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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v1 - 4/11 -
honour, and glory, and houses and cattle, but naught for love, and naught that there may be peace."
Cumner's Son turned round in his saddle as if to read the face of the man, but it was too dark.
"And naught that there maybe peace." Those were the words of a hillsman who had followed him furiously in the night ready to kill, who had cloven the head of a man like a piece of soap, and had been riding even into Mandakan where a price was set on his head.
For long they rode silently, and in that time Cumner's Son found new thoughts; and these thoughts made him love the brown hillsman as he had never loved any save his own father.
"When there is peace in Mandakan," said he at last, "when Boonda Broke is snapped in two like a pencil, when Pango Dooni sits as Dakoon in the Palace of Mandakan--"
"There is a maid in Mandakan," interrupted Tanga-Dahit, "and these two years she has lain upon her bed, and she may not be moved, for the bones of her body are as the soft stems of the lily, but her face is a perfect face, and her tongue has the wisdom of God."
"You ride to her through the teeth of danger?"
"She may not come to me, and I must go to her," answered the hillsman.
There was silence again for a long time, for Cumner's Son was turning things over in his mind; and all at once he felt that each man's acts must be judged by the blood that is in him and the trail by which he has come.
The sorrel and the chestnut mare travelled together as on one snaffle- bar, step by step, for they were foaled in the same stable. Through stretches of reed-beds and wastes of osiers they passed, and again by a path through the jungle where the briar-vines caught at them like eager fingers, and a tiger crossed their track, disturbed in his night's rest. At length out of the dank distance they saw the first colour of dawn.
"Ten miles," said Tang-a-Dahit, "and we shall come to the Bar of Balmud. Then we shall be in my own country. See, the dawn comes up! 'Twixt here and the Bar of Balmud our danger lies. A hundred men may ambush there, for Boonda Broke's thieves have scattered all the way from Mandakan to our borders."
Cumner's Son looked round. There were hills and defiles everywhere, and a thousand places where foes could hide. The quickest way, but the most perilous, lay through the long defile between the hills, flanked by boulders and rank scrub. Tang-a-Dahit pointed out the ways that they might go--by the path to the left along the hills, or through the green defile; and Cumner's Son instantly chose the latter way.
"If the fight were fair," said the hillsman, "and it were man to man, the defile is the better way; but these be dogs of cowards who strike from behind rocks. No one of them has a heart truer than Boonda Broke's, the master of the carrion. We will go by the hills. The way is harder but more open, and if we be prospered we will rest awhile at the Bar of Balmud, and at noon we will tether and eat in the Neck of Baroob."
They made their way through the medlar trees and scrub to the plateau above, and, the height gained, they turned to look back. The sun was up, and trailing rose and amber garments across the great Eastern arch. Their path lay towards it, for Pango Dooni hid in the hills, where the sun hung a roof of gold above his stronghold.
"Forty to one!" said Tang-a-Dahit suddenly. "Now indeed we ride for our lives!"
Looking down the track of the hillsman's glance Cumner's Son saw a bunch of horsemen galloping up the slope. Boonda Broke's men!
The sorrel and the mare were fagged, the horses of their foes were fresh; and forty to one were odds that no man would care to take. It might be that some of Pango Dooni's men lay between them and the Bar of Balmud, but the chance was faint.
"By the hand of Heaven," said the hillsman, "if we reach to the Bar of Balmud, these dogs shall eat their own heads for dinner!"
They set their horses in the way, and gave the sorrel and mare the bit and spur. The beasts leaned again to their work as though they had just come from a feeding-stall and knew their riders' needs. The men rode light and free, and talked low to their horses as friend talks to friend. Five miles or more they went so, and then the mare stumbled. She got to her feet again, but her head dropped low, her nostrils gaped red and swollen, and the sorrel hung back with her, for a beast, like a man, will travel farther two by two than one by one. At another point where they had a long view behind they looked back. Their pursuers were gaining. Tang-a-Dahit spurred his horse on.
"There is one chance," said he, "and only one. See where the point juts out beyond the great medlar tree. If, by the mercy of God, we can but make it!"
The horses gallantly replied to call and spur. They rounded a curve which made a sort of apse to the side of the valley, and presently they were hid from their pursuers. Looking back from the thicket they saw the plainsmen riding hard. All at once Tang-a-Dahit stopped.
