The Master held up the silver whistle, glinting in the last sun-glow. They saw it, and understood. All hearts thrilled, tightening with the familiar sense of discipline. Fists gripped revolver-butts; feet shuffled into the sand, getting a hold for the quick, forward leap.
Keenly trilled the whistle. A shout broke from some twenty-five throats. The men leaped up, forward, slipping, staggering in the fine sand, among the bunches of dried grass. But forward they drove, and broke into a ragged, sliding charge up the breast of the dunes.
"Hold your fire, men! Hold it—then give 'em Hell!" the Master shouted. He was in the first wave of the assault. Close by came Rrisa, his brown face contracted with fanatic hate of the Beni Harb, despoilers of the Haram sanctuary.
There, too, was "Captain Alden," grim with masked face. There was Bohannan, Leclair—and pistol-barrels flickered in the evening glow, and half the men gripped knives in their left hands, as well. For this was to be a killing without quarter, to the very end.
A MISSION OF DREAD
Panting, with a slither of dry sand under their laboring feet, the Legionaries charged. At any second, a raking volley might burst from the dunes. The lethal pellets—so few in this vast space—might not have taken effect. Not one heart there but was steeling itself against ambush and a shriveling fire.
Up they stormed. The Master's voice cried, once more: "Give 'em Hell!"
He was the first man to top the dune, close to the wady's edge. There he checked himself, revolver in mid-air, eyes wide with astonishment. This way and that he peered, squinting with eyes that did not understand.
"Nom de Dieu!" ejaculated Leclair, at his side.
"Wallah!" shouted Rrisa, furiously. "Oh, may Allah smite their faces!"
Each man, as he leaped to the rampart top, stood transfixed with astonishment. Most of them cried out in their native tongues.
Their amazement was well-grounded. Not an Arab was to be seen. Of all those Beni Harb, none remained—not even the one shot by the Master. The sand on the dune was cupped with innumerable prints of feet in rude babooshes (native shoes), and empty cartridges lay all about. But not one of the Ahl Bayt, or People of the Black Tents, was visible.
"Sure, now, can you beat that?" shouted Bohannan, exultantly, and waved his service cap. "Licked at the start! They quit cold!"
Sheffield, at his side, dropped to the sand, his heart drilled by a jagged slug. The explosion of that shot crackled in from another line of dunes, off to eastward—a brown, burnt ridge, parched by the tropic sun of ages.
Sweating with the heat and the exertion of the charge, amazed at having found—in place of windrows of sleeping men—an enemy still distant and still as formidable as ever, the Legionaries for a moment remained without thought or tactics.
Rrisa, livid with fury and baffled hate, flung up wild arms and began screaming the most extravagant insults at the still invisible nomads, whose fire was now beginning again all along their line.
"O rejected ones, and sons of the rejected!" the Arab howled. "O hogs and brothers of hogs!" He fell to gnawing his own hand, as Arabs will in an excess of passion. Once more he screamed: "O Allah, deny not their skin and bones to the eternal flame! O owls, oxen, beggars, cut-off ones! Oh, give them the burning oil, Allah! The cold faces! Oh, wither their hands! Make them kusah! (beardless). Oh, these swine with black livers, gray eyes, beards of red. Vilest that ever hammered tent-pegs, goats of El Akhfash! O Beni Harb!"
[Footnote 1: Beni Harb, or Sons of Battle, by a change in the aspiration of the "H," becomes "Sons of Flight, or Cowardice."]
The Master gripped his furious orderly, and pushed him back, down the slope.
"No more of that, Rrisa!" he commanded, fiercely. "These be old woman's ways, these screamings! Silence, Bismillah!"
He hailed the others.
"They score, the first round! Their game is to retreat, if they're suspicious of any ruse or any attack from us. They're not going to stand and fight. We can't get near enough to them to throw the remaining lethal capsules over. And we can't chase them into the desert. Their plan is to hold us here, and pick us off one by one—wipe us out, without losing a man!
"Dig in again! That's our only game now. We're facing a situation that's going to tax us to the utmost, but there's only one thing to do—dig in!"
Life itself lay in digging, death in exposure to the fire of those maddeningly elusive, unseen Bedouins. Like so many dogs the Legionaries once more fell to excavating, with their knives and their bare hands, the sun-baked sand that slithered back again into their shallow trench almost as fast as they could throw it out.
A ragged fire from the Beni Harb lent speed to their efforts. Dead men and wounded could now have no attention. Life itself was all at stake.
In their rude trench they lay at last, sweating, panting, covered with sand and dust, with thirst beginning to take hold on them, and increasing swarms of flies—tiny, vicious, black things, all sting and poison—beginning to hum about them. On watch they rested there, while dull umbers of nightfall glowered through the framework of Nissr, tossing in the surf. Without much plan, wrecked, confronted by what seemed perils unsurmountable, the Flying Legion waited for the coming of dark to respite them from sniping.
The Master, half-way along the line with Leclair, Rrisa, the major and "Captain Alden," mentally took stock of losses thus far sustained. The wounded were: Alden, Bohannan (burned), Enemark and himself. The dead: Kloof, Sheffield, Beziers, Travers, Gorlitz, Auchincloss, Daimamoto.
Twenty-four living remained, including Leclair. The mortality, in about eighteen hours, had been twenty percent. At this rate the Master understood the Flying Legion was slated for very speedy destruction.
"It's touch-and-go now," he pondered. "We've got to annihilate these infernal Bedouins, repair the liner and get ahead, or—but there's no 'or' in this! None, at all!"
As dark settled down over the Sahara, the leprous patches of white, saline earth took on a ghostly pallor. The light of the southern stars began to glow with soft radiance. A gigantic emptiness, a rolling vacancy of sea and earth—brine-waves to rear of the Legion, sand-waves ahead—shrank the party to seeming insignificance.
A soft, purple tapestry of night unrolled across the desert; the wind died, and the suffocating breath of overheated sands began to emanate from the baked earth. And ever more and more pestiferously the infernal torment of the flies increased.
Inflamed with chagrin, rage, and grief for the lost comrades, the Legionaries lay in waiting. No conversation ran along the line. Silence held them—and their own thoughts. Wounds had been dressed as well as they might be. Nothing remained but to await the Master's next command.
"Captain Alden's" suggestion that Kloof, still lying aboard in the liner, should be seen to, met a rebuff from the Master. Living or dead, one man could not now endanger the lives of any others. And that danger still lay in any exposure was proved by the intermittent firing from the Arab lines.
The Beni Harb were obviously determined to hold back any possibility of a charge, or any return to the protection of the giant flying-ship. Bullets whimpered overhead, spudded into the sand, or pinged against metal on the liner. Parthian fighters though these Beni Harb were, they surely were well stocked with munitions and they meant stern business.
"And stern business is what they shall have, once the dark is complete," the Master pondered. "It is annihilation for them or for us. There can be no compromise, nor any terms but slaughter!"
One circumstance was favorable—the falling of the wind. Had it risen, kicking up a harsher surf, Nissr must have begun to break. But as the cupped hand of night, closing over the earth, had also shut away the wind, the air-liner was now resting more easily. Surf still foamed about her floats and lower gallery—surf all spangled with the phosphorescence that the Arabs call "jewels of the deep"—but unless some sudden squall should fling itself against the coast, every probability favored the liner taking no further damage.
In silence, save for the occasional easing of positions along the trench, the Legionaries waited. Strange dim colors appeared along the desert horizons, half visible in the gloom—funeral palls of dim purple, with pale, ghostly reflections almost to mid-heaven.
Some of the men had tobacco and matches that had escaped being wet; and cigarettes were rolled, passed along, lighted behind protections that would mask the match-gleam from the enemy. The comforting aroma of smoke drifted out on the desert heat. As for the Master, from time to time he slipped a khat leaf into his mouth, and remained gravely pondering.
At length his voice sounded along the trench.
"Men of the Flying Legion," said he, "this situation is grave. We can't escape on foot, north or south. We are without provisions or water. The nearest white settlement is Rio de Oro, about a hundred miles to southward; and even if we could reach that, harassed by the Beni Harb, we might all be executed there, as pirates. We must go forward or die right here on this beach.
"In any kind of a straight fight, we are hopelessly out-classed. There are about three hundred men against twenty-four of us, some of whom are wounded. Even if we took life for life, the Bedouins would lose less than ten percent, and we'd be wiped out. And we couldn't expect to take life for life, charging a position like theirs in the night. It can't be a stand-up battle. It's got to be science against savagery, or nothing."
A murmur of approval trickled along the sands. Confidence was returning. The Legionaries' hearts tautened again with faith in this strange, this usually silent and emotionless man whose very name was unknown to almost all of them.
"Just one other word," the Master continued, his voice calm, unshaken, quite impersonal. "If science fails, do not allow yourselves to be captured. The tortures of Hell await any white man taken by these fanatics. Remember, always keep one mercy-bullet—for yourselves!"
Another little silence. Then the chief said:
"I am going to take two men and undertake what seems a preposterous attack. I need only two. I shall not call for volunteers, because you would all offer yourselves. You must stay here."
"In case my plan succeeds, you are to come at my call—three long hails. If my plan fails, Major Bohannan will command you; and I know you will all fight to the last breath and to the final drop of blood!"
"Don't do this thing, sir!" the major protested. "What chance of success has it? These desert men can see, where a white man is blind. They can scent danger as a hunting-dog scents the spoor of game. You're simply throwing your life away, and we need that life!"
"I will take Lieutenant Leclair, who knows these people," the Master continued, paying no heed, "and Rrisa, who is of their kin. You others, all sit tight!"
A chuckling laugh, out there on the vague sands, seemed to mock him. It burst into a raw, barking cachinnation, that somehow stirred the blood with shrinking horror.
"One of the Sahara Sanitary Corps," remarked Leclair, dryly. "A hyena. Well may he laugh! Feasting enough for him and his before this dance is over!"
A gleam of fire, off to the left where the farther dunes approached the sea, suddenly began to show. All eyes turned toward it. The little fire soon grew into a leaping flame, its base hidden by sand-mounds.
No Arabs were visible there, but they had surely lighted it, using driftwood from the beach. Up into the purple-velvet night whirled sparks and fire-tongues; red smoke spiraled on the vagrant desert breeze.
