Clark Reeper and the King of the High Hills

Micahel Panush

Now I've had an awful lot of occupations during my long and varied life. My name's Clark Reeper, and I started out as a soldier in the War Between the States. First I fought for Dixie, then I fought for President Lincoln, and then I fought the Indians. After that was done, I became a bounty hunter, and had a long a varied career, until I adopted a ten-year-old boy, changed my ways, and went into the dry goods business. But I never expected that being the king of a tribe of Afghans way up in some mountainous valley would ever be in my cards.

Of course, it's funny how fate seems inclined to through you down such odd paths, with no regard for what you want along the way, and even when you do seem to get used to the trail its set you on, it goes ahead and shakes you out of it right quick. I was just on vacation, taking the Grand Tour of India, staying in Bombay, and looking for a good way to travel to the Far East, when a friend of mine gave me a proposition that led me to becoming bonafide royalty.

This friend was Colonel Bentley Faraday, a British fellow and an officer in Her Majesty's Forces. I had met him first in Egypt, and noticed how he seemed to shift between so patriotic you could almost see the Union Jack proudly tattooed on his forehead, to being quite distraught about being forced to fight in colonial war after colonial war, and wishing to chuck the whole thing and forget about it.

He was in the latter mood when we met in the lobby of my hotel in Bombay. I had my son, Charles Green with me, and we sat down on some wicker chairs overlooking the crowded Bombay streets, filled with pedestrians, vendors, swamis and gurus, and the occasional dolled-up sacred cow. Charles is a nice little fellow, twelve-years-old, with a freckled face, glasses, and a ready smile. He was dressed in a white suit with a red tie, a pith helmet on his head. I wore my black frock coat, vest, and my old Stetson, my twin Peacemakers on my belt. Charles also had his pet armadillo, Winston, with him. That little guy had saved our hides many times, so I was happy to have him along.

"Howdy, Colonel," I said. "So, what's the reason for our meeting? You said you had some proposition you wanted to run by me or something?"

"Precisely, old man." Colonel Faraday wore the red coat and white crossed suspenders of his rank. He had a thick brown moustache and sideburns, and wore a pith helmet. A Webley pistol rested on his hip. "You see, I'm rather sick and tired of the old soldering business, and I'd like a change of lifestyle."

"What were you planning on, sir?" Charles asked. The kid was always polite as could be to everyone around him.

"Why, a sovereign king, of course!" Faraday's eyes twinkled. "Allow me to elucidate." He reached into his pocket and withdrew a map of the British Raj, and the northern territories. "Here, north of the Kashmir Range, and through the Khyber Pass, is Afghanistan. The plains of Afghanistan are a desolate place, full of craggy mountains, hostile tribes, and barren fields. And yet it is some of the most sought after territory in the world."

"Why's that?" I asked. "There gold or silver under that Afghani soil?"

"Nothing so dramatic, Mr. Reeper," Colonel Faraday explained. "The British Empire needs it to project their holdings here in the British Raj. The Russians want it for the exact opposite reason. Both sides bitterly fight over Afghanistan and the surrounding territories, all without firing a shot, of course. It has been called the Great Game."

"I think Kipling wrote about it," Charles said. He read a lot, and if he knew it, then I believed him.

"So what do you want to do there?" I asked.

Colonel Faraday pointed his finger at one of the territories in the center of the map. "Here, in the Hindu Kush mountain range, there is a valley occupied by a very small Afghan tribe. Unlike most of the other tribes, the Pathans, the Tajiks, the Hazara, the Uzbeks, and many others, the Nazari, for that is their name, have had very little contact with the outside world. While most of the Afghani tribes are Muslim, the Nazari still worship their own old pagan gods."

"So what are you aiming to do?" I asked.

"My God man, it's simple!" Faraday cried. "With a good number of rifles, we enter this area, and appoint ourselves as its kings. From this mountain valley, we can levy demands on the Russians and the British, and be met with affirmation by both. Soon we can build up enough power to move down from the safety mountains and take the cities of Afghanistan one by one, until Kabul and all the other settlements are under our command."

Charles and I exchanged a glance. Faraday always seemed a little off, but he now he was about as crazy as hog-tied jackrabbit with one ear on fire. "Sir?" I asked. "You want us to help?"

"Precisely. Your skill with firearms is legendary, Mr. Reeper. Do not worry for your safety, or for the safety of young Charles, for I know the terrain, well enough at least, and I doubt any will care to stand against us." He smiled at me. "What do you say?"

"Well, I don't rightly know," I said. "I'm just having a grant tour, Colonel. I don't want to go off on no quest to make you king or nothing."

"But Mr. Reeper," Charles said. "Maybe we could find a way to get from these mountains into China? And I wouldn't mind seeing Afghanistan. All those rocky hills and mountains sound very amazing, and it's a place so few white men have ever been too."

"Yeah, and those that do don't come back." I snorted, but I respected Charles's wishes. "There a way we could get to China from Afghanistan?" I asked. "In case we don't care to stick around and see your imperial dreams come true."

Faraday nodded. "From the Hindu Kush, it is but a small jaunt of Peshawar, and from there, you can take a train to the Orient, with little delays." He held out his hand. "I promise you, Mr. Reeper, you will not have a better guide than myself."

I looked to Charles. He nodded, and that was it. I shook Colonel Faraday's hand, and the next day, we packed all out things, got a few hardy mules and a pair of horses, and set off for the highlands of Afghanistan.

We rode up north, sticking to the main roads normally used by all manner of caravans. Elephants and some of them newfangled automobiles shared the road, and I rode along behind Faraday, with Charles riding behind me, and our mules bringing up the rear. At first, I was a little bit worried about letting Charles ride alone, but I figured there came a time for everything, and I had helped him practice a whole bunch, both when we was traveling across America as bounty hunter, and whenever we could when we were in San Francisco.

So he knew the ropes, but I was still nervous. Charles was as good a boy as you could ever hope to meet, but he was also a mite clumsy. I looked behind me and called out to him as we were trotting along the dirt road. "You doing okay, son?" I asked.

"I think so, Mr. Reeper!" Charles called back. Winston was perched on his shoulder, and the reins were in his hands. He treated his horse well, never pulling too hard or leading it on, and the horse seemed to enjoy that and didn't buck nor gallop too fast.

"Glad to hear it, son," I told him. "You just let me know if you're tired, and we'll stop and rest a spell. And remember to sip from your canteen whenever you feel thirsty. The sun will dry a man out in no time out here!"

"I will, Mr. Reeper," Charles agreed.

I sighed as Colonel Faraday looked at me. "Sorry," I said. "Just looking out for my boy."

"Oh, think nothing of it," Faraday said. "I felt a parental attachment to many of my troops. Only to see them gutted with Zulu spears, blasted with Pathan guns, and their blood shed all across the empire."

"Christ…" I whispered. "Must be hard."

"Such is the lot of the Widow's sons, Mr. Reeper," the colonel replied. "But that is no more. From now one, we shall be the ones who are the monarchs, with entire empires devoted to us!"

