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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Lion of Petra By Talbot Mundy Characters: 28997

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Him and Me-Same Father!"

Every detail of a man's bearing is watched carefully in that land. Every action has its value. The etiquette of the desert is more strict, and more dangerous to neglect, than that of palaces, although it is simpler and more to the point, being based on the instinct of self-preservation.

The Arabs who approached us, having ridden straight into a trap for all they knew, for they had expected friends and found strangers, were even more than usually observant of formality. They were fierce, fine-looking fellows, possessed of that dignity that only warfare with the desert breeds, and they saluted Grim with the punctilio of men who know the meaning of a fight to him who doubtless understands it too. A very different matter, that, to raising your Stetson on Broadway, with two cops on the corner and the Stars and Stripes floating from the hotel roof. They eyed Grim the while in the same sort of way that men who might be charged with trespass look at the game warden, waiting for him to speak first.

"Allah ysabbak bilkhair!" he rolled out at last.

"Allah y'a fik, ya Ali Higg!" they answered one after the other.

And then the oldest of them-a black-bearded stalwart with extremely aquiline nose and dark-brown eyes that fairly gleamed from under the linen head-dress, took on himself the role of spokesman.

"O Ali Higg! May Allah give you peace!"

"And to you peace!" Grim answered.

I could not see Grim's face, of course, since I stood behind him, but I did not detect the least movement of surprise or nervousness. He stood as if he were used to being called by that name, but the rest of us did not dare look at one another. Once across that railway-line we were in the real Ali Higg's preserves. It occurred to me at the moment as vastly safer to pose as the U.S. President in Washington.

Still, Grim had not actually accepted the situation yet. I held my breath, trying to remember to look like a product of Lahore University.

"We were on our way to El-Maan, O Ali Higg, not knowing that your honor had a hand in this affair."

"Since when is a lion not called a lion?" demanded Grim. "Who gave thee leave to name me?"

"Pardon, O Lion of Petra! But the woman yonder, boasting with proper pride that she is Your Honor's wife, bade us approach and pay respect."

On my left I heard Narayan Singh muttering obscenities through set teeth. On the right old Ali Baba wore a twinkle in a wicked eye; the rest of his face was as emotionless as the face of the desert; but when an old man is amused not even the crow's-feet can do less than advertise the fact.

"A woman's tongue is like a camel bell," said Grim. "It clatters unceasingly, and none can silence without choking it. But art thou a woman?"

"Pardon, O Lion of Petra!"

There followed a long pause. When men meet in the desert it is only those from the West who are in any hurry to betray their business. There being an infinity of time, that man is a liar who proclaims a shortage of it.

"Will the sun not rise tomorrow?" asks the East.

Grim stood like a statue; and, judging by my own feelings, who had nothing at all to do but look on, I should say that was a test of strength.

"Last week the train was punctual at El-Maan-three hours after sunrise," said the spokesman at last.

On lines where there is only one train a week it is not unusual for its arrival to be the chief social event on the country-side, but that hardly seemed to me to account for the way those five men had been driving their camels. However, as Grim knew no more of their business than the rest of us, and needed desperately to find out, he was careful to ask no questions.

No desert responds to the inquisitive folk who camp on its edge and demand to be told; but it will tell you all it knows if you keep quiet and govern yourself in accordance with its moods. The men who live in the desert are of the same pattern-fierce, hot, cold, intolerant, cruel, secretive, given to covering their tracks, and yet not without oases that are better than much fine gold to the man who knows how to find them. They enjoy a proverb better than some other men like promises.

"Allah marks the flight of birds. Shall He not decree a train's journey?" said Grim.

"Inshallah, Lion of Petra! The train will come, when that is written, and that which is written shall befall. It is said there are sons of corruption on the train, who bear much wealth with them.

"It were a pity to leave all the looting to those who got to

El-Maan soonest. They who slay will claim the booty.

"Or does Your Honor intend to arrive afterward and claim a share, leaving the labor to those who seek labor? In that case we crave permission to join Your Honor's party. It may be we can help enforce Your Honor's just demands, and be recompensed accordingly?"

