The Eye of Zeitoon/Chapter 20
"So few against so many! I see death, and I am not sorry!"
TO get word to Rustum Khan was simple enough, for he himself came riding down to get news. The minute he learned what Monty wanted of him he turned his horse back up-hill at a steady lope, and I began on the next item in the program.
Nor was that difficult. The reading aloud of Will's letter, translated to them by Anna, convinced the women that their beloved bridge was in no immediate danger, and no less than three hundred of them marched off to reenforce Kagig's men behind Beirut Dagh. I reckoned that by the time they reached the scene of action we would have a few more than three thousand men and women in the field under arms—against Mahmoud Bey's thirty thousand Turks!
There remained to scrape together as many as possible to man the castle walls; and what with wounded, and middle-aged women, and men whose weapons did not fit the plundered Turkish ammunition, I had more than a hundred volunteers in no time. The only disturbing feature about this new command of mine was that it contained more than a sprinkling of the type of malcontents who had bearded Kagig in his den the night before. Those looked like thoroughly excellent fighting men, if only they could have been persuaded to agree to trust a common leader.
Not one of them but knew a thousand times more of Zeitoon, and their people, and the various needs of defense than, for instance, I did. Yet they clustered about me for lack of confidence in one another, and shouted after the women who marched away advice to watch lest Kagig betray them all. Not for nothing had the unspeakable Turk inculcated theories of misrule all down the centuries!
I led them up to the castle, they carrying with them food enough for several days. We passed Rustum Khan coming down with the horsemen, and I fell behind to have word with him.
"Which of these men shall I pick to command the rest?" I asked him. "You've more experience of them."
"Any that you choose will be pounced on by the rest as wolves devour a sheep!" the Rajput answered.
"Should I have them vote on it?"
"They would elect you," he answered.
"I've got to be free to look for Miss Gloria. She's kidnapped—disappeared utterly!"
Rustum Khan swore under his breath, using a language that I knew no word of.
"A woman again, and more trouble!" he said at last grimly, "Let like cure like then! Choose a woman herdsman!" he grinned. "It may be she will surprise them into obedience!"
"I'll take your advice," said I, although I resented his insinuation that they were a herd—so swiftly does command make partisans.
"The last thing you may take from me, sahib!" he answered.
"So few against so many! I see death, and I am not sorry. Only may I die leading those good mountain-men of mine!"
It was part and parcel of him to praise those he had drilled and scorn the others. I shook hands and said nothing. It did not seem my place to contradict him.
"Let us hope these people are the gainers by our finish!" he called over his shoulder, riding on after his command. "They are not at all bad people—only undrilled, and a little too used to the ways of the Turk! Good-by, sahib!"
Within the castle gate I found a woman, whom they all addressed as Marie, very busy sorting out the bundles they had thrown against the wall. She was putting all the food together into a common fund, and as I entered she shouted to her own nominees among the other women to get their cooking pots and begin business.
Still pondering Rustum Khan's advice, in the dark whether or not he meant it seriously, I chose Marie Chandrian to take command. She made no bones about it, but accepted with a great shrill laugh that the rest of them seemed to recognize—and to respect for old acquaintance' sake. She turned out to have her husband with her—an enormous, hairy man with a bull's voice, who ought to have been in one or other of the firing-lines but had probably held back in obedience to his better half. She made him her orderly at once, and it was not long before every soul in the castle had his or her place to hold.
Then I mounted once more and rode at top speed down the new road that Monty was defending, taking another horse this time, not so good, but much less afraid of the din of battle.
I found Monty scarcely fifty paces from the track, on the outside edge of the fringe of trees that the Turks had been unable to cut down. There were numbers of wounded laid out on the track itself, with none to carry them away; and the Turks were keeping up a hot fire from behind the shelter of the felled trees and standing stumps. The outside range was two hundred yards, and there were several platoons of the enemy who had crept up to within thirty or forty yards and could not be dislodged.
I pulled Monty backward, for he could not hear me, and he and I stood behind two trees while I told him what I had done, shouting into his ear.
"I've got to go and find Gloria!" I said finally, and he frowned, and nodded.
"Go first and take a look at the ramp through the trees. Tell me what's happening."
