Shahrazar by Robert E. Howard
"Swords of Shahrazar" is the sequel to "The Treasures of
Tartary." The original version was submitted for publication to Thrilling
Adventures. Howard was asked to rewrite it and revised the opening
significantly. After being rejected by Thrilling Adventures the story
was eventually published in Top-Notch. The original opening still
exists as an untitled fragment ("Feel the edge, dog...") and is included at
the end of this text.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
KIRBY O'DONNELL opened his chamber door and gazed
out, his long keen- bladed kindhjal in his hand. Somewhere a cresset
glowed fitfully, dimly lighting the broad hallway, flanked by thick columns.
The spaces between these columns were black arched wells of darkness, where
anything might be lurking.
Nothing moved within his range of vision. The great hall seemed deserted.
But he knew that he had not merely dreamed that he heard the stealthy pad of
bare feet outside his door, the stealthy sound of unseen hands trying the
O'Donnell felt the peril that crawled unseen about him, the first white
man ever to set foot in forgotten Shahrazar, the forbidden, age-old city
brooding high among the Afghan mountains. He believed his disguise was
perfect; as Ali el Ghazi, a wandering Kurd, he had entered Shahrazar, and as
such he was a guest in the palace of its prince. But the furtive footfalls
that had awakened him were a sinister portent.
He stepped out into the hall cautiously, closing the door behind him. A
single step he took—it was the swish of a garment that warned him. He
whirled, quick as a cat, and saw, all in a split second, a great black body
hurtling at him from the shadows, the gleam of a plunging knife. And
simultaneously he himself moved in a blinding blur of speed. A shift of his
whole body avoided the stroke, and as the blade licked past, splitting only
thin air, his kindhjal, driven with desperate energy, sank its full
length in the black torso.
An agonized groan was choked by a rush of blood in the dusky throat. The
Negro's knife rang on the marble floor, and the great black figure, checked
in its headlong rush, swayed drunkenly and pitched forward. O'Donnell watched
with his eyes as hard as flint as the would-be murderer shuddered
convulsively and then lay still in a widening crimson pool.
He recognized the man, and as he stood staring down at his victim, a train
of associations passed swiftly through his mind, recollections of past events
crowding on a realization of his present situation.
Lure of treasure had brought O'Donnell in his disguise to forbidden
Shahrazar. Since the days of Genghis Khan, Shahrazar had sheltered the
treasure of the long-dead shahs of Khuwarezm. Many an adventurer had sought
that fabled hoard, and many had died. But O'Donnell had found it—only
to lose it.
Hardly had he arrived in Shahrazar when a band of marauding Turkomans,
under their chief, Orkhan Bahadur, had stormed the city and captured it,
slaying its prince, the Uzbek Shaibar Khan. And while the battle raged in the
streets, O'Donnell had found the hidden treasure in a secret chamber, and his
brain had reeled at its splendor. But he had been unable to bear it away, and
he dared not leave it for Orkhan. The emissary of an intriguing European
power was in Shahrazar, plotting to use that treasure to conquer India.
O'Donnell had done away with it forever. The victorious Turkomans had
searched for it in vain.
O'Donnell, as Ali el Ghazi, had once saved Orkhan Bahadur's life, and the
prince made the supposed Kurd welcome in the palace. None dreamed of his
connection with the disappearance of the hoard, unless—O'Donnell stared
somberly down at the figure on the marble floor.
That man was Baber, a Soudani servant of Suleiman Pasha, the emissary.
O'Donnell lifted his head and swept his gaze over the black arches, the
shadowy columns. Had he only imagined that he heard movement back in the
darkness? Bending over quickly, he grasped the limp body and heaved it on his
shoulder—an act impossible for a man with less steely thews—and
started down the hall. A corpse found before his door meant questions, and
the fewer questions O'Donnell had to answer the better.
He went down the broad, silent hall and descended a wide marble stair into
swallowing gloom, like an oriental demon carrying a corpse to hell; groped
through a tapestried door and down a short, black corridor to a blank marble
When he thrust against this with his foot, a section swung inward, working
on a pivot, and he entered a circular, domed chamber with a marble floor and
walls hung with heavy gilt-worked tapestries, between which showed broad
golden frieze- work. A bronze lamp cast a soft light, making the dome seem
lofty and full of shadows, while the tapestries were clinging squares of
This had been the treasure vault of Shaibar Khan, and why it was empty
now, only Kirby O'Donnell could tell.
Lowering the black body with a gasp of relief, for the burden had taxed
even his wiry thews to the utmost, he deposited it exactly on the great disk
that formed the center of the marble floor. Then he crossed the chamber,
seized a gold bar that seemed merely part of the ornamentation, and jerked it
strongly. Instantly the great central disk revolved silently, revealing a
glimpse of a black opening, into which the corpse tumbled. The sound of
rushing water welled up from the darkness, and then the slab, swinging on its
pivot, completed its revolution and the floor showed again a smooth unbroken
But O'Donnell wheeled suddenly. The lamp burned low, filling the chamber
with a lurid unreal light. In that light he saw the door open silently and a
slim dark figure glide in.
It was a slender man with long nervous hands and an ivory oval of a face,
pointed with a short black beard. His eyes were long and oblique, his
garments dark, even his turban. In his hand a blue, snub-nosed revolver
"Suleiman Pasha!" muttered O'Donnell tensely.
He had never been able to decide whether this man was the Oriental he
seemed, or a European in masquerade. Had the man penetrated his own disguise?
The emissary's first words assured him that such was not the case.
"Ali el Ghazi," said Suleiman, "you have lost me a valuable servant, but
you have told me a secret. None other knows the secret of that revolving
slab. I did not, until I followed you, after you killed Baber, and watched
you through the door, though I have suspected that this chamber was the
"I have suspected you—now I am certain. I know why the treasure has
never been found. You disposed of it as you have disposed of Baber. You are
cup- companion to Prince Orkhan Bahadur. But if I told him you cast away the
treasure forever, do you suppose his friendship would prevail over his
"Keep back!" he warned. "I did not say that I would tell Orkhan. Why you
threw away the treasure I cannot guess, unless it was because of fanatical
loyalty to Shaibar Kahn."
He looked him over closely. "Face like a hawk, body of coiled steel
springs," he murmured. "I can use you, my Kurdish swaggerer."
"How use me?" demanded O'Donnell.
"You can help me in the game I play with Orkhan Bahadur. The treasure is
gone, but I can still use him, I and the Feringis who employ me. I
will make him amir of Afghanistan and, after that, sultan of India."
"And the puppet of the Feringis," grunted O'Donnell.
"What is that to thee?" Suleiman laughed. "Thine is not to think. I will
do the thinking; see thou to the enacting of my commands."
"I have not said that I would serve you," growled O'Donnell doggedly.
"You have no other choice," answered Suleiman calmly. "If you refuse, I
will reveal to Orkhan that which I learned tonight, and he will have you
O'Donnell bent his head moodily. He was caught in a vise of circumstances.
It had not been loyalty to Shaibar Khan, as Suleiman thought, which had
caused him to dump an emperor's ransom in gold and jewels into the
subterranean river. He knew Suleiman plotted the overthrow of British rule in
India and the massacre of the helpless millions. He knew that Orkhan Bahadur,
a ruthless adventurer despite his friendship for the false Kurd, was a pliant
tool in the emissary's hands. The treasure had been too potent a weapon to
leave within their reach.
Suleiman was either a Russian or the Oriental tool of the Russians.
Perhaps he, too, had secret ambitions. The Khuwarezm treasure had been a pawn
in his game but, even without it, a tool of the emissary's sitting on the
throne of Shahrazar, was a living menace to the peace of India. So O'Donnell
had remained in the city, seeking in every way to thwart Suleiman's efforts
to dominate Orkhan Bahadur. And now he himself was trapped.
He lifted his head and stared murderously at the slim Oriental. "What do
you wish me to do?" he muttered.
"I have a task for you," answered Suleiman. "An hour ago word came to me,
by one of my secret agents, that the tribesmen of Khuruk have found an
Englishman dying in the hills, with valuable papers upon him. I must have
those papers. I sent the man on to Orkhan, while I dealt with you.
"But I have changed my plans in regard to you; you are more valuable to me
alive than dead, since there is no danger of your opposing me in the future.
Orkhan will desire those papers that the Englishman carried, for the man was
undoubtedly a secret-service agent, and I will persuade the prince to send
you with a troop of horsemen to secure them. And remember you are taking your
real orders from me, not from Orkhan."
He stepped aside and motioned O'Donnell to precede him.
They traversed the short corridor, an electric torch in Suleiman's left
hand playing its beam on his sullen, watchful companion, climbed the stair
and went through the wide hall, thence along a winding corridor and into a
chamber where Orkhan Bahadur stood near a gold-barred window which opened
onto an arcaded court, which was just being whitened by dawn. The prince of
Shahrazar was resplendent in satin and pearl-sewn velvet which did not mask
the hard lines of his lean body.
His thin dark features lighted at the sight of his cup-companion, but
O'Donnell reflected on the wolf that lurked ever below the surface of this
barbaric chieftain, and how suddenly it could be unmasked, snarling and
"Welcome, friends!" said the Turkoman, pacing the chamber restlessly. "I
have heard a tale! Three days' ride to the southwest are the villages of
Ahmed Shah, in the valley of Khuruk. Four days ago his men came upon a man
dying in the mountains. He wore the garments of an Afghan, but in his
delirium he revealed himself as an Englishman. When he was dead they searched
him for loot and found certain papers which none of the dogs could read.
"But in his ravings he spoke of having been to Bokhara. It is in my mind
that this Feringi was an English spy, returning to India with papers
valuable to the sirkar. Perhaps the British would pay well for these
papers, if they knew of them. It is my wish to possess them. Yet I dare not
ride forth myself, nor send many men. Suppose the treasure was found in my
absence? My own men would bar the gates against me."
"This is a matter for diplomacy rather than force," put in Suleiman Pasha
smoothly. "Ali el Ghazi is crafty as well as bold. Send him with fifty
"Can thou do it, brother?" demanded Orkhan eagerly.
Suleiman's gaze burned into O'Donnell's soul. There was but one answer, if
he wished to escape flaying steel and searing fire.
"Only in Allah is power," he muttered. "Yet I can attempt the thing."
"Mashallah!" exclaimed Orkhan. "Be ready to start within the hour.
There is a Khurukzai in the suk, one Dost Shah, who is of Ahmed's clan, and
will guide you. There is friendship between me and the men of Khuruk.