We rode on some more, stopping now and then to get some chow and sip water from our canteens. The other caravans seemed to thin out as we got further and further north, and when we was riding between some great jagged mountains, we were the only ones. This was the notorious Khyber Pass, home to almost every bandit and outlaw for miles around, and a haven for all kinds of violent men. You didn't go across it unless you was prepared to fight for what was yours, and to win.

I found my hand dropping to the rifle, one of Faraday's Enfields, hanging from the side of my saddle. I drew it out and let it rest on my saddle horn, while Faraday did the same. He slowed his horse, and I slowed my mine, until we were both riding next to Charles. Behind us, the mules kept on plodding not knowing their precious cargo of rifles, ammunition, and even a Maxim machine gun, could be attracting road agents like a two week old corpse attracted vultures.

I leaned forward, whispering to Faraday, on account I didn't want to frighten Charles. "You reckon we'll get trouble going through here?"

"Very likely," Faraday whispered. "It is said that every stone on the Khyber Pass is soaked in blood. Look there!" He pointed at a rocky outcropping above us. We saw a single figure standing there, a fellow wrapped in a turban that obscured all of his face except his eyes. He carried a large gun, an old flintlock musket, across his shoulder and a curved scimitar across his belt.

I watched as the robed man looked down at us, and then slipped back into the shadows. I gulped and slid a round into my rifle. "Charles?" I asked. "In case you hear shots, you drop on down to your horse and stay low. Me and Faraday will handle everything."

"O-okay," Charles agreed, a little nervously.

"They will be armed with jezzails," Faraday explained. "Homemade muskets, but with a long range. Their swords are tulwars, and if they get close enough to use them, then we are surely doomed."

"Ain't you just a ray of sunshine," I replied. "They're packing nothing but muskets? Shouldn't be too hard to fight them off."

"Do not be so quick to underestimate them, Mr. Reeper," Faraday replied. "We have fought two wars against the Afghans. In the first, the British troops were massacred almost to a man. They left one survivor to tell the tale. In the second, it was similar."

"Ah Hell," I muttered. It was then the Afghan bandits decided to attack. They popped out from behind the rugged hills and the mountain slopes, and started cracking away at us. Like Faraday had said, them jezzail muskets had a hell of a range, and the Afghan snipers were pretty damn accurate. One of their shots pierced by hat brim, and nearly took off my head.

I raised my rifle and started shooting back. I looked through the sights, taking careful aim at one of the Afghans on a nearby slope. I fired and struck him high in the chest, sending him down with a wound that should have finished him. The other Afghans dashed for cover, and I sent a few shells their way to keep their heads down. Faraday was firing back as well. He blasted the brains out of a sharpshooter on a rocky ledge, and the body fell with a tumble to the ground. Faraday drew his revolver and fired from the hip, striking another nearby bandit.

Like I had said, Charles ducked for cover, holding Winston close to him and ducking down over his horse. A bullet whizzed over his head, and I felt my heart stop as I saw the slug fly past him.

The Afghans had now, clambering down from the mountain and blocking the road. They weren't shouting any commands, not asking us for our money or our life, or asking us to toss down our shooting irons, or anything. They was just looking to kill us, and I figured they found that a lot easier than bothering with talking.

I cantered my horse backwards, returning fire with my rifle. I looked at Faraday. "Got a plan?" I asked. "Fall back and hunker down, you think?"

"Goodness, no," he said. "I propose a charge."

"What?" I asked.

"Come on, Mr. Reeper! For Albion, and glory!" Colonel Faraday urged his horse onwards, and charged straight towards the bandits. Not knowing what else to do, I dug in some spur and sent my own horse running after him. Charles coaxed his horse forward, with the mules following as well. The bandits certainly were expecting the attack. They leveled their jezzails to fire, but we was already smashing in amongst them. My horse's hoof cracked open one their skulls, and I slung the Enfield across my back and drew out my pistols.

One bandit grabbed onto my leg, trying to drag me off as he readied his tulwar. I cracked the handle of my pistol against his head, then fired into his chest while he fell back. Colonel Faraday charged forward as well, shouting like a mad man as he fired his Webley. He had brought a cavalry saber with him, and he drew that and swung it around to, drawing blood with each swipe. Between the two of us, the bandits broke ranks and ran. They was used to attacking unarmed merchants, and didn't have the stomach for a big fight.

We rode onwards, and I looked behind and saw Charles sitting upright. He grinned at me. "I'm okay," he said. "Don't worry."

"I still do," I said. I leaned back in my saddle, reached out, and patted his shoulder. "But just stick with me, and it should be all right. How's Winston doing?"

"He's okay. A little frightened by the shooting, but he's okay." Charles grinned at me. "He seems to like the terrain, though. It's a little bit more mountainous then Texas, but I guess he likes the climate."

"Glad to hear that," I said. "I figure it'll be more of the same, at least until we get to Peshawar, and China beyond that."

Just saying those words made his grin widen, and I joined in. I cantered my horse along, and he did the same, we rode next to Colonel Faraday and out of the feared Khyber Pass, no worse for wear. Unfortunately, things weren't going to stay that way for long.

We reached Afghanistan early the next morning. Like Colonel Faraday had said, it was a barren land, with lots of slopes, ravines, and valleys of sheer rock, the occasional grassy field or scrub forest interrupting the badlands. We rode along the rocky slopes, heading for the big mountain range in the distance. The Hindu Kush was connected to the Himalayas and many other mountain ranges beside, and they looked as tall and impenetrable as their neighbors.

Every so often, we'd run across a band of Pathans or Hazara tribesmen, and they was real tough fellows, armed with jezzails and scimitars and mounted on sturdy horses and camels that were well suited to the mountainous terrain. They didn't much care for the color of Faraday's coat, but he had brought plenty of things to barter with them, handing them bottles of wine, rifles, fine silks, and plenty of other trinkets that they enjoyed. After they realized we didn't mean them no harm, they were a decent bunch, and let us pass without any trouble.

At night, we made cup among the rocks and munched on our provisions. There was deer and rabbit in the hills, and Bentley and I shot a few of them and roasted them over our fire. They was mighty good eating. They were wolves in those mountains too, but our fire held them at bay. After we had gorged ourselves, we lay down on our bedrolls right under the stars and got some shuteye.

I had to admit, I didn't mind sleeping on the ground and camping on so much. I liked sleeping in a nice feather bed as much as the next fellow, but I'd be a liar if I said I didn't miss my nights out on the wild prairies now and again. Charles was snoozing away next to me, and I ruffled his hair and adjusted his blanket, making sure the boy was warm as he slept. Winston was curled up near his head.

I looked over at Faraday, who was still staring up at the sky. "Hell, Faraday," I muttered. "You can be king of the world, if you want. You just leave me and my boy the wide open places, and we won't mind."

"You are a simple fellow, are you not Mr. Reeper?" Faraday asked. He had his pith helmet on his lap and his rifle set next to him. "Well, I have fought and bled across three continents for the interests of the Empire, and I wish for something better."

"I know how you feel, Colonel," I said. "Way I see it, there don't seem to be a stupider occupation in all of creation than that of soldier."

"And yet, especially in this country, there is none that is not so well populated." Faraday shook his head sadly. "First Alexander the Great, then the Arabs and their assorted jihads, then the warring tribes, and then those bold sons of England, all marching to be slaughtered by this country's savage occupants. I wouldn't be surprised if, centuries from now, there are still foreign soldiers on Afghani soil, adding their own blood to the mix."