"A signal-fire, Master!" whispered Rrisa. "It will be seen in far oases. If it burn two hours, that will mean an enemy with great plunder. Others of the Beni Harb will come; there will be gathering of the tribes. That fire must not burn, M'alme!"
"Nor must the Beni Harb live!" To the major: "Collect a dozen lethal guns and bring them to me!"
When the guns were at hand, the Master apportioned them between Leclair, Rrisa, and himself. With the one apiece they already had, each man carried five of the guns, in pockets and in belt. The small remaining stock of lethal pellets were distributed and the weapons fully loaded.
"In three minutes, Major," said the Master, "we leave these lines. Ten minutes after that, open a scattering fire, all along the trench. Shoot high, so as to be sure we are not hit."
"Ah, a barrage, sir?" the major exclaimed.
"Not in the least. My purpose is quite different. Never mind, but listen to my orders. Keep up that fire sparingly, for five minutes. Then cease. And keep silent till we return.
"Remember, I will give three long hails when we start to come back. Those will warn you not to shoot if you see dim figures in the night. Either we shall be back in these lines by nine o'clock, or—"
"Or we will go after you!" came the voice of "Captain Alden," with a little catch of anxiety not at all masculine. Something in the femininity of her promise stirred the Master's heart a second, but he dismissed it.
"Either we shall return by nine, or never," he said calmly.
"Let me go, then!" whispered Alden. "Go, in place of you! You are more needed than I. Without you all these men are lost. Without me—they would not miss me, sir!"
"I cannot argue that point with you, Captain. We start at once." He turned to Rrisa, and in Arabic said:
"The road we are about to take may lead thee to Paradise. A sand-adder, a scorpion, or a bullet may be the means. Dost thou stand firm with me?"
The Arab stretched out a thin, brown hand to him in the dark.
"Firm as my faith, Master!" he replied. "Both to help you, and to destroy the beni kalb (dog-sons), I would pass through Al Araf, into Eblis! What will be, must be. No man dieth except by permission of Allah, according to what is written on the scrolls of the angel, Al Sijil.
"I go with you, Master, where you go, were it to Jehannum! I swear that by the rising of the stars, which is a mighty oath. Tawakkal al Allah!" (Place reliance on Allah!)
"By the rising of the stars!" repeated Leclair, also in Arabic. "I too am with you to the end, M'alme!"
The Master assured himself that his night-glasses with the megaphotic reflectors were in their case slung over his shoulder. He looked once more to his weapons, both ordinary and lethal, and likewise murmured:
"By the rising of the stars!"
Then said he crisply, while the fire-glow of Leclair's strongly inhaled cigarette threw a dim light on the tense lines of his wounded face:
"Come! Let us go!"
Leclair buried his cigarette in the warm earth.
Rrisa caught up a handful of sand and flung it toward the unseen enemy, in memory of the decisive pebbles thrown by Mohammed at the Battle of Bedr, so great a victory for him.
Then he followed the Master and Leclair, with a whispered:
"Bismillah wa Allahu akbar!"
[Footnote 1: In the name of Allah, and Allah is greatest!]
Together, crawling on their bellies like dusty puff-adders of the Sahara itself, the three companions in arms—American, French, Arab—slid out of the shallow trench, and in the gloom were lost to sight of the beleaguered Flying Legion.
Their mission of death, death to the Beni Harb or to themselves, had begun.
ANGELS OF DEATH
In utter silence, moving only a foot at a time, the trio of man-hunters advanced. They spaced themselves out, dragged themselves forward one at a time, took advantage of every slightest depression, every wrinkle in the sandy desert-floor, every mummy-like acacia and withered tamarisk-bush, some sparse growth of which began to mingle with the halfa-grass as they passed from the coast-dunes to the desert itself.
Breathing only through open mouths, for greater stillness, taking care to crackle no twig nor even slide loose sand, they labored on, under the pale-hazed starlight. Their goal was vague. Just where they should come upon the Beni Harb, in that confused jumble of dunes and nullahs (ravines) they could not tell; nor yet did they know the exact distance separating the Legion's trenches from the enemy. All was vague mystery—a mystery ready at any second, at any slightest alarm, to blaze out death upon them.
None the less, stout-hearted and firm of purpose, they serpented their painful way prone on the hot, dusty bosom of the Sahara. Fate for them and for all the Legion, lay on so slight a thing as the stirring of a twig, the tunk of a boot against a bleached camel's skull, the possibility of a sneeze or cough.
Even the chance scaring-up of a hyena or a vagrant jackal might betray them. Every breath, every heartbeat was pregnant with contingencies of life and death.
Groveling, they slipped forward, dim, moving shadows in a world of brown obscurity. At any moment, one might lay a hand on a sleeping puff-adder or a scorpion. But even that had been fore-reckoned. All three of them had thought of such contingencies and weighed them. Not one but had determined to suppress any possible outcry, if thus stricken, and to die in absolute silence.
What mattered death for one, if two should win to the close range necessary for discharging the lethal capsules? What mattered it even for two, if one should succeed? The survivors, or the sole survivor, would simply take the weapons from the stricken and proceed.
After what seemed more than an hour, though in fact it was but the ten minutes agreed on with Bohannan, off behind them toward the coast a sudden staccato popping of revolvers began to puncture the night. Up and down the Legionaries' trench it pattered, desultory, aimless.
The three men engaged in the perilous task of what the Arabs call asar, or enemy-tracking, lay prone, with bullets keening high overhead. As the Master looked back, he could see the little spurts of fire from that fusillade.
The firing came from more to the left than the Master had reckoned, showing him that he had got a little off his bearings. But now he took his course again, as he had intended to do from the Legion's fire; and presently rifle work from the Arabs, too, verified, his direction.
The Master smiled. Leclair fingered the butt of his revolver.
Rrisa whispered curses:
"Ah, dog-sons, may you suffer the extreme cold of El Zamharir! Ah, may Rih al Asfar, the yellow wind (cholera), carry you all away!"
The racket of aimless firing continued a few minutes, underneath the mild effulgence of the stars. It ceased, from the Legion's trenches at the agreed moment; and soon it died down, also from the Arabs'. Quiet rose again from the desert, broken only by the surf-wash on the sand, the far, tremulous wail of a jackal, the little dry skitter of scorpions.
The three scouts lay quiet for ten minutes after the volleying had ceased. Silence settled over the plain; but, presently, a low moaning sound came indistinctly from the east. It lasted only a moment, then died away; and almost at once, the slight wind that had been blowing from the sea hushed itself to a strange calm.
Rrisa gave anxious ear. His face grew tense, but he held his peace. Neither of the white men paid any heed to the slight phenomenon. To them it meant nothing. For all their experience with the desert, they had never happened to hear just that thing. The Arab, however, felt a stab of profound anxiety. His lips moved in a silent prayer to Allah.
Once more the Master raised his hand in signal of advance. The three man-stalkers wormed forward again. They now had their direction, also their distance, with extreme precision; a simple process of triangulation, in which the glow of the beach-fire had its share, gave them the necessary data.
Undaunted, they approached the camp of the Beni Harb; though every moment they expected to be challenged, to hear the crack of an alarm-rifle or a cry to Allah, followed by a deadly blast of slugs.
But fortune's scale-pan dipped in their direction, and all held still. The sun-baked desert kept their secret. Onward they crawled, now over sand, now over cracked mud-flakes of saline deposit where water had dried at the bottom of a ghadir. All was calm as if the spirit of rest were hovering over the hot, fevered earth, still quivering from the kiss of its great enemy, the sun.
"Peace, it is peace until the rising of the morn!" a thought came to the Master's mind, a line from the chapter Al Kadr, in the Koran. He smiled to himself. "False peace," he reflected. "The calm before the storm!" Prophetic thought, though not as he intended it!
On and on the trio labored, soundlessly. At last the chief stopped, held up his hand a second, lay still. The others glimpsed him by the starlight, nested down in a shallow depression of the sand. They crept close to him.
"Lieutenant," he whispered, "you bombard the left-hand sector, toward the fire and the sea. Rrisa, take the right-hand one. The middle is for me. Fire at will!"
Out from belts and pockets came the lethal pistols. With well-estimated elevation, the attackers sighted, each covering his own sector. Hissing with hardly audible sighs, the weapons fired their stange pellets, and once again as over the woods on the Englewood Palisades—really less than twenty-four hours ago, though it seemed a month—the little greenish vapor-wisps floated down, down, sinking gently on the Sahara air.
This attack, they knew, must be decisive or all would be hopeless. The last supply of capsules was now being exhausted. Everything had been staked on one supreme effort. Quickly the attackers discharged their weapons; then, having done all that could be done, lay prone and waited.
Once again that hollow moaning sound drifted in across the baked expanse of the Sahara—a strange, empty sound, unreal and ominous. Then came a stir of sultry breeze, from the east. It strengthened; and a fine, crepitant sliding of sand-particles became audible. Rrisa stirred uneasily.
"Master," he whispered, "we should not delay. If the jinnee of the waste overtake us, we may be lost."
"The jinnee of the waste?" the Master answered, in a low tone. "What nonsense is this?"
"The simoom, Master—the storm of sand. We call it the work of evil spirits!"
The Master made no reply, save to command silence.
For a time nothing happened in the Arabs' camp. Then came a little stir, off there in the gloom. A sound of voices grew audible. The name of Allah drifted out of the all-enveloping night, to them, and that of his Prophet. A cry: "Ya Abd el Kadir—" calling on a patron saint, died before the last word, "Jilani," could find utterance. Then silence, complete and leaden, fell with uncanny suddenness.
The Master laughed, dryly. He touched Leclair's arm.
"Strong medicine for the Beni Harb, Lieutenant," said he. "Their own imams (priests) have strong medicine, too, but not so strong as that of the cursed sons of Feringistan. Sleep already lies heavy on the eyelids of these sons of Allah. And a deeper sleep shall soon overcome them. Tell me, Lieutenant, can you kill men wholesale?"
"Yes, my Captain."
"Sleeping men, who cannot resist you? Can you kill them scientifically, in masses, without anger?"
"How do you know now, my Captain, that it will not be in anger?" And the Frenchman half eased himself up on hands and knees, peering forward into the night. "After what these Beni Harb—or their close kin—have done to me and to poor Lebon—listen! What was that?"
"What do you mean?"
"That far, roaring noise?"
"It is nothing! A little wind, maybe; but it is nothing, nothing! Come, I am ready for the work!"
