DIRRAG

When Burah Khan picked Dirrag of the tribe of Ugg as his messenger to
the monastery of Takkatu, he knew his man.

Dirrag was brother to the sirdar of his tribe, and the tribe of Ugg was
Burah Khan’s tribe, prominent above all others for having furnished two
great rulers to the nation: Keedar the Great and his warrior son the
Lion of Mekran. Well might the tribe of Ugg be proud, and well might
Dirrag be faithful to his own kin.

The messenger was thin and wiry; he was not a tall man, but neither was
Burah Khan, for that matter. Dirrag wore a black, thick beard that
covered nearly his entire face. His eyes, as they glinted through the
thicket of whisker, were keen as a ferret’s. One of his ears had been
sliced away by a cimeter; his left hand had but one finger and the
thumb remaining; his body was seared with scars on almost every inch of
its compact surface. Dirrag was no longer ornamental–if he had ever
possessed that quality–but he was an exceedingly useful man in a
skirmish and had fought for years beside Burah himself. They knew each
other.

When Dirrag mounted his mare at the castle gates he did not hesitate as
to his direction, but sped away toward the mountains. An ordinary
messenger would have headed due east, so as to pass around the mountain
range and reach by easy ascent the height of Takkatu. But the strange
physician had told him Prince Ahmed must be at his father’s side in six
days, and Dirrag had looked into the man’s eyes. He knew that much
depended upon his promptness in fulfilling his mission, and so he rode,
straight as the bird flies, toward Mount Takkatu.

And he rode swiftly, hour after hour, till shadows crept over the land
and night fell. He dipped the mare’s nose into two streams between then
and daybreak, but paused only during those moments. At sunrise he
dashed up to an enclosure, drew the bridle from his panting mare, threw
it over the head of a snow-white stallion corralled near by, sprang
astride the fresh animal and was off like the wind.

A Baluch came from a stone hut, watched the cloud of dust that marked
Dirrag’s flight and then calmly proceeded to tend and groom the weary
mare the messenger had discarded.

“Oh, ho!” he muttered, “old Burah has the death-sickness at last, and
the young prince is sent for. May Allah rest my master’s black and
scoundrelly soul!”

He had tended the relay for years, waiting for this hour.

Dirrag reached the monastery in the middle of the third day after
leaving Mekran. He was obliged to curb his impatience for four tedious
hours before the return journey could be begun. But the messenger was
well ahead of his time, and provided Prince Ahmed proved a good rider
would see Mekran again before the six days allotted him had sped.

There were good horses at the ancient monastery of Mehmet. No more
famous stable existed in all Baluchistan. Dirrag glanced with pride at
their mounts as he rode away beside his kinsman the prince. Also he
noted with satisfaction the firm and graceful seat of his companion and
his evident mastery of the splendid bay stallion he bestrode.

Therefore the warrior smiled grimly and tossed his head.

“Six days!” he muttered. “It is too many by one.”

A long, swift stride the slender bays struck, and they maintained it
hour after hour without seeming to tire. Dirrag was no chatterer, and
the son of the Lion of Mekran, whom the tribesman regarded admiringly
from time to time from the corner of his eye, seemed liable to prove
equally reticent.

The warrior had never seen his master’s son before, and had shared a
common misgiving with the Baluchi concerning the monastery-bred prince.
But his doubts were more than half relieved by his first view of the
athletic form and steady poise of his kinsman. If the priests had not
spoiled him– But, there! time would show. At present it was enough that
the heir could ride.

Another day arrived before Dirrag was called upon to answer a single
question. In the cool hour just before the sun arose, as they slowly
rode up an incline, resting the horses for the long canter down hill,
the prince asked:

“In what condition did you leave Burah Khan?”

“Your father, my prince, was near his end,” he replied, slowly. “His
illness has been long and tedious, and the Persian physician who arrived
from Kelat gave him barely seven days to live. This is the fourth day.”

“And when shall we reach Mekran?”

