
sentient life in a scene so vast and broodingly silent that it was
almost daunting. To the south, stretched an unbroken rampart of hills
climbing up to snowy peaks. Far to the north rose another more broken
range.

Between those barriers lay a great expanse of rolling table-land,
broken by solitary peaks and lesser hill ranges, and dotted thickly
with copses of ash, birch, and larch. Now, in the beginning of the
short summer, the slopes were covered with tall lush grass. But here
no herds were watched by turbaned nomads and that giant peak far to
the southwest seemed somehow aware of that fact. It brooded like a
somber sentinel of the unknown.

"Come into my tent!"

Pembroke turned away quickly, motioning Ormond to follow. Neither of
them noticed the burning intensity with which the Punjabi Ahmed stared
after them. In the tent, the men sitting facing each other across a
small folding table, Pembroke took pencil and paper and began tracing
a duplicate of the map he had scratched in the dirt.

"Reynolds has served his purpose, and so has Gordon," he said. "It was
a big risk bringing him, but he was the only man who could get us
safely through Afghanistan. The weight that American carries with the
Mohammedans is amazing. But it doesn't carry with the Kirghiz, and
beyond this point we don't need him.

"That's the peak the Tajik described, right enough, and he gave it the
same name Gordon called it. Using it as a guide, we can't miss Yolgan.
We head due west, bearing a little to the north of Mount Erlik Khan.
We don't need Gordon's guidance from now on, and we won't need him
going back, because we're returning by the way of Kashmir, and we'll
have a better safe-conduct even than he. Question now is, how are we
going to get rid of him?"

"That's easy," snapped Ormond; he was the harder-framed, the more
decisive, of the two. "We'll simply pick a quarrel with him and refuse
to continue in his company. He'll tell us to go to the devil, take his
confounded Punjabi, and head back for Kabul--or maybe some other
wilderness. He spends most of his time wandering around countries that
are taboo to most white men."

"Good enough!" approved Pembroke. "We don't want to fight him. He's
too infernally quick with a gun. The Afghans call him 'El Borak,' the
Swift. I had something of the sort in mind when I cooked up an excuse
to halt here in the middle of the afternoon. I recognized that peak,
you see. We'll let him think we're going on to the Uzbeks, alone,
because, naturally, we don't want him to know we're going to Yolgan--"

"What's that?" snapped Ormond suddenly, his hand closing on his pistol
butt.

In that instant, when his eyes narrowed and his nostrils expanded, he
looked almost like another man, as if suspicion disclosed his true--
and sinister--nature.

"Go on talking," he muttered. "Somebody's listening outside the tent."

Pembroke obeyed, and Ormond, noiselessly pushing back his camp chair,
plunged suddenly out of the tent and fell on some one with a snarl of
gratification. An instant later he reentered, dragging the Punjabi,
Ahmed, with him. The slender Indian writhed vainly in the Englishman's
iron grip.

"This rat was eavesdropping," Ormond snarled.

"Now he'll spill everything to Gordon and there'll be a fight, sure!"
The prospect seemed to agitate Pembroke considerably. "What'll we do
now? What are you going to do?"

Ormond laughed savagely. "I haven't come this far to risk getting a
bullet in my guts and losing everything. I've killed men for less than
this."

Pembroke cried out an involuntary protest as Ormond's hand dipped and
the blue-gleaming gun came up. Ahmed screamed, and his cry was drowned
in the roar of the shot.

"Now we'll have to kill Gordon!"

Pembroke wiped his brow with a hand that shook a trifle. Outside rose
a sudden mutter of Pashto as the Pathan servants crowded toward the
tent.

"He's played into our hands!" rapped Ormond, shoving the still smoking
gun back into his holster. With his booted toe he stirred the
motionless body at his feet as casually as if it had been that of a
snake. "He's out on foot, with only a handful of cartridges. It's just
as well this turned out as it did."

"What do you mean?" Pembroke's wits seemed momentarily muddled.

"We'll simply pack up and clear out. Let him try to follow us on foot,
if he wants to. There are limits to the abilities of every man. Left
in these mountains on foot, without food, blankets, or ammunition, I
don't think any white man will ever see Francis Xavier Gordon alive
again."
II

WHEN GORDON LEFT the camp he did not look behind him. Any thoughts of
treachery on the part of his companions was furthest from his mind. He
had no reason to suppose that they were anything except what they had
represented themselves to be--white men taking a long chance to find a
comrade the unmapped solitudes had swallowed up.

It was an hour or so after leaving the camp when, skirting the end of
a grassy ridge, he sighted an antelope moving along the fringe of a
thicket. The wind, such as there was, was blowing toward him, away
from the animal. He began stalking it through the thicket, when a
movement in the bushes behind him brought him around to the
realization that he himself was being stalked.

He had a glimpse of a figure behind a clump of scrub, and then a
bullet fanned his ear, and he fired at the flash and the puff of
smoke. There was a thrashing among the foliage and then stillness. A
moment later he was bending over a picturesquely clad form on the
ground.

It was a lean, wiry man, young, with an ermine-edged khilat, a fur
calpack, and silver-heeled boots. Sheathed knives were in his girdle,
and a modern repeating rifle lay near his hand. He had been shot
through the heart.

"Turkoman," muttered Gordon. "Bandit, from his looks, out on a lone
scout. I wonder how far he's been trailing me."

He knew the presence of the man implied two things: somewhere in the
vicinity there was a band of Turkomans; and somewhere, probably close
by, there was a horse. A nomad never walked far, even when stalking a
victim. He glanced up at the rise which rolled up from the copse. It
was logical to believe that the Moslem had sighted him from the crest
of the low ridge, had tied his horse on the other side, and glided
down into the thicket to waylay him while he stalked the antelope.

Gordon went up the slope warily, though he did not believe there were
any other tribesmen within earshot--else the reports of the rifles
would have brought them to the spot--and found the horse without
trouble. It was a Turkish stallion with a red leather saddle with wide
silver stirrups and a bridle heavy with goldwork. A scimitar hung from
the saddle peak in an ornamented leather scabbard.

Swinging into the saddle, Gordon studied all quarters of the compass
from the summit of the ridge. In the south a faint ribbon of smoke
stood against the evening. His black eyes were keen as a hawk's; not
many could have distinguished that filmy blue feather against the
cerulean of the sky.

"Turkoman means bandits," he muttered. "Smoke means camp. They're
trailing us, sure as fate."

Reining about, he headed for the camp. His hunt had carried him some
miles east of the site, but he rode at a pace that ate up the
distance. It was not yet twilight when he halted in the fringe of the
larches and sat silently scanning the slope on which the camp had
stood. It was bare. There was no sign of tents, men, or beasts.

His gaze sifted the surrounding ridges and clumps, but found nothing
to rouse his alert suspicion. At last he walked his steed up the
acclivity, carrying his rifle at the ready. He saw a smear of blood on
the ground where he knew Pembroke's tent had stood, but there was no
other sign of violence, and the grass was not trampled as it would
have been by a charge of wild horsemen.

He read the evidence of a swift but orderly exodus. His companions had
simply struck their tents, loaded the pack animals, and departed. But
why? Sight of distant horsemen might have stampeded the white men,
though neither had shown any sign of the white feather before; but
certainly Ahmed would not have deserted his master and friend.

As he traced the course of the horses through the grass, his
puzzlement increased; they had gone westward.

Their avowed destination lay beyond those mountains in the north. They
knew that, as well as he. But there was no mistake about it. For some
reason, shortly after he had left camp, as he read the signs, they had
packed hurriedly and set off westward, toward the forbidden country
identified by Mount Erlik.

Thinking that possibly they had a logical reason for shifting camp and
had left him a note of some kind which he had failed to find, Gordon
rode back to the camp site and began casting about it in an ever-
widening circle, studying the ground. And presently he saw sure signs
that a heavy body had been dragged through the grass.

Men and horses had almost obliterated the dim track, but for years
Gordon's life had depended upon the keenness of his faculties. He
remembered the smear of blood on the ground where Pembroke's tent had
stood.

He followed the crushed grass down the south slope and into a thicket,
and an instant later he was kneeling beside the body of a man. It was
Ahmed, and at first glance Gordon thought he was dead. Then he saw
that the Punjabi, though shot through the body and undoubtedly dying,
still had a faint spark of life in him.

He lifted the turbaned head and set his canteen to the blue lips.
Ahmed groaned, and into his glazed eyes came intelligence and
recognition.

"Who did this, Ahmed?" Gordon's voice grated with the suppression of
his emotions.

"Ormond Sahib," gasped the Punjabi. "I listened outside their tent,
because I feared they planned treachery to you. I never trusted them.
So they shot me and have gone away, leaving you to die alone in the
hills."

"But why?" Gordon was more mystified than ever.

"They go to Yolgan," panted Ahmed. "The Reynolds Sahib we sought never
existed. He was a lie they created to hoodwink you."

"Why to Yolgan?" asked Gordon.

But Ahmed's eyes dilated with the imminence of death; in a racking
convulsion he heaved up in Gordon's arms; then blood gushed from his
lips and he died.
* * *

Gordon rose, mechanically dusting his hands. Immobile as the deserts
he haunted, he was not prone to display his emotions. Now he merely
went about heaping stones over the body to make a cairn that wolves
and jackals could not tear into. Ahmed had been his companion on many
a dim road; less servant than friend.

But when he had lifted the last stone, Gordon climbed into the saddle,
and without a backward glance he rode westward. He was alone in a
savage country, without food or proper equipage. Chance had given him
a horse, and years of wandering on the raw edges of the world had
given him experience and a greater familiarity with this unknown land
than any other white man he knew. It was conceivable that he might
live to win his way through to some civilized outpost.

But he did not even give that possibility a thought. Gordon's ideas of
obligation, of debt and payment, were as direct and primitive as those
of the barbarians among whom his lot had been cast for so many years.
Ahmed had been his friend and had died in his service. Blood must pay
for blood.

That was as certain in Gordon's mind as hunger is certain in the mind
of a gray timber wolf. He did not know why the killers were going
toward forbidden Yolgan, and he did not greatly care. His task was to
follow them to hell if necessary and exact full payment for spilled
blood. No other course suggested itself.

Darkness fell and the stars came out, but he did not slacken his pace.
Even by starlight it was not hard to follow the trail of the caravan
through the high grass. The Turkish horse proved a good one and fairly
fresh. He felt certain of overtaking the laden pack ponies, in spite
of their long start.

As the hours passed, however, he decided that the Englishmen were
determined to push on all night. They evidently meant to put so much
distance between them and himself that he could never catch them,
following on foot as they thought him to be. But why were they so
anxious to keep from him the truth of their destination?

A sudden thought made his face grim, and after that he pushed his
mount a bit harder. His hand instinctively sought the hilt of the
broad scimitar slung from the high-peaked horn.

His gaze sought the white cap of Mount Erlik, ghostly in the
starlight, then swung to the point where he knew Yolgan lay. He had
been there before, himself, had heard the deep roar of the long bronze
trumpets that shaven-headed priests blow from the mountains at
sunrise.

It was past midnight when he sighted fires near the willow-massed
banks of a stream. At first glance he knew it was not the camp of the
men he followed. The fires were too many. It was an ordu of the
nomadic Kirghiz who roam the country between Mount Erlik Khan and the
loose boundaries of the Mohammedan tribes. This camp lay full in the
path of Yolgan and he wondered if the Englishmen had known enough to
avoid it. These fierce people hated strangers. He himself, when he
visited Yolgan, had accomplished the feat disguised as a native.

Gaining the stream above the camp he moved closer, in the shelter of
the willows, until he could make out the dim shapes of sentries on
horseback in the light of the small fires. And he saw something else--
three white European tents inside the ring of round, gray felt
kibitkas. He swore silently; if the Black Kirghiz had killed the white
men, appropriating their belongings, it meant the end of his
vengeance. He moved nearer.

It was a suspicious, slinking, wolf-like dog that betrayed him. Its
frenzied clamor brought men swarming out of the felt tents, and a
swarm of mounted sentinels raced toward the spot, stringing bows as
they came.

Gordon had no wish to be filled with arrows as he ran. He spurred out
of the willows and was among the horsemen before they were aware of
him, slashing silently right and left with the Turkish scimitar.
Blades swung around him, but the men were more confused than he. He
felt his edge grate against steel and glance down to split a broad
skull; then he was through the cordon and racing into deeper darkness
while the demoralized pack howled behind him.

A familiar voice shouting above the clamor told him that Ormond, at
least, was not dead. He glanced back to see a tall figure cross the
firelight and recognized Pembroke's rangy frame. The fire gleamed on
steel in his hands. That they were armed showed they were not
prisoners, though this forbearance on the part of the fierce nomads
was more than his store of Eastern lore could explain.

The pursuers did not follow him far; drawing in under the shadows of a
thicket he heard them shouting gutturally to each other as they rode
back to the tent. There would be no more sleep in that ordu that
night. Men with naked steel in their hands would pace their horses
about the encampment until dawn. It would be difficult to steal back
for a long shot at his enemies. But now, before he slew them, he
wished to learn what took them to Yolgan.

Absently his hand caressed the hawk-headed pommel of the Turkoman
scimitar. Then he turned again eastward and rode back along the route
he had come, as fast as he could push the wearying horse. It was not
yet dawn when he came upon what he had hoped to find--a second camp,
some ten miles west of the spot where Ahmed had been killed; dying
fires reflected on one small tent and on the forms of men wrapped in
cloaks on the ground.

He did not approach too near; when he could make out the lines of
slowly moving shapes that were picketed horses and could see other
shapes that were riders pacing about the camp, he drew back behind a
thicketed ridge, dismounted and unsaddled his horse.

While it eagerly cropped the fresh grass, he sat cross-legged with his
back to a tree trunk, his rifle across his knees, as motionless as an
image and as imbued with the vast patience of the East as the eternal
hills themselves.

III

DAWN WAS LITTLE more than a hint of grayness in the sky when the camp
that Gordon watched was astir. Smoldering coals leaped up into flames
again, and the scent of mutton stew filled the air. Wiry men in caps
of Astrakhan fur and girdled caftans swaggered among the horse lines
or squatted beside the cooking pots, questing after savory morsels
with unwashed fingers. There were no women among them and scant
luggage. The lightness with which they traveled could mean only one
thing.