"Wallahi!" Grim answered after a long pause. "Who sets himself to plunder trains without my leave? Have I been such short time in Petra that men doubt who rules here? Have I not said the train shall pass El-Maan and come thus far? Who dares challenge me? Do I wait here for nothing? Shall I be satisfied with a string of empty cars?"

The Arab turned and conferred for a moment with his four friends.

They shook their heads.

"O Lord of the Desert," he said after a minute, "none has heard of this decree. Your Honor's messenger may have failed or have fallen into bad hands on the way. Word has not come that you reserve this train for your own profit. There will be fifty men at El-Maan now waiting to slay certain passengers and plunder others."

Grim had evidently made up his mind and had set full sail on the course indicated. I confess I shuddered at the prospect; but I never saw a man look more pleased than Ali Baba, and Narayan Singh's face betrayed militant admiration. Nor have I ever heard such a streak of fulminous bad language as Grim swore then, calling earth and all its elements to witness the brimstone anger of a robber chief.

"Go ye," he thundered, "and tell those sons of swine that I say the train shall pass to this point. And as to what happens thereafter that is my affair. Bid any and all who chose to dispute my word to look first to their wives and goods. I have spoken."

The five men fell back a pace in consternation, no doubt partly affected for the sake of flattery; but they were quite obviously disconcerted.

"Wallahi! If we go on such an errand who shall save our lives? Who are we to come between wolves and their prey?"

"Say ye are my messengers," retorted Grim. "Let any touch a messenger of mine who dares."

"But they will not believe us."

"That is their affair. It is Allah's way to make blind those who it is written are to be destroyed."

"Nay, Lion of Petra, give a man to go with us-one whom they will know and recognize. Then all shall be well."

Have I ever said that Grim is a genius? He can take longer chances in a crisis with a more unerring aim than any man I ever knew. Surely he took one then.

"Nay," he laughed. "I will send them a woman. Let us see who will dare gainsay the woman."

That was simply supreme genius. It even pleased Narayan Singh, since the tables were turned on Ayisha. The only reason she could possibly have had for telling these men that Grim was Ali Higg was to score off him, either by capturing him for herself, or in the alternative by ruining him for rejecting her advances. It was not clear yet which of the two she hoped to accomplish; perhaps, little savage that she was, she would have been content with either alternative and had simply chosen to force the issue.

At any rate Grim had passed the buck back to her. He sent me over to the rock to fetch her, and I found her smiling serenely, like the Sphinx, only with more than a modicum of added mischief.

"Woman, the Lion of Petra summons you," said I.

She laughed at that as if the world were at her feet-got up, and stretched herself, and yawned like a lazy cat that sees the milk being set down in a saucer-straightened her dress, and nodded knowingly to her four men. She had evidently reached an understanding with them.

"I hasten to do my lord's bidding," she answered, and followed me back.

It calls for all your presence of mind to remember to walk in front of a woman who is addressed as often as not as princess; but if I had walked behind her they would have suspected me at once of being no true Moslem.

I returned and stood behind Grim, and she stood in front of him, so that I was able to see her face. It was as good as a show to see her swallow back surprise and wonder at him open-eyed, as he played the part she had foisted on him and loaded her with the responsibility.

"Go with these men, Ayisha, and tell those swine at El-Maan that I say the train shall pass unharmed as far as this point. Moreover, say that none may trespass. What shall take place here is my affair. The range of my rifle is the measure of the line across which none may come.

"Stay with them, Ayisha, until the train leaves El-Maan. Then you may leave your camel and return hither on the train. That is my order."

She was bluffed. And she recognized it with a sort of dog-like glance of admiration. We had all her baggage, for one thing, and it represented more wealth than any Bedouin woman would let go willingly.

Now if she were to reverse what she had said, and refuse to advertise Grim as Ali Higg, these five men and probably others would surely denounce her to her real husband. She had no choice. But she was sharp-witted, and made the most of the situation even so.