The Master stood up. Rrisa followed suit. No longer crawling, but walking erect, they advanced. They still used caution, careful to make no noise; but confidence had entered into them. Were not the Arabs all asleep?
The white men's faces were pale and drawn, with grim determination for the task that lay ahead—the task of converting the Beni Harb's camp into a shambles. The Arab's face, with white-rimmed eyes and with lips drawn back from teeth, had become that of a wild animal. Rrisa's nostrils were dilated, to scent out the enemy. He was breathing hard, as if he had run a mile.
"They are near, now, Ya M'alme!" said he. "They are close at hand, these nakhawilah! (pariahs). Allah, the high, the great, hath delivered them into our hands. Verily there is no power or might but Allah. Shall I scout ahead, Master, and spy out the camp?"
"No, Rrisa. I send no man where I will not gladly go myself. All three of us, forward!"
Again they advanced, watchful, revolvers in hands, ready for any sudden ambush. All at once, as they came up over a breastwork of hard clay and gravel that heaved itself into rolling sands, the camp of the Beni Harb became visible. Dim, brown and white figures were lying all about, distorted in strange attitudes, on the sand beyond the ridge. There lay the despoilers of the Haram, the robber-tribe of Sheik Abd el Rahman, helpless in blank unconsciousness.
The Master laughed bitterly, as he strode forward into the camp, the long lines of which stretched vaguely away toward the coast where the fire was still leaping up against the stars, now paled with a strange haze.
Starlight showed weapons lying all about—long rifles and primitive flint-locks; kanat spears of Indian male-bamboo tipped with steel and decorated with tufts of black ostrich-feathers; and jambiyehs, or crooked daggers, with wicked points and edges.
"Save your fire, men," said the Master picking up a spear. "There are plenty of means, here, to give these dogs the last sleep, without wasting good ammunition. Choose the weapon you can handle best, and fall to work!"
With a curse on the heretic Beni Harb, and a murmur of thanks to Allah for this wondrous hour, Rrisa caught up a short javelin, of the kind called mirzak. The lieutenant chose a wide-bladed sword.
"Remember only one thing, my brothers in arms!" exclaimed the Master. "But that is most vital!" He spoke in Arabic.
"And what may it be?" asked the Frenchman, in the same tongue.
"I do not know whether old Sheik Abd el Rahman is with this party or not, but if either of you find him, kill him not! Deliver him to me!"
"Listen, Master!" exclaimed Rrisa, and thrust the point of his javelin deep into the sand.
"Well, what now, Rrisa?"
"Shall we, after all, kill these sleeping swine-brothers?"
"Eh, what? Thy heart then, hath turned to water? Thou canst not kill? They attacked us—this is justice!"
"And if they live, they will surely wipe us out!" put in the Frenchman, staring in the gloom. "What meaneth this old woman's babble, son of the Prophet?"
"It is not that my heart hath turned to water, nor have the fountains of mine eyes been opened to pity," answered Rrisa. "But some things are worse than death, to all of Arab blood. To be despoiled of arms or of horses, without a fight, makes an Arab as the worm of the earth. Then he becometh an outcast, indeed! 'If you would rule, disarm'," he quoted the old proverb, and added another: "'Man unarmed in the desert is like a bird shorn of wings.'"
"What is thy plain meaning in all this?" demanded the chief.
"Listen, M'alme. If you would be the Sheik of Sheiks, carry away all these weapons, and let these swine awaken without them. They would drag their way back to the oases and the black tents, with a story the like of which hath never been told in the Empty Abodes. The Sahara would do homage, Master, even as if the Prophet had returned!"
"Lah! I am not thinking of the Sahara. The goal lies far beyond—far to eastward."
"Still, the folk are Arabs there, too. They would hear of this, and bow to you, my M'alme!"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. I can take no chances, Rrisa. The land, here and to the eastward, might all arise against us. The tribes might come against us like the rakham, the carrion-vultures. No, we must kill and kill, so that no man remaineth here—none save old Abd el Rahman, if Allah deliver him into our hands!"
"That is your firm command, Master?"
"My firm command!"
"To hear the Master is to obey. But first, grant me time for my isha, my evening prayer!"
"It is granted. And, Rrisa, there is the kiblah, the direction of Mecca!"
The Master pointed exactly east. Rrisa faced that way, knelt, prostrated himself. He made ablution with sand, as Mohammed allows when water cannot be found. Even as he poured it down his face, the strangely gusting wind flicked it away in little whirls.
THE GREAT PEARL STAB
The Master began to feel a peculiar anxiety. Into the east he peered, where now indeed a low, steady hum was growing audible, as of a million angry spirits swarming nearer. The stars along that horizon had been blotted out, and something like a dark blanket seemed to be drawing itself across the sky.
"My Captain," said the lieutenant, "there may be trouble brewing, close at hand. A sand-storm, unprotected as we are—"
"Men with stern work to do cannot have time to fear the future!"
Leclair grew silent. Rrisa alone was speaking, now. With a call of "Ya Latif!" (O Merciful One!) he had begun the performance of his ceremony, with rigid exactness. He ended with another prostration and the usual drawing down of the hands over the face. Then he arose, took up his javelin again, and with a clear conscience—since now his rites had all been fulfilled—cried aloud:
"Now, Master, I am ready for the work of helping Azrael, the death-angel, separate the souls and bodies of these Shiah heretics!"
A sudden howling of a jackal startled Rrisa. He quivered and stood peering into the night, where now the unmistakable hum of an approaching sand-storm was drawing near. His superstitious soul trembled with the old belief of his people that creatures of the dog breed can see Azrael, invisible to human eyes. At thought of the death-angel standing nigh, his heart quaked; but rage and hate inspired him, and he muttered:
"Fire to your bellies, broiling in white flame! Fuel of Jehannum, may Eblis be your bed, an unhappy couch! Spawn of Shaytan (Satan), boiling water to cool your throats! At Al Hakkat (judgment day) may the jinnee fly away with you!"
"To work, men!" cried the Master. "There is great work to do!"
As if in answer to his command, a blustering, hot buffet of wind roared down with amazing suddenness, filling the dark air with a stinging drive of sand. The fire by the beach flailed into long tongues of flame, throwing black shadows along the side of the wady. No stars were now visible. From empty spaces, a soughing tumult leaped forth; and on the instant a furious gust of fine, cutting particles whirled all about, thicker than driven snow in a northern blizzard.
"Iron, O thou ill-omened one!" cried Rrisa, with the ancient invocation against the sand-storm. He stretched out his forefinger, making the sign of protection. Neither the meaning of his cry nor of the gesture could he have explained; but both came to him involuntarily, from the remote lore of his people.
He turned from the oncoming storm, leaning against the wind, clutching for his cap that the wind-devil had just whirled away. After it he stumbled; and, falling to his knees, groped for it in the gloom.
"Thousand devils!" ejaculated the Frenchman. "No time, now, for killing! Lucky if we get back ourselves, alive, to the beach! My Captain!"
"What now?" the Master flung at him, shielding mouth and eyes with cupped hands.
"To the wady, all of us! That may give protection till this blast of Hell passes!"
A startled cry from Rrisa forestalled any answer. The Arab's voice rose in a wild hail from the sand-filled dark:
"O M'alme, M'alme!"
"Behold! I—I have found him!"
"Found—?" shouted the Master, plunging forward.
Leclair followed close, staggering in the sudden gale. "Abd el Rahman?"
"The old hyena, surely! M'alme, M'alme! See!"
The white men stumbled with broken ejaculations to where Rrisa was crouched over a gaunt figure in the drifting sand.
"Is that he, Rrisa?" cried the Master. "Art thou sure?"
"As that my mother bore me! See the old jackal, the son of Hareth! (the devil). Ah, see, see!"
"Dieu!" exclaimed the Frenchman, in his own tongue. "It is none other!" With a hand of great rejoicing, he stirred the unconscious Sheik—over whom the sand was already sifting as the now ravening simoom lashed it along.
Forgotten now were all his fears of death in the sand-storm. This delivery of the hated one into his hands had filled him with a savage joy, as it had the two others.
"Ah, mon vieux!" he cried. "It is only the mountains that never meet, in time!"
The Master laughed, one of those rare flashes of merriment that at infrequent intervals pierced his austerity. Away on the growing sand-storm the wind whipped that laugh. Simoom and sand now appeared forgotten by the trio. Keen excitement had gripped them; it held them as they crouched above the Sheik.
"Allah is being good to us!" exulted the Master, peering by the gale-driven fire-glare. "This capture is worth more to the Legion than a hundred machine-guns. What will not the orthodox tribes give for this arch-Shiah, this despoiler of the sacred Haram at Mecca?"
He began feeling in the bosom of the old man, opening the cloaklike burnous and exploring the neck and chest with eager fingers.
"If we could only lay hands on the fabled loot of the Haram!" he whispered, his voice tense with excitement.
Rrisa, wide-eyed, with curling lips of scorn, peered down at the Sheik. The orderly, bare-headed, was shielding eyes and face from the sand-blast, with hands that trembled. His teeth were bared with hate as he peered at the prostrate heretic.
A tall, powerful figure of a man the Sheik was, lying there on his right side with his robe crumpled under him—the robe now flapping, whipping its loose ends in the high and rising wind. His tarboosh had been blown away, disclosing white hair.
That hair, too, writhed and flailed in the gusts that drove it full of sand, that drifted his whole body with the fine and stinging particles. His beard, full and white, did not entirely conceal the three parallel scars on each cheek, the mashali, which marked him as originally a dweller at Mecca.
One sinewy brown arm was outflung, now almost wholly buried in the growing sand-drift. The hand still gripped a long, gleaming rifle, its stock and barrel elaborately arabesqued in silver picked out with gold.
"Ah!" exclaimed the Master again, pulling at a thin crimson cord his questing fingers had discovered about the old man's neck. With hands that trembled a little, he drew out this cord. Then he uttered an exclamation of intense disappointment.
There was nothing at the end of the crimson loop, save a lamail, or pocket Koran. Leclair muttered a curse, and moved away, peering toward the fire, spying out the wady through the now almost choking sand-drive—the wady where they certainly must soon take refuge or be overwhelmed by the buffeting lash of sand whirled on the breath of the shouting tempest.