The sun was not yet up when they began saddling horses and belting on
weapons. Gordon chose that moment to appear, riding leisurely down the
ridge toward them.

A yell went up, and instantly a score of rifles covered him. The very
boldness of his action stayed their fingers on the triggers. Gordon
wasted no time, though he did not appear hurried. Their chief had
already mounted, and Gordon reined up almost beside him. The Turkoman
glared--a hawk-nosed, evil-eyed ruffian with a henna-stained beard.
Recognition grew like a red flame in his eyes, and, seeing this, his
warriors made no move.

"Yusef Khan," said Gordon, "you Sunnite dog, have I found you at
last?"

Yusef Khan plucked his red beard and snarled like a wolf. "Are you
mad, El Borak?"

"It is El Borak!" rose an excited murmur from the warriors, and that
gained Gordon another respite.

They crowded closer, their blood lust for the instant conquered by
their curiosity. El Borak was a name known from Istanbul to Bhutan and
repeated in a hundred wild tales wherever the wolves of the desert
gathered.

As for Yusef Khan, he was puzzled, and furtively eyed the slope down
which Gordon had ridden. He feared the white man's cunning almost as
much as he hated him, and in his suspicion, hate and fear that he was
in a trap, the Turkoman was as dangerous and uncertain as a wounded
cobra.

"What do you here?" he demanded. "Speak quickly, before my warriors
strip the skin from you a little at a time."

"I came following an old feud." Gordon had come down the ridge with no
set plan, but he was not surprised to find a personal enemy leading
the Turkomans. It was no unusual coincidence. Gordon had blood-foes
scattered all over Central Asia.

"You are a fool--"

In the midst of the chief's sentence Gordon leaned from his saddle and
struck Yusef Khan across the face with his open hand. The blow cracked
like a bull whip and Yusef reeled, almost losing his seat. He howled
like a wolf and clawed at his girdle, so muddled with fury that he
hesitated between knife and pistol. Gordon could have shot him down
while he fumbled, but that was not the American's plan.

"Keep off!" he warned the warriors, yet not reaching for a weapon. "I
have no quarrel with you. This concerns only your chief and me."

With another man that would have had no effect; but another man would
have been dead already. Even the wildest tribesman had a vague feeling
that the rules governing action against ordinary feringhi did not
apply to El Borak.

"Take him!" howled Yusef Khan. "He shall be flayed alive!"

They moved forward at that, and Gordon laughed unpleasantly.

"Torture will not wipe out the shame I have put upon your chief," he
taunted. "Men will say ye are led by a khan who bears the mark of El
Borak's hand in his beard. How is such shame to be wiped out? Lo, he
calls on his warriors to avenge him! Is Yusef Khan a coward?"

They hesitated again and looked at their chief whose beard was clotted
with foam. They all knew that to wipe out such an insult the aggressor
must be slain by the victim in single combat. In that wolf pack even a
suspicion of cowardice was tantamount to a death sentence.

If Yusef Khan failed to accept Gordon's challenge, his men might obey
him and torture the American to death at his pleasure, but they would
not forget, and from that moment he was doomed.

Yusef Khan knew this; knew that Gordon had tricked him into a personal
duel, but he was too drunk with fury to care. His eyes were red as
those of a rabid wolf, and he had forgotten his suspicions that Gordon
had riflemen hidden up on the ridge. He had forgotten everything
except his frenzied passion to wipe out forever the glitter in those
savage black eyes that mocked him.

"Dog!" he screamed, ripping out his broad scimitar. "Die at the hands
of a chief!"

He came like a typhoon, his cloak whipping out in the wind behind him,
his scimitar flaming above his head. Gordon met him in the center of
the space the warriors left suddenly clear.
* * *

Yusef Khan rode a magnificent horse as if it were part of him, and it
was fresh. But Gordon's mount had rested, and it was well-trained in
the game of war. Both horses responded instantly to the will of their
riders.

The fighters revolved about each other in swift curvets and gambados,
their blades flashing and grating without the slightest pause, turned
red by the rising sun. It was less like two men fighting on horseback
than like a pair of centaurs, half man and half beast, striking for
one another's life.

"Dog!" panted Yusef Khan, hacking and hewing like a man possessed of
devils. "I'll nail your head to my tent pole--ahhhh!"

Not a dozen of the hundred men watching saw the stroke, except as a
dazzling flash of steel before their eyes, but all heard its crunching
impact. Yusef Khan's charger screamed and reared, throwing a dead man
from the saddle with a split skull.

A wordless wolfish yell that was neither anger nor applause went up,
and Gordon wheeled, whirling his scimitar about his head so that the
red drops flew in a shower.

"Yusef Khan is dead!" he roared. "Is there one to take up his
quarrel?"

They gaped at him, not sure of his intention, and before they could
recover from the surprise of seeing their invincible chief fall,
Gordon thrust his scimitar back in its sheath with a certain air of
finality and said:

"And now who will follow me to plunder greater than any of ye ever
dreamed?"

That struck an instant spark, but their eagerness was qualified by
suspicion.

"Show us!" demanded one. "Show us the plunder before we slay thee."

Without answering, Gordon swung off his horse and cast the reins to a
mustached rider to hold, who was so astonished that he accepted the
indignity without protest. Gordon strode over to a cooking pot,
squatted beside it and began to eat ravenously. He had not tasted food
in many hours.

"Shall I show you the stars by daylight?" he demanded, scooping out
handfuls of stewed mutton, "Yet the stars are there, and men see them
in the proper time. If I had the loot would I come asking you to share
it? Neither of us can win it without the other's aid."

"He lies," said one whom his comrades addressed as Uzun Beg. "Let us
slay him and continue to follow the caravan we have been tracking."

"Who will lead you?" asked Gordon pointedly.

They scowled at him, and various ruffians who considered themselves
logical candidates glanced furtively at one another. Then all looked
back at Gordon, unconcernedly wolfing down mutton stew five minutes
after having slain the most dangerous swordsman of the black tents.

His attitude of indifference deceived nobody. They knew he was
dangerous as a cobra that could strike like lightning in any
direction. They knew they could not kill him so quickly that he would
not kill some of them, and naturally none wanted to be first to die.

That alone would not have stopped them. But that was combined with
curiosity, avarice roused by his mention of plunder, vague suspicion
that he would not have put himself in a trap unless he held some sort
of a winning hand, and jealousy of the leaders of each other.

Uzun Beg, who had been examining Gordon's mount, exclaimed angrily:
"He rides Ali Khan's steed!"

"Aye," Gordon assented tranquilly. "Moreover this is Ali Khan's sword.
He fired at me from ambush, so he lies dead."

There was no answer. There was no feeling in that wolf pack except
fear and hate, and respect for courage, craft, and ferocity.

"Where would you lead us?" demanded one named Orkhan Shan, tacitly
recognizing Gordon's dominance. "We be all free men and sons of the
sword."

"Ye be all sons of dogs," answered Gordon. "Men without grazing lands
or wives, outcasts, denied by thine own people--outlaws whose lives
are forfeit, and who must roam in the naked mountains. You followed
that dead dog without question. Now ye demand this and that of me!"

Then ensued a medley of argument among themselves, in which Gordon
seemed to take no interest. All his attention was devoted to the
cooking pot. His attitude was no pose; without swagger or conceit the
man was so sure of himself that his bearing was no more self-conscious
among a hundred cutthroats hovering on the hair line of murder than it
would have been among friends.

Many eyes sought the gun butt at his hip. Men said his skill with the
weapon was sorcery; an ordinary revolver became in his hand a living
engine of destruction that was drawn and roaring death before a man
could realize that Gordon's hand had moved.

"Men say thou hast never broken thy word," suggested Orkhan. "Swear to
lead us to this plunder, and it may be we shall see."

"I swear no oaths," answered Gordon, rising and wiping his hands on a
saddle cloth. "I have spoken. It is enough. Follow me, and many of you
will die. Aye, the jackals will feed full. You will go up to the
paradise of the prophet and your brothers will forget your names. But
to those that live, wealth like the rain of Allah will fall upon
them."

"Enough of words!" exclaimed one greedily. "Lead us to this rare
loot."

"You dare not follow where I would lead," he answered. "It lies in the
land of the Kara Kirghiz."

"We dare, by Allah!" they barked angrily. "We are already in the land
of the Black Kirghiz, and we follow the caravan of some infidels,
whom, inshallah, we shall send to hell before another sunrise."

"Bismillah," said Gordon. "Many of you shall eat arrows and edged
steel before our quest is over. But if you dare stake your lives
against plunder richer than the treasures of Hind, come with me. We
have far to ride."

A few minutes later the whole band was trotting westward. Gordon led,
with lean riders on either hand; their attitude suggested that he was
more prisoner than guide, but he was not perturbed. His confidence in
his destiny had again been justified, and the fact that he had not the
slightest idea of how to redeem his pledge concerning treasure
disturbed him not at all. A way would be opened to him, somehow, and
at present he did not even bother to consider it.

IV

THE FACT THAT Gordon knew the country better than the Turkomans did
aided him in his subtle policy to gain ascendency over them. From
giving suggestions to giving orders and being obeyed is a short step,
when delicately taken.

He took care that they kept below the sky lines as much as possible.
It was not easy to hide the progress of a hundred men from the alert
nomads; but these roamed far and there was a chance that only the band
he had seen were between him and Yolgan.

But Gordon doubted this when they crossed a track that had been made
since he rode eastward the night before. Many riders had passed that
point, and Gordon urged greater speed, knowing that if they were spied
by the Kirghiz instant pursuit was inevitable.

In the late afternoon they came in sight of the ordu beside the
willow-lined stream. Horses tended by youngsters grazed near the camp,
and farther away the riders watched the sheep which browsed through
the tall grass.

Gordon had left all his men except half a dozen in a thicket-massed
hollow behind the next ridge, and he now lay among a cluster of
boulders on a slope overlooking the valley. The encampment was beneath
him, distinct in every detail, and he frowned. There was no sign of
the white tents. The Englishmen had been there. They were not there
now. Had their hosts turned on them at last, or had they continued
alone toward Yolgan?

The Turkomans, who did not doubt that they were to attack and loot
their hereditary enemies, began to grow impatient.

"Their fighting men are less than ours," suggested Uzun Beg, "and they
are scattered, suspecting nothing. It is long since an enemy invaded
the land of the Black Kirghiz. Send back for the others, and let us
attack. You promised us plunder."

"Flat-faced women and fat-tailed sheep?" Gordon jeered.

"Some of the women are fair to look at," the Turkoman maintained. "And
we could feast full on the sheep. But these dogs carry gold in their
wagons to trade to merchants from Kashmir. It comes from Mount Erlik
Khan."

Gordon remembered that he had heard tales of a gold mine in Mount
Erlik before, and he had seen some crudely cast ingots the owners of
which swore they had them from the Black Kirghiz. But gold did not
interest him just then.

"That is a child's tale," he said, at least half believing what he
said. "The plunder I will lead you to is real, would you throw it away
for a dream? Go back to the others and bid them stay hidden. Presently
I will return."

They were instantly suspicious, and he saw it.

"Return thou, Uzun Beg," he said, "and give the others my message. The
rest of you come with me."

That quieted the hair-trigger suspicions of the five, but Uzun Beg
grumbled in his beard as he strode back down the slope, mounted and
rode eastward. Gordon and his companions likewise mounted behind the
crest and, keeping below the sky line, they followed the ridge around
as it slanted toward the southwest.

It ended in sheer cliffs, as if it had been sliced off with a knife,
but dense thickets hid them from the sight of the camp as they crossed
the space that lay between the cliffs and the next ridge, which ran to
a bend in the stream, a mile below the ordu.

This ridge was considerably higher than the one they had left, and
before they reached the point where it began to slope downward toward
the river, Gordon crawled to the crest and scanned the camp again with
a pair of binoculars that had once been the property of Yusef Khan.

The nomads showed no sign that they suspected the presence of enemies,
and Gordon turned his glasses farther eastward, located the ridge
beyond which his men were concealed, but saw no sign of them. But he
did see something else.

Miles to the east a knife-edge ridge cut the sky, notched with a
shallow pass. As he looked he saw a string of black dots moving
through that notch. It was so far away that even the powerful glasses
did not identify them, but he knew what the dots were--mounted men,
many of them.

Hurrying back to his five Turkomans, he said nothing, but pressed on,
and presently they emerged from behind the ridge and came upon the
stream where it wound out of sight of the encampment. Here was the
logical crossing for any road leading to Yolgan, and it was not long
before he found what he sought.

In the mud at the edges of the stream were the prints of shod hoofs
and at one spot the mark of a European boot. The Englishmen had
crossed here; beyond the ford their trail lay west, across the rolling
table-land.
* * *

Gordon was puzzled anew. He had supposed that there was some
particular reason why this clan had received the Englishmen in peace.
He had reasoned that Ormond would persuade them to escort him to
Yolgan. Though the clans made common cause against invaders, there
were feuds among themselves, and the fact that one tribe received a
man in peace did not mean that another tribe would not cut his throat.

Gordon had never heard of the nomads of this region showing friendship
to any white man. Yet the Englishmen had passed the night in that ordu
and now plunged boldly on as if confident of their reception. It
looked like utter madness.

As he meditated, a distant sputter of rifle fire jerked his head up.
He splashed across the stream and raced up the slope that hid them
from the valley, with the Turkomans at his heels working the levers of
their rifles. As he topped the slope he saw the scene below him
crystal-etched in the blue evening.

The Turkomans were attacking the Kirghiz camp. They had crept up the
ridge overlooking the valley, and then swept down like a whirlwind.
The surprise had been almost, but not quite, complete. Outriding
shepherds had been shot down and the flocks scattered, but the
surviving nomads had made a stand within the ring of their tents and
wagons.

Ancient matchlocks, bows, and a few modern rifles answered the fire of
the Turkomans. These came on swiftly, shooting from the saddle, only
to wheel and swerve out of close range again.

The Kirghiz were protected by their cover, but even so the hail of
lead took toll. A few saddles were emptied, but the Turkomans were
hard hit on their prancing horses, as the riders swung their bodies
from side to side.

Gordon gave his horse the rein and came galloping across the valley,
his scimitar glittering in his hand. With his enemies gone from the
camp, there was no reason for attacking the Kirghiz now as he had
planned. But the distance was too great for shouted orders to be
heard.