"You don't think they'd wise up by then?" I asked.

"I do not," he replied. He leaned back and turned over. "Get some sleep, Mr. Reeper. We have much traveling tomorrow."

We did indeed. After rising at the crack of dawn, poor Charles still yawning and rubbing sleep out of his eyes, we broke camp, mounted up, and rode on for the mountains of the Hindu Kush.

The ride was long and hard, with our poor steeds getting more and more tired as they clambered up the steep hillsides. We had some spectacular sights at least, with the mountains rising in great gray waves, topped with snow, on both sides of us. We even rode past a giant statue of a fat fellow sitting down, placed in an alcove that had been hollowed straight out of the mountain. Charles said the fat guy was Buddha, and we took off our hats out of respect as we rode past.

The trail only got harder as we got further up the trail to the hidden valley. Charles and I had to take breaks now and again, pulling out the canteens and slurping back some cool water, or munching on beef jerky that I had brought, but Faraday pressed on without every seeming to rest. We kept up a good pace, and even so, we didn't reach the valley of the Nazari Tribe until that evening.

We didn't even know we had reached their valley. We was just riding on down another slope, a simple dirt trail with the occasional boulder and scrub tree on the side, when all of a sudden, a number of fearsome looking warriors popped out from behind the rocks and trees, wielding bows, jezzails, tulwars and long spears. They all wore gray robes, which hid them well amidst the rocks, and they shouted and called in their own language.

Colonel Faraday knew what to do. He spoke to them in their own language as they walked forward, calmly dismounting and motioning for me and Charles to stay where we were. He repeated a few phrases he had memorized in their language, following them with words in English. "You must not hurt me. I have come to help your people. Glory to the Nazari!"

The Nazari, for it was them, didn't seem too pleased. They still pointed their muskets and swords at Faraday, and me and Charles. "I don't like this, Faraday," I said. "You'd best convince these fellows that you're their king and lightning quick now."

Faraday held up his hands and walked towards the mules. "I mean no harm," he repeated. "I wish to help you. To arm you." He pointed to the jezzail musket carried by one of the warriors. "You see that? I have something better."

The Hillman didn't seem impressed. He scowled at Faraday, and leveled his jezzail. Colonel Faraday gulped and moved towards the mule. I reckoned this weren't how he expected things to go. Slowly, he pulled out an Enfield rifle from one of the mule's packs and held it up. He drew some rounds from his belt and loaded them, then aimed at a nearby tree. "Watch," he commanded.

All them Nazari boys watched as Faraday pumped a number of rounds into the tree, splintering the wood and nearly toppling the tree over. The Nazari smiled and talked amongst themselves. Colonel Faraday smiled at them. "I do have more," he promised. "Enough for your whole tribe! Show me your leader and I will help make him great and make the Nazari great."

But when the Nazari turned back to us, I could see they weren't buying it, not at all. In fact, the first thing they did proved that Faraday hadn't a lick of sense when it came to the Nazari at all. He figured they were a simple people that lived all alone in a mountain, cut off from the rest of the world and naturally more trusting and noble. But what seemed true was that the Nazari were a small tribe in a country dominated by larger, fiercer tribes, and they had to be ten times as mean as everyone else just to survive. They naturally decided the best course of action was to kill us, and take our wonderful guns off of our corpses.

A Nazari warrior cracked Bentley with the butt of his jezzail, and the British colonel went down. Another Nazari sprang at me, tulwar held high. I reached for my pistols, but he grabbed my leg and pulled my off of my horse, knocking me to the ground. "Son of a gun!" I cursed, reaching for my revolvers, but the Nazari planted his sandaled foot over my hand, and held the point of his sword at my throat.

"Clark!" Charles hopped off his horse and ran to me, Winston bounding after him. He looked up at the stern faced Nazari. "Don't hurt him!" he cried. "Please! We don't want to hurt you or anything! You don't have to hurt anybody!"

In answer, the Nazari raised his tulwar to cut my boy down. I cried out and struggled to grab my pistols and blast this bastard to Hell, but I knew I weren't gonna be fast enough. But faster than me, and faster than him was Winston. The armadillo rolled up into a ball and sped under the Nazari's legs, bringing him crashing to the ground. He cursed and stood up, reaching for his sword to cut Winston in half, when he suddenly stopped.

All of the Nazari did in fact. They stared down at Winston like he was Christ Risen, which judging by what happened next, didn't seem too far off from the truth. "Kallahood," the Nazari whispered, pointing to Winston and sinking to his knees.

"Kallahood," the other hillmen whispered, dropping down to their knees themselves. They set down their swords and jezzails, and bowed in prayer and reverence to Winston. I came to my feet and drew out my revolvers, but the formerly fearsome Nazari were now as meek as monks. I holstered the revolvers and helped up Charles.

"What's going on?" I asked. "And what in tarnation is Kallahood?"

"It means 'divine one' in their tongue," Colonel Faraday whispered, coming to his feet. He pointed to Winston. "They are addressing your son's pet."

"They think that creature's sacred?" I asked.

"Better than a man on a cross, I suppose," Colonel Faraday said.

The Nazari tribesmen stood up, still keeping their heads bowed. They moved to the road, and gestured towards the pathway down into the valley. They wanted Winston to come with him. The little armadillo looked to Charles, and Charles looked to me. I nodded, and Charles picked up Winston and walked after the Nazari, leading his horse by the reins. I took my own horse's reins and followed, and Colonel Faraday and the now forgotten mules brought up the lead.

They led us down to the center of the valley, where the Nazari made their village. It was built on a rocky outcropping that providing visibility around the valley, and was a natural defense against any attacks. The Nazari village was a large collection of wooden huts, wrapped round with a short stone wall. There were more warriors standing as sentries at posts along the wall, and inside were the women and children.

The youngsters ran forward as we approached, and when they heard the men talking about 'Kallahood,' everyone else in the village ran over as well. The crowd forced us to the large building in the center of town, a palace of gray mud bricks, wrapped around with bright clothes and with beautiful silken pillows and couches set inside.

Out of the palace came a tall Afghan fellow dressed in purple robes, and as soon as he arrived, everyone bowed and kissed the dirt. He carried a tulwar at his waist with a jeweled hilt that glittered in the sun, a thick black beard, and a dark glare in his piercing eyes. When he saw us, he shook his head and smiled.

"Westerners?" he asked. "Why would Ibrahim Kahn care for such base creatures?" He spoke English and spoke it well. He turned to us. "You, white men. Why have my subjects not slain you, and why are they not now playing buzkashi with your severed heads?"

"You speak English?" I asked.

"I have dealt with other tribes, and both British and Russians, from time to time, and I learn their languages. But I do not care for their peoples. Ibrahim Kahn has no need to deal with such treacherous powers, not when the Nazari can defend themselves. Now why do my people place such importance on you?"

Charles held up Winston. "Come on, Winston," he said. "Curl up a little, so Mr. Kahn can see." At Charles's urging, Winston wrapped himself up in a ball. Soon as he did, Ibrahim Kahn's mouth fell open in surprise. He dropped to his knees and bowed.