Approach Ahmed Shah in peace and offer him gold for the papers, but not too
much, lest his cupidity be roused. But I leave it to your own judgment. With
fifty men there is no fear of the smaller clans between Shahrazar and Khuruk.
I go now to choose the men to ride with you."
As soon as Orkhan left the chamber, Suleiman bent close to O'Donnell and
whispered: "Secure the papers, but do not bring them to Orkhan! Pretend that
you have lost them in the hills—anything—but bring them to
"Orkhan will be angry and suspicious," objected O'Donnell.
"Not half as angry as he would be if he knew what became of the Khuwarezm
treasure," retorted Suleiman. "Your only chance is to obey me. If your men
return without you, saying you have fled away, be sure a hundred men will
quickly be upon your trail—nor can you hope to win alone through these
hostile, devil-haunted hills, anyway. Do not dare to return without the
papers, if you do not wish to be denounced to Orkhan. Your life depends on
your playing my game, Kurd!"
PLAYING SULEIMAN'S "GAME" seemed to be the only
thing to do, even three days later as O'Donnell, in his guise of the Kurdish
swashbuckler, Ali el Ghazi, was riding along a trail that followed a
ledgelike fold of rock ribbing a mile-wide cliff.
Just ahead of him on a bony crow-bait rode the Khurukzai guide, a hairy
savage with a dirty white turban, and behind him strung out in single file
fifty of Orkhan Bahadur's picked warriors. O'Donnell felt the pride of a good
leader of fighting men as he glanced back at them. These were no stunted
peasants, but tall, sinewy men with the pride and temper of hawks; nomads and
sons of nomads, born to the saddle. They rode horses that were distinctive in
that land of horsemen, and their rifles were modern repeaters.
"Listen!" It was the Khurukzai who halted suddenly, lifting a hand in
O'Donnell leaned forward, rising in the wide silver stirrups, turning his
head slightly sidewise. A gust of wind whipped along the ledge, bearing with
it the echoes of a series of sputtering reports.
The men behind O'Donnell heard it, too, and there was a creaking of
saddles as they instinctively unslung rifles and hitched yataghan hilts
"Rifles!" exclaimed Dost Shah. "Men are fighting in the hills."
"How far are we from Khuruk?" asked O'Donnell.
"An hour's ride," answered the Khurukzai, glancing at the mid-afternoon
sun. "Beyond the corner of the cliff we can see the Pass of Akbar, which is
the boundary of Ahmed Shah's territory. Khuruk is some miles beyond."
"Push on, then," said O'Donnell.
They moved on around the crag which jutted out like the prow of a ship,
shutting off all view to the south. The path narrowed and sloped there, so
the men dismounted and edged their way, leading the animals which grew half
frantic with fear.
Ahead of them the trail broadened and sloped up to a fan-shaped plateau,
flanked by rugged ridges. This plateau narrowed to a pass in a solid wall of
rock hundreds of feet high; the pass was a triangular gash, and a stone tower
in its mouth commanded the approach. There were men in the tower, and they
were firing at other men who lay out on the plateau in a wide ragged
crescent, concealed behind boulders and rocky ledges. But these were not all
firing at the tower, as it presently became apparent.
Off to the left of the pass, skirting the foot of the cliffs, a ravine
meandered. Men were hiding in this ravine, and O'Donnell quickly saw that
they were trapped there. The men out on the plateau had cast a cordon around
it and were working their way closer, shooting as they came. The men in the
ravine fired back, and a few corpses were strewn among the rocks. But from
the sound of the firing, there were only a few men in the gully, and the men
in the tower could not come to their aid. It would have been suicide to try
to cross that bullet-swept open space between the ravine and the pass
O'Donnell had halted his men at an angle of the cliff where the trail
wound up toward the plateau, and had advanced with the Khurukzai guide part
way up the incline.
"What does this mean?" he asked.
Dost Shah shook his head like one puzzled. "That is the Pass of Akbar," he
said. "That tower is Ahmed Shah's. Sometimes the tribes come to fight us, and
we shoot them from the tower. It can only be Ahmed's riflemen in the tower
and in the ravine. But—"
He shook his head again, and having tied his horse to a straggling
tamarisk, he went up the slope, craning his neck and hugging his rifle, while
he muttered in his beard as if in uncertainty.
O'Donnell followed him to the crest where the trail bent over the rim of
the plateau, but with more caution than the Khurukzai was showing. They were
now within rifle range of the combatants, and bullets were whistling like
hornets across the plateau.
O'Donnell could plainly make out the forms of the besiegers lying among
the rocks that littered the narrow plain. Evidently they had not noticed him
and the guide, and he did not believe they saw his men where he had stationed
them in the shade of an overhanging crag. All their attention was fixed on
the ravine, and they yelled with fierce exultation as a turban thrust above
its rim fell back splashed with crimson. The men in the tower yelled with
"Keep your head down, you fool!" O'Donnell swore at Dost Shah, who was
carelessly craning his long neck above a cluster of rocks.
"The men in the tower must be Ahmed's men," muttered Dost Shah
uneasily. "Yes; it could not be otherwise, yet—Allah!" The last was an
explosive yelp, and he sprang up like a madman, as if forgetting all caution
in some other overwhelming emotion.
O'Donnell cursed and grabbed at him to pull him down, but he stood
brandishing his rifle, his tattered garments whipping in the wind like a
demon of the hills.
"What devil's work is this?" he yelled. "That is not—those are
His voice changed to a gasp as a bullet drilled him through the temple. He
tumbled back to the ground and lay without motion.
"Now what was he going to say?" muttered O'Donnell, peering out over the
rocks. "Was that a stray slug, or did somebody see him?"
He could not tell whether the shot came from the boulders or the tower. It
was typical of hill warfare, the yells and shooting keeping up an incessant
devil's din. One thing was certain: the cordon was gradually closing about
the men trapped in the ravine. They were well hidden from the bullets, but
the attackers were working so close that presently they could finish the job
with a short swift rush and knife work at close quarters.
O'Donnell fell back down the incline, and coming to the eager Turkomans,
spoke hurriedly: "Dost Shah is dead, but he has brought us to the borders of
Ahmed Shah's territory. Those in the tower are Khurukzai, and these men
attacking them have cut off some chief— probably Ahmed Shah
himself—in that ravine. I judge that from the noise both sides are
making. Then, they'd scarcely be taking such chances to slaughter a few
common warriors. If we rescue him we shall have a claim on his friendship,
and our task will be made easy, as Allah makes all things for brave men.
"The men attacking seem to me not to number more than a hundred men—
twice our number, true, but there are circumstances in our favor, surprise,
and the fact that the men in the pass will undoubtedly sally out if we create
a diversion in the enemy's rear. At present the Khurukzai are bottled in the
pass. They cannot emerge, any more than the raiders can enter in the teeth of
"We await orders," the men answered.
Turkomans have no love for Kurds, but the horsemen knew that Ali el Ghazi
was cup- companion to their prince.
"Ten men to hold the horses!" he snapped. "The rest follow me."
A few minutes later they were crawling after him up the short slope. He
lined them along the crest, seeing that each man was sheltered among the
This took but a few minutes, but in that interim the men crawling toward
the ravine sprang to their feet and tore madly across the intervening space,
yelling like blood-crazed wolves, their curved blades glittering in the sun.
Rifles spat from the gully and three of the attackers dropped, and the men in
the tower sent up an awful howl and turned their guns desperately on the
charging mob. But the range at that angle was too great.
Then O'Donnell snapped an order, and a withering line of flame ran along
the crest of the ridge. His men were picked marksmen and understood the value
of volleys. Some thirty men were in the open, charging the ravine. A full
half of them went down struck from behind, as if by some giant invisible
fist. The others halted, realizing that something was wrong; they cringed
dazedly, turning here and there, grasping their long knives, while the
bullets of the Turkomans took further toll.
Then, suddenly, realizing that they were being attacked from the rear,
they dived screaming for cover. The men in the tower, sensing reinforcements,
sent up a wild shout and redoubled their fire.
The Turkomans, veterans of a hundred wild battles, hugged their boulders
and kept aiming and firing without the slightest confusion. The men on the
plateau were kicking up the devil's own din. They were caught in the jaws of
the vise, with bullets coming from both ways, and no way of knowing the exact
numbers of their new assailants.
The break came with hurricane suddenness, as is nearly always the case in
hill fighting. The men on the plain broke and fled westward, a disorderly
mob, scrambling over boulders and leaping gullies, their tattered garments
flapping in the wind.
The Turkomans sent a last volley into their backs, toppling over distant
figures like tenpins, and the men in the tower gave tongue and began
scrambling down into the pass.
O'Donnell cast a practiced eye at the fleeing marauders, knew that the
rout was final, and called for the ten men below him to bring up the horses
swiftly. He had an eye for dramatics, and he knew the effect they would make
filing over the ridge and out across the boulder-strewn plain on their
A few minutes later he enjoyed that effect and the surprised yells of the
men they had aided as they saw the Astrakhan kalpaks of the riders top
the ridge. The pass was crowded with men in ragged garments, grasping rifles,
and in evident doubt as to the status of the newcomers.
O'Donnell headed straight for the ravine, which was nearer the ridge than
it was to the pass, believing the Khurukzai chief was among those trapped
His rifle was slung on his back, and his open right hand raised as a sign
of peace; seeing which the men in the pass dubiously lowered their rifles and
came streaming across the plateau toward him, instead of pursuing the
vanquished, who were already disappearing among the distant crags and
A dozen steps from the ridge of the ravine O'Donnell drew rein, glimpsing
turbans among the rocks, and called out a greeting in Pashtu. A deep
bellowing voice answered him, and a vast figure heaved up into full view,
followed by half a dozen lesser shapes.
"Allah be with thee!" roared the first man.
He was tall, broad, and powerful; his beard was stained with henna, and
his eyes blazed like fires burning under gray ice. One massive fist gripped a
rifle, the thumb of the other was hooked into the broad silken girdle which
banded his capacious belly, as he tilted back on his heels and thrust his
beard out truculently. That girdle likewise supported a broad tulwar and
three or four knives.
"Mashallah!" roared this individual. "I had thought it was my own
men who had taken the dogs in the rear, until I saw those fur caps. Ye are
Turks from Shahrazar, no doubt?"
"Aye; I am Ali el Ghazi, a Kurd, brother-in-arms to Orkhan Bahadur. You
are Ahmed Shah, lord of Khuruk?"
There was a hyenalike cackle of laughter from the lean, evil-eyed men who
had followed the big man out of the gully.
