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Envoy to the Khan

By E. Hoffman Price

A BASIN of glowing charcoal pulled the teeth of the wind that came down from Central Asia and slipped past the tent flap to stir Abdurrahman Khan's black beard. His eyes were reddened from the strain of writing by the flickering light of two tapers, and his stubby fingers were cramped by their unaccustomed task; but heedless of the outcome of the morrow's meeting with Mir Baba, Abdurrahman whipped himself to the night's work.

Each letter was addressed to one of the petty princes who squabbled with each other in Northern Afghanistan, instead of teaming up against General Roberts' invading army. Abdurrahman wrote, "You served my grandfather and my father; therefore join me driving the infidels from the capital..."

Two scribes squatted on ragged rugs spread on the ground. These were of the few who had followed Abdurrahman from exile in Russian Turkestan, where he had found refuge after the revolt that had dethroned his father. Outside, huddled among the grunting camels arid restless horses, were his hard bitten captains, red eyed from the unremitting vigilance needed to keep several thousand newly recruited troops from deserting in the face of Mir Baba's somewhat larger and well equipped army.

A scribe nodded. His eyes glazed, and the reed, undipped in the ink soaked mass of silk threads in the saucer at his side, scratched meaninglessly. He was so far gone from fatigue that he moved in his sleep.

Abdurrahman looked up from his own writing, and wiped the sweat from his frowning brow. This was no time for rest. He rose, amazingly swift for one with his stocky trunk and short legs. He jerked the scribe to his feet and booted him.

The fellow yelled. Still clutching his reed pen, he landed in the bitter cold outside the tent. Abdurrahman had no words to waste; he saved them for people beyond the reach of boot or sword.

Presently, the scribe came back. Chill and the shock had aroused him, and he resumed his work — but only after an incredulous glance at that stocky man whose full lips moved silently with each word his squarish fingers shaped as though they handled a sword, instead of a reed.

At last Abdurrahman clapped his hands. A sentry, shivering despite his thick soled Turkoman boots and sheepskin coat, stamped in. His breath blew white, and his bushy moustaches were frosted. The exile commanded, "Send a dozen couriers out with these letters. At once!"

"Aywah, huzoor!"

"But first tell Zamin Khan I want to see him!"

"Very well, my lord!"

The exhausted scribes slumped in sodden heaps. Abdurrahman fumbled in the baggy pockets of his Russian military tunic. He pulled out half a cake of bread, then picked dried apricots from the cartridges, golden coins, and tobacco he had dredged out with the loaf. But even as he ate, his black eyes shifted as if to second his appeal to the stiff necked chieftains who sided with Mir Baba, ruler of the Badakshan province.

This territory was the key to Afghanistan. First win it; then think of General Roberts' army, which had defeated Ayyub Khan and avenged the murder of Sir Louis Cavagnari, the British envoy.

Abdurrahman's strong teeth ground into the dried apricots and tough bread. "First Mir Baba. As for the British, Allah will do that which is to be done." But he sighed and shook his head, thinking of leading a disorderly horde of tribesmen against fortified Kabul.

HOOFBEATS, the blowing of a horse, and the challenge of a sentry brought Abdurrahman to his feet, still swallowing as he wiped the crumbs from his lips. A yuzbashi strode in and salaamed. At his heels came gray bearded Zamin Khan, the chief of the exile's captains. Between the two was a prisoner. The khan reported, "A prisoner. Dost Tagai's patrol caught him at the river crossing. He says he has a message from the British in Kabul."

Dost Tagai nodded and thrust the captive to the front.

For a full minute, Abdurrahman looked at the tall newcomer, whose bitter blue eyes steadfastly met his own. The tent began to reek from soggy sheepskins drying in the charcoal's warmth. Blood, not quite washed off, stained the fellow's coat.

"You swam, and they fired at you?"

"I have a message for Abdurrahman Khan," the prisoner answered in Pushtu, which plainly was not his tive language.

"Who sends it?"

"Griffin Sahib, the new British envoy in Kabul."

"Who are you?"

"Daoud Ali."

"Hmmm.... Kabuli?" Abdurrahman noted the lank black hair that peeped from the tall sheepskin cap; the muscular hands, the bony face and long nose of the river drenched messenger.

"No. Shinwari. Where's Abdurrahman Khan?"

"Before you, Daoud Ali."

The messenger scrutinized the stocky man with heightened interest. His glance shifted, for a moment considering the exhausted scribes. He read something from the eyes and postures of the two yusbashis. Then he bowed, touching his hand to heart and lips and forehead. Finally, he drew a silk wrapped parcel from inside his jacket.

Abdurrahman broke the seals. The wrapper was dry. The writing was not blurred either from sweat or creasing. His black eyes took in the contents at a glance: Griffin Sahib wished to know his attitude toward the British, and his purpose in leaving Russian territory.