The Turkomans saw him coming, sword in hand, and mistook his meaning.
They thought he meant to lead a charge, and in their zeal they
anticipated him.

They were aided by the panic which struck the Kirghiz as they saw
Gordon and his five Turkomans sweep down the slope and construed it as
an attack in force on their flank.

Instantly they directed all their fire at the newcomers, emptying the
clumsy matchlocks long before Gordon was even within good rifle range.
And as they did, the Turkomans charged home with a yell that shook the
valley, preceded by a withering fire as they blazed away over their
horses' ears.

This time no ragged volleys could stop them. In their panic the
tribesmen had loosed all their firearms at once, and the charge caught
them with matchlocks and muskets empty. A straggling rifle fire met
the oncoming raiders and knocked a few out of their saddles, and a
flight of arrows accounted for a few more, but then the charge burst
on the makeshift barricade and crumpled it. The howling Turkomans rode
their horses in among the tents, flailing right and left with
scimitars already crimson.

For an instant hell raged in the ordu, then the demoralized nomads
broke and fled as best they could, being cut down and trampled by the
conquerors. Neither women nor children were spared by the blood-mad
Turks. Such as could slipped out of the ring and ran wailing for the
river. An instant later the riders were after them like wolves.

Yet, winged by the fear of death, a disorderly mob reached the shore
first, broke through the willows and plunged screaming over the low
bank, trampling each other in the water. Before the Turkomans could
rein their horses over the bank, Gordon arrived, with his horse
plastered with sweat and snorting foam.

Enraged at the wanton slaughter, Gordon was an incarnation of berserk
fury. He caught the first man's bridle and threw his horse back on its
haunches with such violence that the beast lost its footing and fell,
sprawling, throwing its rider. The next man sought to crowd past,
giving tongue like a wolf, and him Gordon smote with the flat of his
scimitar. Only the heavy fur cap saved the skull beneath, and the man
pitched, senseless, from his saddle. The others yelled and reined back
suddenly.

Gordon's wrath was like a dash of ice-cold water in their faces,
shocking their blood-mad nerves into stinging sensibility. From among
the tents cries still affronted the twilight, with the butcherlike
chopping of merciless sword blows, but Gordon gave no heed. He could
save no one in the plundered camp, where the howling warriors were
ripping the tents to pieces, overturning the wagons and setting the
torch in a hundred places.

More and more men with burning eyes and dripping blades were streaming
toward the river, halting as they saw El Borak barring their way.
There was not a ruffian there who looked half as formidable as Gordon
did in that instant. His lips snarled and his eyes were black coals of
hell's fire.

There was no play acting about it. His mask of immobility had fallen,
revealing the sheer primordial ferocity of the soul beneath. The dazed
Turkomans, still dizzy from the glutting of their blood lust, weary
from striking great blows, and puzzled by his attitude, shrank back
from him.

"Who gave the order to attack?" he yelled, and his voice was like the
slash of a saber.

He trembled in the intensity of his passion. He was a blazing flame of
fury and death, without control or repression. He was as wild and
brute-savage in that moment as the wildest barbarian in that raw land.

"Uzun Beg!" cried a score of voices, and men pointed at the scowling
warrior. "He said that you had stolen away to betray us to the
Kirghiz, and that we should attack before they had time to come upon
us and surround us. We believed him until we saw you riding over the
slope."

With a wordless fierce yell like the scream of a striking panther,
Gordon hurled his horse like a typhoon on Uzun Beg, smiting with his
scimitar. Uzun Beg catapulted from his saddle with his skull crushed,
dead before he actually realized that he was menaced.

El Borak wheeled on the others and they reined back from him,
scrambling in terror.

"Dogs! Jackals! Noseless apes! Forgotten of God!" he lashed them with
words that burned like scorpions. "Sons of nameless curs! Did I not
bid you keep hidden? Is my word wind--a leaf to be blown away by the
breath of a dog like Uzun Beg? Now you have lapped up needless blood,
and the whole countryside will be riding us down like jackals. Where
is your loot? Where is the gold with which the wagons were laden?"

"There was no gold," muttered a tribesman, mopping blood from a sword
cut.

They flinched from the savage scorn and anger in Gordon's baying
laughter.

"Dogs that nuzzle in the dung heaps of hell! I should leave you to
die."

"Slay him!" mouthed a tribesman. "Shall we eat of an infidel? Slay him
and let us go back whence we came. There is no loot in this naked
land."
* * *

The proposal was not greeted with enthusiasm. Their rifles were all
empty, some even discarded in the fury of sword strokes. They knew the
rifle under El Borak's knee was loaded and the pistol at his hip. Nor
did any of them care to ride into the teeth of that reddened scimitar
that swung like a live thing in his right hand.

Gordon saw their indecision and mocked them. He did not argue or
reason as another man might have done. And if he had, they would have
killed him. He beat down opposition with curses, abuses, and threats
that were convincing because he meant every word he spat at them. They
submitted because they were a wolf pack, and he was the grimmest wolf
of them all.

Not one man in a thousand could have bearded them as he did and lived.
But there was a driving elemental power about him that shook
resolution and daunted anger--something of the fury of an unleashed
torrent or a roaring wind that hammered down will power by sheer
ferocity.

"We will have no more of thee," the boldest voiced the last spark of
rebellion. "Go thy ways, and we will go ours."

Gordon barked a bitter laugh. "Thy ways lead to the fires of
Jehannum!" he taunted bitterly. "Ye have spilled blood, and blood will
be demanded in payment. Do you dream that those who have escaped will
not flee to the nearest tribes and raise the countryside? You will
have a thousand riders about your ears before dawn."

"Let us ride eastward," one said nervously. "We will be out of this
land of devils before the alarm is raised."

Again Gordon laughed and men shivered. "Fools! You cannot return. With
the glasses I have seen a body of horsemen following our trail. Ye are
caught in the fangs of the vise. Without me you cannot go onward; if
you stand still or go back, none of you will see another sun set."

Panic followed instantly which was more difficult to fight down than
rebellion.

"Slay him!" howled one. "He has led us into a trap!"

"Fools!" cried Orkhan Shah, who was one of the five Gordon had led to
the ford. "It was not he who tricked you into charging the Kirghiz. He
would have led us on to the loot he promised. He knows this land and
we do not. If ye slay him now, ye slay the only man who may save us!"

That spark caught instantly, and they clamored about Gordon.

"The wisdom of the sahibs is thine! We be dogs who eat dirt! Save us
from our folly! Lo, we obey thee! Lead us out of this land of death,
and show us the gold whereof thou spokest!"

Gordon sheathed his scimitar and took command without comment. He gave
orders and they were obeyed. Once these wild men, in their fear,
turned to him, they trusted him implicitly. They knew he was somehow
using them ruthlessly in his own plans, but that was nothing more than
any one of them would have done had he been able. In that wild land
only the ways of the wolf pack prevailed.

As many Kirghiz horses as could be quickly caught were rounded up. On
some of them food and articles of clothing from the looted camp were
hastily tied. Half a dozen Turkomans had been killed, nearly a dozen
wounded. The dead were left where they had fallen. The most badly
wounded were tied to their saddles, and their groans made the night
hideous. Darkness had fallen as the desperate band rode over the slope
and plunged across the river. The wailing of the Kirghiz women, hidden
in the thickets, was like the dirging of lost souls.
V

GORDON DID NOT attempt to follow the trail of the Englishman over the
comparatively level table-land. Yolgan was his destination and he
believed he would find them there, but there was desperate need to
escape the tribesmen who he was certain were following them, and who
would be lashed to fiercer determination by what they would find in
the camp by the river.

Instead of heading straight across the table-land, Gordon swung into
the hills that bordered it on the south and began following them
westward. Before midnight one of the wounded men died in his saddle,
and some of the others were semidelirious. They hid the body in a
crevice and went on. They moved through the darkness of the hills like
ghosts; the only sounds were the clink of hoofs on stone and the
groans of the wounded.

An hour before dawn they came to a stream which wound between
limestone ledges, a broad shallow stream with a solid rock bottom.
They waded their horses along it for three miles, then climbed out
again on the same side.

Gordon knew that the Kirghiz, smelling out their trail like wolves,
would follow them to the bank and expect some such ruse as an effort
to hide their tracks. But he hoped that the nomads would be expecting
them to cross the stream and plunge into the mountains on the other
side and would therefore waste time looking for tracks along the south
bank.

He now headed westward in a more direct route. He did not expect to
throw the Kirghiz entirely off the scent. He was only playing for
time. If they lost his trail, they would search in any direction first
except toward Yolgan, and to Yolgan he must go, since there was now no
chance of catching his enemies on the road.

Dawn found them in the hills, a haggard, weary band. Gordon bade them
halt and rest and, while they did so, he climbed the highest crag he
could find and patiently scanned the surrounding cliffs and ravines
with his binoculars, while he chewed tough strips of dried mutton
which the tribesmen carried between saddle and saddlecloth to keep
warm and soft. He alternated with cat naps of ten or fifteen minutes'
duration, storing up concentrated energy as men of the outlands learn
to do, and between times watching the ridges for signs of pursuit.

He let the men rest as long as he dared, and the sun was high when he
descended the rock and stirred them into wakefulness. Their steel-
spring bodies had recovered some of their resilience, and they rose
and saddled with alacrity, all except one of the wounded men, who had
died in his sleep. They lowered his body into a deep fissure in the
rocks and went on, more slowly, for the horses felt the grind more
than the men.

All day they threaded their way through wild gorges overhung by gloomy
crags. The Turkomans were crowded by the grim desolation and the
knowledge that a horde of bloodthirsty barbarians were on their trail.
They followed Gordon without question as he led them, turning and
twisting, along dizzy heights and down into the abysmal gloom of
savage gorges, then up turreted ridges again and around windswept
shoulders.

He had used every artifice known to him to shake off pursuit and was
making for his set goal as fast as possible. He did not fear
encountering any clans in these bare hills; they grazed their flocks
on the lower levels. But he was as familiar with the route he was
following as his men thought.

He was feeling his way, mostly by the instinct for direction that men
who live in the open possess, but he would have been lost a dozen
times but for glimpses of Mount Erlik Khan shouldering up above the
surrounding hills in the distance.

As they progressed westward he recognized other landmarks, seen from
new angles, and just before sunset he glimpsed a broad shallow valley,
across the pine-grown slopes of which he saw the walls of Yolgan
looming against the crags behind it.

Yolgan was built at the foot of a mountain, overlooking the valley
through which a stream wandered among masses of reeds and willows.
Timber was unusually dense. Rugged mountains, dominated by Erlik's
peak to the south, swept around the valley to the south and west, and
in the north it was blocked by a chain of hills. To the east it was
open, sloping down from a succession of uneven ridges. Gordon and his
men had followed the ranges in their flight, and now they looked down
on the valley from the south.

El Borak led the warriors down from the higher crags and hid them on
one of the many gorges debouching on the lower slopes, not more than a
mile and a half from the city itself. It ended in a cul-de-sac and
suggested a trap, but the horses were ready to fall from exhaustion,
the men's canteens were empty, and a spring gurgling out of the solid
rock decided Gordon.

He found a ravine leading out of the gorge and placed men on guard
there, as well as at the gorge mouth. It would serve as an avenue of
escape if need be. The men gnawed the scraps of food that remained,
and dressed their wounds as best they could. When he told them he was
going on a solitary scout they looked at him with lack-luster eyes, in
the grip of the fatalism that is the heritage of the Turkish races.

They did not mistrust him, but they felt like dead men already. They
looked like ghouls, with their dusty, torn garments, clotted with
dried blood, and sunken eyes of hunger and weariness. They squatted or
lay about, wrapped in their tattered cloaks, unspeaking.

Gordon was more optimistic than they. Perhaps they had not completely
eluded the Kirghiz, but he believed it would take some time for even
those human bloodhounds to ferret them out, and he did not fear
discovery by the inhabitants of Yolgan. He knew they seldom wandered
into the hills.

Gordon had neither slept nor eaten as much as his men, but his steely
frame was more enduring than theirs, and he was animated by a terrific
vitality that would keep his brain clear and his body vibrant long
after another man had dropped in his tracks.

It was dark when Gordon strode on foot out of the gorge, the stars
hanging over the peaks like points of chilled silver. He did not
strike straight across the valley, but kept to the line of marching
hills. So it was no great coincidence that he discovered the cave
where men were hidden.

It was situated in a rocky shoulder that ran out into the valley, and
which he skirted rather than clamber over. Tamarisk grew thickly about
it, masking the mouth so effectually that it was only by chance that
he glimpsed the reflection of a fire against a smooth inner wall.

Gordon crept through the thickets and peered in. It was a bigger cave
than the mouth indicated. A small fire was going, and three men
squatted by it, eating and conversing in guttural Pashto. Gordon
recognized three of the camp servants of the Englishmen. Farther back
in the cave he saw the horses and heaps of camp equipment. The mutter
of conversation was unintelligible where he crouched, and even as he
wondered where the white men and the fourth servant were, he heard
someone approaching.

He drew back farther into the shadows and waited, and presently a tall
figure loomed in the starlight. It was the other Pathan, his arms full
of firewood.

As he strode toward the natural camp which led up the cave mouth, he
passed so close to Gordon's hiding place that the American could have
touched him with an extended arm. But he did not extend an arm; he
sprang on the man's back like a panther on a buck.

The firewood was knocked in all directions and the two men rolled
together down a short grassy slope, but Gordon's fingers were digging
into the Pathan's bull throat, strangling his efforts to cry out, and
the struggle made no noise that could have been heard inside the cave
above the crackle of the tamarisk chunks.

The Pathan's superior height and weight were futile against the corded
sinews and wrestling skills of his opponent. Heaving the man under
him, Gordon crouched on his breast and throttled him dizzy before he
relaxed his grasp and let life and intelligence flow back into his
victim's dazed brain.

The Pathan recognized his captor and his fear was the greater, because
he thought he was in the hands of a ghost. His eyes glimmered in the
gloom and his teeth shone in the black tangle of his beard.

"Where are the Englishmen?" demanded Gordon softly. "Speak, you dog,
before I break your neck!"

"They went at dusk toward the city of devils!" gasped the Pathan.