"Ahmed Shah has been in hell these four days," rumbled the giant. "I am
Afzal Khan, whom men name the Butcher."
O'Donnell sensed rather than heard a slight stir among the men behind him.
Most of them understood Pashtu, and the deeds of Afzal Khan had found
echo in the serais of Turkestan. The man was an outlaw, even in that
lawless land, a savage plunderer whose wild road was lurid with the smoke and
blood of slaughter.
"But that pass is the gateway to Khuruk," said O'Donnell, slightly
"Aye!" agreed Afzal Khan affably. "Four days ago I came down into the
valley from the east and drove out the Khurukzai dogs. Ahmed Shah I slew with
my own hands— so!"
A flicker of red akin to madness flamed up momentarily in his eyes as he
smashed the butt of his rifle down on a dead tamarisk branch, shattering it
from the trunk. It was as if the mere mention of murder roused the sleeping
devil in him. Then his beard bristled in a fierce grin.
"The villages of Khuruk I burned," he said calmly. "My men need no roofs
between them and the sky. The village dogs—such as still
lived—fled into the hills. This day I was hunting some from among the
rocks, not deeming them wise enough to plant an ambush, when they cut me off
from the pass, and the rest you know. I took refuge in the ravine. When I
heard your firing I thought it was my own men."
O'Donnell did not at once answer, but sat his horse, gazing inscrutably at
the fierce, scarred countenance of the Afghan. A sidelong glance showed him
the men from the tower straggling up—some seventy of them, a wild,
dissolute band, ragged and hairy, with wolfish countenances and rifles in
their hands. These rifles were, in most cases, inferior to those carried by
his own men.
In a battle begun then and there, the advantage was still with the mounted
Turkomans. Then another glance showed him more men swarming out of the
pass—a hundred at least.
"The dogs come at last!" grunted Afzal Khan. "They have been gorging back
in the valley. I would have been vulture bait if I had been forced to await
their coming. Brother!" He strode forward to lay his hand on O'Donnell's
stirrup strap, while envy of and admiration for the magnificent Turkish
stallion burned in his fierce eyes. "Brother, come with me to Khuruk! You
have saved my life this day, and I would reward you fittingly."
O'Donnell did not look at his Turkomans. He knew they were waiting for his
orders and would obey him. He could draw his pistol and shoot Afzal Khan
dead, and they could cut their way back across the plateau in the teeth of
the volleys that were sure to rake their line of flight. Many would escape.
But why escape? Afzal Khan had every reason to show them the face of a
friend, and, besides, if he had killed Ahmed Shah, it was logical to suppose
that he had the papers without which O'Donnell dared not return to
"We will ride with you to Khuruk, Afzal Khan," decided O'Donnell.
The Afghan combed his crimson beard with his fingers and boomed his
The ragged ruffians closed in about them as they rode toward the pass, a
swarm of sheepskin coats and soiled turbans that hemmed in the clean-cut
riders in their fur caps and girdled kaftans.
O'Donnell did not miss the envy in the glances cast at the rifles and
cartridge belts and horses of the Turkomans. Orkhan Bahadur was generous with
his men to the point of extravagance; he had sent them out with enough
ammunition to fight a small war.
Afzal Khan strode by O'Donnell's stirrup, booming his comments and
apparently oblivious to everything except the sound of his own voice.
O'Donnell glanced from him to his followers. Afzal Khan was a Yusufzai, a
pure-bred Afghan, but his men were a motley mob—Pathans, mostly,
Orakzai, Ummer Khels, Sudozai, Afridis, Ghilzai—outcasts and nameless
men from many tribes.
They went through the pass—a knife-cut gash between sheer rock
walls, forty feet wide and three hundred yards long—and beyond the
tower were a score of gaunt horses which Afzal Khan and some of his favored
henchmen mounted. Then the chief gave pungent orders to his men; fifty of
them climbed into the tower and resumed the ceaseless vigilance that is the
price of life in the hills, and the rest followed him and his guests out of
the pass and along the knife-edge trail that wound amid savage crags and
Afzal Khan fell silent, and indeed there was scant opportunity for
conversation, each man being occupied in keeping his horse or his own feet on
the wavering path. The surrounding crags were so rugged and lofty that the
strategic importance of the Pass of Akbar impressed itself still more
strongly on O'Donnell.
Only through that pass could any body of men make their way safely. He
felt uncomfortably like a man who sees a door shut behind him, blocking his
escape, and he glanced furtively at Afzal Khan, riding with stirrups so short
that he squatted like a huge toad in his saddle. The chief seemed
preoccupied; he gnawed a wisp of his red beard and there was a blank stare in
The sun was swinging low when they came to a second pass. This was not
exactly a pass at all, in the usual sense. It was an opening in a cluster of
rocky spurs that rose like fangs along the lip of a rim beyond which the land
fell away in a long gradual sweep. Threading among these stony teeth,
O'Donnell looked down into the valley of Khuruk.
It was not a deep valley, but it was flanked by cliffs that looked
unscalable. It ran east and west, roughly, and they were entering it at the
eastern end. At the western end it seemed to be blocked by a mass of
There were no cultivated patches, or houses to be seen in the
valley— only stretches of charred ground. Evidently the destruction of
the Khurukzai villages had been thorough. In the midst of the valley stood a
square stone inclosure, with a tower at one corner, such as are common in the
hills, and serve as forts in times of strife.
Divining his thought, Afzal Khan pointed to this and said: "I struck like
a thunderbolt. They had not time to take refuge in the sangar. Their
watchmen on the heights were careless. We stole upon them and knifed them;
then in the dawn we swept down on the villages. Nay, some escaped. We could
not slay them all. They will keep coming back to harass me—as they have
done this day— until I hunt them down and wipe them all out."
O'Donnell had not mentioned the papers; to have done so would have been
foolish; he could think of no way to question Afzal Khan without waking the
Afghan's suspicions; he must await his opportunity.
That opportunity came unexpectedly.
"Can you read Urdu?" asked Afzal Khan abruptly.
"Aye!" O'Donnell made no further comment but waited with concealed
"I cannot; nor Pashtu, either, for that matter," rumbled the
Afghan. "There were papers on Ahmed Shah's body, which I believe are written
"I might be able to read them for you."
O'Donnell tried to speak casually, but perhaps he was not able to keep his
eagerness altogether out of his voice. Afzal Khan tugged his beard, glanced
at him sidewise, and changed the subject. He spoke no more of the papers and
made no move to show them to his guest. O'Donnell silently cursed his own
impatience; but at least he had learned that the documents he sought were in
the bandit's possession, and that Afzal Khan was ignorant of their
nature—if he was not lying.
At a growled order all but sixty of the chief's men halted among the spurs
overlooking the valley. The rest trailed after him.
"They watch for the Khurukzai dogs," he explained. "There are trails by
which a few men might get through the hills, avoiding the Pass of Akbar, and
reach the head of the valley."
"Is this the only entrance to Khuruk?"
"The only one that horses can travel. There are footpaths leading through
the crags from the north and the south, but I have men posted there as well.
One rifleman can hold any one of them forever. My forces are scattered about
the valley. I am not to be taken by surprise as I took Ahmed Shah."
The sun was sinking behind the western hills as they rode down the valley,
tailed by the men on foot. All were strangely silent, as if oppressed by the
silence of the plundered valley. Their destination evidently was the
inclosure, which stood perhaps a mile from the head of the valley. The valley
floor was unusually free of boulders and stones, except a broken ledge like a
reef that ran across the valley several hundred yards east of the fortalice.
Halfway between these rocks and the inclosure, Afzal Khan halted.
"Camp here!" he said abruptly, with a tone more of command than
invitation. "My men and I occupy the sangar, and it is well to keep
our wolves somewhat apart. There is a place where your horses can be stabled,
where there is plenty of fodder stored." He pointed out a stone-walled pen of
considerable dimensions a few hundred yards away, near the southern cliffs.
"Hungry wolves come down from the gorges and attack the horses."
"We will camp beside the pen," said O'Donnell, preferring to be closer to
Afzal Khan showed a flash of irritation. "Do you wish to be shot in the
dark for an enemy?" he growled. "Pitch your tents where I bid you. I have
told my men at the pass where you will camp, and if any of them come down the
valley in the dark, and hear men where no men are supposed to be, they will
shoot first and investigate later. Beside, the Khurukzai dogs, if they creep
upon the crags and see men sleeping beneath them, will roll down boulders and
crush you like insects."
This seemed reasonable enough, and O'Donnell had no wish to antagonize
Afzal Khan. The Afghan's attitude seemed a mixture of his natural domineering
arrogance and an effort at geniality. This was what might be expected,
considering both the man's nature and his present obligation. O'Donnell
believed that Afzal Khan begrudged the obligation, but recognized it.
"We have no tents," answered the American. "We need none. We sleep in our
cloaks." And he ordered his men to dismount at the spot designated by the
chief. They at once unsaddled and led their horses to the pen, where, as the
Afghan had declared, there was an abundance of fodder.
O'Donnell told off five men to guard them. Not, he hastened to explain to
the frowning chief, that they feared human thieves, but there were the wolves
to be considered. Afzal Khan grunted and turned his own sorry steeds into the
pen, growling in his beard at the contrast they made alongside the Turkish
His men showed no disposition to fraternize with the Turkomans; they
entered the inclosure and presently the smoke of cooking fires arose.
O'Donnell's own men set about preparing their scanty meal, and Afzal Khan
came and stood over them, combing his crimson beard that the firelight turned
to blood. The jeweled hilts of his knives gleamed in the glow, and his eyes
burned red like the eyes of a hawk.
"Our fare is poor," he said abruptly. "Those Khurukzai dogs burned their
own huts and food stores when they fled before us. We are half starved. I can
offer you no food, though you are my guests. But there is a well in the
sangar, and I have sent some of my men to fetch some steers we have in
a pen outside the valley. Tomorrow we shall all feast full,
O'Donnell murmured a polite response, but he was conscious of a vague
uneasiness. Afzal Khan was acting in a most curious manner, even for a bandit
who trampled all laws and customs of conventional conduct. He gave them
orders one instant and almost apologized for them in the next.
The matter of designating the camp site sounded almost as if they were
prisoners, yet he had made no attempt to disarm them. His men were sullen and
silent, even for bandits. But he had no reason to be hostile toward his
guests, and, even if he had, why had he brought them to Khuruk when he could
have wiped them out up in the hills just as easily?
