During the Tirah Campaign 0f 1878-79, Wazir Ali the Coffee shop wallah, survived an ambush and the manner in which he repaid his rescuers is narrated in a story titled “Safe Conduct.” It was published in a 1915 edition of the Royal Magazine and is reminiscent of the tales of Rudyard Kipling.
The story is now published in The Friday Times in two parts. Last week’s part related to Wazir Ali being rescued from an ambush. This is the second part in which Wazir Ali succeeds in repaying his rescuers.
Captain Blake, the supply and transport officer of the Peshawar Column was badly trapped along with four others. A big Lashkar of tribals had swooped down on his wretched transport line, tearing the heart out of it. With less than a score of his men he had fought through the horde to a watch tower on the adjacent hill. Every one of the five survivors was injured.
Blake guessed he would never use his left hand again. Corcoran had dropped not a dozen yards from the door of the tower, and Sergeant Burke had carried him the rest of the way on his shoulders, swearing and fighting like a devil possessed.
They were now barricaded inside the tower while the hill men shouted joyous taunts from the ridges all around them. Darkness was falling. It would be upon them before help could come and there was no hoping for succour through the darkness.
Corporal Dunne, bleeding from the head, was coaxing the other Donegal to “kill two min wid aich bullet.”
Corporal Dunne and his comrade had but three clips of cartridges a piece left, counting those they took from Corcoran. Even if they killed ten “min wid aich bullet” there would still remain a hundred enemies to every one of them.
Sergeant Burke came over to the captain. “D’ye hear’em sor?” he asked. Blake craned forward his head to listen.
Steady and regular, like trained sappers, the click and cough of picks in the hands of the besiegers echoed softly from beneath the main door – Chick-chuck! Chick-chuck!
“They do be just playing wid us, sor!” volunteered Burke. “The door will fall out in half an hour, or less, at utmost.”
As Blake searched his pockets for the makings of a cigarette, for some unknown reason he took out his notebook. From it fell the doubled up envelope that held the letter of Wazir Ali.
“Gad Sergeant!” said he cheerfully. “Here’s our clean pass to Paradise. They won’t chop us up into nasty pieces if we manage to get this letter to one of their mullahs or anyone else that can read it, first.”
Sergeant Burke said “Yes, sir,” respectfully but with no emphasis of conviction.
“Is that wan o’ Wazir Ali’s letters sor?” He asked deferentially. “Sure he’s been given ‘em to me an Corpril Dunne, an’ Corcoran an’ Mooney an’ the other two. What good d’ye think the likes of them would be in softening a lot of slavering savages the likes of them outside, sor?”
Night was galloping on them with its shadows. When the full darkness fell the door would drop out, and they would be overwhelmed. “As soon as the door frame collapses, the whole side of the tower will crumble,” commented Blake.
“It will that same, sor!” agreed the sergeant.
Among tribesmen, the act of surrender is regarded as a mere ruse. When the captors are through with a man who surrenders, his remains are horrid things to see.
“Well, Burke,” said the Captain, “We are all pretty wall hooked anyhow and Wazir Ali’s letter cannot put us in any worse bix than we are whatever else they may do. Can you read them?”
Burke smiled derisively.
“Not a word sor! The wan he gave me looks like wan o’them prayer charms they give their child her to tie round their necks in lockets. I only kep’ it for a curio!”
“Never mind,” said he. “We can lose nothing. We may as well see what effect one of them will have. Wazir Ali’s word may be a power among these people, even though he does trade with the enemies they are fighting. “We’ll have a white rag at them and try.”
It would have been madness to follow the usual procedure is such cases, and cease firing before they waved the truce flag. But for a moment, Blake waved his handkerchief through a loophole on the end of a bayonet. Then as he drew it in, he tossed out his helmet inside which was pinned, in full view, the letter of Wazir Ali.
They were now barricaded inside the tower while the hill men shouted joyous taunts from the ridges all around them. Darkness was falling. It would be upon them before help could come and there was no hoping for succour
An exultant yelp of glee rose from the surrounding Hillmen as two stalwart ruffians raced for the message.