"Shall I go alone, my lord? Alone with these strangers?"

"Take two of your servants."

But what she wanted to make sure of was that Grim might not decamp with her baggage and leave her to face the consequences. It seems you can fall in love in the desert without putting too much faith in masculine nature.

"Nay, give me two men I can trust. Give me that and that one."

She selected old Ali Baba and me; and it was a shrewd choice, for unless Grim was a more than usually yellow-minded rascal he was surely not going to leave the captain of his gang behind. And no doubt she supposed I was valuable to Grim because of the friendly, confidential way in which he always treated me. In other words, she proposed to have two first-class hostages.

Grim gave her three. He sent Ali Baba, me, and Mujrim, and mounted her on the Bishareen dromedary, that men might know she was one whom her lord delighted to honor. She tried to get a chance to whisper to him, but he was too alert and acted exactly as if he had known her all his life, needing no explanations or assurances.

So off we nine rode beside the railway track, she leading, since she was chief emissary, and the last I saw of Grim for a few hours he was squatting in the circle of remaining men, talking to them as calmly as if nothing had happened.

Well, there was nothing for me to do but ride forward and watch points. I was a hostage without responsibility.

If Ayisha should chose to turn on us and hand me over to the crowd at El-Maan I believed I would have wit enough to denounce her in return; and it might be that as a Darwaish I could claim immunity. Failing that, I found myself able to hope with a really acute enthusiasm that my shrift at the crowd's hands might be short. I did not want to be crucified, or pulled in pieces by camels; but if mine was to be the casting vote, of the two the camels had it.

There were other points to be considered. I had a rifle slung behind me, and two bandoliers. However, it was highly unlikely I would have a chance to use the rifle, which is an awkward weapon at close quarters when surrounded.

But hidden under my coat I had two repeating-pistols and a knife. Since a man can't prevent himself from making plans when there is nothing else to think about, I made up my mind finally in case of trouble to let them take the rifle and the knife; they might then suppose me to be disarmed. After that, if the trouble should be due to Ayisha's treason, I would execute her, and shoot myself in the head with the same pistol rather than submit to torture.

At the end of the first mile I drew alongside Ali Baba and passed him my second pistol. It did not seem any of my business to advise him what to do with it beyond hiding it under his clothes. The old rascal's eyes glittered as his hand closed on it, and it seemed to me he understood; and so he did, but not what I intended.

I never got the pistol back. He understood that a fool and his repeater are soon parted. When I asked him for it afterward he vowed he had lost it, and called his son Mujrim in addition to Allah and Mohammed and all the saints to witness that he spoke virgin truth, and, moreover, that he never lied, and would rather die ten times over than play a trick on me. I have heard since that he has become a very good shot with a repeating-pistol, but has difficulty in stealing suitable ammunition.

Ayisha wasted no breath on conversation on the way, but whipped her camel to its utmost speed after the first mile, so that we had our work cut out to keep up with her. It is aggravating to ride a big beast and try in vain to overtake a little one; but she had been born to the game, and there wasn't a man in the party who could have won a race against her, whichever of the animals she rode; for the camel knows quicker than a horse whether his rider understands the art or not. And art it is, as surely as painting or music-art that can be tediously learned in a degree, but must be born in you if you are ever to excel at it.

The desert was all red sand now and dreary beyond human power to imagine. The clouds of dust we kicked up followed us, and even the cloths we kept across our mouths and nostrils did not keep it out. You felt like a mummy riding a race in hell, and how the camels managed to breathe I can't guess. The sun on our right hand was just at the angle where it struck your eyes under the kuffiyi.

But I was the only one who seemed at all distressed by any of those inconveniences; the others accepted them as in the natural order of things, and my camel, realizing how I felt, galloped last in the worst of the dust.

El-Maan itself was a picture of green trees above a mud wall; but we did not visit it, for the station, with its hideous red water-tanks, was a mile and a half to the eastward of the place-a miserable,

bleak, unpainted iron roof and buildings, with a place alongside that had once been a Greek hotel.

