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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Lion of Petra By Talbot Mundy Characters: 27232

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"You Got Cold Feet?"

We did not have to wait long for Ali Baba, Mujrim, and the camels, for they had not been fools enough to dawdle, with a hundred and fifty balked freebooters within rifle-shot, whose resilient pride was likely to breed anger. You can't lead camels any more than horses as fast as you can ride them; unless stampeded they tow loggily; but the fact that two or three dozen mounted Arabs had elected to follow along behind and watch from a safe distance what might happen to the train had lent Ali Baba wings.

And the same fact gave us wings too. We were up and away at once, headed eastward toward Petra, I perched on top of a baggage beast until Ali Baba could cut across at an angle and overtake us.

So those who watched no doubt confirmed the story of Ali Higg's presence on the scene. Had they not from the horizon seen the train stopped? Did they not with their own eyes see us scoot for Petra? And who else than the redoubtable Ali Higg would be likely to own such a string of splendid camels-he who could take what he coveted, and never coveted anything except the best?

The evidence of identity was strong enough for a judge and jury.

Men have been hanged in America on less.

But that didn't help make the rest of our course any clearer than a fog off Sandy Hook. The real Ali Higg was in Petra like a dragon in a cave, and from all accounts of him he was not the sort of gentleman likely to lavish sweet endearments on a rival who had stolen not only his thunder, but his name as well.

"When in doubt go forward" is good law; but which is forward and which backward when you stand in the middle of a circle of doubt is a point that invites argument; and as soon as I could get my own camel I rode up beside Grim to find out whether our leader had a real plan or was only guessing.

But he seemed in no doubt at all, only satisfied, with the air of a scientist who has at last found the key to a natural puzzle. I found him chuckling.

"That explains a hundred things," he said.

"What does?"

"Why, my likeness to Ali Higg. It's evidently so. I've often been kept awake wondering why strangers-Bedouins mostly-would show me such deference until they found out who I really am, and after that would have to be handled without gloves. It bothered me. It looked as if I had some natural gift that I couldn't identify, and that got smothered as soon as I put mere brains to work.

"But I see now; they mistook me for the robber, and the reaction when they found out I was some one less like the devil made them act like school-kids who think they can guy the teacher. Now I understand, I'll do better."

"The point is," said I, "that you're established as the robber now, and here we are riding straight for his den. Can we fight him and his two hundred?"

"Fighting is a fool's game ten times out of nine," he answered. "That's to say, it's always a fool who starts the fight. The wise man waits until fighting is the only resource that's left to him."

"Why not wait, then, and watch points?"

"Because we're not dealing with a wise man; he's only clever and drastic. If we wait word's bound to reach him that some one's posing as himself, and he'll sally forth to make an example of us-do a good job of it too!

"I'd hate to be caught out in the desert with twenty men by Ali Higg! He's a rip-roaring typhoon. But the worst typhoon the world ever saw had a soft spot in the middle.

"You know what the Arab say? `A dog can scratch fleas, but not worms in his belly!' We've got to be worms in the belly of Ali Higg, and where the man is there will be his belly also. We've got to stage what the movie people call a close-up."

Almost every one in the outfit had a different view of the situation, although all agreed that Grim was the man to stay with. Narayan Singh, growling in my ear incessantly, scented intrigue, and his Sikh blood tingled at the thought; he began to look more tolerantly on Ayisha as a mere instrument whom Grim would find some chance of using.

"For the cleverest woman whom the devil ever sent to ruin men is after all but a lie that engulfs the liar. I know that man Jimgrim. She will dig a pit, but he will not fall into it. It may be that we shall all die together, but what of that?"

Ayisha, on the other hand, was getting nervous. Grim avoided her. She was reduced to questioning others, edging the little Bishareen alongside each in turn. She seemed no longer able to suffer the close confinement of the shibriyah, but endured the scorching sun and desert flies with less discomfort than the rest of us betrayed, camels included.

"What will he do? Is he mad? Does he think that the Lion of Petra is a camel to be managed with a rope and a stick?

"I have given him his chance; because of my words men already

fear him. Why doesn't he plunder, then, and run to his own home?

Why doesn't he talk with me and let me tell him what to do next?

I know all these people-all their villages-everything!"

"All women know too much, yet never what is needful," Ali

Baba answered.

He was frankly jubilant. Son and grandson of robbers by profession, father and grandfather of educated thieves, life meant lawlessness to him, and he could see nothing but honest pleasure and the chance of profit in Grim's predicament. He loved Grim, as all Arabs do love the foreigner who understands them, deploring nothing except that unintelligible loyalty to a Western code of morals that according to Ali Baba's lights consisted of pure foolishness. And now, as he saw it, Grim stood committed to a course that could only lead to trickery. And all trickery must pave the way for plunder. And plundering was fun.

