The Scoundrel’s Choice

Author’s Note: This story was submitted to PenBound’s short story contest in June 2017. It is my attempt at marrying the historical fiction & spy/thriller genre.

The sun hadn’t even set, and Vishwa lay on the cot half-drunk. He was getting hungry, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. So he drank some more from the bottle and lay back down to gaze at a sky painted in strokes of orange and purple. Ah, this is life, he thought to himself.

“Vishwajeet?”

Vishwa cracked one eye open and saw a man looking down at him. He rubbed his eyes and noticed there were three of them. He slowly pulled himself into a sitting a position.

“Are you Vishwajeet?” the man asked again.

He looked the men up and down trying to figure out if he’d seen them before. Or more importantly, if he owed them any money. Their dhotis and kurtas looked threadbare and dirty. Deciding that they didn’t pose a threat, he said, “Yes, that’s me. What do you want?”

“We need your help.”

Vishwa squinted up at the men’s faces. Their eyes looked around shiftily. They were certainly hiding something. “I’m not sure where you got the idea, but I don’t have any money,” he said, probing.

“It’s not money we’re after. We… heard that you can help us go south. Unseen.”

So that’s what they want.

He shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t do that anymore. Besides, it’s gotten much more dangerous in the hills. I’d much rather take my chances at the checkpoint.”

The man looked at his two companions. An unspoken word seemed to pass between them. Then he turned to Vishwa and said, “We can offer you money for your… services.”

“I’m sorry. Like I said, I don’t do this kind of work anymore,” he replied, smiling.

The man to the right slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a few coins. “This is yours, right now. We leave tomorrow morning,” he said in a hoarse voice.

Vishwa looked at the coins glinting in the lamp’s glow. It wasn’t a lot, but he could certainly use the money. Maybe he could milk them for a little more. “Money is no use in the hills. Not when the wild animals are tearing you apart. Or when you run out of water because you don’t know where to dig for it.” He put his feet back up on the cot and closed his eyes. “You’ll have to find someone else.”

He smiled as he heard the men walk away, cursing and arguing among themselves. They’d be back.

***

Vishwa sprang up from the cot and crashed to the ground. He looked around in confusion. The ground was bathed in the light of the early morning sun, filtering through the old peepal tree. A light mist hung over the fields in the distance, and the boy was standing over him with an earthen tumbler in his hand.

“Sorry, Vishwa bhaiya, Rasool Kaka asked me to wake you up. Something is happening in the village.”

Vishwa groaned and staggered up, rubbing the spot on his back which had taken the brunt of the fall. “You idiot, how many times I’ve told you not to throw water on my face,” he said, snatching the tumbler out of the boy’s hands. He gargled and washed his face with the water, and poured the remaining down his throat. Just as he was wiping his face with the dhoti, he heard the sound of boots thumping on the ground.

He looked on as four soldiers marched into the compound, dressed in khaki uniforms and the gleaming rifle barrels poking over their shoulders. They certainly looked intimidating, but the British officer who followed them cut an even more imposing figure.

British troops in our village? What’s going on?

The soldiers made a beeline for Rasool’s hut. Vishwa thought it wise to slip away unnoticed rather than get involved in whatever this was. But before he could gather his wits, the British officer spotted him and started walking toward him, followed by a soldier.

Vishwa took a deep breath. The key, he told himself, is to look confident, and be friendly. As far as he knew, he had done nothing to upset them. He smiled as they approached.

The British officer came to a stop in front of him. He was at least a head taller than Vishwa and had intelligent, gray eyes. But unlike most officers, he didn’t sport a mustache. In fact, he looked rather boyish. Even his lips looked like they could break out in a smile any moment.

“Good morning, Sir. How can I help you?” Vishwa asked pleasantly.

The officer turned to the soldier and spoke, who translated for him. “We’re looking for some thieves. Have you seen anyone suspicious around here?”

Vishwa feigned a look of shock and said, “Stole from the British! Oh my God, the audacity! Who would dare do that?”