"Kallahood!" he cried. "Kallahood! I should not have doubted you!"

"What's he going on about?" I asked. We looked out, and saw that every man, woman and child in the village was bowing down to Winston, whispering 'Kallahood' in unison. Charles and Colonel Faraday looked away and Charles soon spotted the cause of their devotion.

"Mr. Reeper!" he cried, pointing to the top of the palace. There was an altar built on its roof, a stone slab that overlooked the village. The stone slab had a single carving on it, a round ball hovering above the earth, lines of energy striking down.

"That's the sun," I said. "They must worship the sun."

Then we all looked down at Winston. Sure enough, when he was balled up in a circle, he looked just like their carving of the sun. No wonder they thought he was holy – that little armadillo was the spitting image of their God!

Ibrahim Kahn looked up at Winston. "O Blessed one," he whispered. "How can your devoted servants serve you?"

"Kallahood," the rest of the Nazari continued to chant in unison. "Kallahood."

I didn't quite know what to say, but Colonel Faraday did. "Sir," he said. "Kallahood is our friend and protector, and we have brought him to you to reign over you. He is a benevolent and wise leader, and he will bring a time of peace, prosperity and ever so much goodness to your people. But when he speaks, it is in a language that only we can understand."

"I shall never question Kallahood," Ibrahim Kahn whispered. "What does he demand?"

Colonel Faraday grinned at me. "I could get used to this," he whispered. "What do you think, Mr. Reeper? Charles? What should we ask for?"

Charles and I stared at each other. "I don't know if its right, to make these people think Winston is a god," Charles said. "He doesn't really desire that much. He likes where it's warm, and he likes a bowl of milk and some lettuce, as well as insects. Sometimes, when he's very good, I let him have a cookie, and he loves that."

"Kallahood desires a cushion near the sun, in your palace," Colonel Faraday commanded. "He desires insects so he may eat them, and some plants, and whatever pastries you may have.
And a bowl of milk." He nodded to me. "And we, his translators and friends, wish to have the treasures of your village placed in our private chamber, which should be your finest room in this palace, where we make relax and rest from our long journey."

Ibrahim Kahn bowed again to Winston. "It shall be done, O Kallahood," he asked. "May your light shine forever on the Nazari!"

"Don't worry, Ibrahim Kahn," Colonel Bentley Faraday said. "As long as you obey our commands in full, it will."

We spent the next half of the day living like gods in the Nazari village, and I didn't mind it a bit. We sat down on silken pillows in the second story luxury room of Ibrahim Kahn's palace, and the numerous female servants, each one prettier than the last, came in and made sure we was comfortable, bringing us sugary pastries, bowls of milk, and wine and whatever else we wanted.

Ibrahim Kahn visited it sometimes, checking in to make sure we had everything we wanted. He personally would refill our goblets, and always bowed down to Winston. The armadillo sat on a place of honor, a great pile of silken pillows on top of a gold and silver altar. They had dressed him up too, putting fancy sun-shaped golden medals around his neck and wrapping golden ribbons laced with jewels around his body, so whenever he moved, his ornaments clicked and tinkled.

Charles was the only one who didn't seem to be enjoying himself. He sat on one of the pillows, sipping on a jeweled goblet of milk, with his arms folded as Faraday and me compared the jewels and trinkets the Nazari had given us.

"Reckon this one's right pretty," I said, picking up a golden diadem topped with a golden circle dotted with emeralds.

"Pshaw!" Colonel Faraday called, sipping from his wine goblet and picking up a necklace of rubies one of the serving girls had draped around his neck. "This, my dear Mr. Reeper, is a much preferable ornament than that gaudy piece of tinsel!"

I looked over at Charles, and saw him staring outside the window at the gray expanse of rocks. "Charles?" I asked. "Why so glum?"

"I don't know, Mr. Reeper," he said. "But I don't think I like this. It's mean, lying to all these people, and making them think Winston is something is not, and forcing them to give us all of their stuff."

"We're not forcing them, dear boy!" Faraday reminded Charles. "They've given us everything we could ever want, and they're happy to do it! People need something to believe in, and by god, we've given them their beloved beliefs in the flesh!"

"That doesn't make it right, Colonel Faraday," Charles said."They deserve to know the truth."

"Hell, son," I said, walking over and patting his shoulder. "We'll be moving on soon enough, and we'll take Winston with us." I noticed Charles was looking out through the door, past the balcony and into the mountains. "What are you staring at?" I asked.

"I think somebody's coming," Mr. Reeper," Charles explained excitedly. "From the opposite direction that we came in, and a lot of them too!"

I ran out to the balcony and Colonel Faraday did the same. We looked out over the gray rocky hills and saw a narrow rope bridge, looking so rickety it couldn't support a couple of mice, that was being crossed by a small army of men. They wore dark green uniforms with peaked caps, and carried rifles on their shoulders. A fellow dressed in an olive green greatcoat led them, a saber at his waist.

They had a big flag with them too, and as soon as Faraday saw it, he shook so hard all the gold and jewelry he had draped over himself jingled like spurs. "Dear god," he whispered. "The Russians are coming!"

"Russians?" I asked. "What do they want in this little no-account kind of place?"

"It's the Great Game, Mr. Reeper," Charles pointed out. "They want the same thing that Colonel Faraday wants – to take command of this place and then control the rest of Afghanistan. Then they'll try and cut into British India!"

"Dash it all, I won't let them do it," Colonel Faraday muttered. "The Nazari already have a god, and his name is Winston." He looked back at the armadillo. "Charles, stay with his holiness Kallahood there. Me and your father and some Nazari will ride out and have a little chat with this Tsar's lackeys."

Ibrahim Kahn walked into the room, very excited about what was going on. "Russians are coming," he said. "They are under the control of Count Drugunov, an Okhrana man. He is a cunning one, but I have not given him much before. Come, o beloved of the gods, and we will meet him."

Faraday nodded. "Bring a score of your toughest warriors, Ibrahim. Make sure they are armed with the Enfield rifles I delivered to them, and that they do not fire until I give the order." Faraday smiled at Ibrahim Kahn as we walked down the stairwell to the front of his palace. "You will see how Kallahood protects your people."

There were some horses outside, stout Nazari breeds, and we mounted up and rode out to meet the advancing Russians. After them Russians had crossed the rickety bridge, they came were walking across the long plain that eventually led to the Nazari village, and this is where we caught them.

Faraday and I rode in front, with Ibrahim Kahn next to us, and his warriors on foot all around us, armed with Enfields. The lead Russian held up his hand and his infantry all came to a stop. They didn't move their weapons, keeping their mosin-nagant rifles on their shoulders.

"Hello, Ibrahim Kahn," Count Drugunov said pleasantly. He removed his peaked cap, and I saw that he was balding, and wore a monocle and a pointed moustache. "So glad you could meet us. Tell me please, who are your friends?" He spoke in English, for our benefit. "I am Count Nikolai Alexandrovitch Drugunov, of his Imperial Majesty the Tsar's Okhrana, the Secret Police."

"I am Colonel Bentley Faraday, late of the Royal Marines," Faraday said. "What is your purpose here in Nazari territory, sir?"

