Blood of the Gods/Chapter II
The Abodes of Emptiness
GORDON'S THUMB WAS hooked easily in his belt, keeping his hand near the butt of his heavy pistol, as he rode leisurely through the starlight, and his gaze swept the palms which lined each side of the road, their broad fronds rattling in the faint breeze. He did not expect an ambush or the appearance of an enemy. He had no blood-feud with any man in el-Azem. And yonder, a hundred yards ahead of him, stood the flat-roofed, wall-encircled house of his friend, Achmet ibn Mitkhal, where the American was living as an honored guest. But the habits of a life-time are tenacious. For years El Borak had carried his life in his hands, and if there were hundreds of men in Arabia proud to call him friend, there were hundreds of others who would have given the teeth out of their heads for a clean sight of him, etched against the stars, over the barrel of a rifle.
Gordon reached the gate, and was about to call to the gate-keeper, when it swung open, and the portly figure of his host emerged.
"Allah be with thee, El Borak! I was beginning to fear some enemy had laid an ambush for you. Is it wise to ride alone, by night, when within a three days' ride dwell men who bear blood-feud with you?"
Gordon swung down, and handed his reins to a groom who had followed his master out of the compound. The American was not a large man, but he was square-shouldered and deep-chested, with corded sinews and steely nerves which had been tempered and honed by the tooth-and-nail struggle for survival in the wild outlands of the world. His black eyes gleamed in the starlight like those of some untamed son of the wilderness.
"I think my enemies have decided to let me die of old age or inertia," he replied. "There has not been-"
"What's that?" Achmet ibn Mitkhal had his own enemies. In an instant the curious dragging, choking sounds he had heard beyond the nearest angle of the wall had transformed him into a tense image of suspicion and menace.
Gordon had heard the sounds as quickly as his Arab host, and he turned with the smooth speed of a cat, the big pistol appearing in his right hand as if by magic. He took a single quick stride toward the angle of the wall-then around that angle came a strange figure, with torn, trailing garments. A man, crawling slowly and painfully along on his hands and knees. As he crawled he gasped and panted with a grisly whistling and gagging in his breathing. As they stared at him, he slumped down almost at their feet, turning a blood-streaked visage to the starlight.
"Salim!" ejaculated Gordon softly, and with one stride he was at the angle, staring around it, pistol poised. No living thing met his eye; only an expanse of bare ground, barred by the shadows of the palms. He turned back to the prostrate man, over whom Achmet was already bending.
"Effendi!" panted the old man. "El Borak!" Gordon dropped to his knee beside him, and Salim's bony fingers clenched desperately on his arm.
"A hakim, quick, Achmet!" snapped Gordon.
"Nay," gasped Salim. "I am dying-"
"Who shot you, Salim?" asked Gordon, for he had already ascertained the nature of the wound which dyed the old man's tattered abba with crimson.
"Hawkston-the Englishman." The words came with an effort. "I saw him-the three rogues who follow him-beguiling that fool Dirdar to the deserted hut near Mekmet's Pool. I followed for I knew-they meant no good. Dirdar was a dog. He drank liquor-like an Infidel. El Borak! He betrayed Al Wazir! In spite of his oath. I shot him-through the window-but not in time. He will never guide them-but he told Hawkston-of the Caves of El Khour. I saw their caravan-camels-seven Arab servants. El Borak! They have departed-for the Caves-the Caves of El Khour!"
"Don't worry about them, Salim," replied Gordon, responding to the urgent appeal in the glazing eyes. "They'll never lay hand on Al Wazir. I promise you."
"Al Hamud Lillah-" whispered the old Arab, and with a spasm that brought frothy blood to his bearded lips, his grim old face set in iron lines, and he was dead before Gordon could ease his head to the ground.
The American stood up and looked down at the silent figure. Achmet came close to him and tugged his sleeve.
"Al Wazir!" murmured Achmet. "Wallah! I thought men had forgotten all about that man. It is more than a year now since he disappeared."
"White men don't forget-not when there's loot in the offing," answered Gordon sardonically. "All up and down the coast men are still looking for the Blood of the Gods-those marvelous matched rubies which were Al Wazir's especial pride, and which disappeared when he forsook the world and went into the desert to live as a hermit, seeking the Way to Truth through meditation and self-denial."
Achmet shivered and glanced westward where, beyond the belt of palms, the shadowy desert stretched vast and mysterious to mingle its immensity with the dimness of the starlit night.
"A hard way to seek Truth," said Achmet, who was a lover of the soft things and the rich things of life.
"Al Wazir was a strange man," answered Gordon. "But his servants loved him. Old Salim there, for instance. Good God, Mekmet's Pool is more than a mile from here. Salim crawled-crawled all that way, shot through and through. He knew Hawkston would torture Al Wazir-maybe kill him. Achmet, have my racing camel saddled-"
"I'll go with you!" exclaimed Achmet. "How many men will we need? You heard Salim-Hawkston will have at least eleven men with him-"
"We couldn't catch him now," answered Gordon. "He's got too much of a start on us. His camels are hejin-racing camels-too. I'm going to the Caves of El Khour, alone."