At present it looked like a camel-mart; but there were dozens of horses there too, gaudily turned out like the camels with red worsted trimmings on saddles and bridles. And as for the fifty men our five new acquaintances had spoken of, there were a hundred and fifty if one, all herded in groups, each with a rifle over his arm or slung across his shoulder. Their talk ceased as we rode along the track, and those who were on the platform-about half of them-eyed Ayisha with as much curiosity as a Bedouin taken by surprise ever permits himself to betray.

She did not give them much time for reflection, and wasted none whatever on conciliation, but affronted them from camel-back, having learned that method, no doubt, from her rightful lord and master. It was obvious from the first that they all knew her by sight.

"Wallahi! Good meat for the crows ye will all be presently! Has the Lion of Petra lost his teeth that jackals hunt ahead of him? Did the men of Dat Ras profit by coming between him and his prey? Go, look at Rat Das and count the splinters of men's bones! So shall your bones lie-ye who tempt the wrath of Ali Higg!"

She rode along the line, showing her little teeth like pomegranate seeds in a sneer that would have made a passport clerk take notice; and her voice was raised to a shrill, harpy scream that rasped under the iron roof, so that none could have pretended he did not hear.

"The Lion claims this train! The Lion of Petra lies in wait for it at a place of his own choosing! Who dares forestall him? Who dares slay one passenger, or loot one truck? Who dares? Stand out, whoever dares, that I may take his name back to the Lion of Petra!"

Nobody did stand out. They all herded closer together, as if in fear that any one left on the edge of the crowd might be assumed to challenge her authority. Yet they looked capable of plundering a city, that company of stately cutthroats. Perhaps some of them had seen what actually happened when Ali Higg raided Dat Ras. Certainly they came from scattered settlements, on which Ali Higg could take detailed vengeance whenever it suited him.

"Ye know me! I wait here for the train. I shall ride on it to where the Lion of Petra waits. Who dares interfere with me or follow? Let him name himself! Who dares?"

Her savagery fed itself on threats, and increased as she felt herself grow mistress of the situation. Partly the primitive love of power, partly the animal instinct to subject and oppress-pride on top of that, and something of her sex, too, glorying in giving orders to the self-styled sterner members-drove her to increasing frenzy.

And it was not fear alone that impressed the crowd and impelled it to obedience, for those highland Bedouins are, after all, too practical for that. We were but nine all told, to their seven or eight score, and they might have enforced the logic of that first, and left the threatened consequences for afterward, but for the appeal of the spectacular.

It bewildered them to be harangued confidently by a woman-they who were used to watching women carry loads. There was something revolutionary about it that took their breath away, and swept their own determination into limbo.

As always, the men in the background, who felt they could avoid recognition, were the only ones who ventured to raise objection. One or two of them started to laugh, that being the best answer all the world over to any threat, and if the laugh had spread that would likely have been the end of us. I had unslung my rifle and held it in full view resting on my thigh, being minded to look as murderous as possible, but she stole all my thunder by suddenly snatching the rifle away and drawing back its bolt to cock the spring with that almost effortless adroitness that comes of long use.

"Who laughs at the Lion of Petra's threat?" she screamed, raising herself in the saddle to survey the crowd. "Who laughs? He shall die by the hand of a woman! Who laughs, I say?"

But nobody wanted to die by a woman's hand; and nobody chose to slay the woman, because of the certainty of vengeance dealt by an expert in terrorism. I know I didn't doubt she would have used the rifle, and I don't suppose they did. If she couldn't be laughed out of countenance the only alternative was bloodshed, and none dared show fight.

Old Ali Baba worked his camel closer, and, because an Arab must boast at every opportunity, began to whisper in my ear.

"Wallahi! Was I not wise? It was I who told her if she wanted our Jimgrim she should tell the world she is his wife and he the veritable Ali Higg! It takes an old man's tongue to guide the cleverest woman!"