"Ali el Ghazi," Afzal Khan suddenly repeated the name. "Wherefore Ghazi?
What infidel didst thou slay to earn the name?"
"The Russian, Colonel Ivan Kurovitch." O'Donnell spoke no lie there. As
Ali el Ghazi, a Kurd, he was known as the slayer of Kurovitch; the duel had
occurred in one of the myriad nameless skirmishes along the border.
Afzal Khan meditated this matter for a few minutes. The firelight cast
part of his features in shadow, making his expression seem even more sinister
than usual. He loomed in the firelit shadows like a somber monster weighing
the doom of men. Then with a grunt he turned and strode away toward the
NIGHT HAD FALLEN. Wind moaned among the crags. Cloud
masses moved across the dark vault of the night, obscuring the stars which
blinked here and there, were blotted out and then reappeared, like chill
points of frosty silver. The Turkomans squatted silently about their tiny
fires, casting furtive glances over their shoulders.
Men of the deserts, the brooding grimness of the dark mountains daunted
them; the night pressing down in the bowl of the valley dwarfed them in its
immensity. They shivered at the wailing of the wind, and peered fearfully
into the darkness, where, according to their superstitions, the ghosts of
murdered men roamed ghoulishly. They stared bleakly at O'Donnell, in the grip
of fear and paralyzing fatalism.
The grimness and desolation of the night had its effect on the American. A
foreboding of disaster oppressed him. There was something about Afzal Khan he
could not fathom—something unpredictable.
The man had lived too long outside the bounds of ordinary humanity to be
judged by the standards of common men. In his present state of mind the
bandit chief assumed monstrous proportions, like an ogre out of a fable.
O'Donnell shook himself angrily. Afzal Khan was only a man, who would die
if bitten by lead or steel, like any other man. As for treachery, what would
be the motive? Yet the foreboding remained.
"Tomorrow we will feast," he told his men. "Afzal Khan has said it."
They stared at him somberly, with the instincts of the black forests and
the haunted steppes in their eyes which gleamed wolfishly in the
"The dead feast not," muttered one of them.
"What talk is this?" rebuked O'Donnell. "We are living men, not dead."
"We have not eaten salt with Afzal Khan," replied the Turkoman. "We camp
here in the open, hemmed in by his slayers on either hand. Aie, we are
already dead men. We are sheep led to the butcher."
O'Donnell stared hard at his men, startled at their voicing the vague
fears that troubled him. There was no accusation of his leadership in their
voices. They merely spoke their beliefs in a detached way that belied the
fear in their eyes. They believed they were to die, and he was beginning to
believe they were right. The fires were dying down, and there was no more
fuel to build them up. Some of the men wrapped themselves in their cloaks and
lay down on the hard ground. Others remained sitting cross-legged on their
saddle cloths, their heads bent on their breasts.
O'Donnell rose and walked toward the first outcropping of the rocks, where
he turned and stared back at the inclosure. The fires had died down there to
a glow. No sound came from the sullen walls. A mental picture formed itself
in his mind, resultant from his visit to the redoubt for water.
It was a bare wall inclosing a square space. At the northwest corner rose
a tower. At the southwest corner there was a well. Once a tower had protected
the well, but now it was fallen into ruins, so that only a hint of it
remained. There was nothing else in the inclosure except a small stone hut
with a thatched roof. What was in the hut he had no way of knowing. Afzal
Khan had remarked that he slept alone in the tower. The chief did not trust
his own men too far.
What was Afzal Khan's game? He was not dealing straight with O'Donnell;
that was obvious. Some of his evasions and pretenses were transparent; the
man was not as clever as one might suppose; he was more like a bull that wins
by ferocious charges.
But why should he practice deception? What had he to gain? O'Donnell had
smelled meat cooking in the fortalice. There was food in the valley, then,
but for some reason the Afghan had denied it. The Turkomans knew that; to
them it logically suggested but one thing—he would not share the salt
with men he intended to murder. But again, why?
"Ohai, Ali el Ghazi!"
At that hiss out of the darkness, O'Donnell wheeled, his big pistol
jumping into his hand, his skin prickling. He strained his eyes, but saw
nothing; heard only the muttering of the night wind.
"Who is it?" he demanded guardedly. "Who calls?"
"A friend! Hold your fire!"
O'Donnell saw a more solid shadow detach itself from the rocks and move
toward him. With his thumb pressing back the fanged hammer of his pistol, he
shoved the muzzle against the man's belly and leaned forward to glare into
the hairy face in the dim, uncertain starlight. Even so the darkness was so
thick the fellow's features were only a blur.
"Do you not know me?" whispered the man, and by his accent O'Donnell knew
him for a Waziri. "I am Yar Muhammad!"
"Yar Muhammad!" Instantly the gun went out of sight and O'Donnell's hand
fell on the other's bull-like shoulder. "What do you in this den of
The man's teeth glimmered in the tangle of his beard as he grinned.
"Mashallah! Am I not a thief, El Shirkuh?" he asked, giving O'Donnell
the name by which the American, in his rightful person, was known to the
Moslems. "Hast thou forgotten the old days? Even now the British would hang
me, if they could catch me. But no matter. I was one of those who watch the
paths in the hills.
"An hour ago I was relieved, and when I returned to the sangar I
heard men talking of the Turkomans who camped in the valley outside, and it
was said their chief was the Kurd who slew the infidel Kurovitch. So I knew
it was El Shirkuh playing with doom again. Art thou mad, sahib? Death spreads
his wings above thee and all thy men. Afzal Khan plots that thou seest no
"I was suspicious of him," muttered the American. "In the matter of
"The hut in the inclosure is full of food. Why waste beef and bread on
dead men? Food is scarce enough in these hills—and at dawn you
"But why? We saved Afzal Khan's life, and there is no feud—"
"The Jhelum will flow backward when Afzal Khan spares a man because of
gratitude," muttered Yar Muhammad.
"But for what reason?"
"By Allah, sahib, are you blind? Reason? Are not fifty Turkish steeds
reason enough? Are not fifty rifles with cartridges reason enough? In these
hills firearms and cartridges are worth their weight in silver, and a man
will murder his brother for a matchlock. Afzal Khan is a robber, and he
covets what you possess.
"These weapons and these horses would lend him great strength. He is
ambitious. He would draw to him many more men, make himself strong enough at
last to dispute the rule of these hills with Orkhan Bahadur. Nay, he plots
some day to take Shahrazar from the Turkoman as he in his turn took it from
the Uzbeks. What is the goal of every bandit in these hills, rich or poor?
Mashallah! The treasure of Khuwarezm!"
O'Donnell was silent, visualizing that accursed hoard as a monstrous
loadstone drawing all the evil passions of men from near lands and far. Now
it was but an empty shadow men coveted, but they could not know it, and its
evil power was as great as ever. He felt an insane desire to laugh.
The wind moaned in the dark, and Yar Muhammad's muttering voice merged
eerily with it, unintelligible a yard away.
"Afzal Khan feels no obligation toward you, because you thought it was
Ahmed Shah you were aiding. He did not attack you at the Pass because he knew
you would slay many of his men, and he feared lest the horses take harm in
the battle. Now he has you in a trap as he planned. Sixty men inside the
sangar; a hundred more at the head of the valley. A short time before
moonrise, the men among the spurs will creep down the valley and take
position among these rocks. Then when the moon is well risen, so that a man
may aim, they will rake you with rifle fire.
"Most of the Turkomans will die in their sleep, and such as live and seek
to flee in the other direction will be shot by the men in the inclosure.
These sleep now, but sentries keep watch. I slipped out over the western side
and have been lying here wondering how to approach your camp without being
shot for a prowler.
"Afzal Khan has plotted well. He has you in the perfect trap, with the
horses well out of the range of the bullets that will slay their riders."
"So," murmured O'Donnell. "And what is your plan?"
"Plan? Allah, when did I ever have a plan? Nay, that is for you! I know
these hills, and I can shoot straight and strike a good blow." His yard-long
Khyber knife thrummed as he swung it through the air. "But I only follow
where wiser men lead. I heard the men talk, and I came to warn you, because
once you turned an Afridi blade from my breast, and again you broke the lock
on the Peshawar jail where I lay moaning for the hills!"
O'Donnell did not express his gratitude; that was not necessary. But he
was conscious of a warm glow toward the hairy ruffian. Man's treachery is
balanced by man's loyalty, at least in the barbaric hills where civilized
sophistry has not crept in with its cult of time-serving.
"Can you guide us through the mountains?" asked O'Donnell.
"Nay, sahib; the horses cannot follow these paths; and these booted Turks
would die on foot."
"It is nearly two hours yet until moonrise," O'Donnell muttered. "To
saddle horses now would be to betray us. Some of us might get away in the
He was thinking of the papers that were the price of his life; but it was
not altogether that. Flight in the darkness would mean scattered forces, even
though they cut their way out of the valley. Without his guidance the
Turkomans would be hopelessly lost; such as were separated from the main
command would perish miserably.
"Come with me," he said at last, and hurried back to the men who lay about
the charring embers.
At his whisper they rose like ghouls out of the blackness and clustered
about him, muttering like suspicious dogs at the Waziri. O'Donnell could
scarcely make out the hawklike faces that pressed close about him. All the
stars were hidden by dank clouds. The fortalice was but a shapeless bulk in
the darkness, and the flanking mountains were masses of solid blackness. The
whining wind drowned voices a few yards away.
"Hearken and speak not," O'Donnell ordered. "This is Yar Muhammad, a
friend and a true man. We are betrayed. Afzal Khan is a dog, who will slay us
for our horses. Nay, listen! In the sangar there is a thatched hut. I
am going into the inclosure and fire that thatch. When you see the blaze, and
hear my pistol speak, rush the wall. Some of you will die, but the surprise
will be on our side. We must take the sangar and hold it against the
men who will come down the valley at moonrise. It is a desperate plan, but
the best that offers itself."
"Bismillah!" they murmured softly, and he heard the rasp of blades
clearing their scabbards.
"This is work indeed for cold steel," he said. "You must rush the wall and
swarm it while the Pathans are dazed with surprise. Send one man for the
warriors at the horse pen. Be of good heart; the rest is on Allah's lap."
As he crept away in the darkness, with Yar Muhammad following him like a
bent shadow, O'Donnell was aware that the attitude of the Turkomans had
changed; they had wakened out of their fatalistic lethargy into fierce
"If I fall," O'Donnell murmured, "will you guide these men back to
Shahrazar? Orkhan Bahadur will reward you."