The officer’s lips curled up slightly, and he spoke through the soldier again. “Three men, we believe. Young, about your age. They might be accompanied by a family of three, one man and two women. Have you seen anyone like that around here?”

“No, Sir. I’m just a simple cattle herder. Not much to see except cows and bulls.”

The soldier looked at the officer and shook his head. The officer looked pointedly at Vishwa while the soldier translated his words. “We’re camped at the checkpoint to the south. Come find me if you notice anything.”

Vishwa smiled and nodded.

The soldier started walking away, but the officer’s eyes lingered on him. Vishwa thanked his stars as the officer finally turned and walked off.

***

Later that evening, after Vishwa had returned the cows and buffaloes to their respective owners, he sauntered over to Rasool’s. He’d had a lot of time to think about what had happened, and wondered if he’d made the right decision by not ratting out those three men. Not that he had any qualms about anyone stealing from the British. If nothing else, they owed him for keeping his mouth shut.

Rasool’s place was more crowded than usual. People would have gathered to discuss the what had happened. British troops in the village were big news. Maybe he could weave a yarn about what he’d discussed with the British officer. Rasool and the boy had seen them talking so no one would doubt his words. Maybe he won’t have to pay for the liquor tonight.

With a smile on his face, Vishwa made for the peepal tree when he spotted the three men. They were sitting in a corner, as far away from the lamps as possible and eating with their hands. They were almost hidden in the shadows, but Vishwa knew it had to be them. His smile widened as made his way along the edge of the compound and approached the man from behind.

“Stealing from the British, huh? Must be complete idiots or freedom fighters.”

The men jumped and turned around in surprise. And they all held pistols in their hands.

Vishwa looked from the pistols to the men’s face and lifted both hands. “Easy now. I’d advise you not to use that. Hiding in the village is one thing, but hiding after you’ve shot a villager…”

The men glared at him and put the pistol away, except for the one with the gruff voice. “What do you want?” he asked with the pistol still pointed at him.

Vishwa smiled. “It seems you are in need of someone to help you escape.”

The man glared at him and said, “You scumbag. The moment I laid eyes on you I knew you wanted money.” He turned and spat to the side. “Taking advantage of the plight of your fellow countrymen. Always looking to make a quick buck. I know your kind.”

“What, and you think you are some kind of messiah? I’m just a practical man. You came to me asking for help, remember? How is it unfair to ask for compensation?”

“You’d be serving your country, and helping us gain freedom,” the man spat out.

“Look, I’m a cattle herder, and I already enjoy the freedom I have. I don’t understand politics, nor do I care. The way I see it, I take you where you want to go and get paid. Or I go to the southern checkpoint, where the troops are camped, and I still get paid. And seeing that I’m a fellow countryman, I’d hate to take the second option.”

The man continued to glare at him, but the other two whispered something to him. He finally nodded after several seconds. “We leave tomorrow morning.”

“Well, I heard there are three more people with you. A man and two women. It’ll be hard to keep such a large group hidden. Wouldn’t want the British finding out. Maybe I could show you a safer path, but…”

“You rascal, you’re not worthy of calling yourself an Indian,” the man spat out in disgust. Then he took out a handful of coins and handed it over reluctantly. “The other half after we reach the destination.”

Vishwa counted the coins and nodded. “It’s settled then. I’ll meet you all in that house before dawn,” he said pointing toward the outskirts of the village. “The crossing will take three days, so take ample provisions.”

***

“They’re hiding in the village, and I know it,” Lt. Col. Stokely shouted.

“If that is true, Sir, we will find them. But…” Capt. Cullin replied, unfazed.

“No buts. The bloody villagers are hiding them, and won’t give them up. If you’re not willing to lead the raid, I’ll do it myself.” The Lt. Col. seethed with anger.

Capt. Cullin stared at the ground trying to figure a way out of this mess. The villagers had all denied having seen the family, but something in their demeanor had given it away. No doubt, some sneaky bastard had come running down from the village, hoping for a few coins. That’s why the Lt. Col. was adamant. But a raid would only create chaos and turn the villagers against them. Not to mention they might accidentally end up killing the family.

