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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v1 - 3/11 -
late traveller turned a cake in the ashes or stirred some rice in a calabash; an anxious mother put some sandalwood on the coals and added incense, that the gods might be good to the ailing child on the mat; and thrice, at forges in the village, he saw the smith languidly beating iron into shape, while dark figures sat on the floor near by, and smoked and murmured to each other.
These last showed alertness at the sound of the flying sorrel's hoofs, and all at once a tall, keen-eyed horseman sprang to the broad doorway and strained his eyes into the night after Cumner's Son. He waited a few moments; then, as if with a sudden thought, he ran to a horse tethered near by and vaulted into the saddle. At a word his chestnut mare got away with telling stride in pursuit of the unknown rider, passing up the Gap of Mandakan like a ghost.
Cumner's Son had a start by about half a mile, but Tang-a-Dahit rode a mare that had once belonged to Pango Dooni, and Pango Dooni had got her from Colonel Cumner the night he escaped from Mandakan.
For this mare the hill-chief had returned no gift save the gold bracelet which Cumner's Son now carried in his belt.
The mare leaned low on her bit, and travelled like a thirsty hound to water, the sorrel tugged at the snaffle, and went like a bullmoose hurrying to his herd,
"That long low gallop that can tire The hounds' deep hate or hunter's fire."
The pace was with the sorrel. Cumner's Son had not looked behind after the first few miles, for then he had given up thought that he might be followed. He sat in his saddle like a plainsman; he listened like a hillsman; he endured like an Arab water-carrier. There was not an ounce of useless flesh on his body, and every limb, bone, and sinew had been stretched and hardened by riding with the Dakoon's horsemen, by travelling through the jungle for the tiger and the panther, by throwing the kris with Boonda Broke, fencing with McDermot, and by sabre practice with red-headed Sergeant Doolan in the barracks by the Residency Square. After twenty miles' ride he was dry as a bone, after thirty his skin was moist but not damp, and there was not a drop of sweat on the skin-leather of his fatigue cap. When he got to Koongat Bridge he was like a racer after practice, ready for a fight from start to finish. Yet he was not foolhardy. He knew the danger that beset him, for he could not tell, in the crisis come to Mandakan, what designs might be abroad. He now saw through Boonda Broke's friendship for him, and he only found peace for his mind upon the point by remembering that he had told no secrets, had given no information of any use to the foes of the Dakoon or the haters of the English.
On this hot, long, silent ride he looked back carefully, but he could not see where he had been to blame; and, if he were, he hoped to strike a balance with his own conscience for having been friendly to Boonda Broke, and to justify himself in his father's eyes. If he came through all right, then "the Governor"--as he called his father, with the friendly affection of a good comrade, and as all others in Mandakan called him because of his position--the Governor then would say that whatever harm he had done indirectly was now undone.
He got down at the Koongat Bridge, and his fingers were still in the sorrel's mane when he heard the call of a bittern from the river bank. He did not loose his fingers, but stood still and listened intently, for there was scarcely a sound of the plain, the river, or jungle he did not know, and his ear was keen to balance 'twixt the false note and the true. He waited for the sound again. From that first call he could not be sure which had startled him--the night was so still--the voice of a bird or the call between men lying in ambush. He tried the trigger of his pistol softly, and prepared to mount. As he did so, the call rang out across the water again, a little louder, a little longer.
Now he was sure. It was not from a bittern--it was a human voice, of whose tribe he knew not--Pango Dooni's, Boonda Broke's, the Dakoon's, or the segments of peoples belonging to none of these--highway robbers, cattle-stealers, or the men of the jungle, those creatures as wild and secret as the beasts of the bush and more cruel and more furtive.
The fear of the ambushed thing is the worst fear of this world--the sword or the rifle-barrel you cannot see and the poisoned wooden spear which the men of the jungle throw gives a man ten deaths, instead of one.
Cumner's Son mounted quickly, straining his eyes to see and keeping his pistol cocked. When he heard the call a second time he had for a moment a thrill of fear, not in his body, but in his brain. He had that fatal gift, imagination, which is more alive than flesh and bone, stronger than iron and steel. In his mind he saw a hundred men rise up from ambush, surround him, and cut him down. He saw himself firing a half-dozen shots, then drawing his sword and fighting till he fell; but he did fall in the end, and there was an end of it. It seemed like years while these visions passed through his mind, but it was no longer than it took to gather the snaffle-rein close to the sorrel's neck, draw his sword, clinch it in his left hand with the rein, and gather the pistol snugly in his right. He listened again. As he touched the sorrel with his knee he thought he heard a sound ahead.
