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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Lion of Petra By Talbot Mundy Characters: 29520

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Go and Ask the Kites, then, At Dat Rasi"

So far everything worked out strictly according to plan. We had hardly finished a hurried meal when the lady Ayisha and her men arrived on mean baggage camels provided by old Rafiki; and they were not in the least pleased with their mounts, for a baggage camel is as different from a beast trained to carry a rider as an up-to-date limousine is from a Chinese one-wheel barrow. Perched on top of the lady Ayisha's beast was a thing they call a shibrayah-a sort of tent with a top like an umbrella, resting on the loads slung to the camel's flanks. From inside that she was busy abusing everybody.

There was only one good camel with her outfit-a small, blooded looking Bishareen, a shade or two lighter in color than the rest, ridden by a wiry, mean rascal with a very black face. He seemed anxious not to assert himself, for he kept his mount well away in the shadows, and moved off when any one approached him.

It was growing pitch-dark. Grim counted noses and gave the order to be off. Two or three men mounted, and that brought all the kneeling camels to their feet. One of Ali Baba's sons caught the beast assigned to me, brought him round to the gate, and began nakhing him to make him kneel again. But I know one or two things about Arabs and their ways of assessing humanity. Knowledge is for use.

"Do you mistake me for a cripple?" I asked, and instead of continuing to nakh in the camel language he pulled the beast's head down.

The trick is simple enough. You put your foot on the hollow of the camel's neck and swing into the saddle as he raises his head again. Men used to the desert despise you if you have to make your mount kneel in order to get on his back, pretty much as horsemen of other lands despise the tender foot who can't rope and saddle his own pony. There's no excuse for that, of course; it stands to reason that lots of first-class men can't mount a camel standing, never having done it; but, according to desert lore, whoever has to make his camel kneel is a person of no account.

So I started off with at least one minus mark not notched against me. There was also an enormous feeling of relief, because I heard those two brats blubbering at being left behind.

And oh, what a start that was before the moon-rise, with the great soft-footed beasts like shadows stringing one behind another into line through the streets of a city as old as Abraham! Utter silence, except for three camel bells with different notes. Instant, utter severance from all the new world, with its wheels that get you nowhere and conventions that have no meaning except organized whimsy.

Peace under the stars, wholly aloof and apart from the problem that had sent us forth. And the feel under you of league-welcoming resilience, whatever the camels might say by way of objection. And they said a very great deal gutturally, as camels always do, yielding their prodigious power to our use with an incomprehensible mixture of grouchiness and inability to do less than their best.

Grim rode in advance. His was the first camel bell that jangled with a mellow note somewhere in the darkness around the turn of a narrow street, or in a tunnel, where house joined house overhead. The lady Ayisha's was the second bell, three beasts ahead of me; she being the guest of honor as it were, or, rather, the prize passenger, it was important to know her whereabouts at any given moment. And last of all came old Ali Baba with the third bell announcing that all were present and correct. He and his men sat their camels with a stately pride more than half due to the rifles and bandoliers that had been served out.

That black-faced fellow on the little Bishareen did not trouble himself about position in the line as long as we wound through the city streets. He was next in front of me, and I saw him exchange signals with a fat man in a house door, who may have been Rafiki the wool-merchant. Narayan Singh was next behind me, and I looked back to make sure that he had seen the signal too.

But when we passed out of the city at the south end and began to swing along a white road at a clip that was plenty fast enough for the baggage beasts, the man in front of me urged his beast forward, thrusting others out of the way and getting thoroughly well cursed for it, until he rode next behind Grim.

Seeing that, Narayan Singh rode after him, flogging furiously, and got well cursed too. But nothing else in particular happened for several miles until we began to descend between huge hills of limestone and, just as the moon rose, came on the reserve camels waiting for us in the charge of two policemen in a hollow.

Then there began to be happenings. First there was shrill delight from Ayisha and a chorus of approval from her four men at the prospect of changing to reasonably decent mounts. Then a tumult of indignation from the wool-merchant's crowd-blunt refusal by them to consent to any change at all-threats-abuse-arguments-the roaring of camels who object on principle to everything, whatever it is, even to a chance to rest, because it hurts their backs to stand still loaded and over it all presently Grim's voice issuing orders in a tone he had when things go wrong.