Abdurrahman smiled maliciously and crumpled the letter into his pocket. "After I've met Mir Baba, in the morning, you'll get message aplenty, Daoud Ali."

He made a gesture of dismissal, but the tribesman stood fast. He said, "The Uzbek chief, Yolbars Khan, has just moved into the fortress of Nimlek. His outposts tried to keep me from passing through."

Abdurrahman turned to Zamin Khan. "What do our spies say?"

"This fellow is right, Your Highness," the sharp faced old soldier answered. "I was waiting for you to finish your writing before I told you this."

Abdurrahman spoke to the other captain, "Give Daoud something to eat. Keep an eye on him. He's staying with us, whether he wants to or not." Then, as the courier was taken away, the exiled prince turned to Zamin Khan. "Do you know what that means, Yolbars and his Uzbeks behind us when we meet Mir Bab?"

Zamin Khan's wrinkles pulled into grim angles. "It means that we'd best retreat. Mir Saba has invited us into a trap. This last minute move of men to Nimlek proves it."


"By Allah, we have to."

"We can't! We'll lose followers instead of gaining them. Does withdrawal make us look like leaders of a holy war?"

Zamin Khan's leathery face reddened. He shifted from one foot to the other. "Better than risk our army."

"We'll capture Nimlek on our way to meet Mir Baba."

Zamin Khan's hands rose. "It can't be done! Your grandfather besieged it for eighteen months and couldn't take it! The moat is fifty yards wide. We only have six field guns, and not enough men for a siege."

"We'll take Nimlek," Abdurrahman slowly said, "because if we do not clean out that nest of Uzbeks, we are finished."

"But how? They have almost as many men as we have. It takes three to one to take even an ordinary fortress by assault."

"Get out!" And as Zamin Khan bounded toward the door, Abdurrahman called after him, "Allah will open the road!"

If he secretly shared the veteran's qualms, he did not betray his fears, even in private. He pulled off his boots and stretched himself on a sheepskin rug spread on the floor. Presently, he slept as soundly as his exhausted secretaries.

TWO DAYS later, the brazen blare of trumpets aroused the Uzbeks who patroled the impregnable walls of Nimlek. The darkness shook with hoofbeats and the shouts of Abdurrahman's sowars. From a mile away came the chatter and uproar of a town awakened from sleep. And as the sun rose, six brass field guns blazed away at the gates of the fortress.

"Lancers," said Abdurrahman, to Daoud Ali, whom he had invited to ride with him that day, "are worthless behind walls."

The courier had no answer. The sulphurous smoke of the field pieces choked him. Bullets and cannon balls from the embrasures of Nimlek raised clouds of dust. One ounce slugs from long barreled jezails plucked at Abdurrahman's turban as he spurred ahead of the front line, and through the fumes of the guns that the cannoneers were sponging.

Daoud Ali followed. He was thinking, "One thing I'll have to tell about this fellow, if I ever get to Kabul. He's a madman!"

Abdurrahman reined in at the edge of the moat whose fifty foot width made it impossible for his troops to close in on the flat faced Uzbeks, even though the first volley had blown the beams of the massive gate to splinters. The firing had ceased; the defenders wanted to know what this reckless fellow had to say.

He shouted, "Where's Yolbars Khan? Have him come out!"

Without waiting for an answer, he reached back to his embroidered Boukharan saddle bags and took out a compact parcel wrapped in scarlet silk. This he held in his upturned palms, waiting until a broad shouldered fellow in sheepskins came to the parapet.

Half a dozen slant eyed Uzbeks followed Yolbars Khan. Abdurrahman cried, "Surrender, and it will be well with you. It is not fitting for true believers to quarrel with each other while an infidel army is in Kabul. But if you don't lay down your arms, I'm coming in to take them."

"By Allah," boomed the deep chested khan, "what idiocy is this, thou son of a noseless mother? We have food for months, and who can take this place? Can you do what your grandfather failed to do?"

"Lay down your arms, and we will be friends." Abdurrahman raised the scarlet parcel. "I swear by this Holy Koran, and by the red standard I took from the tomb of a saint, after he came to me in a dream and bade me come home to be king. I will not harm you."

The Uzbeks flung back their heads and roared at the thought of being injured. Yolbars Khan silenced them, then answered, "The Peace upon you, son of Dost AH! But we serve Mir Baba, and we are here by his order, for what purpose may please him. Do you therefore ride south to meet him. Lay down your arms, and he will be merciful!"

ABDURRAHMAN wheeled his horse, and trotted back toward the cannons. The gunners fanned their smoking matches. The khan said to his tall companion, "Daoud Ali, do you think I'm crazy? What do you think I intend to do with the British when I reach Kabul?"