“What will it be Captain?” Lt. Col. Stokely challenged. “Will you be leading the raid or will I have to request a court martial on the grounds of insubordination?”

Capt. Cullin stood up straight with one hand on his pistol. He looked the Lt. Col. in the eye and said, “We’ll leave before sunrise and surround the village. Then I’ll personally lead the search teams through the village. We will find them.”

***

Vishwa kept stealing glances at the daughter. He couldn’t help himself. She was beautiful, no doubt. But it was the way she held herself that really caught his eye. She wore a regular, loose-cut salwar, and the dupatta was wrapped around her head. From a distance, she would have looked like any other woman. But in this small room, even by the meager light of the lamp, her movements seemed to be so self-assured. It was as if she owned the space around her. She seemed to sense his gaze and looked up. He turned away immediately, but not before catching a hint of a smile from her.

He smiled to himself and finished packing supplies for the crossing. The family hadn’t given their names, but he was sure he’d find out during the crossing. The father seemed like a pleasant, soft-spoken man, but he had not yet heard the mother utter a single word.

A loud noise made them all look up. The door burst open, and a man barged in. He shut the door, unwrapped the piece of cloth hiding his face, and looked around at all of them. He spoke in his gruff voice. “We have to leave. Now. The British troops are planning to surround the village.”

A chill seemed to pass through the room. Vishwa stood up and slung his pack over his shoulder. “We’ll be ready in a few minutes,” he said gesturing to the family to finish packing quickly.

The man stood there looking impatient, then cracked the door open and looked out. “The sun is going to come up soon. It will be difficult to hide our tracks.”

Vishwa fidgeted with his shoulder pack, still stealing glances at the daughter. Leaving the village unseen was one thing, but dodging troops? He hadn’t signed up for this. But he wasn’t going to let them see how nervous he was. “Okay, change of plan. We’ll head to the temple instead. It’s the closest point to the jungle where we can find cover. We can circle back around later.”

The man turned around and looked at him with narrowed eyes before giving a sharp nod.

Suddenly, the silence was broken by the loud crack of a gunshot.

The man whipped out his pistol and said, “Run. We’ll find you. Don’t wait for us.” With that, he disappeared out the door.

Vishwa looked nervously at the family. “Let’s go.”

They looked scared but nodded just the same. Vishwa blew out the lamp and whispered, “Follow me.”

The sky was starting to turn a rich purple, and they could see the temple now. Vishwa sidestepped a hen being followed by three chicks. He was thanking his stars for this stroke of luck when another gunshot echoed in the distance. It was soon followed by the noise of multiple rifles firing. The hen clucked and fled followed by the chicks. They had run out of time. He turned and said, “Run.”

The din of the gunfight followed them all the way to the jungle. Vishwa stopped only after the trees started closing in, and looked around in alarm. The family was nowhere to be seen. He opened his mouth but stopped short of shouting. What if the troops were close by? He couldn’t risk being caught out here. He was about to start backtracking when the family came into view several feet away. The man and his daughter were supporting the woman.

“What happened?” he asked, rushing up to them.

“She twisted her foot,” the daughter replied.”

The report of the gunshots stopped suddenly. The silence it left behind was almost deafening.

The man looked back in the direction of the village, and then at her daughter. She shook her head and looked at Vishwa. “We have to keep moving.”

 

It took them all afternoon to circle around the village. Just as the sun was starting to dip into the horizon, they finally reached the path that would lead them south.

“Just a few more minutes and we’ll be into the hills. We can rest then,” Vishwa said and plowed on.

By the time the family reached the campsite he’d chosen for the night, he’d already set up his bedroll and was collecting twigs for the fire. With the sun going down, the chill was starting to set in. They would need the fire. Anyone looking for them would have to come from the direction of the village or the checkpoint, and the low hills would protect the fire from being seen. At least, that’s what Vishwa hoped.

He watched as the daughter examined her mother’s foot and started wrapping her dupatta around it. She turned to him and said, “It’s not that bad. If we can apply something hot to her foot, she’ll be much better in the morning.”