So I limped down to the end of the track and made my way cautiously through the lower fringe of trees that had been cut three-parts through in readiness for felling in a hurry. Just as I got there the Turks began a new massed advance up the ramp, as if in direct proof of Monty's mental alertness.
The men posted on the opposite flank to where I was opened a terrific fire that would have made poor Kagig bite his lips in fear for the waning ammunition. Then Fred came into action with his hundred, throwing them in line into the open along the top, where they lay down to squander cartridges—squandering to some purpose, however, for the Turkish lines checked and reeled.
But Mahmoud Bey had evidently given orders that this advance should be pressed home, and the Turks came on, company after company, in succeeding waves of men. There were some in front with picks and shovels, making rough steps in the slippery clay; and I groaned, hating to go and tell Monty that it was only a matter of minutes before the frontal attack must succeed and the pass be in enemy hands.
"Here goes Armenia's last chance!" I thought; and I waited to see the beginning of the end before limping back to Monty.
And it was well I did wait. I had actually forgotten Rustum Khan and his two squadrons. Nor would I ever have believed without seeing it that one lone man could so inspirit and control that number of aliens whom he had only as much as drilled a time or two. It said as much for the Zeitoonli as for Rustum Khan. Without the very ultimate of bravery, good faith, and intelligence on their part he could never have come near attempting what he did.
He brought his two squadrons in line together suddenly over the brow of the ramp, galloped them forward between Fred's extended riflemen, and charged downhill, the horses checking as they felt the slippery clay under foot and then, unable to pull up, careering headlong, urged by their riders into madder and madder speed, with Rustum Khan on his beautiful bay mare several lengths in the lead.
Cavalry usually starts at a walk, then trots, and only gains its great momentum within a few yards of the enemy. This cavalry started at top speed, and never lost it until it buried itself into the advancing Turks as an avalanche bursts into a forest! No human enemy could ever have withstood that charge. Many of the horses fell in the first fifty yards, and none of these were able to regain their feet in time to be of use. Some of the riders were rolled on and killed. And some were slain by the half-dozen volleys the astonished Turks found time to greet them with. But more than two-thirds of Rustum Khan's men, armed with swords of every imaginable shape and weight, swept voiceless into an enemy that could not get out of their way; and regiments in the rear that never felt the shock turned and bolted from the wrath in front of them.
I climbed out to the edge of the trees, and yelled for Fred, waving both arms and my hat and a branch. He saw me at last, and brought his hundred men down the ramp at a run.
"Join Monty," I shouted, "and help him clear the woods!"
He led his men into the trees like a pack of hounds in full cry, and I limped after them, arriving breathless in time to see the Turks in front of Monty in full retreat, fearful because the Rajput's cavalry had turned their flank. Then Monty and Fred got their men together and swung them down into the pass to cover Rustum Khan's retreat when the charge should have spent itself.
The Rajput had managed to demoralize the Turkish infantry, but Mahmoud's guns were in the rear, far out of reach. Bursting shells did more destruction as he shepherded the squadrons back again than bullet, bayonet and slippery clay combined to do in the actual charge itself. Monty gave orders to throw down the fringe of trees and let them through to the castle road, so saving them from the total annihilation in store if they had essayed to scramble up the slippery ramp. And then Fred's men joined Monty's contingent, helping them fortify the new line—deepening and reversing the trench the Turks had dug below the ramp, and continuing that line along through the remaining edge of trees that still stood between the enemy and the castle road.
But by cutting down the fringe at the end of the road to let Rustum Khan through we had forfeited the last degree of secrecy. If the Turks could come again and force the gut of the pass, nothing but the hardest imaginable fighting could prevent them from swinging round at that point and making use of our handiwork.
"That castle has become a weakness, not a strength, Colonel sahib!" said Rustum Khan, striding through the trees to where Monty and Fred and I were standing. "I have lost seven and thirty splendid men, and three and forty horses. One more such charge, and—"
"No, Rustum Khan. Not again," Monty answered.
"What else?" laughed the Rajput. "That castle divides our forces, making for weakness. If only—"
"We must turn it to advantage, then, Rustum Khan!"
"Ah, sahib! So speaks a soldier! How then?"
"Mahmoud knows by now that the trees are down," said I. "His watchers must have seen them fall. Some of the trees are lying outward toward the ramp."
