The Gate in the Sky
- The Gate
- in the Sky
- HAROLD LAMB
Author of "The Village of the Ghost," "The House of the Strongest," etc.
THE long night of winter had begun. snow-flurries swept the heights of the Syansk Range that separates Mongolia from Siberia proper. In that year early in the eighteenth century under the heights a great quiet had fallen.
Ice formed along the banks of the streams. Another week and the passes into the northern plain, with its scattered settlements, would be closed. The few traders who still lingered in the Syansk were hurrying down to the towns, several hundred miles away.
More and more the play of the northern lights obscured the brightness of Upener, the polar star.
As he had done for a score of years Maak, the Buriat reindeer-keeper, led his herd from the upland pastures down to the valleys where the streams were still open and the larches had a thin garment of foliage.
His beasts were sleek from a season's cropping of lichen and Pamir grass. Their coats were growing heavier against the frost that was sending to cover all animal life on the heights. Two hundred or more, they followed obediently the white reindeer that was Maak's mount.
Maak's broad face was raised to the sky of evenings. His keen, black eyes followed the flicker of elusive lights above and behind the mountain summits. A gate, he knew, was ready to open in the sky, and through it the spirits—the tengeri—would look down on the earth.
This happened only occasionally, when the magic light! were very bright in the Autumn—as now. For those who saw the open gate in the sky it was an omen. An omen of death or great achievement—one would not know which until time brought fulfilment.
"Some day the gate in the sky will open," he repeated to himself quietly as he watched of nights.
It might well mean death when he would be drawn up by the Qoren Vairgin, the king-spirit of the reindeer. Then he would make brave sport among the flaming lights and perhaps look forth in his turn from the spirit gate upon the whole world—upon the Mongolian plain whence the Chinese merchants sometimes came to barter for the soft horns of a young reindeer, to the towns from which the Russian colonist traders arrived every other year or so. Maak knew of no world other than this.
At times he wondered whether the gate would ever open.
Maak had seen no living being but his clansmen, the Buriats—and had seen them only in the Spring and Fall changes of pasture. He belonged to the wandering, ones of the clan, the reindeer-keepers. He had been told that the traders were superior fellows indeed.
Never did Maak leave his reindeer. The herd furnished him milk and fat. His long coat, soft boots and cap were of their skins. His bowstring was reindeer gut; the skinning-knife he inherited from his father, who when had been a herder.
No one had ever seen Maak kill one of his herd. When he wanted meat he shot down other game with his bow. He was as lean as the reindeer—with long, supple muscles that hid his strength. His slant eyes were mild.
This shyness of Maak came from long isolation. Barely did he remember the chants of a dead grandfather—chants of Mongol warriors who had taught the meaning of fear to their enemies.
Traders who learned that Maak—like the other wandering ones—did not kill his reindeer or sell them-the traders laughed, saying that he was mad, a khada-ulan-obokhod, an old man of the mountain—a spiritless coward.
"He has turned into a deer," they said, "with only enough wit to run away. Pah. He would not fight even for his own life!"
Nevertheless the other Buriats were superstitious about khada-ulan-obokhod and did not molest them.
░ AS THEY came to a bend in the upper valley Maak's mount, an old white buck, halted with lifted muzzle. The herd, following the example of their leader, stopped and bunched together, eyes and ears pointed in the same direction.
They were in sight of a large stream that gave into the Irkut. Beside the river were three canvas tents and a knot of pack-horses. Smoke rose into the chill evening air. Three men came from the fire and looked at them.
Maak would have turned when one of the travelers, a stocky, bearded man in a fine mink coat, waved to him.
Now Maak had been seeking that very spot to camp for the night. When the men invited him by gestures to join them he hesitated. Finally he edged the reindeer up to the tents and dismounted.
They were traders; the bearded man a Siberian colonist; a handsome, brisk young fellow was Orani, a Yakut half-breed; the third a silent Mongol.
