Terence O'Rourke/Part 1/Chapter 16
HE RACES WITH DEATH
The desert is no level plain; it rolls in vast steppes, with long, wavelike undulations, much like a wind-swept sea miraculously petrified.
Ibeni, the Tawarek, unable to compete with the range of Soly's Mauser, at length gave it up; dawn approached too nearly; he had a long journey to make up the Wadi ere he should dare to show himself upon the surface of the desert.
Swearing copiously with childish rage he emptied at Soly the last cartridges of the revolver which O'Rourke had presented him; and had the vain pleasure of seeing the bullets plow up the sand and ricochet from the sun-baked, rocklike walls of the gully.
Soly replied with a shot that sent up a spurt of dust too near the feet of the Tawarek for comfort; he took up his long rifle and aimed carefully for the head of the dun racer; at least, if he might not have it, the Frenchman should not. Again his shot fell short; and Soly sent a bullet whose wind nipped the cheek of Ibeni.
Seizing the swaying lanyard of the pack camel the Tawarek retreated hastily another fifty yards; he was out of the range there, and also out of sight of the Frenchman. Moreover, he had but two loads for his rifle, and these he dared not waste. With them gone he would be at the mercy of chance, dependent wholly upon his long knife.
It was cruel to leave his precious racer there, but it seemed that he had no choice; besides, he promised himself he would return at the head of his warriors, regain the dun racer, and wipe the invaders off the face of the desert.
Madame la Princesse was on the back of the pack camel, securely bound, both to prevent her falling and to render futile any attempt at escape she might be minded to make.
Ibeni looked up at her; she was dry-eyed now, had ceased her lamentations, sat deep sunken in despair; she moved her head painfully, looking ever to the rear, in an agony of hope of rescue.
She was very fair to the eyes of the Ibeni; and his eyes glistened. After all, he considered, it was worth the sacrifice of a dun racer to win such a beauty. Indeed, she was worth many racers. He recalled that he had once traded six pack animals, such as madame rode, and a black dromedary, for a girl of the tribe of Oulad-Nail, who had run away with a lover as soon as occasion offered.
And she had been as nothing—as the stars to the moon—compared with this fair daughter of the Franks.
The sun was mounting; there was naught for it but the weary journey of some twenty miles over the blistering desert to Zamara, the next oasis, where his men were awaiting him. Certainly, it was no great hardship for him to walk that distance—he, Ibeni, who had walked the burning sands since he could toddle.
Thus he contented himself, and, with his hand upon the lanyard of the pack animal, the camel obediently stepped out at a fair pace, Ibeni pattering swiftly by its head.
After some time they left the gully; El Kebr was out of sight by then—only the waving tips of her hundred-foot palms broke the sky line behind them, to the east.
The sun rose, gathering power, and glared down terribly upon the domain over which it held sway, undisputed and indomitable. The hoofs of the camel raised a yellow mist of dust; on its back madame swayed, half-unconscious, cut cruelly by the ropes, in a daze of suffering. The Tawarek drew up his mask until nothing remained but the very narrowest of slits to see through.
Slowly the morning wore on; the pack camel trotted spiritlessly, its master plodding, mute, desperate. The heat grew well-nigh unbearable, beating down fiercely from directly above. The desert shimmered in a saffron sheen of torridity; the sands had become as hot to the touch as clinkers fresh from the pit. Overhead the sky lowered, white hot to the eye, infernally dazzling.
Thus they proceeded for hours that seemed as eons to the suffering woman; she had long ceased to have coherent thought. She had abandoned hope. There was naught for her but endurance and—death by her own hand so soon as she might be able to make an opportunity.
At noon the camel lifted its head and sniffed, then lengthened its stride. Ibeni cried out hoarsely with his parched and dusty lips and throat; for the oasis of Zamara could not be far, now that the camel had scented the water.
Madame heard, but without care or comprehension. There was now only one thing that could rouse her from her lethargy. And that was to come.
Zamara was still afar when the report of a rifle caused the Tawarek to turn his head; at the same moment a spoonful of sand rose from the face of the desert, on the off side of the camel; it sailed almost a yard in the air, feathered and disappeared.
Ibeni blasphemed by all the gods in the Mohammedan calendar; he reached up to the long rifle which swung at the side of the pack camel.
They were in the middle of a saucer-like depression in the desert. Ahead of them was a league-long grade, behind them a similar one, which they had just covered. And down this latter slope was coming the heat-distorted shape of the dun racer, with a man upon his back—grotesque as a chimera, a full mile behind, yet looming so huge through the haze that it seemed as though Ibeni would be overtaken in another moment.