“On the morning of the sixth day–with the blessing of Allah.”

The younger man pondered the matter long. Then he said:

“Who recommended the Persian? Were there no physicians in Mekran?”

“Burah beheaded his own physician three weeks ago. He has executed,
altogether, five men of medicine since this illness came upon him. The
others have fled or are in hiding. As for the Persian, I am told Agahr
the Vizier would have prevented his coming; but Melka of our tribe, who
rules the khan’s harem, rode fast to Kelat, and the Persian came.”

“Agahr. Is he not our cousin?”

“Your uncle, lord, thrice removed. He is own cousin to Kasam the
Pretender.”

Another period of silence, finally broken by questions as calmly and
indifferently put.

“This Kasam the Pretender. Is he popular in Mekran?”

“They do not know him, any more than they know yourself. He has lived in
a far country since boyhood, and is said to be still there.”

“But he has friends–partisans?”

Dirrag hitched uneasily in his seat.

“There are some, even yet, who deny the right of a son of Ugg to rule.
Old Keedar did not strike softly, and the sword of Burah was ever long
and sharp. You will have enemies, my master, when you are khan.”

“Open enemies?”

“And secret ones. The open enemies you need not fear.”

At noon they entered the Gedrusian Desert, the uplands being all behind
them.

There is little danger in this tract of waste land to those familiar
with it. Numerous pools and oases sustain the traveller of experience.
Dirrag knew every inch of the desert, and as their present route was
across but one corner of it he entered fearlessly.

Night had fallen and the moon and stars were out when they halted the
weary horses beside a pool. Ahmed dismounted and had knelt beside the
water to drink when Dirrag suddenly grasped his shoulder and threw him
forcibly backward. He arose slowly, rearranged his burnous and cast an
enquiring look at his companion.

“The pool is poisoned,” said Dirrag.

Bending over, he pointed to the bottom of the shallow water, where the
moon shone on several slender twigs that were covered with a pale green
bark.

“It is from the shushalla–the snake-tree,” he said, gruffly. “A drop of
this water will bring instant death. This is very annoying. Our pools
are never poisoned without a purpose, my master. Perhaps we are
watched.”

“I saw a rider against the horizon, as we came up,” replied Ahmed.

He stretched his muscular arms, yawned with weariness and lay down upon
the sand, instantly becoming motionless. It was a trick of relaxation he
had learned at the Sunnite monastery.

Dirrag looked at him approvingly. The novitiate Hafiz had cast aside his
yellow robes with his monastic name, and now wore the simple dress of a
Baluch tribesman, without ornament or jewel of any sort. The fold of his
turban, however, proclaimed him a member of the tribe of Ugg, and the
cimeter at his side–the gift of the wily priest of Mehmet–was a weapon
of rare quality, its hilt sparkling with clustered gems. Dirrag, when he
first saw it, had made humble obeisance to the cimeter.

The former recluse also bore a short spear, with the accompanying
shield of hammered bronze, and these completed his equipment.

Dirrag, wondering vaguely if his young master knew how to handle his
weapons, unsheathed his own blade and, squatting at the edge of the
pool, impaled the green twigs, one after another, upon its point and
drew them from the water. When all had been thus removed he buried the
deadly branches deep in the desert sands, and then reclined beside his
master. The horses sniffed eagerly at the pool, but would not drink
until they were given permission.

Silence fell upon the group. When three hours had passed Dirrag arose,
crept to the pool and dipped his finger in the water, tasting a drop
warily. Then he leaned over and drank, somewhat sparingly, and laid
himself down again, commending his soul to Allah.

In another hour he sprang up, alert and brisk, and touched Ahmed’s
shoulder.

“You may drink, master,” said he. “The pool is cleansed.”

Five minutes later, men and horses alike refreshed, they gallopped away
through the moonlight.

