THE TALL ENGLISHMAN, Pembroke, was scratching lines on the earth
with his hunting knife, talking in a jerky tone that indicated
suppressed excitement: "I tell you, Ormond, that peak to the west
is the one we were to look for. Here, I've marked a map in the
dirt. This mark here represents our camp, and this one is the peak.
We've marched north far enough. At this spot we should turn
"Shut up!" muttered Ormond. "Rub out that map. Here comes
Pembroke obliterated the faint lines with a quick sweep of his
open hand, and as he scrambled up he managed to shuffle his feet
across the spot. He and Ormond were laughing and talking easily as
the third man of the expedition came up.
Gordon was shorter than his companions, but his physique did not
suffer by comparison with either the rangy Pembroke or the more
closely knit Ormond. He was one of those rare individuals at once
lithe and compact. His strength did not give the impression of
being locked up within himself as is the case with so many strong
men. He moved with a flowing ease that advertised power more subtly
than does mere beefy bulk.
Though he was clad much like the two Englishmen except for an
Arab headdress, he fitted into the scene as they did not. He, an
American, seemed almost as much a part of these rugged uplands as
the wild nomads which pasture their sheep along the slopes of the
Hindu Kush. There was a certitude in his level gaze, and economy of
motion in his movements, that reflected kinship with the
"Pembroke and I were discussing that peak, Gordon," said Ormond,
indicating the mountain under discussion, which reared a snow cap
in the clear afternoon sky beyond a range of blue hills, hazy with
distance. "We were wondering if it had a name."
"Everything in these hills has a name," Gordon answered. "Some
of them don't appear on the maps, though. That peak is called Mount
Erlik Khan. Less than a dozen white men have seen it."
"Never heard of it," was Pembroke's comment. "If we weren't in
such a hurry to find poor old Reynolds, it might be fun having a
closer look at it, what?"
"If getting your belly ripped open can be called fun," returned
Gordon. "Erlik Khan's in Black Kirghiz country."
"Kirghiz? Heathens and devil worshipers? Sacred city of Yolgan
and all that rot."
"No rot about the devil worship," Gordon returned. "We're almost
on the borders of their country now. This is a sort of no man's
land here, squabbled over by the Kirghiz and Moslem nomads from
farther east. We've been lucky not to have met any of the former.
They're an isolated branch off the main stalk which centers about
Issik-kul, and they hate white men like poison.
"This is the closest point we approach their country. From now
on, as we travel north, we'll be swinging away from it. In another
week, at most, we ought to be in the territory of the Uzbek tribe
who you think captured your friend."
"I hope the old boy is still alive." Pembroke sighed.
"When you engaged me as Peshawar I told you I feared it was a
futile quest," said Gordon. "If that tribe did capture your friend,
the chances are all against his being still alive. I'm just warning
you, so you won't be too disappointed if we don't find him."
"We appreciate that, old man," returned Ormond. "We knew no one
but you could get us there with our heads still on our bally
"We're not there yet," remarked Gordon cryptically, shifting his
rifle under his arm. "I saw hangel sign before we went into camp,
and I'm going to see if I can bag one. I may not be back before
"Going afoot?" inquired Pembroke.
"Yes; if I get one I'll bring back a haunch for supper."
And with no further comment Gordon strode off down the rolling
slope, while the other men stared silently after him.
He seemed to melt rather than stride into the broad copse at the
foot of the slope. The men turned, still unspeaking, and glanced at
the servants going about their duties in the camp—four stolid
Pathans and a slender Punjabi Moslem who was Gordon's personal
The camp with its faded tents and tethered horses was the one
spot of sentient life in a scene so vast and broodingly silent that
it was almost daunting. To the south, stretched an unbroken rampart
of hills climbing up to snowy peaks. Far to the north rose another
more broken range.