"Greetings, nim tungit—tent companion," Orani, who acted as interpreter, proclaimed.
Maak nodded and accepted their hospitality shyly. His herd he let to graze on the moss in a birch grove, out of sight of the tents.
They gave him a luxurious brick of tea, and all four quaffed numberless bowls of the potent liquid as they sat around the fire.
"We have no meat, —— take the luck!" explained Orani. "Game is bewitched around here and our bullets all miss. Sell us one of your fine, plump beasts and we'll have a feast; eh, Maak?"
The reindeer-keeper shook his head. The men exchanged glances, and the Siberian, Petrovan, looked angry.
The traders had had ill luck with more than game for the pot. The fur they were taking back from the Syansk was a poor lot—some fair mink, but only a few ermine and no black foxes at all. The Mongol hunters were harder than ever to deal with. Petrovan considered it a personal grievance. Until now his Summer trading had been good.
"The gentleman," informed Orani, "will give you a powder-flask and a handful of bullets for a brace of deer. Come, Maak; strike a bargain, man!"
Absently the Buriat shook-his head. He had no musket, and he was admiring the business-like hunting-piece of the trader and Orani's silver-mounted flintlock. He offered them some of his reindeer milk; they declined with a grimace, but the ever hungry Mongol emptied all portions down his gullet.
Orani wasthat Maak had no gun. How did he deal with bear and moose?
"They do not trouble me," said Maak after he had thought it over.
He was slow to think things out.
"Well, you're a fine fellow all right," agreed the half-breed. "Look here, we're on the trail to the Irkut, going to Irkutsk. Come along with your herd; sell them in Irkutsk, and I'll wager they fetch a good price. Then you'll be rich like this gentleman here, and have tobacco enough to smoke every minute until you die, and a horse and sleigh."
He gulped the heavy smoke of his pipe down into his lungs, and glanced keenly at the Buriat.
The creases in Maak's leathern face changed as he rubbed some more tobacco into the bowl of his pipe. His black eyes twinkled. Maak had come as near as possible to a smile.
"No," he grunted. "What would I do without them?"
He pointed at the white buck that lingered near his tent.
When the Siberian retired to the big tent with a rug on the earth and a cot and lantern, Maak examined it from the opening with great appreciation. He was the last to retire to shelter from the cold.
The evening had been an eventful one. Maak would have enough to think about all Winter. He had been entertained by a trader.
It was long after Maak had disappeared that Orani came out of his tent and moved silently off into the dark. An hour later the half-breed returned, and ought his blankets.
The camp by the stream was motionless except for the anxious movements of a big reindeer and the illusion of motion produced by the play of the northern fires in the sky.
░ THE next morning they had no glimpse of Qoren Vairgin, the king of the spirit-world who drives the sun across the sky behind flying, white reindeer. Heavy clouds, settling athwart the snow-peaks of the Syansk, hid the sun.
"Snow is coming in the valley," muttered the Mongol servant to Orani.
Thoughtfully the half-breed nodded but made no move to rise from his blankets by the fire.
The reindeer-keeper also had noted the signs in the sky. He lingered for a while hoping to see the departure of the trader, he even ventured to offer Petrovan some tobacco.
"Pah!" the trader grunted to Orani. "I would rather smoke dried horse-droppings. These mountain men are mongrels."
Orani's slant eyes narrowed and his hand went instinctively to his knife. When Petrovan had traded or gambled in a bad streak of luck the Siberian was accustomed to slur Orani's mixed parentage.
"They are no better, excellency," he retorted, "than the overfed hounds that lie in the ditches of Irkutsk."
More than once Petrovan had been carried out of these same ditches when drunk.
Orani did not touch his knife, for he saw the other's eyes on him sidewise and knew that Petrovan's heavy pistol was in his belt. The Siberian shrugged and fell to watching Maak, who had mounted the white buck and was mustering his herd.