Strange that they don't choose leaders more often for their voices! It's the most obvious thing in the world that a man with a silver tongue, as they call it, can swing and sway any crowd. If that man knows his own mind and has a plan worth spending effort on he can trumpet cohesion out of tumult and win against men with twenty times his brains. I don't doubt Peter the Hermit had a voice like a bellbuoy in a tide-rip. Grim pitched his above the babel so that every word fell sharp, clear, and manly. They began to obey him there and then.

But he could not attend to everything at once, and while he oversaw the changing of pack-saddles, and gave orders to the policemen to ride back on the camels behind Rafiki's men and see them safely into the city, that black-faced fellow on the Bishareen edged away, and in a moment was off at full gallop headed southwards. Narayan Singh was the first to see him go, but it was half a minute before he could get near Grim and call his attention to it.

Grim ordered three of Ali Baba's men in pursuit at once.

"Shall we shoot? Shall we slay?" asked one of them.

"No, no. He hasn't committed any crime yet. Catch him and bring him back."

"Crime? What is crime out here? We can kill him. But overtake him on that beast? Wallah!"

They wasted another minute arguing for leave to shoot, and by the time they were off the deserter had a long start; but they rode with a will when they did go.

If anything on earth looks more absurd than a ridden camel galloping away in the moonlight, with his neck stretched out in front of him and his four ungainly legs in the air all together, it is three more camels doing the same thing. They looked like a giant's washing blown off the line flapping before a high wind, and made hardly more noise. The whack-whack-whack of sticks on the beasts' rumps was as distinct as pistol-shots, but you hardly heard the galloping footfall.

Grim went on about his business, for changing loads in the dark is a job that needs attention, unless you choose to have a good beast lose heart before morning and lie down in the middle of the road. A camel in pain from a badly cinched girth will endure it without argument for just so long; after which he quits, and not all the whacking or persuading in the world will get him up again.

At the end of twenty minutes we were under way once more. Peace closed down on us, and we swayed along under the stars in majestic silence. There have been better nights since, I think; but until then that was the most glorious experience of a lifetime.

It is my peculiar delight to read and relive ancient history, and of all history books the Old Testament is vastly the most absorbing-far and away the most accurate. There is a school of fools who set themselves up to scoff at its facts, but every new discovery only confirms the old record; and here were we sauntering through the night on camels over hills where the fathers of history fought for the first beginnings of each man's right to do his own thinking in his own way.

After a while Ali Baba gave his camel bell to his oldest son Mujrim, and forced his beast up beside mine, seeming to think silence might ruin the nerve of such a raw hand as myself. Or perhaps it was pride of race and country that impelled him. Even the meanest Arab thrills with emotion when he contemplates his ancient heritage, just as he rages at the prospect of seeing the Jews return to it, and Ali Baba, though a prince of thieves, was surely not a man without a heart.

But the trouble with Arab as distinguished from Jewish history is that too little of it was written down, and too much of it invented to prove a theory-much like the stuff they put between the covers of school history books-so Ali Baba's lecture, although gorgeous fiction in its way, hardly enriched knowledge. Not that he was free from the latterday craving for accuracy whenever it might serve to bolster up the rest of the fabric.

"Yonder," he said, for instance, pointing toward the sky-line with a dramatic sweep of his arm, "they say that Adam and Eve are buried. But they lie!"

And having denounced that lie, he expected me to believe everything else he told me.

According to him every rock we passed had its history of jinn and spirits as well as battles, and he knew where the tomb was of every national saint and hero, every one of whom had apparently died within a radius of twenty miles. Some of them had died in two or three different places as far as I could make out from his account of them.

And what Abraham had not done on those hillsides in the way of miracles and war would not be worth writing in a book; whatever cannot be otherwise explained is set down to the Ancestor, the Arabs ranking Abraham next after Mohammed, because the patriarch built the Kaaba, or Mosque, at Mecca, that Mohammed centuries later on adopted for his new religion.

