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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v1 - 6/11 -


death, as a jackal carries the broken meats to his den, if our hillsmen had not come. For an hour I fought, and five of them I killed and seven wounded, and then at the shouts of our hillsmen they fled at last. Nine of them fell by the hands of our people. Thrice was I wounded, but my wounds are no deeper than the scratches of a tiger's cub."

"Hadst thou fought for thyself the deed were good," said Pango Dooni, "but thy blood was shed for another, and that is the pride of good men. We have true men here, but thou art a true chief and this shalt thou wear."

He took the rich belt from his waist, and fastened it round the waist of his son.

"Cumner's Son carries the sword that hung in the belt. We are for war, and the sword should be out of the belt. When we are at peace again ye shall put the sword in the belt once more, and hang it upon the wall of the Palace at Mandakan, even as ye who are brothers shall never part."

Two hours Tang-a-Dahit rested upon skins by the bathing pool, and an hour did the slaves knead him and rub him with oil, and give him food and drink; and while yet the sun was but half-way down the sky, they poured through the Neck of Baroob, over five hundred fighting men, on horses that would kneel and hide like dogs, and spring like deer, and that knew each tone of their masters' voices. By the Bar of Balmud they gathered another fifty hillsmen, and again half-way beyond the Old Well of Jahar they met two score more, who had hunted Boonda Broke's men, and these moved into column. So that when they came to Koongat Bridge, in the country infested by the men of the Dakoon, seven hundred stalwart and fearless men rode behind Pango Dooni. From the Neck of Baroob to Koongat Bridge no man stayed them, but they galloped on silently, swiftly, passing through the night like a cloud, upon which the dwellers by the wayside gazed in wonder and in fear.

At Koongat Bridge they rested for two hours, and drank coffee, and broke bread, and Cumner's Son slept by the side of Tang-a-Dahit, as brothers sleep by their mother's bed. And Pango Dooni sat on the ground near them and pondered, and no man broke his meditation. When the two hours were gone, they mounted again and rode on through the dark villages towards Mandakan.

It was just at the close of the hour before dawn that the squad of troopers who rode a dozen rods before the columns, heard a cry from the dark ahead. "Halt-in the name of the Dakoon!"

V

CHOOSE YE WHOM YE WILL SERVE

The company drew rein. All they could see in the darkness was a single mounted figure in the middle of the road. The horseman rode nearer.

"Who are you?" asked the leader of the company.

"I keep the road for the Dakoon, for it is said that Cumner's Son has ridden to the Neck of Baroob to bring Pango Dooni down."

By this time the chief and his men had ridden up. The horseman recognised the robber chief, and raised his voice.

"Two hundred of us rode out to face Pango Dooni in this road. We had not come a mile from the Palace when we fell into an ambush, even two thousand men led by Boonda Broke, who would steal the roof and bed of the Dakoon before his death. For an hour we fought but every man was cut down save me."

"And you?" asked Pango Dooni.

"I come to hold the road against Pango Dooni, as the Dakoon bade me."

Pango Dooni laughed. "Your words are large," said he. "What could you, one man, do against Pango Dooni and his hillsman?"

"I could answer the Dakoon here or elsewhere, that I kept the road till the hill-wolves dragged me down."

"We be the wolves from the hills," answered Pango Dooni. "You would scarce serve a scrap of flesh for one hundred, and we are seven."

"The wolves must rend me first," answered the man, and he spat upon the ground at Pango Dooni's feet.

A dozen men started forward, but the chief called them back.

"You are no coward, but a fool," said he to the horseman. "Which is it better: to die, or to turn with us and save Cumner and the English, and serve Pango Dooni in the Dakoon's Palace?"

"No man knows that he must die till the stroke falls, and I come to fight and not to serve a robber mountaineer."

Pango Dooni's eyes blazed with anger. "There shall be no fighting, but a yelping cur shall be hung to a tree," said he.

He was about to send his men upon the stubborn horseman when the fellow said:

"If you be a man you will give me a man to fight. We were two hundred. If it chance that one of a company shall do as the Dakoon hath said, then is all the company absolved; and beyond the mists we can meet the Dakoon with open eyes and unafraid when he saith, 'Did ye keep your faith?'"