Even in the Master's anger, he did not throw the Koran away. Too astute, he, for any such act in presence of Rrisa. Instead, he bound the Arab to fresh devotion by touching lips and forehead, and by handing him the little volume. The Master's arm had to push its way against the wind as against a solid thing; and the billion rushing spicules of sand that swooped in upon him from the desert emptiness, stung his flesh like tiny scourges.
"This Koran, Rrisa, is now thine!" he cried in a loud voice, to make the Arab hear him. "And a great gift to thee, a Sunnite, is the Koran, of this desecrating son of the rejected!"
Bowed before the flail of the sand—while Rrisa uttered broken words of thanks—the Master called to Leclair:
"By Corsi (Allah's throne), now things assume a different aspect! This old dog of dogs is a prize, indeed! And—what now—"
Leclair did not answer. The Frenchman was not even near him. The Master saw him in the wady, dimly visible through the ghostly white sand-shrouds spinning in the blue-whipped fire-glare. There on hands and knees the lieutenant was huddled. With eager hands he was tearing the hood of a za'abut—a rough, woolen slave cloak, patched and ragged—from the face of a prostrate figure more than half snowed under a sand-drift.
"Nom de Dieu!" the Master heard him cry. "Mais, nom de—"
"What have you found, Lieutenant?" shouted the Master, letting the simoom drive him toward the wady. In their excitement none of the men would yet take cover, lie down and hide their faces under their coats as every dictate of prudence would have bidden. "Who is it, now? What—"
"Ah, my Captain! Ah! the pity of it! Behold!"
The Frenchman's voice, wind-gusted, trembled with grief and passionate anger; yet through that rage and sorrow rang a note of joy.
"Tell me, Leclair! Who, now?" demanded the Master, as he came close and peered down by the fire-gleam roaring on the beach, sending sheaves of sparks in comet-tails of vanishing radiance down-wind with rushing sand.
"It is impossible, my Captain," the lieutenant answered in French. His voice could now make itself heard more clearly; for here in the wady a certain shelter existed from the roaring sand-cyclone. "Impossible, but—Dieu!—it is true!"
"What is true?"
"In Allah's name, Lieutenant!" the Master ejaculated, "compose yourself! Explain! Who is this Arab, here?"
"No Arab, sir! No, no!"
"Not an Arab? Well, what is he, then?"
"Ah, these scars, my Captain! Behold—see the slave dress, the weals of the branding-iron on cheek and brow! Ah, for pity! See the starved body, the stripes of the lash, the feet mangled by the bastinado! What horrible things they have done to him—ah, God have pity on us!"
Tears gleamed on the stern fighter's cheeks, there in the ghostly blue firelight—tears that washed little courses through the dust and sand now griming his face. The French airman, hard in battle and with heart of steel and flame, was crying like a child.
"What now? Who is it?" shouted the Master. "A European?"
"Yes, my Captain! A Frenchman!"
"A Frenchman. You don't mean to say it—is—"
"Yes, yes! My orderly! Lebon!"
"God!" exclaimed the Master. "But—"
A cry from Rrisa interrupted him, a cry that flared down-wind with strange, wild exultation. The Arab had just risen from the sand, near the unconscious, in-drifting form of the Sheik, Abd el Rahman.
In his hands he was holding something—holding a leather sack with a broken cord attached to it. This cord in some way had been severed by the Sheik's rifle when the old man had fallen. The leather sack had rolled a few feet away. Now, with hands that shook so that the Arab could hardly control them, Rrisa was holding out this sack as he staggered through the blinding sand-storm towards his chief.
"Al Hamdu Lillah!" (Praise to the Lord of the Three Worlds!) choked Rrisa in a strange voice, fighting for his very breath. "See—see what I—have found!"
Staring, blinking, trying to shelter his eyes against the demons of the storm, the Master turned toward him.
Down into the wady stumbled the Arab, gray-powdered with clinging sand.
"Oh," he choked, "it has been taken from these yezid, these abusers of the salt! Now we rescue it from these cut-off ones! From the swine and brothers of the swine it has been taken by Allah, and put back into the hands of Rrisa, Allah's slave! See, M'alme, see!"
The shaking hands extended the leather sack. At it the Master stared, his face going dead white.
"Thou—dost not mean—?" he stammered.
"Truly, I do!"
"Not Kaukab el Durri?"
"Aye—it was lying near that heretic dog!"
"The Great Pearl Star, the sacred loot from the Haram?"
"Kaukab el Durri, M'alme. The Great Pearl Star itself!"
With hands that quivered in unison with his nerves, now no longer impassive, the strange chief of this still stranger expedition took from Rrisa the leather sack. Over the top of the wady a million sand-devils were screeching. The slither of the dry snow—the white, fine snow of sand—filled all space with a whispering rustle that could be heard through the shouting of the simoom.
Sand was beating on them, everywhere, in the darkness lighted only by the tortured beach-fire. The stinging particles assailed eyes, ears, mouth; it whitened clothing, sifted into hair, choked breath. But still the Legionaries could not take shelter under their coats. In this moment of wondrous finding, they must see the gem of gems that Kismet had thus flung into their grasp.
The Master loosed a knot in the cord, drew the sack open and shook into his left palm a thing of marvellous beauty and wonder.
By the dim, fitful gleam of the fire, probably the strangest and most costly necklace in the world became indistinctly visible. At sight of it, everything else was forgotten—the wrecked air-liner, the waiting Legion, the unconscious Arabs now being buried in the resistless charge of the sand-armies. Even poor Lebon, tortured slave of the Beni Harb, a lay neglected. For nothing save the wondrous Great Pearl Star could these three adventurers find any gaze whatever, or any thoughts.
While Leclair and Rrisa stared with widening eyes, the Master, tense with joy, held up their treasure-trove.
"The Great Pearl Star!" he cried, in a strange voice.
"Kaukab el Durri! See, one pearl is missing—that is the one said to have been sold in Cairo, twelve years ago, for fifty-five thousand pounds! But these are finer! And its value as a holy relic of Islam—who can calculate that? God, what this means to us!"
Words will not compass the description of this wondrous thing. As the Master held it up in the sand-lashed dimness, half-gloom and half-light, that formed a kind of aura round the fire—an aura sheeted through and all about by the aerial avalanches of the sand—the Legionaries got some vague idea of the necklace.
Three black pearls and two white were strung on a fine chain of gold. A gap in their succession told where the missing pearl formerly had been. Each of the five pearls was of almost incalculable value; but one, an iridescent Oman, far surpassed the others.
This pearl was about the size of a man's largest thumb-joint. Its shape was a smooth oval; its hue, even in that dim, wind-tossed light, showed a wondrous, tender opalescence that seemed to change and blend into rainbow iridescences as the staring Legionaries peered at it. The other pearls, black and white alike, ranked as marvelous gems; but this crown-jewel of the Great Pearl Star eclipsed anything the Master—for all his wide travel and experience of life—ever had seen.
By way of strange contrast in values the pearls were separated from each other by worthless, little, smooth lumps of madrepore, or unfossilized coral. These lumps were covered with tiny black inscriptions in archaic Cufic characters; though what the significance of these might be, the Master could not—in that gloom and howling drive of the sand-devils—even begin to determine.
The whole adornment, as it lay in the Master's palm, typified the Orient. For there was gold; there were gems and bits of worthless dross intermingled; and there about it was drifting sand of infinite ages, darkness, flashes of light, color, mystery, wonder, beauty.
"God! What this means!" the Master repeated, as the three men cringed in the wady. "Success, dominion, power!"
"You mean—" put in Leclair, his voice smitten away by the ever-increasing storm that ravened over the top of the gully.
"What do I not mean, Lieutenant? No wonder the Apostate Sheik had to flee from Mecca and take refuge here in this impassable wilderness at the furthest rim of Islam! No wonder he has been hounded and hunted! The only miracle is that some of his own tribesmen have not betrayed him before now!"
"Master, no Arab betrays his own sheik, right or wrong!" said Rrisa in a strange voice. "Before that, an Arab dies by his own hand!" He spoke in Arabic, with a peculiar inflection.
Their eyes met a second by the light of the gusting fire.
"Right or wrong, M'alme!" repeated the Arab. Then he added: "Shall I not now go to drag in the swine-brother Abd el Rahman?"
"Thou sayst, if he be left there—"
"Yes, Master, he will surely die. All who are not sheltered, now, will die. All who lie there on the dune, will be drifted under, will breathe sand, will perish."
"It is well, Rrisa. Go, drag in the swine-brother. But have a care to harm him not. Thou wouldst gladly slay him, eh?"
"More gladly than to live myself! Still, I obey. I go, I bring him safe to you, O Master!"
He salaamed, turned, and vanished up over the edge of the wady.
The lieutenant, warned of the danger of sand-breathing by an unconscious man, drew the hood of the woollen za'abut up over the face of Lebon. There was nothing more he could do for the poor fellow. Only with the passage of time could he be reawakened. The French ace turned again to where his chief was still scrutinizing the Pearl Star as he crouched in the wady, back to the storm-wind, face toward the fire on the beach.
"Do you realize what this thing is?" demanded the Master, turning the necklace in his hands. "Do you understand?"
"I have heard of it, my Captain. For years vague rumors have come to me from the desert-men, from far oases and cities of the Sahara. Now here, now there, news has drifted in to Algiers—not news, but rather fantastic tales. Yes, I have often heard of the Kaukab el Durri. But till now I have always believed it a story, a myth."
"No myth, but solid fact!" exulted the Master, with a strange laugh. "This, Lieutenant, is the very treasure that Mohammed gathered together during many years of looting caravans in the desert and of capturing sambuks on the Red Sea. Arabia, India, and China all contributed to it. The Prophet gave it to his favorite wife, Ayeshah, as he lay dying at Medina in the year 632, with his head in her lap.
"Next to the Black Stone, itself, it is possibly the most precious thing in Islam. And now, now with this Great Pearl Star in our hands, what is impossible?"
Silence fell between the two men. They still huddled there in the partial protection of the wady, while all the evil jinnee of the sand-storm shrieked blackly overhead. With no further words they continued to study the wondrous thing. The fire was dying, now, burned out by the fierce blast of the storm and blown away to sea in long spindrifts of spark and vapor, white as the sand-drive itself. By the fading light little could now be seen of the Great Pearl Star. The Master replaced it in its leather bag, knotted the cord securely about the mouth of the receptacle, and pocketed it.