"Exactly," said Monty. "His own inclination will lead him to use our new road, and we must see that he does exactly that. The guns are making the ramp too hot just now for amusement, but let some one—you, Fred—run a deep ditch across the top of the ramp; and if we can hold them until dark we'll have connected ditches dug at intervals all the way down."
Looking over the top of the trees I could just see the Montdidier standard bellying in the wind.
"I'll bet you Mahmoud can see that, too!" said I, drawing the others' attention to it.
"Let's hope so," Monty answered quietly. "Now, Rustum Khan, find one of those brave horsemen of yours who is willing to be captured by the enemy and give some false information. I want it well understood that our only fear is of a night attack!"
"You say, Colonel sahib, there will be no further use for cavalry?"
"Not for a charge down that ramp, at any rate!"
"Then send me! My word will carry conviction. I can say that as a Moslem I will fight no longer on the side of Christians. They will accept my information, and then hang me for having led a charge into their infantry. Send me, sahib!"
Monty shook his head. Rustum Khan seemed inclined to insist, but there came astonishing interruption. Kagig appeared, with arms akimbo, in our midst.
"Oh, sportmen all!" he laughed. "This day goes well!"
"Thank God you're here!" said Monty. "Now we can talk."
"That Will—what is his name?—Will Yerkees is a wonderful fighter!" said Kagig, snapping his fingers and making the joints crack.
"He accuses you of that complaint," said I.
"Me? No. I am only enthusiast. The road behind Beirut Dagh is rough and narrow. The Turks had hard work, and less reason for eagerness than we. So we overcame them. They have fallen back to where they were at dawn, and they arc discouraged"—he made his finger-joints crack again—"discouraged! The women feel very confident. The men feel exactly as the women do! The Turks are preparing to bivouac where they lie. They will attack no more to-day—I know them!"
"Listen, Kagig!" Monty drew us all together with a gesture of both hands. "These Turks are too many for us, if we give them time. Our ammunition won't last, for one thing. We must induce Mahmoud to attack to-night—coax him up this castle road, and catch him in a trap. It can be done. It must be done!"
"I know the right man to send to the Turk to tell him things!" Kagig answered slowly with relish.
"That is my business!" growled Rustum Khan, but Kagig laughed at him.
"No Turk would believe a word you say—not one leetle word!" he said, snapping his fingers. "You are a good fighter. I saw your charge from the castle tower; it was very good. But I will send an Armenian on this errand. Go on, Lord Monty; I know the proper man."
"That's about the long and short of it," said Monty. "If we can induce Mahmoud to attack to-night, we've a fair chance of hitting him so hard that he'll withdraw and let us alone. Otherwise—"
Kagig's finger-joints cracked harder than ever as his quick mind reviewed the possibilities.
"Have you any idea what can have happened to Miss Vanderman?" I asked him.
"Miss Vanderman? No? What? Tell me!"
He seemed astonished, and I told him slowly, lest he miss one grain of the enormity of Maga's crime. But instead of appearing distressed he shook his hands delightedly and rattled off a very volley of cracking knuckles.
"That is the idea! We have Mahmoud caught! I know Mahmoud! I know him! The man I shall choose shall tell Mahmoud that Gloria Vanderman—the beautiful American young lady, who is outlawed because of her fighting on behalf of Armenians—who—who could not possibly be claimed by the American consul, on account of being outlawed—is in the castle to-night and can be taken if he only will act quickly! Oh, how his eyes will glitter! That Mahmoud—he buys women all the time! A young—beautiful—athletic American girl—Mahmoud will sacrifice three thousand men to capture her!"
Monty ground his teeth. Fred turned his back, and filled his pipe. Rustum Khan brushed his black beard upward with both hands.
"Suppose you go now and try to find Aliss Vanderman," said Monty rather grimly to me. "If you find her, hide her out of harm's way and communicate with Will!"
So Fred helped me on the horse and I rode back to the castle, where I explained the details of the fighting below to the defenders, and then rode on down to Zeitoon by the other road. It was wearing along into the afternoon, and I had no idea which way to take to look for Gloria; but I did have a notion that Maga Jhaere might be looking out for me. There was a chance that she might have been in earnest in persuading me to elope, and that if I rode alone she might show herself—she or else Gloria's captors.
