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Title: Hawk of the Hills
Author: Robert E. Howard
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Title: Hawk of the Hills
Author: Robert E. Howard




I

TO A MAN standing in the gorge below, the man clinging to the sloping
cliff would have been invisible, hidden from sight by the jutting
ledges that looked like irregular stone steps from a distance. From a
distance, also, the rugged wall looked easy to climb; but there were
heart-breaking spaces between those ledges--stretches of treacherous
shale, and steep pitches where clawing fingers and groping toes
scarcely found a grip.

One misstep, one handhold lost and the climber would have pitched
backward in a headlong, rolling fall three hundred feet to the rocky
canyon bed. But the man on the cliff was Francis Xavier Gordon, and it
was not his destiny to dash out his brains on the floor of a Himalayan
gorge.

He was reaching the end of his climb. The rim of the wall was only a
few feet above him, but the intervening space was the most dangerous
he had yet covered. He paused to shake the sweat from his eyes, drew a
deep breath through his nostrils, and once more matched eye and muscle
against the brute treachery of the gigantic barrier. Faint yells
welled up from below, vibrant with hate and edged with blood lust. He
did not look down. His upper lip lifted in a silent snarl, as a
panther might snarl at the sound of his hunters' voices. That was all.
His fingers clawed at the stone until blood oozed from under his
broken nails. Rivulets of gravel started beneath his boots and
streamed down the ledges. He was almost there--but under his toe a
jutting stone began to give way. With an explosive expansion of energy
that brought a tortured gasp from him, he lunged upward, just as his
foothold tore from the soil that had held it. For one sickening
instant he felt eternity yawn beneath him--then his upflung fingers
hooked over the rim of the crest. For an instant he hung there,
suspended, while pebbles and stones went rattling down the face of the
cliff in a miniature avalanche. Then with a powerful knotting and
contracting of iron biceps, he lifted his weight and an instant later
climbed over the rim and stared down.

He could make out nothing in the gorge below, beyond the glimpse of a
tangle of thickets. The jutting ledges obstructed the view from above
as well as from below. But he knew his pursuers were ranging those
thickets down there, the men whose knives were still reeking with the
blood of his friends. He heard their voices, edged with the hysteria
of murder, dwindling westward. They were following a blind lead and a
false trail.

Gordon stood up on the rim of the gigantic wall, the one atom of
visible life among monstrous pillars and abutments of stone; they rose
on all sides, dwarfing him, brown insensible giants shouldering the
sky. But Gordon gave no thought to the somber magnificence of his
surroundings, or of his own comparative insignificance.

Scenery, however awesome, is but a background for the human drama in
its varying phases. Gordon's soul was a maelstrom of wrath, and the
distant, dwindling shout below him drove crimson waves of murder
surging through his brain. He drew from his boot the long knife he had
placed there when he began his desperate climb. Half-dried blood
stained the sharp steel, and the sight of it gave him a fierce
satisfaction. There were dead men back there in the valley into which
the gorge ran, and not all of them were Gordon's Afridi friends. Some
were Orakzai, the henchmen of the traitor Afdal Khan--the treacherous
dogs who had sat down in seeming amity with Yusef Shah, the Afridi
chief, his three headmen and his American ally, and who had turned the
friendly conference suddenly into a holocaust of murder.

Gordon's shirt was in ribbons, revealing a shallow sword cut across
the thick muscles of his breast, from which blood oozed slowly. His
black hair was plastered with sweat, the scabbards at his hips empty.
He might have been a statue on the cliffs, he stood so motionless,
except for the steady rise and fall of his arching chest as he
breathed deep through expanded nostrils. In his black eyes grew a
flame like fire on deep black water. His body grew rigid; muscles
swelled in knotted cords on his arms, and the veins of his temples
stood out.

Treachery and murder! He was still bewildered, seeking a motive. His
actions until this moment had been largely instinctive, reflexes
responding to peril and the threat of destruction. The episode had
been so unexpected--so totally lacking in apparent reason. One moment
a hum of friendly conversation, men sitting cross-legged about a fire
while tea boiled and meat roasted; the next instant knives sinking
home, guns crashing, men falling in the smoke--Afridi men; his
friends, struck down about him, with their rifles laid aside, their
knives in their scabbards.

Only his steel-trap coordination had saved him--that instant,
primitive reaction to danger that is not dependent upon reason or any
logical thought process. Even before his conscious mind grasped what
was happening, Gordon was on his feet with both guns blazing. And then
there was no time for consecutive thinking, nothing but desperate
hand-to-hand-fighting, and flight on foot--a long run and a hard
climb. But for the thicket-choked mouth of a narrow gorge they would
have had him, in spite of everything.
* * *

Now, temporarily safe, he could pause and apply reasoning to the
problem of why Afdal Khan, chief of the Khoruk Orakzai, plotted thus
foully to slay the four chiefs of his neighbors, the Afridis of
Kurram, and their feringhi friend. But no motive presented itself. The
massacre seemed utterly wanton and reasonless. At the moment Gordon
did not greatly care. It was enough to know that his friends were
dead, and to know who had killed them.

Another tier of rock rose some yards behind him, broken by a narrow,
twisting cleft. Into this he moved. He did not expect to meet an
enemy; they would all be down there in the gorge, beating up the
thickets for him; but he carried the long knife in his hand, just in
case.

It was purely an instinctive gesture, like the unsheathing of a
panther's claws. His dark face was like iron; his black eyes burned
redly; as he strode along the narrow defile he was more dangerous than
any wounded panther. An urge painful in its intensity beat at his
brain like a hammer that would not ease; revenge! revenge! revenge!
All the depths of his being responded to the reverberation. The thin
veneer of civilization had been swept away by a red tidal wave. Gordon
had gone back a million years into the red dawn of man's beginning; he
was as starkly primitive as the colossal stones that rose about him.

Ahead of him the defile twisted about a jutting shoulder to come, as
he knew, out upon a winding mountain path. That path would lead him
out of the country of his enemies, and he had no reason to expect to
meet any of them upon it. So it was a shocking surprise to him when he
rounded the granite shoulder and came face to face with a tall man who
lolled against a rock, with a pistol in his hand.

That pistol was leveled at the American's breast.

Gordon stood motionless, a dozen feet separating the two men. Beyond
the tall man stood a finely caparisoned Kabuli stallion, tied to a
tamarisk.

"Ali Bahadur!" muttered Gordon, the red flame in his black eyes.

"Aye!" Ali Bahadur was clad in Pathan elegance. His boots were
stitched with gilt thread, his turban was of rose-colored silk, and
his girdled khalat was gaudily striped. He was a handsome man, with an
aquiline face and dark, alert eyes, which just now were lighted with
cruel triumph. He laughed mockingly.

"I was not mistaken, El Borak. When you fled into the thicket-choked
mouth of the gorge, I did not follow you as the others did. They ran
headlong into the copse, on foot, bawling like bulls. Not I. I did not
think you would flee on down the gorge until my men cornered you. I
believed that as soon as you got out of their sight you would climb
the wall, though no man has ever climbed it before. I knew you would
climb out on this side, for not even Shaitan the Damned could scale
those sheer precipices on the other side of the gorge.

"So I galloped back up the valley to where, a mile north of the spot
where we camped, another gorge opens and runs westward. This path
leads up out of that gorge and crosses the ridge and here turns
southwesterly--as I knew you knew. My steed is swift! I knew this
point was the only one at which you could reach this trail, and when I
arrived, there were no boot prints in the dust to tell me you had
reached it and passed on ahead of me. Nay, hardly had I paused when I
heard stones rattling down the cliff, so I dismounted and awaited your
coming! For only through that cleft could you reach the path."

"You came alone," said Gordon, never taking his eyes from the Orakzai.
"You have more guts than I thought."

"I knew you had no guns," answered Ali Bahadur. "I saw you empty them
and throw them away and draw your knife as you fought your way through
my warriors. Courage? Any fool can have courage. I have wits, which is
better."

"You talk like a Persian," muttered Gordon. He was caught fairly, his
scabbards empty, his knife arm hanging at his side. He knew Ali would
shoot at the slightest motion.

"My brother Afdal Khan will praise me when I bring him your head!"
taunted the Orakzai. His Oriental vanity could not resist making a
grandiose gesture out of his triumph. Like many of his race,
swaggering dramatics were his weakness; if he had simply hidden behind
a rock and shot Gordon when he first appeared, Ali Bahadur might be
alive today.

"Why did Afdal Khan invite us to a feast and then murder my friends?"
Gordon demanded. "There has been peace between the clans for years."

"My brother has ambitions," answered Ali Bahadur. "The Afridis stood
in his way, though they knew it not. Why should my brother waste men
in a long war to remove them? Only a fool gives warning before he
strikes."

"And only a dog turns traitor," retorted Gordon.

"The salt had not been eaten," reminded Ali. "The men of Kurram were
fools, and thou with them!" He was enjoying his triumph to the utmost,
prolonging the scene as greatly as he dared. He knew he should have
shot already.
* * *

There was a tense readiness about Gordon's posture that made his flesh
crawl, and Gordon's eyes were red flame when the sun struck them. But
it glutted Ali's vanity deliriously to know that El Borak, the
grimmest fighter in all the North, was in his power--held at pistol
muzzle, poised on the brink of Jehannum into which he would topple at
the pressure of a finger on the trigger. Ali Bahadur knew Gordon's
deadly quickness, how he could spring and kill in the flicker of an
eyelid.

But no human thews could cross the intervening yards quicker than lead
spitting from a pistol muzzle. And at the first hint of movement, Ali
would bring the gratifying scene to a sudden close.

Gordon opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it. The suspicious
Pathan was instantly tense. Gordon's eyes flickered past him, then
back instantly, and fixed on his face with an increased intensity. To
all appearances Gordon had seen something behind Ali-- something he
did not wish Ali to see, and was doing all in his power to conceal the
fact that he had seen something, to keep Ali from turning his head.
And turn his head Ali did; he did it involuntarily, in spite of
himself. He had not completed the motion before he sensed the trick
and jerked his head back, firing as he did so, even as he caught the
blur that was the lightninglike motion of Gordon's right arm.

Motion and shot were practically simultaneous. Ali went to his knees
as if struck by sudden paralysis, and flopped over on his side.
Gurgling and choking he struggled to his elbows, eyes starting from
his head, lips drawn back in a ghastly grin, his chin held up by the
hilt of Gordon's knife that jutted from his throat. With a dying
effort he lifted the pistol with both hands, trying to cock it with
fumbling thumbs. Then blood gushed from his blue lips and the pistol
slipped from his hands. His fingers clawed briefly at the earth, then
spread and stiffened, and his head sank down on his extended arms.

Gordon had not moved from his tracks. Blood oozed slowly from a round
blue hole in his left shoulder. He did not seem to be aware of the
wound. Not until Ali Bahadur's brief, spasmodic twitchings had ceased
did he move. He snarled, the thick, blood-glutted snarl of a jungle
cat, and spat toward the prostrate Orakzai.

He made no move to recover the knife he had thrown with such deadly
force and aim, nor did he pick up the smoking pistol. He strode to the
stallion which snorted and trembled at the reek of spilt blood, untied
him and swung into the gilt-stitched saddle.

As he reined away up the winding hill path he turned in the saddle and
shook his fist in the direction of his enemies--a threat and a
ferocious promise; the game had just begun; the first blood had been
shed in a feud that was to litter the hills with charred villages and
the bodies of dead men, and trouble the dreams of kings and viceroys.

II

GEOFFREY WILLOUGHBY SHIFTED himself in his saddle and glanced at the
gaunt ridges and bare stone crags that rose about him, mentally
comparing the members of his escort with the features of the
landscape.

Physical environment inescapably molded its inhabitants. With one
exception his companions were as sullen, hard, barbarous and somber as
the huge brown rocks that frowned about them. The one exception was
Suleiman, a Punjabi Moslem, ostensibly his servant, actually a
valuable member of the English secret service.

Willoughby himself was not a member of that service. His status was
unique; he was one of those ubiquitous Englishmen who steadily build
the empire, moving obscurely behind the scenes, and letting other men
take the credit--men in bemedaled uniforms, or loud-voiced men with
top hats and titles.

Few knew just what Willoughby's commission was, or what niche he
filled in the official structure; but the epitome of the man and his
career was once embodied in the request of a harried deputy
commissioner: "Hell on the border; send Willoughby!" Because of his
unadvertised activities, troops did not march and cannons did not boom
on more occasions than the general public ever realized. So it was not
really surprising--except to those die-hards who refuse to believe
that maintaining peace on the Afghan Border is fundamentally different
from keeping order in Trafalgar Square--that Willoughby should be
riding forth in the company of hairy cutthroats to arbitrate a bloody
hill feud at the request of an Oriental despot.