A rattle of pebbles down the side of the wady, and a grunting call, told them Rrisa had returned. Dimly they saw him dragging the old Sheik over the lip of the gully, down into its half-protection. He brought the unconscious man to them, and—though bowed by the frenzy of the storm—managed a salute.
"Here, Master, I have saved him from the jinnee of the desert," Rrisa pantingly announced. His voice trembled with a passionate hate; his eyes gleamed with excitement; his nails dug into the palms of his hands. "Now Master, gladden my eyes and expand my breast by letting me see this old jackal's blood!"
"No, Rrisa," the Master denied him. "I have other use for the old jackal. Other punishments await him than death at my hands."
"What punishments, Master?" the Arab cried with terrible eagerness.
"Wait, and thou shalt see. And remember always, I am thy sheik, thy preserver, with whom thou hast shared the salt. 'He who violates the salt shall surely taste Jahannum!'"
"Death shall have me, first!" cried Rrisa, and fell silent. And for a while the three men crouched in the wady with the two unconscious ones, torturer and victim. At length the Master spoke:
"This won't do, Lieutenant. We must be getting back."
Leclair peered at him in the screaming dark.
"Why, my Captain?" asked he. "The Legionaries can care for themselves. If Nissr is breaking up, in the gale, we can do nothing. And on the way we may be lost. To retrace our journey over the desert would surely be to invite death."
"We must return, nevertheless. This storm may last all night, and it may blow itself out in half an hour. That cannot be told. The Legion may think us lost, and try to search for us. Lives may be sacrificed. Morale demands that we go back. Moreover, we certainly need not traverse the desert."
"We can descend the wady to the beach, and make southward along it, under the shelter of the dunes."
"In the noise and confusion of the storm they may take us for Arabs and shoot us down."
"I will see to that. Come, we must go! Carry Lebon, if you like. Rrisa and I will take Abd el Rahman."
"M'alme, not Abd el Rahman, now," ejaculated Rrisa, "but Abd el Hareth! Let that be his title!"
[Footnote 1: The former name signifies "Slave of Compassion;" the latter, "Slave of the Devil."]
"As thou wishest, Rrisa. But come, take his feet. I will hold him by the shoulders. So! Now, forward!"
"And have a care not to breathe the sand, Master," Rrisa warned. "Turn thy face away when the jinnee smite!"
Stumbling, heavy-laden, the three men made their painful way down to the beach, turned to the left, and plowed southward in deep sand. As they left the remains of the fire a great blackness fell upon them. The boisterous exultation of the wind, howling in from a thousand miles of hot emptiness, out over the invisible sea now chopped into frothy waves, seemed snatching at them. But the dunes at their left flung the worst of the sand-storm up and over. And though whirls and air-eddies, sand-laden, snatched viciously at them, they won along the beach.
That was lathering toil, burdened as they were, stumbling over driftwood and into holes, laboring forward, hardly able to distinguish more than the rising, falling line of white that marked the surf. Voices of water and of wind conclamantly shouted, as if all the devils of the Moslem Hell had been turned loose to snatch and rave at them. Heat, stifle, sand caught them by the throat; the breath wheezed in their lungs; and on their faces sweat and sand pasted itself into a kind of sticky mud.
After fifteen minutes of this struggle the Master paused. He dropped Abd el Rahman's shoulders, and Rrisa the Sheik's feet, while Leclair stood silently bowed with the weight of Lebon and of the belaboring storm.
"Oooo-eeee! Oooooeeee! Oooooo-eeee!" the Master hailed, three long times. An answering shout came back, faintly, from the black. The Master bent, assured himself the old Sheik's mouth and nose were still covered by the hood of the burnous, and cried: "Forward!" And the three men stumbled on and on.
Five minutes later the Master once more paused.
"Remember, both of you," he cautioned, "not one word of the find!"
"The Great Pearl Star?" asked Leclair gruntingly.
Their voices were almost inaudible to each other in that mad tumult. "That is to be a secret, my Captain?"
"Between us three; yes. Let that be understood!"
"I pledge my honor to it!" cried the Frenchman. Rrisa added: "The Master has but to command, and it is done!" Then once more they plowed on down the shore.
Only a few minutes more brought them, with surprising suddenness, to the end of the Legionaries' trench. Trench it no longer was, however. All the paltry digging had been swiftly filled in by the sand-devils; and now the men were lying under the lee of the dunes, protecting themselves as best they could with the tunics of their uniforms over their heads.
They got up and came stumbling in confusion to greet the returning trio. Peering in the dark, straining their eyes to see, they listened to a few succinct words of the Master:
"Perfect success! Lethalizing was complete. Sand has buried the entire tribe. Leclair found his former orderly, who had been their slave. We have here their Sheik, Abd el Rahman. Nothing more to fear. Down, everybody—tunics over heads again—let the storm blow itself out!"
The Legion lay for more than an hour, motionless, waiting in the night. During this hour both Lebon and the old Sheik recovered consciousness, but only in a vague manner. There was no attempt to tell them anything, to make any plans, to start any activities. In a Sahara simoom, men are content just to live.
TOIL AND PURSUIT
Before midnight the storm died with a suddenness even greater than that of its onset. Like a tangible flock of evil birds or of the spirits Victor Hugo has painted in Les Djinns, the sand-storm blew itself out to sea and vanished. The black sky opened its eyes of starlight, once again; gradually calm descended on the desert, and by an hour after midnight the steady east wind had begun to blow again.
The "wolf's tail," or first gray streak of dawn along the horizon, found the Legion all astir. Lebon had long since been told of his rescue; he and his lieutenant had embraced and had given each other a long story—the enslaved man's story making Leclair's face white with rage, his heart a furnace of vengeance on all Islam.
The Sheik, dimly understanding that these devils of Feringistan had by their super-magic overwhelmed him and his tribe with sleep-magic and storm-magic of the strongest, lay bound hand and foot, sullenly brooding. No one could get a word from Abd el Rahman; not even Rrisa, who exhausted a wonderful vocabulary of imprecation on him, until the Master sternly bade him hold his peace.
A gaunt, sunken-eyed old hawk of the desert he lay there in the sand, unblinkingly defiant. Tortures and death, he felt, were to be his portion; but with the stoicism of the barbarian he made no sound. What his thoughts were, realizing the loss of tribesmen, capture, despoilment of the Great Pearl Star, who could tell?
A wondrous dawn, all mingled of scarlet, orange, and vivid yellows, with streaks of absinthe hue, burned up over the desert world. It showed Nissr about as she had been the night before; for the simoom had not thrashed up sea enough—offshore, as it had been—to break up the partial wreck.
The air-liner had, however, settled down a good deal in the sand, and had canted at a sharp angle to port. Her galleries, fuselage, and wings were heavily laden with sand that materially increased her weight; and to the casual eye she gave the impression of a bird which never again would soar on level wing.
The major voiced discouragement, but no one shared it. Spirits were still high, in spite of thirst and exhaustion, and of the losses already sustained in men and material. Lombardo and "Captain Alden" had patched up the wounded in rough, first-aid fashion; and they, in spite of pain, shared the elation of the others in the entire wiping-out of the Beni Harb.
As soon as the light permitted operations to begin again, the Legion trekked over to the Arabs' former lines. Nothing now remained to tell them of the enemy, save here or there the flutter of a bit of burnous or cherchia (head-dress), that fluttered from the white sand now all ribbed in lovely scollops like the waves of a moveless sea. In one spot a naked brown arm and hand were projecting heavenward, out of the sand-ocean, as if in mute appeal to Allah.
The Legionaries heaped sand on this grim bit of death, completely burying it, and on the fluttering cloths. And as they peered abroad across the desert, in the glory of morning, now nothing could be seen to mind them of the fighting-men who, like the host of Sennacherib, had been brushed by the death-angel's wing.
The jackals knew, though, and the skulking hyenas, already sneaking in the nullahs; and so did the rion and the yellow ukab-birds—carrion-fowl, both—which already from the farthest blue, had begun to wheel and volplane toward the coast.
Back on the beach, exultant, yet rather silent in the face of all that death, the Legion at once got itself into action under the vigorous command of the Master. Twenty-three men were still fit and active for service; and both Enemark and Lebon would in a few days be of help.
"Man-power enough," thought the Master, as he laid out his campaign. "The only troublesome factors, are, first, Nissr's condition; second, our lack of water and supplies; and third, the possibility of interference from Arabs or European forces, by land or sea. If we can overcome all these—if, did I say? We can! We will!"
First of all, three volunteers swam out to Nissr through the surf now again beating in from the open sea. Their purpose was to bring the wounded Kloof ashore. Even though Kloof's oversight of the stowaway had wrecked the expedition, and though Kloof would probably be executed in due time, common humanity dictated succoring him.
The volunteers returned, after a hard fight, with a body past any human judgments. Kloof, Daimamoto, Sheffield, and Beziers, all of whom had lost their lives in the battle with the Beni Harb, were soon buried on the beach by the hungry, thirsty, sand-penetrated Legionaries. The shallow graves were piled with driftwood—rocks there were none, even in the wady, which' was of clay and gravel—and so, protected as best might be from beasts and birds, four of the Legion entered their long homes. The only ceremony over the fallen adventurers was the firing of a volley of six pistol-shots.
Swiftly returning heat, and a plague of black flies that poisoned with every bite, warned the Legionaries not to delay. Hunger and thirst, too, scourged them on. Their first care was food and drink.
Fortune favored them. In spite of the simoom the prevailing west wind had cast up all along the shore—for two or three miles each way—perhaps a quarter or a third of the stores they had been forced to jettison. Before doing anything else, the Legion brought in these cases of provisions and established a regular camp in the wady where they would be protected from observation from the Sahara. The piling up of these stores, the building of a fire to keep off the flies, and the portioning out of what little tobacco they had with them, wonderfully stiffened their morale.
Water, however, was still lacking; and all the Legionaries, as well as the old Sheik who would have died in the flames before asking for drink, were beginning to suffer extremely. The Master detailed Simonds, L'Heureux, and Seres to construct a still, which they did in only a little more than three hours.
The apparatus was ingeniously and efficiently built, out of two large provision tins and some piping which they got—together with a few tools—by swimming out to the air-liner. The still, with a brisk fire under it, proved capable of converting sea-water into flat, tasteless fresh water at the rate of two quarts an hour. Thirsty they might all get, to desperation; but with this supply they could survive till better could be had.