Failing signs of Maga Jhaere or her men, I proposed to ride behind Beirut Dagh in search of Will, and to get his quick Yankee wit employed on the situation.
So, instead of crossing the bridge into Zeitoon I guided my horse around the base of the mountain, riding slowly so as to ease the pain in my foot and to give plenty of opportunity to any one lying in wait to waylay me.
It happened I guessed rightly. The track swung sharp to the left after a while, and passed up-hill through a gorge between two din's into wilder country than any I had yet seen in Armenia. From the top of the cliff on the right-hand side a pebble was dropped and struck the horse—then another—then a third one. I thought it best to take no notice of that, although the horse made fuss enough.
The third pebble was followed by a shrill whistle, which I also decided to ignore, and continued to ride on toward where a clump of scrawny bushes marked the opening out of a narrow valley. I heard the bushes rustle as I drew near them, and was not surprised to see Maga emerge, looking hot, impatient and angry, although not less beautiful on that account.
"Fool!" she began on me. "Why you wait so long? Another half-hour and it is too late altogether! Come now! Leave the horse. Come quick!"
Wondering what important difference half an hour should make, it occurred to me that Will was probably impatient long ago at receiving no news of Gloria. If I judged Will rightly, he would be on his way to look for her.
"Come quick!" commanded Maga.
"I can't climb that cliff," said I. "I've hurt my foot."
"I help you. Come!"
She stepped up close beside me to help me down, but that instant it seemed to me that I heard more than one horse approaching.
"Quick!" she commanded, for she heard them, too, and held out her arms to help me. "Quick! I have two men to help you walk!"
I could have reached my pistol, but so could she have reached hers, and her hand and eye were quicker than forked lightning. Besides, to shoot her would have been of doubtful benefit until Gloria's whereabouts were first ascertained. She put an arm round me to pull me from the saddle, and that settled it. I fell on her with all my weight, throwing her backward into the bushes, and kicking the horse in the ribs with my uninjured foot. The horse took fright as I intended, and went galloping off in the direction of the approaching sounds.
I had not wrestled since I was a boy at school, and then never with such a spitting puzzle of live wires as Maga proved herself. I had the advantage of weight, but I had told her of my injured foot, and she worked like a she-devil to damage it further, fighting at the same time with left and right wrist alternately to reach pistol and knife.
I let go one wrist, snatched the pistol out of her bosom and threw it far away. But with the free hand she reached her knife, and landed with it into my ribs. The pain of the stab sickened me; but the knowledge that she had landed fooled her into relaxing her hold in order to jump clear. So I got hold of both wrists again, and we rolled over and over among the bushes, she trying like an eel to wriggle away, and I doing my utmost to crush the strength out of her.
We were interrupted by Will's voice, and by Will's strong arms dragging us apart.
"Catch her," I panted. "Hold her! Don't let her go!"
"Never fear!" he laughed.
"Her men have kidnapped Gloria! Tie her hands!"
Will had two men with him, one of whom was leading my runaway horse. They gazed open-eyed while Will tied Maga's wrists behind her back.
"Kagig—what will he say?" one of them objected, but Will laughed.
"What you do with me?" demanded Maga.
"Take you to Kagig, of course. Where's Miss Vanderman?"
Then suddenly Maga's whole appearance changed. The defiance vanished, leaving her as if by magic supple again, subtle, suppliant, conjuring back to memory the nights when she had danced and sung. The fire departed from her eyes and they became wet jewels of humility with soft love lights glowing in their depths.
"You do not want that woman!" she said slowly, smiling at Will. "You give 'er to this fool!" She glanced at my bleeding ribs, as if the blood were evidence of folly. "You take me, Will Yerkees! Then I teach you all things—all about people—all about land, and love, and animals, and water, and the air—I teach you all!"
She paused a moment, watching his face, judging the effect of words. He stood waiting with a look of puzzled distress that betrayed regret for her tied wrists, but accepted the necessity. Perhaps she mistook the chivalrous distress for tenderness.
"I 'ave tried to make that man Kagig king! I 'ave tried, and tried! But 'e is no good! If 'e 'ad obeyed me, I would 'ave made 'im king of all Armenia! But 'e is as good as dead already, because Mahmoud the Turk is come to finish 'im—so!" She spat conclusively. "So now I make you king instead of 'im! You let that Gloria Vanderman go to this fool, an' I show you 'ow to make all Armenians follow you an' overthrow the Turks, an' conquer, an' you be king!"
