Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure

A light-hearted tale of an archaelogical dig in the Egyptian desert -- but can 20th Century man match wits with the legacy of an ancient pharoh?



Jack Phillips Lowe

"PROFESSOR CLAYTON!" SAID THE BOY, anxiously. “Please sir, he needs you!”

Clayton was jolted into consciousness. With it came heat, sweat and sand in his shoes. Granules bit into the skin between his toes as the boy nudged his foot.

“Othman, quit that infernal nudging!” growled Clayton, his voice thick with sleep. “What does Pobjoy want?”

“Overnight, Captain Pobjoy made great progress. He needs you to translate an important inscription on a wall of the pharaoh’s tomb. I looked all over and couldn’t find you, sir. Then I saw your foot sticking out of this supply wagon.” The boy wrung his hands. “Please hurry, Professor; the captain hates waiting.”

Clayton sat up and covered his bald pate with a pith helmet. Gingerly, he eased himself over the wagon’s side and onto the ground. Cursing softly, he brushed sand from his jacket and pants.

“Why hurry?” Clayton asked, straightening his tie. “Pobjoy breached the entrance to the tomb only yesterday. He—” Clayton turned to the boy and found himself alone. “Othman?”

“Here, sir.”

Clayton spun around to see that the boy had climbed into the wagon, where he stood shading his eyes and watching the sky.

“The sun says you slept all morning. Captain Pobjoy worked the men in shifts all night. They cleared three chambers. The captain believes he has reached the last wall standing before him and the sarcophagus of the pharaoh Andjyeb. The captain said your skills were needed before he entered the final chamber.”

Clayton clutched his chest. “Blessed saints! Pobjoy and his coolies must’ve stampeded through there like a wrecking crew! The Egypt Exploration Society will have us jailed! Othman, we must stop Pobjoy immediately!”

Othman rummaged through crates in the wagon. “One moment, please.”

“Whatever are you hunting for?”

Othman pulled a zippered leather case from a box. “Captain Pobjoy’s important tools. He told me to fetch them—and you, Professor.” Grasping the case, he jumped down from the wagon.

“A noted philologist plays second fiddle to a set of calipers? Humph!”

“Come, Professor; time is wasting.”

“And to think I’d yearned for fieldwork,” grouched Clayton, trailing after the boy. “Yearning which drove me from Oxford’s halls to this wasteland, where I’m subject to the whims of a treasure-hunter. Bah!”

The pair arrived at a jagged rock formation protruding through the sand. A gaping hole had been carved out of its center. A group of about forty Egyptian workmen lay nearby sleeping. Beside the hole was a heaping pile of rubble and what resembled lumps of coal and charred noodles.

Clayton picked up a small piece of rubble. “See this fragment, with the squiggled lines? These lines were part of hieroglyphic characters pressed into walls inside the tomb. Clues to Egypt’s distant past—destroyed, thanks to Pobjoy.”

Othman stood silently.

Clayton retrieved a black lump. “Pobjoy’s gone insane. Such products can only result from machinations of a deranged mind. I must confront him at once and demand he turn command of this excavation over to me.” He regarded the lump. “What are these, anyway?”

Othman stood at the entrance to the tomb. “It’s best that I answer you after we’ve entered.”

Clayton followed Othman into a narrow tunnel, the way lit by a series of flickering oil lamps hung on nails driven into the rock. At one juncture, Clayton spotted a forward-pointing arrow etched into the tunnel wall. Elegantly chiseled and nearly covered by mold, he assumed it dated back to Andjyeb’s time. Well underground, they stopped before the remnants of a demolished brick wall.

“That stench!” coughed Clayton. “These scorched walls! There was a fire—”

Othman kept walking. “Please, sir, we’ve further to go.”

Past the blackened room, the tunnel continued. Another turn brought them to the wreckage of another wall.

“Ugh! This second chamber is identical to the first. What—”

“Professor, we’re nearly there.”

“Boy, I demand that you—”

“You’ll prefer to find out later.”

Another ornately-engraved arrow directed the pair further into the tunnel, to another broken-down wall.

“All right,” snapped Clayton, seizing Othman by the arm, “no further until you confess. What, where and how?”

“Upon first entering these chambers, we found them to be filled with. . .things that blocked our way. So Captain Pobjoy used lamp oil and fire to clear them out.”


“Rats in chamber one; asps in chamber two. The workmen said Andjyeb’s magic put them there.”