While the distilling apparatus was being built, work was already under way on Nissr; work which old Abd el Rahman watched with beady eyes of hate; work in which Dr. Lombardo, fellow-partner in Kloof's guilt, was allowed to share—the condition being frankly stated to him that his punishment was merely being deferred.
Under the Master's direction, stout mooring-piles of driftwood were sunk into the dunes, block-and-tackle gear was improvised, and lines were rove to the airship. She was lightened by shoveling several tons of sand from her and by removing everything easily detachable; the men working in baths of sweat, with a kind of ardent abandon.
Enough power was still left in her storage-batteries to operate the air-pressure system through the floats. This air, with a huge boiling and seething of the white surf, loosened the floats from the cling of the sand; and a score of men at the tackles succeeded at high-tide in hauling Nissr far up on the beach.
Rough gear, broken ship, toiling men blind with sweat, blazing African sun, appalling isolation, vultures and jackals at work behind the dunes, and—back of all—ocean and Sahara, made a picture fit for any master-painter. We must throw only one glance at it, and pass on.
This much accomplished, nightfall, with the west glowing like a stupendous jewel, brought rest. They camped in the wady, with machine-guns mounted and sentinels out. Abd el Rahman, liberated from his bonds and under strict surveillance, still refused to talk. No information could be got from him; but Rrisa's eyes brightened with unholy joy at sight of the old man ceremonially tearing his burnous and sifting sand on his gray head.
"Allah smite thy face, ya kalb!" (O dog!) he murmured. "Robber of the Haram, from Jehannum is thy body!"
[Footnote 1: Alluding to the Arab superstition that every man's body is drawn from the place where it will eventually be buried. Rrisa's remark, therefore, was an Oriental way of wishing the Sheik back into Hell.]
Night passed with no alarm, quietly save for the yelping and quarreling of the jackals and hyenas at work beyond the dunes. Early morning found the Legionaries again at work; and so for five days they toiled. The Legion was composed of picked men, skilled in science and deep in technical wisdom. With what tools still remained from the time when all surplus weight had been jettisoned, and with some improvised apparatus, they set vigorously to work repairing the engines, fitting new rudder-plates, patching up the floats and providing the burned propellers with metal blades.
Metal enough they had at hand, by cutting out dispensable partitions from the interior. And beavers never worked as these men worked in spite of the fierce smitings of the tropic sun. Even the wounded men helped, holding or passing tools. The Master labored with the rest, grimy, sweating, hard-jawed; and "Captain Alden" did her bit without a moment's slackening. Save for Abd el Rahman, now securely locked without any means of self-destruction in a stateroom, no man idled.
Anxiety dogged their every moment. Sudden storm might yet hopelessly break up the stranded air-liner. Other tribes might have seen the signal-fire and might descend upon the Legionaries. Arab slavers might discover them, beating along the coast in well-armed dhows. Twice, in five days, latteen-sailed craft passed south, and one of these put in to investigate; but a tray of blanks from a machine-gun, at half a mile, turned the invader's blunt nose seaward again.
The greatest peril of all was that some news of the wreck might reach Rio de Oro and be wirelessed to civilization. That would inevitably mean ruin. Either it would bring an air-squadron swooping down, or battle-ships would arrive.
The Master labored doggedly to get his neutralizing apparatus effectively operating once more; and besides this, he spent hours locked in his cabin, working on other apparatus the nature of which he communicated to no one. But the Legion knew that nothing could save them from long-range naval guns, if that kind of attack should develop. They needed no urging to put forth stern, unceasing energies. Twice smoke on the horizon raised the alarm; but nothing came of it.
With great astuteness the Master had the wireless put in shape, at once, and sent out three messages at random, on two successive days. These messages stated that Nissr had been sighted in flames and falling, in North latitude 19 deg., 35'; longitude 28 deg., 16', or about two hundred and fifty miles north-west of the Cape Verdes; that wreckage from her had been observed somewhat south of that point; and that bodies floating in vacuum-belts had been recovered by a Spanish torpedo-boat.
No answer came in from any of these messages; but there was always an excellent chance that such misinformation would drag a red herring across the trail of pursuit.
Men never slaved as the Legionaries did, especially toward the end. The last forty-eight hours, the Master instituted night work. The men paused hardly long enough to eat or sleep, but snatched a bite when they could, labored till they could do no more, and then dropped in their places and were dragged out of the way so that others could take hold. Some fell asleep with tools in hand, stricken down as if by apoplexy.
The Master had wisely kept the pace moderate, at first, but had speeded up toward the end. None grew more haggard, toil-worn, or emaciated than he. With blistered hands, sweat-blinded eyes, parched mouths and fevered souls these men fought against all the odds of destiny. Half naked they strove, oppressed by heat, sun, flies, thirst, exhaustion. Tobacco was their only stay and solace. The Master, however, only chewed khat leaves; and as for "Captain Alden," she toiled with no stimulant.
It was 7:33, on the morning of the sixth day, that Frazier—now chief engineer—came to the Master, as he was working over some complex bit of mechanism in his cabin. Frazier saluted and made announcement:
"I think we can make a try for it now, sir." Frazier looked white and wan, shaking, hollow-eyed, but a smile was on his lips. "Two engines are intact. Two will run half-speed or a little better, and one will do a little."
"One remains dead?"
"Yes, sir. But we can repair that on the way. Rudders and propellers will do. Helicopters O.K."
"Both aft floats repaired, sir. One is cut down a third, and one a half, but they will serve."
"How about petrol?" the Master demanded. "We have only that one aft starboard tank, now, not over three-quarters full."
"There's a chance that will do till we can run down a caravan along the Red Sea, carrying petrol to Suakin or Port Sudan. So there's a fighting hope—if we can raise ourselves out of this sand that clings like the devil himself. It's lucky, sir, we jettisoned those stores. Wind and current brought some of them back, anyhow. If they'd stayed in the storeroom they'd have all been burned to a crisp."
"Yes, yes. You think, then, we can make a start?" The Master put his apparatus into the desk-drawer and carefully locked it. He stood up and tightened his belt a notch.
"We can try, sir," Frazier affirmed grimly. Unshaven, haggard, dirty, and streaked with sweat, he made a strange figure by contrast with the trim, military-looking chap who only a week before had started with the other Legionaries, now no less altered than he.
"Very well," said the Master decisively. "Our prospects are good. The wounded are coming on. Counting Lebon, we have twenty-five men. I will have all stores reloaded at once. Be ready in one hour, sir. Understand?"
"Yes, sir!" And Frazier, saluting again, returned to the ravaged but once more efficient engine-room.
All hands plunged into the surf, wading ashore—for it was now high-tide—and in short order reloaded the liner. In forty-five minutes stores, machine-guns, and everything had been brought aboard, the cables to the posts in the beach had been cast off and hauled in, and all the Legionaries were at their posts. The ports were closed. Everything was ready for the supreme test.
The Master was last to come aboard. Still dripping seawater, he clambered up the ladder from the lower gallery to the main corridor, and made his way into the pilot-house. Bohannan was with him, also Leclair and Captain Alden.
The engines had already been started, and the helicopters had begun to turn, flickering swiftly in their turbine-tubes. The Master settled himself in the pilot's seat. All at once a buzzer sounded close at hand.
"Well, what now?" demanded the Master into the phone communicating with the upper port gallery.
"Smoke to southward, sir. Coming up along the Coast."
"Smoke? A steamer?"
"Can't see, sir." It was the voice of Ferrara that answered. "The smoke is behind the long point to southward. But it is coming faster than a merchant vessel. I should say, sir, it was a torpedo-boat or a destroyer, under forced draft. And it's coming—it's coming at a devil of a clip, sir!"
ONWARD TOWARD THE FORBIDDEN CITY
The Master rang for full engine-power, and threw in all six helicopters with one swift gesture.
"Major," commanded he, as Nissr's burned and wounded body began to quiver through all its mutilated fabric; "Major, man the machine-guns again. All stations! Quick!"
Bohannan departed. The droning of the helicopters rose to a shrill hum. The Master switched in the air-pressure system; and far underneath, white fountains of spumy water leaped up about the floats, mingled with sand and mud all churned to frenzy under the bursting energy of the compressed air released through thousands of tubules.
Nissr trembled, hesitated, lifted a few inches, settled back once more.
Again the buzzer sounded. The noise of rapid feet became audible above, in the upper galleries. Ferrara called into the phone:
"It's a British destroyer, sir! She's just rounded the point, three miles south. Signals up for us to surrender!"
"Machine-guns against naval ordnance!" gritted the Master savagely. "Surrender?" He laughed with hot defiance.
The first shell flung a perfect tornado of brine into air, glistening; it ricochetted twice, and plunged into the dunes. A "dud," it failed to burst.
Nissr rose again as the second shell hit fair in the hard clay of the wady, cascading earth and sand a hundred feet in air. Both reports boomed in, rolling like thunder over the sea.
"Shoot and be damned to you!" cried the Master. Nissr was rising now, clearing herself from the water like a wounded sea-bird. A tremendous cascade of water sluiced from her hissing floats, swirling in millions of sun-glinted jewels more brilliant even than Kaukab el Durri.
Higher she mounted, higher still. The destroyer was now driving in at full speed, with black smoke streaming from four funnels, perfectly indifferent to possible shoals, rocks or sand-bars along this uncharted coast. Another shell screamed under the lower gallery and burst in a deluge of sand near one of the mooring-piles.
"Very poor shooting, my Captain," smiled Leclair, leaning far out the port window of the pilot-house. "But then, we can't blame the gunners for being a bit excited, trying to bag a bit of international game like this Legion."
"And beside," put in Alden coolly, "our shifting position makes us rather a poor target. Ah! That shell must have gone home!"
Nissr quivered from nose to tail. A violent detonation flung echoes from sea and shore; and bits of splintered wreckage spun down past the windows, to plunge into the still swirling, bubbling sea.
The Master made no answer, but rang for the propellers to be clutched in. Nissr obeyed their quickening whirl. Her altitude was already four hundred and fifty feet, as marked by the altimeter. Lamely she moved ahead, sagging to starboard, badly scarred, ill-trimmed and awry, but still alive.
Her great black shadow, trailing behind her in the water, passed on to the beach, wrinkled itself up over the dunes and slid across the sand-drifts where little flutters of cloth, uncovered by the ghoulish jackals, showed from the burning stretch of tawny desert.
