Recently Balladeer’s Blog covered Robert E. Howard’s stories about his overlooked characters James Allison and Turlogh Dubh. This time around I’m taking a look at another neglected creation of Howard, best known for his Conan, Kull and Solomon Kane stories.
EL BORAK – This character’s real name was Francis Xavier Gordon, an old west gunfighter from El Paso, Texas, who wound up traveling much of the world outside of the United States. Gordon settled in Afghanistan where his prowess with swords and pistols made him a tolerated outsider and earned him the nickname El Borak.
That epithet means “The Swift” and was a reference to Muhammad’s mythical flying horse the Buraq. F.X. Gordon was renowned for his fast draw, swiftness with a scimitar and quick-wittedness. Robert E. Howard seems to have patterned El Borak along the lines of real-life figures like Lawrence of Arabia or Nicholson of India, but with the distinctly American touch of the character’s gunslinger past.
Let’s dive into these action-packed sword and pistol adventures.
THE DAUGHTER OF ERLIK KHAN – First published in the pulp magazine Top-Notch in December, 1934. El Borak was hired by a pair of scurvy Britishers to guide them to a nonexistent captive friend of theirs. They secretly plan to loot the treasure of Mount Erlik Khan in the city of Yolgan.
That city was avoided by even the most daring Afghani tribes because its pre-Islamic origins lay in outright devil worship and the Satanic priests were still the ruling caste of Yolgan. When the treacherous Brits lay a trap for El Borak after they no longer need him, then leave him for dead, he sets out for revenge.
The former wild west gunfighter infiltrates Yolgan and comes across a former lady love named Yasmeena. In the years since their last meeting, she had married a Kashmir prince, but when he proved abusive, she fled him. That prince has offered a fortune to any who will return Yasmeena to him so that he may torture her to death.
The fugitive princess’ father had been a priest in Yolgan long ago, so she had foolishly sought shelter there. Naturally, it turns out that Yasmeena is the “treasure” that the scheming Brits came to steal so they can turn her over to the Kashmir prince for torture.
In the end, El Borak rescues Yasmeena, kills the British villains and survives a dangerous escape from Yolgan and its devil worshippers.
HAWK OF THE HILLS – First published in the June 1935 issue of Top-Notch. El Borak was accompanying his friend Yusef Shah and his Afridi tribesmen during a supposedly peaceful meeting with their Orakzai foes led by Afdal Khan.
Afdal Khan’s men treacherously turned the meeting into a slaughter, with El Borak one of the few survivors on the Afridi side. Afdal Khan and his men pursued him into the Himalayas, where, knowing there was no other escape, Gordon had climbed the virtually sheer face of a mountain.
He had barely made it to the top alive, but his pursuers were looking for him elsewhere, believing that not even El Borak could climb such a forbidding rock face. In the days ahead, the expatriate American led other Afridis in a vengeful campaign of destruction.
Orakzai villages were reduced to charred ruins, Orakzai towers and other strongholds were seized and occupied. The chaos was such that Great Britain had sent Geoffrey Willoughby, a Secret Service ally, to try to restore peace between the Afridis and the Orakzais.
The raging war was causing trade caravans to avoid the area, and the Amir of Kabul was losing a lot of valuable commerce. The Amir is only able to hold his throne because he has British backing, so the Raj needs to show it can flex its muscles on the Amir’s behalf in this conflict or he might be seduced into the Russian camp.
My fellow fans of George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman novels will certainly appreciate this dive into the Great Game. At any rate, it turns out the End Game of Afdal Khan’s plans is to gain control of all the wells in the region.
Gordon tries to convince Willoughby that if Khan succeeds, even the British will be the worse for it. Afdal Khan’s men already use Russian rifles and if he can control the water along the trade route he’ll show much more favor to the Czar than to the Raj.
And so, amid much gunplay, scheming and swordplay the 4-D chess match goes on, with Gordon’s ultimate goal being the death of Afdal Khan for his treachery against Yusef Shah and the Afridis. When Afdal tries to have his men kill Willoughby and blame El Borak for it, our hero is forced to save the Brit.
It’s surely no spoiler to mention that, naturally, the tale ends with Gordon getting his revenge on Afdal Khan in a face-to-face battle, while also managing things so that our British cousins come out of the blood-soaked affair with a little face saved.
*** Okay, that covers the first two stories in Robert E. Howard’s El Borak series. If reader reaction is strong enough, I’ll review the rest, as well.
FOR MY LOOK AT ROBERT E. HOWARD’S JAMES ALLISON STORIES CLICK HERE.
FOR MY LOOK AT ROBERT E. HOWARD’S TURLOGH DUBH STORIES CLICK HERE.