His black eyes twinkled, reflecting his smile. Daoud shrugged and stroked his lantern jaw. "Ya Allah! What matter what I think, huzoor? Be pleased to give me a letter, so I can ride."

Abdurrahman laughed gustily, and took his post some yards to the flank of the battery. Rifles and jesails again blazed from the walls of Nimlek. Led horses, not quite out of range, squealed and kicked as one went down. Dust rose, officers cursed, and the beasts were moved further back. The waiting soldiers prudently retreated as well.

A courier came galloping up. "The hay is on the way, Your Highness!"

Abdurrahman nodded, suddenly flung himself from the saddle, and ran toward the battery. "Hold it, captain! I'll lay these pieces."

Sword drawn, he prodded the gunners to greater haste. "Don't fire at the gate. Get that minaret!" He gestured, indicating the observers who were in the tall gray tower that rose above the walls.

The gunners blew their matches. Flame spurted from touch holes, gushed from muzzles. The brazen cannon kicked back, their trail-spades raking the rocky ground. Smoke enveloped them. Masonry crashed as the minaret's top stage fell to pieces under the concentrated impact. The observers in the tower tumbled grotesquely in a rain of squared stone and dust.

Daoud Ali shook his head. Wasting fire on those massive walls would be silly enough; deliberately ignoring the wooden gate, which could be blown to slivers, was worse. It seemed to make no difference whether Yolbars Khan did or did not have an observation tower, since he had already spotted Abdurrahman's small army, and knew its full extent.

Finally, this very fortress had withstood a siege by Dost Ali, Afghanistan's stoutest soldier. His grandson, Daoud sadly concluded, was more impetuous than sensible.

FOR three hours the cannonading continued. The defenders, stung by the destruction of their lookouts, were trying to pick off the gunners, and arouse the dismounted soldiers into wasting ammunition. Abdurrahman, reckless as ever, rode up and down the line, striking hotheads with the flat of his sabre.

But he changed his tactics when another courier approached. The field pieces were fired as fast as the gunners could reload, and the sowars, ordered forward, kept the air shaking with small arms slugs that whistled be ore flattening against the parapets of the fort. The wind shifted, driving dense clouds of smoke to the right of the besieger's front.

This screened the movement of the greater portion of Abdurrahman's force. They circled, each man crawling with trusses of dry hay. And from behind a ridge came most of the population of the neighboring town—men, women, children, camels and asses, driven forward at sword's point with their burdens of forage.

A bridge could not be thrown across the fifty foot moat; the engineers would have been picked off in the course of such heavy and conspicuous work. But flinging bundles of hay into the water was a different matter.

Drums rolled, gongs clanged, and pipes squealed as old Zamin Khan shifted the fire toward the gate. That was the signal for a charge. The Uzbek chief, suspecting that the besiegers might be insane enough to try to float across the moat on inflated goatskins, concentrated his men and his guns to meet the threat.

That was his first mistake; his second was in having failed to realize that the moat of the ancient fortress was no longer as deep as it once had been. Silt had filled its bottom, and the trusses of hay quickly bridged it. Scaling ladders, made the night before, were rushed across the treacherous footing. And Abdurrahman Khan, now on foot, led the way. Daoud Ali, accepting the challenge, was at his side.

And then the Uzbek khan awoke to what was happening. His men rushed to the threatened quarter and hurled bundles of blazing cane on the heads of the attackers. Muskets boomed, rifles crackled, and flintlock pistols coughed slugs and pebbles into the thin line of the storming party.

But Zamin Khan's detachment swept the parapet with concentrated fire. Sword in hand, Abdurrahman fought the defenders back, and every stroke covered the advance of men who swarmed up the ladders.

Old fashioned firearms could not be reloaded rapidly enough to block him. In his left hand, he had a seven chambered revolver whose repeating fire swept the defenders back. Hacking and slashing, Daoud Ali covered his flank.

Then came the charge down the ramp, and into the court of the fortress. The Uzbeks, accustomed to cavalry maneuvers, and the thrust of their long lances, were handicapped from the start. They were caught flat footed, before they could mount up and form. The show ended when Yolbars Khan was cornered at a drawbridge he had let down to make a sortie.

"Hold it!" shouted Abdurrahman, striking aside the blades that reached out for the Uzbek chief. "Laydown your arms, and live!

IT WAS nearly noon when the Uzbek garrison marched out of the fortress they had vainly defended. Yolbars Khan surprised that he had lived long enough to reach Abdurrahman's tent, stared stolidly at the victor. He was caked with blood and sweat, blackened with smoke. His broad face was blank, but his little eyes betrayed him.

"Allah karim!" he muttered. You captured Nimlek in six hours!"