"Prisoners?"

"Nay; one with a shaven head guided them. They bore their weapons and
were not afraid."

"What are they doing here?"

"By Allah, I do not know!"

"Tell me all you do know," commanded Gordon. "But speak softly. If
your mates hear and come forth, you will suddenly cease to be. Begin
where I went forth to shoot the stag. After that, Ormond killed Ahmed.
That I know."

"Aye; it was the Englishman. I had naught to do with it. I saw Ahmed
lurking outside Pembroke Sahib's tent. Presently Ormond Sahib came
forth and dragged him in the tent. A gun spoke, and when we went to
look, the Punjabi lay dead on the floor of the tent.

"Then the sahibs bade us strike the tents and load the pack horses,
and we did so without question. We went westward in great haste. When
the night was not yet half over, we sighted a camp of pagans, and my
brothers and I were much afraid. But the sahibs went forward, and when
the accursed ones came forth with arrows on string, Ormond Sahib held
up a strange emblem which glowed in the light of the torches,
whereupon the heathens dismounted and bowed to the earth.

"We abode in their camp that night. In the darkness someone came to
the camp and there was fighting and a man slain, and Ormond Sahib said
it was a spying Turkoman, and that there would be fighting, so at dawn
we left the pagans and went westward in haste, across the ford. When
we met other heathen, Ormond showed them the talisman, and they did us
honor. All day we hastened, driving the beasts hard, and when night
fell we did not halt, for Ormond Sahib was like one mad. So before the
night was half gone, we came into this valley, and the sahibs hid us
in this cave.

"Here we abode until a pagan passed near the cavern this morning,
driving sheep. Then Ormond Sahib called to him and showed him the
talisman and made it known that he wished speech with the priest of
the city. So the man went, and presently he returned with the priest
who could speak Kashmiri. He and the sahibs talked long together, but
what they said I know not. But Ormond Sahib killed the man who had
gone to fetch the priest, and he and the priest hid the body with
stones.

"Then after more talk, the priest went away, and the sahibs abode in
the cave all day. But at dusk another man came to them, a man with a
shaven head and camel's hair robes, and they went with him toward the
city. They bade us eat and then saddle and pack the animals, and be
ready to move with great haste between midnight and dawn. That is all
I know, as Allah is my witness."

Gordon made no reply. He believed the man was telling the truth, and
his bewilderment grew. As he meditated on the tangle, he unconsciously
relaxed his grip, and the Pathan chose that instant to make his break
for freedom. With a convulsive heave he tore himself partly free of
Gordon's grasp, whipped from his garments a knife he had been unable
to reach before, and yelled loudly as he stabbed.

Gordon avoided the thrust by a quick twist of his body; the edge slit
his shirt and the skin beneath, and stung by its bite and his peril,
he caught the Pathan's bull neck in both hands and put all his
strength into a savage wrench. The man's spinal column snapped like a
rotten branch, and Gordon flung himself over backward into the thicker
shadows as a man bulked black in the mouth of the cavern. The fellow
called a cautious query, but Gordon waited for no more. He was already
gone like a phantom into the gloom.

The Pathan repeated his call and then, getting no response, summoned
his mates in some trepidation. With weapons in their hands they stole
down the ramp, and presently one of them stumbled over the body of
their companion. They bent over it, muttering affrightedly.

"This is a place of devils," said one. "The devils have slain Akbar."

"Nay," said another. "It is the people of this valley. They mean to
slay us one by one." He grasped his rifle and stared fearsomely into
the shadows that hemmed them in. "They have bewitched the sahibs and
led them away to be slain," he muttered.

"We will be next," said the third. "The sahibs are dead. Let us load
the animals and go away quickly. Better die in the hills than wait
like sheep for our throats to be cut."

A few minutes later they were hurrying eastward through the pines as
fast as they could urge the beasts.
* * *

Of this Gordon knew nothing. When he left the slope below the cave he
did not follow the trend of the hills as before, but headed straight
through the pines toward the lights of Yolgan. He had not gone far
when he struck a road from the east leading toward the city. It wound
among the pines, a slightly less dark thread in a bulwark of
blackness.

He followed it to within easy sight of the great gate which stood open
in the dark and massive walls of the town. Guards leaned carelessly on
their matchlocks. Yolgan feared no attack. Why should it? The wildest
of the Mohammedan tribes shunned the land of the devil worshipers.
Sounds of barter and dispute were wafted by the night wind through the
gate.

Somewhere in Yolgan, Gordon was sure, were the men he was seeking.
That they intended returning to the cave he had been assured. But
there was a reason why he wished to enter Yolgan, a reason not
altogether tied up with vengeance. As he pondered, hidden in the deep
shadow, he heard the soft clop of hoofs on the dusty road behind him.
He slid farther back among the pines; then with a sudden thought he
turned and made his way beyond the first turn, where he crouched in
the blackness beside the road.

Presently a train of laden pack mules came along, with men before and
behind and at either side. They bore no torches, moving like men who
knew their path. Gordon's eyes had so adjusted themselves to the faint
starlight of the road that he was able to recognize them as Kirghiz
herdsmen in their long cloaks and round caps. They passed so close to
him that their body-scent filled his nostrils.

He crouched lower in the blackness, and as the last man moved past
him, a steely arm hooked fiercely about the Kirghiz's throat, choking
his cry. An iron fist crunched against his jaw and he sagged senseless
in Gordon's arms. The others were already out of sight around the bend
of the trail, and the scrape of the mules' bulging packs against the
branches along the road was enough to drown the slight noises of the
struggle.

Gordon dragged his victim in under the black branches and swiftly
stripped him, discarding his own boots and kaffiyeh and donning the
native's garments, with pistol and scimitar buckled on under the long
cloak. A few minutes later he was moving along after the receding
column, leaning on his staff as with the weariness of long travel. He
knew the man behind him would not regain consciousness for hours.

He came up with the tail of the train, but lagged behind as a
straggler might. He kept close enough to the caravan to be identified
with it, but not so close as to tempt conversation or recognition by
the other members of the train. When they passed through the gate none
challenged him. Even in the flare of the torches under the great
gloomy arch he looked like a native, with his dark features fitting in
with his garments and the lambskin cap.

As he went down the torch-lighted street, passing unnoticed among the
people who chattered and argued in the markets and stalls, he might
have been one of the many Kirghiz shepherds who wandered about, gaping
at the sights of the city which to them represented the last word in
the metropolitan.

Yolgan was not like any other city in Asia. Legend said it was built
long ago by a cult of devil worshipers who, driven from their distant
homeland, had found sanctuary in this unmapped country, where an
isolated branch of the Black Kirghiz, wilder than their kinsmen,
roamed as masters. The people of the city were a mixed breed,
descendants of these original founders and the Kirghiz.

Gordon saw the monks who were the ruling caste in Yolgan striding
through the bazaars--tall, shaven-headed men with Mongolian features.
He wondered anew as to their exact origin. They were not Tibetans.
Their religion was not a depraved Buddhism. It was unadulterated devil
worship. The architecture of their shrines and temples differed from
any he had ever encountered anywhere.

But he wasted no time in conjecture, nor in aimless wandering. He went
straight to the great stone building squatted against the side of the
mountain at the foot of which Yolgan was built. Its great blank
curtains of stone seemed almost like part of the mountain itself.

No one hindered him. He mounted a long flight of steps that were at
least a hundred feet wide, bending over his staff as with the
weariness of a long pilgrimage. Great bronze doors stood open,
unguarded, and he kicked off his sandals and came into a huge hall the
inner gloom of which was barely lighted by dim brazen lamps in which
melted butter was burned.

Shaven-headed monks moved through the shadows like dusky ghosts, but
they gave him no heed, thinking him merely a rustic worshiper come to
leave some humble offering at the shrine of Erlik, Lord of the Seventh
Hell.

At the other end of the hall, view was cut off by a great divided
curtain of gilded leather that hung from the lofty roof to the floor.
Half a dozen steps that crossed the hall led up to the foot of the
curtain, and before it a monk sat cross-legged and motionless as a
statue, arms folded and head bent as if in communion with unguessed
spirits.

Gordon halted at the foot of the steps, made as if to prostrate
himself, then retreated as if in sudden panic. The monk showed no
interest. He had seen too many nomads from the outer world overcome by
superstitious awe before the curtain that hid the dread effigy of
Erlik Khan. The timid Kirghiz might skulk about the temple for hours
before working up nerve enough to make his devotions to the deity.
None of the priests paid any attention to the man in the caftan of a
shepherd who slunk away as if abashed.
* * *

As soon as he was confident that he was not being watched, Gordon
slipped through a dark doorway some distance from the gilded curtain
and groped his way down a broad unlighted hallway until he came to a
flight of stairs. Up this he went with both haste and caution and came
presently into a long corridor along which winked sparks of light,
like fireflies in a runnel.

He knew these lights were tiny lamps in the small cells that lined the
passage, where the monks spent long hours in contemplation of dark
mysteries, or pored over forbidden volumes, the very existence of
which is not suspected by the outer world. There was a stair at the
nearer end of the corridor, and up this he went, without being
discovered by the monks in their cells. The pin points of light in the
chambers did not serve to illuminate the darkness of the corridor to
any extent.

As Gordon approached a crook in the stair he renewed his caution, for
he knew there would be a man on guard at the head of the steps. He
knew also that he would be likely to be asleep. The man was there--a
half-naked giant with the wizened features of a deaf mute. A broad-
tipped tulwar lay across his knees and his head rested on it as he
slept.

Gordon stole noiselessly past him and came into an upper corridor
which was dimly lighted by brass lamps hung at intervals. There were
no doorless cells here, but heavy bronze-bound teak portals flanked
the passage. Gordon went straight to one which was particularly
ornately carved and furnished with an unusual fretted arch by way of
ornament. He crouched there listening intently, then took a chance and
rapped softly on the door. He rapped nine times, with an interval
between each three raps.

There was an instant's tense silence, then an impulsive rush of feet
across a carpeted floor, and the door was jerked open. A magnificent
figure stood framed in the soft light. It was a woman, a lithe,
splendid creature whose vibrant figure exuded magnetic vitality. The
jewels that sparkled in the girdle about her supple hips were no more
scintillant than her eyes.

Instant recognition blazed in those eyes, despite his native garments.
She caught him in a fierce grasp. Her slender arms were strong as
pliant steel.

"El Borak! I knew you would come!"
* * *

Gordon stepped into the chamber and closed the door behind him. A
quick glance showed him there was no one there but themselves. Its
thick Persian rugs, silk divans, velvet hangings, and gold-chased
lamps struck a vivid contrast with the grim plainness of the rest of
the temple. Then he turned his full attention again to the woman who
stood before him, her white hands clenched in a sort of passionate
triumph.

"How did you know I would come, Yasmeena?" he asked.

"You never failed a friend in need," she answered.

"Who is in need?"

"I!"

"But you are a goddess!"

"I explained it all in my letter!" she exclaimed bewilderedly.

Gordon shook his head. "I have received no letter."

"Then why are you here?" she demanded in evident puzzlement.

"It's a long story," he answered. "Tell me first why Yasmeena, who had
the world at her feet and threw it away for weariness to become a
goddess in a strange land, should speak of herself as one in need."

"In desperate need, El Borak." She raked back her dark locks with a
nervously quick hand. Her eyes were shadowed with weariness and
something more, something which Gordon had never seen there before--
the shadow of fear.

"Here is food you need more than I," she said as she sank down on a
divan and with a dainty foot pushed toward him a small gold table on
which were chupaties, curried rice, and broiled mutton, all in gold
vessels, and a gold jug of kumiss.

He sat down without comment and began to eat with unfeigned gusto. In
his drab camel's-hair caftan, with the wide sleeves drawn back from
his corded brown arms, he looked out of place in that exotic chamber.

Yasmeena watched him broodingly, her chin resting on her hand, her
somber eyes enigmatic.

"I did not have the world at my feet, El Borak," she said presently.
"But I had enough of it to sicken me. It became a wine which had lost
its savor. Flattery became like an insult; the adulation of men became
an empty repetition without meaning. I grew maddeningly weary of the
flat fool faces that smirked eternally up at me, all wearing the same
sheep expressions and animated by the same sheep thoughts. All except
a few men like you, El Borak, and you were wolves in the flock. I
might have loved you, El Borak, but there is something too fierce
about you; your soul is a whetted blade on which I feared I might cut
myself."

He made no reply, but tilted the golden jug and gulped down enough
stinging kumiss to have made an ordinary man's head swim at once. He
had lived the life of the nomads so long that their tastes had become
his.

"So I became a princess, wife of a prince of Kashmir," she went on,
her eyes smoldering with a marvelous shifting of clouds and colors. "I
thought I knew the depths of men's swinishness. I found I had much to
learn. He was a beast. I fled from him into India, and the British
protected me when his ruffians would have dragged me back to him. He
still offers many thousand rupees to anyone who will bring me alive to
him, so that he may soothe his vanity by having me tortured to death."

"I have heard a rumor to that effect," answered Gordon.

A recurrent thought caused his face to darken. He did not frown, but
the effect was subtly sinister.

"That experience completed my distaste for the life I knew," she said,
her dark eyes vividly introspective. "I remembered that my father was
a priest of Yolgan who fled away for love of a stranger woman. I had
emptied the cup and the bowl was dry. I remembered Yolgan through the
tales my father told me when I was a babe, and a great yearning rose
in me to lose the world and find my soul. All the gods I knew had
proved false to me. The mark of Erlik was upon me--" she parted her
pearl-sewn vest and displayed a curious starlike mark between her firm
breasts.

"I came to Yolgan as well you know, because you brought me, in the
guise of a Kirghiz from Issik-kul. As you know, the people remembered
my father, and though they looked on him as a traitor, they accepted
me as one of them, and because of an old legend which spoke of the
star on a woman's bosom, they hailed me as a goddess, the incarnation
of the daughter of Erlik Khan.

"For a while after you went away I was content. The people worshipped
me with more sincerity than I had ever seen displayed by the masses of
civilization. Their curious rituals were strange and fascinating. Then
I began to go further into their mysteries; I began to sense the
essence of the formula--" She paused, and Gordon saw the fear grow in
her eyes again.