Two beasts were missing—young bucks that often strayed. Maak was anxious to work down into the larch and beech forests before the snow came, and he set out in search of the two reindeer.
He cast up the mountainside to the edge of the snow-line without finding reindeer or tracks. Then he circled down, looking into the gullies where moss-beds might have tempted his pets. Maak knew his charges as a shepherd knows his sheep. Reindeer were in fact very much like sheep.
When he had searched vainly for two hour Maak headed back to camp expecting that the missing animals would have returned to the herd. Glancing into a ravine giving into the river, he stiffened in his saddle.
Below him lay the young reindeer, their throats cut. Maak bent over them and saw that they had been dead for many hours. He looked for the place where steaks might have been cut from the haunches. A puzzled glare came into his black eyes.
His first thought had been that the Mongol servant or Orani had butchered the half-tame animals to get the meat he had refused to sell. But no meat had been taken from the carcasses. Only the throats had been cut.
Suddenly Maak grunted and climbed into the small saddle on the shoulders of the stalwart white buck. He raced the short distance into camp, and found that there was no longer a camp. Even his skin tent had been kicked down and thrown on the fire.
Men, horses and reindeer herd had disappeared. Maak was a figure turned to stone. He was thinking out the thing slowly. Some one had killed his two animals—some one who knew that he would search for them, perhaps for hours, and leave the herd unwatched.
He trotted around the ashes of the fire, found the trail that led north along the stream. The ground was frozen, but here and there patches of fern and bracken told him what he wanted to know. His herd had been driven off, bunched, followed by horses.
Petrovan had taken his reindeer.
The thought stung Maak into action. The vacant stare hardened in his eyes and his hands clenched. With worried, anxious movements he urged the white reindeer after the herd. He was angry, puzzled.
Why had the trader tried to steal his herd? The Siberian had more than an hour's start, yet Maak knew that he would be up with the fugitives before noon, so swiftly did his white beast eat up distance. Then, of course, Petrovan must give him back. his reindeer. What else could be done?
Three hours later, rounding a turn in the ravine, Maak heard the whang of gun in his face and the shrill flight of a bullet close overhead.
He did not stop. A second report, and dirt flew up under the nose of the white buck. Then Maak knew that this was no strange jest of the gentleman's—no attempt to beguile him to the Siberian towns with his herd. He, Maak, had been robbed of the herd that had been his father's and his grandfather's. If he tried to follow the thieves they would kill him as speedily as they had butchered the two young deer.
With a wild cry the Buriat turned his steed aside and scrambled headlong away up the mountain slope, pursued by shots from Petrovan's gun and a shout of laughter from where Orani hid behind the rocks.
Maak passed from sight swiftly, for the heavy flakes of snow began to screen the mountain from the river and to cover all traces of the vanished herd.
░ ONLY one thing troubled Orani; they had let Maak know, before they decided on the rape of the herd, that they were headed for Irkutsk.
"Do you think the old man of the mountain would sneak after us to the settlement?"
Petrovan laughed until his beard bristled at the thought.
"I'd like to see him before a magistrate!"
Orani spat and closed one eye.
"This snow," he muttered. "Two days it has snowed and the —— himself could not smell out hoof-marks under a foot of-this. But, you see, excellency, we have had to go slowly, driving this accursed herd, and Maak knows that we must have gone through the northern pass to Irkutsk. It would be better if we had not told him."
They both looked back at the ragged rock-summits of the Syansk, now coated from river to summit with unbroken white save where the gray network of forest showed.
No living thing was to be seen. Their spirits had mounted since leaving the pass unmolested, although they knew that the heavy snow—just now ceased—had covered their flight.
"A rabbit couldn't come near us out here without being seen, you fool! That rascal of a Maak was frightened out of his senses by my shots. He is as timid as that white mongrel stag he rides. Come now; tonight we camp on this bank of the river."
Petrovan was indolent about crossing streams before making camp.