"By the word of a hillsman, but thou shalt have thy will," said the chief. "We are seven hundred men--choose whom to fight."

"The oldest or the youngest," answered the man. "Pango Dooni or Cumner's Son."

Before the chief had time to speak, Cumner's Son struck the man with the flat of his sword across the breast.

The man did not lift his arm, but looked at the lad steadily for a moment. "Let us speak together before we fight," said he, and to show his good faith he threw down his sword.

"Speak," said Cumner's Son, and laid his sword across the pommel of his saddle.

"Does a man when he dies speak his heart to the ears of a whole tribe?"

"Then choose another ear than mine," said Cumner's Son. "In war I have no secrets from my friends."

A look of satisfaction came into Pango Dooni's face. "Speak with the man alone," said he, and he drew back.

Cumner's Son drew a little to one side with the man, who spoke quickly and low in English.

"I have spoken the truth," said he. "I am Cushnan Di"--he drew himself up--"and once I had a city of my own and five thousand men, but a plague and then a war came, and the Dakoon entered upon my city. I left my people and hid, and changed myself that no one should know me, and I came to Mandakan. It was noised abroad that I was dead. Little by little I grew in favour with the Dakoon, and little by little I gathered strong men about me-two hundred in all at last. It was my purpose, when the day seemed ripe, to seize upon the Palace as the Dakoon had seized upon my little city. I knew from my father, whose father built a new portion of the Palace, of a secret way by the Aqueduct of the Failing Fountain, even into the Palace itself. An army could ride through and appear in the Palace yard like the mist-shapes from the lost legions. When I had a thousand men I would perform this thing, I thought.

"But day by day the Dakoon drew me to him, and the thing seemed hard to do, even now before I had the men. Then his sickness came, and I could not strike an ailing man. When I saw how he was beset by traitors, in my heart I swore that he should not suffer by my hands. I heard of your riding to the Neck of Baroob--the men of Boonda Broke brought word. So I told the Dakoon, and I told him also that Boonda Broke was ready to steal into his Palace even before he died. He started up, and new life seemed given him. Calling his servants, he clothed himself, and he came forth and ordered out his troops. He bade me take my men to keep the road against Pango Dooni. Then he ranged his men before the Palace, and scattered them at points in the city to resist Boonda Broke.

"So I rode forth, but I came first to my daughter's bedside. She lies in a little house not a stone's throw from the Palace, and near to the Aqueduct of the Falling Fountain. Once she was beautiful and tall and straight as a bamboo stem, but now she is in body no more than a piece of silken thread. Yet her face is like the evening sky after a rain. She is much alone, and only in the early mornings may I see her. She is cared for by an old woman of our people, and there she bides, and thinks strange thoughts, and speaks words of wisdom.

"When I told her what the Dakoon bade me do, and what I had sworn to perform when the Dakoon was dead, she said:

"'But no. Go forth as the Dakoon hath bidden. Stand in the road and oppose the hillsmen. If Cumner's Son be with them, thou shalt tell him all. If he speak for the hillsmen and say that all shall be well with thee, and thy city be restored when Pango Dooni sits in the Palace of the Dakoon, then shalt thou join with them, that there may be peace in the land, for Pango Dooni and the son of Pango Dooni be brave strong men. But if he will not promise for the hillsmen, then shalt thou keep the secret of the Palace, and abide the will of God."'

"Dost thou know Pango Dooni's son?" asked the lad, for he was sure that this man's daughter was she of whom Tang-a-Dahit had spoken.

"Once when I was in my own city and in my Palace I saw him. Then my daughter was beautiful, and her body was like a swaying wand of the boolda tree. But my city passed, and she was broken like a trailing vine, and the young man came no more."

"But if he came again now?"

"He would not come."

"But if he had come while she lay there like a trailing vine, and listened to her voice, and thought upon her words and loved her still. If for her sake he came secretly, daring death, wouldst thou stand--"

The man's eyes lighted. "If there were such truth in any man," he interrupted, "I would fight, follow him, and serve him, and my city should be his city, and the knowledge of my heart be open to his eye."

Cumner's Son turned and called to Pango Dooni and his son, and they came


Cumner & South Sea Folk, v1 - 6/11

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