"I had dreamed of a calm retreat of mystics, inhabited by
philosophers. I found a haunt of bestial devils, ignorant of all but
evil. Mysticism? It is black shamanism, foul as the tundras which bred
it. I have seen things that made me afraid. Yes, I, Yasmeena, who
never knew the meaning of the word, I have learned fear. Yogok, the
high priest, taught me. You warned me against Yogok before you left
Yolgan. Well had I heeded you. He hates me. He knows I am not divine,
but he fears my power over the people. He would have slain me long ago
had he dared.

"I am wearied to death of Yolgan. Erlik Khan and his devils have
proved no less an illusion than the gods of India and the West. I have
not found the perfect way. I have found only awakened desire to return
to the world I cast away.

"I want to go back to Delhi. At night I dream of the noise and smells
of the streets and bazaars. I am half Indian, and all the blood of
India is calling me. I was a fool. I had life in my hands and did not
recognize it."

"Why not go back, then?" asked Gordon.

She shuddered. "I cannot. The gods of Yolgan must remain in Yolgan
forever. Should one depart, the people believe the city would perish.
Yogok would be glad to see me go, but he fears the fury of the people
too much either to slay me or aid me to escape. I knew there was but
one man who might help me. I wrote a letter to you and smuggled it out
by a Tajik trader. With it I sent my sacred emblem--a jeweled gold
star-- which would pass you safely through the country of the nomads.
They would not harm a man bearing it. He would be safe from all but
the priests of the city. I explained that in my letter."

"I never got it," Gordon answered. "I'm here after a couple of
scoundrels whom I was guiding into the Uzbek country, and who for no
apparent reason murdered my servant Ahmed and deserted me in the
hills. They're in Yolgan now, somewhere."

"White men?" she exclaimed. "That is impossible! They could never have
got through the tribes--"

"There's only one key to the puzzle," he interrupted. "Somehow your
letter fell into their hands. They used your star to let them through.
They don't mean to rescue you, because they got in touch with Yogok as
soon as they reached the valley. There's only one thing I can think
of--they intend kidnapping you to sell to your former husband."

She sat up straight; her white hands clenched on the edge of the divan
and her eyes flashed. In that instant she looked as splendid and as
dangerous as a cobra when it rears up to strike.

"Back to that pig? Where are these dogs? I will speak a word to the
people and they shall cease to be!"

"That would betray yourself," returned Gordon. "The people would kill
the stranger, and Yogok, too, maybe, but they'd learn that you'd been
trying to escape from Yolgan. They allow you the freedom of the
temple, don't they?"

"Yes; with shaven-headed skulkers spying on my every move, except when
I am on this floor, from which only a single stair leads down. That
stair is always guarded."

"By a guard who sleeps," said Gordon. "That's bad enough, but if the
people found you were trying to escape, they might shut you up in a
little cell for the rest of your life. People are particularly careful
of their deities."

She shuddered, and her fine eyes flashed the fear an eagle feels for a
cage. "Then what are we to do?"

"I don't know--yet. I have nearly a hundred Turkoman ruffians hidden
up in the hills, but just now they're more hindrance than help.
There's not enough of them to do much good in a pitched battle, and
they're almost sure to be discovered tomorrow, if not before. I
brought them into this mess, and it's up to me to get them out--or as
many as I can. I came here to kill these Englishmen, Ormond and
Pembroke. But that can wait now. I'm going to get you out of here, but
I don't dare move until I know where Yogok and the Englishmen are. Is
there anyone in Yolgan you can trust?"

"Any of the people would die for me, but they won't let me go. Only
actual harm done me by the monks would stir them up against Yogok. No;
I dare trust none of them."

"You say that stair is the only way up onto this floor?"

"Yes. The temple is built against the mountain, and galleries and
corridors on the lower floors go back far into the mountain itself.
But this is the highest floor, and is reserved entirely for me.
There's no escape from it except down through the temple, swarming
with monks. I keep only one servant here at night, and she is at
present sleeping in a chamber some distance from this and is senseless
with bhang as usual."

"Good enough!" grunted Gordon. "Here, take this pistol. Lock the door
after I go through and admit no one but myself. You'll recognize me by
the nine raps, as usual."

"Where are you going?" she demanded, staring up and mechanically
taking the weapon he tendered her, butt first.

"To do a little spying," he answered. "I've got to know what Yogok and
the others are doing. If I tried to smuggle you out now, we might run
square into them. I can't make plans until I know some of theirs. If
they intend sneaking you out tonight, as I think they do, it might be
a good idea to let them do it, and then swoop down with the Turkomans
and take you away from them, when they've got well away from the city.
But I don't want to do that unless I have to. Bound to be shooting and
a chance of your getting hit by a stray bullet. I'm going now; listen
for my rap."
VI

THE MUTE GUARD still slumbered on the stair as Gordon glided past him.
No lights glinted now as he descended into the lower corridor. He knew
the cells were all empty, for the monks slept in chambers on a lower
level. As he hesitated, he heard sandals shuffling down the passage in
the pitch blackness.

Stepping into one of the cells he waited until the unseen traveler was
opposite him, then he hissed softly. The tread halted and a voice
muttered a query.

"Art thou Yatub?" asked Gordon in the gutturals of the Kirghiz. Many
of the lower monks were pure Kirghiz in blood and speech.

"Nay," came the answer. "I am Ojuh. Who art thou?"

"No matter; call me Yogok's dog if thou wilt. I am a watcher. Have the
white men come into the temple yet?"

"Aye. Yogok brought them by the secret way, lest the people suspect
their presence. If thou art close to Yogok, tell me--what is his
plan?"

"What is thine own opinion?" asked Gordon.

An evil laugh answered him, and he could feel the monk leaning closer
in the darkness to rest an elbow on the jamb.

"Yogok is crafty," he murmured. "When the Tajik whom Yasmeena bribed
to bear her letter showed it to Yogok, our master bade him do as she
had instructed him. When the man for whom she sent came for her, Yogok
planned to slay both him and her, making it seem to the people that
the white man had slain their goddess."

"Yogok is not forgiving," said Gordon at a venture.

"A cobra is more so." The monk laughed. "Yasmeena has thwarted him too
often in the matter of sacrifices for him to allow her to depart in
peace."

"Yet such is now his plan!" asserted Gordon.

"Nay; thou art a simple man, for one who calls himself a watcher. The
letter was meant for El Borak. But the Tajik was greedy and sold it to
these sahibs and told them of Yogok. They will not take her to India.
They will sell her to a prince in Kashmir who will have her beaten to
death with a slipper. Yogok himself will guide them through the hills
by the secret route. He is in terror of the people, but his hate for
Yasmeena overcomes him."

Gordon had heard all he wished to know, and he was in a sudden rush to
be gone. He had abandoned his tentative plan of letting Ormond get the
girl outside the city before rescuing her. With Yogok guiding the
Englishmen through hidden passes, he might find it impossible to
overtake them.

The monk, however, was in no hurry to conclude the conversation. He
began speaking again, and then Gordon saw a light moving like a
glowworm in the blackness, and he heart a swift patter of bare feet
and a man breathing heavily. He drew farther back into the cell.

It was another monk who came up the corridor, carrying a small brass
lamp that lighted his broad, thin-lipped face and made him look
something like a Mongolian devil.

As he saw the monk outside the cell, he began hastily: "Yogok and the
white men have gone to Yasmeena's chamber. The girl, her servant who
spied upon her, has told us that the white devil El Borak is in
Yolgan. He talked with Yasmeena less than half an hour agone. The girl
sped to Yogok as swiftly as she dared, but she dared not stir until he
had left Yasmeena's chamber. He is somewhere in the temple. I gather
men to search. Come with me, thou, and thou also--"

He swung the lamp about so that it shone full on Gordon, crouching in
the cell. As the man blinked to see the garments of a shepherd instead
of the familiar robes of a monk, Gordon lashed out for his jaw, quick
and silent as the stroke of a python. The monk went down like a man
shot in the head, and even as the lamp smashed on the floor, Gordon
had leaped and grappled with the other man in the sudden darkness.

A single cry rang to the vaulted roof before it was strangled in the
corded throat. The monk was hard to hold as a snake, and he kept
groping for a knife, but as they crashed into the stone wall, Gordon
smashed his opponent's head savagely against it. The man went limp and
Gordon flung him down beside the other senseless shape.
* * *

The next instant Gordon was racing up the stairway. It was only a few
steps from the cell where he had hidden, its upper portion dim in the
subdued light of the upper corridor. He knew no one had gone up or
down while he talked with the monk. Yet the man with the lamp had said
that Yogok and the others had gone to Yasmeena's chamber, and that her
treacherous servant girl had come to them.

He rounded the crook with reckless haste, his scimitar ready, but the
slumping figure at the stairhead did not rise to oppose him. There was
a new sag in the mute's shoulders as he huddled on the steps. He had
been stabbed in the back, so fiercely that the spinal column had been
severed with one stroke.

Gordon wondered why the priest should kill one of his own servants,
but he did not pause; premonition gripping his heart, he hurled
himself down the corridor and in through the arched doorway, which was
unbolted. The chamber was empty. Cushions from the divan were strewn
on the floor. Yasmeena was not to be seen.

Gordon stood like a statue in the center of the room, his scimitar in
his hand. The blue sheen of the light on steel was no more deadly than
the glitter on his black eyes. His gaze swept the room, lingering no
longer on a slight bulge in the hangings on the rear wall than
anywhere else.

He turned toward the door, took a step--then wheeled and raced across
the chamber like a gust of wind, slashing and hacking at the tapestry
before the man hiding there realized he was discovered. The keen edge
ribboned the velvet arras and blood spurted; out of the tatters a
figure toppled to the floor--a shaven monk, literally cut to pieces.
He had dropped his knife and could only grovel and moan, clutching at
his spurting arteries.

"Where is she?" snarled Gordon, panting with passion as he crouched
over his hideous handiwork. "Where is she?"

But the man only whimpered and yammered and died without speaking.

Gordon ran to the walls and began ripping the hangings away. Somewhere
he knew there must be a secret door. But the walls showed blank,
resisting his most violent efforts. He could not follow Yasmeena by
the route her abductors had obviously carried her. He must escape the
city and hasten to the cave, where the servants were hidden, and to
which the Englishmen would undoubtedly return. He was sweating with
the violence of his rage, which almost submerged caution. He ripped
off the camel's hair robe, feeling in his frenzy that it cramped and
hampered him.

But the action brought a thought born of cold reason. The garments of
the senseless monks in the corridor below would furnish him with a
disguise which would aid him to pass unhindered through the temple,
where he knew scores of shaven-headed murderers were hunting him.

He ran silently from the chamber, passed the sprawling corpse, rounded
the turn of the stair--then he stopped short. The lower corridor was a
blaze of light, and at the foot of the stairs stood a mass of monks,
holding torches and swords. He saw rifles in the hands of a dozen.

Details sprang out in startling clarity in the instant that the monks
yelled and raised their rifles. Beyond them he saw a round-faced
slant-eyed girl crouching by the wall. She grasped a rope which hung
down the wall and jerked, and Gordon felt the stairs give way beneath
him. The rifles roared in a ragged volley as he shot down the black
opening which gaped beneath his feet, and the bullets whined over his
head. A fierce cry of triumph rose from the monks.

VII

AFTER GORDON LEFT HER, Yasmeena made fast the door and returned to her
divan. She idly studied the big pistol he had left with her,
fascinated by the blue gleam of the light on its dully polished steel.

Then she tossed it aside and lay back with her eyes closed. There was
a certain sophistication or innate mysticism in her which refused to
let her put much faith in material weapons. Hers was that
overrefinement of civilization which instinctively belittles physical
action. With all her admiration for Gordon, he was, after all, to her,
a barbarian who put his trust in lead and steel.

She undervalued the weapon he had left with her, and so it was out of
her reach when the noise of a swishing tapestry roused her. She turned
and stared at the rear wall with eyes suddenly dilated. Behind the
hanging she knew--or thought she knew--was solid stone wall, built
hard against the sheer mountainside.

But now that hanging lifted, grasped in a yellow clawlike hand. The
hand was followed by a face--an evil, leering, grayish face, with
slanted eyes and lank hair falling over a narrow forehead. A thin gash
of a mouth gaped, revealing pointed teeth.

She was so astounded that she sat frozen, unable to supply the simple
explanation of the phenomenon, until the man entered the room with a
slithering silence repulsively suggestive of a snake. Then she saw
that a black opening gaped in the wall behind the lifted arras, and
two faces were framed in it--white men's faces, hard and inexorable as
stone.

She sprang up then and snatched for the revolver, but it was at the
other end of the divan. She ran around for it, but the slant-eyed man,
with a motion incredibly quick, was before her and crushed her cruelly
in his lean arms, clapping a hand over her mouth. He heeded the
twisting and writhing of her supple body no more than the struggles of
a child.

"Swift!" he ordered in harsh gutturals. "Bind her!"

The white men had followed him into the chamber, but it was a monk who
obeyed, adding a velvet gag. One of the white men picked up the
pistol.

"See to the mute who slumbers on the stairs," her captor ordered. "He
is not our man, but a creature set by the people to guard her. Even a
mute can speak by gestures sometimes."

The evil-faced monk bowed deeply and, unbolting the door, went out,
thumbing a long knife. Another monk stood in the secret entrance.

"You did not know of the hidden door," jeered the slant-eyed man. "You
fool! The mountain below this temple is honeycombed with tunnels. You
have been spied on constantly. The girl whom you thought drunk on
bhang watched tonight while you talked with El Borak. That will not
alter my plans any, though, except that I have set my monks to slay El
Borak.

"Then we will show the people his body and tell them that you have
returned to your father in the Seventh Hell because Yolgan has been
polluted by the presence of a feringhi. In the meantime these sahibs
will be well on their way to Kashmir with you, my lovely goddess!
Daughter of Erlik! Bah!"

"We're wasting time, Yogok," broke in Ormond roughly. "Once in the
hills, you say, we won't meet any of the Kirghiz, but I want to be far
from Yolgan by daylight."

The priest nodded and motioned to the monk who came forward and lifted
Yasmeena onto a litter he carried. Pembroke took the other end. At
that moment the other monk glided back into the chamber, wiping blood
from his curved blade.