Willoughby was of medium height and stockily, almost chubbily, built,
though there were unexpected muscles under his ruddy skin. His hair
was taffy-colored, his eyes blue, wide and deceptively ingenuous. He
wore civilian khakis and a huge sun helmet. If he was armed the fact
was not apparent. His frank, faintly freckled face was not unpleasant,
but it displayed little evidence of the razor-sharp brain that worked
behind it.

He jogged along as placidly as if he were ambling down a lane in his
native Suffolk, and he was more at ease than the ruffians who
accompanied him--four wild-looking, ragged tribesmen under the command
of a patriarch whose stately carriage and gray-shot pointed beard did
not conceal the innate savagery reflected in his truculent visage.
Baber Ali, uncle of Afdal Khan, was old, but his back was straight as
a trooper's, and his gaunt frame was wolfishly hard. He was his
nephew's right-hand man, possessing all Afdal Khan's ferocity, but
little of his subtlety and cunning.

They were following a trail that looped down a steep slope which fell
away for a thousand feet into a labyrinth of gorges. In a valley a
mile to the south, Willoughby sighted a huddle of charred and
blackened ruins.

"A village, Baber?" he asked.

Baber snarled like an old wolf.

"Aye! That was Khuttak! El Borak and his devils burned it and slew
every man able to bear arms."

Willoughby looked with new interest. It was such things as that he had
come to stop, and it was El Borak he was now riding to see.

"El Borak is a son of Shaitan," growled old Baber.

"Not a village of Afdal Khan's remains unburned save only Khoruk
itself. And of the outlying towers, only my sangar remains, which lies
between this spot and Khoruk. Now he has seized the cavern called
Akbar's Castle, and that is in Orakzai territory. By Allah, for an
hour we have been riding in country claimed by us Orakzai, but now it
has become a no man's land, a border strewn with corpses and burned
villages, where no man's life is safe. At any moment we may be fired
upon."

"Gordon has given his word," reminded Willoughby.

"His word is not wind," admitted the old ruffian grudgingly.

They had dropped down from the heights and were traversing a narrow
plateau that broke into a series of gorges at the other end.
Willoughby thought of the letter in his pocket, which had come to him
by devious ways. He had memorized it, recognizing its dramatic value
as a historical document.

Geoffrey Willoughby,

Ghazrael Fort:

If you want to parley, come to Shaitan's Minaret, alone. Let your
escort stop outside the mouth of the gorge. They won't be molested,
but if any Orakzai follows you into the gorge, he'll be shot.

Francis X. Gordon.

Concise and to the point. Parley, eh? The man had assumed the role of
a general carrying on a regular war, and left no doubt that he
considered Willoughby, not a disinterested arbiter, but a diplomat
working in the interests of the opposing side.

"We should be near the Gorge of the Minaret," said Willoughby.

Baber Ali pointed. "There is its mouth."

"Await me here."

Suleiman dismounted and eased his steed's girths. The Pathans climbed
down uneasily, hugging their rifles and scanning the escarpments.
Somewhere down that winding gorge Gordon was lurking with his vengeful
warriors. The Orakzai were afraid. They were miles from Khoruk, in the
midst of a region that had become a bloody debatable ground through
slaughter on both sides. They instinctively looked toward the
southwest where, miles away, lay the crag-built village of Kurram.

Baber twisted his beard and gnawed the corner of his lip. He seemed
devoured by an inward fire of anger and suspicion which would not let
him rest.

"You will go forward from this point alone, sahib?"

Willoughby nodded, gathering up his reins.

"He will kill you!"

"I think not."

Willoughby knew very well that Baber Ali would never have thus placed
himself within Gordon's reach unless he placed full confidence in the
American's promise of safety.

"Then make the dog agree to a truce!" snarled Baber, his savage
arrogance submerging his grudging civility. "By Allah, this feud is a
thorn in the side of Afdal Khan--and of me!"

"We'll see." Willoughby nudged his mount with his heels and jogged on
down the gorge, not an impressive figure at all as he slumped
carelessly in his saddle, his cork helmet bobbing with each step of
the horse. Behind him the Pathans watched eagerly until he passed out
of sight around a bend of the canyon.

Willoughby's tranquillity was partly, though not altogether, assumed.
He was not afraid, nor was he excited. But he would have been more
than human had not the anticipation of meeting El Borak stirred his
imagination to a certain extent and roused speculations.
* * *

The name of El Borak was woven in the tales told in all the
caravanserais and bazaars from Teheran to Bombay. For three years
rumors had drifted down the Khyber of intrigues and grim battles
fought among the lonely hills, where a hard-eyed white man was hewing
out a place of power among the wild tribesmen.

The British had not cared to interfere until this latest stone cast by
Gordon into the pool of Afghan politics threatened to spread ripples
that might lap at the doors of foreign palaces. Hence Willoughby,
jogging down the winding Gorge of the Minaret. Queer sort of renegade,
Willoughby reflected. Most white men who went native were despised by
the people among whom they cast their lot. But even Gordon's enemies
respected him, and it did not seem to be on account of his celebrated
fighting ability alone. Gordon, Willoughby vaguely understood, had
grown up on the southwestern frontier of the United States, and had a
formidable reputation as a gun fanner before he ever drifted East.

Willoughby had covered a mile from the mouth of the gorge before he
rounded a bend in the rocky wall and saw the Minaret looming up before
him--a tall, tapering spirelike crag, detached, except at the base,
from the canyon wall. No one was in sight. Willoughby tied his horse
in the shade of the cliff and walked toward the base of the Minaret
where he halted and stood gently fanning himself with his helmet, and
idly wondering how many rifles were aimed at him from vantage points
invisible to himself. Abruptly Gordon was before him.

It was a startling experience, even to a man whose nerves were under
as perfect control as Willoughby's. The Englishman indeed stopped
fanning himself and stood motionless, holding the helmet lifted. There
had been no sound, not even the crunch of rubble under a boot heel to
warn him. One instant the space before him was empty, the next it was
filled by a figure vibrant with dynamic life. Boulders strewn at the
foot of the wall offered plenty of cover for a stealthy advance, but
the miracle of that advance--to Willoughby, who had never fought Yaqui
Indians in their own country--was the silence with which Gordon had
accomplished it.

"You're Willoughby, of course." The Southern accent was faint, but
unmistakable.

Willoughby nodded, absorbed in his scrutiny of the man before him.
Gordon was not a large man, but he was remarkably compact, with a
squareness of shoulders and a thickness of chest that reflected
unusual strength and vitality. Willoughby noted the black butts of the
heavy pistols jutting from his hips, the knife hilt projecting from
his right boot. He sought the hard bronzed face in vain for marks of
weakness or degeneracy. There was a gleam in the black eyes such as
Willoughby had never before seen in any man of the so-called civilized
races.

No, this man was no degenerate; his plunging into native feuds and
brawls indicated no retrogression. It was simply the response of a
primitive nature seeking its most natural environment. Willoughby felt
that the man before him must look exactly as an untamed,
precivilization Anglo-Saxon must have looked some ten thousand years
before.

"I'm Willoughby," he said. "Glad you found it convenient to meet me.
Shall we sit down in the shade?"

"No. There's no need of taking up that much time. Word came to me that
you were at Ghazrael, trying to get in touch with me. I sent you my
answer by a Tajik trader. You got it, or you wouldn't be here. All
right; here I am. Tell me what you've got to say and I'll answer you."

Willoughby discarded the plan he had partly formulated. The sort of
diplomacy he'd had in mind wouldn't work here. This man was no dull
bully, with a dominance acquired by brute strength alone, nor was he a
self-seeking adventurer of the politician type, lying and bluffing his
way through. He could not be bought off, nor frightened by a bluff. He
was as real and vital and dangerous as a panther, though Willoughby
felt no personal fear.

"All right, Gordon," he answered candidly. "My say is soon said. I'm
here at the request of the Amir, and the Raj. I came to Fort Ghazrael
to try to get in touch with you, as you know. My companion Suleiman
helped. An escort of Orakzai met me at Ghazrael, to conduct me to
Khoruk, but when I got your letter I saw no reason to go to Khoruk.
They're waiting at the mouth of the gorge to conduct me back to
Ghazrael when my job's done. I've talked with Afdal Khan only once, at
Ghazrael. He's ready for peace. In fact it was at his request that the
Amir sent me out here to try to settle this feud between you and him."

"It's none of the Amir's business," retorted Gordon. "Since when did
he begin interfering with tribal feuds?"

"In this case one of the parties appealed to him," answered
Willoughby. "Then the feud affects him personally. It's needless for
me to remind you that one of the main caravan roads from Persia
traverses this region, and since the feud began, the caravans avoid it
and turn up into Turkestan. The trade that ordinarily passes through
Kabul, by which the Amir acquires much rich revenue, is being
deflected out of his territory."

"And he's dickering with the Russians to get it back." Gordon laughed
mirthlessly. "He's tried to keep that secret, because English guns are
all that keep him on his throne. But the Russians are offering him a
lot of tempting bait, and he's playing with fire--and the British are
afraid he'll scorch his fingers--and theirs!"

Willoughby blinked. Still, he might have known that Gordon would know
the inside of Afghan politics at least as well as himself.

"But Afdal Khan has expressed himself, both to the Amir and to me, as
desiring to end this feud," argued Willoughby. "He swears he's been
acting on the defensive all along. If you don't agree to at least a
truce the Amir will take a hand himself. As soon as I return to Kabul
and tell him you refuse to submit to arbitration, he'll declare you an
outlaw, and every ruffian in the hills will be whetting his knife for
your head. Be reasonable, man. Doubtless you feel you had provocation
for your attacks on Afdal Khan. But you've done enough damage. Forget
what's passed--"

"Forget!"

Willoughby involuntarily stepped back as the pupils of Gordon's eyes
contracted like those of an angry leopard.

"Forget!" he repeated thickly. "You ask me to forget the blood of my
friends! You've heard only one side of this thing. Not that I give a
damn what you think, but you'll hear my side, for once. Afdal Khan has
friends at court. I haven't. I don't want any."

So a wild Highland chief might have cast his defiance in the teeth of
the king's emissary, thought Willoughby, fascinated by the play of
passion in the dark face before him.

"Afdal Khan invited my friends to a feast and cut them down in cold
blood--Yusef Shah, and this three chiefs--all sworn friends of mine,
do you understand? And you ask me to forget them, as you might ask me
to throw aside a worn-out scabbard! And why? So the Amir can grab his
taxes off the fat Persian traders; so the Russians won't have a chance
to inveigle him into some treaty the British wouldn't approve of; so
the English can keep their claws sunk in on this side of the border,
too!

"Well, here's my answer: You and the Amir and the Raj can all go to
hell together. Go back to Amir and tell him to put a price on my head.
Let him send his Uzbek guards to help the Orakzai--and as many
Russians and Britishers and whatever else he's able to get. This feud
will end when I kill Afdal Khan. Not before."

"You're sacrificing the welfare of the many to avenge the blood of the
few," protested Willoughby.

"Who says I am? Afdal Khan? He's the Amir's worst enemy, if the Amir
only knew it, getting him embroiled in a war that's none of his
business. In another month I'll have Afdal Khan's head, and the
caravans will pass freely over this road again. If Afdal Khan should
win-- Why did this feud begin in the first place? I'll tell you! Afdal
wants full control of the wells in this region, wells which command
the caravan route, and which have been in the hands of the Afridis for
centuries. Let him get possession of them and he'll fleece the
merchants before they ever get to Kabul. Yes, and turn the trade
permanently into Russian territory."

"He wouldn't dare--"

"He dares anything. He's got backing you don't even guess. Ask him how
it is that his men are all armed with Russian rifles! Hell! Afdal's
howling for help because I've taken Akbar's Castle and he can't
dislodge me. He asked you to make me agree to give up the Castle,
didn't he? Yes, I thought so. And if I were fool enough to do it, he'd
ambush me and my men as we marched back to Kurram. You'd hardly have
time to get back to Kabul before a rider would be at your heels to
tell the Amir how I'd treacherously attacked Afdal Khan and been
killed in self-defense, and how Afdal had been forced to attack and
burn Kurram! He's trying to gain by outside intervention what he's
lost in battle, and to catch me off my guard and murder me as he did
Yusef Shah. He's making monkeys out of the Amir and you. And you want
me to let him make a monkey out of me--and a corpse too--just because
a little dirty trade is being deflected from Kabul!"

"You needn't feel so hostile to the British--" Willoughby began.

"I don't; nor to the Persians, nor the Russians, either. I just want
all hands to attend to their own business and leave mine alone."

"But this blood-feud madness isn't the proper thing for a white man,"
pleaded Willoughby. "You're not an Afghan. You're an Englishman, by
descent, at least--"

"I'm Highland Scotch and black Irish by descent," grunted Gordon.
"That's got nothing to do with it. I've had my say. Go back and tell
the Amir the feud will end --when I've killed Afdal Khan."

And turning on his heel he vanished as noiselessly as he had appeared.