Flocks of vultures rose and soared away. Jackals and hyenas cowered and slunk to cover. The tumult of the guns and this vast, drifting monster of the air had overcome even their greed for flesh.
Another shot, puffing white as wool from the bow-chaser of the destroyer, screeched through the vultures, scattering them all ways, but made a clean miss of Nissr.
The air-liner gathered speed as the west wind got behind her, listed her, pushed her forward in its mighty hands. Swifter, ever swifter, her shadow slipped over dune and wady, over hillock and nullah, off away toward the pellucidly clear-golden tints of the horizon beyond which lay the unknown.
Rrisa, at his gun-station, gnawed his fingers in rage and scorn of the pursuing Feringi, and cried: "Allah make it hard for you! Laan'abuk!" (Curses on your fathers!)
Old Sheik Abd el Rahman, close-locked in a cabin, quivered, not with fear, but with unspeakable grief and amazement past all telling. To be thus carried away through the heavens in the entrails of the unbelievers' flying dragon was a thing not to be believed. He prostrated himself, with groans and cries to Allah. The Legionaries, from galleries and gun-stations waving derisive arms, raised shouts and hurrahs.
Sweaty, spent, covered with grease and dirt, they cheered with leaping hearts.
Another shell, bursting in mid-air not fifty yards away, rocked Nissr, keeled her to port, and for a moment sent her staggering down. She righted, lifted, again gathered speed.
More and more wild became the shooting, as she zigzagged, rose, soared into something like her old-time stride. Behind her the sea drew back, the baffled destroyer dwindled, the harmless shots crashed in.
Ahead of her the desert opened. Uncouth, lame, scarred by flame and shell, Nissr spread her vast wings and—still the Eagle of the Sky, undaunted and unbeaten—roared into swift flight toward the waiting mysteries of the vacant abodes.
Mid-morning found Nissr far from the coast, skimming along at fifteen hundred feet altitude over the Tarmanant region of the Sahara. The one shell from the destroyer that had struck her had done no more than graze the tip of the starboard aileron, inflicting damage of no material consequence. It could easily be repaired.
For the present, all danger of any interference from any civilized power seemed to be at an end. But the world had discovered that Nissr and her crew had not yet been destroyed, and the Legionaries felt they must prepare for all eventualities. The stowaway's rash act was still big with possibilities of the most sinister import.
"This is probably just a temporary respite," said Bohannan, as he sat with the Master in the latter's cabin. The windows had been slid wide open, and the two men, leaning back in easy wicker chairs, were enjoying the desert panorama each in his own way—Bohannan with a cigar, the Master with a few leaves of the "flower of paradise."
Now once more clean and a little rested, they had again assumed something of their former aspect. "Captain Alden," and as many others as could be spared from duty, were asleep. The Legion was already pulling itself together, though in depleted numbers. Discipline had tautened again. Once more the sunshine of possible success had begun to slant in through a rift in the lowering clouds of disaster.
"It's still, perhaps, only a temporary respite," the major was saying. "Of course, as long as we stay in the Sahara, we're safe enough from molestation. It's trying to get out—that, and shortage of petrol—that constitute our problem now."
"Yes?" asked the chief, noncommittally. He peered out the window at the vast, indigo horizons of the desert, curving off to northward into a semicircle of burnished blue. Here, there, the etherial wonder of a mirage painted the sandy sea. Vast distances opened on all sides; the sparkling air, brilliant with what seemed a kind of suspended jewel-dust, made every object visible at an incredible remoteness. The wonder of that morning sun and desert could not be put in words.
"Our troubles are merely postponed," the Celt continued, gloomily. "The damage was done when that infernal destroyer sighted us. Just how the alarm was given, and what brought the sea-wasp racking her engines up the coast, we can't tell. But the cat's out of the bag, now, and we've got to look out for an attack at any moment we try to leave this region."
"It's obvious my wireless messages about being wrecked at sea won't have much weight now," the Master replied, analytically. "They would have, though, if that slaving-dhow hadn't put in to investigate us. I have an idea that those jallahs (slavers) must in some way have let the news out at Bathurst, down in Gambia. That's the nearest British territory."
"I wish they'd come within machine-gun fire!" growled the major, blowing smoke.
"Still, we've got lots of room to maneuver," the chief continued. "We're heading due east now," with a glance at the wall-compass and large-scale chart of Northern Africa. "We're now between Mauretania and Southern Algeria, bound for Fezzan, the Libyan Desert, and Nubia on the Red Sea. That is a clear reach of more than three thousand miles of solid desert."
"Oh, we're all right, as long as we stay in the desert," Bohannan affirmed. "But they'll be watching for us, all right, when we try to leave. It's all British territory to the east of us, from Alexandria down to Cape Town. If we could only make our crossing of the Nile and the Red Sea, at night—?"
"Impossible, Major. That's where we've got to restock petrol. If it comes to a show-down, crippled as we are, we'll fight! Of course, I realize that, fast as we fly, the wireless flies faster. We may have to rely on our neutralizers again—"
"Imperfectly, yes. They'll still help us, in 'civilized warfare.' And as for what will happen at Mecca, if the Faithful are indiscreet enough to offer any resistance—"
"Got something new, have you?"
"I think it may prove something of a novelty, Major. Time will tell, if Allah wills. Yes, I think we may have a little surprise for our friends, the Meccans."
The two fell silent again, watching the desert panorama roll back and away, beneath them. Afar, two or three little oases showed feathery-tufted palms standing up like delicate carvings against the remote purple spaces or against the tawny, seamed desolation that burned as with raw colors of fires primeval. Here, there, patches of stunted tamarisk bushes were visible. A moving line of dust showed where a distant caravan was plodding eastward over the sparkling crystals of an ancient salt sea-bottom. A drift of low-hanging wood-smoke, very far away, betrayed the presence of a camp of the Ahl Bayt, the People of the Black Tents.
The buzzer of the Master's phone broke the silence between the two men, a silence undertoned by the throb and hum of the now effectively operating engines.
"Well, what is it?" the Master queried.
"Promising oasis, mon capitaine," came the voice of Leclair from the upper starboard gallery. "Through my glass I can make out extensive date-palm groves, pomegranate orchards, and gardens. There must be plenty of water there. We should take water, eh?"
"Right!" the Master answered. He got up and turned to Bohannan.
"Major," commanded he, "have Simonds and a crew of six stand by, in the lower gallery, to descend in the nacelle. Rrisa is to go. They will need him, to interpret. Give them a few of the trinkets from that assortment we brought for barter, and a little of our Arabic money."
"Yes, sir. But you know only two of the detachable tanks are left."
"Two will suffice. Have them both lowered, together with the electric-drive pump. Don't annoy me with petty details. You are in charge of this job now. Attend to it!"
He passed into the pilot-house, leaned at the window and with his glasses inspected the deep green patch, dark as the profoundest sea, that marked the oasis. A little blind village nestled there, with mud-brick huts, a watch-tower and a tiny minaret; date-grounds and fields of corn, melons, and other vegetables spread a green fringe among the groves.
As Nissr slowed near the oasis, the frightened Arabs—who had been at their ghanda, or mid-day meal—swarmed into the open. They left their mutton, cous-cous, date-paste, and lentils, their chibouques with perfumed vapor and their keef-smoking, and manifested extreme fear by outcries in shrill voices. Under the shadows of the palms, that stood like sentinels against the blistering sands, they gathered, with wild cries.
No fighting-men, these. The glasses disclosed that they were mostly old men, women, children. Young men were few. The fighters had probably gone with the caravan, seen a while before. There came a little ragged firing; but a round of blanks stopped that, and sent the villagers skurrying back into the shelter of the palms, mimosas, and jamelon trees.
Nissr poised at seven hundred and fifty feet and let down tanks, nacelle, and men. There was no resistance. The local naib came with trembling, to make salaam. Water was freely granted, from the sebil, or public fountain—an ancient tank with century-deep grooves cut in its solid stone rim by innumerable camel-hair ropes. The flying men put down a hose, threw the switch of the electric pump, and in a few minutes half emptied the fountain. The astonishment of the villagers passed all bounds.
"These be men of great magic," said the naib, to Rrisa, after the tanks had been hoisted to Nissr, and a dozen sacks of fresh dates had been purchased for the trinkets plus two ryals (about two dollars). "Tell me of these 'People of the Books!'"
"I will tell thee of but one thing, Abu Shawarib," (father of whiskers) answered Rrisa with pride. "Old Abd el Rahman is our prisoner in the flying ship above. We are taking him back to Mecca. All his people of the Beni Harb lie dead far toward the great waters, on the edge of the desert of the sea. The Great Pearl Star we also have. That too returneth to the Haram. Allah iselmak!" (Thanks be to Allah!)
The naib prostrated himself, with joyful cries, and touched lips and forehead with quivering fingers. All others who heard the news, did likewise. Fruits, pomegranate, syrup, honey, and jild el faras were brought as offerings of gratitude. The crew ascended to the air-liner amid wild shouts of praise and jubilation.
[Footnote 1: Literally "mare's skin." Apricot paste in dried sheets, cut into convenient sizes. A great dainty among the Arabs.]
"You see, Leclair?" the Master inquired, as Nissr drew away once more to eastward, leaving the village in the palms behind. "We hold power already with the sons of Islam! What will it be when—?"
"When you attempt to take from them their all, instead of returning to them what they so eagerly desire to have!" the Frenchman put in. "Let us hope all for the best, my Captain, but let us keep our powder very dry!"
Two days and one night of steady flying over the ocean of sand, with but an occasional oasis or caravan to break the appalling wastes of emptiness, brought Nissr to the Valley of the Nile. The river of hoar antiquity came to view in a quivering heat-haze, far to eastward. In anticipation of possible attack, Nissr was forced to her best altitude, of now forty-seven hundred feet, all gun-stations were manned and the engines were driven to their limit. The hour was anxious; but the Legion passed the river in safety, just a little south of the twentieth degree, near the Third Cataract. Bohannan's gloomy forebodings proved groundless.
The Red Sea and Arabia were now close at hand. Tension increased. Rrisa thrilled with a malicious joy. He went to the door of the captive Sheik, and in flowery Arabic informed him the hour of reckoning was at last drawing very near.
"Thou carrion!" he exclaimed. "Soon shalt thou be in the hands of the Faithful. Soon shall Allah make thy countenance cold, O offspring of a one-eyed man!"