Yogok directed him to hide behind the hangings. "El Borak might return
before the others find him."
* * *

Then they passed through the hidden door into darkness lighted by a
butter lamp in Yogok's hand. The priest slid to the heavy section of
stone that formed part of the wall and made it fast with a bronze bar.
Yasmeena saw by the small light of the lamp that they were in a narrow
corridor which slanted downward at a pitch which grew steeper until it
ended in a long narrow stair cut out of solid rock.

At the bottom of this stair they struck a level tunnel which they
followed for some time, the Englishmen and the monk alternating with
the litter. It ended at last in a wall of rock, in the center of which
was a stone block which worked on a pivot. This turned, they emerged
into a cave, at the mouth of which stars were visible through a tangle
of branches.

When Yogok pushed the block back in place its rough exterior looked
like part of a solid wall. He extinguished the lamp and a moment later
was pushing aside the massed willows which masked the cave mouth. As
they emerged into the starlight, Yasmeena saw that these willows stood
on the bank of a stream.

When her captors had pushed through the trees, waded the shallow
channel, and ascended the farther bank, she saw a cluster of lights
off to her right. Those lights were Yolgan. They had followed tunnels
out into the solid rock of the mountain and had come out at its foot
less than half a mile from the city. Directly ahead of her the forest
lifted in rows of black ramparts, and off to the left the hills
climbed in marching lines.

Her captors set off through the starlight, their apparent objective a
jutting shoulder less than half a mile to the east. The distance was
covered in silence. The nervousness of the white men was no more
evident than that of Yogok. Each man was thinking what his fate would
be if the common people of Yolgan discovered them kidnapping their
goddess.

Yogok's fear was greater than that of the Englishmen. He had covered
his tracks with corpses--the shepherd who had brought him Ormond's
message, the mute guardian of the stairs; his teeth chattered as he
conjured up possibilities. El Borak must die without speaking, also;
that, he had drilled into the monks.

"Faster! Faster!" he urged, a note of panic in his voice as he glared
at the black forest walls about him. In the moan of the night wind he
seemed to hear the stealthy tread of pursuers.

"Here's the cave," grunted Ormond. "Set her down; no use lugging her
up that slope. I'll go get the servants and the horses. We'll mount
her on one of the pack animals. Have to leave some of our stuff
behind, anyhow. Ohai, Akbar!" he called softly.

There was no answer. The fire had gone out in the cave and the mouth
gaped black and silent.

"Have they gone to sleep?" Ormond swore irritably. "I'll jolly well
wake 'em. Wait!"

He ran lightly up the rough camp and vanished in the cave. A moment
later his voice reached them, echoing hollowly between the rocky
walls. The echoes did not disguise the sudden fear in his voice.

VIII

WHEN GORDON FELL through the treacherous stairs, he shot downward in
utter blackness to land on solid stone. Not one man in a hundred could
have survived the fall with unsmashed bones, but El Borak was all knit
wires and steel springs. He landed on all fours, catlike, with bent
joints absorbing the shock. Even so his whole body was numbed, and his
limbs crumpled under him, letting his frame dash violently against the
stone.

He lay there half stunned for a space, then pulled himself together,
cursing the stinging and tingling of his hands and feet, and felt
himself for broken bones.

Thankful to find himself intact, he groped for and found the scimitar
which he had cast from him as he fell. Above him the trap had closed.
Where he was he had no idea, but it was dark as a Stygian vault. He
wondered how far he had fallen, and felt that it was farther than
anyone would ever believe, supposing he escaped to tell of it. He felt
about in the darkness and found that he was in a square cell of no
great dimensions. The one door was locked on the outside.

His investigations took him only a matter of seconds, and it was while
he was feeling the door that he heard someone fumbling at it on the
other side. He drew back, believing that those who dropped him into
the cell would scarcely have had time to reach it by a safer way. He
believed it was someone who had heard the sound of his fall and was
coming to investigate, doubtless expecting to find a corpse on the
floor.

The door was cast open and light blinded him, but he cut at the vague
figure which loomed in the open door. Then his eyes could see and they
saw a monk lying on the floor of a narrow lamp-lighted corridor with
his shaven head split to the temples. The passage was empty except for
the dead man.

The floor of the corridor sloped slightly, and Gordon went down it,
because to go up it would obviously be returning toward his enemies.
He momentarily expected to hear them howling on his heels, but
evidently they considered that his fall through the trap, riddled, as
they thought, with bullets, was sufficient and were in no hurry to
verify their belief. Doubtless it was the duty of the monk he had
killed to finish off victims dropped through the trap on the stairs.

The corridor made a sharp turn to the right and the lamps no longer
burned along the walls. Gordon took one of them and went on, finding
that the pitch of the slope grew steeper until he was forced to check
his descent with a hand braced against the wall. These walls were
solid rock, and he knew he was in the mountain on which the temple was
built.

He did not believe any of the inhabitants of Yolgan knew of these
tunnels except the monks; certainly Yasmeena was ignorant of them.
Thought of the girl made him wince. Heaven alone knew where she was,
just then, but he could not aid her until he had escaped himself from
these rat-runs.

Presently the passage turned at right angles into a broader tunnel
which ran level, and he followed it hastily but cautiously, holding
his lamp high. Ahead of him he saw the tunnel end at last against a
rough stone wall in which a door was set in the shape of a ponderous
square block. This, he discovered, was hung on a pivot, and it
revolved with ease, letting him through into a cave beyond.

As Yasmeena had seen the stars among the branches not long before,
Gordon now discovered them. He put out his lamp, halted an instant to
let his eyes get used to the sudden darkness, and then started toward
the cavern mouth.

Just as he reached it, he crouched back. Somebody was splashing
through the water outside, thrashing through the willows. The man came
panting up the short steep slope, and Gordon saw the evil face of
Yogok in the starlight before the man became a shapeless blob of
blackness as he plunged into the cavern.

The next instant El Borak sprang, bearing his man to the floor. Yogok
let out one hair-raising yell, and then Gordon found his throat and
crouched over him, savagely digging and twisting his fingers in the
priest's neck.

"Where is Yasmeena?" he demanded.

A gurgle answered him. He relaxed his grip a trifle and repeated the
question. Yogok was mad with fear of his attack in the dark, but
somehow--probably by the body-scent or the lack of it--he divined that
his captor was a white man.

"Are you El Borak?" he gasped.

"Who else? Where is Yasmeena?" Gordon emphasized his demand by a
wrench which brought a gurgle of pain from Yogok's thin lips.

"The Englishmen have her!" he panted.

"Where are they?"

"Nay; I know not! Ahhh! Mercy, sahib! I will tell!"

Yogok's eyes glimmered white with fear in the darkness. His lean body
was shaking as with an ague.

"We took her to a cave where the sahibs' servants were hidden. They
were gone, with the horses. The Englishmen accused me of treachery.
They said I had made away with their servants and meant to murder
them. They lied. By Erlik, I know not what became of their cursed
Pathans! The Englishmen attacked me, but I fled while a servant of
mine fought with them."

Gordon hauled him to his feet, faced him toward the cave mouth and
bound his hands behind him with his own girdle.

"We're going back," he said grimly. "One yelp out of you and I'll let
out your snake's soul. Guide me as straight to Ormond's cave as you
know."

"Nay; the dogs will slay me!"

"I'll kill you if you don't," Gordon assured him, pushing Yogok
stumbling before him.

The priest was not a back-to-the-wall fighter. Confronted by two
perils he chose the more remote. They waded the stream and on the
other side Yogok turned to the right. Gordon jerked him back.

"I know where I am now," he growled. "And I know where the cave is.
It's in that jut of land to the left. If there's a path through the
pines, show it to me."

Yogok surrendered and hurried through the shadows, conscious of
Gordon's grasp on his collar and the broad edge of Gordon's scimitar
glimmering near. It was growing toward the darkness that precedes dawn
as they came to the cave which loomed dark and silent among the trees.

"They are gone!" Yogok shivered.

"I didn't expect to find them here," muttered Gordon. "I came here to
pick up their trail. If they thought you'd set the natives on them,
they'd pull out on foot. What worries me is what they did with
Yasmeena."

"Listen!"

Yogok started convulsively as a low moan smote the air.

Gordon threw him and lashed together his hands and feet. "Not a sound
out of you!" he warned, and then stole up the ramp, sword ready.

At the mouth he hesitated unwilling to show himself against the dim
starlight behind him. Then he heard the moan again and knew it was not
feigned. It was a human being in mortal agony.

He felt his way into the darkness and presently stumbled over
something yielding, which evoked another moan. His hands told him it
was a man in European clothing. Something warm and oozy smeared his
hands as he groped. Feeling in the man's pockets he found a box of
matches and struck one, cupping it in his hands.

A livid face with glassy eyes stared up at him.

"Pembroke!" muttered Gordon.

The sound of his name seemed to rouse the dying man. He half rose on
an elbow, blood trickling from his mouth with the effort.

"Ormond!" he whispered ghastily. "Have you come back? Damn you, I'll
do for you yet--"

"I'm not Ormond," growled the American. "I'm Gordon. It seems somebody
has saved me the trouble of killing you. Where's Yasmeena?"

"He took her away." The Englishman's voice was scarcely intelligible,
choked by the flow of blood. "Ormond, the dirty swine! We found the
cave empty--knew old Yogok had betrayed us. We jumped him. He ran
away. His damned monk stabbed me. Ormond took Yasmeena and the monk
and went away. He's mad. He's going to try to cross the mountains on
foot, with the girl, and the monk to guide him. And he left me to die,
the swine, the filthy swine!"

The dying man's voice rose to a hysterical shriek; he heaved himself
up, his eyes glaring; then a terrible shudder ran through his body and
he was dead.

Gordon rose, struck another match and swept a glance over the cave. It
was utterly bare. Not a firearm in sight. Ormond had evidently robbed
his dying partner. Ormond, starting through the mountains with a
captive woman, and a treacherous monk for a guide, on foot and with no
provisions--surely the man must be mad.

Returning to Yogok he unbound his legs, repeating Pembroke's tale in a
few words. He saw the priest's eyes gleam in the starlight.

"Good! They will all die in the mountains! Let them go!"

"We're following them," Gordon answered. "You know the way the monk
will lead Ormond. Show it to me."

A restoration of confidence had wakened insolence and defiance.

"No! Let them die!"

With a searing curse Gordon caught the priest's throat and jammed his
head back between his shoulders, until his eyes were glaring at the
stars.

"Damn you!" he ground between his teeth, shaking the man as a dog
shakes a rat. "If you try to balk me now I'll kill you the slowest way
I know. Do you want me to drag you back to Yolgan and tell the people
what you plotted against the daughter of Erlik Khan? They'll kill me,
but they'll flay you alive!"

Yogok knew Gordon would not do that, not because the American feared
death, but because to sacrifice himself would be to remove Yasmeena's
last hope. But Gordon's glaring eyes made him cold with fear; he
sensed the abysmal rage that gripped the white man and knew that El
Borak was on the point of tearing him limb from limb. In that moment
there was no bloody deed of which Gordon was not capable.

"Stay, sahib!" Yogok gasped. "I will guide you."

"And guide me right!" Gordon jerked him savagely to his feet. "They
have been gone less than an hour. If we don't overtake them by
sunrise, I'll know you've led me astray, and I'll tie you head down to
a cliff for the vultures to eat alive."
IX

IN THE DARKNESS before dawn Yogok led Gordon up into the hills by a
narrow trail that wound among ravines and windy crags, climbing ever
southward. The eternal lights of Yolgan fell away behind them, growing
smaller and smaller with distance.

They left half a mile to the east of the gorge where the Turkomans
were concealed. Gordon ardently wished to get his men out of that
ravine before dawn, but he dared not take the time now. His eyes
burned from lack of sleep and moments of giddiness assailed him, but
the fire of his driving energy burned fiercer than ever. He urged the
priest to greater and greater speed until sweat dripped like water
from the man's trembling limbs.

"He'll practically have to drag the girl. She'll fight him every step
of the way. And he'll have to beat the monk every now and then to make
him point out the right path. We ought to be gaining on them at every
step."

Full dawn found them climbing a ledge that pitched up around a
gigantic shoulder where the wind staggered them. Then, off to the
left, sounded a sudden rattle of rifle fire. The wind brought it in
snatches. Gordon turned, loosing his binoculars. They were high above
the ridges and hills that rimmed the valley.

He could see Yolgan in the distance, like a huddle of toy blocks. He
could see the gorges that debouched into the valley spread out like
the fingers of a hand. He saw the gorge in which his Turkomans had
taken refuge. Black dots which he knew were men were scattered among
the boulders at the canyon mouth and up on the rims of the walls; tiny
white puffs spurted.

Even before he brought his glasses into play he knew that the pursuing
Kirghiz had at last smelled his men out. The Turkomans were bottled in
the gorge. He saw puffs of smoke jetting from the rocks that from the
mountainside overhung the ravine leading out of the canyon. Strings of
dots moved out of the gates of Yolgan, which were men coming to
investigate the shooting. Doubtless the Kirghiz had sent riders to
bring the men of the city.

Yogok shrieked and fell down flat on the ledge. Gordon felt his cap
tugged from his head as if by an invisible hand, and there came to him
the flat sharp crack of a rifle.

He dropped behind a boulder and began scanning the narrow, sheer-
walled plateau upon which the ledge debouched. Presently a head and
part of a shoulder rose above a shelf of rock, and then a rifle came
up and spoke flatly. The bullet knocked a chip out of the boulder near
Gordon's elbow.

Ormond had been making even poorer time than Gordon hoped, and seeing
his pursuers gaining, had turned to make a fight of it. That he
recognized Gordon was evident from his mocking shouts. There was a
hint of hysteria in them.

Yogok was too helpless with terror to do anything but hug the ledge
and moan. Gordon began working his way toward the Englishman.
Evidently Ormond did not know that he had no firearm. The sun was not
yet above the peaks when it turned to fire, and the light and
atmosphere of those altitudes make for uncertain shooting.

Ormond blazed away as Gordon flitted from ridge to boulder and from
rock to ledge, and sometimes his lead whispered perilously close. But
Gordon was gliding ever nearer, working his way so that the sun would
be behind him when it rose. Something about that silent shadowy figure
that he could not hit began to shake Ormond's nerve; it was more like
being stalked by a leopard than by a human being.