The fifth day dawned–the fifth according to Dirrag’s calendar, which
dated from the moment he had left Mekran. Ahmed had been in the saddle
thirty-six hours, with brief periods of rest. Dirrag, man of iron though
he was, began to show signs of fatigue. He was used to long riding, but
now his eyelashes seemed lead and every stroke of his horse’s hoofs
sounded in his ears like the beat of a drum.

Soon after the sun arose they discovered a group of horsemen far across
the desert, who seemed to be riding in the same direction they were. The
horsemen were mere specks upon the sands, at first, but as the hours
passed they grew larger.

“Travellers to Mekran,” remarked Dirrag, calmly. “The sirdars have been
assembled. Doubtless it is the party of some dignitary journeying to the
death-bed of Burah Khan.”

“How far distant is Mekran?” asked Ahmed.

“We shall reach it, Allah willing, by another daybreak,” replied the
warrior. “It will be the morning of the sixth day. The Persian gave me
full six days. I shall save twelve hours, and twelve hours to a dying
man is a long time.”

There was an accent of pride in his voice. Agahr had said the journey
would require seven days with fast riding. But Agahr was a townsman; how
should he know how fast the men of Ugg can ride?

The group of horsemen drew nearer. At noon Dirrag could see them almost
plainly enough to determine what tribe they belonged to–almost, but not
quite. Shortly afterwards, however, they whirled and rode directly
toward the two travellers, and then Dirrag straightened in his saddle,
cast the sleep from his eyes and gave a low growl.

“They are of the Tribe of Raab–a wild and rebellious band that hates
Burah and supports the cause of Kasam the Pretender.”

“Why are they here?” asked Ahmed.

“To prevent our reaching Mekran I suppose. They do not want the sirdars
and your father to publicly acknowledge you the successor to the
throne.”

“Well?”

“It was for the same reason the pool was poisoned. Treachery first; then
the sword. Can you fight, my prince?”

“I can try,” smiled Ahmed. “We are taught the arts of warfare in the
monastery.”

“You surprise me. I thought the priests passed their time in the worship
of Allah.”

“And in preparing to defend the Faith, good Dirrag. Yet I do not know
how well I can wield a cimeter in actual combat. Naked steel differs
from a wooden foil. And the men of Raab outnumber us.”

“There are a dozen of them, at least. But you and I are of the tribe of
Ugg. If we cannot win the fight we may at least honor our kinsmen by
taking three lives to our one.”

“It is worth the trial,” returned Ahmed, cheerfully, and he drew the
cimeter from its leathern sheath and eyed the blade curiously.

“The spear first, my lord,” said Dirrag. “After that the sword play.
These men of Raab are not skillful, but they are brave.” And he
proceeded to instruct Ahmed in the conduct of the coming encounter.

The horsemen were now so near that their shouts could be plainly heard.
They were racing on at full speed, waving their spears in the air as
they rode.

“See!” exclaimed Ahmed, after a glance over his shoulder. “We are being
surrounded.”

Dirrag looked and growled again; but there was a more cheerful note to
his voice this time.

“A caravan!” he exclaimed. “They are yet far off, but they have
dromedaries and are swiftly approaching. If we can escape the first
attack of the assassins we may be rescued yet.”

There was no time for further words. The fierce tribesmen of Raab were
quickly upon them, and by a concerted movement Ahmed and Dirrag whirled
their horses in opposite directions, separating as they dashed away over
the sands. This was intended to cause the band to divide, a part
following each fugitive. But, to Dirrag’s annoyance, only two came after
him, yelling and shaking their spears, indeed, but seeming not over
anxious to engage him in combat, so long as he did not rejoin Ahmed.

It was upon the young heir of Mekran that most of the Raabites hurled
themselves, circling around him at full gallop and watching a chance to
thrust a spear into his back.

Ahmed recognized his peril. He cast his spear at one assailant, cleft
another through turban and skull with his keen cimeter, and then, with a
word to the gallant bay of Mehmet, he raised the horse high in the air
and hurled it like a catapult at the foeman who chanced to be before
him.