Willoughby started after him helplessly. Damn it all, he'd handled
this matter like an amateur! Reviewing his arguments he felt like
kicking himself; but any arguments seemed puerile against the
primitive determination of El Borak. Debating with him was like
arguing with a wind, or a flood, or a forest fire, or some other
elemental fact. The man didn't fit into any ordered classification; he
was as untamed as any barbarian who trod the Himalayas, yet there was
nothing rudimentary or underdeveloped about his mentality.
* * *

Well, there was nothing to do at present but return to Fort Ghazrael
and send a rider to Kabul, reporting failure. But the game was not
played out. Willoughby's own stubborn determination was roused. The
affair began to take on a personal aspect utterly lacking in most of
his campaigns; he began to look upon it not only as a diplomatic
problem, but also as a contest of wits between Gordon and himself. As
he mounted his horse and headed back up the gorge, he swore he would
terminate that feud, and that it would be terminated his way, and not
Gordon's.

There was probably much truth in Gordon's assertions. Of course, he
and the Amir had heard only Afdal Khan's side of the matter; and of
course, Afdal Khan was a rogue. But he could not believe that the
chief's ambitions were as sweeping and sinister as Gordon maintained.
He could not believe they embraced more than a seizing of local power
in this isolated hill district. Petty exactions on the caravans, now
levied by the Afridis; that was all.

Anyway, Gordon had no business allowing his private wishes to
interfere with official aims, which, faulty as they might be,
nevertheless had the welfare of the people in view. Willoughby would
never have let his personal feelings stand in the way of policy, and
he considered that to do so was reprehensible in others. It was
Gordon's duty to forget the murder of his friends--again Willoughby
experienced that sensation of helplessness. Gordon would never do
that. To expect him to violate his instinct was as sensible as
expecting a hungry wolf to turn away from raw meat.

Willoughby had returned up the gorge as leisurely as he had ridden
down it. Now he emerged from the mouth and saw Suleiman and the
Pathans standing in a tense group, staring eagerly at him. Baber Ali's
eyes burned like a wolf's. Willoughby felt a slight shock of surprise
as he met the fierce intensity of the old chief's eyes. Why should
Baber so savagely desire the success of his emissary? The Orakzai had
been getting the worst of the war, but they were not whipped, by any
means. Was there, after all, something behind the visible surface--
some deep-laid obscure element or plot that involved Willoughby's
mission? Was there truth in Gordon's accusations of foreign
entanglements and veiled motives?

Baber took three steps forward, and his beard quivered with his
eagerness.

"Well?" His voice was harsh as the rasp of a sword against its
scabbard. "Will the dog make peace?"

Willoughby shook his head. "He swears the feud will end only when he
has slain Afdal Khan."

"Thou hast failed!"

The passion in Baber's voice startled Willoughby. For an instant he
thought the chief would draw his long knife and leap upon him. Then
Baber Ali deliberately turned his back on the Englishman and strode to
his horse. Freeing it with a savage jerk he swung into the saddle and
galloped away without a backward glance. And he did not take the trail
Willoughby must follow on his return to Fort Ghazrael; he rode north,
in the direction of Khoruk. The implication was unmistakable; he was
abandoning Willoughby to his own resources, repudiating all
responsibility for him.

Suleiman bent his head as he fumbled at his mount's girths, to hide
the tinge of gray that crept under his brown skin. Willoughby turned
from staring after the departing chief, to see the eyes of the four
tribesmen fixed unwinkingly upon him--hard, murky eyes from under
shocks of tangled hair.

He felt a slight chill crawl down his spine. These men were savages,
hardly above the mental level of wild beasts. They would act
unthinkingly, blindly following the instincts implanted in them and
their kind throughout long centuries of merciless Himalayan existence.
Their instincts were to murder and plunder all men not of their own
clan. He was an alien. The protection spread over him and his
companion by their chief had been removed.

By turning his back and riding away as he had, Baber Ali had tacitly
given permission for the feringhi to be slain. Baber Ali was himself
far more of a savage than was Afdal Khan; he was governed by his
untamed emotions, and prone to do childish and horrible things in
moments of passion. Infuriated by Willoughby's failure to bring about
a truce, it was characteristic of him to vent his rage and
disappointment on the Englishman.

Willoughby calmly reviewed the situation in the time he took to gather
up his reins. He could never get back to Ghazrael without an escort.
If he and Suleiman tried to ride away from these ruffians, they would
undoubtedly be shot in the back. There was nothing else to do but try
and bluff it out. They had been given their orders to escort him to
the Gorge of the Minaret and back again to Fort Ghazrael. Those orders
had not been revoked in actual words. The tribesmen might hesitate to
act on their own initiative, without positive orders.

He glanced at the low-hanging sun, nudged his horse.

"Let's be on our way. We have far to ride."

He pushed straight at the cluster of men who divided sullenly to let
him through. Suleiman followed him. Neither looked to right nor left,
nor showed by any sign that they expected the men to do other than
follow them. Silently the Pathans swung upon their horses and trailed
after them, rifle butts resting on thighs, muzzles pointing upward.

Willoughby slouched in his saddle, jogging easily along. He did not
look back, but he felt four pairs of beady eyes fixed on his broad
back in sullen indecision. His matter-of-fact manner baffled them,
exerted a certain dominance over their slow minds. But he knew that if
either he or Suleiman showed the slightest sign of fear or doubt, they
would be shot down instantly. He whistled tunelessly between his
teeth, whimsically feeling as if he were riding along the edge of a
volcano which might erupt at any instant.
* * *

They pushed eastward, following trails that wandered down into valleys
and up over rugged slants. The sun dipped behind a thousand-foot ridge
and the valleys were filled with purple shadows. They reached the spot
where, as they passed it earlier in the day, Baber Ali had indicated
that they would camp that night.

There was a well there. The Pathans drew rein without orders from
Willoughby. He would rather have pushed on, but to argue would have
roused suspicions of fear on his part.

The well stood near a cliff, on a broad shelf flanked by steep slopes
and ravine-cut walls. The horses were unsaddled, and Suleiman spread
Willoughby's blanket rolls at the foot of the wall. The Pathans,
stealthy and silent as wild things, began gathering dead tamarisk for
a fire. Willoughby sat down on a rock near a cleft in the wall, and
began tracing a likeness of Gordon in a small notebook, straining his
eyes in the last of the twilight. He had a knack in that line, and the
habit had proved valuable in the past, in the matter of uncovering
disguises and identifying wanted men.

He believed that his calm acceptance of obedience as a matter of
course had reduced the Pathans to a state of uncertainty, if not
actual awe. As long as they were uncertain, they would not attack him.

The men moved about the small camp, performing various duties.
Suleiman bent over the tiny fire, and on the other side of it a Pathan
was unpacking a bundle of food. Another tribesman approached the fire
from behind the Punjabi, bringing more wood.

Some instinct caused Willoughby to look up, just as the Pathan with
the arm load of wood came up behind Suleiman. The Punjabi had not
heard the man's approach; he did not look around. His first intimation
that there was any one behind him was when the tribesman drew a knife
and sank it between his shoulders.

It was done too quickly for Willoughby to shout a warning. He caught
the glint of the firelight on the blade as it was driven into
Suleiman's back. The Punjabi cried out and fell to his knees, and the
man on the other side of the fire snatched a flint-lock pistol from
among his rags and shot him through the body. Suleiman drew his
revolver and fired once, and the tribesman fell into the fire, shot
through the head.

Suleiman slipped down in a pool of his own blood, and lay still.

It all happened while Willoughby was springing to his feet. He was
unarmed. He stood frozen for an instant, helpless. One of the men
picked up a rifle and fired at him point-blank. He heard the bullet
smash on a rock behind him. Stung out of his paralysis he turned and
sprang into the cleft of the wall. An instant later he was running as
fleetly down the narrow gap as his build would allow, his heels winged
by the wild howls of triumph behind him.

Willoughby would have cursed himself as he ran, could he have spared
the breath. The sudden attack had been brutish, blundering, without
plan or premeditation. The tribesman had unexpectedly found himself
behind Suleiman and had reacted to his natural instincts. Willoughby
realized that if he had had a revolver he could probably have defeated
the attack, at least upon his own life. He had never needed one
before; had always believed diplomacy a better weapon than a firearm.
But twice today diplomacy had failed miserably. All the faults and
weaknesses of his system seemed to be coming to light at once. He had
made a pretty hash of this business from the start.

But he had an idea that he would soon be beyond self-censure or
official blame. Those bloodthirsty yells, drawing nearer behind him,
assured him of that.

Suddenly Willoughby was afraid, horribly afraid. His tongue seemed
frozen to his palate and a clammy sweat beaded his skin. He ran on
down the dark defile like a man running in a nightmare, his ears
straining for the expected sound of sandaled feet pattering behind
him, the skin between his shoulders crawling in expectation of a
plunging knife. It was dark. He caromed into boulders, tripped over
loose stones, tearing the skin of his hands on the shale.

Abruptly he was out of the defile, and a knife-edge ridge loomed ahead
of him like the steep roof of a house, black against the blue-black
star-dotted sky. He struggled up it, his breath coming in racking
gasps. He knew they were close behind him, although he could see
nothing in the dark.

But keen eyes saw his dim bulk outlined against the stars when he
crawled over the crest. Tongues of red flame licked in the darkness
below him; reports banged flatly against the rocky walls. Frantically
he hauled himself over and rolled down the slope on the other side.
But not all the way. Almost immediately he brought up against
something hard yet yielding. Vaguely, half blind from sweat and
exhaustion, he saw a figure looming over him, some object lifted in
menace outlined against the stars. He threw up an arm but it did not
check the swinging rifle stock. Fire burst in glittering sparks about
him, and he did not hear the crackling of the rifles that ran along
the crest of the ridge.

III

IT WAS THE smashing reverberation of gunfire, reechoing between narrow
walls, which first impressed itself on Willoughby's sluggish reviving
consciousness. Then he was aware of his throbbing head. Lifting a hand
to it, he discovered it had been efficiently bandaged. He was lying on
what felt like a sheepskin coat, and he felt bare, cold rock under it.
He struggled to his elbows and shook his head violently, setting his
teeth against the shooting pain that resulted.

He lay in darkness, yet, some yards away, a white curtain shimmered
dazzlingly before him. He swore and batted his eyes, and as his
blurred sight cleared, things about him assumed their proper aspect.
He was in a cave, and that white curtain was the mouth, with moonlight
streaming across it. He started to rise and a rough hand grabbed him
and jerked him down again, just as a rifle cracked somewhere outside
and a bullet whined into the cave and smacked viciously on the stone
wall.

"Keep down, sahib!" growled a voice in Pashtu. The Englishman was
aware of men in the cave with him. Their eyes shone in the dark as
they turned their heads toward him.

His groggy brain was functioning now, and he could understand what he
saw. The cave was not a large one, and it opened upon a narrow
plateau, bathed in vivid moonlight and flanked by rugged slopes. For
about a hundred yards before the cave mouth the plain lay level and
almost bare of rocks, but beyond that it was strewn with boulders and
cut by gullies. And from those boulders and ravines white puffs
bloomed from time to time, accompanied by sharp reports. Lead smacked
and spattered about the entrance and whined venomously into the
cavern. Somewhere a man was breathing in panting gasps that told
Willoughby he was badly wounded. The moon hung at such an angle that
it drove a white bar down the middle of the cave for some fifteen
feet; and death lurked in that narrow strip, for the men in the cave.

They lay close to the walls on either side, hidden from the view of
the besiegers and partially sheltered by broken rocks. They were not
returning the fire. They lay still, hugging their rifles, the whites
of their eyes gleaming in the darkness as they turned their heads from
time to time.

Willoughby was about to speak, when on the plain outside a kalpak was
poked cautiously around one end of a boulder. There was no response
from the cave. The defenders knew that in all probability that
sheepskin cap was stuck on a gun muzzle instead of a human head.

"Do you see the dog, sahib?" whispered a voice in the gloom, and
Willoughby started as the answer came. For though it was framed in
almost accentless Pashtu, it was the voice of a white man--the
unmistakable voice of Francis Xavier Gordon.

"I see him. He's peeking around the other end of that boulder--trying
to get a better shot at us, while his mate distracts our attention
with that hat. See? Close to the ground, there--just about a hand's
breadth of his head. Ready? All right--now!"

Six rifles cracked in a stuttering detonation, and instantly, a white-
clad figure rolled from behind the boulder, flopped convulsively and
lay still, a sprawl of twisted limbs in the moonlight. That,
considered Willoughby, was damned good shooting, if no more than one
of the six bullets hit the exposed head. The men in the cave had
phosphorus rubbed in their sights, and they were not wasting
ammunition.

The success of the fusillade was answered by a chorus of wrathful
yells from outside, and a storm of lead burst against the cave. Plenty
of it found its way inside, and hot metal splashing from a glancing
slug stung Willoughby's arm through the sleeve. But the marksmen were
aiming too high to do any damage, unwilling as they were to expose
themselves to the fire from the cavern. Gordon's men were grimly
silent; they neither wasted lead on unseen enemies, nor indulged in
the jeers and taunts so dear to the Afghan fighting man.