Vishwa nodded and set about building a fire. Having lost a day just circling around, and with the woman’s foot in this condition, he doubted they could make the crossing in three days. It might even take as long as five. They’d have to ration their supplies if they were to make it through. But he would let them rest for tonight. He’d just managed to get the kindling to catch, and was blowing on it when someone came and sat beside him.

“Thank you, for helping us. We’re really grateful.”

It was the father, not the daughter, as Vishwa had hoped. He simply smiled and nodded.

“I’m afraid we didn’t have time for a proper introduction. My name is Sudhakar. That’s my wife, Bhagyalakshmi, and my daughter, Hema.”

Vishwa sat up and said, “My name’s Vishwa. Glad to make your acquaintance.” He took out a bottle from his pack and offered it to the father, who refused. He shrugged, took a sip, and settled down. “I hope all the excitement is behind us.”

Sudhakar nodded. “I hope so, too. We’ve been running for several weeks now. It would be good not having to look over our backs all the time.”

Vishwa pulled his eyes away from where mother and daughter were preparing the evening’s meal. “I know it’s none of my business, but you don’t look like thieves to me. Why exactly are you running from the British?”

The daughter seemed to have heard him, and a strange look passed between her and her father. He knew that look. They were going to lie to him. He cut them off before they could. “Fine, don’t tell me. I mean, those three men fired at British troops so we could escape. There’s no doubt they were freedom fighters. So I’m assuming you people are involved in some shady political business,” he said, shrugging nonchalantly.

The daughter, Hema, walked over to them carrying a pot and set it on fire. She looked at Vishwa and said, “What we do, what those men did, it was for our country.”

Vishwa gave her a smile. “So you’re patriots. Congratulations,” he said mockingly and took a sip from the bottle.

“Look,” the father said, “this is going to seem strange, but I have some… business in the village. Can we go back there tomorrow?”

Vishwa choked on the liquor and coughed. He turned to the man with a disbelieving look in his eyes. “Are you serious? Did you see what happened back in the village? If we go back, we die. In fact, I was planning on turning back immediately after taking you to Himmatpura. But now, I think I’ll stay there for a few days myself.”

“Can we at least wait here until things cool down? Please? I can’t leave without…”

“No way. What do you think the troops will do after they capture those freedom fighters? They were specifically looking for you. If we stay here, they will find us. I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in going to prison.”

Another look passed between the father and the daughter, who had been stirring the pot while they were talking. Vishwa glanced at her, and it suddenly struck him. She didn’t seem afraid at all. Come to think of it, neither did the man or his wife. It was almost as if they were expecting something like this to happen.

“Look, I was asked to take you to Himmatpura so you can find refuge with the freedom fighters there. So rest well tonight, we’ll be on our way tomorrow morning.”

The man nodded silently and got up to go sit with his wife.

After the food had been served, Vishwa sat watching the family eat, whispering among themselves. Something dubious was going on, and he wasn’t going to risk his life for it. He resolved to find out what they were hiding before they reached their destination.

***

Vishwa woke up just as the birds began chirping. The sky was a deep violet, but the horizon was starting to turn blue. He groaned and snuggled deeper into his bedroll. It was not the most comfortable place he’d slept in, but it was warm and cozy. Back in the village, the boy would have brought him his tea. But he doubted he’d have woken up this early.

“Would you like some tea?”

Vishwa bolted upright in surprise and saw Hema stirring the pot.

“What? How…”

She started pouring tea into tumblers. “You’re going to need something to drink your tea in,” she said, smiling at him.

Vishwa scratched his head and dug around in his pack. All he could find was the empty bottle from last night. He walked over to the fire and squatted beside her. “I don’t have a tumbler. I guess I’ll have to drink directly from the pot.”

“Well, luckily for you, we do have a spare one,” Hema said, and handed him a tumbler full of tea.

He grinned and sighed with pleasure as he took the first sip. “A hot cup of tea on a cold morning. What else could a man need?”