"Shaitan eat Orkhan Bahadur," answered Yar Muhammad. "What care I for
these Turki dogs? It is you, not they, for whom I risk my skin."
O'Donnell had given the Waziri his rifle. They swung around the south side
of the inclosure, almost crawling on their bellies. No sound came from the
breastwork, no light showed. O'Donnell knew that they were invisible to
whatever eyes were straining into the darkness along the wall. Circling wide,
they approached the unguarded western wall.
"Afzal Khan sleeps in the tower," muttered Yar Muhammad, his lips close to
O'Donnell's ear. "Sleeps or pretends to sleep. The men slumber beneath the
eastern wall. All the sentries lurk on that side, trying to watch the
Turkomans. They have allowed the fires to die, to lull suspicion."
"Over the wall, then," whispered O'Donnell, rising and gripping the
coping. He glided over with no more noise than the wind in the dry tamarisk,
and Yar Muhammad followed him as silently. He stood in the thicker shadow of
the wall, placing everything in his mind before he moved.
The hut was before him, a blob of blackness. It looked eastward and was
closer to the west wall than to the other. Near it a cluster of dying coals
glowed redly. There was no light in the tower, in the northwest angle of the
Bidding Yar Muhammad remain near the wall, O'Donnell stole toward the
embers. When he reached them he could make out the forms of the men sleeping
between the hut and the east wall. It was like these hardened killers to
sleep at such a time. Why not? At the word of their master they would rise
and slay. Until the time came it was good to sleep. O'Donnell himself had
slept, and eaten, too, among the corpses of a battlefield.
Dim figures along the wall were sentinels. They did not turn; motionless
as statues they leaned on the wall staring into the darkness out of which, in
the hills, anything might come.
There was a half-burned fagot lying in the embers, one end a charring
stump which glowed redly. O'Donnell reached out and secured it. Yar Muhammad,
watching from the wall, shivered though he knew what it was. It was as if a
detached hand had appeared for an instant in the dim glow and then
disappeared, and then a red point moved toward him.
"Allah!" swore the Waziri. "This blackness is that of Jehannum!"
"Softly!" O'Donnell whispered at him from the pit darkness. "Be ready; now
is the beginning of happenings."
The ember glowed and smoked as he blew cautiously upon it. A tiny tongue
of flame grew, licking at the wood.
"Commend thyself to Allah!" said O'Donnell, and whirling the brand in a
flaming wheel about his head, he cast it into the thatch of the hut.
There was a tense instant in which a tongue of flame flickered and
crackled, and then in one hungry combustion the dry stuff leaped ablaze, and
the figures of men started out of blank blackness with startling clarity. The
guards wheeled, their stupid astonishment etched in the glare, and men sat up
in their cloaks on the ground, gaping bewilderedly.
And O'Donnell yelled like a hungry wolf and began jerking the trigger of
A sentinel spun on his heel and crumpled, discharging his rifle wildly in
the air. Others were howling and staggering like drunken men, reeling and
falling in the lurid glare. Yar Muhammad was blazing away with O'Donnell's
rifle, shooting down his former companions as cheerfully as if they were
A matter of seconds elapsed between the time the blaze sprang up and the
time when the men were scurrying about wildly, etched in the merciless light
and unable to see the two men who crouched in the shadow of the far wall,
raining them with lead. But in that scant instant there came another
sound—a swift thudding of feet, the daunting sound of men rushing
through the darkness in desperate haste and desperate silence.
Some of the Pathans heard it and turned to glare into the night. The fire
behind them rendered the outer darkness more impenetrable. They could not see
the death that was racing fleetly toward them, until the charge reached the
Then a yell of terror went up as the men along the wall caught a glimpse
of glittering eyes and flickering steel rushing out of the blackness. They
fired one wild, ragged volley, and then the Turkomans surged up over the wall
in an irresistible wave and were slashing and hacking like madmen among the
Scarcely wakened, demoralized by the surprise, and by the bullets that cut
them down from behind, the Pathans were beaten almost before the fight began.
Some of them fled over the wall without any attempt at defense, but some
fought, snarling and stabbing like wolves. The blazing thatch etched the
scene in a lurid glare. Kalpaks mingled with turbans, and steel
flickered over the seething mob. Yataghans grated against tulwars, and blood
His pistol empty, O'Donnell ran toward the tower. He had momentarily
expected Afzal Khan to appear. But in such moments it is impossible to retain
a proper estimate of time. A minute may seem like an hour, an hour like a
minute. In reality, the Afghan chief came storming out of the tower just as
the Turkomans came surging over the wall. Perhaps he had really been asleep,
or perhaps caution kept him from rushing out sooner. Gunfire might mean
rebellion against his authority.
At any rate he came roaring like a wounded bull, a rifle in his hands.
O'Donnell rushed toward him, but the Afghan glared beyond him to where his
swordsmen were falling like wheat under the blades of the maddened Turkomans.
He saw the fight was already lost, as far as the men in the inclosure were
concerned, and he sprang for the nearest wall.
O'Donnell raced to pull him down, but Afzal Khan, wheeling, fired from the
hip. The American felt a heavy blow in his belly, and then he was down on the
ground, with all the breath gone from him. Afzal Khan yelled in triumph,
brandished his rifle, and was gone over the wall, heedless of the vengeful
bullet Yar Muhammad sped after him.
The Waziri had followed O'Donnell across the inclosure and now he knelt
beside him, yammering as he fumbled to find the American's wound.
"Aie!" he bawled. "He is slain! My friend and brother! Where will his like
be found again? Slain by the bullet of a hillman! Aie! Aie! Aie!"
"Cease thy bellowing, thou great ox," gasped O'Donnell, sitting up and
shaking off the frantic hands. "I am unhurt."
Yar Muhammad yelled with surprise and relief. "But the bullet, brother? He
fired at point-blank range!"
"It hit my belt buckle," grunted O'Donnell, feeling the heavy gold buckle,
which was bent and dented. "By Allah, the slug drove it into my belly. It was
like being hit with a sledge hammer. Where is Afzal Khan?"
"Fled away in the darkness."
O'Donnell rose and turned his attention to the fighting. It was
practically over. The remnants of the Pathans were fleeing over the wall,
harried by the triumphant Turkomans, who in victory were no more merciful
than the average Oriental. The sangar looked like a shambles.
The hut still blazed brightly, and O'Donnell knew that the contents had
been ignited. What had been an advantage was now a danger, for the men at the
head of the valley would be coming at full run, and in the light of the fire
they could pick off the Turkomans from the darkness. He ran forward shouting
orders, and setting an example of action.
Men began filling vessels—cooking pots, gourds, even kalpaks
from the well and casting the water on the fire. O'Donnell burst in the door
and began to drag out the contents of the huts, foods mostly, some of it
brightly ablaze, to be doused.
Working as only men in danger of death can work, they extinguished the
flame and darkness fell again over the fortress. But over the eastern crags a
faint glow announced the rising of the moon through the breaking clouds.
Then followed a tense period of waiting, in which the Turkomans hugged
their rifles and crouched along the wall, staring into the darkness as the
Pathans had done only a short time before. Seven of them had been killed in
the fighting and lay with the wounded beside the well. The bodies of the
slain Pathans had been unceremoniously heaved over the wall.
The men at the valley head could not have been on their way down the
valley when the fighting broke out, and they must have hesitated before
starting, uncertain as to what the racket meant. But they were on their way
at last, and Afzal Khan was trying to establish a contact with them.
The wind brought snatches of shouts down the valley, and a rattle of shots
that hinted at hysteria. These were followed by a furious bellowing which
indicated that Afzal Khan's demoralized warriors had nearly shot their chief
in the dark. The moon broke through the clouds and disclosed a straggling mob
of men gesticulating wildly this side of the rocks to the east.
O'Donnell even made out Afzal Khan's bulk and, snatching a rifle from a
warrior's hand, tried a long shot. He missed in the uncertain light, but his
warriors poured a blast of lead into the thick of their enemies which
accounted for a man or so and sent the others leaping for cover. From the
reeflike rocks they began firing at the wall, knocking off chips of stone but
otherwise doing no damage.
With his enemies definitely located, O'Donnell felt more at ease. Taking a
torch he went to the tower, with Yar Muhammad hanging at his heels like a
faithful ghoul. In the tower were heaped odds and ends of
plunder—saddles, bridles, garments, blankets, food, weapons—but
O'Donnell did not find what he sought, though he tore the place to pieces.
Yar Muhammad squatted in the doorway, with his rifle across his knees, and
watched him, it never occurring to the Waziri to inquire what his friend was
At length O'Donnell paused, sweating from the vigor of his
efforts—for he had concentrated much exertion in a few
"Where does the dog keep those papers?"
"The papers he took from Ahmed Shah?" inquired Yar Muhammad. "Those he
always carries in his girdle. He cannot read them, but he believes they are
valuable. Men say Ahmed Shah had them from a Feringi who died."
DAWN WAS LIFTING over the valley of Khuruk. The sun
that was not yet visible above the rim of the hills turned the white peaks to
pulsing fire. But down in the valley there was none who found time to wonder
at the changeless miracle of the mountain dawn. The cliffs rang with the flat
echoes of rifle shots, and wisps of smoke drifted bluely into the air. Lead
spanged on stone and whined venomously off into space, or thudded sickeningly
into quivering flesh. Men howled blasphemously and fouled the morning with
their frantic curses.
O'Donnell crouched at a loophole, staring at the rocks whence came puffs
of white smoke and singing harbingers of death. His rifle barrel was hot to
his hand, and a dozen yards from the wall lay a huddle of white-clad
Since the first hint of light the wolves of Afzal Khan had poured lead
into the fortalice from the reeflike ledge that broke the valley floor. Three
times they had broken cover and charged, only to fall back beneath the
merciless fire that raked them. Hopelessly outnumbered, the advantage of
weapons and position counted heavily for the Turkomans.
O'Donnell had stationed five of the best marksmen in the tower and the
rest held the walls. To reach the inclosure meant charging across several
hundred yards of open space, devoid of cover. All the outlaws were still
among the rocks east of the sangar, where, indeed, the broken ledge
offered the only cover within rifle range of the redoubt.
The Pathans had suffered savagely in the charges, and they had had the
worst of the long-range exchanges, both their marksmanship and their weapons
being inferior to the Turkomans'. But some of their bullets did find their
way through the loopholes. A few yards from O'Donnell a kaftaned rider
lay in a grotesque huddle, his feet turned so the growing light glinted on
his silver boot heels, his head a smear of blood and brains.