"Tomorrow, by the holy relics, we'll be across the Irkut and on the Siberian steppe."
Somewhat to their surprize the silent Mongol slavey broke into tongue as they rode down to the river—now wide and swift and to be forded only here for many miles. He wanted to cross the water before making camp.
"He is afraid that that dog of a Maak will make magic back yonder on the mountains," leered Orani.
The half-breed swore at the Mongol, and they made camp where they were. Orani rather wished Maak had shown up again. He wanted a shot at the Buriat—Petrovan had made a mess of the shooting.
While Petrovan snored through the night the half-breed sat with his back to a broad tree, watching, by the intermittent flickering in the sky, lest a thin, black figure try to approach the herd over the snow.
No one came. The herd edged about restlessly, seeking moss under the snow. Their flanks were beginning to fall lean. They had been driven hard. All their instincts led them to follow blindly after the one who happened to be the leader.
"Well, they will carry their skins a good way for us yet," remarked Petrovan the next morning as the men were preparing to mount. "We can get a good price for the skins."
"We might have had the white buck," grumbled Orani, "if you had attended to the old man of the mountain that night in his yurt."
He had had his vigil for nothing. Even Orani—who had attended to more than one man who was in his way—would not try to ambush three riders in daylight. And Maak, who had only a bow, could never attempt it now. Moreover, on the snowbound steppe not a rabbit could hide.
"Gr-rh!" hissed Petrovan. "The river will be cold—look at the ice on the bank!"
He was glad that they would not have to swim their horses more than half-way over the ford. Even the shaggy steppe ponies did not relish the embrace of the black Irkut; but the reindeer scarce needed it as Orani drove the herd down, crashing through the border of thin ice, out on the ford.
Petrovan hitched up his knees and yelled for the Mongol to wait with the pack-animals until the reindeer had crossed. He had fortified himself with black tea and brandy, and the blood raced through his stout body, well protected by the mink coat.
"Hey," he shouted to the servant,"take care of those packs or I'll send you to trim the ——'s corns!"
Now that he was leaving the Syansk behind his mood was pleasant. Not that he had been alarmed by the Mongol's remark that Maak was perhaps making magic, sitting on one of the peaks of his hills, talking to his tengeri, spirits. But Petrovan had feared that even in the snowstorm the reindeer-keeper might find his herd and cut it out.
"He is like the reindeer after all," Petrovan thought. "He is a khada-ulan-obokhod, an old man of the mountain. Where he is driven, he will go."
Then the Siberian scowled. His horse was swimming, and in spite of his efforts to keep dry the man was wet to his waist. An icy chill shot through his nerves.
"What in the fiend's name are you about?" he roared at Orani.
The half-breed: almost across the Irkut, had let the reindeer get out of hand. The leaders of the herd had no sooner gained footing on the farther bank than they about-faced, throwing the great mass of animals into confusion.
Orani bellowed and waved his arms to no avail. The herd churned the water, tossing their horns. Then they started back toward the Mongol and Petrovan. At the same instant Petrovan stopped cursing and Orani ceased his unavailing shouts. A white buck paced down the farther bank to the river-edge, and on the white buck was Maak.
They had heard the reindeer-keeper give no command, but the herd went before him as he splashed into the water. They could see that his face had changed. Fasting had thinned it, and it wore a fixed smile.
Orani's musket cracked. He had pulled it forward from his back where it had been slung. His pony, however, was flustered by the reindeer, and the bullet carried wide.
Hastily the half-breed reloaded and settled himself in the saddle. Maak's white buck was swimming toward him steadily, not twenty paces away. Ten paces. Orani held his shot, sure of his aim this time.
Maak was leaning forward, one hand on the antlers of his beast. The water was up to his belly.
"Hoi" he shouted.
His free right hand went back to his shoulder. An arrow flashed in it; the bow held on his other hand twanged and as the musket of Orani flashed the reindeer-keeper threw himself sidewise into the water.