“Some food in his belly,” Hema replied, sliding a plate of stale chapati toward him. She flashed him another smile and carried chapati and tea to her mother.

If this is how all mornings were going to be, he would gladly stretch out the crossing for a week. Vishwa dipped the chapati in his tea and took a bite. They had to get moving soon. Once the sun came up, it would become hotter, and their progress would slow down.

Hema and her mother were eating in silence, unlike last night. And her father was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he’d gone to relieve himself. But he noticed that there was no more tea in the pot, nor was there another tumbler. Vishwa counted the number of bedrolls and came up one short. No, it couldn’t be.

“Excuse me,” he called out loudly. “Where’s your father?”

“He went back,” Hema replied calmly, without even looking up.

“What?” Vishwa scrambled to his feet and peered down the path they’d come. The idiot!

“How long ago? Which direction?”

Hema didn’t reply. She just sat beside her mother, sipping her tea.

He turned around to look at her. “You wait here. I’ll go get him. If I run, I may be able to catch him before he runs into trouble.”

“Don’t bother,” she said. “He’s a headstrong man, and he has some business in the village.”

Vishwa looked at her incredulously. Then he looked down the path leading to the village. If the troops were searching for them in this direction, which they most probably would, he’d have to be careful. But then, he might not be able to catch up to her father. He almost felt like tearing his hair out in frustration, and suddenly it occurred to him.

“This is what you all were planning last night, weren’t you?” he said, accusingly.

“None of your business.”

He clenched his hands and stared at the mother and daughter. “First you ask me to take you to Himmatpura, then you want to go back, and now he runs away? So now what? We wait here for him to return? If the troops find…”

She cut him off with a cool gaze. “You were hired to take us to Himmatpura, and get paid by the freedom fighters upon reaching. That was the deal, right?”

“Yes…”

Hema got up and started clearing away the plates. She walked over to him and picked the half-empty tumbler from his hands. “We can sit here all morning waiting for you to make up your mind. But just so you know, we’re ready to leave when you are.”

Vishwa glared at her and her mother. “Fine,” he said after a few moments. “If you’re okay with leaving your father behind, it’s no skin off my nose. We leave as soon as we’re all packed.”

“Okay, but you’ll have to carry my father’s pack. He has very graciously left his supplies behind for us.”

Vishwa started walking to his bedroll and snapped off a neem twig to chew on. Crazy family! He cursed himself for getting involved in this freedom fighter business.

***

By now, Vishwa had gotten used to unpacking and packing his things every day. He had reached Himmatpura last night and managed to find the freedom fighters. They had been just as nonplussed as he had been when he told him about the father running away.

He shook his head at this strange business as he stuffed clothes into his pack. He couldn’t go back to the village anytime soon. He’d have to wait for a few weeks until things cooled down. Maybe, he could visit his uncle. He wouldn’t be happy to see him, but at least he’ll get shelter for a few days. Now that he had the money, he could even take the train.

There was a knock on the door. He looked up and said warily, “Come in.”

He relaxed when he saw it was Hema. She walked toward him but was disappointed that she left the door ajar. “I hope you’re happy now,” he said. “Here we are, in Himmatpura, as promised.”

Hema bit her lip and looked back at the door. Then she turned to him and said, “Thank you, for helping us get here. I know we have been difficult, and you must have a lot of questions…”

“Stop right there. I don’t want to know anything. I did what I was paid to do, and that’s it. My work is done.”

She looked at him with a plea in her large, brown eyes. “I know this is asking too much of you, but could you help us a little more? Please?”

Vishwa had no intention of helping anyone, but he’d hate to see the disappointment in her pretty eyes. He exhaled deeply and said, “What you’re asking of me… I’m just a cattle herder. If your father is being held prisoner by the British, there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry.”

“I know, but that’s not what I want help with. You see… he wanted to meet someone in the village, but couldn’t because of the raid. All I want you to do is pass on a message.” She withdrew a letter from within her dupatta and held it out to him.