Another lay sprawled near the charred hut, his ghastly face frozen in a
grin of agony as he chewed spasmodically on a bullet. He had been shot in the
belly and was taking a long time in dying, but not a whimper escaped his
A fellow with a bullet hole in his forearm was making more racket; his
curses, as a comrade probed for the slug with a dagger point, would have
curdled the blood of a devil.
O'Donnell glanced up at the tower, whence wisps of smoke drifting told him
that his five snipers were alert. Their range was greater than that of the
men at the wall, and they did more damage proportionately and were better
protected. Again and again they had broken up attempts to get at the horses
in the stone pen. This pen was nearer the inclosure than it was to the rocks,
and crumpled shapes on the ground showed of vain attempts to reach it.
But O'Donnell shook his head. They had salvaged a large quantity of food
from the burning hut; there was a well of good water; they had better weapons
and more ammunition than the men outside. But a long siege meant
One of the men wounded in the night fighting had died. There remained
alive forty-one men of the fifty with which he had left Shahrazar. One of
these was dying, and half a dozen were wounded—one probably fatally.
There were at least a hundred and fifty men outside.
Afzal Khan could not storm the walls yet. But under the constant toll of
the bullets, the small force of the defenders would melt away. If any of them
lived and escaped, O'Donnell knew it could be only by a swift, bold stroke.
But he had no plan at all.
The firing from the valley ceased suddenly, and a white turban cloth was
waved above the rock on a rifle muzzle.
"Ohai, Ali el Ghazi!" came a hail in a bull's roar that could only
have issued from Afzal Khan.
Yar Muhammad, squatting beside O'Donnell, sneered. "A trick! Keep thy head
below the parapet, sahib. Trust Afzal Khan when wolves knock out their own
"Hold your fire, Ali el Ghazi!" boomed the distant voice. "I would parley
"Show yourself!" O'Donnell yelled back.
And without hesitation a huge bulk loomed up among the rocks. Whatever his
own perfidy, Afzal Khan trusted the honor of the man he thought a Kurd. He
lifted his hands to show they were empty.
"Advance, alone!" yelled O'Donnell, straining to make himself heard.
Someone thrust the butt of a rifle into a crevice of the rocks so it stood
muzzle upward, with the white cloth blowing out in the morning breeze, and
Afzal Khan came striding over the stones with the arrogance of a sultan.
Behind him turbans were poked up above the boulders.
O'Donnell halted him within good earshot, and instantly he was covered by
a score of rifles. Afzal Khan did not seem to be disturbed by that, or by the
blood lust in the dark hawklike faces glaring along the barrels. Then
O'Donnell rose into view, and the two leaders faced one another in the full
O'Donnell expected accusations of treachery—for, after all, he had
struck the first blow—but Afzal Khan was too brutally candid for such
"I have you in a vise, Ali el Ghazi," he announced without preamble. "But
for that Waziri dog who crouches behind you, I would have cut your throat at
moonrise last night. You are all dead men, but this siege work grows
tiresome, and I am willing to forgo half my advantage. I am generous. As
reward of victory I demand either your guns or your horses. Your horses I
have already, but you shall have them back, if you wish. Throw down your
weapons and you may ride out of Khuruk. Or, if you wish, I will keep the
horses, and you may march out on foot with your rifles. What is your
O'Donnell spat toward him with a typically Kurdish gesture. "Are we fools,
to be hoodwinked by a dog with scarlet whiskers?" he snarled. "When Afzal
Khan keeps his sworn word, the Indus will flow backward. Shall we ride out,
unarmed, for you to cut us down in the passes, or shall we march forth on
foot, for you to shoot us from ambush in the hills?
"You lie when you say you have our horses. Ten of your men have died
trying to take them for you. You lie when you say you have us in the vise. It
is you who are in the vise! You have neither food nor water; there is
no other well in the valley but this. You have few cartridges, because most
of your ammunition is stored in the tower, and we hold that."
The fury in Afzal Khan's countenance told O'Donnell that he had scored
with that shot.
"If you had us helpless you would not be offering terms," O'Donnell
sneered. "You would be cutting our throats, instead of trying to gull us into
"Sons of sixty dogs!" swore Afzal Khan, plucking at his beard. "I will
flay you all alive! I will keep you hemmed here until you die!"
"If we cannot leave the fortress, you cannot enter it," O'Donnell
retorted. "Moreover you have drawn all your men but a handful from the
passes, and the Khurukzai will steal upon you and cut off your heads. They
are waiting, up in the hills."
Afzal Khan's involuntarily wry face told O'Donnell that the Afghan's
plight was more desperate than he had hoped.
"It is a deadlock, Afzal Khan," said O'Donnell suddenly. "There is but one
way to break it." He lifted his voice, seeing that the Pathans under the
protection of the truce were leaving their coverts and drawing within
earshot. "Meet me there in the open space, man to man, and decide the feud
between us two, with cold steel. If I win, we ride out of Khuruk unmolested.
If you win, my warriors are at your mercy."
"The mercy of a wolf!" muttered Yar Muhammad.
O'Donnell did not reply. It was a desperate chance, but the only one.
Afzal Khan hesitated and cast a searching glance at his men; that scowling
hairy horde was muttering among itself. The warriors seemed ill-content, and
they stared meaningly at their leader.
The inference was plain; they were weary of the fighting at which they
were at a disadvantage, and they wished Afzal Khan to accept O'Donnell's
challenge. They feared a return of the Khurukzai might catch them in the open
with empty cartridge pouches. After all, if their chief lost to the Kurd,
they would only lose the loot they had expected to win. Afzal Khan understood
this attitude, and his beard bristled to the upsurging of his ready
"Agreed!" he roared, tearing out his tulwar and throwing away the
scabbard. He made the bright broad steel thrum about his head. "Come over the
wall and die, thou slayer of infidels!"
"Hold your men where they are!" O'Donnell ordered and vaulted the
At a bellowed order the Pathans had halted, and the wall was lined with
kalpaks as the Turkomans watched tensely, muzzles turned upward but
fingers still crooked on the triggers. Yar Muhammad followed O'Donnell over
the wall, but did not advance from it; he crouched against it like a bearded
ghoul, fingering his knife.
O'Donnell wasted no time. Scimitar in one hand and kindhjal in the
other, he ran lightly toward the burly figure advancing to meet him.
O'Donnell was slightly above medium height, but Afzal Khan towered half a
head above him. The Afghan's bull-like shoulders and muscular bulk contrasted
with the rangy figure of the false Kurd; but O'Donnell's sinews were like
steel wires. His Arab scimitar, though neither so broad nor so heavy as the
tulwar, was fully as long, and the blade was of unbreakable Damascus
The men seemed scarcely within arm's reach when the fight opened with a
dazzling crackle and flash of steel. Blow followed blow so swiftly that the
men watching, trained to arms since birth, could scarcely follow the strokes.
Afzal Khan roared, his eyes blazing, his beard bristling, and wielding the
heavy tulwar as one might wield a camel wand, he flailed away in a
But always the scimitar flickered before him, turning the furious blows,
or the slim figure of the false Kurd avoided death by the slightest margins,
with supple twists and swayings. The scimitar bent beneath the weight of the
tulwar, but it did not break; like a serpent's tongue it always snapped
straight again, and like a serpent's tongue it flickered at Afzal Khan's
breast, his throat, his groin, a constant threat of death that reddened the
Afghan's eyes with a tinge akin to madness.
Afzal Khan was a famed swordsman, and his sheer brute strength was more
than a man's. But O'Donnell's balance and economy of motion was a marvel to
witness. He never set a foot wrong or made a false motion; he was always
poised, always a threat, even in retreat, beaten backward by the bull-like
rushes of the Afghan. Blood trickled down his face where a furious stroke,
beating down his blade, had bitten through his silk turban and into the
scalp, but the flame in his blue eyes never altered.
Afzal Khan was bleeding, too. O'Donnell's point, barely missing his
jugular, had plowed through his beard and along his jaw. Blood dripping from
his beard made his aspect more fearsome than ever. He roared and flailed,
until it seemed that the fury of his onslaught would overbalance O'Donnell's
perfect mastery of himself and his blade.
Few noticed, however, that O'Donnell had been working his way in closer
and closer under the sweep of the tulwar. Now he caught a furious swipe near
the hilt and the kindhjal in his left hand licked in and out. Afzal
Khan's bellow caught in a gasp. There was but that fleeting instant of
contact, so brief it was like blur of movement, and then O'Donnell, at arm's
length again, was slashing and parrying, but now there was a thread of
crimson on the narrow kindhjal blade, and blood was seeping in a
steady stream through Afzal Khan's broad girdle.
There was the pain and desperation of the damned in the Afghan's eyes, in
his roaring voice. He began to weave drunkenly, but he attacked more madly
than ever, like a man fighting against time.
His strokes ribboned the air with bright steel and thrummed past
O'Donnell's ears like a wind of death, until the tulwar rang full against the
scimitar's guard with hurricane force and O'Donnell went to his knee under
the impact. "Kurdish dog!" It was a gasp of frenzied triumph. Up flashed the
tulwar and the watching hordes gave tongue. But again the kindhjal
licked out like a serpent's tongue—outward and upward.
The stroke was meant for the Afghan's groin, but a shift of his legs at
the instant caused the keen blade to plow through his thigh instead, slicing
veins and tendons. He lurched sidewise, throwing out his arm to balance
himself. And even before men knew whether he would fall or not, O'Donnell was
on his feet and slashed with the scimitar at his head.
Afzal Khan fell as a tree falls, blood gushing from his head. Even so, the
terrible vitality of the man clung to life and hate. The tulwar fell from his
hand, but, catching himself on his knees, he plucked a knife from his girdle;
his hand went back for the throw—then the knife slipped from his
nerveless fingers and he crumpled to the earth and lay still.
There was silence, broken by a strident yell from the Turkomans. O'Donnell
sheathed his scimitar, sprang swiftly to the fallen giant and thrust a hand
into his blood- soaked girdle. His fingers closed on what had hoped to find,
and he drew forth an oilskin-bound packet of papers. A low cry of
satisfaction escaped his lips.
In the tense excitement of the fight, neither he nor the Turkomans had
noticed that the Pathans had drawn nearer and nearer, until they stood in a
ragged semicircle only a few yards away. Now, as O'Donnell stood staring at
the packet, a hairy ruffian ran at his back, knife lifted.
A frantic yell from Yar Muhammad warned O'Donnell. There was no time to
turn; sensing rather than seeing his assailant, the American ducked deeply
and the knife flashed past his ear, the muscular forearm falling on his
shoulder with such force that again he was knocked to his knees.