Three hours after, the air-liner sighted a dim blue line that marked the Red Sea. The Master pointed at this, with a strange smile.
"Once we pass that sea," he commented, "our goal is close. The hour of great things is almost at hand!"
"Provided we get some petrol," put in Bohannan.
"Faith, an open gate, that should have been closed, defeated Napoleon. A few hundred gallons of gasoline—"
"The gasoline is already in sight, Major," smiled the chief, his glasses on the coastline. "That caravan—see there?—comes very apropos."
The Legion bore down with a rush on the caravan—a small one, not above fifty camels, but well laden. The cameleers left off crying "Ooosh! Ooosh!" and beating their spitting beasts with their mas'hab-sticks, and incontinently took to their heels. Rrisa viewed them with scorn, as he went down in the nacelle with a dozen of the crew.
The work of stripping the caravan immediately commenced. In an hour some five hundred tin cases of petrol had been hoisted aboard. On the last trip down, the Master sent a packet wrapped in white cloth, containing a fair money payment for the merchandise. British goods, he very wisely calculated, could not be commandeered without recompense The packet was lashed to a camel-goad which was driven into the sand, and Nissr once more got slowly under way.
All eyes were now on the barren chalk and sandstone coasts of the Red Sea, beyond which dimly rose the castellated peaks of Jebel Radhwa. At an altitude of 2,150 feet the air-liner slid out over the Sea, the waters of which shone in the mid-afternoon sun with a peculiar luminosity. Only a few sambuks, or native craft, troubled those historic depths; though, down in the direction of Bab el Mandeb—familiar land to the Master—a smudge of smoke told of some steamer beating up toward Suez.
Leaning from the upper port gallery, the Master with Bohannan, Leclair, and "Captain Alden," watched the shadow of the giant air-liner sliding over the tawny sand-bottom. That shadow seemed a scout going on before them, spying out the way to Arabia and to Mecca, the Forbidden City. To the white men that shadow was only a shadow. To Rrisa, who watched it from the lower gallery, it portended ominous evil.
"It goes ahead of us, by Allah!" he murmured. "Into the Empty Abodes, where the sons of Feringistan would penetrate, a shadow goes first! And that is not good." He whispered a prayer, then added: "For the others, I care not. But my Master—his life and mine are bound with the cords of Kismet. And in the shadows I see darkness for all!"
At 4:27, Nissr passed the eastern shores of the Red Sea. Arabia itself now lay beneath. There exposed to their eyes, at length lay the land of mystery and fear. Bare and rock-ribbed, a flayed skeleton of a terrain, it glowed with wondrous yellow, crimson, and topaz hues. A haze bounded the south-eastern horizon, where a range of iron hills jaggedly cut the sky. Mecca was almost at hand.
The Master entered his cabin and summoned Rrisa.
"Listen," he commanded. "We are now approaching the Holy City. I am bringing back the Apostate Sheik and the Great Pearl Star. I am the preserver of the Star. Thine own people could not keep it. I have recovered it. Is that not true?"
"True, M'alme, praise to Allah!"
"It may be that I shall be called on to preserve some other and still more sacred thing. If so, remember that my salt is still in thy stomach."
"Master, I will not forget." Rrisa spoke dutifully, but his eyes were troubled. His face showed lines of fear, of the struggle already developing in his soul.
"Go thou, then! And remember that whatever happens, my judgment tells me it is best. Raise not a hand of rebellion against me, Rrisa, to whom thou owest life itself. To thy cabin—go!"
The Arab salaamed and departed, with a strange look in his eyes.
When he was gone, the Master called Bohannan and Leclair, outlined the next coup in this strange campaign, and assigned crews to them for the implacable carrying-out of the plan determined on—surely the most dare-devil, ruthless, and astonishing plan ever conceived by the brain of a civilized man.
Hardly had these preparations been made, when the sound of musketry-fire, below and ahead, drew their attention. From the open ports of the cabin, peering far down, the three Legionaries witnessed an extraordinary sight—a thing wholly incongruous in this hoar land of mystery and romance.
Skirting a line of low savage hills that ruggedly stretched from north to south, a gleaming line of metal threaded its way. A train, southbound for Mecca, had halted on the famous Pilgrims' Railway. From its windows and doors, white-clad figures were violently gesticulating. Others were leaping from the train, swarming all about the carriages.
An irregular fusillade, harmless as if from pop-guns, was being directed against the invading Eagle of the Sky. A faint, far outcry of passionate voices drifted upward in the heat and shimmer of that Arabian afternoon. The train seemed a veritable hornets' nest into which a rock had been heaved.
"Faith, but that's an odd sight," laughed the major. "Where else in all this world could you get a contrast like that—the desert, a semibarbarous people, and a railroad?"
"Nowhere else," put in Leclair. "There is no other road like that, anywhere in existence. The Damascus-Mecca line is unique; a Moslem line built by Moslems, for Moslems only Modern mechanism blent with ancient superstition and savage ferocity that implacably hold to the very roots of ancient things!"
"It is the Orient, Lieutenant," added the Master. "And in the Orient, who can say that any one thing is stranger than anything else? To your stations, men!"
They took their leave. The Master entered the pilot-house and assumed control. As Nissr passed over the extraordinary Hejaz Railway, indifferent to the mob of frenzied, vituperating pilgrims, the chief peered far ahead for his first sight of Mecca, the Forbidden.
He had not long to wait. On the horizon, the hills seemed suddenly to break away. As the air-liner roared onward, a dim plain appeared, with here or there a green-blue blur of oasis and with a few faint white spots that the Master knew were pilgrims' camping-places.
Down through this plain extended an irregular depression, a kind of narrow valley, with a few sharply isolated, steep hills on either hand.
The Master's eyes gleamed. His jaw set; his hand, on the controls, tightened till the knuckles whitened.
"The Valley of Mina!" he exclaimed. "Mount Arafat—and there, beyond, lies Mecca! Labbayk! Labbayk!"
The descent of the giant air-liner and her crew of masterful adventurers on the Forbidden City had much the quality of a hawk's raid on a vast pigeon-cote. As Nissr, now with slowed engines loomed down the Valley of Sacrifice, a perfectly indescribable hurricane of panic, rage, and hate surged through all the massed thousands who had come from the farthest ends of Islam to do homage to the holy places of the Prophet.
The outraged Moslems, in one fierce burst of passion against the invading Feringi, began to swarm like ants when the stone covering their ant-hill is kicked over. From end to end of the valley, a howling tumult arose.
On the Darb el Ma'ala, or Medina Road, a caravan bearing the annual mahmal gift of money, jewels, fine fabrics, and embroidered coverings for the Ka'aba temple, cut loose with rifles and old blunderbusses. Dogs began to bark, donkeys to bray, camels to spit and snarl. The whole procession fell into an anarchy of hate and fear.
The vast camp of conical white tents in the Valley of Mina spewed out uncounted thousands of Hujjaj (pilgrims), each instantly transformed into a blood-lusting fiend. From the Hill of Arafat; from Jannat el Ma'ale Cemetery; from the dun, bronzed, sun-baked city of a hundred thousand fanatic souls; from the Haram sanctuary itself where mobs of pilgrims were crowded round the Ka'aba and the holy Black Stone; from latticed balcony and courtyard, flat roof, mosque, and minaret, screams of rage shrilled up into the baked air, quivering under the intense sapphire of the desert sky.
Every crowded street of the bowl-shaped city, all converging toward the Sacred Enclosure of the Haram, every caravanserai and square, became a mass of howling ghuzzat, or fighters for the faith. Mecca and its environs, outraged as never before in the thousands of years of its history, instantly armed itself and made ready for a Jihad, or holy war of extermination.
Where the Ahl Bayt, or People of the Black Tents, had tamely enough submitted to the invaders, these Ahl Hayt, or People of the Walls, leaped to arms, eager for death if that could be had in the battle against the infidel dog—for death, so, meant instant bearing up to Paradise, to cool fountains and sweet fruits, and to the caresses of the seventy entrancing houris that each good Moslem has had promised him by "The Strong Book," Al Koran.
Every man and boy in all that tremendous multitude spread over many square miles of rocky, sun-blistered aridity, seized whatever came first to hand, for the impending war, as the black shadow of Nissr lagged down toward the city and the Haram. Some snatched rifles, some pistols; others brandished spears and well-greased nebut clubs, six feet long and deadly in stout hands. Even camel-sticks and tent-poles were furiously flung aloft. Pitiful, impotent defiance, no more effective than the waving of ants' antennae against the foot that kicks their nest to bits!
Screams, curses, execrations in a score of tongues mounted in one frenzied chorus. Swarms of white-robed pilgrims came running in masses after the drifting shadow, knocking each other down, falling aver tent-pegs, stampeding pack-animals. The confusion amazed the Legionaries as they watched all this excitement through their powerful glasses.
"It looks," thought the Master, with a smile, "as if our little surprise-party might be a lively affair. Well, I am ready for it. 'Allah knows best, and time will show!'"
All over the plain and through the city, myriads of little white puffs, drifting down-wind, showed the profusion of firing. Now came the boom of a cannon from the Citadel—an unshotted gun, used only for calling the Faithful to prayer. Its booming echo across the plain and up against the naked, reddish-yellow hills, still further whipped the blood-frenzy of the mad mobs.
Even the innumerable pigeons, "Allah's announcers," swirled in clouds from the arcades, mosques, and minarets surrounding the Haram, and from the Ka'aba itself, and began winging erratic courses all about the Forbidden City. Men, birds, and animals alike, all shared the terror of this unheard-of outrage when—according to ancient prophesy—the Great Devils of Feringistan should desecrate the holy places.
[Footnote 1: So called because of their habit of cooing and bowing. Moslems fancy they are praying to Allah and making salaam to him.]
"Slow her!" commanded the Master into the engine-room phone, and began compensating with the helicopters, as Nissr lagged over the crowded city. "Shut off—let her drift! Stand by to reverse!"
Mecca the Unattainable now lay directly beneath, its dun roofs, packed streets, ivory minarets all open to the heretics' gaze from portholes, from the forward observation pit and from the lower gallery. As Nissr eased herself down to about one thousand feet, the plan of the city became visible as on a map. The radiating streets all started from the Haram. White mobs were working themselves into frenzy, trampling the pilgrims' shrouds that had been dipped in the waters of the well, Zem Zem, and laid out to dry.