Even at the moment of impact the glittering blade whistled again through
the air and the man of Raab sprawled with his horse in the desert sands,
while Ahmed’s steed broke through the circle of his foes and bounded
away to rejoin Dirrag, who was so lost in admiration of his young
master’s prowess that he hardly looked to defend himself from his own
assailants.

“Shall we fly?” asked Ahmed.

“It is useless,” panted Dirrag, ranging his horse beside that of his
master, so that it faced the opposite direction. “They can outrun us
easily, for our steeds are weary. But a few more strokes like those, my
prince, and the dogs will themselves take to their heels.”

There was no indication of this at present, however. Again the enemy
with fierce determination surrounded the two, and while each guarded the
other’s back they sat side by side and gave stroke for stroke with calm
precision.

“Hold!” cried an eager voice, sounding above the melee.

The men of Raab, as if fearful of being robbed of their prey, made a
sudden furious dash. At the same time a pistol shot rang out and the
leader tumbled from his saddle. The Raabites were demoralized, and fell
back. They had no fire-arms.

“Forbear, I command you!” said the same imperative voice. “I am Prince
Kasam.”

Yells of surprise and disappointment broke from the tribesmen. With a
sudden impulse they wheeled and galloped swiftly over the desert, while
the rescued men wearied and breathless, lowered their swords to gaze
around them in surprise.

The caravan had come upon them unawares. Twenty stout Afghans rode back
of the young prince who had interrupted the conflict, and behind these
stood dromedaries upon whose ample backs were perched ladies in European
dress and gentlemen composedly smoking cheroots.

“Well done, Kasam,” cried Colonel Moore, approvingly, and the ladies
waved their handkerchiefs.

Dirrag, who had dismounted to pull a spear-head from his horse’s flank,
scowled and shrank back so that the bay’s body partly hid him. Ahmed, at
the sound of English words, drew the folds of his burnous close about
his face, so that only the grey eyes were left revealed; but he sat his
horse quietly and gave the native salute.




“We thank Prince Kasam for our rescue,” he said in the native tongue.

Kasam flushed and laughed good-naturedly.

“Keep my secret, friend,” he returned. “I was, indeed, foolish to reveal
my station to that rabble yonder. But they are men of Raab, from which
tribe I am myself descended, and in the emergency it seemed the only way
to compel their obedience.”

The other bowed coldly and turned away to watch the Afghans rifling the
bodies of the fallen.

“Bury those fellows in the sand,” ordered Kasam, shivering as he looked
at the stark forms. “Were they not of my tribe they should feed the
jackals for so cowardly an attack. What was your quarrel, friend?”
turning again to Ahmed.

The latter made no reply, waving a hand toward Dirrag. Whereat the
warrior, despite his repugnance, forced himself to come forward and
answer for his silent chief.

“We are of the tribe of Ugg,” said he, briefly.

Kasam laughed.

“That is the usurper’s tribe,” said he; “the tribe of old Burah, who is
either dying or dead at this moment. No wonder my kinsmen assailed
you!”

Some of the ladies and gentlemen, who had understood nothing of this
conversation, now rode forward with eager questions in English
concerning the affray and those who had been slain. Bessie screamed at
sight of the mound of sand that was being rapidly heaped over the
victims, and Aunt Lucy declared she was about to faint and would fall
off the camel. Dr. Warner, in well chosen words, denounced a country
where such murderous assaults were possible, and the Colonel regretted
they had not arrived in time to see more of the fight. Even Allison
Moore displayed considerable interest in the incident, and condemned
Kasam for interrupting what might have been “a very pretty scrap.”

Meantime Ahmed, with muffled face, sat his horse as if turned to stone,
and Dirrag scowled more and more at the gabble of the foreigners.

“Friend,” said Kasam, mistaking the scarred warrior for the leader of
the two, “we are riding to Mekran. If you travel our way you have
permission to attach yourselves to my caravan. It will doubtless insure
your safety.”