His sons and grandsons in varying degree saw matters from the old man's viewpoint, although, having had rather less experience of it, they were not quite so confident of Grim's generalship; but they made up for that by perfectly dog-like devotion to "the old man, their father," whose word and whose interpretation of the Koran was the only law they knew.

What tickled their fancy most was Ali Baba's cleverness in egging on Ayisha to advertise Grim as Ali Higg. Again and again on the march that day, in spite of the grilling heat, and thirst and flies, they burst into roars of laughter over it, chaffing Ayisha's four men unmercifully.

And after a while Mahommed, the youngest of Ali Baba's sons, regarded by all the others as the poet of the band and therefore the least responsible and most to be humored in his whims, made up a song about it all. It called for something more than boisterous spirits; it needed the fire of enthusiasm and ingrained pluck to set them all singing behind him in despite of the desert heat and the dazzling, bleak, unwatered view. They sang the louder in defiance of the elements.

"Lord of the desert is Ali Higg!

Akbar! Akbar! *

Lord of the gardens of grape and fig.

Akbar! Akbar!

Lord of the palm and clustered date.

Mishmish,** olive and water sate

Hunger and thirst in Ali's gate!

Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!

"Lion of lions and lord of lords!

Akbar! Akbar!

Chief of lances, prince of swords!

Akbar! Akbar!

Red with blood is the realm he owns!

Bzz-u-wzz-uzz the blood-fly drones!

Crack-ak-ak-ak! The crunching bones!

Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!

"Jackals feed on Ali's trail!

Akbar! Akbar!

Speed and strength and numbers fail!

Akbar! Akbar!

Swooping along in a cloud of sand,

Killing and conquering out of hand

Hasten the slayers of Ali's band!

Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!

"Camel and horse and fat-tail sheep,

Akbar! Akbar!

Ali's kite-eyed herdsmen keep!

Akbar! Akbar!

Gold and silver and gems of the best,

Amber and linen and silks attest

What are the profits of Ali's quest!

Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!

"Fair are the fortunes of Ali's men!

Akbar! Akbar!

Each has slave-women eight or ten!

Akbar! Akbar!

Ho! Where the dust of the desert swirls

Over the plain as his cohort whirls,

Oho! the screams of the plundered girls!

Akbar! Akbar! Akbar Ali Higg!"

------- * Akbar means "great."

** Mishmish-apricot. In that land of drought and desolation the highest compliment you can pay a man is to call him lord of water and ripening fruit. -------

There was any amount more of it, but most of the rest was not polite enough for print, because the Arab likes to enter into details. It sounded much better in Arabic, anyhow. And more and more frequently as the song grew lurid and they warmed to the refrain they made their point by changing the third Akbar into Jimgrim:

"Akbar! Akbar! Jimgrim Ali Higg!"

It suited their sense of humor finely to announce to the wind and the kites that Grim, the strict, straight, ethical American was a ravisher of virgins and a slitter of offenseless throats, who knew no mercy-a man without law in this world or prospect of peace in the next.

When we reached an oasis about noon-sweet water and thirty or forty palm-trees-and simply had to camp there because the camels were exhausted after a night and half a day of strenuous marching, they were still so full of high spirits that they had to work them off somehow; and unwittingly I provided the excuse.

I was on the lee side of a camel, opening a boil in Mujrim's leg with his razor, when I caught sight of one of the younger men trying to burgle the medicine-chest. I yelled at him, and naturally gashed my patient's leg, who rose in giant wrath and with enormous fairness smote the real culprit.

The resulting blasphemous bad language brought Ali Baba to the scene at once as peacemaker, with all the gang behind him; and in a minute they had all joined hands, with Mahommed standing in the center, and were dancing like a lot of pouter-pigeons, singing a new song about Mujrim's leg, and a razor, and blood on the sand, and palm-trees, and a saint, and my superhuman ability to let daylight into the very heart of boils. You don't have to believe any one who tells you that Arabs haven't humor.

There were the ruins of half a dozen mud-walled huts near the spring in that oasis. There had once been a sort of rampart and a gate, but there was hardly enough of that left to show where it stood. The only building still quite intact was a stone tomb of about the height of a man, with a plastered cupola roof; and Ali Baba, who always knew everything, swore that was a great saint's grave, and that there was much virtue and good luck to be gained by praying inside the tomb. So they all took turns to go in and pray fervently-two-bow prayers as they called them-reciting thereafter such scripture as Ali Baba thought suitable and could remember.