When the storm subsided to a period of vengeful waiting, Willoughby
called in a low voice: "Gordon! Oh, I say there, Gordon!"

An instant later a dim form crawled to his side.

"Coming to at last, Willoughby? Here, take a swig of this."

A whiskey flask was pressed into his hand.

"No, thanks, old chap. I think you have a man who needs it worse than
I." Even as he spoke he was aware that he no longer heard the
stertorous breathing of the wounded man.

"That was Ahmed Khan," said Gordon. "He's gone; died while they were
shooting in here a moment ago. Shot through the body as we were making
for this cave."

"That's the Orakzai out there?" asked Willoughby.

"Who else?"
* * *

The throbbing in his head irritated the Englishman; his right forearm
was painfully bruised, and he was thirsty.

"Let me get this straight, Gordon--am I a prisoner?"

"That depends on the way you look at it. Just now we're all hemmed up
in this cave. Sorry about your broken head. But the fellow who hit you
didn't know but what you were an Orakzai. It was dark."

"What the devil happened, anyway?" demanded Willoughby. "I remember
them killing Suleiman, and chasing me--then I got that clout on the
head and went out. I must have been unconscious for hours."

"You were. Six of my men trailed you all the way from the mouth of the
Gorge of the Minaret. I didn't trust Baber Ali, though it didn't occur
to me that he'd try to kill you. I was well on my way back to Akbar's
Castle when one of the men caught up with me and told me that Baber
Ali had ridden off in the direction of his sangar and left you with
his four tribesmen. I believed they intended murdering you on the road
to Ghazrael, and laying it onto me. So I started after you myself.

"When you pitched camp by Jehungir's Well my men were watching from a
distance, and I wasn't far away, riding hard to catch up with you
before your escort killed you. Naturally I wasn't following the open
trail you followed. I was coming up from the south. My men saw the
Orakzai kill Suleiman, but they weren't close enough to do anything
about it.

"When you ran into the defile with the Orakzai pelting after you, my
men lost sight of you all in the darkness and were trying to locate
you when you bumped into them. Khoda Khan knocked you stiff before he
recognized you. They fired on the three men who were chasing you, and
those fellows took to their heels. I heard the firing, and so did
somebody else; we arrived on the scene just about the same time."

"Eh? What's that? Who?"

"Your friend, Baber Ali, with thirty horsemen! We slung you on a
horse, and it was a running fight until moonrise. We were trying to
get back to Akbar's Castle, but they had fresher horses and they ran
us down. They got us hemmed out there on that plain and the only thing
we could do was to duck in here and make our stand. So here we are,
and out there he is, with thirty men--not including the three ruffians
who killed your servant. He shot them in their tracks. I heard the
shots and their death howls as we rode for the hills."

"I guess the old villain repented of his temper," said Willoughby.
"What a cursed pity he didn't arrive a few minutes earlier. It would
have saved Suleiman, poor devil. Thanks for pulling me out of a nasty
mess, old fellow. And now, if you don't mind, I'll be going."

"Where?"

"Why, out there! To Ghazrael. First to Baber Ali, naturally. I've got
a few things to tell that old devil."

"Willoughby, are you a fool?" Gordon demanded harshly.

"To think you'd let me go? Well, perhaps I am. I'd forgotten that as
soon as I return to Kabul, you'll be declared an outlaw, won't you?
But you can't keep me here forever, you know--"

"I don't intend to try," answered Gordon with a hint of anger. "If
your skull wasn't already cracked I'd feel inclined to bash your head
for accusing me of imprisoning you. Shake the cobwebs out of your
brain. If you're an example of a British diplomat, Heaven help the
empire!

"Don't you know you'd instantly be filled with lead if you stepped out
there? Don't you know that Baber Ali wants your head right now more
than he does mine?

"Why do you think he hasn't sent a man riding a horse to death to tell
Afdal Khan he's got El Borak trapped in a cave miles from Akbar's
Castle? I'll tell you: Baber Ali doesn't want Afdal to know what a
mess he's made of things.

"It was characteristic of the old devil to ride off and leave you to
be murdered by his ruffians; but when he cooled off a little, he
realized that he'd be held responsible. He must have gotten clear to
his sangar before he realized that. Then he took a band of horsemen
and came pelting after you to save you, in the interest of his own
skin, of course, but he got there too late--too late to keep them from
killing Suleiman, and too late to kill you."

"But what--"

"Look at it from his viewpoint, man! If he'd gotten there in time to
keep anyone from being killed, it would have been all right. But with
Suleiman killed by his men, he dares not leave you alive. He knows the
English will hold him responsible for Suleiman's death, if they learn
the true circumstances. And he knows what it means to murder a British
subject--especially one as important in the secret service as I happen
to know Suleiman was. But if he could put you out of the way, he could
swear I killed you and Suleiman. Those men out there are all Baber's
personal following--hard-bitten old wolves who'll cut any throat and
swear any lie he orders. If you go back to Kabul and tell your story,
Baber will be in bad with the Amir, the British, and Afdal Khan. So
he's determined to shut your mouth, for good and all."
* * *

Willoughby was silent for a moment; presently he said frankly:
"Gordon, if I didn't have such a high respect for your wits, I'd
believe you. It all sounds reasonable and logical. But damn it, man, I
don't know whether I'm recognizing logic or simply being twisted up in
a web of clever lies. You're too dangerously subtle, Gordon, for me to
allow myself to believe anything you say, without proof."

"Proof?" retorted Gordon grimly, "Listen!" Wriggling toward the cave
mouth he took shelter behind a broken rock and shouted in Pashtu:
"Ohai, Baber Ali!"

The scattered firing ceased instantly, and the moonlit night seemed to
hold its breath. Baber Ali's voice came back, edged with suspicion.

"Speak, El Borak! I hearken."

"If I gave you the Englishmen will you let me and my men go in peace?"
Gordon called.

"Aye, by the beard of Allah!" came the eager answer.

"But I fear he will return to Kabul and poison the Amir against me!"

"Then kill him and throw his head out," answered Baber Ali with an
oath. "By Allah, it is no more than I will do for him, the prying
dog!"

In the cave Willoughby murmured: "I apologize, Gordon!"

"Well?" The old Pathan was growing impatient. "Are you playing with
me, El Borak? Give me the Englishman!"

"Nay, Baber Ali, I dare not trust your promise," replied Gordon.

A bloodthirsty yell and a burst of frenzied firing marked the
conclusion of the brief parley, and Gordon hugged the shelter of the
shattered boulders until the spasm subsided. Then he crawled back to
Willoughby.

"You see?"

"I see! It looks like I'm in this thing to the hilt with you! But why
Baber Ali should have been so enraged because I failed to arrange a
truce--"

"He and Afdal intended taking advantage of any truce you arranged, to
trap me, just as I warned you. They were using you as a cat's-paw.
They know they're licked, unless they resort to something of the
sort."

There followed a period of silence, in which Willoughby was moved to
inquire: "What now? Are we to stay here until they starve us out? The
moon will set before many hours. They'll rush us in the dark."

"I never walk into a trap I can't get out of," answered Gordon. "I'm
just waiting for the moon to dip behind that crag and get its light
out of the cave. There's an exit I don't believe the Orakzai know
about. Just a narrow crack at the back of the cave. I enlarged it with
a hunting knife and rifle barrel before you recovered consciousness.
It's big enough for a man to slip through now. It leads out onto a
ledge fifty feet above a ravine. Some of the Orakzai may be down there
watching the ledge, but I doubt it. From the plain out there it would
be a long, hard climb around to the back of the mountain. We'll go
down on a rope made of turbans and belts, and head for Akbar's Castle.
We'll have to go on foot. It's only a few miles away, but the way
we'll have to go is over the mountains, and a devil's own climb."

Slowly the moon moved behind the crag, and the silver sword no longer
glimmered along the rocky floor. The men in the cavern could move
about without being seen by the men outside, who waited the setting of
the moon with the grim patience of gray wolves.

"All right, let's go," muttered Gordon. "Khoda Khan, lead the way.
I'll follow when you're all through the cleft. If anything happens to
me, take the sahib to Akbar's Castle. Go over the ridges; there may be
ambushes already planted in the valleys."

"Give me a gun," requested Willoughby. The rifle of the dead Ahmed
Khan was pressed into his hand. He followed the shadowy, all-but-
invisible file of Afridis as they glided into the deeper darkness in
the recesses of the tunnel-like cavern. Their sandals made no noise on
the rocky floor, but the crunch of his boots seemed loud to the
Englishman. Behind them Gordon lay near the entrance, and once he
fired a shot at the boulders on the plain.
* * *

Within fifty feet the cavern floor began to narrow and pitch upward.
Above them a star shone in utter blackness, marking the crevice in the
rock. It seemed to Willoughby that they mounted the slanting incline
for a long way; the firing outside sounded muffled, and the patch of
moonlight that was the cave mouth looked small with distance. The
pitch became steeper, mounting up until the taller of the Afridis bent
their heads to avoid the rocky roof. An instant later they reached the
wall that marked the end of the cavern and glimpsed the sky through
the narrow slit.

One by one they squeezed through, Willoughby last. He came out on the
ledge in the starlight that overhung a ravine which was a mass of
black shadows. Above them the great black crags loomed, shutting off
the moonlight; everything on that side of the mountain was in shadow.

His companions clustered at the rim of the shelf as they swiftly and
deftly knotted together girdles and unwound turbans to make a rope.
One end was tossed over the ledge and man after man went down swiftly
and silently, vanishing into the black ravine below. Willoughby helped
a stalwart tribesman called Muhammad hold the rope as Khoda Khan went
down. Before he went, Khoda Khan thrust his head back through the
cleft and whistled softly, a signal to carry only to El Borak's alert
ears.

Khoda Khan vanished into the darkness below, and Muhammad signified
that he could hold the rope alone while Willoughby descended. Behind
them an occasional muffled shot seemed to indicate that the Orakzai
were yet unaware that their prey was escaping them.

Willoughby let himself over the ledge, hooked a leg about the rope and
went down, considerably slower and more cautiously than the men who
had preceded him. Above him the huge Afridi braced his legs and held
the rope as firmly as though it were bound to a tree.

Willoughby was halfway down when he heard a murmur of voices on the
ledge above which indicated that Gordon had come out of the cave and
joined Muhammad. The Englishman looked down and made out the dim
figures of the others standing below him on the ravine floor. His feet
were a yard above the earth when a rifle cracked in the shadows and a
red tongue of flame spat upward. An explosive grunt sounded above him
and the rope went slack in his hands. He hit the ground, lost his
footing and fell headlong, rolling aside as Muhammad came tumbling
down. The giant struck the earth with a thud, wrapped about with the
rope he had carried with him in his fall. He never moved after he
landed.

Willoughby struggled up, breathless, as his companions charged past
him. Knives were flickering in the shadows, dim figures reeling in
locked combat. So the Orakzai had known of this possible exit! Men
were fighting all around him. Gordon sprang to the rim of the ledge
and fired downward without apparent aim, but a man grunted and fell,
his rifle striking against Willoughby's boot. A dim, bearded face
loomed out of the darkness, snarling like a ghoul. Willoughby caught a
swinging tulwar on his rifle barrel, wincing at the jolt that ran
through his fingers, and fired full into the bearded face.

"El Borak!" howled Khoda Khan, hacking and slashing at something that
snarled and gasped like a wild beast.

"Take the sahib and go!" yelled Gordon.

Willoughby realized that the fall of Muhammad with the rope had
trapped Gordon on the ledge fifty feet above them.

"Nay!" shrieked Khoda Khan. "We will cast the rope up to thee--"

"Go, blast you!" roared Gordon. "The whole horde will be on your necks
any minute! Go!"

The next instant Willoughby was seized under each arm and hustled at a
stumbling run down the dark gorge. Men panted on each side of him, and
the dripping tulwars in their hands smeared his breeches. He had a
vague glimpse of three figures sprawling at the foot of the cliff, one
horribly mangled. No one barred their path as they fled; Gordon's
Afridis were obeying his command; but they had left their leader
behind, and they sobbed curses through their teeth as they ran.

IV

GORDON WASTED NO TIME. He knew he could not escape from the ledge
without a rope, by climbing either up or down, and he did not believe
his enemies could reach the ledge from the ravine. He squirmed back
through the cleft and ran down the slant of the cavern, expecting any
instant to see his besiegers pouring into the moonlit mouth. But it
stood empty, and the rifles outside kept up their irregular monotone.
Obviously, Baber Ali did not realize that his victims had attempted an
escape by the rear. The muffled shots he must surely have heard had
imparted no meaning to him, or perhaps he considered they but
constituted some trickery of El Borak's. Knowledge that an opponent is
full of dangerous ruses is often a handicap, instilling an undue
amount of caution.