Before the man could strike again Yar Muhammad's yard-long knife was
driven into his breast with such fury that the point sprang out between his
shoulder blades. Wrenching his blade free as the wretch fell, the Waziri
grabbed a handful of O'Donnell's garments and began to drag him toward the
wall, yelling like a madman.
It had all happened in a dizzying instant, the charge of the Pathan, Yar
Muhammad's leap and retreat. The other Pathans rushed in, howling like
wolves, and the Waziri's blade made a fan of steel about him and O'Donnell.
Blades were flashing on all sides; O'Donnell was cursing like a madman as he
strove to halt Yar Muhammad's headlong progress long enough to get to his
feet, which was impossible at the rate he was being yanked along.
All he could see was hairy legs, and all he could hear was a devil's din
of yells and clanging knives. He hewed sidewise at the legs and men howled,
and then there was a deafening reverberation, and a blast of lead at close
range smote the attackers and mowed them down like wheat. The Turkomans had
waked up and gone into action.
Yar Muhammad was berserk. With his knife dripping red and his eyes blazing
madly he swarmed over the wall and down on the other side, all asprawl,
lugging O'Donnell like a sack of grain, and still unaware that his friend was
not fatally wounded.
The Pathans were at his heels, not to be halted so easily this time. The
Turkomans fired point-blank into their faces, but they came on, snarling,
snatching at the rifle barrels poked over the wall, stabbing upward.
Yar Muhammad, heedless of the battle raging along the wall, was crouching
over O'Donnell, mouthing, so crazy with blood lust and fighting frenzy that
he was hardly aware of what he was doing, tearing at O'Donnell's clothing in
his efforts to discover the wound he was convinced his friend had
He could hardly be convinced otherwise by O'Donnell's lurid blasphemy, and
then he nearly strangled the American in a frantic embrace of relief and joy.
O'Donnell threw him off and leaped to the wall, where the situation was
getting desperate for the Turkomans. The Pathans, fighting without
leadership, were massed in the middle of the east wall, and the men in the
tower were pouring a devastating fire into them, but the havoc was being
wreaked in the rear of the horde. The men in the tower feared to shoot at the
attackers along the wall for fear of hitting their own comrades.
As O'Donnell reached the wall, the Turkoman nearest him thrust his muzzle
into a snarling, bearded face and pulled the trigger, blasting the hillman's
head into a red ruin. Then before he could fire again a knife licked over the
wall and disemboweled him. O'Donnell caught the rifle as it fell, smashed the
butt down on the head of a hillman climbing over the parapet, and left him
hanging dead across the wall.
It was all confusion and smoke and spurting blood and insanity. No time to
look right or left to see if the Turkomans still held the wall on either
hand. He had his hands full with the snarling bestial faces which rose like a
wave before him. Crouching on the firing step, he drove the blood-clotted
butt into these wolfish faces until a rabid-eyed giant grappled him and bore
him back and over.
They struck the ground on the inside, and O'Donnell's head hit a fallen
gun stock with a stunning crack. In the moment that his brain swam dizzily
the Pathan heaved him underneath, yelled stridently and lifted a
knife—then the straining body went suddenly limp, and O'Donnell's face
was spattered with blood and brains, as Yar Muhammad split the man's head to
the teeth with his Khyber knife.
The Waziri pulled the corpse off and O'Donnell staggered up, slightly
sick, and presenting a ghastly spectacle with his red-dabbled face, hands,
and garments. The firing, which had lulled while the fighting locked along
the wall, now began again. The disorganized Pathans were falling back, were
slinking away, breaking and fleeing toward the rocks.
The Turkomans had held the wall, but O'Donnell swore sickly as he saw the
gaps in their ranks. One lay dead in a huddle of dead Pathans outside the
wall, and five more hung motionless across the wall, or were sprawled on the
ground inside. With these latter were the corpses of four Pathans, to show
how desperate the brief fight had been. The number of the dead outside was
O'Donnell shook his dizzy head, shuddering slightly at the thought of how
close to destruction his band had been; if the hillmen had had a leader, had
kept their wits about them enough to have divided forces and attacked in
several places at once—but it takes a keen mind to think in the madness
of such a battle. It had been blind, bloody, and furious, and the random-cast
dice of fate had decided for the smaller horde.
The Pathans had taken to the rocks again and were firing in a half-
hearted manner. Sounds of loud argument drifted down the wind. He set about
dressing the wounded as best he could, and while he was so employed, the
Pathans tried to get at the horses again. But the effort was without
enthusiasm, and a fusillade from the tower drove them back.
As quickly as he could, O'Donnell retired to a corner of the wall and
investigated the oilskin-wrapped packet he had taken from Afzal Khan. It was
a letter, several sheets of high-grade paper covered with a fine scrawl. The
writing was Russ, not Urdu, and there were English margin notes in a
different hand. These notes made clear points suggested in the letter, and
O'Donnell's face grew grim as he read.
How the unknown English secret-service man who had added those notes had
got possession of the letter there was no way of knowing; but it had been
intended for the man called Suleiman Pasha, and it revealed what O'Donnell
had suspected—a plot within a plot; a red and sinister conspiracy
concealing itself in a guise of international policy.
Suleiman Pasha was not only a foreign spy; he was a traitor to the men he
served. And the tentacles of the plot which revolved about him stretched
incredibly southward into high places. O'Donnell swore softly as he read
there the names of men trusted by the government they pretended to serve. And
slowly a realization crystallized—this letter must never reach Suleiman
Pasha. Somehow, in some way, he, Kirby O'Donnell, must carry on the work of
that unknown Englishman who had died with his task uncompleted. That letter
must go southward, to lay bare black treachery spawning under the heedless
feet of government. He hastily concealed the packet as the Waziri
Yar Muhammad grinned. He had lost a tooth, and his black beard was
streaked and clotted with blood which did not make him look any less
"The dogs wrangle with one another," he said. "It is always thus; only the
hand of Afzal Khan kept them together. Now men who followed him will refuse
to follow one of their own number. They fear the Khurukzai. We also have
reason to beware of them. They will be waiting in the hills beyond the Pass
O'Donnell realized the truth of this statement. He believed a handful of
Pathans yet held the tower in the pass, but there was no reason to suppose
they would not desert their post now that Afzal Khan was dead. Men trooping
down out of the hills told him that the footpaths were no longer guarded. At
any time Khurukzai scouts might venture back, learn what was going on, and
launch an attack in force.
The day wore on, hot, and full of suffering for the wounded in the in
closure. Only a desultory firing came from the rocks, where continual
squabbling seemed to be going on. No further attack was made, and presently
Yar Muhammad grunted with gratification.
From the movement among the rocks and beyond them, it was evident that the
leaderless outlaw band was breaking up. Men slunk away up the valley, singly
or in small bands. Others fought over horses, and one group turned and fired
a volley at their former companions before they disappeared among the spurs
at the head of the valley. Without a chieftain they trusted, demoralized by
losses, short of water and food and ammunition, and in fear of reprisals, the
outlaw band melted away, and within an hour from the time the first bolted,
the valley of Khuruk was empty except for O'Donnell's men.
To make sure the retreat was real, O'Donnell secured his horse from the
pen and, with Yar Muhammad, rode cautiously to the valley head. The spurs
were empty. From the tracks the American believed that the bandits had headed
southward, preferring to make their way through the pathless hills rather
than fight their way through the vengeful Khurukzai who in all probability
still lurked among the crags beyond the Pass of Akbar.
He had to consider these men himself, and he grinned wryly at the twist of
fate which had made enemies of the very men he had sought in friendship. But
life ran that way in the hills.
"Go back to the Turkomans," he requested Yar Muhammad. "Bid them saddle
their horses. Tie the wounded into the saddles, and load the spare horses
with food and skins of water. We have plenty of spare horses now, because of
the men who were slain. It is dusk now, and time we were on our way.
"We shall take our chance on the trails in the dark, for now that the hill
paths are unguarded, assuredly the Khurukzai will be stealing back, and I
expect an attack on the valley by moonrise, at the latest. Let them find it
empty. Perhaps we can make our way through the Pass and be gone while they
are stealing through the hills to the attack. At least we will make the
attempt and leave the rest to Allah."
Yar Muhammad grinned widely—the prospect of any sort of action
seemed to gratify him immensely—and reined his horse down the valley,
evidencing all the pride that becomes a man who rides a blooded Turkish
steed. O'Donnell knew he could leave the preparations for the journey with
him and the Turkomans.
The American dismounted, tied his horse and strode through the rocky spurs
to the point where the trail wound out of them and along a boulder- littered
narrow level between two slopes. Dusk was gathering, but he could see any
body of men that tried to come along that trail.
But he was not expecting attack by that route. Not knowing just what had
taken place in the valley, the Khurukzai, even if the men in the tower had
deserted it, would be too suspicious to follow the obvious road. And it was
not attack of any sort that was worrying him.
He took the packet of papers from his girdle and stared at it. He was torn
by indecision. There were documents that needed desperately to get to the
British outposts. It was almost sheer suicide for one man to start through
the hills, but two men, with food and water, might make it.
He could take Yar Muhammad, load an extra horse or two with provisions,
and slip away southward. Then let Suleiman Pasha do his worst with Orkhan
Bahadur. Long before the emissary could learn of his flight, he and the
Waziri would be far out of the vengeful Turkoman's reach. But, then, what of
the warriors back there in the sangar, making ready for their homeward
flight, with implicit trust in Ali el Ghazi?
They had followed him blindly, obeyed his every order, demonstrated their
courage and faithfulness beyond question. If he deserted them now, they were
doomed. They could never make their way back through the hills without him.
Such as were not lost to die of starvation would be slaughtered by the
vengeful Khurukzai who would not forget their defeat by these dark-skinned
Sweat started out on O'Donnell's skin in the agony of his mental struggle.
Not even for the peace of all India could he desert these men who trusted
him. He was their leader. His first duty was to them.
But, then, what of that damning letter? It supplied the key to Suleiman
Pasha's plot. It told of hell brewing in the Khyber Hills, of revolt seething
on the Hindu plains, of a plot which might be nipped in the bud were the
British officials to learn of it in time. But if he returned to Shahrazar
with the Turkomans, he must give the letter to Suleiman Pasha or be denounced
to Orkhan—and that meant torture and death. He was in the fangs of the
vise; he must either sacrifice himself, his men, or the helpless people of
"Ohai, Ali el Ghazi!" It was a soft hiss behind him, from the
shadow of a jutting rock. Even as he started about, a pistol muzzle was
pressed against his back.