Between those barriers lay a great expanse of rolling
table-land, broken by solitary peaks and lesser hill ranges, and
dotted thickly with copses of ash, birch, and larch. Now, in the
beginning of the short summer, the slopes were covered with tall
lush grass. But here no herds were watched by turbaned nomads and
that giant peak far to the southwest seemed somehow aware of that
fact. It brooded like a somber sentinel of the unknown.
"Come into my tent!"
Pembroke turned away quickly, motioning Ormond to follow.
Neither of them noticed the burning intensity with which the
Punjabi Ahmed stared after them. In the tent, the men sitting
facing each other across a small folding table, Pembroke took
pencil and paper and began tracing a duplicate of the map he had
scratched in the dirt.
"Reynolds has served his purpose, and so has Gordon," he said.
"It was a big risk bringing him, but he was the only man who could
get us safely through Afghanistan. The weight that American carries
with the Mohammedans is amazing. But it doesn't carry with the
Kirghiz, and beyond this point we don't need him.
"That's the peak the Tajik described, right enough, and he gave
it the same name Gordon called it. Using it as a guide, we can't
miss Yolgan. We head due west, bearing a little to the north of
Mount Erlik Khan. We don't need Gordon's guidance from now on, and
we won't need him going back, because we're returning by the way of
Kashmir, and we'll have a better safe-conduct even than he.
Question now is, how are we going to get rid of him?"
"That's easy," snapped Ormond; he was the harder-framed, the
more decisive, of the two. "We'll simply pick a quarrel with him
and refuse to continue in his company. He'll tell us to go to the
devil, take his confounded Punjabi, and head back for Kabul—or
maybe some other wilderness. He spends most of his time wandering
around countries that are taboo to most white men."
"Good enough!" approved Pembroke. "We don't want to fight him.
He's too infernally quick with a gun. The Afghans call him 'El
Borak,' the Swift. I had something of the sort in mind when I
cooked up an excuse to halt here in the middle of the afternoon. I
recognized that peak, you see. We'll let him think we're going on
to the Uzbeks, alone, because, naturally, we don't want him to know
we're going to Yolgan—"
"What's that?" snapped Ormond suddenly, his hand closing on his
In that instant, when his eyes narrowed and his nostrils
expanded, he looked almost like another man, as if suspicion
disclosed his true—and sinister—nature.
"Go on talking," he muttered. "Somebody's listening outside the
Pembroke obeyed, and Ormond, noiselessly pushing back his camp
chair, plunged suddenly out of the tent and fell on some one with a
snarl of gratification. An instant later he reentered, dragging the
Punjabi, Ahmed, with him. The slender Indian writhed vainly in the
Englishman's iron grip.
"This rat was eavesdropping," Ormond snarled.
"Now he'll spill everything to Gordon and there'll be a fight,
sure!" The prospect seemed to agitate Pembroke considerably.
"What'll we do now? What are you going to do?"
Ormond laughed savagely. "I haven't come this far to risk
getting a bullet in my guts and losing everything. I've killed men
for less than this."
Pembroke cried out an involuntary protest as Ormond's hand
dipped and the blue-gleaming gun came up. Ahmed screamed, and his
cry was drowned in the roar of the shot.
"Now we'll have to kill Gordon!"
Pembroke wiped his brow with a hand that shook a trifle. Outside
rose a sudden mutter of Pashto as the Pathan servants crowded
toward the tent.
"He's played into our hands!" rapped Ormond, shoving the still
smoking gun back into his holster. With his booted toe he stirred
the motionless body at his feet as casually as if it had been that
of a snake. "He's out on foot, with only a handful of cartridges.
It's just as well this turned out as it did."
"What do you mean?" Pembroke's wits seemed momentarily
"We'll simply pack up and clear out. Let him try to follow us on
foot, if he wants to. There are limits to the abilities of every
man. Left in these mountains on foot, without food, blankets, or
ammunition, I don't think any white man will ever see Francis
Xavier Gordon alive again."