Anyway, Baber Ali had neither rushed the cavern nor sent any
appreciable number of men to reinforce the lurkers on the other side
of the mountain, for the volume of his firing was undiminished. That
meant he did not know of the presence of his men behind the cave.
Gordon was inclined to believe that what he had taken for a
strategically placed force had been merely a few restless individuals
skulking along the ravine, scouting on their own initiative. He had
actually seen only three men, had merely assumed the presence of
others. The attack, too, had been ill-timed and poorly executed. It
had neither trapped them all on the ledge nor in the ravine. The shot
that killed Muhammad had doubtless been aimed at himself.

Gordon admitted his mistake; confused in the darkness as to the true
state of things, he had ordered instant flight when his companions
might safely have lingered long enough to tie a stone to the end of
the rope and cast it back up to him. He was neatly trapped and it was
largely his own fault.

But he had one advantage: Baber did not know he was alone in the
cavern. And there was every reason to believe that Willoughby would
reach Akbar's Castle unpursued. He fired a shot into the plain and
settled himself comfortably behind the rocks near the cave mouth, his
rifle at his shoulder.

The moonlit plateau showed no evidence of the attackers beyond the
puffs of grayish-white smoke that bloomed in woolly whorls from behind
the boulders. But there was a tense expectancy in the very air. The
moon was visible below the overhanging crag; it rested a red, bent
horn on the solid black mass of a mountain wall. In a few moments the
plain would be plunged in darkness and then it was inevitable that
Baber would rush the cavern.

Yet Baber would know that in the darkness following the setting of the
moon the captives might be expected to make a break for liberty. It
was certain that he already had a wide cordon spread across the plain,
and the line would converge quickly on the cave mouth. The longer
Gordon waited after moonset, the harder it would be to slip through
the closing semicircle.

He began wrenching bullets out of cartridges with his fingers and
teeth and emptying the powder into his rifle barrel, even while he
studied the terrain by the last light of the sinking moon. The plateau
was roughly fan-shaped, widening rapidly from the cliff-flanked wall
in which opened the cave mouth. Perhaps a quarter of a mile across
the plain showed the dark mouth of a gorge, in which he knew were
tethered the horses of the Orakzai. Probably at least one man was
guarding them.

The plain ran level and bare for nearly a hundred yards before the
cavern mouth, but some fifty feet away, on the right, there was a deep
narrow gully which began abruptly in the midst of the plain and
meandered away toward the right-hand cliffs. No shot had been fired
from this ravine. If an Orakzai was hidden there he had gone into it
while Gordon and his men were at the back of the cavern. It had been
too close to the cave for the besiegers to reach it under the guns of
the defenders.

As soon as the moon set Gordon intended to emerge and try to work his
way across the plain, avoiding the Orakzai as they rushed toward the
cave. It would be touch and go, the success depending on accurate
timing and a good bit of luck. But there was no other alternative. He
would have a chance, once he got among the rocks and gullies. His
biggest risk would be that of getting shot as he ran from the cavern,
with thirty rifles trained upon the black mouth. And he was providing
against that when he filled his rifle barrel to the muzzle with loose
powder from the broken cartridges and plugged the muzzle solidly with
a huge misshapen slug he found on the cave floor.

He knew as soon as the moon vanished they would come wriggling like
snakes from every direction, to cover the last few yards in a
desperate rush--they would not fire until they could empty their guns
point-blank into the cavern and storm in after their volley with naked
steel. But thirty pairs of keen eyes would be fixed on the entrance
and a volley would meet any shadowy figure seen darting from it.
* * *

The moon sank, plunging the plateau into darkness, relieved but little
by the dim light of the stars. Out on the plateau Gordon heard sounds
that only razor-keen ears could have caught, much less translated: the
scruff of leather on stone, the faint clink of steel, the rattle of a
pebble underfoot.

Rising in the black cave mouth he cocked his rifle, and poising
himself for an instant, hurled it, butt first, as far to the left as
he could throw it. The clash of the steel-shod butt on stone was
drowned by a blinding flash of fire and a deafening detonation as the
pent-up charge burst the heavy barrel asunder and in the intensified
darkness that followed the flash Gordon was out of the cave and racing
for the ravine on his right.

No bullet followed him, though rifles banged on the heels of that
amazing report. As he had planned, the surprising explosion from an
unexpected quarter had confused his enemies, wrenched their attention
away from the cave mouth and the dim figure that flitted from it. Men
howled with amazement and fired blindly and unreasoningly in the
direction of the flash and roar. While they howled and fired, Gordon
reached the gully and plunged into it almost without checking his
stride--to collide with a shadowy figure which grunted and grappled
with him.

In an instant Gordon's hands locked on a hairy throat, stifling the
betraying yell. They went down together, and a rifle, useless in such
desperate close quarters, fell from the Pathan's hand. Out on the
plain pandemonium had burst, but Gordon was occupied with the blood-
crazy savage beneath him.

The man was taller and heavier than himself and his sinews were like
rawhide strands, but the advantage was with the tigerish white man. As
they rolled on the gully floor the Pathan strove in vain with both
hands to tear away the fingers that were crushing the life from his
corded throat, then still clawing at Gordon's wrist with his left
hand, began to grope in his girdle for a knife. Gordon released his
throat with his left hand, and with it caught the other's right wrist
just as the knife came clear.

The Pathan heaved and bucked like a wild man, straining his wolfish
muscles to the utmost, but in vain. He could not free his knife wrist
from Gordon's grasp nor tear from his throat the fingers that were
binding his neck back until his bearded chin jutted upward.
Desperately, he threw himself sidewise, trying to bring his knee up to
the American's groin, but his shift in position gave Gordon the
leverage he had been seeking.

Instantly El Borak twisted the Pathan's wrist with such savage
strength that a bone cracked and the knife fell from the numb fingers.
Gordon released the broken wrist, snatched a knife from his own boot
and ripped upward--again, again, and yet again.

Not until the convulsive struggles ceased and the body went limp
beneath him did Gordon release the hairy throat. He crouched above his
victim, listening. The fight had been swift, fierce and silent,
enduring only a matter of seconds.

The unexpected explosion had loosed hysteria in the attackers. The
Orakzai were rushing the cave, not in stealth and silence, but yelling
so loudly and shooting so wildly they did not seem to realize that no
shots were answering them.

Nerves hung on hair triggers can be snapped by an untoward occurrence.
The rush of the warriors across the plain sounded like the stampede of
cattle. A man bounded up the ravine a few yards from where Gordon
crouched, without seeing the American in the pit-like blackness.
Howling, cursing, shooting blindly, the hillmen stormed to the cave
mouth, too crazy with excitement and confused by the darkness to see
the dim figure that glided out of the gully behind them and raced
silently away toward the mouth of the distant gorge.

V

WILLOUGHBY ALWAYS REMEMBERED that flight over the mountains as a sort
of nightmare in which he was hustled along by ragged goblins through
black defiles, up tendon-straining slopes and along knife-edge ridges
which fell away on either hand into depths that turned him faint with
nausea. Protests, exhortations and fervent profanity did not serve to
ease the flying pace at which his escort was trundling him, and
presently he had no breath for protests. He did not even have time to
be grateful that the expected pursuit did not seem to be
materializing.

He gasped like a dying fish and tried not to look down. He had an
uncomfortable feeling that the Afridis blamed him for Gordon's plight
and would gladly have heaved him off a ridge but for their leader's
parting command.

But Willoughby felt that he was just as effectually being killed by
overexertion. He had never realized that human beings could traverse
such a path--or rather such a pathless track--as he was being dragged
over. When the moon sank the going was even harder, but he was
grateful, for the abysses they seemed to be continually skirting were
but floating gulfs of blackness beneath them, which did not induce the
sick giddiness resulting from yawning chasms disclosed by the
merciless moonlight.

His respect for Gordon's physical abilities increased to a kind of
frantic awe, for he knew the American was known to be superior in
stamina and endurance even to these long-legged, barrel-chested, iron-
muscled mountaineers who seemed built of some substance that was
tireless. Willoughby wished they would tire. They hauled him along
with a man at each arm, and one to pull, and another to push when
necessary, but even so the exertion was killing him. Sweat bathed him,
drenching his garments. His thighs trembled and the calves of his legs
were tied into agonizing knots.

He reflected in dizzy fragments that Gordon deserved whatever
domination he had achieved over these iron-jawed barbarians. But
mostly he did not think at all. His faculties were all occupied in
keeping his feet and gulping air. The veins in his temples were nearly
bursting and things were swimming in a bloody haze about him when he
realized his escort, or captors--or torturers--had slowed to a walk.
He voiced an incoherent croak of gratitude and shaking the sweat out
of his dilated eyes, he saw that they were treading a path that ran
over a natural rock bridge which spanned a deep gorge. Ahead of him,
looming above a cluster of broken peaks, he saw a great black bulk
heaving up against the stars like a misshapen castle.

The sharp challenge of a rifleman rang staccato from the other end of
the span and was answered by Khoda Khan's bull-like bellow. The path
led upon a jutting ledge and half a dozen ragged, bearded specters
with rifles in their hands rose from behind a rampart of heaped-up
boulders.

Willoughby was in a state of collapse, able only to realize that the
killing grind was over. The Afridis half carried, half dragged him
within the semicircular rampart and he saw a bronze door standing open
and a doorway cut in solid rock that glowed luridly. It required an
effort to realize that the glow came from a fire burning somewhere in
the cavern into which the doorway led.

This, then, was Akbar's Castle. With each arm across a pair of brawny
shoulders Willoughby tottered through the cleft and down a short
narrow tunnel, to emerge into a broad natural chamber lighted by smoky
torches and a small fire over which tea was brewing and meat cooking.
Half a dozen men sat about the fire, and some forty more slept on the
stone floor, wrapped in their sheepskin coats. Doorways opened from
the huge main chamber, openings of other tunnels or cell-like niches,
and at the other end there were stalls occupied by horses, a
surprising number of them. Saddles, blanket rolls, bridles and other
equipage, with stands of rifles and stacks of ammunition cases,
littered the floor near the walls.
* * *

The men about the fire rose to their feet looking inquiringly at the
Englishman and his escort, and the men on the floor awoke and sat up
blinking like ghouls surprised by daylight. A tall broad-shouldered
swashbuckler came striding out of the widest doorway opening into the
cavern. He paused before the group, towering half a head taller than
any other man there, hooked his thumbs in his girdle and glared
balefully.

"Who is this feringhi?" he snarled suspiciously. "Where is El Borak?"

Three of the escort backed away apprehensively, but Khoda Khan, held
his ground and answered: "This is the sahib Willoughby, whom El Borak
met at the Minaret of Shaitan, Yar Ali Khan. We rescued him from Baber
Ali, who would have slain him. We were at bay in the cave where Yar
Muhammad shot the gray wolf three summers ago. We stole out by a
cleft, but the rope fell and left El Borak on a ledge fifty feet above
us, and--"

"Allah!" It was a blood-curdling yell from Yar Ali Khan who seemed
transformed into a maniac. "Dogs! You left him to die! Accursed ones!
Forgotten of God! I'll--"

"He commanded us to bring this Englishman to Akbar's Castle,"
maintained Khoda Khan doggedly. "We tore our beards and wept, but we
obeyed!"

"Allah!" Yar Ali Khan became a whirlwind of energy. He snatched up
rifle, bandoleer and bridle. "Bring out the horses and saddle them!"
he roared and a score of men scurried. "Hasten! Forty men with me to
rescue El Borak! The rest hold the Castle. I leave Khoda Khan in
command."

"Leave the devil in command of hell," quoth Khoda Khan profanely. "I
ride with you to rescue El Borak--or I empty my rifle into your
belly."

His three comrades expressed similar intentions at the top of their
voices--after fighting and running all night, they were wild as
starving wolves to plunge back into hazard in behalf of their chief.

"Go or stay, I care not!" howled Yar Ali Khan, tearing out a fistful
of his beard in his passion. "If Borak is slain I will requite thee,
by the prophet's beard and my feet! Allah rot me if I ram not a rifle
stock down thy accursed gullets--dogs, jackals, noseless abominations,
hasten with the horses!"

"Yar Ali Khan!" It was a yell from beyond the arch whence the tall
Afridi had first emerged. "One comes riding hard up the valley!"

Yar Ali Khan yelled bloodthirstily and rushed into the tunnel,
brandishing his rifle, with everybody pelting after him except the men
detailed to saddle the horses.

Willoughby had been forgotten by the Pathans in the madhouse brewed by
Gordon's lieutenant. He limped after them, remembering tales told of
this gaunt giant and his berserk rages. The tunnel down which the
ragged horde was streaming ran for less than a hundred feet when it
widened to a mouth through which the gray light of dawn was stealing.
Through this the Afridis were pouring and Willoughby, following them,
came out upon a broad ledge a hundred feet wide and fifty deep, like a
gallery before a house.