"And I'm Clark Reeper," I said. "We don't want any trouble, so maybe it would be best if you turned around and kept walking."

"You are in command here?" Drugunov asked. He turned to Ibrahim Kahn. "Is this true? You have let yourself be wooed by the British?"

"British? No, Count. These men are far more than that." Ibrahim Kahn reached for his scimitar. "And I will slay the man who attacks them!"

"Is that so?" Drugnov nodded to his soldiers. Two of them came forward holding a large chest. Count Drugunov opened it and withdrew a golden billiards ball set in a velvet cushion. He held it up to the sun. "Behold Ibrahim Kahn," he cried. "Your god, the sun, Kallahood! He speaks through me, and tells you that we are to be respected and worshipped!"

Ibrahim Kahn stared dismissively at the billiards ball and shook his head. "You are telling me that is Kallahood, Count Drugunov? Do I look like a fool to you?"

Colonel Faraday smiled. "Sorry, old boy. I'm afraid you're rather late to the party. You see, Kallahood showed up just this morning, in a physical, living form no less, and we are his spokesmen. You lot are simply some fools trying to masquerade as gods."

Count Drugunov didn't take that well. He stroked his moustache as he faced turned red. "What are you talking about, Englishman?" he asked. "How could you have a god in your service?"

"He's in my service, to be exact," I said, grinning. "Picked him up back home, somewhere on the border between Texas and Mexico, if you want to be exact."

That only made Drugunov madder. He turned back to his men, then looked to Ibrahim Kahn and the rest of us. "You will curse the day you made an enemy of Imperial Russia!" he cried. "And you, Ibrahim Kahn, pathetic chieftain of a tribe of savages – I shall destroy you and your little village, and take control of what remains by force of arms!" He shouted to his men as he reached for a revolver in his belt. "Men, destroy them!"

Before I knew it, the fight was on. The Russians spread out and opened up on us, their rifles cracking away quickly. More Russians came up behind, including a bunch of fellows wheeling about a great cannon, a small artillery piece that they must have worked mighty hard to get on over the mountains. It opened fire, sending a shell into the ranks of the Nazari warriors. But the Nazari had fought in the mountains before, and they knew just what to do.

Under Ibrahim Kahn's command, they dashed back to the upper rocks and took cover, dismounting to get better shots. Faraday drew his saber, but I leaned over and grabbed his arm, and we both rode back to cover. "No use getting killed here, Bentley!" I shouted, as I drew my revolvers and started shooting back at the column of Russian infantry.

"I suppose you're right, Mr. Reeper," Colonel Faraday muttered. He drew his Enfield and fired back with it, blasting a Russian right between the eyes. The Nazari around him were knocking down the Russians with their own Enfield rifles, and these boys had the eyes of hawks. The Russians ducked for cover right quick, and the ones that got stuck in the open were soon shot down.

But that cannon of theirs fired again, the shell crashing into the rock next to us and sending gravel and fragments through the air. "We can't hold them here!" I said. I turned to Ibrahim. "We'd best head back to the village. You picked a mighty fine for it, and we can defend ourselves there."

Ibrahim Kahn considered the idea. "It is a good idea," he said. "More of my warriors will be waiting for us there, and all our rifles together will make short work of these Russians. Kallahood is right to trust you as his servants."

"Uh…sure," I agreed. "Let's ride!"

I hopped onto my horse, and Colonel Faraday, Ibrahim Kahn and his Nazari warriors did the same, then we rode back along the stony mountainside, riding into the valley. Count Drugunov's men fired after us, and after Drugunov started shrieking out orders at them, they charged after us. But they were men on foot on difficult terrain, and we was on horseback with men who knew the place, and we soon outpaced them.

The Nazari were as good at riding as they were fighting. Some of their warriors spun around and shot back at the Russians, picking them off from great ranges. These fellows reminded me of Apache, deadly in a fight, goddamn good shots, and with such a knowledge of the land that they could be lying in wait with a knife drawn right next to you, and you wouldn't know it until you felt their steel across your throat. I could see how they had done so well against the two British forces sent to stop them.

We soon reached the Nazari village, and Ibrahim Kahn quickly shouted out commands to his people. They were quick to respond, being veterans of thousands of skirmishes and battles between rival tribes. The men and children headed inside and hunkered down, while the menfolk grabbed jezzails, bows and arrows, and swords and rushed to the rooftops and the outcroppings, taking the best cover and getting ready to shoot back.

But I wanted to be with Charles. "Gonna go on back to the palace," I said to Ibrahim Kahn and Faraday as we rode in. "Y'all welcome to join me."

"Protecting Kallahood, eh?" Ibrahim asked. "A wise decision." He leapt off his horse with his rifle in his hand, and rode forward to the large palace. Colonel Faraday and I followed, and we quickly dashed to the second story. Ibrahim Kahn drew his rifle and took up a firing position near the balcony and Faraday joined him.

Charles stood up, picking up Winston and holding him tightly as we rode in. "What's going on?" he asked.

"Damn Russians are looking to blow the place to Hell," I said. "They had a yellow billiards ball they was trying to pass off as Kallahood, and got pissed when they found out Kallahood was already here."

"Here they come!" Faraday called to me.

I reloaded my revolvers and held them at the ready. "Son? You get down near the back of the building, and keep Winston, I mean Kallahood, with you. Just make yourself as small as you can, and you'll get through this."

"Okay, Mr. Reeper," Charles said, dashing back to the back of the royal chamber. I ran over to the balcony, just in time to see the Russians charging up into the Nazari village. The Nazari warriors opened fire as they charged in, pouring rifle fire, musket balls from Jezzail, and the occasional arrow into their ranks. Whenever the Russians got too close to a house, a Nazari would pop out with a tulwar and stick them with it, and they were forced into the open streets, where we picked them off quickly.

The artillery piece came up last, and that cannon was the toughest thing the Tsar's boys had brought. It thundered away at us, blasting one of them stone huts to pieces. Count Drugunov himself stood behind it, directing the artillery crew and pointed at targets with his saber.

Soon as he spotted me, Faraday and Ibrahim, he grinned and pointed his sword in our direction. I saw the cannon swinging to face me, even as I brought up my revolvers to shoot the cannon down. "Incoming!" I shouted, diving forward as the cannon boomed.

The shot sped over my head and crashed into the roof of the place. Problem was, it sent the back of the palace falling away, with Charles and Winston still in it. I turned around to grab Charles as I saw the floor under him falling away, but I was too late.

"Catch him, Mr. Reeper!" Charles cried, hurling Winston into the air. I got Winston in my hands, just as Charles fell to the ground, caught in the rubble. I gasped as I set Winston down, and tried to run to help him, but the Russian infantry ran forward and surrounded Charles, firing up at me with their rifles. One of their shots winged me and I tumbled to the ground.

"Charles!" I cried, crawling forward on my bellies. "Don't you bastards hurt him! I'll make you die slow and painful if you touch a hair on his head!"

"Is that so, Mr. Reeper?" Count Drugunov must have heard me. He dashed away from the cannon and ran to Charles, who lay on the ground amidst the rubble and ruined silk pillows and treasures. He hauled Charles up, and my breath caught in my mouth when I saw him pull his saber back. I tried to shoot him down, but the Russian troopers were still firing at me, and I couldn't get a clear shot without being drilled by a dozen slugs.