But even Ali Baba grew tired of acting historian at last, and once more silence settled down, broken only by the bells and the camels' gurgling, until about midnight we overhauled the three men who had been sent in chase of the fellow on the Bishareen. They had lost him, and were angry; for what should a man do except be angry in such a circumstance, unless he is willing to accept blame?

"You should have let us shoot, Jimgrim! Once I got close enough to have cut his beast's legs with my sword! You think this is like the city, where a policeman holds up a hand and men halt? Hah! Wallah! It was he who drew sword, and behold my camel's nose where he slashed at it! One finger's breadth closer and I would have had a sick beast on my hands-but he proved a blundering pig with his weapon and only made that scratch after all.

"However, it is your fault, Jimgrim! You have made us to be laughed at by that father of dunghills! His beast was the faster, and he got away, and vanished in the shadows."

So there we halted and held a conference, letting the camels kneel and rest for half an hour, while each man said his say in turn.

"That man is Rafiki's messenger," said Grim. "He is on his way to

Abbas Mahommed, Sheikh of the Beni Yussuf, who owes Rafiki money.

I think Rafiki is offering to forgo the debt if Abbas Mahommed

will lie in wait for us and carry off this woman."

He did not ask for suggestions. There was no need. Every one of those cloaked and muffled rascals had a notion of his own on the spur of the moment, and was eager to get it adopted.

"Allah!" said Ali Baba. "Let us fight, then, with Abbas Mahommed, and plunder his harem instead! It is simple. We come on his village before dawn when those sons of Egyptian mothers* are asleep. We set fire to the thatch, and thereafter act as seems fit, slaying some and letting others escape!"

------ * To call any one an Egyptian is an Arab's notion of a perfect insult. ------

"Wallah! Let us ride straight through the village, set a light to it, and run," suggested Mujrim. "There isn't a woman in that place I would burden a camel with."

"Nevertheless, we should take some women to keep as hostages against the time when a blood-feud begins."

"And surely we shall carry off some camels."

"Aye! They have a horse or two as well. Abbas Mahommed trades with El-Kerak, and only last month acquired a fine brown mare that caught my eye."

"What are fifty men! We can fight twice fifty of such spawn as the Beni Yussuf."

"Wallah! They ran when the police paid them a visit. Ran from the police!"

"Yes, and were afraid to kill the Jew who sued Abbas Mahommed in the court for arrears of interest. They are cowards who dare not take their sheikh's part in a dispute."

"Better wait until dawn, and then ride by their village and defy them."

But the lady Ayisha had the most astonishing suggestion. She came out from under the curtains of the shibrayah and sat against her camel's rump to face the circle of armed men and instruct them.

"Taib!" she said scornfully. "Let this Abbas Mahommed come and take me. I have a knife for his belly in any event. You go on to Ali Higg and say his wife is in the hands of that scum. Ali Higg can cross the desert in three days, and by the evening of the fourth day there will be no village left, nor a man to call Abbas Mahommed by his name. If I haven't killed him already Abbas Mahommed will be carried off to Petra with the women, who shall watch what is done to him before they are apportioned with the other loot. That is simplest. Let Abbas Mahommed lift me if he dares!"

She was clearly a young woman not averse to experiences, as well as confident of her lord's good will. But Grim had the peace of the border in mind; and the gang were not at all disposed to stand by meekly while Abbas Mahommed paid a debt so easily to a mere wool-merchant.

"I am an old man," said Ali Baba, "and must die soon. May He Who never sleeps* slay me before I see my sons afraid to fight Abbas Mahommed and all his host!" [* A synonym for Allah]

"Let's talk like wise men and not fools," proposed Grim at last, and since he had let them have their say first they heard him in silence now. "The difficulty is that Abbas Mahommed's village lies at the corner of the Dead Sea. We must turn that corner. If we pass between him and the sea he has us between land and water. If we journey too far south to avoid him we lose at least a day and tire our camels out. A forced march now would mean that we must feed the camels corn, and we

have none too much of it with us; whereas tomorrow the grazing will be passable, and farther on, where the grazing is poor, we shall need the corn."