"Allah indeed is great," Abdurrahman agreed. ‘'Now, this matter of serving. Mir Baba. I promised you your life and the lives of all your men, if you join me in a holy war."

"I swore allegiance to Mir Baba," the defeated Uzbek persisted.

Abdurrahman shrugged. "Whoever opposes me favors the infidels I am going to drive out of Kabul." He gestured to Zamin Khan, who sourly regarded the prisoner. "Take the heads of a hundred Uzbeks," he commanded, "and then see if our friend is willing to save the rest.

Yolbars Khan made a hopeless gesture. "Allah upon you! Wait for the sake of my men, I'll join you, little as I want to fight Mir Baba."

"Don't worry," answered Abdurrahman. "Mir Baba won't fight. He doesn't want to. Otherwise he'd not have thought it necessary to send you to Nimlek to threaten my rear."

Then to Zamin Khan, "Give the Uzbeks their arms, and strike camp at once 1 We've got to meet Mir Baba before he expects us."

Daoud remained with Abdurrahman. He said, "Your Highness, may I have that letter to Griffin Sahib?"

Abdurrahman shook his head. "Not yet. As soon as I saw how carefully you preserved his message against wear and water, I knew you for a good servant. Stay awhile, and learn more to tell Griffin Sahib."

He fumbled in his baggy pockets. Though his coat was slashed and bullet riddled, he had not been wounded. He reloaded the seven chambered revolver, then dug bread and apricots out of his pocket.

"Eat," he said, offering Daoud a crust. "What sort of fellow is this Griffin Sahib? Does he want to gobble up our country? Is he afraid that Sardar Roberts' army can't hold Kabul against the tribesmen?"

"Griffin Sahib," Daoud slowly answered, "is an infidel, but honest. I would rather serve him than that fool of an Ayyub Khan."

"You have doubtless overheard him speaking with his officers. Would he order General Roberts to leave Kabul, if he believed that the Afghans had a king who could keep order?"

"Your Highness, I do not know enough of Griffin Sahib's mind to answer."

"What will you tell him about me?" Daoud kept silence.

"Speak up!" Outside, a trumpet brayed. Abdurrahman leaped to his feet, listened to the ring of steel as horsemen mounted up. "I will not hold it against you."

"I would say that Abdurrahman Khan is a good soldier, but with more valor than discretion."

The Khan pondered on this for a moment. "No one could accuse you of prudence, Daoud Ali, carrying an infidel's letter all the way from Kabul. Any one of a dozen chieftains would have cut your throat for having it in your possession."

"In that territory I hid it in my boot. And Allah guarded me."

"Praised be His Name!" The Khan salaamed, and so did Daoud. Thus for an instant, neither could see the others face.

SUNRISE of the second day that followed the capture of Nimlek saw Abdurrahman's army filing through the passes that cleft the hills. Hard riding, day and night, had more than wiped out the delay of a six hour siege. On the broad plain below, tents and fluttering standards marked the expanse of Mir Baba's encampment. The sun glinted on the chain mail and peaked helmets of mountaineers who had scarcely learned to use gunpowder, lance heads reflected points of light, and burnished field guns shimmered in the glare.

The forces were evenly matched, though Mir Baba's were better equipped. He could thus afford the courtesy of riding out to meet the exile, whose troops still filed from the passes of the hills that ran east and west until they swung in a vast curve that flanked the camp.

Abdurrahman and a few officers galloped out. Old Zamin Khan was not with him, having been assigned to ride with Yolbars and the Uzbeks. Once, Abdurrahman glanced toward the flanking hills; then he went a horse's length ahead of his retinue, and met Mir Baba face to face.

The Mir's round face was oily as his smile. He was too heavy for his Turkoman horse, and the silver on his saddle increased the load. But when he dismounted, only an instant after Abdurrahman, he moved lithely enough, being tall and not too plump. His knee length silken khalat rippled like flame in the breeze, exposing a curved sword and a belt loaded with gold mounted pistols.

The two leaders exchanged ceremonious bows. Each attempted to kiss other's compliment. But the two opposing bodyguards were ready to spur forward, weapons drawn.

Mir Baba stroked his curled beard and said, "Welcome, Abdurrahman Khan! It cools the eyes to see you, well and safe."

"The King of Boukhara bade me offer you his greeting," the exile said, smoothly as if he had not intercepted a messenger bearing a letter in which Mir Baba assured that very king that ten thousand gold pieces for Abdurrahman's head was a prize soon to be claimed. "The pleasure of seeing Your Highness makes a wanderer richer than a king!"

The Mir's smile widened. He did not know that Abdurrahman had read the letter and deliberately put his own pistol to the courier's head. So he went on, "With your army joined to mine, we can whip all of northern Afghanistan into shape: Badakhshan and Kataghan and Balkh."