Gordon could not see Yasmeena, but presently he saw the monk. The man
took advantage of a moment when Ormond was loading his rifle. He
sprang up from behind the ledge with his hands tied behind his back,
and scudded across the rock like a rabbit. Ormond, like a man gone
mad, jerked a pistol and put a bullet between his shoulders, and he
stumbled and slid screaming over the thousand-foot edge.

Gordon broke cover, too, and came ripping across the treacherous rock
like a gust of hill wind. As he came the sun burst up over a ridge
behind him, full in Ormond's eyes. The Englishman yelled incoherently,
trying to shade his eyes with his left arm, and began firing half
blindly. The bullets ripped past Gordon's head or knocked up splinters
of stone at his speeding feet. Panic had Ormond, and he was firing
without proper aim.

Then the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Another stride and Gordon
would reach him with that hovering arc of steel that the sun turned
crimson. Ormond hurled the pistol blindly, yelling "You damned
werewolf! I'll cheat you yet!" and bounded far out, arms outspread.

His feet struck the sloping lip of a fissure and he shot down and
vanished so suddenly it was like the unreality of a dream.

Gordon reached the crevice and glared down into echoing darkness. He
could see nothing, but the chasm seemed bottomless. With an angry
shrug he turned away, disappointed.

Behind the stony shelf Gordon found Yasmeena lying with her arms
bound, where Ormond had flung her down. Her soft slippers hung in
tatters, and the bruises and abrasions on her tender flesh told of
Ormond's brutal attempts to force her at top speed along the rocky
path.

Gordon cut her cords and she caught his arms with all her old
fierceness of passion. There was no fear in her eyes now, only wild
excitement.

"They said you were dead!" she cried. "I knew they lied! They cannot
kill you any more than they can kill the mountains or the wind that
blows across them. You have Yogok. I saw him. He knows the secret
paths better than the monk Ormond killed. Let us go, while the Kirghiz
are killing the Turkomans! What if we have no supplies? It is summer.
We shall not freeze. We can starve for a while if need be. Let us go!"

"I brought those men to Yolgan with me for my own purposes, Yasmeena,"
he replied. "Even for you I can't desert them."

She nodded her splendid head. "I expected that from you, El Borak."

Ormond's rifle lay nearby but there were no cartridges for it. He cast
it over the precipice and, taking Yasmeena's hand, led her back to the
ledge where Yogok lay yammering.

Gordon hauled him erect and pointed to the gorge where the white puffs
spurted.

"Is there a way to reach that gorge without returning to the valley?
Your life depends on it."

"Half these gorges have hidden exits," answered Yogok, shivering.
"That one has. But I cannot guide you along that route with my arms
tied."

Gordon unbound his hands, but tied the girdle about the priest's waist
and retained the other end in his hand. "Lead on," he ordered.

Yogok led them back along the ledge they had just traversed to a point
where, halfway along it, it was cut by a great natural causeway of
solid stone. They made their way along it, with dizzy depths echoing
on either hand, to a broad ledge which skirted a deep canyon. They
followed this ledge around a colossal crag and after a while Yogok
plunged into a cave which opened upon the narrow path.

This they traversed in semidarkness relieved by light which filtered
in from a ragged crevice in the roof. The cave wound steeply downward,
following a fault in the rock, and they came out at last in a
triangular cleft between towering walls. The narrow slit which was the
cave mouth opened in a side of the cleft and was masked from outer
view by a spur of rock that looked like part of a solid wall. Gordon
had looked into that cleft the day before and failed to discover the
cave.

The sound of firing had grown louder as they advanced along the
twisting cave, and now it filled the defile with thundering echoes.
They were in the gorge of the Turkomans. Gordon saw the wiry warriors
crouching among the boulders at the mouth, firing at the fur-capped
heads which appeared among the rocks of the outer slopes.

He shouted before they saw him, and they nearly shot him before they
recognized him. He went toward them, dragging Yogok with him, and the
warriors stared in silent amazement at the shivering priest and the
girl in her tattered finery. She scarcely noticed them; they were
wolves whose fangs she did not fear; all her attention was centered on
Gordon. When a bullet whined near her she did not flinch.

Men crouched at the mouth of the ravine, firing into it. Bullets
hummed back up the gut.

"They stole up in the darkness," grunted Orkhan, binding up a bleeding
bullet hole in his forearm. "They had the gorge mouth surrounded
before our sentries saw them. They cut the throat of the sentry we had
stationed down the ravine and came stealing up it. Had not others in
the gorge seen them and opened fire, they would have cut all our
throats while we slept. Aye, they were like cats that see in the dark.
What shall we do, El Borak? We are trapped. We cannot climb these
walls. There is the spring, and grass for the horses and we have
slept, but we have no food left and our ammunition will not last
forever."

Gordon took a yataghan from one of the men and handed it to Yasmeena.

"Watch Yogok," he directed. "Stab him if he seeks to escape."

And from the flash of her eyes he knew that she at last realized the
value of direct action in its proper place, and that she would not
hesitate to carry out his order. Yogok looked like a singed serpent in
his fury, but he feared Yasmeena as much as he did Gordon.

El Borak collected a rifle and a handful of cartridges on his way to
the boulder-strewn gorge mouth. Three Turkomans lay dead among the
rocks and others were wounded. The Kirghiz were working their way up
the outer slope on foot from rock to rock, trying to get in to close
quarters where their superior numbers would count, but not willing to
sacrifice too many lives to get there. Up from the city a ragged line
of men was streaming through the pines.

"We've got to get out of this trap before the monks come up with the
Kirghiz and lead them up in the hills and down through that cave,"
Gordon muttered.

He could see them already toiling up the first ridges of the hills,
shouting frantically to the tribesmen as they came. Working in fierce
haste he told off half a dozen men on the best horses, and mounting
Yogok and Yasmeena on spare steeds, he ordered the priest to lead the
Turkomans back through the cave. To Orkhan Shah he gave instructions
to follow Yasmeena's orders, and so imbued with trust was the Turkoman
that he made no objections to obeying a woman.

Three of the men remaining with him Gordon stationed at the ravine,
and with the other three he held the mouth of the canyon. They began
firing as the others urged their horses down the defile. The men on
the lower slopes sensed that the volleys were diminishing and came
storming up the acclivities, only to take cover again as they were
swept by a hail of lead, the deadly accuracy of which made up for its
lack of volume. Gordon's presence heartened his men and they put new
spirit in their rifle work.
* * *

When the last rider had disappeared into the cleft, Gordon waited
until he thought the fugitives had time enough to traverse the winding
cave, and then he fell back swiftly, picked up the men at the ravine,
and raced for the hidden exit. The men outside suspected a trap in the
sudden cessation of the firing, and they held back for long minutes,
during which time Gordon and his men were galloping through the
twisting cavern, their hoofs filling the narrow gut with thunder.

The others awaited them on the ledge skirting the ravine and Gordon
sent them hurrying on. He cursed because he could not be at two places
at once--at the head of the column bullying Yogok, and at the rear
watching for the first of the pursuers to ride out on the ledge. But
Yasmeena, flourishing the knife at the priest's throat, was guarantee
against treachery at the front. She had sworn to sink the blade in his
breast if the Kirghiz came within rifle range, and Yogok sweated with
fear and himself urged the band onward.

They moved around the corner of the crag and out across the ridge, a
knife-edged causeway half a mile in length, with a sheet of rock
slanting steeply down for a thousand feet on either hand.

Gordon waited alone at the angle of the ledge. When his party was
moving like insects along the crest of the ridge, the first of the
Kirghiz came racing out on the ledge. Sitting his horse behind a
jutting spur of rock, Gordon lined his sights carefully and fired. It
was a long range, even for him; so long that he missed the first rider
and hit the horse instead.

The stricken beast reared high, screaming, and plunged backward. The
screams and plunges of the maddened animal, before it toppled over the
edge, put the horses in confusion behind it. Three more got out of
control and were carried over the cliff with their riders, and the
other Kirghiz retreated into the cave. After a while they tried again,
but a bullet spattering on the rock sent them scurrying back.

A glance over his shoulder showed Gordon his horsemen just dropping
off the ridge onto the farther ledge. He reined about and sent his
horse flying along the path. If he loitered, the Kirghiz might venture
out again, find no one opposing them, and reach the bend of the trail
in time to pick him off the causeway.

Most of his hardened band had dismounted, leading their horses at a
walk. Gordon rode at a gallop with death yawning on either hand if the
horse slipped or put a single foot wrong. But the beast was sure-
footed as a mountain sheep.

Gordon's head swam from lack of sleep as he glanced down into the blue
haze of the abyss, but he did not slacken his pace. When he dropped
down the slope onto the ledge where Yasmeena stood, white-faced and
her nails biting into her pink palms, the Kirghiz had not yet
appeared.

Gordon pushed his riders as hard as he dared, making them from time to
time change to the spare horses, to save the animals as much as
possible. Nearly a dozen of these still remained. Many of the men were
giddy with dizziness caused by hunger and the altitude. He himself was
mad for sleep and kept himself awake only by an effort of will that
made the hills reel to his gaze.

He kept his grip on clarity of purpose as only a man toughened by a
savagely hard life can do, and led them on, following the paths Yogok
pointed out. They skirted ledges that hovered over ravines the bottoms
of which were lost in shadowy gloom. They plunged through defiles like
a knife cut where sheer walls rose up to the skies on either hand.

Behind them from time to time they heard faint yells, and once, when
they toiled up over the shoulder of a breathtaking crag on a path
where the horses fought for footing, they saw their pursuers far below
and behind them. The Kirghiz and monks were not maintaining such a
suicidal pace; hate is seldom as desperate as the will to live.

The snowy crest of Mount Erlik loomed higher and higher before them,
and Yogok, when questioned, swore that the way to safety lay through
the mountain. More he would not say; he was green with fear, and his
mind held to but one thought--to keep the trail that would buy his
life. He feared his captors no more than he feared that his pursuing
subjects would overtake them and learn of his duplicity in regard to
their goddess.

They pushed on like men already dead, beginning to stagger with
weakness and exhaustion. The horses drooped and stumbled. The wind was
like whetted steel. Darkness was gathering when they followed the
backbone of a giant ridge which ran like a natural causeway to the
sheer slope of Mount Erlik Khan.

The mountain towered gigantically above them, a brutish mass of crags
and dizzy escarpments and colossal steeps, with the snow-clad
pinnacle, glimpsed between the great spurs, dominating all. The ridge
ended at a ledge high up among the cliffs, and in the sheer rock there
stood a bronze door, thickly carved with inscriptions that Gordon
could not decipher. It was heavy enough to have resisted an attack of
artillery.

"This is sacred to Erlik," said Yogok, but he showed about as much
reverence as one of the Mohammedans. "Push against the door. Nay; fear
not. On my life, there is no trap."

"On your life it is," Gordon assured him grimly, and himself set a
shoulder to the door, almost falling as he dismounted.
X

THE PONDEROUS PORTAL swung inward with a smoothness that showed the
antique hinges had recently been oiled. A makeshift torch revealed the
entrance to a tunnel, cut in solid rock. A few feet from the door the
tunnel opened out like the neck of a bottle, and the flickering torch,
held at the entrance, only hinted at the vastness of its dimensions.

"This tunnel runs clear through the mountain," said Yogok. "By dawn we
can be out of reach of those who follow, because even if they climb
over the mountain by the most direct route, they must go by foot and
it will take them all the rest of the night and all of another day. If
they skirt the mountain and work their way through the passes of the
surrounding hills, it will take them even longer; and their horses are
weary, too.

"That is the way I was going to guide Ormond. I was not going to take
him through the mountain. But it is the only way of escape for you.
There is food here. At certain seasons of the year the monks work
here. In that cell there are lamps."

He pointed to a small chamber cut in the rock just inside the doorway.
Gordon lighted several of the butter lamps, and gave them to the
Turkomans to carry. He dared not follow the course which caution
suggested and ride ahead to investigate before he led his men into the
tunnel. The pursuers were too close behind them. He must bar the big
door and plunge on, trusting the priest's desire to save his own skin.

When the men were all in the tunnel, Yogok directed the barring of the
door--giant bronze bars, thick as a man's leg. It took half a dozen of
the weakened Turkomans to lift one, but once they were in place,
Gordon was certain that nothing short of siege guns could force the
ton-heavy door, with its massive bronze sills and jambs set deep in
the living rock.

He made Yogok ride between him and Orkhan, the Turkoman holding a
lamp. There was no use trusting Yogok, even though the priest was
getting some satisfaction out of the thought that he was at least
ridding himself of the 'goddess' he feared and hated, although it
meant foregoing his vengeance on her.

Even with all his faculties occupied in a savage battle to keep from
falling senseless with exhaustion, Gordon found space to be amazed at
what the light showed him. He had never dreamed of the existence of
such a place. Thirty men could have ridden abreast in the cavernlike
passage, and the roof soared out of sight in some places; in others
stalactites reflected the light in a thousand scintillant colors.

The floors and walls were as even as man-shaped marble, and Gordon
wondered how many centuries had been required for the hand-cutting and
smoothing of them. Cells appeared at irregular intervals, cut in the
rock at the sides, and presently he saw marks of pick work, and then
caught glints of dull yellow.

The light showed him the incredible truth. The tales of Mount Erlik
Khan were true. The walls were patterned with veins of gold that could
be dug out of the rock with a knife point.

The Turkomans, who smelled loot as vultures smell carrion, woke
suddenly out of their daze of fatigue and began to take an almost
painfully intense interest.

"This is where the monks get their gold, sahib," said Orkhan, his eyes
blazing in the lamplight. "Let me twist the old one's toe for a space,
and he will tell us where they have hidden that which they have dug
out of the walls."

But 'the old one' did not need persuasion. He pointed out a square-
hewn chamber in which stood stacks of peculiarly shaped objects that
were ingots of virgin gold. In other, larger cells were the primitive
contrivances with which they smelted the ore and cast the metal.

"Take what ye will," said Yogok indifferently. "A thousand horses
could not carry away the gold we have cast and stored, and we have
scarcely dipped into the richness of the veins."

Thin lips were licked greedily, drooping mustaches twisted in emotion,
and eyes that burned like hawks' were turned questioningly on Gordon.

"Ye have spare horses," he suggested, and that was enough for them.

