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The Ruby Sword: A Romance of Baluchistan

Bertram Mitford

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Ruby SwordA Romance of BaluchistanBy Bertram MitfordIllustrations by Harold PiffordPublished by F.V. White and Co, London.The Ruby Sword, by Bertram Mitford.


  ________________________________________________________________________THE RUBY SWORD, BY BERTRAM MITFORD.



  "We love to roam, the wide world our home, As the rushing whirlwind free; O'er sea and land, and foreign strand, Who would not a wanderer be!

  "To the far off scenes of our youthful dreams With a lightsome heart we go; On the willing hack, or the charger's back, Or the weary camel slow."

  Thus sang the wayfarer to himself as he urged a potentially willing, butcertainly very tired hack along the stony, sandy road which woundgradually up the defile; now overhanging a broad, dry watercourse, nowthreading an expanse of stunted juniper--the whole constituting a mostdepressing waste, destitute alike of animal, bird--or even insect--life.

  The wayfarer sang to keep up his spirits, for the desolation of thesurroundings had already begun to get upon his nerves. He wasthoroughly tired out, and very thirsty, a combination of discomfortwhich is apt to get upon one's temper as well. His steed, a sorryquadruped at best, seemed hardly able to put one leg before another,wearied out with a long day's march over arid plains, where the sunblazed down as a vast burning-glass upon slabs of rock and mounds of drysoil, streaked white here and there with gypsum--and now the ascent,gradual as it was, of the mountain defile had about finished both horseand rider.

  Twice had the latter dismounted, with a view to sparing his worn-outsteed by leading it. But the exasperating quadruped, in shamefuldisregard of the superabundant intelligence wherewith popularsuperstition persists in endowing that noble--but intensely stupid--animal the horse, flatly refused to be led; standing stockstill withevery attempt. So his efforts in the cause of combined humanity andexpediency thus defeated, the wayfarer had no alternative but to keephis saddle, where, sitting wearily, and with feet kicked limply from thestirrups, he now and then swung a spur-armed heel into the bony ribs--which incentive had about as much effect as if applied to an ordinaryjog the while he went on half singing, half humming, to himself:

  "There's a charm in the crag, there's a charm in the cloud, There's a charm in the earthquake's throe; When the hills are wrapt in a moonlit shroud There's a charm in the glacier's snow.

  "We bask in the blaze of the sun's bright rays By the murmuring river's flow; And we scale the peak of the mountain steep, And gaze on the storms below.

  "For use around a snug camp fire, that would be an excellent traveller'ssong," said this one to himself--"But in the present instance I fear itwill be `gaze on the storms _above_,' and I don't like it."

  Away up the pass a dark curtain of cloud, ominous and now growing inkyblack in the subdued light following upon sunset, seemed to justify thewayfarer's foreboding. It was distant enough as yet, but hung rightover what would surely be the said wayfarer's path.

  "No, I don't like it," he went on, talking out loud to himself as hefrequently did when travelling alone. "It looks very like a night inthe open; nothing to eat, though there'll be plenty to drink presentlyin the shape of rain-water, no shelter unless one can light upon anoverhanging rock. A sweet country to be landed down in without any ofthe appliances of civilisation, and, from all accounts, not altogether asafe one for the homeless wanderer. Decidedly the prospect is gaudy.It positively corruscates with cheerfulness."

  For which grim irony there was ample justification. Sundown had broughtno abatement of the boding oppressive heat, wherein not a breath of airwas stirring. Great hills shot up to the fast glooming sky on eitherhand; now from the edge of the road itself, now from the valley bottom,in no part of great width--beyond the stony bed of the dry watercourse;their sides cleft here and there from base to summit by a jagged,perpendicular rift--black and cavernous--their serrated ridges piled onhigh in a confused jumble of sharp peak and castellated formation--thehome of the markhoor and mountain sheep. Here a smooth, unbroken slabof rock, sloping at the well nigh precipitous angle of a high-pitchedroof--there, at an easier slant, a great expanse of rock face, seamedand criss-crossed with chasms, like the crevasses on a glacier. Novegetation, either, to relieve the all pervading, depressing greyness,save where a ragged juniper or pistachio had found anchor along a ledge,or fringed the lip of some dark chasm aforesaid.

  No turn of the road brought any relief to the eye--any lifting of theunconscious oppression which lay upon the mind; ever the same hills,sheering aloft, fearsome in their dark ruggedness, conveying the idea ofvast and wellnigh untrodden fastnesses, grim, repellent, mysterious.Nor below did variety lie; the same lifeless juniper forest, its drearytrees set wide apart, its stoniness in places concealed by a coarsegrowth of grass, or sparse and stunted shrub. For of such are the wildmountain tracts of Baluchistan.