The train screamed then in the distance, and a Syrian station agent in tattered khaki uniform went through the wholly unnecessary process of letting down a signal. We got off the track and rode our camels round on to the platform. The crowd gave way before us, and Ayisha thrust herself this and that way among them, breaking up groups, striking me over the wrist with the stick she had for flogging the camel because I tried to regain the rifle.

By the time the rusty, creaking, groaning rattletrap of a train drew up there was not an element of cohesion left in the crowd. She knew too much to drive them away to where they might have regained something of determination, but let them stand there under her eye where they could see in herself the ruthless symbol of Ali Higg's ruthlessness. And not even the sight of the frightened passengers, in a panic because of tales that had been told them up the line, could restore their plunder-lust.

As a matter of fact that was a romantic little mixed train when you come to think of it. The Arab engine-driver, piloting his charge through no-man's land, where the bones of former train crews lay bleaching, simply because he was an engine-driver and that was his job; the freight in locked steel cars consigned by optimists who hoped it might reach its destination; the four guards armed with worn-out rifles that they did not dare use; the four passenger-cars with their window-glass all shot away; the half-dozen Arab artisans carried along for makeshift repairs en route; and the more than brave-the too-fatalist-to-care-much passengers wondering which of their number had an enemy at every halting-place; and along with that the formalism-the observance of conventions such as blowing the whistle and pulling down the signal, on a track that carried one train one way once a week; it made you feel like taking off your hat to it all, reminding me in a vague way of those Roman legionaries who kept up the semblance of their civilization after the power of Rome had waned.

I rode over beside the engine-driver and warned him to pull out before trouble started. But he had to take in water first. And he seemed to be an expert in symptoms of lawlessness. Leaning his grimy head and shoulders out of the cab, he looked the crowd over, spat, and showed his yellow teeth in a grin that vaguely reminded me of Grim's good-humored smile.

"Mafish!" he remarked, summing up the situation in two syllables. "Nothing doing!"

I would have given, and would give now, most of what I own for that man's ability to pass such curt, comprehensive judgment without reservation, equivocation, or hesitation. I rather suspect that it can only be learned by sticking to your job when the rest of the world has been fooled into thinking it is making history out of talk and treason.

There was nothing whatever but water for the train to wait for. Nobody had business at El-Maan, for the simply sufficient reason that you can't do business where governments don't function, where all want everything for nothing, and whoever could pay won't.

The engine-driver's grimier assistant swung the water-spout clear and climbed back over the cab, cursing the view, crowds, coal-dust, prospect-everything. He meant it too. When he said he wished the devil might pitch me into hell and roast me forever he wasn't exaggerating. But I got off my camel and boarded the engine nevertheless. Ayisha had handed over her mount to Ali Baba and entered the caboose, ignoring the protests of the uniformed conductor who, having not much faith in fortune, did not care whom he offended. But he might as well have insulted a camel as Ayisha, for all he would have gained by it.

My friend the engine-driver blew the whistle; somebody on the platform tooted a silly little horn; a signal descended in the near distance and we started just as I caught sight of Mujrim coming to take my camel.

Then it occurred to some bright genius that even if they might not loot the train there was no embargo on rejoicing; and there was only one way to do that. What they saw fit to rejoice about I don't know, but one shot rang in the air, and a second later fifty bullets pierced the dinning iron roof.

That made such a lovely noise and so scared the passengers that they could not resist repeating it, and by the time we had hauled abreast of the distance-signal there was not much of the roof left.

I saw Ali Baba and Mujrim take advantage of the excitement to start back with the camels; and two minutes later about twenty men decided to follow them at a safe distance. The rest had begun to scatter before the train was out of sight, and I never again saw one of the five gentry who had introduced us to the whole proceedings.

Then my friend the engine-driver found time to be a little curious.

"What'n hell?" he asked, in the lingua franca that all Indians are supposed to understand.

So I answered him in the mother argot at a venture, and he bit.

"There's a man down the line a piece who'll blow your train to hell," said I, "unless you pull up when he flags you."

"Son of a gun, eh?"

"Sure bet!"