"Wallah! The man knows."

"Inshalla, let there be a fight then!"

"Wait!" counseled Ali Baba. "I know this Jimgrim. There will be a deception and a ruse, but no fight. Listen to him. Wait and see!"

"I think we will travel to the southward," said Grim, "and halt at dawn out of sight of Abbas Mahommed's village. There let the camels graze. But I, and a few of us, will take the lady Ayisha's camel with the shibriyah, and draw near to the village. That black-faced rogue of Rafiki's will point us out to them, for he will recognize the shibriyah.

"Then when they come to seize the lady Ayisha they will find no woman in the litter. So they will believe that Rafiki's messenger has told lies that are blacker than his face, and will beat him and let us go."

"But if they do not let you go? They are ruffians, you know, Jimgrim."

"Then I shall find another way."

"And how will you account for being so few men, when Rafiki's messenger will have said we are at least a score?"

"Will that not be further proof that the man is a liar?"

"If I did not know you of old I would say that is a fool's plan," remarked Ali Baba, and his sons grunted agreement. "But you have a devil of resourcefulness. Taib! Let us try this plan and see what comes of it."

So we started off again to a running comment of contemptuous disapproval from the lady Ayisha, who seemed to think that no plan could be a good one unless it entailed murder. The farther we headed eastward, the nearer we came to the pale beyond which her lord and master's word was summary law, the more openly she advocated drastic remedies for everything, and the less she was inclined to take no for an answer.

However, her monologue was wasted on the moon, for no one argued with her. Grim led the way-off the highroad now, and down dark defiles that set the camels moaning, while their riders yelled alternately to Allah and apostrophized their beasts in the monosyllabic camel language. Camels hate downhill work, especially when loaded, and fall unless told not to in a speech they understand, in that respect strangely like children.

You had to look out in the dark, too, for the teeth of the camel behind, because they don't love the folk who drive them headlong into gorges full of ghosts, and one man's thigh or elbow makes as easy biting as the next.

Camels are no man's pets, and there is no explaining them. The fools will graze contentedly with shrapnel and high explosives bursting all about them, but go into a panic at the sight of a piece of paper in broad daylight. And when they think they see ghosts in the dark they act like the Gadarene swine, only making more noise about it.

I wouldn't have been the lady Ayisha going down some of those dark places for all the wealth of ancient Bagdad. Her shibrayah pitched and rolled like a small boat in a big sea, and whenever a rock leaned out over the narrow trail, or a scraggy old thorn branch swung, it was by a combination of luck and good carpentry that she was saved from being pitched down under the following camel's feet. Whoever made that shibrayah could have built the Ark.

But we came down through one last terrific gorge on to a level plain, where the camel-thorn grew in clumps and the heat radiating from the hills was like the breath from an oven door behind us. There the animals went best foot forward, as if they smelled the dawn and hoped to meet it sooner by hurrying. We had quite a job to keep back for the loaded beasts, and three or four men, instead of one, brought up the rear to prevent straggling.

Then, about an hour before dawn, in a hollow between sparsely vegetated sand-dunes, Grim ordered camp pitched, and in very few minutes there was a row of little cotton tents erected, with a small fire in front of each.

Most of the camels were turned out at once to graze off the unappetizing-looking thorns, sparse and dusty, that peppered the field of view like scabs on a yellow skin. There was no fear of their wandering too far, for if the camel ever was wild, as many maintain that he never was, that was so long ago that the whole species has forgotten it, and he wouldn't know what to do without his owner somewhere near.

He has to be used at night, because he will not eat at night; on the other hand, he refuses to sleep in the daytime; so there is a limit to what you can do with a camel, in spite of his endurance, and once in so many days he has to be given a twenty-four hour rest so that he may catch up on both food and sleep.

But on the dry plains such as where we were then they give less trouble than anywhere. For though they soon go sick on good corn, which a horse must have, they thrive and grow fat on desert gleanings; and whereas sweet water will make their bellies ache oftener than not, the brackish, dirty stuff from wells by the Dead Sea shore is nectar to them.