Clayton blanched and slumped against a tunnel wall. “Oh. My. God.”

“Professor, don’t get sick now. We’re almost there. Just one more chamber and no rats or asps in it. Only a ladder.”

Clayton peered into the next chamber. Beyond the makeshift doorway, the ground opened into a broad pit, roughly five meters wide. Its depth was hidden in darkness. Across this chasm, someone had stretched a long wooden ladder. “B-boy,” he asked, “how d-deep is it?”

Grasping the leather case, Othman crept out onto the ladder. “Oh, I’m not sure,” he answered casually. “We’d best hurry—”

“He’s waiting, I know!” sniped Clayton, following the boy.

Safely over the pit, Clayton wiped his brow with his handkerchief. “That wasn’t so bad. Who thought to use the ladder like that?”

“Hamid, after Mustapha fell into the pit when he hurried through the opening.”

Clayton gulped. “Is Mustapha. . .dead?”

Othman shrugged. “Don’t know. After a few minutes, his screams faded away.”

“You mean he stopped screaming?”

“No. His voice got softer and softer until we could no longer hear it.”

“It’s an actual bottomless pit, old man!” called a muffled voice.

Clayton looked about frantically. “Pobjoy? Where in hell are you?”

Pobjoy’s snickering echoed throughout the chamber. “Twenty steps back and a baker’s dozen down. Fear not! Alice will soon arrive in Wonderland.”

Othman guided Clayton to a small opening in the earthen floor. On the rock wall facing them, a last arrow pointed down to where the hole had been dug. A ladder poked out of the hole. Lamplight shimmered from below.

Clayton carefully descended the ladder; Othman was two rungs above him. The professor’s feet touched down on a smooth tiled floor. Glowing oil lamps hung from every corner. The room’s low ceiling and walls were covered in spotless white plaster. A dozen workmen swarmed around something hidden by their bodies.

Clayton elbowed his way to the center of the group. There he found two figures stooped over something: a husky blond-haired man in shirtsleeves and a shapely redheaded woman in a pantsuit. The man was fumbling with an unseen object on the floor.

He stood and ran his fingers through his hair. “Sod it!” he shouted. “Snake eyes!”

She straightened up and held out a palm to the blond man. “Tough luck, Charlie,” she grinned. “Fork it over.”

Coins jingled as all the parties, save one, exchanged funds. The exception was Clayton, who had to bend down to see what the fuss was about.

“Pobjoy!” spat the professor, standing upright. “Her Majesty dispatches us on an expedition to glean knowledge for the betterment of mankind and here you sit, throwing dice like a street urchin. Shame on you!”

The woman turned to Clayton and put a hand on her hip. “Simmer down, laughing boy. It was you who sneaked off to take a beauty rest. Charlie hasn’t exactly been whistling ‘ Dixie ’ while you slept.”

“I’ll say I haven’t,” agreed Pobjoy, folding his arms. “I grew bored with your professorial dilly-dallying. If I listened to you, we’d be back at the outermost doorway. I had a decent idea of what might be down here. It was simply a matter of getting to it. Miss Hendricks convinced me. How did you phrase it, darling?”

“You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines,” said Miss Hendricks, pushing a stick of chewing gum into her mouth.

Clayton cupped his ear. “Can you hear that?”

Captain Pobjoy listened earnestly. “Hear what?”

“The myth of military efficiency shattering like glass. This was to be a joint effort between the army and academia. Everything was to be meticulously preserved and cataloged for later study. You, however, have disregarded me and the scholarly aspects of this project altogether. When you’re not gallivanting with this American hussy, you’re charging through this tomb like Doc Savage through a pulp serial.” Clayton’s face flushed as he shook his fist at the captain. “I saw that pile of waste up top, the fire damage and—Mustapha. You’ve sacrificed relics and inscriptions, not to mention a human life, with the nonchalance of a barbarian. Effective immediately, I am taking charge here and halting any further excavation.”

Pobjoy stepped forward and locked eyes with Clayton. “From the beginning, Professor, you’ve been mistaken. You see this as a traditional ‘academic’ dig, dedicated to preserving bits of clutter and unscrambling codes for posterity.” He stepped forward again. “Her Majesty is not interested in posterity. She wants results. Treasure. The kinds of results that glorify the Empire.” Pobjoy took another step forward; his nose was almost touching Clayton’s. “Her Majesty placed me in command of this expedition, because I am a loyal soldier and she knows soldiers do three things. First, a soldier follows orders. Second, a soldier produces results. Third, a soldier never surrenders his command.”