But Ibrahim Kahn would have none of it. "You shall not lay a hand on the blessed servant of Kallahood!" he shouted, drawing his jewel-hilted sword and running towards the end of the building. He leapt down, bullets flying past him, and then landed on the ground in front of the Russians. His tulwar was out, hacking off the head of one of the Russian soldiers, then driving into another. One soldier raised his rifle to block Ibrahim Kahn's blow, but the Nazari chieftain merely spun the sword around and slashed open his neck.

The other Russian soldiers didn't stand a chance and they knew it. Many of them just up and ran away, and the few that tried to fight were gutted by Ibrahim's swinging scimitar. Count Drugunov blocked one of Ibrahim Kahn's sword blows with his own saber, but then he broke too.

"I will return!" he promised. "I will make you pay, you filthy savages!"

I stood up and looked down at him, raising my revolvers. Winston had crawled up to my shoulder, and Count Drugunov got a good look at him. "You come on back, we'll be waiting here to welcome you!" I said, firing down with both pistols.

Drugunov had enough. He ran away, dragging his sword behind him, and shouting the call to retreat to all his men. They ran away themselves, the artillery crew dragging their cannon off as well. The Nazari blasted them as they ran, and though a lot of Russians had entered the village, not too many came out again.

Quickly, I holstered my pistols and hopped down from the ruined second story of the palace. I ran over to Charles and helped him up. Thankfully, though he had been kind of bruised by the fall and the rubble, he didn't have no broken bones or anything.

"You okay, son?" I asked, looking him over for any wounds.

He held out his hands, and Winston leapt down into his waiting arms from my shoulder. He smiled as the armadillo happily licked his face. "I'm fine, Mr. Reeper," Charles said. "Thanks for keeping Winston safe." He looked to Ibrahim Kahn and bowed his head. "And sir, thank you very much. You saved my life, sir."

"Think nothing of it," Ibrahim Kahn said, wiping the blood from his scimitar. "There is no deed too great that I would not do in the name of Kallahood." He looked over his warriors, and raised his rifle into the air. "Today the Nazari have earned a mighty victory in his name!"

The other Nazari shouted out high-pitched shrieks, raising their rifles, jezzails, and swords to the sky. I did the same with my pistol, and then Colonel Faraday hopped down. He picked up Winston, and the Nazari cheered even more at the sight of him.

After the battle, the Nazari repaired what damage was done as best they could. Winston, and Colonel Faraday, Charles and myself were moved to another large luxurious chamber, this one in the mud brick building that served as their temple. We reclined on silken cushions and couches around the statues to their sun god and other deities, and serving girls and village folk brought us plenty of vittles. We ate our fill, and they took the empty plates away and brought us more. There was roast chicken on spits, warm rolls of bread, plenty of sauces and creams and much more. We gorged ourselves, and then lay back and patted our bellies.

Colonel Faraday had shed his red uniform and pith helmet right after the battle, and now wore the golden robes of a king of the Nazari. He had a big old crown on his head, a band decorated with golden circlets that represented the sun, and numerous rings, armlets and necklaces that glimmered in the low candlelight.

"Looks like things simply cannot get better!" Faraday cried, sitting back on some pillows and smiling. Winston sat in the place of honor, and I sat next to Charles. We hadn't changed our clothes quite yet, though Charles was getting a little tired, and me with him. I figured we'd be snoozing soon enough.

I turned to Faraday. "You know, colonel, I'm starting to think maybe we should quit while we're ahead here."

"What ever do you mean?" he asked, staring at me in surprise.

"Well, colonel, how long you figure you can pull the wool over the eyes of these Nazari? They'll wise up sooner or later that Winston ain't no god, and it might end up sooner rather than later. After they find that out, they'll see that we was playing them for saps the whole time."

"Why, Mr. Reeper, I don't think that will happen for some time," Colonel Faraday replied. "I merely keep Winston hidden away from them, except for special occasions where they pray to him, make sure he remains mysterious and divine in nature, and they won't question a thing."

Charles looked at Colonel Faraday. "Sir," he said. "It's just not right. These are good people, and it's not right to lie to them about Winston. They don't deserve it."

"Oh, and what do I deserve, dear boy?" Faraday asked. "To live my life as some common British troopers, marching about and taking orders, living my whole life for the empire, with my only reward a little bit of pay, some sour ale in a public house and a cold death at the hands of some dark-skinned savage? I want to be king, and by god, now that I am I have no wish to stop!"

Both Charles and me fell silent. Finally, I spoke up. "Well, colonel, maybe we'll let you go on this way for a bit, but it won't last forever. You can count on that."

"It will last," the colonel replied. "As soon as I found my own dynasty. These Nazari women are quite pretty after all…"

"Bit soon to be thinking about that," I said. "Especially with that damned Russian count still out there?"

"Oh, Drugunov? I doubt he'll cause any more trouble." Faraday leaned back on the pillows and stretched out. "No, he'll most likely wander around in the mountains a bit until the bandits or the Nazari or some other tribe finish him off for good." Faraday yawned. "I say, I'm a bit fatigued from the day's travels. Nothing like going from man to king to god before dinner, eh Mr. Reeper?"

"Nothing like it," I agreed. I leaned back as well and closed my eyes. Charles laid down next to me, and Winston hopped down from his pedestal, all his ornaments shaking around and clanking as he walked, and sat down next to Charles. My boy patted the armadillo and yawned. The Nazari serving girls had brought us some blankets to help us against the cold Afghan nights, and we wrapped ourselves up in those and went to sleep.

I didn't have too many dreams, and though I was tired, I was a light sleeper. I learned that from my time as a scout in Apache territory and learned it well. When it got real dark, and everyone else fell asleep, I heard someone entering our room. I cracked an eye open, and saw Ibrahim Kahn lighting a candle and holding it out to illuminate the darkened room.

He had two large Nazari warriors behind him, both with long tulwars on their belts and jezzails on their backs. Ibrahim Kahn had a thick book under his arm. It was dusty, dog-eared, and looked like it had been dragged across several continents to reach him. He took it out and flipped through it, staring at Winston all the while.

I knew we was in trouble when I heard him whisper a few words to himself. "Common armadillo…" he said. Then he had finished flipping through the book, and pointed to one page. I saw his face in the lantern light, his eyes wide and his lips peeled back in a snarling scowl.

Quickly, I grabbed one of my revolvers and pointed it at him. "What are you doing, Ibrahim Kahn?" I asked. "Sneaking up on Kallahood while he's snoozing?"

"Kallahood?" Ibrahim Kahn showed me the book. Common Animals of the American Southwest was the title. He opened it up to a page showing the armadillos. "I think not, Clark Reeper. You have a common beast there, little more than a rat in your own land."

"He's a bit bigger than a rat…" I muttered. I was buying time now, trying to rouse Charles and Colonel Faraday. I kicked Faraday's leg with my boot, and shook Charles by the shoulder. They started to stir, but it was taking too long, and I figured all our heads would be off unless we got out of that fast but quick. "How'd you come by that book, Ibrahim?"