"They'll go by the caravan road that leads to Riyadh; I'm going by the Well of Amir Khan."
"Amir Khan lies within the country of Shalan ibn Mansour, who hates you as an iman hates Shaitan the Damned!"
"Perhaps none of his tribe will be at the Well," answered Gordon. "I'm the only Feringhi who knows of that route. If Dirdar told Hawkston about it, the Englishman couldn't find it, without a guide. I can get to the Caves a full day ahead of Hawkston. I'm going alone, because we couldn't take enough men to whip the Ruweila if they're on the war-path. One man has a better chance of slipping through than a score. I'm not going to fight Hawkston-not now. I'm going to warn Al Wazir. We'll hide until Hawkston gives it up and comes back to el-Azem. Then, when he's gone, I'll return by the caravan road."
Achmet shouted an order to the men who were gathering just within the gate, and they scampered to do his bidding.
"You will go disguised, at least?" he urged.
"No. It wouldn't do any good. Until I get into Ruweila country I won't be in any danger, and after that a disguise would be useless. The Ruweila kill and plunder every stranger they catch, whether Christian or Muhammadan."
He strode into the compound to oversee the saddling of the white racing camel.
"I'm riding light as possible," he said. "Speed means everything. The camel won't need any water until we reach the Well. After that it's not a long jump to the Caves. Load on just enough food and water to last me to the Well, with economy."
His economy was that of a true son of the desert. Neither water-skin nor food-bag was over-heavy when the two were slung on the high rear pommel. With a brief word of farewell, Gordon swung into the saddle, and at the tap of his bamboo stick, the beast lurched to its feet. "Yahh!" Another tap and it swung into motion. Men pulled wide the compound gate and stood aside, their eyes gleaming in the torchlight.
"Bismillah el rahman el rahhim!" quoth Achmet resignedly, lifting his hands in a gesture of benediction, as the camel and its rider faded into the night.
"He rides to death," muttered a bearded Arab.
"Were it another man I should agree," said Achmet. "But it is El Borak who rides. Yet Shalan ibn Mansour would give many horses for his head."
The sun was swinging low over the desert, a tawny stretch of rocky soil and sand as far as Gordon could see in every direction. The solitary rider was the only visible sign of life, but Gordon's vigilance was keen. Days and nights of hard riding lay behind him; he was coming into the Ruweila country, now, and every step he took increased his danger by that much. The Ruweila, whom he believed to be kin to the powerful Roualla of El Hamad, were true sons of Ishmael-hawks of the desert, whose hands were against every man not of their clan. To avoid their country the regular caravan road to the west swung wide to the south. This was an easy route, with wells a day's march apart, and it passed within a day's ride of the Caves of El Khour, the catacombs which pit a low range of hills rising sheer out of the wastelands.
Few white men know of their existence, but evidently Hawkston knew of the ancient trail that turned northward from the Well of Khosru, on the caravan road. Hawkston was perforce approaching El Khour circuitously. Gordon was heading straight westward, across waterless wastes, cut by a trace so faint only an Arab or El Borak could have followed it. On that route there was but one watering place between the fringe of oases along the coast and the Caves-the half-mythical Well of Amir Khan, the existence of which was a secret jealously guarded by the Bedouins.
There was no fixed habitation at the oasis, which was but a clump of palms, watered by a small spring, but frequently bands of Ruweila camped there. That was a chance he must take. He hoped they were driving their camel herds somewhere far to the north, in the heart of their country; but like true hawks, they ranged far afield, striking at the caravans and the outlying villages.
The trail he was following was so slight that few would have recognized it as such. It stretched dimly away before him over a level expanse of stone-littered ground, broken on one hand by sand dunes, on the other by a succession of low ridges. He glanced at the sun, and tapped the water-bag that swung from the saddle. There was little left, though he had practiced the grim economy of a Bedouin or a wolf. But within a few hours he would be at the Well of Amir Khan, where he would replenish his supply-though his nerves tightened at the thought of what might be waiting there for him.
Even as the thought passed through his mind, the sun struck a glint from something on the nearer of the sand dunes. The quick duck of his head was instinctive, and simultaneously there rang out the crack of a rifle and he heard the thud of the bullet into flesh. The camel leaped convulsively and came down in a headlong sprawl, shot through the heart. Gordon leaped free as it fell, rifle in hand, and in an instant was crouching behind the carcass, watching the crest of the dune over the barrel of his rifle. A strident yell greeted the fall of the camel, and another shot set the echoes barking. The bullet ploughed into the ground beside Gordon's stiffening breastwork, and the American replied. Dust spurted into the air so near the muzzle that gleamed on the crest that it evoked a volley of lurid oaths in a choked voice.