Clayton chuckled sarcastically.

Pobjoy grabbed Clayton by the lapels and hoisted him onto the balls of his feet. “I’m sure you’re aware of the dig the French are conducting close by. These expeditions are to today what colonies were to yesterday—pieces in an international chess match. How do you think the queen would feel if those frogs found something and grabbed all the headlines?”

Clayton teetered on his tiptoes. “Unhappy.”

“Quite. The queen, you see, is playing that match to win. How would she feel if we found something, but had to share the credit with the frogs because a certain Oxford professor refused to do his duty?”

“I see your point.”

“Then we agree. Let the frogs fret over scraps and codes; we’re here to collect the gewgaws.”

“It’s not as simple as that. What you dismiss as ‘fretting’ is science and scholarship. Unless care is exercised, what we’re doing here amounts to nothing but grave-robbery.”

Pobjoy dropped Clayton flat on his feet. “So what? Great riches are here, ripe for picking. Andjyeb won’t mind. He can’t use them. From riches comes fame. Miss Hendricks, as you might recall, is a prominent journalist for Life Magazine.”

“When I’m not moonlighting as a ‘hussy',” she sneered.

“Her written and photographic accounts of this dig will bring glory to the Empire and to us, as well. From glory comes prestige. Don’t tell me that prestige didn’t cross your mind when you signed on for this trip.”

“Philology is my only interest,” Clayton sniffed haughtily.

“Then look at it this way. Your article documenting our findings, which the British Journal of Philology will surely publish, shall propel you to the apex of your field.”

As he considered the idea, the corners of Clayton’s mouth turned upward.

Pobjoy pointed at Clayton. “You’re with us, then?”

“I suppose so.”

“Smashing! You must merely permit yourself to dream. Dreams that, within minutes, will be glittering realities.”

“Tell me, Pobjoy, did anything survive the fires? Those exterior chambers must’ve been full of artifacts. Carter recovered a slew of them from Tut’s tomb.”

Pobjoy scratched his chin. “It pains me to disappoint you, but there weren’t any.”


“Aside from the unpleasant surprises, those outer rooms were as empty as a church on Monday.”

“The inscriptions on the walls, though, might’ve indicated why,” Clayton observed, frostily.

“That, I admit, was a mistake. Still, who doesn’t love a good jigsaw puzzle?” Pobjoy slapped Clayton on the back.

“Charlie’s betting the pharaoh was a show-off,” said Miss Hendricks, popping her gum. “Those walls between chambers were covered with drawings of fancy trappings. Andjyeb probably stashed the loot in this last room.”

“The old duffer just wanted us to work for our spoils. We’re home free. That’s why I sent for you, Professor. I realized that the translation of this last inscription is crucial. . .to maintaining the academic pretense of this dig.”

Clayton shrugged. “What inscription? The walls in this chamber are blank.”

Pobjoy snapped his fingers. “Men! Fall back and let Professor Clayton view the inscription.”

The workmen backed away from the east wall. Clayton approached and found a single hieroglyphic character stamped into the center of the wall. Approximately thirty centimeters high and wide, a narrow eye—lidded and underscored with a flourish—gazed back at him across the centuries.

“Simple enough,” said Clayton, outlining the character with his forefinger. “It’s the Eye of Horus, a religious symbol believed to provide protection against danger and bad luck.”

Pobjoy wrapped an arm around Miss Hendricks’ waist. “So that’s what those creepy orbs were. That means this last compartment is stuffed with goodies.”

“Orbs? You mean there were several?”

“One on each wall separating the chambers. I thought it was Andjyeb’s personal monogram.”

“In ancient Egyptian mythology,” Clayton explained, “Horus was the god of prophecy and humor. His eyes were said to be the sun and moon themselves. This symbol, Horus’ lunar eye, is still considered to be a protective talisman by modern Egyptians.”

“Fascinating,” yawned Miss Hendricks, leaning against Pobjoy. “Can we collect the baubles now, Charlie? There’s a bottle of gin waiting for us back in my tent.”

“Not yet, dear,” he said, tweaking Miss Hendricks’ nose. “Remember your job.”

“Oh, right!” The woman hurried off into the crowd of workmen.

Clayton waved to catch Pobjoy’s attention. “Is that all? You summoned me to translate one hieroglyphic character?”