"I have a better idea, Mir Baba. With your army added to mine, and with no civil war, I can drive the British out of Kabul."

The Mir's smile vanished. He looked past the bodyguard, and toward the troops who formed far back at the foot of the hills.

"You are more of a fool than your cousin Ayyub! Let the infidels keep Kabul and Kandahar. If we offend them, they will do with us as they did with Ayyub, and with Yakub, your uncle."

Abdurrahman growled, "O thou son of several dogs! Thou brother of many lewd sisters, with the British in Kabul, and with you and the other mirs fighting with each other, how long will the Russians iet you play at being king? Look what they did to Boukhara! See their work in Tashkent!"

Mir Baba fumbled with his pistol, but he recoiled a pace as Abdurrahman adanced with hand raised, cursing him for an infidel lover, an eater of pork, The Mir shouted, "Sound the advance! Cut this fool to pieces!"

ABDURRAHMAN'S suite had come forward, pistols leveled; but neither side fired. Unless one of the leaders drew a weapon, this was merely the formal prelude to a battle. A trumpet glared, and one of Mir Baba's guard galloped back toward camp.

"There is yet time to run," Mir Baba mocked. "Until Yolbars Khan comes out of Nimlek to cut you off."

Abdurrahman gestured to the hills that blanked the opposing lines. Dust was rising; the drumming of far off hoofs was accented by the wail of pipes. Lanceheads glittered above the cloud that now reached the edge of the plain, and three standards were red splashes against the gray crags.

" Yolbars Khan and his Uzbeks! They serve me," Abdurrahman said. He turned to an orderly: "Tell them to attack at once!"

His unfaltering assurance deflated Mir Baba. If Abdurrahman spoke the truth, the Mir's army was doomed, being deployed for a frontal attack, with a charge of lancers about to nail the flank. He raised his hand. "Wait, thou fool! Why should true believers quarrel with each other?"

As he rode toward Mir Baba's striped pavilion, Abdurrahman beckoned Daoud Ali. "Now you have news for Griffin Sahib."

"Not so, Your Highness!" the stubborn fellow declared. "Not until I have a letter saying you will drive the infidels out of Kabul- Would Griffin Sahib's officers believe me as a witness?"

"They might," said the Khan, rubbing his hands. "They might."

DESPITE that day's good beginning, Abdurrahman's work was far from finished. The independent princes of the north muttered. The British victories in the south made them think twice; their vision was not clear enough to realize that unless the country were united, the Russians would gobble them up, a mir at a time.

Abdurrahman, now leading the forces he had combined with his own, sent Zamin Khan out to comb the country, collecting money and munitions, grain and animals. These activities he seconded by countless letters which were posted in the bazaars, the caravanserais, mosques, bawdy houses—wherever Afghans met to gossip.

Mir Baba was in Faizabad, accumulating men and supplies. Abdurrahman, at his headquarters in Rustak, listened to Dost Tagai's complaint: "Allah upon you, ya sardar, but you are wrong in trusting Mir Baba. If he raises enough recruits, he'll—"

Abdurrahman laughed. "If he finds enough men to turn against me, then I'll win just that many more over to my side! Now bring in those spies. I want their reports."

He turned to the secretaries, who had stolen a breathing spell, and commanded, "You, Wali Dad, write thus to Sultan Murad, in Kataghan: 'O thou cut off one, thou eater of filth, send me at once the 3,000 horsemen I required, and with them, the cattle and the cash: or it will not he well with thee!'"

"Allah!" muttered the scribe. "In those words, huzoor?"

"We'll have to fight after that," Dost Tagai cut in.

"Write!" commanded Abdurrahman. Then to the captain: "That's just the point. He's put us off with excuses, which gives Mir Baba all the more time to plot. The sooner we whip Sultan Murad in Kataghan, the better for keeping Mir Baba on our side!"

Daoud Ali, still waiting for his letter, had become a fixture in Abdurrahman's tent. He could not leave without permission.

Later came a message from Mir Baba. He wanted Abdurrahman to show himself in Faizabad. It would be easier to get the district in line if the people saw him, and heard his personal appeal.

"Don't go," said Dost Tagai. "It's a trap. The minute you pull the army out of this town, Sultan Murad moves in."

The whole enterprise still hung in the balance. Abdurrahman, however, could not deny that plausible request. Only his own leadership had brought things thus far. He could not be sure of himself until he actually set out with an army large enough to get the support of the mountaineers just short of Kabul; they would as readily defeat and plunder a weak force as ally themselves with a strong one.

But his answer was simple: "That is right, Dost Tagai. Rustak must be defended. You keep the army here to guard the supplies. I'll take a troop and ride to Faizabad."