"Where you learn English?"

"States," said I. "You been there too?"

"Sure pop! Goin' back some time."

"Not if you don't stop her when you get the hint, you won't. That guy down there ahead means business."

I don't think he would have dared try to run the gauntlet in any case, for the best the engine could do with that load behind it was a wheezy twenty miles an hour, and the track was so out of repair that even that speed wasn't safe. I was willing to bet Grim hadn't lifted a rail or placed any obstruction in the way, but the driver had no means of knowing that.

"Son of a gun, eh?" he repeated. "What in 'ell's 'e want?"

"Nothing, if you pay attention to him. All he hankers for is humoring. He wants to talk."

"Uh! What in 'ell's a matter with him?"

"Nothing, but he'll put a crimp in your machinery unless you stay and chin with him."

"I give him dry steam. He'll run like the devil."

"Don't you believe it. He's wise. Better humor him."

"Shucks! I shoot him. I shot lots o' men."

"No need to shoot," said I. "This is love stuff. He's got a lady in the last car."

"Oh, gal on the train, eh? All right. You climb back along the cars an' kick her off soon as you see him."

"Gosh! I'd sooner kick a nest of hornets!"

"You her brother?"

"Not so's you'd notice it."

"What then?"

"She's got my gun. Barring that we're not real close related."

"Uh! Those damned Bedouin fellers can't shoot for nuts. Let 'em fire away. I take a chance."

"Ever hear of Ali Higg?" I asked him.

He turned his head from peering down the blistering hot track, wiped the sweat from his face and hands with a filthy rag, and looked at me keenly.

"Why? You know him?"

"Yes. I asked if you do."

"Son of a gun! Him and me-same father!"

"You mean he's your brother?"

He nodded.

"He's the man you've got to pull up for."

"His gal on the train?"

"Sure thing."

He resumed his vigil, leaning over the side of the engine with one hand on the throttle-lever.

"All right," he said. "I stop for him. Son of a gun! If he bust my train I kill the sucker!"

I never posed as much of a diplomatist, but it seemed wise to me in the circumstances not to offer any further information or ask questions. But I was curious. It was possible that Ali Higg's brother had been given the task of running that train for the reason that no lesser luminary would have one chance in a thousand of reaching the destination.

I never found out whether my guess was right or not, and never left off rating that engine-driver in any case as one of the world's heroes. I've a notion there is a book that might be written about him and his train.

A polished black dot in the distance soon increased into the flattened egg-shaped rock, and then we saw Grim standing on the track with all his men.

That is the safest place to stop a train from, because you avoid a broadside from the car-windows. True to his word the driver came to a standstill, and Grim came up to speak with him just as I jumped off. I waited, expecting to see a contretemps.

"Ya Ali Higg! You fool!" said the driver. "You would kill your own brother? You let me go!"

"Hah! You recognize me, then?" said Grim, coolly enough on the surface.

But his poker mask was off. In that land of polygamy and deportations it is frequent enough that one brother does not know the other by sight; but it must be disconcerting, all the same, to have a supposititious brother sprung on you. He gave a perceptible start, as he had not done when first addressed as Ali Higg that day.

"Mashallah!" swore the driver. "I would know thine evil face with the meat stripped off it! Nevertheless, thou and I are brothers and this is my train. So let me go!"

Grim watched Ayisha jump out of the caboose with my rifle in her hand, and turn to take aim at the open door, through which the conductor's voice came croaking blasphemy.

"All right," he said. "Since thou and I are brothers, go thy way! Allah ysallmak!"

The driver did not wait for a second hint, but shoved the lever over so hard that the wheels spun and the whole train came within an ace of bucking off the track. And before the caboose had passed us Ayisha was alongside Grim abusing him for not having broken the locks off the steel freight-cars.

"I am a robber's wife!" she said, stamping her foot indignantly.

"What sort of robber are you that let such loot pass free?"

"Shall I rob my mother's son?" Grim asked her. "God forbid!"

Then he turned to me, wondering.

"Can you beat it?" he said.

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