Will laughed. "Better stick to Kagig! I'm going to take you to him!"
"You take me to 'im?"
She flashed again, swift as a snake to illustrate resentment.
"Then I tell 'im things about you, an' 'e believe me!"
"Let's bargain," laughed Will. "Show me Miss Vanderman, alive and well, and—"
"Steady the Buffs!" I warned him. "Gloria's not far away. There were pebbles dropped on my horse. There may be a cave above this cliff—or something of the sort."
Will nodded. "—and I won't tell Kagig you made love to me!" he continued.
"Poof! Pah! Kagig, 'e know that long ago!"
Will turned to his two men and bade them tie the horses to a bush.
"How are the ribs?" he asked me.
"Nothing serious," said I.
"Do you think you can watch her if I tie her feet?"
"She's slippery and strong! Better tie her to a tree as well!"
So between them Will and the two men trussed her up like a chicken ready for the market, making her bound ankles fast to the roots of a bush. Then he led the two men up the cliff-side, and Maga lay glaring at me as if she hoped hate could set me on fire, while I made shift lo stanch my wound.
But she changed her tactics almost before Will was out of sight beyond a boulder, beginning to scream the same words over and over in the gipsy tongue and struggling to free her feet until I thought the thongs would either burst or strip the flesh from her.
The screams were answered by a shout from up above. Then I heard Will shout, and some one fired a pistol. There came a clatter of loose stones, and I got to my feet to be ready for action—not that my hurts would have let me accomplish much.
A second later I saw three of Gregor Jhaere's gipsies scurrying along the cliff-side, turning at intervals to fire pistols at some one in pursuit. So I joined in the fray with my Colt repeater, and flattered myself I did not do so badly. The first two shots produced no other effect than to bring the runaways to a halt. The next three shots brought all three men tumbling head over heels down the cliff-side, rolling and sliding and scattering the stones.
One fell near Maga's feet and lay there writhing. The other two came to a standstill in a hideous heap beside me, and I stooped to see if I could recognize them.
What happened after that was almost too quick for the senses to take in. One of the gipsies came suddenly to life and seized me by the neck. The other grasped my feet, and as I fell I saw the third man slash loose Maga's thongs and help her up.
My two assailants rolled me over on my back, and while one held me the other aimed blows at my head with the butt of his empty pistol. Once he hit me, and it felt like an explosion. Twice by a miracle I dodged the blows, growing weaker, though, and hopeless. He aimed a fourth blow, taking his time about it and making sure of his aim, and I waited in the nearest approach to fatalistic calm I ever experienced.
In a strange abstraction, in which every movement seemed to be slowed down into unbelievable leisureliness, I saw the butt of the pistol begin to approach my eye—near—nearer. Then suddenly I heard a woman scream, and a shot ring out.
Instead of the pistol butt the gipsy's brains splashed on my face, and the man collapsed on top of me. Next I realized that Gloria Vanderman was wiping my face with a cloth of some kind, holding a hot pistol in her other hand, while Will was standing laughing over me, and Maga Jhaere with the other gipsy had disappeared altogether.
"Did you shoot Maga?" I mumbled,
"No," Will laughed. "I'd hate to shoot a woman who'd offered to make me king! She ought to be hung, though, for a horse-thief! She and that other gipsy got away with the mounts! Never mind—there are four of us to carry you, if Gloria lends a hand!"
But I have no notion how they carried me. All I remember is recovering consciousness that evening in the castle, to discover myself copiously bandaged, and painfully stiff, but not so much of an invalid after all.
Oh, fear and hate shall have their spate
(For both of the twain are one)
And lust and greed devour the seed
That else had growth begun.
Fiercely the flow of death shall go
And short the good man's shrift!
All hell's awake full toll to take.
And passion's hour is swift.
But there be cracks in evil's tracks
Where seed shall safe abide,
And living rocks shall breast the shocks
Of overflowing tide.
Castle and wall and keep shall fall.
Prophet and plan shall fail,
And they shall thank nor wit nor rank
Who in the end prevail.