"A troop? Ya Allah!" He flung up his hands.

"More would make Mir Baba think we feared him." He gestured toward Daoud Ali. "Do you stay here, or ride with me?"

"Suppose I were away, and Your Highness saw fit to give me a letter?" He rose, and buckled his sword belt.

SO THEY rode down the narrow streets. Loaded camels made way for them, and the merchants in the bazaar ceased bartering for a better look at the stocky man who led a troop of sowars.

"By Allah," they muttered, "he doesn't look like a king."

"He acts like one," another said. "With his own hand, he cut off the heads of a hundred traitors and watched his men build them into a heap at the gates of Argu."

"Like his grandfather, Dost Mohammed!"

A pyramid of heads was logic that penetrated Afghan skulls. His occasional fits of temper had increased Abdurrahman's stature in their eyes. He knew this, and his tired eyes brightened as he rode through the cavernous archway, and down the caravan trail to Faizabad.

On the march, he weighed the merits of decorating the city gates with Mir Baba's head. Impressive, yes: but he had to balance awe against resentment. Then he dug into his pocket, dipped under the revolver and found a handful of apricots and some loose tobacco.

"Roll me a smoke, Daoud Ali," he said, "then eat."

The courier wrapped the black tobacco in the nitre treated paper from which cannon matches were made, then waited until His Highness wiped his lips with his sleeve.

MIR BABA met Abdurrahman at the gates of Faizabad. His eyes widened, seeing less than half a troop of horsemen slumping in their saddles when the halt was signaled. His spies had not reported the march of an army.

"How is it with Your Highness?" he solicitously inquired. "Well, I trust and pray !" He rubbed his hands, gestured toward the walled city whose minarets were still reddened by the last rays reaching through a cleft in the hills. "Tomorrow, your presence will cool the eyes of Faizabad. By Allah, we will hunt partridges in the hills, thou and I! Aywah, the hunting is excellent. A new smooth bore—"

"Russian, with gold inlay on the lock?" Abdurrahman's voice was smooth as his beard-stroking.

Mir Baba swallowed, but his stride did not break. "But tonight—welcome to my serai. Praise Allah, there are some fat-tailed sheep!"

He smacked his lips, and paused to think of other delicacies. Abdurrahman raised a protesting hand. "Nay, by the Four Companions! We are too weary, tonight. We have ridden hard."

Mir Baba could see that, and he itched to know why. He wondered if Sultan Murad had swooped down and caught Rustak by surprise, but this was no time to inquire. Instead: "Then rest. In my own house."

Abdurrahman thanked him. "Our haste gave you no time to prepare. So I had the rest of my troop stop at the guard post."

He turned in the saddle, and gestured toward the rugged little fort that commanded the mouth of the pass, perhaps half a mile away. Between its gate and the city the ground was open; beyond it, one had a view of the backtrail.

Mir Baba was equal to the occasion. He licked the surprise from his thick lips and said, "Wait—I will order my guard post out of there."

"Allah karim!" Abdurrahman blandly smiled. "I've already done that.

When the visitors wheeled away from the gate, Daoud Ali reported, "Your Highness, I got a good look inside the town. There were a lot of troops under arms in the maidan. That's why we didn't see any encampment."

"Neither did I see any partridges, Abdurrahman observed, just as they met the troops which his detachment had sent from the fortress. "So... maybe I should go hunting with him."

Daoud Ali began to understand that the event of a quest for non-existent partridges, his main task would be to keep a gun at Mir Baba's back and to see that no one pointed a weapon be tween Abdurrahman's shoulders, dead man could not write a letter to Kabul.

THE following day, something like 5,000 sowars marched out of Faizabad. Mir Baba, watching from the parapet of the fort which Abdurrahman had taken over, explained that their destination was Kataghan.

"To overawe Sultan Murad with a show of force." Then he hungrily eyed the oaken chest which Abdurrahman had brought with him. "Now, I could do well by you if you gave me 20,000 sovereigns. As presents for the people. Gifts for the chieftains, you understand."

Abdurrahman flung back his head and laughed. "Where would I have that much British gold?"

"Where but in that chest? I saw two men grunting and straining when they took it from a pack saddle. What are 20,000 pieces to you?"

"To me, nothing. But I don't have to bribe sowars to join me. With 15,000 Karaghanis so far, and almost as many Rustakis, I'm about ready to ride. All that's keeping me is that idiot, Sultan Murad. I don't want him raising the devil in our rear, that's all."

"Wallah, we'll take his head!"

"That'd save bribes," Abdurrahman agreed. "Anyway, I need my money. Every rupee, every pie, I need to buy bullets for the British to eat. And now—" He made an airy gesture, "let us not speak of money! Rather, do me the honor, tomorrow night, of dining with me. You, and your officers."