The sorrel sprang forward, sniffed the air, and threw up his head. His feet struck the resounding timbers of the bridge, and, as they did so, he shied; but Cumner's Son, looking down sharply, could see nothing to either the right or left--no movement anywhere save the dim trees on the banks waving in the light wind which had risen. A crocodile slipped off a log into the water--he knew that sound; a rank odour came from the river bank--he knew the smell of the hippopotamus.
These very things gave him new courage. Since he came from Eton to Mandakan he had hunted often and well, and once he had helped to quarry the Little Men of the Jungle when they carried off the wife and daughter of a soldier of the Dakoon. The smell and the sound of wild life roused all the hunter in him. He had fear no longer; the primitive emotion of fighting or self-defence was alive in him.
He had left the bridge behind by twice the horse's length, when, all at once, the call of the red bittern rang out the third time, louder than before; then again; and then the cry of a grey wolf came in response.
His peril was upon him. He put spurs to the sorrel. As he did so, dark figures sprang up on all sides of him. Without a word he drove the excited horse at his assailants. Three caught his bridle-rein, and others snatched at him to draw him from his horse.
"Hands off!" he cried, in the language of Mandakan, and levelled his pistol.
"He is English!" said a voice. "Cut him down!"
"I am the Governor's son," said the lad. "Let go." "Cut him down!" snarled the voice again.
He fired twice quickly.
Then he remembered the tribe-call given his father by Pango Dooni. Rising in his saddle and firing again, he called it out in a loud voice. His plunging horse had broken away from two of the murderers; but one still held on, and he slashed the hand free with his sword.
The natives were made furious by the call, and came on again, striking at him with their krises. He shouted the tribe-call once more, but this time it was done involuntarily. There was no response in front of him; but one came from behind. There was clattering of hoofs on Koongat Bridge, and the password of the clan came back to the lad, even as a kris struck him in the leg and drew out again. Once again he called, and suddenly a horseman appeared beside him, who clove through a native's head with a broadsword, and with a pistol fired at the fleeing figures; for Boonda Broke's men who were thus infesting the highway up to Koongat Bridge, and even beyond, up to the Bar of Balmud, hearing the newcomer shout the dreaded name of Pango Dooni, scattered for their lives, though they were yet twenty to two. One stood his ground, and it would have gone ill for Cumner's Son, for this thief had him at fatal advantage, had it not been for the horseman who had followed the lad from the forge-fire to Koongat Bridge. He stood up in his stirrups and cut down with his broadsword, so that the blade was driven through the head and shoulders of his foe as a woodsman splits a log half through, and grunts with the power of his stroke.
Then he turned to the lad.
"What stranger calls by the word of our tribe?" he asked.
"I am Cumner's Son," was the answer, "and my father is brother-in-blood with Pango Dooni. I ride to Pango Dooni for the women and children's sake."
"Proof! Proof! If you be Cumner's Son, another word should be yours."
The Colonel's Son took out the bracelet from his breast. "It is safe hid here," said he, "and hid also under my tongue. If you be from the Neck of Baroob you will know it when I speak it;" and he spoke reverently the sacred countersign.
By a little fire kindled in the road, the bodies of their foe beside them, they vowed to each other, mingling their blood from dagger pricks in the arm. Then they mounted again and rode towards the Neck of Baroob.
In silence they rode awhile, and at last the hillsman said: "If fathers be brothers-in-blood, behold it is good that sons be also."
By this the lad knew that he was now brother-in-blood to the son of Pango Dooni.
THE CODE OF THE HILLS
"You travel near to Mandakan!" said the lad. "Do you ride with a thousand men?"
"For a thousand men there are ten thousand eyes to see; I travel alone and safe," answered Tang-a-Dahit.
"To thrust your head in the tiger's jaw," said Cumner's Son. "Did you ride to be in at the death of the men of your clan?"
"A man will ride for a face that he loves, even to the Dreadful Gates," answered Tang-a-Dahit. "But what is this of the men of my clan?"
Then the lad told him of those whose heads hung on the rear Palace wall, where the Dakoon lay dying, and why he rode to Pango Dooni.
"It is fighting and fighting, naught but fighting," said Tang-a-Dahit after a pause; "and there is no peace. It is fighting and fighting, for
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