Hunting about in the ruins I found indubitable human bones. Ayisha, when asked about it, said that Ali Higg had raided the place several months ago and killed or captured every one.

"Because he is lord of the waters," she explained, and seemed to think that reason unassailable.

There was quite a dispute at that place as to who should stand first guard while the rest of us slept, but Grim settled it by casting lots with date-stones in a way that was new, but that seemed to satisfy every one-especially as the first watch fell to Narayan Singh and me.

"That is because the rest of us said our prayers," explained Ali

Baba piously.

But I think it was really because Grim knew how to play tricks with the date-stones.

The Sikh and I kept making the circuit of the palm-trees and talking to keep each other from getting too sleepy, for there is no time when desire to sleep so loads you down as in the noon heat after a long march. You very often can't sleep then because of the very heat that makes you drowsy; but the glare has been so trying to your eyes that you yearn to shut them, and inertia sits on your spine and shoulders like a load of lead.

"Thou and I must watch that woman, sahib," said Narayan Singh. "Our Jimgrim will make use of her; but how shall he do that if her heart changes? As long as she hopes to snare him I am not afraid of her. But what if it should be she who grows afraid as we get nearer to Ali Higg's nest? A woman afraid is worse than a man with a dagger in the dark. Suppose she bolts to Ali Higg and lays information against us-what then?"

I tried to argue him out of his anxiety, because I wanted to sleep when my turn came. My habit of never looking for trouble is a lovely one until trouble starts; but the Sikh, being only a heathen, could not be persuaded; so I had to promise him that, turn about, four hours on and four off, he and I would watch Ayisha faithfully until such time as Grim should make other disposition of our services or there should be no more need.

"And I think, sahib, that it will be best to shoot or stab her without argument if she turns treacherous."

But I never stabbed or shot a woman yet. I have a loose-kneed prejudice against it. I said so.

"Then, sahib, if it be your turn on watch, and you detect treachery, summon me, and I will send her to Jehannum." [Hell]

"I think we ought to speak to Jimgrim about it," I objected. "He might have other plans."

The Sikh turned that over in his mind during one whole circuit of the palm-trees, stroking his great beard with his right hand the while as if the friction would inspire his brain.

"Jimgrim will say she is a woman and therefore must not be killed in any event," he answered at last. "But that is of the nature of his error, all men suffering delusion in some form, since none is perfect. If we submit t

he problem to him he will answer wrongly; but we shall then have received orders, which, as faithful men, we must not disobey.

"As concerns ourselves, being men without specific orders on that point, the question is simple: Of that woman and that man, if the one must live and the other die, which shall it be? And I say Jimgrim shall live, if I die afterward even by his hand for it."

It sounded logical. The arguments with which an unselfish, honest fellow deceives himself into wrong-doing always do bear quite a lot of investigation. But I was at sea before the mast once, where I learned painfully that the captain commands the ship; not even the notions of the buckiest bucko mate amount to as much as a barnacle's bootlace if the old man disagrees from them.

"What makes you think he doesn't understand the obvious danger of

Ayisha?" said I.

"No man from the West ever understood a woman of the East," he answered.

That being obviously true-Adam did not understand Eve, and no man from anywhere has understood any woman since-I had to rack my brains for a different argument.

"There are two sure ways of discovering treason," I said at last. "One way is to pick a quarrel with the person you suspect. But the safer way is to seem very friendly.

"Now-why don't you make love to her? You're a fine, big, handsome man. I don't suppose she'll prefer you in her heart to Jimgrim, but she'll not be ashamed to appear to respond, and if she has evil intentions she will surely seek to take advantage of your passion to forward her own plans. Seeking to make use of you, she will betray herself."

"So speaks the jackal to the tiger. `This way, sahib! That way, sahib! A broad-horned sambhur to be killed, worthy of your honor's strength!' Why don't you make love to her?"

"Because I'm afraid," said I quite frankly. "If I thought I could get away with it I'd try. But she'd laugh at me, whereas your attentions might flatter her."

"You think so?"

He stroked his great beard again, and twisted his mustache.

"I'm sure of it."

"Atcha. We shall see. I will give the trollop that one chance. It may be she will preserve her head on her shoulders yet by confiding in me; for if I can forewarn Jimgrim of her plans I will reckon it beneath my dignity to use a sword on her. So. It is settled. We shall see."

You know that warm glow of vanity that sweeps over you when another fellow concedes your plan to be better than his? It is rather like the effect of certain drugs-a highly agreeable sensation while it lasts.