Mir Baba rose, bowed ceremoniously. But at the door, he glanced back, eyed that heavy chest, and sighed gustily. When he left, Dost Tagai doubled up, chuckling. "Shaytan blacken me! That fool thinks we hauled gold from Rustak!"

"Gold," said Abdurrahman, "seems to be more valuable to some people than cartridges. Maybe he thought I'd bring 20,000 sovereigns and no ammunition."

Mir Baba was still a power in the north. Being outmaneuvered at Nimlek had been ascribed to the fickleness of the Uzbek khan; others held that Mir Baba had generously welcomed a defender of the faith. Thus he had not yet lost enough prestige to unseat him.

THE following day, petty chieftains and their followers crowded the inclosure inside the first wall of the fort. The main gates were open, and so were inner ones. Through these last a steady stream of visitors came and went; for the news of Abdurrahman Khan's arrival had spread. Tadjiks and Kizil-bashis rode out of the hills to make their salaams. Faizabad was crowded; the serais were full, and the wide space outside the walls was dotted with newly pitched tents.

Later, Abdurrahman's men cleared the inner court. Sheep bleated their last, and cooking fires crackled. Great kettles bubbled, sheets of iron were greased for the baking of cakes of bread. Fat made the coals flare up, and the strong scent of spices drowned the reek of horses and camels, of sweat and leather and garlic.

Abdurrahman, seated in the second floor guardroom, nodded and smoked a cigarette. The last of the callers had left. The savory odors from below made him lick his lips. Then as the muezzin's call rolled sonorously from the minaret of Faizabad, he spread out a rug and prayed. It had been long since he had found time to face toward Holy Mekka and bow...

He listened for the roll of saddle drums that would announce Mir Baba's arrival. Impatient, he stepped to a window and looked down into the courts, then past the open gates and at the cooking fires that dotted the gloom. Tomorrow's reception, he judged, would be even heavier.

Then flaring torches outlined a mounted party. Drums rolled, and Dost Tagai went to the outer gate. Daoud Ali remained with Abdurrahman.

A wrathful yell drew the Khan's attention back to the window. Dost Tagai snatched Mir Baba's horse by the bridle and cried, "All but thirty stay out! Do you think you're getting a couple hundred men in here?"

The Mir spurred his beast, knocking Dost Tagai asprawl. One of his men leaped from the nearest kettle, drawing his pistol and firing as he ran. Mir Baba's escort ploughed through, sweeping their leader ahead of them. Abdurrahman's men retreated toward the inner gate. By then, guards came running from their quarters, rifles leveled.

That threat stopped the Mir. Dost Tagai regained his feet and shouted, "Close the inner gate! That father of pigs is trying to murder us!"

The heavy beams that barred the gate thumped down into their sockets. Mir Baba, no longer menaced by a dozen rifles, booted his horse into the outer court, and his retinue came after him.

"God, by God, by the One True God!" he howled, brandishing his sword. "You'll insult my officers, will you? Allah curse you and your religion and your ancestors, Abdurrahman Khan!"

He turned to the trumpeter: "Sound off!" And to his officers, "Break the gate down! Get me that pig's head, here and now!"

Dost Tagai shouted, "Man the walls! Pick them off if they try to batter in the gate."

Then Abdurrahman appeared in the inner court and said to his men, "There is nothing that we can do. You saw his three hundred ‘officers,' but you didn't notice the troops coming out of the pass."

"Those that left the day after we got here?"

"Allah is the Knower. But unless I am wrong, it is death to go out. Or to stay."

NO ONE outside wanted to be the first to rush the gate; no one in side saw any use in wasting cartridges on the ever increasing ranks that surrounded the little fort. Once more there was to be a clash of leaders. Abdurrahman knew that this one won be final. Something like five thousand sowars had doubled back from their supposed march, so that there would be no slips.

The visiting chieftains and their men had left their camp fires to see the finish.

"Let Abdurrahman Khan open the gates," Mir Baba shouted, "and it will be well with whoever lays down his arms."

Daoud Ali stroked his chin and smiled bleakly. "Your Highness, it seems that I will not get that letter to Griffin Sahib."

Said the Khan to Dost Tagai, "Tell him to have patience. I'll be out on the wall in a minute to parley with him. Tell him we meant no offense in asking him to bring only thirty men."

"Allah!" The hard bitten veteran spat. "Me, apologize in your name?"

"Do as I say, old wolf!" Then, to the men who gathered about him, "There is no might and no majesty save in Allah! I will go out, so that you will not be killed for my sake. When I have slipped through the crowd and have a chance to ride, then do you tell Mir Baba that I am gone."