The picks still tapped their message of death under the doorway – Chick-chuck! Chick-chuck! Then the tapping ceased, and a curling wisp of smoke floated up through the chinks indicating that the woodwork had been set fire to. There was no water in the tower. As soon as the frame sank into tinder, the wall would fall out, and the unprotected defenders would be easily destroyed.
The men who had picked up Blake’s helmet raced back out of sight. Behind them dashed three men with picks. A hoarse cheer echoed up from hundreds of invisible besiegers.
Dusk had fallen. Through the loopholes and the clinks in the door, Blake and his men could see the glare of the fire that was undoing them.
“It’s beginning to sag, sor!” said Burke.
“Yes,” agreed the captain. “It’s all over but the shouting.”
Strange murmurs came from without.
“Are they going to rush us, I wonder?” thought Blake aloud.
“They’ll wait for the wall to give, sor,” answered the sergeant.
Outside was heard the padding of many soft shod feet.
“Captain Blek. Sahib!” shouted a voice. “Is Captain Blek Sahib inside – Captain Blek Sahib of the Transport?”
“Begobs. Sor!” ejaculate the Sergeant.”
“Tis Wazir Ali’s letter!”
Again the voice called for Captain Blake.
“Captain Blake is here!” shouted back the transport officer. “What do you want with Captain Blake?” he continued in Pashto.
A voice trembling with anxiety asked, “Is that Captain Blek, the friend and rescuer of Wazir Ali – the Syed Wazir Ali of Peshawar?”
“It is that Captain Blake!” replied the astonished and delighted officer. “And with him are other soldiers who also have letters from the Syed Wazir Ali, commending them for what they have done, to all his friends!”
The smoke grew denser every instant. The tips of the flames began to flicker through the floor.
“In the name of Allah stand back from the front of the tower, Sahib!” called the voice from the dusk. “The fire eats the timbers. The wall is falling. Stand back lest a hair of thy head be injured and Wazir Ali dishonours his bond!”
Slowly, majestically, the front wall rolled away from the tower like a curtain. The five white men stood to their arms in the dust.
“Nay, Sahib! It was nothing,” protested the Syed Wazir Ali, as the general thanked him before all the troops assembled in the hollow square.
“Nay, Sahib!” he repeated. “All those soldier sahibs risked a life for me. I gave them only a letter. Those ruffians of the Hills with whom you fight know that I am a Syed and that what I say comes true!”
The General patted Wazir Ali on the shoulder, while three thousand soldiers lifted their helmets on their bayonets and the improvised parade ground echoed to their cheers.
“I want to see one of those letters Wazir Ali,” said the General.
The Syed shivered uneasily.
“Nay, nay, Sahib! Forgive me!” he pleaded. “Do not ask me until after the war!” The General did not insist.
Later in the morning, in the tent at the back of the coffee shop, Wazir Ali’s book keeper laboriously transcribed into his ledgers the letters that had been brought in by the enemy under cover of a dirty white flag. The letters stated: –
“From the Syed Wazir Ali, son of a Syed of Peshawar, greeting! The bearer of this is Captain Blake of the Transport Service who has saved the life of the Syed Wazir Ali and who is his friend. Whoever brings this letter and Captain Blake, unhurt and in good condition to the Coffee Shop of Wazir Ali, or any store of Wazir Ali in Peshawar, Rawalpindi or Kohat, will receive at once and without question the price of ten rifles and one thousand rounds of ammunition on the Afghan side of the Peshawar Border.”
The book keeper impassively entered up the name and the amount, and then picked up the next letter.
“Allah be praised!” he sighed, “but this is a high price for a soldier wallah! Laboriously he made the next entry in the ledger: “Private Korkring; two rifles, eight hundred rupees; two hundred round ammunition (war price in Tirah), three hundred rupees!’ More than a thousand rupees! Ya Allah!”