After that nothing could have convinced them that everything which had
passed had not been planned by Gordon in order to lead them to the
gold which was the plunder he had promised them. They loaded the extra
ponies until he interfered, to save the animals' strength. Then they
hacked off chunks of the soft gold and stuffed their pouches and belts
and girdles, and even so they had scarcely diminished the stacks. Some
of the raiders lifted up their voices and wept when they saw how much
they must leave behind.

"Assuredly," they promised each other, "we shall return with wagons
and many horses and secure every crumb of it, inshallah!"

"Dogs!" swore Gordon. "Ye have each man a fortune beyond your dreams.
Are ye jackals to feast on carrion until your bellies burst? Will ye
loiter here until the Kirghiz cross the mountain and cut us off? What
of the gold then, you crop-eared rogues?"

Of more interest to the American was a cell where barley was stored in
leather sacks, and he made the tribesmen load some of the horses with
food instead of gold. They grumbled, but they obeyed him. They would
obey him now, if he ordered them to ride with him into Jehannum.

Every nerve in his body shrieked for sleep, submerging hunger; but he
gnawed a handful of raw barley and flogged his failing powers with the
lash of his driving will. Yasmeena drooped in her saddle wearily, but
her eyes shone unclouded in the lamplight, and Gordon was dully aware
of a deep respect for her that dwarfed even his former admiration.

They rode on through that glittering, dream-palace cavern, the
tribesmen munching barley and babbling ecstatically of the joys their
gold would buy, and at last they came to a bronze door which was a
counterpart of the one at the other end of the tunnel. It was not
barred. Yogok maintained that none but the monks had visited Mount
Erlik in centuries. The door swung inward at their efforts and they
blinked in the glow of a white dawn.
* * *

They were looking out on a small ledge from which a narrow trail wound
along the edge of a giant escarpment. On one side the land fell away
sheer for thousands of feet, so that a stream at the bottom looked
like a thread of silver, and on the other a sheer cliff rose for some
five hundred feet.

The cliff limited the view to the left, but to the right Gordon could
see some of the mountains which flanked Mount Erlik Khan, and the
valley far below them wandered southward away to a pass in the
distance, a notch in the savage rampart of the hills.

"This is life for you, El Borak," said Yogok, pointing to the pass.
"Three miles from the spot where we now stand this trail leads down
into the valley where there is water and game and rich grass for the
horses. You can follow it southward beyond the pass for three days'
journey when you will come into country you know well. It is inhabited
by marauding tribes, but they will not attack a party as large as
yours. You can be through the pass before the Kirghiz round the
mountain, and they will not follow you through it. That is the limit
of their country. Now let me go."

"Not yet; I'll release you at the pass. You can make your way back
here easily and wait for the Kirghiz, and tell them any lie you want
to about the goddess."

Yogok glared angrily at Gordon. The American's eyes were bloodshot,
the skin stretched taut over the bones of his face. He looked like a
man who had been sweated in hell's fires, and he felt the same way.
There was no reason for Yogok's strident objections, except a desire
to get out of the company of those he hated as quickly as possible.

In Gordon's state a man reverts to primitive instincts, and the
American held his thrumming nerves in an iron grip to keep from
braining the priest with his gun butt. Dispute and importunities were
like screaming insults to his struggling brain.

While the priest squawked, and Gordon hesitated between reasoning with
him or knocking him down, the Turkomans, inspired by the gold and
food, and eager for the trail, began to crowd past him. Half a dozen
had emerged on the ledge when Gordon noticed them, and ordering Orkhan
to bring Yogok along, he rode past those on the ledge, intending to
take the lead as usual. But one of the men was already out to the
path, and could neither turn back nor hug the wall close enough to let
Gordon by.

The American, perforce, called to him to go ahead, and he would
follow, and even as Gordon set his horse to the trail a volley of
boulders came thundering down from above. They hit the wretched
Turkoman and swept him and his horse off the trail as a broom sweeps a
spider from a wall. One of the stones, bouncing from the ledge, hit
Gordon's horse and broke its leg, and the beast screamed and toppled
over the side after the other.

Gordon threw himself clear as it fell, landed half over the edge, and
clawed a desperate way to safety with Yasmeena's screams and the yells
of the Turkomans ringing in his ears. There was nothing seen to shoot
at, but some of them loosed their rifles anyway, and the volley was
greeted by a wild peal of mocking laughter from the cliffs above.

In no way unnerved by his narrow escape, Gordon drove his men back
into the shelter of the cave. They were like wolves in a trap, ready
to strike blind right and left, and a dozen tulwars hovered over
Yogok's head.

"Slay him! He has led us into a trap! Allah!"

Yogok's face was a green, convulsed mask of fear. He squalled like a
tortured cat.

"Nay! I led you swift and sure! The Kirghiz could not have reached
this side of the mountain by this time!"

"Were there monks hiding in these cells?" asked Gordon. "They could
have sneaked out when they saw us coming in. Is that a monk up there?"

"Nay; as Erlik is my witness! We work the gold three moons a year; at
other times it is death to go near Mount Erlik. I know not who it is."

Gordon ventured out on the path again and was greeted by another
shower of stones, which he barely avoided, and a voice yelled high
above him:

"You Yankee dog, how do you like that? I've got you now, damn you!
Thought I was done for when I fell into that fissure, didn't you?
Well, there was a ledge a few feet down that I landed on. You couldn't
see it because the sun wasn't high enough to shine down into it. If
I'd had a gun I'd have killed you when you looked down. I climbed out
after you left."

"Ormond!" snarled Gordon.

"Did you think I hadn't wormed anything out of that monk?" the
Englishman yelled. "He told me all about the paths and Mount Erlik
after I'd caved in some of his teeth with a gun barrel. I saw old
Yogok with you and knew he'd lead you to Erlik. I got here first. I'd
have barred the door and locked you out to be butchered by the fellows
who're chasing you, but I couldn't lift the bars. But anyway, I've got
you trapped. You can't leave the cave; if you do I'll mash you like
insects on the path. I can see you on it, and you can't see me. I'm
going to keep you here until the Kirghiz come up. I've still got
Yasmeena's symbol. They'll listen to me.

"I'll tell them Yogok is helping you to kidnap her; they'll kill you
all except her. They'll take her back, but I don't care now. I don't
need that Kashmiri's money. I've got the secret of Mount Erlik Khan!"

Gordon fell back into the doorway and repeated what the Englishman had
said. Yogok turned a shade greener in his fear, and all stared
silently at El Borak. His bloodshot gaze traveled over them as they
stood blinking, disheveled, and haggard, with lamps paled by the dawn,
like ghouls caught above earth by daybreak. Grimly he marshaled his
straying wits. Gordon had never reached the ultimate limits of his
endurance; always he had plumbed a deeper, hidden reservoir of
vitality below what seemed the last.

"Is there another way out of here?" he demanded.

Yogok shook his head, chattering again with terror. "No way that men
and horses can go."

"What do you mean?"

The priest moved back into the darkness and held a lamp close to the
flank of the wall where the tunnel narrowed for the entrance. Rusty
bits of metal jutted from the rock.

"Here was once a ladder," he said. "It led far up to a crevice in the
wall where long ago one sat to watch the southern pass for invaders.
But none has climbed it for many years, and the handholds are rusty
and rotten. The crevice opens on the sheer of the outer cliffs, and
even if a man reached it, he could scarcely climb down the outside."

"Well, maybe I can pick Ormond off from the crevice," muttered Gordon,
his head swimming with the effort of thinking.

Standing still was making infinitely harder his fight to keep awake.
The muttering of the Turkomans was a meaningless tangle of sound, and
Yasmeena's dark anxious eyes seemed to be looking at him from a vast
distance. He thought he felt her arms cling to him briefly, but could
not be sure. The lights were beginning to swim in a thick mist.

Beating himself into wakefulness by striking his own face with his
open hand, he began to climb, a rifle slung to his back. Orkhan was
plucking at him, begging to be allowed to make the attempt in his
stead, but Gordon shook him off. In his dazed brain was a conviction
that the responsibility was his own. He went up like an automaton,
slowly, all his muddled faculties concentrating grimly on the task.

Fifty feet up, the light of the lamps ceased to aid him, and he groped
upward in the gloom, feeling for the rusty bolts set in the wall. They
were so rotten that he dared not put his full weight on any one of
them. In some places they were missing and he clung with his fingers
in the niches where they had been. Only the slant of the rock enabled
him to accomplish the climb at all, and it seemed endless, a hell-born
eternity of torture.

The lamps below him were like fireflies in the darkness, and the roof
with its clustering stalactites was only a few yards above his head.
Then he saw a gleam of light, and an instant later he was crouching in
a cleft that opened on the outer air. It was only a couple of yards
wide, and not tall enough for a man to stand upright.

He crawled along it for some thirty feet and then looked out on a
rugged slant that pitched down to a crest of cliffs, a hundred feet
below. He could not see the ledge where the door opened, nor the path
that led from it, but he saw a figure crouching among the boulders
along the lip of the cliff, and he unslung his rifle.

Ordinarily he could not have missed at that range. But his bloodshot
eyes refused to line the sights. Slumber never assails a weary man so
fiercely as in the growing light of dawn. The figure among the rocks
below merged and blended fantastically with the scenery, and the
sights of the rifle were mere blurs.

Setting his teeth, Gordon pulled the trigger, and the bullet smashed
on the rock a foot from Ormond's head. The Englishman dived out of
sight among the boulders.

In desperation Gordon slung his rifle and threw a leg over the lip of
the cleft. He was certain that Ormond had no firearm. Down below the
Turkomans were clamoring like a wolf pack, but his numbed faculties
were fully occupied with the task of climbing down the ribbed pitch.
He stumbled and fumbled and nearly fell, and at last he did slip and
came sliding and tumbling down until his rifle caught on a projection
and held him dangling by the strap.

In a red mist he saw Ormond break cover, with a tulwar that he must
have found in the cavern, and in a panic lest the Englishman climb up
and kill him as he hung helplessly, Gordon braced his feet and elbows
against the rock and wrenched savagely, breaking the rifle strap. He
plunged down like a plummet, hit the slope, clawed at rocks and knobs,
and brought up on shelving stone a dozen feet from the cliff edge,
while his rifle, tumbling before him, slid over and was gone.

The fall jolted his numbed nerves back into life again, knocked some
of the cobwebs out of his dizzy brain. Ormond was within a few steps
of him when he scrambled up, drawing his scimitar. The Englishman was
as savage and haggard in appearance as was Gordon, and his eyes blazed
with a frenzy that almost amounted to madness.

"Steel to steel now, El Borak!" Ormond gritted. "We'll see if you're
the swordsman they say you are!"
* * *

Ormond came with a rush and Gordon met him, fired above his exhaustion
by his hate and the stinging frenzy of battle. They fought back and
forth along the cliff edge, with a foot to spare between them and
eternity sometimes, until the clangor of the swords wakened the eagles
to shrill hysteria.

Ormond fought like a wild man, yet with all the craft the sword
masters of his native England had taught him. Gordon fought as he had
learned to fight in grim and merciless battles in the hills and the
steppes and the deserts. He fought as an Afghan fights, with the
furious intensity of onslaught that gathers force like a rising
hurricane as it progresses.

Beating on his blade like a smith on an anvil, Gordon drove the
Englishman staggering before him, until the man swayed dizzily with
his heels over the edge of the cliff.

"Swine!" gasped Ormond with his last breath, and spat in his enemy's
face and slashed madly at his head.

"This for Ahmed!" roared Gordon, and his scimitar whirled past
Ormond's blade and crunched home.

The Englishman reeled outward, his features suddenly blotted out by
blood and brains, and pitched backward into the gulf without a sound.

Gordon sat down on a boulder, suddenly aware of the quivering of his
leg muscles. He sat there, his gory blade across his knees and his
head sunk in his hands, his brain a black blank, until shouts welling
up from below roused him to consciousness.

"Ohai, El Borak! A man with a cleft head has fallen past us into the
valley! Art thou safe? We await orders!"

He lifted his head and glanced at the sun which was just rising over
the eastern peaks, turning to crimson flame the snow of Mount Erlik
Khan. He would have traded all the gold of the monks of Yolgan to be
allowed to lie down and sleep for an hour, and climbing up on his
stiffened legs that trembled with his weight was a task of appalling
magnitude. But his labor was not yet done; there was no rest for him
this side of the pass.

Summoning the shreds of strength, he shouted down to the raiders.

"Get upon the horses and ride, sons of nameless dogs! Follow the trail
and I will come along the cliff. I see a place beyond the next bend
where I can climb down to the trail. Bring Yogok with you; he has
earned his release, but the time is not yet."

"Hurry, El Borak," floated up Yasmeena's golden call. "It is far to
Delhi, and many mountains lie between!"

Gordon laughed and sheathed his scimitar, and his laugh sounded like
the ghastly mirth of a hyena; below him the Turkomans had taken the
road and were already singing a chant improvised in his honor, naming
'Son of the Sword' the man who staggered along the cliffs above them,
with a face like a grinning skull and feet that left smears of blood
on the rock.

XI

IT WAS THE stealthy clink of steel on stone that wakened Gordon. In
the dim starlight a shadowy bulk loomed over him and something glinted
in the lifted hand. Gordon went into action like a steel spring
uncoiling. His left hand checked the descending wrist with its curved
knife, and simultaneously he heaved upward and locked his right hand
savagely on a hairy throat.

A gurgling gasp was strangled in that throat and Gordon, resisting the
other's terrific plunges, hooked a leg about his knee and heaved him
over and underneath. There was no sound except the rasp and thud of
straining bodies. Gordon fought, as always, in grim silence. No sound
came from the straining lips of the man beneath. His right hand
writhed in Gordon's grip while his left tore futilely at the wrist
whose iron fingers drove deeper and deeper into the throat they
grasped. That wrist felt like a mass of woven steel wires to the
weakening fingers that clawed at it. Grimly Gordon maintained his
position, driving all the power of his compact shoulders and corded
arms into his throttling fingers. He knew it was his life or that of
the man who had crept up to stab him in the dark. In that unmapped
corner of the Afghan mountains all fights were to the death. The
tearing fingers relaxed. A convulsive shudder ran through the great
body straining beneath the American. It went limp.



THE END





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