"Nay, do not move. I do not trust you yet."
Twisting his head about, O'Donnell stared into the dark features of
"You! How in Shaitan's name—"
"No matter. Give me the papers which you hold in your hand. Give them to
me, or, by Allah, I will send you to hell, Kurd!"
With the pistol boring into his back, there was nothing else O'Donnell
could do, his heart almost bursting with rage.
Suleiman Pasha stepped back and tucked the papers into his girdle. He
allowed O'Donnell to turn and face him, but still kept him covered with the
"After you had departed," he said, "secret word came to me from the North
that the papers for which I sent you were more important then I had dreamed.
I dared not wait in Shahrazar for your return, lest something go awry. I rode
for Khuruk with some Ghilzais who knew the road. Beyond the Pass of Akbar we
were ambushed by the very people we sought. They slew my men, but they spared
me, for I was known to one of their headmen. They told me they had been
driven forth by Afzal Khan, and I guessed what else had occurred. They said
there had been fighting beyond the Pass, for they had heard the sound of
firing, but they did not know its nature. There are no men in the tower in
the Pass, but the Khurukzai fear a trap. They do not know the outlaws have
fled from the valley.
"I wished to get word with you as soon as possible, so I volunteered to go
spying for them alone, so they showed me the footpaths. I reached the valley
head in time to see the last of the Pathans depart, and I have been hiding
here awaiting a chance to catch you alone. Listen! The Turkomans are doomed.
The Khurukzai mean to kill them all. But I can save you. We shall dress you
in the clothing of a dead Pathan, and I shall say you are a servant of mine
who has escaped from the Turkomans.
"I shall not return to Shahrazar. I have business in the Khyber region. I
can use a man like you. We shall return to the Khurukzai and show them how to
attack and destroy the Turkomans. Then they will lend us an escort southward.
Will you come with me and serve me, Kurd?"
"No, you damned swine!" In the stress of the moment O'Donnell spat his
fury in English. Suleiman Pasha's jaw dropped, in the staggering
unexpectedness of English words from a man he thought to be a Kurd. And in
the instant his wits were disrupted by the discovery, O'Donnell, nerved to
desperate quickness, was at his throat like a striking cobra.
The pistol exploded once and then was wrenched from the numbed fingers.
Suleiman Pasha was fighting in frenzied silence, and he was all steel strings
and catlike thews. But O'Donnell's kindhjal was out and ripping
murderously into him again and again. They went to the earth together in the
shadow of the big rock, O'Donnell stabbing in a berserk frenzy; and then he
realized that he was driving his blade into a dead man.
He shook himself free and rose, staggering like a drunken man with the red
maze of his murder lust. The oilskin packet was in his left hand, torn from
his enemy's garments during the struggle. Dusk had given way to blue, star-
flecked darkness. To O'Donnell's ears came the clink of hoofs on stone, the
creak of leather. His warriors were approaching, still hidden by the towering
ledges. He heard a low laugh that identified Yar Muhammad.
O'Donnell breathed deeply in vast content. Now he could guide his men back
through the passes to Shahrazar without fear of Orkhan Bahadur, who would
never know his secret. He could persuade the Turkoman chief that it would be
to his advantage to send this letter on to the British border. He, as Ali el
Ghazi, could remain in Shahrazar safely, to oppose subtly what other
conspirators came plotting to the forbidden city.
He smiled as he wiped the blood from his kindhjal and sheathed it.
There still remained the Khurukzai, waiting with murderous patience beyond
the Pass of Akbar, but his soul was at rest, and the prospect of fighting his
way back through the mountains troubled him not at all. He was as confident
of the outcome as if he already sat in the palace at Shahrazar.
FRAGMENT: ORIGINAL OPENING OF STORY
"FEEL THE EDGE, DOG, and move not!" The hissing
voice was no less menacing than the razor-edged blade that was pressed just
beneath Kirby O'Donnell's chin. The American lay still, staring up into the
dim ring of bearded faces, vague as phantoms in the dull glow of a waning
electric torch. He had fancied himself safe in the guarded palace of his
friend Orkhan Bahadur but anything, he reflected, could happen in Shahrazar
the Forbidden. Had these men who came so silently by night discovered the
real identity of the man who called himself Ali el Ghazi, a Kurdish wanderer?
Their next words set his mind at rest on that score.
"Rise from your couch, Ali el Ghazi," muttered the leader of the men.
"Rise slowly and place your hands behind you. This dagger has sent a Kurd to
Hell before now."
O'Donnell slowly obeyed the order, raging inwardly, but outwardly
imperturbable. His keen edged scimitar and kindhjal lay almost within
his grasp, but he knew that a move toward them would send four curved blades
plunging into his heart, wielded by desperately taut nerves.
As he came to a sitting position, his wrists were gripped fiercely, and
bound behind him. The edge still trembled against his throat. A single yell
might bring aid, but he would never live to complete it. He thought he knew
the leader of the gang— one Baber Khan, a renegade Gilzai who followed
Orkhan Bahadur as a jackal follows a tiger.
"Not a word;" whispered the deadly voice. "Come with us."
The American was hauled roughly to his feet and moved across the chamber
among the close clump of his captors. A knife point bored into his ribs. The
bare feet made no sound as they left the chamber and emerged into a broad
hallway, flanked by thick columns. Somewhere a cresset glowed, lighting the
place fitfully and dimly. Baber Khan had extinguished his electric torch. But
in the light of the cresset O'Donnell saw the black mute Orkhan Bahadur had
given him as a body guard—more a royal gesture than anything else, for
Orkhan did not suppose that Ali el Ghazi had enemies in Shahrazar. The black
man must have been dozing when the killers crept upon him, for he had had no
chance to use his wide-tipped tulwar. His white eye-balls were rolled up,
glimmering whitely in the torch-light. His black throat was cut from ear to
The eldritch group saw no one as they stole down the weirdly lurid
hallway. They might have been ghosts of some of the many men whose blood had
stained that pillared hall since the days of Timur-il-leng, and the Tatar
sultans. Silence lay over the palace, the silence of death-like slumber. They
came to a stair which led downward, and down this they went, into swallowing
gloom. On a lower landing they halted, and O'Donnell felt himself forced to
his haunches. He could see nothing, but he felt hairy silk-clad bodies
pressing him close. A voice whispered so close to his ear that the hot breath
"None comes down this stair by night, Kurd; speak quickly!"
"Of what shall I speak?" demanded O'Donnell guardedly, for the knife was
still at his neck. It was an eery experience, ringed by bodies and knives he
could not see, with menacing voices whispering out of the gloom like
"I will refresh thy memory," muttered the voice of Baber Khan. "A week ago
we rode down the valley, with the riders of the Turkomans, behind Orkhan
Bahadur, to take this city of Shahrazar from Shaibar Khan and his Uzbeks.
Orkhan greatly desired this city, because somewhere in it he knew there was a
great treasure—the treasure gathered long ago by Muhammad Shah, king of
Khuwarezm. When the Mongols of Genghis Khan hunted the Shah-im-shah to
his death across the world, his emirs bore to forgotten Shahrazar his
great store of gold, silver and jewels. Here it remained hidden until Shaibar
Khan discovered its hiding place. Then came we, with Orkhan Bahadur, and slew
all the Uzbeks and took the city and set up Orkhan Bahadur as prince of
"All this is well known to me," impatiently answered O'Donnell.
"Aye, for thou wert Shaibar Khan's slave!"
"A lie!" exclaimed O'Donnell, starting with amazement. "The Khan was my
"Soho!" hissed the voice venomously. "Be still, thou!" The wire-edge just
touched the skin of his throat, and a tiny trickle of blood started. "In a
chamber below the palace we found Shaibar Khan dead, and with him Yar Akbar
the Afridi, likewise dead. But nowhere was the treasure to be found. Nor has
Orkhan Bahadur found it, though he is lord of Shahrazar.
"Now it was known that certain men had the care of the treasure in their
hands, to guard it and protect it with their lives. They were twelve in
number, and were called the emirs of the Inner Chamber. Eleven of
these men we found dead, and we knew them by reason of a gold emblem each
wore on a gold chain about his neck—an oval of gold, with a Khuwarezm
A glow dazzled O'Donnell; in it a great hairy hand snaked out of the dark
and tore at the garments over his breast—wrenched out something that
glimmered in the dull light. Breath hissed from between teeth in the dark
about him. In the gnarled hand lay an oval of beaten gold, carved with a
single cryptic character.
"You are the twelfth man!" accused Baber Khan. You were an emir of
the Inner Chamber! It was you who hid the treasure!"
"I am no Uzbek!" snarled O'Donnell.
"Nay, but Shaibar Khan had men of many races among his ranks. You were
found in the palace when we took the city, the only living fighting man in
the palace. I have watched you closely, and today I spied the symbol among
O'Donnell cursed mentally for not having disposed of the damning
"I know nothing of the treasure," he said angrily. "This gaud I took from
the neck of a man I slew in a dark alley." And that last was the truth.
"Thou art stubborn," muttered Baber Khan; "but the steel shall teach thee.
Fierce hands clamped over the American's mouth, and others held him hard,
stretching him out. O'Donnell's body was a knot of wiry thews, but with his
hands bound, and three hairy giants grasping him, he was helpless. He felt
Baber Khan's fingers clutching at his ankle, lifting his foot; then the sharp
agony of a knife point driving under the nail of his great toe. He set his
teeth against the hurt, then it was withdrawn, and he felt blood trickling
over his foot. The hand released his jaws.
"Where is the treasure?" hissed the savage voice out of the darkness.
"Let me up," mumbled O'Donnell. "I'll lead you to it."
A gusty sigh of satisfaction answered him. He was hauled to his feet.
"Lead on," Baber Khan directed. He did not promise O'Donnell his life in
return for the secret of the treasure; the American knew that the treacherous
Ghilzai had no intention of letting him live, in any event.
"We will go to the chamber in which was found the bodies of Shaibar Khan
and Yar Akbar," said he, and with a satisfied grunt, they allowed him to lead
the way, grasping his arms, with their knives at his ribs.
They went on down the stair, through a tapestried door and down a short
corridor. This corridor, lighted by Baber's wavering torch, seemed to
terminate against a blank marble wall. But all the palace knew its secret,
since the invasion of the Turkomans, and the Ghilzai thrust against the wall
with a burly shoulder. A section swung in, working on a pivot....