Have you ever seen twenty camels rolling all at once with their legs in the air, preparatory to making breakfast off dry thorns that you wouldn't dare handle with gloves on? If so, you'll understand that they're the perfect opposite of every other useful beast that lives.

But not all the camels were turned out. Grim chose Mujrim-Ali Baba's eldest son-a black-bearded, forty-year-old giant-two of the younger men, Narayan Singh and me; and with the lady Ayisha's beast in tow with the empty shibrayah set off directly the sun was a span high over the nearest dune.

We rode almost straight toward the sun, and in five minutes it appeared how close we were to the village whence danger might be expected. It was a straggling, thatched, squalid-looking cluster of huts, surrounded by a mud wall with high, arched gates. Only one minaret like a candle topped with an extinguisher pretended to anything like architecture, and even from where we were you could see the rubbish-heaps piled outside the wall to reek and fester. There was a vulture on top of the minaret, and kites and crows-those inevitable harbingers of man-were already busy with the day's work.

The village Arabs are perfunctory about prayer, unless unctuous strangers are in sight, who might criticize. So, although we approached at prayer-time, it was hardly a minute after we rose in view over a low dune before a good number of men were on the wall gazing in our direction. And before we had come within a mile of the place the west gate opened and a string of camel-men rode out.

The man at their head was the sheikh by the look of him, for we could see his striped silk head-dress even at that distance, and he seemed to have a modern rifle as against the spears and long-barreled muskets of the others. There were about two-score of them, and they rode like the wind in a half circle, with the obvious intention of surrounding us. Grim led straight on.

They rode around and around us once or twice before the man in the striped head-gear called a halt. He seemed disturbed by Grim's nonchalance, and asked our business with not more than half a challenge in his voice.

"Water," Grim answered. "Did Allah make no wells in these parts?"

It doesn't pay to do as much as even to suggest your real reason for visiting an Arab village, for they won't believe you in any case.

"What have you in the shibriyah?"

"Come and see."

The Sheikh Mahommed Abbas drew near alone, suspiciously, with his cocked rifle laid across his lap. His men began moving again, circling around us slowly-I suppose with the idea of annoying us; for that is an old trick, to irritate your intended victim until some ill-considered word or gesture gives excuse for an attack. But we all sat our camels stock-still, and, following Grim's example, kept our rifles slung behind us.

The sheikh was a rather fine-looking fellow, except for smallpox marks. He had a hard eye, and a nose like an eagle's beak; and that sort of face is always wonderfully offset by a pointed black beard such as he wore. But there was something about the way he sat his camel that suggested laziness, and his lips were not thin and resolute enough to my mind, to match that beard and nose. I would have bet on three of a kind against him sky-high, even if he had passed the draw.

He drew aside the curtain of the shibrayah gingerly, as if he expected a trick mechanism that might explode a bomb in his face.

"Mashallah! Where is the woman?" he exclaimed.

I found out then that I was right as to the way to play that supposititious poker hand. Grim had doped him out too, and answered promptly without changing a muscle of his face.

"Wallahi! Should I bring my wife to this place?"

"Allah! Thy wife?"

"Whose else?"

"It was Ali Higg's wife according to the tale!"

"Some fools swallow tales as the dogs eat the offal thrown to them! By the beard of God's Prophet, whom do you take me for?"

"Kif?* How should I know?" [* What?]

"Go and ask the kites, then, at Dat Ras!"

"You are he? You are he who slew the-Shi ajib!* Now I think of it they did say he was beardless. Nay! Are you-Speak! Who are you?" [* This is strange!]

"Does your wife wander abroad while you herd cattle?" Grim asked him.

"Allah forbid! But-"

"Is my honor likely less than yours?"

"Then you are Ali Higg?"

"Who else?"

"And these?"

"My servants."

"Your honor travels abroad with a scant escort!"

"Let us see, then, whether it is not enough! A tale was told me of a black-faced liar on a Bishareen dromedary who fled hither from El-Kalil last night to persuade the dogs of this place to bark in some hunt of his. There was mention made of a woman. My men pursued him along the road, but fear gave him wings. Hand him over!"

"Allah! He is my guest."