  From an adjacent crag a raven croaked. The hoarse "cauk-cauk" cleft theair with a startling suddenness, breaking in as it did upon the lifelessand boding silence. High overhead a huge bird of prey circled in thenow glooming twilight, as though searching with lingering reluctance forsome sign of life, where there was no life, ere seeking its roost amongthe black recesses of yon cliff-walled chasm.

  "The sole signs of life emblems of fierce predatoriness and death--"thought the wayfarer to himself. Very meet, indeed, for thesurroundings in which they were set. Below, ere leaving the plaincountry, he had passed flocks of black-haired goats grazing, in chargeof armed herdsmen; or now and again a string of camels and asses--themotive power of a party of wandering Baluchis. Some had given him the"_Salaam_," and some had scowled resentfully at him as an intruder andan infidel; but even of these he would almost gladly have welcomed thesight now, so entirely depressing was the utter lifelessness of thisuninhabited land. Yet it could not be entirely uninhabited, for hereand there he had passed patches of corn land in the valley bottom, whichmust have been under cultivation at one time, though now abandoned.

  The cloud-curtain away in front began to give forth red fitful gleams,and once or twice a low boom of distant thunder stirred the atmosphericstillness. But the double crash that burst from the hillside now--thosered jets of flame--meant no war of the elements. At the same time, witha buzzing, humming noise, something passed over the wayfarer's head.

  Even the weary, played out steed was startled into a snort and a shy.The rider, on his part, was not a little startled too, as he recalledthe evil reputation of the hill tribesmen, and realised that he himselfwas at that moment constituting a target to some of these. Still, hewould not show alarm if he could help it.

  "_Salaam_!" he shouted, raising his right hand with the palm outward andopen; a peace sign recognised by other barbarians among whom he had atone time moved. "_Salaam_!" And his gaze was fixed anxiously upon thegroup of boulders whence the shots had been fired.

  For a moment there was no answer--Then it came--took shape, indeed,after a fashion that was sufficiently alarming. Five figures sprangfrom their place of concealment--five tall, copper-coloured, hook-nosedbarbarians, their fierce eyes gleaming with fanatical and racialhatred--their black hair flowing in long locks beneath their ample whiteturbans. Each held aloft a wicked looking, curved sword, and twocarried jezails, whose muzzles still smoked from the shots just firedfrom them.

  All this the wayfarer took in as in a lightning flash, as these wildbeings whirled down upon him. Their terrific aspect--the white quiverof the naked swords, their ferocious
yells stunning his ears, conveyedmeaning enough. He realised that this was a time to run--not to fight.

  Luckily the horse, forgetting for the moment its weariness in the terrorof this sudden onslaught, sprang forward without waiting for the spursnow rammed so hard and deep into its ribs. But the assailants hadchosen their ground well. The road here made a sudden descent--and wasrough and stony withal. The fleet-footed mountaineers could travel asfast as the horse. Their flight over that rugged ground seemed as theflight of a bird.

  The foremost, wellnigh alongside, held his sword ready for a fatalsweep. The awful devilish look on the face of this savage appalled thetraveller. It was now or never. He put his hand behind him; then,pointing the revolver straight at his assailant, pressed the trigger.The pistol was small, but hard driving. At such close quarters it couldnot miss. The barbarian seemed to double up--and fell backwards on tohis head, flinging his arms in the air--his sword falling, with ametallic clang, several yards away among the stones.

  Just that brief delay saved the traveller. His assailants, now reducedto four, halted but momentarily to look at their stricken comrade, andby dint of rowelling the sides of his steed until the blood flowedfreely, he was able to keep the exhausted animal as near to a gallop asit was capable of attaining. But the respite was brief. Theirbloodcurdling yells perfectly demoniacal now, the barbarians leapedforward in pursuit. They seemed to fly. The tired horse could neverhope to outstrip them.

  And as he thus fled, the wayfarer felt the cold shadow of Death's portalalready chill upon his brow, for he realised that his chances werepractically _nil_. He had heard of the "Ghazi" mania, which combinedthe uncontrollable fighting frenzy of the old Norse Berserk with thefervid fury of religious fanaticism. There was no warfare then existingwith any of the tribes of Baluchistan. These people, therefore, wereGhazis, the most desperate and dangerous enemies to deal with, becauseutterly fearless, utterly reckless. He had still five chambers in hispistol, but the weapon was small, and quite unreliable, save at pointblank--in which case his enemies would cut him down before he had timeto account for more than one of themselves.