But it was tempered in my case by that reference he had made to a jackal, and I'm still left wondering how much justice there was in the insinuation. Narayan Singh and I are friends right down to this minute, but I am none the less conscious of a query that seems to spoil confidence a little.

He, being master of himself by training, and used to sleeping when he saw fit, volunteered to take the first four-hour watch on Ayisha, so I got as much sleep as the flies and the snores of the rest of the gang would permit, and awoke toward evening to the sound of unaccustomed voices outside my tent. There was one voice with a squeak in it like a rusty wheel that I had certainly never heard before.

It seemed we had made some prisoners. There were three seedy-looking camels kneeling over by Grim's tent, and three almost as seedy-looking individuals were talking to Grim in the midst of our camp, with most of our gang seated in a semicircle listening. Grim had out his traveling water-pipe for the sake of effect, and was puffing away at it while he meditated on the information that was being drawn forth gradually. Ayisha was seated on the mat beside him.

The man with the squeak in his voice, who did most of the talking, was a very dark-skinned fellow with a short, coal-black, curly beard. He had little gold rings in his ears, and in spite of the filthy condition of his clothes he wore an opulent look-the sort that suggests intimate acquaintance with the fabled riches of the East. I have seen a Moor, who hadn't a coin with which to bless himself, create exactly the same impression by simply being dark and handsome.

He was eating dates while he talked, so I suppose Grim had been to some pains to make him feel welcome. But he hadn't been there long.

"Wallahi!" he said as I joined the circle. "But Your Honor is surely Ali Higg, and that is the lady Ayisha! Your Honor is pleased to pretend otherwise, but am I blind? I, who come straight from Petra where Your Honor paid me, am not thus easily deceived!

"Lo, the good camels! It was easy to make a wide circuit, and reach this place a day ahead of me; but what is Your Honor's purpose? What do you want with me, O Lion of Petra?"

"Nevertheless," said Grim, "I am not Ali Higg, who styles himself

Lion of Petra."

"Is that not the lady Ayisha?" he retorted. "True, I have only seen you in the dark, but have I not seen her at the least ten times? Was it not she who had my servant flogged on a former occasion because he likened her to other women?"

Grim said nothing to that. Ayisha drew the embroidered head-cloth over her face, I suppose to hide a smile.

"For what purpose did you visit Petra?" Grim inquired.

"Mashalla! Did I not receive payment from Your Honor? I do not understand!"

"It is I who do not understand," said Grim. "Repeat to me what you did at Petra."

"But Your Honor knows!"

"Very well. Return with me to Petra. I have reasons for asking."

"Wallahi! If it suits Your Honor's humor to make me tell you a tenth time what I have nine times said already, I have a tongue that wags. But I see that another has been telling tales of me behind my back, making me out a liar for his own purposes. Inshallah, it shall be found that my tale varies by less than the ten-thousandth part of the width of a hair from what I have told already."

"Proceed," said Grim. "I listen."

"Thus then: While in Jaffa, having received Your Honor's letter by the hand of Shabbas Ali, requesting me to spy on the British troops, I made all haste, laying aside my own affairs and journeying wherever the trail of information led me. I asked questions, but was not content with asking. I went and looked. I made friends with subordinate officials, some of whom I bribed to show me written orders removed from the desks of commanding officers.

"I ascertained all particulars and found this to be the fact: That whereas there are small bodies of troops scattered in certain places, those are needed for local protection of the places where they are; and that whereas there is at Ludd an army of more than twenty thousand men, with guns, great store of supplies, cavalry, and aeroplanes, that army is held in readiness to go to Egypt and cannot for the present be sent against you. Moreover, the long march, so difficult for guns and supply-wagons, from there to Petra, would not be attempted during the hot season. So Your Honor is safe from attack."

"Uh! So you say!" Grim grunted.

You could almost hear the wheels click inside his head as he tried to puzzle out what use to make of this man. One thing was clear enough: the Lion of Petra was well informed. It was nothing less than fact that on no account could an expedition be undertaken against him for a long time. And it was fair, therefore, to presume that in his Petra fastness the robber chief would be feeling confident, and would be that much more difficult to bluff.

But it is one advantage of that land that you may be deliberate without causing impatience or losing respect. Rather the contrary; the Arab values your decisions all the more for being reached after several minutes of silent thought.

Neither our own gang nor the prisoner was in the least disturbed by Grim's taking his time, and only Narayan Singh, still postponing his sleep, was anxious when Ayisha leaned her head close to Grim's and whispered. Grim did not nod or shake his head or make any recognition of her presence-for a real Arab would not have dreamed of doing so-but it was she who gave him the right suggestion, although her intention was totally different from his.