The black glittering ring was withdrawn, and presently there rose the rapid drum of hoofs. Gordon saw a white kafieh bobbing among the dunes, and understood the Bedouin's plan. He believed there was only one man. That man intended to circle Gordon's position, cross the trail a few hundred yards west of him, and get on the rising ground behind the American, where his vantage-point would allow him to shoot over the bulk of the camel-for of course he knew Gordon would keep the dead beast between them. But Gordon shifted himself only enough to command the trail ahead of him, the open space the Arab must cross after leaving the dunes before he reached the protection of the ridges. Gordon rested his rifle across the stiff forelegs of the camel.
A quarter of a mile up the trail there was a sandstone rock jutting up in the skyline. Anyone crossing the trail between it and himself would be limned against it momentarily. He set his sights and drew a bead against that rock. He was betting that the Bedouin was alone, and that he would not withdraw to any great distance before making the dash across the trail.
Even as he meditated a white-clad figure burst from among the ridges and raced across the trail, bending low in the saddle and flogging his mount. It was a long shot, but Gordon's nerves did not quiver. At the exact instant that the white-clad figure was limned against the distant rock, the American pulled the trigger. For a fleeting moment he thought he had missed; then the rider straightened convulsively, threw up two wide-sleeved arms and reeled back drunkenly. The frightened horse reared high, throwing the man heavily. In an instant the landscape showed two separate shapes where there had been one-a bundle of white sprawling on the ground, and a horse racing off southward.
Gordon lay motionless for a few minutes, too wary to expose himself. He knew the man was dead; the fall alone would have killed him. But there was a slight chance that other riders might be lurking among the sand dunes, after all.
The sun beat down savagely; vultures appeared from nowhere-black dots in the sky, swinging in great circles, lower and lower. There was no hint of movement among the ridges or the dunes.
Gordon rose and glanced down at the dead camel. His jaws set a trifle more grimly; that was all. But he realized what the killing of his steed meant. He looked westward, where the heat waves shimmered. It would be a long walk, a long, dry walk, before it ended.
Stooping, he unslung water-skin and food-bag and threw them over his shoulders. Rifle in hand he went up the trail with a steady, swinging stride that would eat up the miles and carry him for hour after hour without faltering.
When he came to the shape sprawling in the path, he set the butt of his rifle on the ground and stood looking briefly, one hand steadying the bags on his shoulders. The man he had killed was a Ruweila, right enough: one of the tall, sinewy, hawk-faced and wolf-hearted plunderers of the southern desert. Gordon's bullet had caught him just below the arm-pit. That the man had been alone, and on a horse instead of a camel, meant that there was a larger party of his tribesmen somewhere in the vicinity. Gordon shrugged his shoulders, shifted the rifle to the crook of his arm, and moved on up the trail. The score between himself and the men of Shalan ibn Mansour was red enough, already. It might well be settled once and for all at the Well of Amir Khan.
As he swung along the trail he kept thinking of the man he was going to warn: Al Wazir, the Arabs called him, because of his former capacity with the Sultan of Oman. A Russian nobleman, in reality, wandering over the world in search of some mystical goal Gordon had never understood, just as an unquenchable thirst for adventure drove El Borak around the planet in constant wanderings. But the dreamy soul of the Slav coveted something more than material things. Al Wazir had been many things. Wealth, power, position; all had slipped through his unsatisfied fingers. He had delved deep in strange religions and philosophies, seeking the answer to the riddle of Existence, as Gordon sought the stimulation of hazard. The mysticisms of the Sufia had attracted him, and finally the ascetic mysteries of the Hindus.
A year before Al Wazir had been governor of Oman, next to the Sultan the wealthiest and most powerful man on the Pearl Coast. Without warning he had given up his position and disappeared. Only a chosen few knew that he had distributed his vast wealth among the poor, renounced all ambition and power, and gone like an ancient prophet to dwell in the desert, where, in the solitary meditation and self denial of a true ascetic, he hoped to read at last the eternal riddle of Life-as the ancient prophets read it. Gordon had accompanied him on that last journey, with the handful of faithful servants who knew their master's intentions-old Salim among them, for between the dreamy philosopher and the hard-bitten man of action there existed a powerful tie of friendship.
But for the traitor and fool, Dirdar, Al Wazir's secret had been well kept. Gordon knew that ever since Al Wazir's disappearance, adventurers of every breed had been searching for him, hoping to secure possession of the treasure that the Russian had possessed in the days of his power-the wonderful collection of perfectly matched rubies, known as the Blood of the Gods, which had blazed a lurid path through Oriental history for five hundred years. These jewels had not been distributed among the poor with the rest of Al Wazir's wealth. Gordon himself did not know what the man had done with them. Nor did the American care. Greed was not one of his faults. And Al Wazir was his friend.
The blazing sun rocked slowly down the sky, its flame turned to molten copper; it touched the desert rim, and etched against it, a crawling black tiny figure, Gordon moved grimly on, striding inexorably into the somber immensities of the Ruba al Khali-the Empty Abodes.