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    Chapter 49

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    Chapter 49
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    The Play

    Ralph Hamon, shivering in his light suit, despite the heavy overcoat he wore, growled his imprecations as he toiled painfully up the steep slope of the sandhill and Arabic is a language which was specially designed for cursing.

    "You're a fool!" he stormed. "Did I not tell you a hundred times what to do?"

    The black-bearded captain of the dhow shrugged his shoulders.

    "It was the fault of my officer, who now roasts in hell, for I told him first to silence all the members of the crew that were left on board, but they forgot this sailor with a pistol."

    "Why didn't you knock him on the head? Why did you bring him on board?" growled Hamon.

    "Because the men desired to settle with him in their own way. He has killed Yussef, whom the men loved. I think he will be sorry he did not die," said the Captain ominously, and Ralph Hamon snorted.

    "What he will be sorry for and what he will be happy about doesn't concern me," he growled. "You had the woman in your hands and you did not take her."

    "If this sailor with a pistol----" began the Captain again, and Ralph Hamon shouted him down.

    "Curse the sailor with a pistol!" he shouted. "Do you think I've been lying ill in your foul boat for two days in order to capture a sailor?"

    "If you will see him----" pleaded the Moor.

    "I don't want to see him, and I don't want him to see me. If you allowed the woman to escape, you are fools enough to let him go also. And do you think I want him to carry the news to Tangier that I was with you on your dhow? Do what you like with him."

    He saw the prisoner at a distance--a tall man whose face was unrecognisable under the mask of grime and blood, but he did not venture near to him. Mules were waiting for them at a little village and at the sight of one, more richly caparisoned than the rest, with a saddle of soft red leather, and tinkling bells about its neck, Ralph Hamon bit his lip until the blood came. It was the palfrey that he had designed for the girl.

    With no delay the party mounted and soon a string of a dozen mules was crossing the wild land. They halted for two hours in the afternoon and resumed the journey, halting for the night in the vicinity of a little village of charcoal burners.

    "You will not come to the play?" said the Captain interrogatively. "This man is of your race and it would give you unhappiness to see them whip him."

    "It would not make me unhappy at all," said Ralph savagely, "but I'm tired."

    They pitched a tent for him next to the chief, and he was on the point of retiring, though the sun had scarcely touched the western horizon, when a diversion came. There was an excited stir amongst the men of the caravan; the drone of conversation rose to a higher pitch and he enquired the cause.

    "El Zafouri," was the laconic answer.

    Ralph knew the name of this insurgent chief, though he had never met him.

    "Is he here?"

    "He is coming," said the other indifferently, "but I am a good friend of his and there is nothing to fear."

    A cloud of dust on the hill-road was evidence of the size and importance of El Zafouri's retinue; and when, half-an-hour later, he pitched his camp near by, Ralph Hamon was glad in his heart that the rebel was likely to prove a friend.

    He went in person to greet the notorious shereef, and found him sitting before his tent, a squat and burly man, distinctly negroid of countenance, and black.

    "Peace on your house, Zafouri!" he said conventionally.

    "And on you peace," said Zafouri, looking up straightly at the stranger. "I think I know you. You are Hamon."

    "That is my name," said Ralph, gratified that his fame had extended so far.

    "You are a friend of the Shereef Sadi Hafiz?"

    Here Ralph Hamon was on more delicate ground. So rapidly did Sadi change his friendships and his allegiances that, for all he knew, he might at the moment be a deadly enemy of the man who was watching him.

    "Sadi is my agent," he said carefully, "but who knows whether he is my man now? For Sadi is a man who serves the sun that shines."

    He was perfectly safe in saying this, for the reputation of Sadi Hafiz was common property and he was secretly relieved to see the twinkle that came in Zafouri's dark eyes.

    "That is true," he said. "Where are you going, haj?" He addressed the captain of the dhow, who had stood by Ralph during the interview.

    "To the Rifi Hills, Shereef," he said and the little Moor stroked his chin.

    "You are coming the longest way," he said significantly. "You have a prisoner?"

    The dhow captain nodded.

    "My men told me of him. He dies, they say? Well, that is best for him and for all. When a man is asleep he harms nobody and is happy. I will come to your play."

    Ralph would have been present, but nature forbade the exertion. For forty-eight hours he had been without sleep, and no sooner had he lain on the matting that his servant had spread for him in the tent, than he was asleep.

    The play had been fixed for an hour after sunset, and it was of a kind that was novel to Zafouri. Two lines of men arranged themselves at a few paces' interval, leaving a narrow lane through which the prisoner was to pass, ostensibly to safety, for, if he reached the end of the lane and was sufficiently agile to escape the two swordsmen placed there to give him his quietus, he was free. It was the old, bad punishment of running the gauntlet, and Jim, who in his experience had heard of this method of settling accounts with malefactors and political enemies, faced the certainty that, swift as he might run, he could not hope to survive the hail of blows which would fall on him, for each man in the two lines was armed with a wooden stave.

    His captors brought him fruit and water.

    "Be swift and you will be happy," said one with a chuckle, and was taken aback when Jim answered in the Moorish Arabic quoting a familiar tag.

    "Justice is faster than birds and more terrible than lions."

    "Oh!" said his gaoler in surprise. "You speak the language of God! Now, friend, speak well for me to the djinn, for to-night you will live amongst ghosts!"

    They brought him out for the final condemnation and the dhow captain, squatting in state on a silken carpet, gave judgment.

    "Death for Death. Who kills shall be killed," he recited in a monotonous sing-song.

    "Remember that, man," said Jim sternly, and Zafouri, who shared the silken carpet with his host, shot a quick glance at the bearded prisoner.

    They brought the Captain a glass of water and he ceremoniously washed his hands of the prisoner.

    "Listen, man without a name," said Jim in fluent Arabic. "If I die, people will talk and the consequence will come to you wherever you are, and you will hand in the sok, and your soul will go down to Gehenna and meet my soul----"

    "Take him away," said the Captain huskily.

    "Let him stay."

    It was Zafouri who spoke.

    "Peace on you, Milaka." It was the old Moorish name for him and Jim's eyes kindled.

    "And on you peace, Zafouri," said Jim, recognising the man.

    And then Zafouri drew his squat bulk erect, and, putting his arms about the prisoner, kissed him on the shoulder.

    "If any man says death to my friend, let him say it now," he said, and his left hand closed over the hilt of his curved sword.

    The Captain did not speak.
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