"You lie," he said suddenly.

"Allah!"

"There is an army making ready now to march on Petra."

"As Allah is my witness, there is no such thing."

"You shall return to Petra."

"But Your Honor knows I am in great haste. My own small affairs at Jaffa, God knows, have been neglected. How shall I spare time to return to Petra?"

"And there you shall reverse your story."

"Allah!"

"You shall tell the very numbers and equipment of the army that makes ready."

"May He who never sleeps preserve me! Am I mad, or dreaming? In Petra I have told Your Honor a true tale; shall I return to Petra in order to tell you a lie? O Lord of the limits of the desert, listen to me! I have property in Jaffa; I must attend to it."

"I know you have. By the wharf where the Greeks land melons from Egypt, isn't it? Three godowns and a cafe on the corner? A nice property."

He paused, and I think he was turning over in his mind just how far it would be wise to go with all those others listening; for every word he let fall was sure to be discussed and discussed again at the next halting-place.

"Which is better-to return to Petra and obey, or to lose that property?"

"How shall I lose it? Hah! Your Honor is pleased to joke. You will invade Palestine as far as Jaffa?"

"For those who live under British protection and yet spy against the British are not so well treated by them as those who spy on their behalf."

"Maybe. When they are caught! When they have caught a fox they may skin him."

"And I am not Ali Higg, the Lion of Petra."

"Then who in the name of the Prophet are you, with the Lion's wife at your side?"

"That is none of your business. You come back to Petra with me.

No, not your men; they go on. You alone. I have spoken."

In vain the man protested. He did not believe for a moment that Grim was not Ali Higg, and he felt sure that he was being kidnaped for some frightful fate, although Grim's mildness of demeanor must have puzzled him; for according to accounts the real Lion of Petra was a roaring beast.

Grim assigned two men to watch him, and gave the order to strike camp, refusing to listen to any further argument. And since the man's camels were too exhausted to march at once he ordered all three left behind at the oasis and put the prisoner on one of our baggage animals.

Just as we were ready to start he walked over to the two men and threatened them with frightful torture unless they hurried westward the minute the camels were fit to move on. It was pretty obvious that they were only too glad to obey; and Yussuf, our prisoner, made obedience more certain by shouting messages to them to be delivered to friends in Jaffa.

So Narayan Singh cast appraising eyes on the shibriyah, and curled up in it like a big dog, without troubling to ask Ayisha's permission. Sleep was his first intention, but he was for killing two birds with one stone; I did not realize at the time what a chance that was going to provide for making the first advances to the lady.

I rode forward beside Grim, who guided us with a compass on his wrist until the stars came out; and for hours on end we went side by side, saying nothing, listening to the monotonous jangle of his camel bell and the obligato of the bells behind. It was music that suited our mood, harmonizing perfectly with the solemn marvel of a desert sunset and the velvety, cool silence of the starlit night.

"That man Yussuf had me guessing," he said at last. "I couldn't place him. Knew his face, but that was all. Then she whispered something about his being a wind that carries smells from one village to the next and back again, spying against both sides at the same time. Then I remembered. He used to spy for us against the Turks and sell them information about us at the same time. Nearly got shot for it, but was let off because his services had really been valuable. I remember his being sent down to Jaffa and told to stay put."

"But what in thunder are you going to do with him?" I asked. "He thinks you're Ali Higg"

Grim chuckled.

"Wonder what Ali Higg will say when he's confronted by Ali Higg!"

"Wonder what he'll do, you mean, don't you!"

"What d'you keep looking back for?"

"Just keeping tabs on Ayisha."

"No need to worry about her. Now we've got Yussuf on our string it's a cinch we can use her whichever way the cat jumps. She'll be afraid he'll tell tales about her."

"Hell!" I said. "It seems to me this whole procession's crazy!

The best we've got with us is a gang of professional thieves.

"The farther we go the more we load up with sure-fire traitors. First Ayisha; she'd cut throats at so much per. Her four men, who'd change sides once an hour if they were made afraid that often. Now this Yussuf-a professional spy, whose habit you say is to betray both sides."

"Pretty good outfit, I'll tell the world," he answered.

"Good for what?"

"You got cold feet?"

"I've got cold judgment. We're crazy. We haven't a chance in a million of getting the best of an outlaw with two hundred men."

"We can try, can't we?"

"Yes, and die, can't we!"

"Well-we might do worse. I'd sooner croak in harness than have an eight-horse funeral. But say, if you don't like it you go back and join those two fellows at the oasis. There'll be no hard words."

But I felt too afraid of my own opinion of myself to turn back at that stage of the game.

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