Vishwa looked warily at the piece of paper. “Look, Hema… I don’t think you realize that I’m not like these people. This whole freedom thing seems overblown to me. I mean, I respect that these people are ready to give their lives for what they believe. But I’m not like that.”

Hema smiled gently. “I know, that’s why I’d rather trust you with this, than the freedom fighters.” She stepped closer to him, and he felt his breath catch in his chest. She took his hand in hers and slipped the piece of paper into it. “Please, you’re the only one I can ask for help.”

Vishwa looked at the letter. It was sealed.

“It’s better you don’t know what’s in it. Just give it to the man, and he’ll know what to do with it. Trust me, it’s much safer this way,” she whispered.

“Where will I find this man?” he whispered back.

“Don’t worry, he’ll find you,” she said flashing him a radiant smile. “I hope we’ll see each other again.” Then she withdrew and rushed out the door.

***

Vishwa looked around the platform for the tea seller he’d spotted when the train rolled into the station. He hadn’t eaten anything since he’d left Himmatpura. He spotted the tea seller and eagerly started walking toward him.

He was glad that to have washed his hands off the business with the freedom fighters, but in the back of his mind, he felt as if he was doing something wrong. He adjusted the pack on his shoulder. The letter Hema had given him was still a puzzle. He felt guilty for having lied to her, but he wasn’t heading back to his village any time soon. Besides, she hadn’t even told him who he was supposed to give it to.

Vishwa was a few feet from the tea seller when he suddenly froze. Something had been jabbed into the small of his back. It felt eerily like a pistol muzzle.

“Move or make a noise and I’ll pull the trigger.”

The voice was so heavily accented that he was sure the speaker was British.

“It’s okay, calm down. I’m not going to do anything,” he whispered.

“I know why you were in Himmatpura. We’re going to get on the next train back, and you’re going to show me where they are.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He felt the pistol dig harder into his lower back. “You can make it easier for both of us. Tell me where the family is, and I’ll let you go.”

Vishwa realized the man knew more than him, and outright lies might not help. “I could tell you, but there would be no point. The house is very well guarded, and they seem to have spies all over town. They’ll disappear before you reach them.”

That seemed to give the man pause. Travelers were walking across the platform, getting on and off the train, but everyone was walking past, oblivious. “Who are you? What do you want with them?”

“None of your business. Just tell me where they are, and you’re free to go.”

Vishwa’s brain raced as he tried to make sense of the last few days. He could see no way of getting out of this situation alive, but nor could he divulge the location of Hema and her mother. He felt he owed her that much at least. Suddenly, he had an idea. “You’ll not find anything in Himmatpura.”

“What do you mean? I know you brought them here.”

“Yes, I did. But only the mother and the daughter. The father ran away leaving them alone. I’m sure it’s him you really want.”

The man cursed in a language Vishwa didn’t understand. He felt the pistol’s pressure reduce, so he took a small step forward and turned around slowly.

The man hid the pistol in the folds of the shawl that he’d wrapped around his face and upper body. He was dressed in rags but stood at least a head taller than him. Vishwa peered closer at the pale face and the gray eyes, and recognition dawned on him. “You’re the officer, from the village. The one who questioned me.”

“Ssh!” the officer said, nodding. “Yes, and you’re going to help me find this man.”

The train let off a whistle. Vishwa glanced at it then turned back to the officer. “It could take days, even weeks. He ran away while in the hills. He could be anywhere by now.”

The officer’s eyes twinkled with mirth. “And who would know the hills better than a simple cattle herder?”

Vishwa knew he had sprung the trap the moment he’d mentioned the father running away. But he had no other choice. This British officer was going to cause trouble for Hema if he found her. If she got caught in another gunfight between the British and the freedom fighters… No, he wouldn’t let that happen if he had any say in it. He recalled the feeling of Hema’s hands and her gentle smile as the train gave a final whistle and started chugging along.

“Come on,” he said, turning away from the officer.

“I still have my pistol aimed at you, so you better not try to be clever.”

Vishwa gave him an impish smile and said, “Well, if I’m going to help you, the least you can do is buy me a tea and a samosa.”

 

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