“Certainly not,” replied Pobjoy. “There’s a pressing matter for which I will require you and my important tools. Othman?”

The boy emerged from the group. “Here, sir.” He produced the leather case from under his tunic and delivered it to Pobjoy.

“Splendid! Othman, lend me a hand.” Pobjoy unzipped the case and handed it to the boy.

Clayton watched Pobjoy and Othman enact a curious ritual. From the case Othman held, Pobjoy lifted a little bottle of yellow fluid. He rubbed a few drops of it on his hair, then exchanged it for a comb. The case yielded a tiny mirror, which Othman held before Pobjoy’s face as the captain tamed his unruly locks. Clayton choked with fury.

“Othman risked his life to fetch your bloody shaving kit? Pobjoy, what were you thinking?”

Miss Hendricks returned carrying a Brownie box camera, a metal tripod and a small carton of photographic accessories.

“Of a photograph, obviously,” said Pobjoy, admiring his groomed mane in the mirror. “Miss Hendricks said this might be the ‘cover shot.’”

Miss Hendricks balanced the camera on its tripod and aimed it at the east wall. “Don’t worry, Charlie,” she said, furiously chomping her gum. “The fourth time’s the charm.”

Clayton pressed two fingers of each hand to his temples. “I’m envisioning the face of the president of the Egypt Exploration Society. His expression is peaceful—despite learning that there is no photographic record of this dig— because he has just died from a stroke.”

“Then plant him next to my editor,” snarled Miss Hendricks, adjusting the camera lens. “Life wouldn’t pay for a photog and I majored in journalism, not picture-taking. I had some trouble with the shutter. But I reread the instructions, okay? So shut your trap.”

Pobjoy positioned Clayton on the left of the Eye of Horus symbol. Taking the opposite side himself, Pobjoy clasped his hands behind his back and grinned at the camera.

“How’s this, love?” he asked, through clenched teeth. “Please hurry. My gums are drying.”

Without a word, Miss Hendricks ignited the flash. The workmen flinched. Pobjoy and Clayton squinted, temporarily blinded by the light.

“A warning, perhaps?” said Clayton, rubbing his eyes.

“Nobody warned me. From now on, no more ‘adventure’ stories for this girl reporter.” Miss Hendricks peered into the viewfinder. “Collect your booby prizes, Charlie, so we can go home. I’m all pharaoh-ed out.”

“You heard her, men!” shouted Pobjoy. “Knock it down!”

Clayton tapped the captain’s shoulder. “I must insist—”

“The queen, Professor,” said Pobjoy, standing at attention. “For the glory of our queen.”

The aged masonry soon gave way to the swinging hammers and shovels. An oil lamp was shined into the fourth and final chamber. Captain Pobjoy was first to peek through the opening.

“What is it, Charlie?” Miss Hendricks inquired, keenly. “Gold? Jewels? Enough to retire on?”

“Bugger! It’s empty,” answered Pobjoy, all but weeping. “Totally bare. There’s—hello? What’s that in the far corner, sitting on a pedestal?”

“Don’t make me write fiction,” said Miss Hendricks, shoving him from behind. “Get in there and find out.”

Pobjoy entered the chamber, oil lamp in hand. The rest of the party waited breathlessly outside. Shuffling and scraping sounds came from within. Pobjoy returned bearing a marble slab, no bigger than a serving tray.

“It’s a plaque. There are four lines of hieroglyphic characters on here, Clayton,” he said, lowering the slab to the floor. “This is your department. Start philologizing.”

Clayton knelt in front of the plaque, produced a magnifying glass and studied the inscriptions closely. A small book, a notepad and a pencil came from his pockets. He opened the book to a certain page, scanned a few lines and turned back to the plaque.

“Out with it, man!” Pobjoy was beside himself. “This is your field!”

Miss Hendricks sprinkled more powder onto her flashgun for another picture. “Clam up. Let laughing boy work.”

Clayton covered a notepad page with scribbling. He looked up to a roomful of eager faces. “I’ve got it.”

Pobjoy hovered above Clayton and tried to read over his shoulder. “I’ll bet it’s a map. Directions to where the treasure’s hidden.”

“No, Pobjoy, it’s a message for you. Here’s the translation,” said Clayton, staring at the page. “‘These are the words of Andjyeb, absolute ruler of Egypt. If you are reading them, then you are a sputtering fool. Mighty Andjyeb faces the sun, raises his loincloth and shows you the moon. Andjyeb rests elsewhere.’”



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