"Give me the sorrel," said he. "Quick--dismount!" Cumner's Son did as he was bid. Going a little to one side, the hillsman pushed through a thick hedge of bushes, rolled away a rock, and disclosed an opening which led down a steep and rough-hewn way to a great misty valley beneath, where was never a bridle-path or causeway over the brawling streams and boulders.
"I will ride on. The mare is done, but the sorrel can make the Bar of Balmud."
Cumner's Son opened his mouth to question, but stopped, for the eyes of the hillsman flared up, and Tang-a-Dahit said:
"My arm in blood has touched thy arm, and thou art in my hills and not in thine own country. Thy life is my life, and thy good is my good. Speak not, but act. By the high wall of the valley where no man bides there is a path which leads to the Bar of Balmud; but leave it not, whether it go up or down or be easy or hard. If thy feet be steady, thine eye true, and thy heart strong, thou shalt come by the Bar of Balmud among my people."
Then he caught the hand of Cumner's Son in his own and kissed him between the eyes after the manner of a kinsman, and, urging him into the hole, rolled the great stone into its place again. Mounting the sorrel he rode swiftly out into the open, rounded the green point full in view of his pursuers, and was hid from them in an instant. Then, dismounting, he swiftly crept back through the long grass into the thicket again, mounted the mare, and drove her at laboured gallop also around the curve, so that it seemed to the plainsmen following that both men had gone that way. He mounted the sorrel again, and loosing a long sash from his waist drew it through the mare's bit. The mare, lightened of the weight, followed well. When the plainsmen came to the cape of green, they paused not by the secret place, for it seemed to them that two had ridden past and not one.
The Son of Pango Dooni had drawn pursuit after himself, for it is the law of the hills that a hillsman shall give his life or all that he has for a brother-in-blood.
When Cumner's Son had gone a little way he understood it all! And he would have turned back, but he knew that the hillsman had ridden far beyond his reach. So he ran as swiftly as he could; he climbed where it might seem not even a chamois could find a hold; his eyes scarcely seeing the long, misty valley, where the haze lay like a vapour from another world. There was no sound anywhere save the brawling water or the lonely cry of the flute-bird. Here was the last refuge of the hillsmen if they should ever be driven from the Neck of Baroob. They could close up every entrance, and live unscathed; for here was land for tilling, and wood, and wild fruit, and food for cattle.
Cumner's Son was supple and swift, and scarce an hour had passed ere he came to a steep place on the other side, with rough niches cut in the rocks, by which a strong man might lift himself up to safety. He stood a moment and ate some coffee-beans and drank some cold water from a stream at the foot of the crag, and then began his ascent. Once or twice he trembled, for he was worn and tired; but he remembered the last words of Tang-a-Dahit, and his fingers tightened their hold. At last, with a strain and a gasp, he drew himself up, and found himself on a shelf of rock with all the great valley spread out beneath him. A moment only he looked, resting himself, and then he searched for a way into the hills; for everywhere there was a close palisade of rocks and saplings. At last he found an opening scarce bigger than might let a cat through; but he laboured hard, and at last drew himself out and looked down the path which led into the Bar of Balmud--the great natural escarpment of giant rocks and monoliths and medlar trees, where lay Pango Dooni's men.
He ran with all his might, and presently he was inside the huge defence. There was no living being to be seen; only the rock-strewn plain and the woods beyond.
He called aloud, but nothing answered; he called again the tribe-call of Pango Dooni's men, and a hundred armed men sprang up.
"I am a brother-in-blood of Pango Dooni's Son," said he. "Tang-a-Dahit rides for his life to the Bar of Balmud. Ride forth if ye would save him."
"The lad speaks with the tongue of a friend," said a scowling hillsman, advancing, "yet how know we but he lies?"
"Even by this," said Cumner's Son, and he spoke the sacred countersign and showed again the bracelet of Pango Dooni, and told what had happened. Even as he spoke the hillsmen gave the word, and two score men ran down behind the rocks, mounted, and were instantly away by the road that led to the Koongat Bridge.
The tall hillsman turned to the lad.
"You are beaten by travel," said he. "Come, eat and drink, and rest."
"I have sworn to breakfast where Pango Dooni bides, and there only will I rest and eat," answered the lad.
"The son of Pango Dooni knows the lion's cub from the tame dog's whelp. You shall keep your word. Though the sun ride fast towards noon, faster shall we ride in the Neck of Baroob," said the hillsman.
It was half-way towards noon when the hoof-beats drummed over the Brown Hermit's cave, and they rested not there; but it was noon and no more when they rode through Pango Dooni's gates and into the square where he
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