Around its semicircular rim ran a massive man-made wall, shoulder-
high, pierced with loopholes slanting down. There was an arched
opening in the wall, closed by a heavy bronze door, and from that
door, which now stood open, a row of broad shallow steps niched in
solid stone led down to a trail which in turn looped down a three-
hundred-foot slope to the floor of a broad valley.

The cliffs in which the cave sat closed the western end of the valley,
which opened to the east. Mists hung in the valley and out of them a
horseman came flying, growing ghostlike out of the dimness of the
dawn--a man on a great white horse, riding like the wind.

Yar Ali Khan glared wildly for an instant, then started forward with a
convulsive leap of his whole body, flinging his rifle high above his
head.

"El Borak!" he roared.

Electrified by his yell, the men surged to the wall and those saddling
the mounts inside abandoned their task and rushed out onto the ledge.
In an instant the wall was lined with tense figures, gripping their
rifles and glaring into the white mists rolling beyond the fleeing
rider, from which they momentarily expected pursuers to appear.

Willoughby, standing to one side like a spectator of a drama, felt a
tingle in his veins at the sight and sound of the wild rejoicing with
which these wild men greeted the man who had won their allegiance.
Gordon was no bluffing adventurer; he was a real chief of men; and
that, Willoughby realized, was going to make his own job that much
harder.
* * *

No pursuers materialized out of the thinning mists. Gordon urged his
mount up the trail, up the broad steps, and as he rode through the
gate, bending his head under the arch, the roar of acclaim that went
up would have stirred the blood of a king. The Pathans swarmed around
him, catching at his hands, his garments, shouting praise to Allah
that he was alive and whole. He grinned down at them, swung off and
threw his reins to the nearest man, from whom Yar Ali Khan instantly
snatched them jealously, with a ferocious glare at the offending
warrior.

Willoughby stepped forward. He knew he looked like a scarecrow in his
stained and torn garments, but Gordon looked like a butcher, with
blood dried on his shirt and smeared on his breeches where he had
wiped his hands. But he did not seem to be wounded. He smiled at
Willoughby for the first time.

"Tough trip, eh?"

"We've been here only a matter of minutes," Willoughby acknowledged.

"You took a short cut. I came the long way, but I made good time on
Baber Ali's horse," said Gordon.

"You mentioned possible ambushes in the valleys--"

"Yes. But on horseback I could take that risk. I was shot at once, but
they missed me. It's hard to aim straight in the early-morning mists."

"How did you get away?"

"Waited until the moon went down, then made a break for it. Had to
kill a man in the gully before the cave. We were all twisted together
when I let him have the knife and that's where this blood came from. I
stole Baber's horse while the Orakzai were storming the empty cave.
Stampeded the herd down a canyon. Had to shoot the fellow guarding it.
Baber'll guess where I went, of course. He'll be after me as quickly
as he and his men can catch their horses. I suspect they'll lay siege
to the Castle, but they'll only waste their time."

Willoughby stared about him in the growing light of dawn, impressed by
the strength of the stronghold. One rifleman could hold the entrance
through which he had been brought. To try to advance along that narrow
bridge that spanned the chasm behind the Castle would be suicide for
an enemy. And no force on earth could march up the valley on this side
and climb that stair in the teeth of Gordon's rifles. The mountain
which contained the cave rose up like a huge stone citadel above the
surrounding heights. The cliffs which flanked the valley were lower
than the fortified ledge; men crawling along them would be exposed to
a raking fire from above. Attack could come from no other direction.

"This is really in Afdal Khan's territory," said Gordon. "It used to
be a Mogul outpost, as the name implies. It was first fortified by
Akbar himself. Afdal Khan held it before I took it. It's my best
safeguard for Kurram.

"After the outlying villages were burned on both sides, all my people
took refuge in Kurram, just as Afdal's did in Khoruk. To attack
Kurram, Afdal would have to pass Akbar's Castle and leave me in his
rear. He doesn't dare do that. That's why he wanted a truce--to get me
out of the Castle. With me ambushed and killed, or hemmed up in
Kurram, he'd be free to strike at Kurram with all his force, without
being afraid I'd burn Khoruk behind him or ambush him in my country.

"He's too cautious of his own skin. I've repeatedly challenged him to
fight me man to man, but he pays no attention. He hasn't stirred out
of Khoruk since the feud started, unless he had at least a hundred men
with him--as many as I have in my entire force, counting these here
and those guarding the women and children in Kurram."

"You've done a terrible amount of damage with so small a band," said
Willoughby.

"Not difficult if you know the country, have men who trust you, and
keep moving. Geronimo almost whipped an army with a handful of
Apaches, and I was raised in his country. I've simply adopted his
tactics. The possession of this Castle was all I needed to assure my
ultimate victory. If Afdal had the guts to meet me, the feud would be
over. He's the chief; the others just follow him. As it is I may have
to wipe out the entire Khoruk clan. But I'll get him."

The dark flame flickered in Gordon's eyes as he spoke, and again
Willoughby felt the impact of an inexorable determination, elemental
in its foundation. And again he swore mentally that he would end the
feud himself, in his own way, with Afdal Khan alive; though how, he
had not the faintest idea at present.

Gordon glanced at him closely and advised: "Better get some sleep. If
I know Baber Ali, he'll come straight to the Castle after me. He knows
he can't take it, but he'll try anyway. He has at least a hundred men
who follow him and take orders from nobody else--not even Afdal Khan.
After the shooting starts there won't be much chance for sleeping. You
look a bit done up."

Willoughby realized the truth of Gordon's comment. Sight of the white
streak of dawn stealing over the ash-hued peaks weighted his eyelids
with an irresistible drowsiness. He was barely able to stumble into
the cave, and the smell of frying mutton exercised no charm to keep
him awake. Somebody steered him to a heap of blankets and he was
asleep before he was actually stretched upon them.

Gordon stood looking down at the sleeping man enigmatically and Yar
Ali Khan came up as noiselessly and calmly as a gaunt gray wolf; it
would have been hard to believe he was the hurricane of emotional
upset which had stormed all over the cavern a short hour before.

"Is he a friend, sahib?"

"A better friend than he realizes," was Gordon's grim, cryptic reply.
"I think Afdal Khan's friends will come to curse the day Geoffrey
Willoughby ever came into the hills."

VI

AGAIN IT WAS the spiteful cracking of rifles which awakened
Willoughby. He sat up, momentarily confused and unable to remember
where he was or how he came there. Then he recalled the events of the
night; he was in the stronghold of an outlaw chief, and those
detonations must mean the siege Gordon had predicted. He was alone in
the great cavern, except for the horses munching fodder beyond the
bars at the other end. Among them he recognized the big white stallion
that had belonged to Baber Ali.

The fire had died to a heap of coals and the daylight that stole
through a couple or arches, which were the openings of tunnels
connecting with the outer air, was augmented by half a dozen antique-
looking bronze lamps.

A pot of mutton stew simmered over the coals and a dish full of
chupatties stood near it. Willoughby was aware of a ravenous hunger
and he set to without delay. Having eaten his fill and drunk deeply
from a huge gourd which hung nearby, full of sweet, cool water, he
rose and started toward the tunnel through which he had first entered
the Castle.

Near the mouth he almost stumbled over an incongruous object--a large
telescope mounted on a tripod, and obviously modern and expensive. A
glance out on the ledge showed him only half a dozen warriors sitting
against the rampart, their rifles across their knees. He glanced at
the ribbon of stone that spanned the deep gorge and shivered as he
remembered how he had crossed it in the darkness. It looked scarcely a
foot wide in places. He turned back, crossed the cavern and traversed
the other tunnel.

He halted in the outer mouth. The wall that rimmed the ledge was lined
with Afridis, kneeling or lying at the loopholes. They were not
firing. Gordon leaned idly against the bronze door, his head in plain
sight of anyone who might be in the valley below. He nodded a greeting
as Willoughby advanced and joined him at the door. Again the
Englishman found himself a member of a besieged force, but this time
the advantage was all with the defenders.

Down in the valley, out of effectual rifle range, a long skirmish line
of men was advancing very slowly on foot, firing as they came, and
taking advantage of every bit of cover. Farther back, small in the
distance, a large herd of horses grazed, watched by men who sat cross-
legged in the shade of the cliff. The position of the sun indicated
that the day was well along toward the middle of the afternoon.

"I've slept longer than I thought," Willoughby remarked. "How long has
this firing been going on?"

"Ever since noon. They're wasting Russian cartridges scandalously. But
you slept like a dead man. Baber Ali didn't get here as quickly as I
thought he would. He evidently stopped to round up more men. There are
at least a hundred down there."

To Willoughby the attack seemed glaringly futile. The men on the ledge
were too well protected to suffer from the long-range firing. And
before the attackers could get near enough to pick out the loopholes,
the bullets of the Afridis would be knocking them over like tenpins.
He glimpsed men crawling among the boulders on the cliffs, but they
were at the same disadvantage as the men in the valley below--Gordon's
rifle-men had a vantage point above them.

"What can Baber Ali hope for?" he asked.

"He's desperate. He knows you're up here with me and he's taking a
thousand-to-one chance. But he's wasting his time. I have enough
ammunition and food to stand a six-month siege; there's a spring in
the cavern."

"Why hasn't Afdal Khan kept you hemmed up here with part of his men
while he stormed Kurram with the rest of his force?"

"Because it would take his whole force to storm Kurram; its defenses
are almost as strong as these. Then he has a dread of having me at his
back. Too big a risk that his men couldn't keep me cooped up. He's got
to reduce Akbar's Castle before he can strike at Kurram."

"The devil!" said Willoughby irritably, brought back to his own
situation. "I came to arbitrate this feud and now I find myself a
prisoner. I've got to get out of here--got to get back to Ghazrael."

"I'm as anxious to get you out as you are to go," answered Gordon. "If
you're killed I'm sure to be blamed for it. I don't mind being
outlawed for the things I have done, but I don't care to shoulder
something I didn't do."

"Couldn't I slip out of here tonight? By way of the bridge--"

"There are men on the other side of the gorge, watching for just such
a move. Baber Ali means to close your mouth if human means can do it."

"If Afdal Khan knew what's going on he'd come and drag the old ruffian
off my neck," growled Willoughby. "Afdal knows he can't afford to let
his clan kill an Englishman. But Baber will take good care Afdal
doesn't know, of course. If I could get a letter to him--but of course
that's impossible."

"We can try it, though," returned Gordon. "You write the note. Afdal
knows your handwriting, doesn't he? Good! Tonight I'll sneak out and
take it to his nearest outpost. He keeps a line of patrols among the
hills a few miles beyond Jehungir's Well."

"But if I can't slip out, how can you--"

"I can do it all right, alone. No offense, but you Englishmen sound
like a herd of longhorn steers at your stealthiest. The Orakzai are
among the crags on the other side of the Gorge of Mekram. I won't
cross the bridge. My men will let me down a rope ladder into the gorge
tonight before moonrise. I'll slip up to the camp of the nearest
outpost, wrap the note around a pebble and throw it among them. Being
Afdal's men and not Baber's, they'll take it to him. I'll come back
the way I went, after moonset. It'll be safe enough."

"But how safe will it be for Afdal Khan when he comes for me?"

"You can tell Afdal Khan he won't be harmed if he plays fair," Gordon
answered. "But you'd better make some arrangements so you can see him
and know he's there before you trust yourself outside this cave. And
there's the pinch, because Afdal won't dare show himself for fear I'd
shoot him. He's broken so many pacts himself he can't believe anybody
would keep one. Not where his hide is concerned. He trusted me to keep
my word in regard to Baber and your escort, but would he trust himself
to my promise?"

Willoughby scowled, cramming the bowl of his pipe. "Wait!" he said
suddenly. "I saw a big telescope in the cavern, mounted on a tripod--
is it in working order?"

"I should say it is. I imported that from Germany, by the way of
Turkey and Persia. That's one reason Akbar's Castle has never been
surprised. It carries for miles."

"Does Afdal Khan know of it?"

"I'm sure he does."

"Good!"

Seating himself on the ledge, Willoughby drew forth pencil and
notebook, propped the latter against his knee, and wrote in his clear
concise hand:

AFDAL KHAN: I am at Akbar's Castle, now being besieged by your uncle,
Baber Ali. Baber was so unreasonably incensed at my failure to effect
a truce that he allowed my servant Suleiman to be murdered, and now
intends murdering me, to stop my mouth.

I don't have to remind you how fatal it would be to the interests of
your party for this to occur. I want you to come to Akbar's Castle and
get me out of this. Gordon assures me you will not be molested if you
play fair, but here is a way by which you need not feel you are taking
any chances: Gordon has a large telescope through which I can identify
you while you are still out of rifle range. In the Gorge of Mekram,
and southwest of the Castle, there is a mass of boulders split off
from the right wall and well out of rifle range from the Castle. If
you were to come and stand on those boulders, I could identify you
easily.