He loaded the rifle, calling to the camel to halt, waiting patiently for the pursuer to get within range. He was not greatly afraid; for behind, in Zamara, his warriors would soon be hearing the fusillade and sallying out to his rescue.
The pack camel sheered off to one side; the dun racer came on steadily. Ibeni dropped to his knee, and took aim, resting the long rifle firmly to insure accuracy. Still he waited; still the dun racer neared, growing in size, a huge, splendid target.
A minute passed; now he felt that he might not miss. He fired.
Fruitlessly? For the dun racer continued to approach relentlessly at top speed. He heard the report of a Mauser, and a scream; a quick glance aside showed him that the pack camel had fallen upon its knees, and was threatening to roll upon and crush the woman in its death agony.
That was the last thing his eyes rested upon on earth; O'Rourke fired again, almost at random, risking everything, even the woman he loved, in the necessity of saving her from what was, if not death itself, worse than death.
The Tawarek shrieked piercingly. He sprang suddenly to his feet, throwing out his arms to the brazen sky, as though invoking the aid of Allah. His eyes were glassy; blood trickled from the corners of his mouth. He recognized that he was done for, at last. With one final supreme effort he reeled, faced about and fell with his head to the east, toward Mecca.
O'Rourke did not stop; the dun racer passed the fallen Tawarek with giant, league-consuming strides, and as it did so, to make all things sure, the Irishman sent another bullet into the prone body.
Simultaneously he gave the cry for halt, dropped the rifle and leaped from the back of the racer, while yet at full speed, landing on his feet by the head of the wounded camel.
It was kneeling, swaying from side to side, its long-lashed eyes wide with pain, fast glazing. O'Rourke was by the saddle in one spring; he drew his knife and cut the ropes that bound madame, wrenched her from the back of the pack animal just as it slumped over upon its side, kicking spasmodically in its death struggle.
For a moment he held the woman he loved in his arms—there, with nothing above them but the wide, blazing sky, with nothing about but the seething sands, with none to observe but the well-trained dun racer, that had halted a few feet distant.
She was conscious; by a magnificent demand upon her courage she had staved off the faintness which was clutching at her sentience.
There was a breathless pause, while he collected his faculties for action; hitherto every atom of him had seemed concentrated on the purpose of overtaking madame; now it was with an effort that he remembered the equal necessity of encompassing a return to El Kebr.
Perhaps it was an outside influence that finally brought him to active knowledge of what he must do. Faint, far-sounding shots were to be heard, followed by a chorus of yells—Tawarek yells, from the warriors of the dead leader, coming out from the oasis of Zamara to the rescue.
Intuitively the Irishman divined their source. He shuddered with despair. They had but one camel. He forced himself to realize that, at whatever cost, madame must be saved, and hastily bearing her in his arms, as though she had been a feather, to the dun-colored dromedary, bade the animal to kneel, and placed madame upon its saddle, fastening her there with the straps provided for the purpose.
Their plight was desperate; the woman did not remonstrate, recognizing the futility of argument with the Irishman, showing her appreciation of his character by not wasting time with useless protestations. She knew full well that he was going to risk his life for her, and that he would do it, willy-nilly; it would but expose him to a greater danger to dispute the matter.
But in her eyes he read his reward.
The dun racer rose at the command; with trembling fingers O'Rourke transferred the lanyard from its headstall to the surcingle, making a sort of loop, which fell to the level of his elbow. Beyond the rim of the saucer-like depression the shouts of the oncoming Tawareks were now perceptibly louder.
Silently the man handed his Mauser to the woman; as silently she took and bound it to the saddle.
The Irishman slipped his arm through the loop, and ordered the animal to go on.
It started off slowly, unwilling to leave the nearer oasis; O'Rourke wasted strength in urging it on. Momentarily the Tawareks were gaining; soon they would be at the head of the rise. He shouted furiously at the beast. Eventually it began to move briskly, gathered impetus, and was going at racing speed, the Irishman running by its side, half pulled along by the loop from the surcingle.
In the beginning he managed fairly well. But the long slope to the rim of the saucer made fearful demands upon the reserve of air that he held in his great chest. He reached the rim, crossed it half fainting, getting his breath hardly.
Beyond it was not so bad; there was a grateful downward grade, along which he sprang, carried partly by his own momentum; the speed of the dromedary became terrific. It was excited by the commotion in the rear; evidently the Tawareks had come upon the body of their dead leader, Ibeni. Long, wailing howls conquered the silence itself, overpowering as that was, filling the void between heaven and earth with nerve-racking, long-drawn wails of lamentation and grief and rage, punctuated with ominous rifle shots.