"Hide of the ——!" muttered Petrovan.
He could see the arrow sticking in Orani's throat. The half-breed slumped into the black surface of the Irkut.
"They are both dead," thought the trader. "Well, that is not so bad."
Nevertheless his nerves were running chill, and he turned his horse's head back to the Syansk shore, in the midst of the herd. The reindeer could be brought under control, and Orani's wages were clear profit.
These calculations were ended by a glance over his shoulder. Close behind him the antlers of the white buck were gaining on his tired horse. Beside the black muzzle of the reindeer was Maak's fur-tipped head.
The eyes of the reindeer-keeper were fixed on the trader. One hand gripped the antlers of the white buck. His bow had disappeared, rendered useless in any event by submergence in the river.
The teeth of Petrovan clinked together and his jaw quivered as he reached vainly for the musket slung to his back. He was a bulky man, and the sling was tight. Moreover the pony under him, nearly exhausted, was unsteady.
Petrovan was up to his chest in water. Cold fingers gripped at his groin, and his teeth chattered harder than ever.
"Keep away!" he shrieked. "I swear I will pay-pay for your herd."
Still Maak smiled.
"By the mercy of God," the trader's cry went on, "I swear I will pay twice over. The herd is yours—you hear? Yours!"
It did not occur to him in his fright that Maak did not understand Russian and knew not what he was saying. The other's silence wrought on Petrovan's mounting fear, and he snatched out his pistol from his belt, which was now under water.
Maak's head was only a man's length away, and the trader twisted in his unstable seat to pull the trigger as swiftly as his chilled fingers permitted. The flint clicked harmlessly on the steel that could not ignite the wet powder.
Shifting the man's weight caused the pony to sink and lurch. Petrovan was in the water where sharp hoofs struck and darted on every side. One split his cheek open. The heavy coat, water-soaked, and the musket weighed him down. An icy cold strangled the breath in his throat and numbed his heart.
But the panic that gripped him was from the man who floated after him, the man who walked forward against gunshots, who smiled at the weapon in Petrovan's hand and whom the deadly cold of the river could not hurt.
Petrovan clutched wildly at the antlers of a reindeer swimming by, missed and was struck again by a hoof. His arms moved weakly now, and his head went under.
Maak, numbed and helpless from submergence in the water, could only cling to the antlers of the white buck. As impotent to aid Petrovan as to harm him, the reindeer-keeper was drawn into shoal water and to the shore.
Turning here, he saw Petrovan's bare head an instant at the edge of the shore ice. Then the trader went down. Maak grunted and glanced at the Mongol, his hand moving toward the knife in his belt.
But the erstwhile servant of Petrovan was building a fire on the ashes of the old campfire. The Mongol, who was trembling a little, motioned for Maak to draw near and warm himself. Then he pointed out the pack-animals, saying that they were Maak's and that he—the Mongol—had never had aught but peace in his heart toward a khala-ubn-obokhod.
Not until Maak had dried himself and eaten a little of the bread and tea of the other did he respond. Then he said that the packs and the ponies could go with the Mongol. Maak did not want them. He had his herd again.
"It was a strong îjin-magic spell—that you made on the mountain heights. It bewitched the guns and slew the Russian pig without a blow. Is not that the truth?"
So spoke the Mongol.
Maak shook his head.
"I went to the mountain-top to see the camp of the thieves when the snow ceased. Otherwise I could not have seen it."
The Mongol was silent. He was in no mood to contradict his guest. But later among the Buriats he voiced the thought in his mind.
"Maak has looked into the spirit gate. When he sat on the mountain looking for his enemies the gate in the sky was open. He talked with the Qoren Vairgin and his spirit ancestors."
And the Mongol spoke truth, though not in the way he thought. The urge to do battle for the herd that was dearer to Maak than his own life was a heritage of forgotten ancestors.
Maak had looked through the gate in the sky.