"It is quite a story, Reeper." Ibrahim Kahn patted the dusty volume. "I decided I and my warriors would pursue Count Drugunov into the hills, and bring his head before Kallahood in the morning. But when we came upon them, he tossed this book at us, and shouted the word 'armadillo' before fleeing into the hills. I do not know how he gained it, but I expect he sent word to some nearby Russian outpost, and they sent a speedy rider up to the mountains."

"Look, Ibrahim," I said, now shaking Charles more vigorously. He eyes fluttered open. Colonel Faraday was snoring away, whispering something about Queen Victoria as I nudged him, but still not getting up. One of the big Nazari tribesman got in front of him, holding up his scimitar. "It weren't nothing personal. Colonel Faraday, it was his idea, and he was just thinking on handing over his rifles to you in return for a position of command. It was only when you started bowing to Winston that we got the idea of posing as gods."

"Is that so?" Ibrahim Kahn asked. "I do not like to me made a fool of, Reeper. I felt my heart beat like the drums of war when I saw Kallahood come to our village. It meant the beginnings of a thousand years of paradise, and victory over all our enemies. Can you imagine what I feel now, to know that the Blessed God of the Sun is but a ruse designed by white men, so they may laugh at me while they profit by the sweat of the brow of my tribe!"

He stepped forward, raising his sword and I cocked my pistol. "Not a step further, Ibrahim," I said. "Or you'll get to meet your gods in person." I forgot about waking up Faraday peacefully, and kicked him in the side with all my strength. He snorted and woke up.

"How dare you slander their holy names!" Ibrahim Kahn shouted, dashing forward. Before I could fire, he kicked my gun hand. My shot went into the ceiling and then he leapt at me, swinging his sword towards my throat. I rolled out of the way, and the tulwar nearly cut me in half. Instead, it cut apart one of the silken pillows and sent feathers everywhere, and got wedged in the floor.

Charles and the Colonel were awake now, and were naturally quite surprised to see our guests trying to murder us. "Mr. Reeper!" Charles called, as one of the Nazari warriors stood over him. "What's going on?"

I lunged out and kicked the Nazari standing over Charles in the back, knocking him down. Colonel Faraday stood up and slugged the warrior attacking him, but received a devastating slash to the shoulder for his trouble.

"The jig's up!" I shouted. "They know Winston ain't no god, and that he's just a critter, and they ain't happy about it!"

Ibrahim Kahn's foot struck out and hit my head, and I saw stars. He swung his sword down again, and I barely managed to grab the Bowie knife from my boot and block the falling sword before it cut me in half. I forced the sword away as I came to my feet, then reached for my second Peacemaker. But before I could clear holster, Ibrahim smashed his body into me, sending me flying backwards. I landed next to my fallen pistol and grabbed it, then saw a nearby window.

Colonel Faraday was on his feet as well, though he was much for wear. He had taken several slashes and been beaten with a rifle butt. He ran after me, blood running down his face and his crown askew on his head. "What's…the plan?" he managed to ask.

"Charles!" I shouted. The boy grabbed Winston and ran after me. "Jump!" I shouted, picked up Charles and leapt out the window. I landed hard on the ground, though the fall weren't too great. Colonel Faraday jumped out next and as luck would have it, he landed right on top of me. Cursing and hissing, we managed to come to our feet. I guess it really was lucky that Faraday landed on me and that he got up first, because Ibrahim Kahn took a shot with his Jezzail, and it struck Bentley in the back, and not me in the head.

I stood up next as Colonel Faraday sank now. "No," he whispered. "Not my kingdom. I don't want my bloody kingdom to just slip away from me!"

"Come on!" I said, letting him lean on my shoulder as I drew one of my revolvers. I fired back through the window, and made Ibrahim Kahn and his pals duck for cover. I looked around for some means of escape, before the other Nazari woke up and finished us for good.

Charles spotted some horses tied up near the temple. "Mr. Reeper!" he called. "Over there!"

"Thank god! Son, you ride with me. We'll need to move quickly." We ran towards the horses, as other Nazari started blasting at us from behind their houses. A bullet crossed my knee and drew blood, but I kept going. I hopped on one of the horses, and Colonel Faraday pulled himself onto another. I reached down and helped up Charles, and he tucked Winston, still dressed up like a god, to his chest. Then I dug in the spur and off we rode.

We dashed through the streets, moving as fast as we could, and even so the jezzail shots were raining down like hailstones. I felt for sure each shot was gonna splatter my brains, or worse, hit Charles, but we were going just too fast. We rode out of the village the opposite of the way we rode in, and then we were pounding across the open rocky ground of the Hindu Kush.

Colonel Faraday was doing his best, but he was shot up pretty bad. I tossed him a canteen, and he drank it quickly. "Dear god, Mr. Reeper," he whispered. "Don't tell me it's gone. Don't tell me our lives of leisure and godhood are behind us?"

"Afraid so, Colonel," I said. "Told you we should have quit while we were ahead."

"No…" I realized that Faraday was going to die soon, if he didn't get some rest and medical treatment, but there was no way we could just stop, especially when I heard many hooves pounding after us.

I turned around and saw Ibrahim Kahn, mounted on a sturdy Afghan pony, and leading a large column of Nazari cavalry that was hard on our tail. They had their rifles in their hands, some of them jezzails, but mostly the very Enfield rifles that we had brought them, and started shooting at us as we rode. I ducked down and made Charles do the same, and the bullets sped over our heads. Colonel Faraday slumped down on his horse, and I weren't sure whether it was weakness or tactics that made him do it.

"You still hanging on, Colonel?" I shouted out to him. He merely gasped weakly in response.

"Ride ahead," he whispered, gripping his Enfield. "I'll hold them off. If I cannot live as a king, let me at least die as one."

"You're talking crazy!" I shouted. "Come on, Colonel. We just got to make it over this rise and we'll get away from them!"

Colonel Faraday tried to slow his horse, but I wouldn't let him. He kicked my leg out and drove my spur across the horse's haunch, making it run all the faster. We sped right over the rise, and then right into the gun sights of a new set of troubles.

One minute we were racing along the darkened dirt road, our path speckled with boulders and rocky outcroppings, and then, on both of sides of the path, Russian infantry stood up and opened fire. Their Mosin-Nagant rifles cracked away, and both our horses went down. My poor steed took a bullet right through the face, and fell down hard without getting time to cry out. Faraday's took a dozen bullets in the gut and sank down, and he fell right off of it.

The Nazari rode after us, and right into the guns of the Russians themselves. Like us, they didn't have time to turn around or ride for cover, and the Russians picked them off easily. The bullets struck down their horses quickly, and while some of the Nazari managed to get off shots, they didn't last much longer than we did.

I was laying out on the ground, looking down at Charles. The poor kid had taken a hard tumble off of the horse, and was laying still. I reached forward, my whole body aching and straining, and rested my hand on his chest, only breathing a sigh of relief when I found he was breathing evenly. He had been knocked out cold, but I reckoned he was okay.

Then I looked up and saw the Russians moving forward. Count Nikolai Drugunov was the first one to reach the road, and he drew out his saber and pistol. He walked to one of the wounded Nazari, pressed the revolver to his head and blew his brains out, grinning all the while.