"Or let us see whether I cannot fire one shot and summon enough men to eat this place!"

"That is loud talk. They tell me you travel with but twenty."

"Try me!"

You didn't have to be much of a thought-reader to know what was passing in that sheikh's mind. Supposing that Grim were really the notorious Ali Higg, he might easily have left Hebron with twenty men and have been joined by fifty or a hundred others in the night. Or there might be others on the way to meet him now. It was a big risk, for Ali Higg's vengeance was always the same; he simply turned a horde of men loose to work their will on the inhabitants of any village that defied him. The sheikh was not quite sure yet that he really sat face to face with the redoubtable robber, yet did not dare put that doubt to the test.

"Is that all Your Honor wants?" he asked. "Just that messenger?"

"Him and his camel-and another thing."

"What else, then? We are poor folk in this place. There has been a bad season. We have neither corn nor money."

"If I needed corn or money I would come and take them," Grim answered. "I have no present need. I give an order."

"Allah! What then?"

"It pleases me to camp yonder."

He made a lordly motion with his head toward the west.

"This side your village, then, all this day until sundown, none of your people venture."

"But our camels go to graze that way."

"Not this day. Today yours graze to the eastward."

"There is poor grazing to the eastward."

"Nevertheless, whoever ventures to the westward all this day does so in despite of me, and the village pays the price!"

"Allah!"

"Let Allah witness!" answered Grim.

And his face was an enigma; but half the puzzle was already solved because there was no suggestion of weakness there. It was the best piece of sheer bluffing on a weak hand that I had ever seen.

"Will Your Honor not visit my town and break bread with me?" asked Mahommed Abbas.

"If I visit that dung-hill it will be to burn it," Grim answered. "Send me out that black-faced liar and the Bishareen. I am not pleased to wait long in the sun."

"If we obey the command do we not merit Your Honor's favor?"

That was a very shrewd question. A weak man with a weak hand would have walked into that trap by betraying the spirit of compromise. On the other hand an ordinary bluffer would have blundered by overdoing the high hand.

"Consider what is known of me," Grim answered. "How many have disobeyed me and escaped? How many have obeyed and regretted it? But by the beard of Allah's Prophet," he thundered suddenly, "I grow weary of words! What son of sixty dogs dares keep me waiting in the desert while he barks?"

Mahommed Abbas did not like that medicine, especially in front of all his men. But they had ceased circling long ago and were waiting stock-still at a respectful distance; for the name of Ali Higg meant evidently more to them than the honor of their own sheikh-which at best depends on the sheikh's own generalship. It was a safe bet that if he had called on them to attack that minute they would have declined.

So he gave the dignified Arab salute, which Grim deigned to acknowledge with the slightest possible inclination of the head, and led his men away.

"What would you have done if he had called your bluff?" I asked

Grim, as soon as they were all out of earshot.

"Dunno," he said, smiling. "I've learned never to try a bluff unless I'm pretty sure of my man. That guy doesn't own many chips. As a last resort I'd have to admit I'm a government officer-if they hadn't killed us all first!"

We sat our camels there for about three quarters of an hour before half a dozen of Mahommed Abbas' men appeared with Rafiki's messenger riding the Bishareen between them. His face when they handed him over was the color of raw liver, and if ever a man was too scared to try to escape it was he. Ali Baba's two sons got one on either side of him without making him feel any better, for he too was a Hebron man and knew them and their reputation. There was nothing improbable about their throwing in their lot with the greater robber Ali Higg.

Then the sheikh's men tried to load gifts on Grim-chickens, a live sheep, melons, vegetables, and camel milk in a gourd. Grim did not even deign to acknowledge them in person, but made a gesture to Narayan Singh, who promptly took charge of the prisoner himself and sent Ali Baba's sons back for the presents. They had the good grace to find fault with everything, vowing that the sheep especially was only fit for vultures. However, with a final sneer or two anent the donor's manners they bore sheep and all along behind us back to camp.

"Is it well?" called Ali Baba, watching on the ridge of a dune, and coming to life like a heron as soon as we drew near.

"All's well," said Grim.

"Father of cunning! What now?" the old man answered.

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