These acted upon the dun racer as a stimulant; it lowered its long, scrawny neck until it seemed that its head almost touched the sands; and stretched out its slim, knobby legs, rocking from right to left like a ship in a heavy sea, devouring fathoms of the desert at a stride.
Its motion robbed madame of strength; she shut her eyes, struggling with the nausea induced upon the novice by camel riding. Thus she could not see O'Rourke; it was as well.
Two miles they covered, ere his breath began to give out. The hot sands burnt through the soles of his shoes, the sun above seemed to strike into his body piercingly, to the very core of the man. He struggled on: better to die thus than to become a goal for Tawarek bullets. His arm through the loop aided him wonderfully; the dun racer sped fleetly, as though it were not dragging a weary load of man in addition to the burden of the woman.
Somehow, that strange thing termed the second wind came to O'Rourke, at a time when he felt himself in his last extremity, when his lungs ached and burned, when his legs were moving only automatically in obedience to his iron will. This happened when they had put a distance of something like four miles between them and the scene of the tragedy.
He revived a trifle; his head that had been hanging erected itself, he stared out toward El Kebr that he could not have seen had it been within sight, his eyeballs starting from their sockets. For a brief space the strain grew lighter.
He mended his stride, hanging less like a dead weight upon the loop; for a little while it swung loosely upon his arm.
After them came the chase, marked by a pillar of yellow dust raised by the flying hoofs of the camels; it seemed that they gained—the pursuers—for the cloud grew nearer and nearer, larger and larger, and the yells sounded more loudly.
But of these the fugitives were unaware; they had neither thought nor desire to look back. It was nothing to them whether the chase were near or far; there was naught thought of, save to maintain the going, no matter how.
Again the Irishman's head sank; his chin fell and waggled loosely upon his chest; the sun was claiming him for its prey. His mouth gaped open, his tongue protruded, dry as a bone, white-caked with the sand and dust that flew about him in minute particles. His nostrils were distended to their utmost, straining in the dry and superheated air.
He lost the sense of motion in his legs,—nearly lost consciousness. For some time the desert had been rising and falling; now it reeled dizzily about him, swirling like a maelstrom in a blood-red flood. His heart labored mightily, beating with trip-hammer blows upon the walls of his chest; and his lungs were like twin crucibles brimming with molten metal.
An inquisition could have devised no torture more sublime; practically the man was already dead; only that something which was death-defying in his make-up, that determination almost superhuman, held him upon his feet, and kept those digging into the sand and spurning it to the rear, in time to the rocking of the dun racer.
Before them, after many ages had crashed on into infinity,, loomed the green walls of El Kebr. Behind, the Tawareks had drawn so nigh that they were encouraged to take pot-shots that flew wide and far because of the staggering pace of their own camels; the which made aiming impossible, a hit a miracle.
But of all this neither of the fugitives comprehended aught; the woman had passed into a merciful unconsciousness and had slipped forward in her fastenings upon the saddle of the dromedary, jerking back and forth and from side to side, mechanically, with a flaccid and puppet-like motion horribly suggestive of a lifeless thing.
O'Rourke plunged still on, as automatically, knowing nothing, more than anything else imaginable resembling a dead man mocking the action of the living. His eyes stood wide open and seemed to glare downwards at the streaking desert sands—that were not sands but fire solidified, even as the air was not atmosphere, but fire pure and immaculate; but the staring eyeballs were fixed and sightless, spheres of exquisite pain in their sockets, caked like his tongue with the impalpable sand drift of the desert. His ears were filled with a thundering that rolled ever louder and stronger and more maddening. The color of his face had gone from ruddy bronze to scarlet, from scarlet to purple, and from purple had merged into the dense black hue of congestion on his temples the great, swollen veins stood out like black cords, distended and throbbing almost to the bursting point; and presently from his nostrils there trickled slowly a sluggish, dark hemorrhage.
Yet they racked on, pursuers and pursued, the hunters and the hunted, the quick and the dead—a nightmare-like vision of a dead man fleeing with his beloved from a ruthless and vengeful mob of fiends; all in that day of brass and fire.
Alarmed by the crackling of the Tawarek rifles, the imperial guard of Leopold le Premier, l'Empereur du Sahara, suddenly emerged in force and checked the pursuit.
But when they picked up the corpse-like body of O'Rourke and bore him back into the cool recesses of the oasis, they quite failed to recognize their leader; nor, possibly, would they ever have done so, save by processes of deduction—for he was quite unrecognizable—had not Madame la Princesse revived sufficiently to breathe to her brother a fragmentary account of the manner of her rescue.