Naturally, I will not leave the Castle until I know you are present to
protect me from your uncle. As soon as I have identified you, I will
come down the gorge alone. You can watch me all the way and assure
yourself that no treachery is intended. No one but myself will leave
the Castle. On your part I do not wish any of your men to advance
beyond the boulders and I will not answer for their safety if they
should, as I intend to safeguard Gordon in this matter as well as
yourself.

GEOFFREY WILLOUGHBY

He handed the letter over for Gordon to read. The American nodded.
"That may bring him. I don't know. He's kept out of my sight ever
since the feud started."

Then ensued a period of waiting, in which the sun seemed sluggishly to
crawl toward the western peaks. Down in the valley and on the cliffs
the Orakzai kept up their fruitless firing with a persistency that
convinced Willoughby of the truth of Gordon's assertion that
ammunition was being supplied them by some European power.

The Afridis were not perturbed. They lounged at ease by the wall,
laughed, joked, chewed jerked mutton and fired through the slanting
loopholes when the Orakzai crept too close. Three still white-clad
forms in the valley and one on the cliffs testified to their accuracy.
Willoughby realized that Gordon was right when he said the clan which
held Akbar's Castle was certain to win the war eventually. Only a
desperate old savage like Baber Ali would waste time and men trying to
take it. Yet the Orakzai had originally held it. How Gordon had gained
possession of it Willoughby could not imagine.

The sun dipped at last; the Himalayan twilight deepened into black-
velvet, star-veined dusk. Gordon rose, a vague figure in the
starlight.

"Time for me to be going."

He had laid aside his rifle and buckled a tulwar to his hip.
Willoughby followed him into the great cavern, now dim and shadowy in
the light of the bronze lamps, and through the narrow tunnel and the
bronze door.

Yar Ali Khan, Khoda Khan, and half a dozen others followed them. The
light from the cavern stole through the tunnel, vaguely etching the
moving figures of the men. Then the bronze door was closed softly and
Willoughby's companions were shapeless blurs in the thick soft
darkness around him. The gorge below was a floating river of
blackness. The bridge was a dark streak that ran into the unknown and
vanished. Not even the keenest eyes of the hills, watching from beyond
the gorge, could have even discerned the jut of the ledge under the
black bulk of the Castle, much less the movements of the men upon it.

The voices of the men working at the rim of the ledge were
lowering the rope ladder--a hundred and fifty feet of it--into
the gorge. Gordon's face was a light blur in the darkness.
Willoughby groped for his hand and found him already swinging
over the rampart onto the ladder, one end of which was made
fast to a great iron ring set in the stone of the ledge.

"Gordon, I feel like a bounder, letting you take this risk for me.
Suppose some of those devils are down there in the gorge?"

"Not much chance. They don't know we have this way of coming and
going. If I can steal a horse, I'll be back in the Castle before dawn.
If I can't, and have to make the whole trip there and back on foot, I
may have to hide out in the hills tomorrow and get back into the
Castle the next night. Don't worry about me. They'll never see me. Yar
Ali Khan, watch for a rush before the moon rises."

"Aye, sahib." The bearded giant's undisturbed manner reassured
Willoughby.

The next instant Gordon began to melt into the gloom below. Before he
had climbed down five rungs the men crouching on the rampart could no
longer see him. He made no sound in his descent. Khoda Khan knelt with
a hand on the ropes, and as soon as he felt them go slack, he began to
haul the ladder up. Willoughby leaned over the edge, straining his
ears to catch some sound from below--scruff of leather, rattle of
shale--he heard nothing.

Yar Ali Khan muttered, his beard brushing Willoughby's ear: "Nay,
sahib, if such ears as yours could hear him, every Orakzai on this
side of the mountain would know a man stole down the gorge! You will
not hear him--nor will they. There are Lifters of the Khyber who can
steal rifles out of the tents of the British soldiers, but they are
blundering cattle compared to El Borak. Before dawn a wolf will howl
in the gorge, and we will know El Borak has returned and will let down
the ladder for him."

But like the others, the huge Afridi leaned over the rampart listening
intently for some fifteen minutes after the ladder had been drawn up.
Then with a gesture to the others he turned and opened the bronze door
a crack. They stole through hurriedly. Somewhere in the blackness
across the gorge a rifle cracked flatly and lead spanged a foot or so
above the lintel. In spite of the rampart some quick eye among the
crags had caught the glow of the opened door. But it was blind
shooting. The sentries left on the ledge did not reply.
* * *

Back on the ledge that overlooked the valley, Willoughby noted an air
of expectancy among the warriors at the loopholes. They were
momentarily expecting the attack of which Gordon had warned them.

"How did Gordon ever take Akbar's Castle?" Willoughby asked Khoda
Khan, who seemed more ready to answer questions than any of the other
taciturn warriors.

The Afridi squatted beside him near the open bronze gate, rifle in
hand, the butt resting on the ledge. Over them was the blue-black bowl
of the Himalayan night, flecked with clusters of frosty silver.

"He sent Yar Ali Khan with forty horsemen to make a feint at Baber
Ali's sangar," answered Khoda Khan promptly. "Thinking to trap us,
Afdal drew all his men out of Akbar's Castle except three. Afdal
believed three men could hold it against an army, and so they could--
against an army. Not against El Borak. While Baber Ali and Afdal were
striving to pin Yar Ali Khan and us forty riders between them, and we
were leading the dogs a merry chase over the hills, El Borak rode
alone down this valley. He came disguised as a Persian trader, with
his turban awry and his rich garments dusty and rent. He fled down the
valley shouting that thieves had looted his caravan and were pursuing
him to take from him his purse of gold and his pouch of jewels.

"The accursed ones left to guard the Castle were greedy, and they saw
only a rich and helpless merchant, to be looted. So they bade him take
refuge in the cavern and opened the gate to him. He rode into Akbar's
Castle crying praise to Allah--with empty hands, but a knife and
pistols under his khalat. Then the accursed ones mocked him and set on
him to strip him of his riches--by Allah they found they caught a
tiger in the guise of a lamb! One he slew with the knife, the other
two he shot. Alone he took the stronghold against which armies have
thundered in vain! When we forty-one horsemen evaded the Orakzai and
doubled back, as it had been planned, lo! the bronze gate was open to
us and we were lords of Akbar's Castle! Ha! The forgotten of God
charge the stair!"

From the shadows below there welled up the sudden, swift drum of hoofs
and Willoughby glimpsed movement in the darkness of the valley. The
blurred masses resolved themselves into dim figures racing up the
looping trail: At the same time a rattle of rifle fire burst out
behind the Castle, from beyond the Gorge of Mekram. The Afridis
displayed no excitement. Khoda Khan did not even close the bronze
gate. They held their fire until the hoofs of the foremost horses were
ringing on the lower steps of the stair. Then a burst of flame crowned
the wall, and in its flash Willoughby saw wild bearded faces, horses
tossing heads and manes.

In the darkness following the volley there rose screams of agony from
men and beasts, mingled with the thrashing and kicking of wounded
horses and the grating of shod hoofs on stone as some of the beasts
slid backward down the stair. Dead and dying piled in a heaving,
agonized mass, and the stairs became a shambles as again and yet again
the rippling volleys crashed.

Willoughby wiped a damp brow with a shaking hand, grateful that the
hoofbeats were receding down the valley. The gasps and moans and cries
which welled up from the ghastly heap at the foot of the stairs
sickened him.

"They are fools," said Khoda Khan, levering fresh cartridges into his
rifle. "Thrice in past attacks have they charged the stair by
darkness, and thrice have we broken them. Baber Ali is a bull rushing
blindly to his destruction."

Rifles began to flash and crack down in the valley as the baffled
besiegers vented their wrath in blind discharges. Bullets smacked
along the wall of the cliff, and Khoda Khan closed the bronze gate.

"Why don't they attack by way of the bridge?" Willoughby wondered.

"Doubtless they did. Did you not hear the shots? But the path is
narrow and one man behind the rampart could keep it clear. And there
are six men there, all skilled marksmen."

Willoughby nodded, remembering the narrow ribbon of rock flanked on
either hand by echoing depths.

"Look, sahib, the moon rises."

Over the eastern peaks a glow began which grew to a soft golden fire
against which the peaks stood blackly outlined. Then the moon rose,
not the mellow gold globe promised by the forerunning luster, but a
gaunt, red, savage moon, of the high Himalayas.

Khoda Khan opened the bronze gate and peered down the stair, grunting
softly in gratification. Willoughby, looking over his shoulder,
shuddered. The heap at the foot of the stairs was no longer a merciful
blur, for the moon outlined it in pitiless detail. Dead horses and
dead men lay in a tangled gory mound with rifles and sword blades
thrust out of the pile like weeds growing out of a scrap heap. There
must have been at least a dozen horses and almost as many men in that
shambles.

"A shame to waste good horses thus," muttered Khoda Khan. "Baber Ali
is a fool." He closed the gate.

Willoughby leaned back against the wall, drawing a heavy sheepskin
coat about him. He felt sick and futile. The men down in the valley
must feel the same way, for the firing was falling off, becoming
spasmodic. Even Baber Ali must realize the futility of the siege by
this time. Willoughby smiled bitterly to himself. He had come to
arbitrate a hill feud--and down there men lay dead in heaps. But the
game was not yet played out. The thought of Gordon stealing through
those black mountains out there somewhere discouraged sleep. Yet he
did slumber at last, despite himself.
* * *

It was Khoda Khan who shook him awake. Willoughby looked up blinking.
Dawn was just whitening the peaks. Only a dozen men squatted at the
loopholes. From the cavern stole the reek of coffee and frying meat.

"Your letter has been safely delivered, sahib."

"Eh? What's that? Gordon's returned?"

Willoughby rose stiffly, relieved that Gordon had not suffered on his
account. He glanced over the wall. Down the valley the camp of the
raiders was veiled by the morning mists, but several strands of smoke
oozed toward the sky. He did not look down the stair; he did not wish
to see the cold faces of the dead in the white dawn light.

He followed Khoda Khan into the great chamber where some of the
warriors were sleeping and some preparing breakfast. The Afridi
gestured toward a cell-like niche where a man lay. He had his back to
the door, but the black, close-cropped hair and dusty khakis were
unmistakable.

"He is weary," said Khoda Khan. "He sleeps."

Willoughby nodded. He had begun to wonder if Gordon ever found it
necessary to rest and sleep like ordinary men.

"It were well to go upon the ledge and watch for Afdal Khan," said
Khoda Khan. "We have mounted the telescope there, sahib. One shall
bring your breakfast to you there. We have no way of knowing when
Afdal will come."

Out on the ledge the telescope stood on its tripod, projecting like a
cannon over the rampart. He trained it on the mass of boulders down
the ravine. The Gorge of Mekram ran from the north to the southwest.
The boulders, called the Rocks, were more than a mile of the southwest
of the Castle. Just beyond them the gorge bent sharply. A man could
reach the Rocks from the southwest without being spied from the
Castle, but he could not approach beyond them without being seen. Nor
could anyone leave the Castle from that side and approach the Rocks
without being seen by anyone hiding there.

The Rocks were simply a litter of huge boulders which had broken off
from the canyon wall. Just now, as Willoughby looked, the mist floated
about them, making them hazy and indistinct. Yet as he watched them
they became more sharply outlined, growing out of the thinning mist.
And on the tallest rock there stood a motionless figure. The telescope
brought it out in vivid clarity. There was no mistaking that tall,
powerful figure. It was Afdal Khan who stood there, watching the
Castle with a pair of binoculars.

"He must have got the letter early in the night, or ridden hard to get
here this early," muttered Willoughby. "Maybe he was at some spot
nearer than Khoruk. Did Gordon say?"

"No, sahib."

"Well, no matter. We won't wake Gordon. No, I won't wait for
breakfast. Tell El Borak that I'm grateful for all the trouble he's
taken in my behalf and I'll do what I can for him when I get back to
Ghazrael. But he'd better decide to let this thing be arbitrated. I'll
see that Afdal doesn't try any treachery."

"Yes, sahib."

They tossed the rope ladder into the gorge and it unwound swiftly as
it tumbled down and dangled within a foot of the canyon floor. The
Afridis showed their heads above the ramparts without hesitation, but
when Willoughby mounted the rampart and stood in plain sight, he felt
a peculiar crawling between his shoulders.