"Savages," he whispered. "You should have chosen to worship us as gods instead of fighting!" He blasted another wounded Nazari warrior down. "Now you will be destroyed, your tribe wiped from the face of earth, and the Tsar shall claim your land for his own."

I looked over and saw Ibrahim Kahn lying out on the ground, his leg twisted at an odd angle from the fall. He was trying to pull himself back, reaching for his fallen Enfield. Count Drugunov spotted him too and walked over. He kicked the rifle away, and placed his blade at Ibrahim's throat.

"You thought you could survive in this world, Ibrahim Kahn?" he asked. "An independent country of you primitives caught between England's Raj and the Russian Empire? It is almost humorous to think you could maintain independence!" Ibrahim Kahn reached for the tulwar on his belt, and got a boot to the face for his trouble. He sank down in the dirt, and Drugunov pressed his revolver his head. Ibrahim Kahn started whispering a prayer in his own language, mentioning Kallahood's name over and over again.

"Imagine, your village destroyed by men, your houses and temples burned down, your people massacred!" Count Drugunov snarled down at Ibrahim Kahn. "And even if you fight us off, they'll always be someone else to invade, and every other tribe in this miserable country to attack you. Pray to Kallahood, Ibrahim Kahn – you haven't got a hope."

My pistols were still in their holsters, with some ammunition left in them. My arms ached as I strained to reach down and draw them out, and every muscle in my body told me it weren't worth the effort. Ibrahim Kahn was a bastard who, just a couple of minutes ago, was planning to plant his tulwar in my chest. But I remembered how he had saved Charles earlier that afternoon, leaping into battle against the Russians and fighting them off just to save my boy. Sure, he did it for his god, but he honestly believed that Kallahood was helping his village, and he did it for them.

I pulled out one of my revolvers and aimed it at Drugunov's back. The Russian soldiers realized what I was doing, and rushed to point their rifles at me, but it was too late.

"You haven't got a hope," Count Drugunov repeated.

"He's got one!" I pulled up to my knee and fired, fanned the pistol and planting all the remaining shots into Drugunov's back. The Russian gasped and sank forward, dropping his pistol and sword to the ground. The Russian infantry ran forward to finish me off, but I drew out my second revolver and fanned it off at them. I noticed I weren't the only one, and saw Ibrahim Kahn had grabbed the count's fallen revolver and was shooting at well.

Together we blasted half a dozen Russians, and I pulled myself up and ran for cover, grabbing Charles and carrying him away to cover. A bullet tore some meat out of my leg and knocked me down, and I landed near where Ibrahim had fallen. I turned around and started shooting with my rifle, driving the Russians back. I reached out with my free hand, grabbed a rifle, and handed it to Ibrahim Kahn.

"You saved my life," he whispered, blasting a charging Russian with the Enfield.

"Yeah," I said. "Wonder if it will take."

"But why?" he asked. "You lied to me. You sought to mislead our village for your own gain. Why would you help me?"

"You saved my boy," I said simply. "That's about it."

Ibrahim Kahn shrugged, and worked the bolt on his rifle. "I thank you."

"Much obliged," I said. "But I don't think we're gonna last long."

Some of the other Nazari had managed to come to their senses and joined us in fighting back. The Russian infantry soon lay dead in the road, and without Drugunov to guide them, they didn't have much luck fighting back. The smarts one dashed back to the rocks that surrounded the road and took cover. I knew we were finished then, because they could blast us at their leisure, while we sat around and tried to pick them off from behind the rocks. Plus, the Russian boys still had their cannon somewhere.

"Have faith, Clark Reeper," Ibrahim Kahn whispered. "Have faith in Kallahood."

"Ain't you got no sense, Ibrahim?" I asked. "Kallahood ain't real! He's just my son's pet armadillo! Winston's a good critter, but he can't help us now!"

"He is not a being of flesh," Ibrahim Kahn explained, calmly reloaded his rifle. "He is the sun, and he will always rise to help his people when they need him."

"How the hell is the sun gonna help us now?" I asked. "We're out in the open, no cover, waiting for the Russians to put slugs into our skulls! And the minute they wheel that cannon out, we're good and done for!"

Above us, the sun started to rise. It was fierce and yellow, rising up and casting its light over all the spires of rock and the crevices and canyons of the Hindu Kush. As the light came shining down, I saw a number of men wearing the robes of the Nazari, silhouetted against the rising sun as they ran forward with tulwars drawn. They crashed into the back of the Russian soldiers, gutting them and hacking them down quick as could be.

The Russians rolled out their artillery piece, but the Nazari were too quick. They ran across the rocky expanse of land and attacked the cannon before it could fire a single shot, hacking its men to pieces and taking control of it. The few remaining Russians turned to run, and the Nazari turned their own cannon on them, firing a shell into the ranks of the infantrymen and decorating the mountainside with their innards.

The Nazari ran over to us, helping Ibrahim Kahn to his feet and seeing to his leg. They did the same with the other warriors, and I ran to Colonel Faraday. I turned back to Ibrahim Kahn. "He's got to get some help," I told him. "Or he ain't gonna make it?"

One of the Nazari warriors asked Ibrahim Kahn something. Ibrahim Kahn looked at me, Charles and Faraday. "He wants to know if we should play buzkashi with your heads."

"What are you gonna tell him?" I asked.

Ibrahim Kahn whispered something to his men, and then reached over and grabbed my hand, helping him to my feet. "I told him you will live in our village as honored guests," he said. "As long as you leave soon enough, and do not take any of our treasures with you." He looked down at Count Drugunov, who was still alive, and weakly trying to crawl away. Ibrahim Kahn kicked him over, and drew his scimitar. "And we already have plenty of heads to play buzkashi with."

Well, we spent the rest of our time with the Nazari peacefully resting and getting ready for our journey. The Nazari were decent hosts, even if they didn't think we was gods, and they nursed Colonel Faraday back to health. He was real pissed off at first, but I told him that he was lucky to be alive at all, and to look at it from the Nazari's perspective, and he seemed to calm down.

"Dash it all," he muttered. "I suppose it's for the best. Who wants to be a king if their throne is based on falsehoods?" Then we looked out the window and saw two groups of Nazari horsemen riding back and forth, the men playing rugby with something round and reddish. I soon realized that it was Drugunov's severed head.

Ibrahim Kahn proved a gracious host, but as soon as me, Colonel Bentley Faraday and Charles were well enough to ride, he handed us horses, provisions and pointed out the road to Peshawar. "And please," he said. "Do not return to my village."

"Don't gotta tell me twice," I said. "Much obliged, Ibrahim Kahn. You're good people."

He smiled and turned away, and then we set off. I looked over to Charles, who rode next to me, with Winston on his shoulder. Winston was sunning himself and licking Charles's face, making him giggle. "Say, Charles," I said. "You reckon Winston liked being a god-king?"

"I'm not sure, Mr. Reeper," Charles said. "He liked the milk, and everyone paying attention to him. But all the gold and jewels, and the royal trappings, they kind of slowed him down. I think he's glad to be moving on."

I nodded. "I know how he feels," I said.

The three of us rode on towards Peshawar, leaving our brief terms as Kings of the High Hills behind, and I figure we were the better because of it.

-The End-

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