"Ah..." Their eyes brightened as they realized that in the darkness and confusion he could escape, unrecognized.

"And then you can fight, or treat for peace. Allah will guard you."

He turned, ascended the stairway, and peeled out of his military tunic. He put on a long Turki robe and a jacket. Then, going toward the rear, he came to a second floor window. The crowd had shifted toward the front, and there was no one to see his exit.

No one outside, that is; but Daoud Ali had followed him.

"That letter, Your Highness."

Abdurrahman paused at the sill. "What I write depends on this night's work. Be patient."

He squeezed himself through the bars, and dropped outside the wall. Daoud Ali was about to follow, but the Khan sternly said, "Back, thou hot headed fool! Do I want thy blood on my head?"

"It will be on my own head, Your Highness!"

"More than that will be on you," Abdurrahman countered. "You cannot help, and you surely will harm. What I am doing must be done alone. Back, I say!"

Daoud Ali straightened. No Afghan soldier ever stood so erectly on parade. His hand rose as if to touch the visor of a military cap. His hand dropped, and running swiftly toward the front, he stepped to the old man's side. "Do we get our lives?"

"If we throw our treasure chest and our arms out over the gate, this father of dogs will let us march out!"

THEN Dost Tagai leaned over the parapet. Since there was no shooting, torch bearers had crowded around the Mir, who still looked up for the old man's decision. "Bring the Holy Koran," Dost Tagai shouted, "and every man in these walls will swear that Abdurrahman Khan is no longer here. As for treasure, there is none."

"Open up, thou white haired goat!" raged Mir Baba. "And get the chest of gold!"

He was now on foot, his horse having become unmanageable in the uproar. He gestured with his sword, and all those below looked up to watch the brave flashing. But Daoud Ali, looking down, saw something that made his heart rise; his fingers clawed into the masonry, and his breath stopped. If one man on the wall saw who had slipped through the crowd and come toward Mir Baba; if one of Abdurrahman's men recognized his master and made a betraying move which the torch flare would expose...

"Throw out the gold, or I bring cannons to blow the gates down!" Mir Baba threatened, taking a pace forward.

That brought him well ahead of the crowd in the outer court. Abdurrahman Khan was behind him. He said, "Stand fast, Mir Baba, and let every man stand fast, or I fire."

At the same time, he caught the Mir's neck, and thrust a cocked revolver at his temple. "Throw down your sword, Mir Baba, or the man you cursed will shoot."

"Allah karim! Take that pistol away," the Mir quavered. "Then I'll drop my sword."

Abdurrahman twisted his neck. The frosty muzzle held firmly. The Mir's men knew better than raise a hand. The unexpectedness and audacity of the move had stunned them.

"This fellow is an efrit!" they muttered. "He fears nothing! Look at the Mir's sword shivering!"

Abdurrahman boomed. "Drop your sword and humble yourself, O Man! I know that you promised to sell my head to the King of Boukhara, but I forgave you, and I invited you as a friend. Now see how Allah has cursed your trickery! Drop your sword, before He strikes you dead!"

The blade clanged against the stones. Still gripping Mir Baba by the neck, Abdurrahman spun him around to face the crowd. He demanded, "Will you fight for me, or for this coward who humbles himself before the man he cursed?"

The officers, seeing their leader at the point of death, did their best to save him: "We will follow you, Abdurrahman Khan, and drive the infidels from Kabul!"

The visiting chieftains, the townsmen, and the five thousand sowars who had slipped back to complete an ambush, echoed the cry. Abdurrahman backed toward the inner gate. As the shouting died, he said, "Mir Baba is forgiven, and to prove it, he eats with me tonight."

THE Mir's men quit the outer court, and Dost Tagai opened the gate. "Guard this fellow well," Abdurrahman said, "and see if there's any food that the mob didn't ruin. Ya Allah, I'm hungry!"

Then he found the envoy and said, "Now, Daoud Ali, I'll write that letter. Or you write it and I'll sign it. Your hand is better than mine."

"My hand, Your Highness?"

Abdurrahman chuckled. "You wrote that letter from Griffin Sahib, after you crossed the river. If you'd brought it all the way from Kabul, it would have been stained and creased. No wonder you weren't killed for having it in your possession!"

Daoud Ali's eyes widened just a little. "What shall I say?"

"That I am the friend of the British, and no friend of the Russians, provided that General Roberts takes his army out of Kabul and leaves me to drive Ayyub Khan out of Kandahar."

The envoy smiled. "There is no need to write. I have seen enough. I came to see for myself if the Afghans have a king. When you reach Kabul, we will hold a durbar to proclaim you. And you will learn that I speak with authority."

"Griffin Sahib," said the exile who had won a throne, "you spoke with most authority when you tried to follow me through that window!"