Tales of El Borak - Robert E. Howard - ebook
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Robert E. Howard is famous for creating such immortal heroes as Conan the Cimmerian, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn. Less well-known but equally extraordinary are his non-fantasy adventure stories set in the Middle East and featuring such hero as Francis Xavier Gordon. Texas gunfighter F. X. Gordon traveled the world before settling in 1920s Afghanistan. The Afghans dubbed him „El Borak” for his quick thinking and skill with a sword and gun. The respected Gordon frequently mitigated tribal wars and conflict through guile or, barring that, violence. Contrary to Howard’s reputation, these were straight adventure stories with no supernatural elements. Every fan of Robert E. Howard and aficionados of great adventure writing will want to own this collection of the best of Howard’s desert tales.

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Contents

THE DAUGHTER OF ERLIK KHAN

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

HAWK OF THE HILLS

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

BLOOD OF THE GODS

I. A SHOT THROUGH THE WINDOW

II. THE ABODES OF EMPTINESS

III. THE FIGHT AT THE WELL OF AMIR KHAN

IV. THE DJINN OF THE CAVES

V. HAWKS AT BAY

VI. THE DEVIL OF THE NIGHT

THE COUNTRY OF THE KNIFE [SONS OF THE HAWK]

I. A CRY OUT OF THE EAST

II. THE ROAD TO RUB EL HARAMI

III. SHIRKUH'S JEST

IV. CROOKED PATHS

V. SWORDS IN THE "SUK"

VI. THE EXECUTIONER

VII. IN THE PRISON

VIII. THE PASS OF SWORDS

SON OF THE WHITE WOLF

I. THE BATTLE STANDARD

II. MASSACRE

III. THE CALL OF BLOOD

IV. WOLVES OF THE DESERT

V. TREACHERY

THE LOST VALLEY OF ISKANDER [SWORDS OF THE HILLS]

I. THE OILED SILK PACKAGE

II. THE RESCUE OF BARDYLIS OF ATTALUS

III. THE SONS OF ISKANDER

IV. THE DUEL WITH PTOLEMY THE KIND

V. THE DEATH OF HUNYADI

THE DAUGHTER OF ERLIK KHAN

CHAPTER I

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 westward–”

“Shut up!” muttered Ormond. “Rub out that map. Here comes Gordon.”

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 wilderness.

“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 shoulders.”

“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 dark.”

“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 servant.

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 pistol butt.

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 tent.”

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 muddled.

“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.”

CHAPTER II

WHEN Gordon left the camp he did not look behind him. Any thoughts of treachery on the part of his companions was furthest from his mind. He had no reason to suppose that they were anything except what they had represented themselves to be–white men taking a long chance to find a comrade the unmapped solitudes had swallowed up.

It was an hour or so after leaving the camp when, skirting the end of a grassy ridge, he sighted an antelope moving along the fringe of a thicket. The wind, such as there was, was blowing toward him, away from the animal. He began stalking it through the thicket, when a movement in the bushes behind him brought him around to the realization that he himself was being stalked.

He had a glimpse of a figure behind a clump of scrub, and then a bullet fanned his ear, and he fired at the flash and the puff of smoke. There was a thrashing among the foliage and then stillness. A moment later he was bending over a picturesquely clad form on the ground.

It was a lean, wiry man, young, with an ermine-edged khilat, a fur calpack, and silver-heeled boots. Sheathed knives were in his girdle, and a modern repeating rifle lay near his hand. He had been shot through the heart.

“Turkoman,” muttered Gordon. “Bandit, from his looks, out on a lone scout. I wonder how far he’s been trailing me.”

He knew the presence of the man implied two things: somewhere in the vicinity there was a band of Turkomans; and somewhere, probably close by, there was a horse. A nomad never walked far, even when stalking a victim. He glanced up at the rise which rolled up from the copse. It was logical to believe that the Moslem had sighted him from the crest of the low ridge, had tied his horse on the other side, and glided down into the thicket to waylay him while he stalked the antelope.

Gordon went up the slope warily, though he did not believe there were any other tribesmen within earshot–else the reports of the rifles would have brought them to the spot–and found the horse without trouble. It was a Turkish stallion with a red leather saddle with wide silver stirrups and a bridle heavy with goldwork. A scimitar hung from the saddle peak in an ornamented leather scabbard.

Swinging into the saddle, Gordon studied all quarters of the compass from the summit of the ridge. In the south a faint ribbon of smoke stood against the evening. His black eyes were keen as a hawk’s; not many could have distinguished that filmy blue feather against the cerulean of the sky.

“Turkoman means bandits,” he muttered. “Smoke means camp. They’re trailing us, sure as fate.”

Reining about, he headed for the camp. His hunt had carried him some miles east of the site, but he rode at a pace that ate up the distance. It was not yet twilight when he halted in the fringe of the larches and sat silently scanning the slope on which the camp had stood. It was bare. There was no sign of tents, men, or beasts.

His gaze sifted the surrounding ridges and clumps, but found nothing to rouse his alert suspicion. At last he walked his steed up the acclivity, carrying his rifle at the ready. He saw a smear of blood on the ground where he knew Pembroke’s tent had stood, but there was no other sign of violence, and the grass was not trampled as it would have been by a charge of wild horsemen.

He read the evidence of a swift but orderly exodus. His companions had simply struck their tents, loaded the pack animals, and departed. But why? Sight of distant horsemen might have stampeded the white men, though neither had shown any sign of the white feather before; but certainly Ahmed would not have deserted his master and friend.

As he traced the course of the horses through the grass, his puzzlement increased; they had gone westward.

Their avowed destination lay beyond those mountains in the north. They knew that, as well as he. But there was no mistake about it. For some reason, shortly after he had left camp, as he read the signs, they had packed hurriedly and set off westward, toward the forbidden country identified by Mount Erlik.

Thinking that possibly they had a logical reason for shifting camp and had left him a note of some kind which he had failed to find, Gordon rode back to the camp site and began casting about it in an ever- widening circle, studying the ground. And presently he saw sure signs that a heavy body had been dragged through the grass.

Men and horses had almost obliterated the dim track, but for years Gordon’s life had depended upon the keenness of his faculties. He remembered the smear of blood on the ground where Pembroke’s tent had stood.

He followed the crushed grass down the south slope and into a thicket, and an instant later he was kneeling beside the body of a man. It was Ahmed, and at first glance Gordon thought he was dead. Then he saw that the Punjabi, though shot through the body and undoubtedly dying, still had a faint spark of life in him.

He lifted the turbaned head and set his canteen to the blue lips. Ahmed groaned, and into his glazed eyes came intelligence and recognition.

“Who did this, Ahmed?” Gordon’s voice grated with the suppression of his emotions.

“Ormond Sahib,” gasped the Punjabi. “I listened outside their tent, because I feared they planned treachery to you. I never trusted them. So they shot me and have gone away, leaving you to die alone in the hills.”

“But why?” Gordon was more mystified than ever.

“They go to Yolgan,” panted Ahmed. “The Reynolds Sahib we sought never existed. He was a lie they created to hoodwink you.”

“Why to Yolgan?” asked Gordon.

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