To what extent Dirrag might have resented this implication that they
were unable to protect themselves is uncertain, for an ungracious reply
on his part to the kindly-meant invitation was interrupted by a
recollection of the importance of his mission and the dangers that now
menaced his young companion.

“Prince Kasam has our thanks,” he muttered. “We journey to Mekran.”

As the caravan started anew Janet Moore, who had remained quietly in the
background, among the baggage-men and camel-drivers, rode slowly forward
and joined the group of Americans. Whereupon Bessie laughingly
reproached her for her timidity, and began chattering an unintelligible
explanation of what had happened.

The men of Ugg silently joined the caravan. Neither they nor their
horses seemed much the worse for the conflict, although Dirrag’s animal
had a gaping wound in the thigh that would soon become stiff and sore,
and the warrior had himself added a scratch across the forehead to his
collection of wounds.

“Your countrymen seem to regard life very lightly, Prince,” said the
Colonel, as they rode together near the front.

“Among themselves they have fought for centuries,” answered Kasam. “Yet
I am told that of late years, under Keedar and Burah Khan, these minor
frays have been forbidden and the combatants, if caught, severely
punished. But old Burah is as good as dead, now, and the squabbles of
the tribesmen are likely to break out afresh until I have time to
reorganize the government and pacify the country.”

“Will you, too, be known as ‘a fighting khan,’ such as the ‘Lion of
Mekran?’” asked Bessie, looking upon the young man with admiring eyes.

“I hope not, indeed,” he replied, laughing. “I shall try to instil
European ideas into the heads of my stupid countrymen, and teach them
the superiority of the Arts of Peace.”

None noticed that Ahmed’s horse had gradually forged ahead until he
rode just behind the party of Americans.

“Isn’t it queer,” remarked Miss Warner, musingly, “that the future
potentate of this big country is personally conducting us to his
capital? It was really nice of you, Prince, to return with our
passports. For a time we thought you had forsaken us, and Allison was
bent on our retracing our steps and quitting the country.”

Kasam glanced into Janet’s grave face.

“You need not fear my deserting you,” he said earnestly. “Indeed, had I
remained in Mekran during these days of waiting for the Khan’s death I
should have gone wild with suspense, for there is nothing that can be
done until Burah breathes his last breath. His physician, a stubborn
Persian, promised him life for seven days.”

“Suppose the Persian fails, and you are absent?” suggested the Colonel.

“If the Persian fails, so much the better,” returned Kasam; “for then
the monk-taught weakling son of Burah will not be acknowledged his
successor, and the title of Khan reverts to me.”

“But if the son arrives before his father’s death?”

It was the doctor who asked this question.

“Then we revolt–I believe that is the plan–and drive every member of
the tribe of Ugg from Mekran. But my cousin Ahmed cannot arrive before
the seventh day, which is the day after tomorrow, and, according to my
uncle Agahr, who is clever at intrigue, it will not be possible for
Burah’s son to arrive at all.”

“Why not?” demanded the Colonel.

“Assassination, I suppose,” suggested the doctor.

Kasam shrugged his shoulders.

“I do not ask my Uncle Agahr to explain these things. Ahmed is not to be
assassinated, however; he promised me that. Otherwise, it matters little
what prevents him from reaching his father’s death-bed.”

“What a splendid man that barbarian is!” whispered Bessie to Janet. The
latter turned slowly in her seat and gave a start of surprise, for Ahmed
rode just behind her. The look in the calm grey eyes seemed to thrill
the girl strangely, for she swayed in her saddle and might have fallen
had not the “barbarian” thrust out a strong arm and steadied her.

“What are you doing here?” cried Kasam, angrily, in the native Baluch.
“Back to the rear, my man, where you belong!”

Ahmed bowed gravely and retreated to where Dirrag rode. Nor did he again
venture near the front.

“How cross you were to that handsome fellow,” said Bessie, pouting her
pretty lips.

“Why, as for that, Miss Bessie,” returned the Prince, “I happened to
remember that I was indulging rather freely in political gossip; and
while it is impossible that he should understand English, your handsome
fellow is of the tribe of Ugg–our hereditary foes.”