But no rifle spoke from the crags beyond the gorge. Of course, the
sight of Afdal Khan was sufficient guarantee of his safety. Willoughby
set a foot in the ladder and went down, refusing to look below him.
The ladder tended to swing and spin after he had progressed a few
yards and from time to time he had to steady himself with a hand
against the cliff wall. But altogether it was not so bad, and
presently he heaved a sigh of relief as he felt the rocky floor under
his feet. He waved his arms, but the rope was already being drawn up
swiftly. He glanced about him. If any bodies had fallen from the
bridge in the night battle, they had been removed. He turned and
walked down the gorge, toward the appointed rendezvous.
* * *

Dawn grew about him, the white mists changing to rosy pink, and
swiftly dissipating. He could make out the outlines of the Rocks
plainly now, without artificial aid, but he no longer saw Afdal Khan.
Doubtless the suspicious chief was watching his approach from some
hiding place. He kept listening for distant shots that would indicate
Baber Ali was renewing the siege, but he heard none. Doubtless Baber
Ali had already received orders from Afdal Khan, and he visualized
Afdal's amazement and rage when he learned of his uncle's
indiscretions.

He reached the Rocks--a great heap of rugged, irregular stones and
broken boulders, towering thirty feet in the air in places.

He halted and called: "Afdal Khan!"

"This way, sahib," a voice answered. "Among the Rocks."

Willoughby advanced between a couple of jagged boulders and came into
a sort of natural theater, made by the space inclosed between the
overhanging cliff and the mass of detached rocks. Fifty men could have
stood there without being crowded, but only one man was in sight--a
tall, lusty man in early middle life, in turban and silken khalat. He
stood with his head thrown back in unconscious arrogance, a broad
tulwar in his hand.

The faint crawling between his shoulders that had accompanied
Willoughby all the way down the gorge, in spite of himself, left him
at the sight. When he spoke his voice was casual.

"I'm glad to see you, Afdal Khan."

"And I am glad to see you, sahib!" the Orakzai answered with a chill
smile. He thumbed the razor-edge of his tulwar. "You have failed in
the mission for which I brought you into these hills--but your death
will serve me almost as well."

Had the Rocks burst into a roar about him the surprise would have been
no more shocking. Willoughby literally staggered with the impact of
the stunning revelation.

"What? My death? Afdal, are you mad?"

"What will the English do to Baber Ali?" demanded the chief.

"They'll demand that he be tried for the murder of Suleiman," answered
Willoughby.

"And the Amir would hang him, to placate the British!" Afdal Khan
laughed mirthlessly. "But if you were dead, none would ever know! Bah!
Do you think I would let my uncle be hanged for slaying that Punjabi
dog? Baber was a fool to let his men take the Indian's life. I would
have prevented it, had I known. But now it is done and I mean to
protect him. El Borak is not so wise as I thought or he would have
known that I would never let Baber be punished."

"It means ruin for you if you murder me," reminded Willoughby--through
dry lips, for he read the murderous gleam in the Orakzai's eyes.

"Where are the witnesses to accuse me? There is none this side of the
Castle save you and I. I have removed my men from the crags near the
bridge. I sent them all into the valley--partly because I feared lest
one might fire a hasty shot and spoil my plan, partly because I do not
trust my own men any farther than I have to. Sometimes a man can be
bribed or persuaded to betray even his chief.

"Before dawn I sent men to comb the gorge and these Rocks to make sure
no trap had been set for me. Then I came here and sent them away and
remained here alone. They do not know why I came. They shall never
know. Tonight, when the moon rises, your head will be found in a sack
at the foot of the stair that leads down from Akbar's Castle and there
will be a hundred men to swear it was thrown down by El Borak.

"And because they will believe it themselves, none can prove them
liars. I want them to believe it themselves, because I know how shrewd
you English are in discovering lies. I will send your head to Fort Ali
Masjid, with fifty men to swear El Borak murdered you. The British
will force the Amir to send an army up here, with field pieces, and
shell El Borak out of my Castle. Who will believe him if he has the
opportunity to say he did not slay you?"

"Gordon was right!" muttered Willoughby helplessly. "You are a
treacherous dog. Would you mind telling me just why you forced this
feud on him?"

"Not at all, since you will be dead in a few moments, I want control
of the wells that dominate the caravan routes. The Russians will pay
me a great deal of gold to help them smuggle rifles and ammunition
down from Persia and Turkestan, into Afghanistan and Kashmir and
India. I will help them, and they will help me. Some day they will
make me Amir of Afghanistan."

"Gordon was right," was all Willoughby could say. "The man was right!
And this truce you wanted--I suppose it was another trick?"

"Of course! I wanted to get El Borak out of my Castle."

"What a fool I've been," muttered Willoughby.

"Best make your peace with God than berate yourself, sahib," said
Afdal Khan, beginning to swing the heavy tulwar to and fro, turning
the blade so the edge gleamed in the early light. "There are only you
and I and Allah to see--and Allah hates infidels! Steel is silent and
sure--one stroke, swift and deadly, and your head will be mine to use
as I wish--"

He advanced with the noiseless stride of the hillman. Willoughby set
his teeth and clenched his hands until the nails bit into the palms.
He knew it was useless to run; the Orakzai would overtake him within
half a dozen strides. It was equally futile to leap and grapple with
his bare hands, but it was all he could do; death would smite him in
mid-leap and there would be a rush of darkness and an end of planning
and working and all things hoped for--

"Wait a minute, Afdal Khan!"
* * *

The voice was moderately pitched, but if it had been a sudden scream
the effect could have been no more startling. Afdal Khan started
violently and whirled about. He froze in his tracks and the tulwar
slipped from his fingers. His face went ashen and slowly his hands
rose above his shoulders. Gordon stood in a cleft of the cleft, and a
heavy pistol, held hip-high, menaced the chief's waistline. Gordon's
expression was one of faint amusement, but a hot flame leaped and
smoldered in his black eyes.

"El Borak!" stammered Afdal Khan dazedly. "El Borak!" Suddenly he
cried out like a madman. "You are a ghost--a devil! The Rocks were
empty--my men searched them--"

"I was hiding on a ledge on the cliff above their heads," Gordon
answered. "I entered the Rocks after they left. Keep your hands away
from your girdle, Afdal Khan. I could have shot you any time within
the last hour, but I wanted Willoughby to know you for the rogue you
are."

"But I saw you in the cave," gasped Willoughby, "asleep in the cave--"

"You saw an Afridi, Ali Shah, in some of my clothes, pretending to be
sleeping," answered Gordon, never taking his eyes off Afdal Khan. "I
was afraid if you knew I wasn't in the Castle, you'd refuse to meet
Afdal, thinking I was up to something. So after I tossed your note
into the Orakzai camp, I came back to the Castle while you were
asleep, gave my men their orders and hid down the gorge.

"You see I knew Afdal wouldn't let Baber be punished for killing
Suleiman. He couldn't if he wanted to. Baber has too many followers in
the Khoruk clan. And the only way of keeping the Amir's favor without
handing Baber over for trial, would be to shut your mouth. He could
always lay it onto me, then. I knew that note would bring him to meet
you--and I knew he'd come prepared to kill you."

"He might have killed me," muttered Willoughby.

"I've had a gun trained on him ever since you came within range. If
he'd brought men with him, I'd have shot him before you left the
Castle. When I saw he meant to wait here alone, I waited for you to
find out for yourself what kind of a dog he is. You've been in no
danger."

"I thought he arrived early, to have come from Khoruk."

"I knew he wasn't at Khoruk when I left the Castle last night," said
Gordon. "I knew when Baber found us safe in the Castle he'd make a
clean breast of everything to Afdal--and that Afdal would come to help
him. Afdal was camped half a mile back in the hills--surrounded by a
mob of fighting men, as usual, and under cover. If I could have got a
shot at him then, I wouldn't have bothered to deliver your note. But
this is as good a time as any."

Again the flames leaped up the black eyes and sweat beaded Afdal
Khan's swarthy skin.

"You're not going to kill him in cold blood?" Willoughby protested.

"No. I'll give him a better chance than he gave Yusef Khan."

Gordon stepped to the silent Pathan, pressed his muzzle against his
ribs and drew a knife and revolver from Afdal Khan's girdle. He tossed
the weapons up among the rocks and sheathed his own pistol. Then he
drew his tulwar with a soft rasp of steel against leather. When he
spoke his voice was calm, but Willoughby saw the veins knot and swell
on his temples.

"Pick up your blade, Afdal Khan. There is no one here save the
Englishman, you, I and Allah--and Allah hates swine!"

Afdal Khan snarled like a trapped panther; he bent his knees, reaching
one hand toward the weapon--he crouched there motionless for an
instant eyeing Gordon with a wide, blank glare--then all in one motion
he snatched up the tulwar and came like a Himalayan hill gust.

Willoughby caught his breath at the blinding ferocity of that
onslaught. It seemed to him that Afdal's hand hardly touched the hilt
before he was hacking at Gordon's head. But Gordon's head was not
there. And Willoughby, expecting to see the American overwhelmed in
the storm of steel that played about him began to recall tales he had
heard of El Borak's prowess with the heavy, curved Himalayan blade.

Afdal Khan was taller and heavier than Gordon, and he was as quick as
a famished wolf. He rained blow on blow with all the strength of his
corded arm, and so swiftly Willoughby could follow the strokes only by
the incessant clangor of steel on steel. But that flashing tulwar did
not connect; each murderous blow rang on Gordon's blade or swished
past his head as he shifted. Not that the American fought a running
fight. Afdal Khan moved about much more than did Gordon. The Orakzai
swayed and bent his body agilely to right and left, leaped in and out,
and circled his antagonist, smiting incessantly.

Gordon moved his head frequently to avoid blows, but he seldom shifted
his feet except to keep his enemy always in front of him. His stance
was as firm as that of a deep-rooted rock, and his blade was never
beaten down. Beneath the heaviest blows the Pathan could deal, it
opposed an unyielding guard.

The man's wrist and forearm must be made of iron, thought Willoughby,
staring in amazement. Afdal Khan beat on El Borak's tulwar like a
smith on an anvil, striving to beat the American to his knee by the
sheer weight of his attack; cords of muscle stood out on Gordon's
wrist as he met the attack. He did not give back a foot. His guard
never weakened.

Afdal Khan was panting and perspiration streamed down his dark face.
His eyes held the glare of a wild beast. Gordon was not even breathing
hard. He seemed utterly unaffected by the tempest beating upon him.
And desperation flooded Afdal Khan's face, as he felt his own strength
waning beneath his maddened efforts to beat down that iron guard.

"Dog!" he gasped, spat in Gordon's face and lunged in terrifically,
staking all on one stroke, and throwing his sword arm far back before
he swung his tulwar in an arc that might have felled an oak.

Then Gordon moved and the speed of his shift would have shamed a
wounded catamount. Willoughby could not follow his motion--he only saw
that Afdal Khan's mighty swipe had cleft only empty air, and Gordon's
blade was a blinding flicker in the rising sun. There was a sound as
of a cleaver sundering a joint of beef and Afdal Khan staggered.
Gordon stepped back with a low laugh, merciless as the ring of flint,
and a thread of crimson wandered down the broad blade in his hand.

Afdal Khan's face was livid; he swayed drunkenly on his feet, his eyes
dilated; his left hand was pressed to his side, and blood spouted
between the fingers; his right arm fought to raise the tulwar that had
become an imponderable weight.

"Allah!" he croaked. "Allah--" Suddenly his knees bent and he fell as
a tree falls.

Willoughby bent over him in awe.

"Good heavens, he's shorn half asunder! How could a man live even
those few seconds, with a wound like that?"

"Hillmen are hard to kill," Gordon answered, shaking the red drops
from his blade. The crimson glare had gone out of his eyes; the fire
that had for so long burned consumingly in his soul had been quenched
at last, though it had been quenched in blood.

"You can go back to Kabul and tell the Amir the feud's over," he said.
"The caravans from Persia will soon be passing over the road again."

"What about Baber Ali?"

"He pulled out last night, after his attack on the Castle failed. I
saw him riding out of the valley with most of his men. He was sick of
the siege. Afdal's men are still in the valley but they'll leg it for
Khoruk as soon as they hear what's happened to Afdal. The Amir will
make an outlaw out of Baber Ali as soon as you get back to Kabul. I've
got no more to fear from the Khoruk clan; they'll be glad to agree to
peace."

Willoughby glanced down at the dead man. The feud had ended as Gordon
had sworn it would. Gordon had been in the right all along; but it was
a new and not too pleasing experience to Willoughby to be used as a
pawn in a game--as he himself had used so many men and women.

He laughed wryly. "Confound you, Gordon, you've bamboozled me all the
way through! You let me believe that only Baber Ali was besieging us,
and that Afdal Khan would protect me against his uncle! You set a trap
to catch Afdal Khan, and you used me as bait! I've got an idea that if
I hadn't thought of that letter-and-telescope combination, you'd have
suggested it yourself."

"I'll give you an escort to Ghazrael when the rest of the Orakzai
clear out," offered Gordon.

"Damn it, man, if you hadn't saved my life so often in the past forty-
eight hours, I'd be inclined to use bad language! But Afdal Khan was a
rogue and deserved what he got. I can't say that I relish your
methods, but they're effective! You ought to be in the secret service.
A few years at this rate and you'll be Amir of Afghanistan!"


THE END





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