  All this flashed through his mind. Then he realised that the ferociousyelling had ceased. He looked back. A turn in the road hid thepursuers from view, and now it was nearly dark. But the darknessbrought hope. Had they abandoned the pursuit? Or could he not concealhimself in some of the holes and crevices on the stony hillside untilthey should be tired of searching?

  Still keeping his steed at its best speed--and that was not great--so asto ensure a good start, he held on, warily listening for any sound ofhis pursuers--and thus covered about two miles. A thunder peal rolledheavily--its echoes reverberating from crag to crag--and thecloud-curtain in front was alive with a dazzle of sheeting flame, whichlit up the road and the dreary landscape like noonday. By its light helooked back. Still no sign of the pursuers, whose white flowinggarments could not have failed to catch his eye. Hope--strong hope--rekindled within him.

  But not for long. His horse, thoroughly blown, dropped into a walk. Awalk? A crawl rather, for the poor beast staggered along, its flanksheaving violently, swaying at times, as though the mere effort to dragone leg after another would bring it down, and once down well its riderknew there would be no more rising. And then? One man--alone,dismounted, inadequately armed--in the vast heart of an unknown country,tracked down by fleet-footed pitiless destroyers, stung to a frenzy ofmassacre by a twofold incentive--blood feud for a comrade slain, and thefanatical dictates--or supposed dictates--of the most merciless religionin the world. There could be but one end.

  Again he dismounted. The horse, relieved of so much weight, seemed topant less distressingly. Every moment thus lost was a moment gained byhis bloodthirsty enemies to come up with him, yet he felt it to be thewisest policy to spare his steed to the very utmost. Then he climbedinto the saddle once more.

  Now the storm was wellnigh overhead. The thunder roared and crashed,and great drops of rain shone like silver in the momentary dazzle of thelightning gleam--In that livid flare, too, the peaks stood forth onhigh, silhouetted against the heavens, and every bough of the raggedjuniper trees was clearly and delicately defined.

  Something else, too, was clearly but appallingly defined--to wit, fourwhite-clad figures--with bronzed faces and flowing hair and flamingeyes; and the sheen and flash of four curved naked swords. They hadbeen running in silence hitherto--but now--with a deafening howl theyhurled themselves forward on their prey--

  Without even cocking his revolver, the hunted man dropped it to thepresent and pressed the trigger. It would not move. Then he drew upthe hammer--no--tried to--It, too, would not move. The cylinder wasjammed. The cartridges--which he had purchased at one of those largeco-operative stores, where they sell many things, but nothing reliable--were too tight a fit. The weapon was as useless as a bit of stick.

  With a bitter curse upon the pettifogging dishonesty of his tradingfellow countrymen, the now desperate man wrenched off one of thestirrups--not a bad weapon at a pinch--But once more fortune befriendedhim. The horse, spurred by terror to one more effort, plunged down theroad, which now made a sudden descent. The stunning report of a jezail,which the Ghazis had presumably stopped to reload, added to its terror,but the missile hummed harmlessly by. And now in the ceaseless gleam ofthe lightning, the fugitive saw right before him at the base of theslope, the wide stony bed of a watercourse.

  On, on, on, anyhow--though where safety lay was too great a hope toenter his despairing brain--Then, drawing nearer and nearer from thehills on his right came a strange, swirling, rushing roar. It was notthe thunder. It had a note of its own as it boomed louder and louderwith every second. It was as the breaking of surf against the base ofan echoing cliff. And as another vivid lightning flash lit up the wholelandscape with a noonday flare, the traveller beheld a sight that wasappalling in its wild terror.

  A wall of water was sweeping down the dry nullah--a vast brown muddywave, many feet high. His escape was cut off. Yet not. So far it hadnot reached the point where the road crossed. Could he be before itthere was safety. Otherwise death, either way.

  In the nullah now, the slipping, stumbling horsehoofs were flashing upshowers of sparks in the blackness--Then another lightning gleam. Thefugitive glanced to the right, then wished he had not. The advancingflood, tossing against the livid sky, was so awful as to unnerve him,and he was just half way across. The four Ghazis arrived on the bank,but even they shrank back from the roaring terror of that wave wall.But the remaining loaded jezail spoke--and the miserable steed, strickenby the missile, plunged forward, throwing the rider hard upon his head.

  The wild triumph scream of the furious fanatics, leaping like demons inthe lightning's glare, was drowned by the bellowing voice of the flood.It poured by--and now the whole wide bed of the watercourse was a veryhell of seething roaring waves. But on the further side from thebloodthirsty Ghazis lay the motionless form of a man--He lay at fulllength, face downwards, and the swirling eddies on the extreme edge ofthe furious flood were just washing the soles of his riding boots, andleaving little wisps of twigs and straws sticking in his upturned spurs.