“If all the tribe of Ugg are like these two samples,” remarked the
doctor, “it may not be so easy to thrust them from your capital.”

“They are not, I suppose. I do not remember to have seen so fine a
specimen of manhood as the tall one among the natives before. What a
pity that I know so little of my own country,” continued the young man
regretfully. “Did you notice how reverent my Afghans are toward that
little, battle-scarred warrior we rescued? He may be some man of
note–some mighty hero–for all I know. But doubtless he is a mere
quarrelsome tribesman, beneath my notice. When I am khan I shall make it
a point to study my people thoroughly, that I may better understand how
to manage them.”

At sundown they reached the edge of the desert and came to the fertile
plains of Melin. Here camp was made and, wearied with the day’s journey,
the travellers made their repast and retired early to rest.

“Tomorrow night we shall sleep in Mekran,” said Kasam. “I am sorry I
cannot invite you directly to the palace; but until old Burah dies I am
as much a stranger in my own country as any of you. However, my Uncle
Agahr will see that you are provided with comfortable quarters.”

“Are there no inns in Mekran?” asked Allison.

“Inns are plentiful, but afford only the most primitive accommodations.
We must house you in the dwelling of one of our adherents. There are
many of these, I assure you, of rank and wealth. And now, I bid you
good-night, ladies. May Allah guard your rest.”

At the door of their tent the doctor and Colonel Moore smoked a cigar
before retiring.

“I am sorry,” said the latter, in a low voice, “that in my ignorance of
Baluchistan I permitted the girls and Aunt Lucy to accompany us.”

“They’ve stood the trip pretty well, so far,” replied the doctor,
carelessly.

“Yes; but consider what a mess the country is in, politically. There’s
liable to be open warfare–perhaps a massacre–in a day or two,
according to Kasam. And the girls may–”

“Oh, we’ll keep the girls out of danger,” declared the doctor. “I’ve no
doubt they are as safe here as at home. I will acknowledge the country
is more wild and uncivilized than I had dreamed, but we’re on a matter
of business, Colonel, and I flatter myself we have as good as
accomplished our purpose already. Kasam is sure to grant us right of way
for our railroad–when he is khan.”

The Colonel smoked a while in silence.

“This young man,” he remarked, at length, “seems to have little doubt of
the success of his cause. Yet from all I have picked up since we drew
near to Baluchistan, that terrible Burah Khan who is dying is absolute
master of the situation. And his son-“

“His son is a priest-ridden devotee of Mahomet, who knows better how to
pray than to rule a turbulent nation. Don’t worry about Kasam, my dear
Colonel. He’s sure to win out. And if he doesn’t–”

The doctor smiled cynically.

“What then?”

“Why, if he doesn’t,” retorted the doctor, tossing away his cigar and
rising to retire, “the priest-bred weakling–is his name Ahmed?–will be
just the sort of ruler the Metropolitan Construction Company loves to
deal with. However the cat jumps we are sure to have the railway; so
let’s go to bed.”

Just before daybreak the leader of the Afghans came to Kasam’s tent and
awoke him.

“The men of Ugg are gone,” said he.

“Never mind,” returned the Prince, sitting up to yawn. “When did they
go?”

“Early last evening; soon after we made camp. They stole away
unobserved.”

“It doesn’t matter in the least,” said Kasam.

“Except that they have taken your Excellency’s black stallion, and left
in its place the wounded bay, which is too stiff to travel.”

“Why, that was base ingratitude,” said the young man, with unconcern. “I
must punish those fellows, if ever I see them again. But it is only a
day’s journey to Mekran. I’ll ride a dromedary, good captain; and, by
the way, let us make an early start.”

But at the same moment that Prince Kasam’s camp was awakening to
activity Ahmed and Dirrag, after a night’s hard gallop, rode through
the marble gates of Mekran.

It was the morning of the sixth day.