If it weren't for being tied to his saddle, Marion would have fallen off Phoebe hours ago.
When he started this trek, three days ago, the sun was barely a thought on the horizon, the desert less formidable—but by noon—w hen he stopped to water himself and his mount, he noticed a hole worn in the goatskin, and most of the water gone.
He rationed the few drops until the following day, and that's when his mind wandered. Sweat. Such a curious thing. Water leaves your body at the least opportune time. Why would your body's water leave you when it was needed the most? He licked a salty drop from his upper lip, trying to stave off its escape.
It would be a two days more to the Oasis Siwa. He would never make it.
He dug a finger under Phoebe's saddle and felt for moisture. She had stopped sweating...
It was an odd distant sensation. By the time he opened a crusted eye, the desert floor was swirling toward his face. He landed head first, his back arching and his arms flailing. He lay still and took stock of himself. Nothing broken? He turned carefully and propped himself up on an elbow. Sand was thick on his lips. When he breathed, he sucked in the grains and coughed roughly. He tried to spit out the desert, but it was like trying to blow gun powder out of a rusty musket.
Phoebe's glassy eyes stared at him, not a sign of life left. He reached over and closed them. She had been his best and most reliable friend this past year. He wouldn't be here at all, if not for her. Now she had sealed his fate. As if he had a chance.
He pulled his shemagh over his eyes and pictured her the first day they met...
Marion had been purchasing pickles and goat meat at the Cairo market. Having arrived in Egypt only the week before, he was still enthralled by the sights and sounds of the busy city. He was walking along, loaded up with bundles of food, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning he saw a boy tethering a beautiful Arabian horse. She had a bandaged left foreleg, but besides that, she was stunning.
After a quick inspection and quicker bartering, he loaded his sacks upon her back and headed back to the British base, where he wondered if he would be allowed to replace his assigned mount.
Five years later, Lieutenant Marion and four of his comrades had just been discharged from the British armed forces. His Sargeant, Albert Macky, had a grand plan after they were mustered out.
During their last months in the army, they had been sent to scout a line of oasis on the eastern tip of the Sahara. They were hurriedly returning to their base in Cairo. Corporal Nichols had malaria and his fever, combined with the heat of the Sahara, was often a death sentence. Two days out, they came across a nervous caravan. Upon inspection, they found a king's fortune, looted from a forgotten tomb. Not having much authority over civilians, and not to mention the thirty carvaners were armed, and no military weaponry was being smuggled, they had little choice but to let them continue their journey.
As they rode away, Sargent Macky made a request of Marion. “Lieutenant, permission to follow them.”
“For what purpose?”
“They are carrying contraband. We should see where it goes. It might go to be sold to purchase weapons for our enemies.”
Marion thought for a moment. “No ulterior motives. Sargent?”
“Of course, sir. Your permission?”
Marion simply nodded at him, giving no verbal order.
Sargent Macky mounted his horse and headed east of where the caravan was en-route, skirting to their flank.
Two weeks later in the barracks back in Cairo, Sargent Macky returned, looking bedraggled, but the light in his eyes had them itching with curiosity. Lieutenant Marion, Corporal Nichols, Sargent Devon and Private Percival, immediately cleaned up, then hurried Sargent Macky to a quiet corner in the local cafe, where they gathered around Macky eager for his story.
Marion ordered a bottle of brandy and five glasses. He prodded Macky. “You're killing us. What happened after we left you?”
“Well, it was the first week out after you fellas left, and me low on water and getting desperate, when the caravan finally set up camp. Then they dug and dug, until the blackness of night hid them from sight.”
“So they buried the treasure?” Marion asked.
“Wasn't quite sure about that, yet. The next morning, I followed them a ways. Just over the first dune, I saw a line of Bedouins ready for attack.”
Macky, still looking thin and haggard, shot down his glass of brandy. He was unshaven and his rusty colored hair fell over his collar. His skin was peeling and his eyes had a far away look.
“Well...?” Corporal Nichols, the most reserved and youngest of the comrades, prodded.
“Well, you should have seen it. Those devils, in a line as crisp as the Royal Lancers, on horses black as oil, charged down the dune in a formation that would have pleased The Duke of Wellington. They slaughtered the carvaners, giving no quater. They pillaged everything they could carry, which wasn't much and left before an hour had passed. I sat back and realized I was in the middle of a miracle. Now the digging made sense.
“All I could think of was getting back here and telling my mates we would be the richest men on earth. The miracle being, I was the only man alive to witness where the treasure was buried . The Bedouins hadn't had a clue that a fortune lay buried just a dune away.”
“Did you get to digging?” Private Sweeney, a blonde Brit with Viking roots, and the more muscled of the lot, asked excitedly.
“That was my first thought, but my second thought overruled it. I was as thirsty as a rabid goat, so I went searching among the strewn equipment, bodies, and finally found a flask of what I thought was water. Well, as you fellas know, there is no more grimacing surprise when you taste whiskey without expecting it.”
“Did you drink it?” Private Devon, the brooder of the bunch, with dark hair and darker thoughts, asked.
“Just a sip. I knew if I drank more, my thirst would be ten fold.”
“What did you do?”
“I was beat, friends. I knew I sat upon a monumental find, and I thought about what this could mean to all of us. But I knew I would be lucky to get out of the desert alive.”
“Tough go, Sergeant. I can't imagine what I would have done in your stead.” Marion sympathized. “We know that you got here, so we are dying to know what happened. What saved you?”
Corporal Nichols laughed. “Won't be the first time a camel saved your ass. Remember that girl you met at the Oasis Siwa?”
Marion held up his hand. “Let him finish. Pour him another drink, Corporal.”
“Well, it was a camel. And sure as you see me, I would not be sitting here right now, if it wasn't for that old gal. As you know, the Bedouins will slit the throat of any man for a fig, but when it comes to goats, horses, and camels, they are as protective as a mother wolf over her cubs. They had let the camels go into the desert, where they knew they would survive.”
“That reminds me of the time we chased those Bedouins...”
“Quiet, Corporal Nichols. This is Macky's story and I think you know it is grander and may reap more fertile rewards than anything you have to say.”
“I had just laid down in what I thought could be my grave, when I heard the whining of a female camel. I looked up and saw her bent down and nusseling one of the carvaner corpses.”
“It was his master? Right?” Nichols announced.
“Brilliant for the obvious, again. Now shut up and let him finish this story.” Marion ordered.
Macky looked at the Corporal and shook his head. “How did you make Corporal, anyway?”
They all laughed. “The heat scorch your memory? You promoted him via battlefield promotion when we were attacked and surrounded by...”
Macky raised his arm. “Please, please do not remind me. Well, I look up at this grieving beast and then rub my eyes. She was still wearing her rigging, piled high with supplies. I staggered to my feet and reached for her lead rope. She not knowing me from Adam, jerked away, nearly pulling my arm from my body and runs away, again.”
“If you were not sitting here, telling the story, I would not believe you could have survived.” Devon said with a measure of sympathy.
“Oh, believe me. It was the third time that day I thought the Lord above was calling in his cards. I knew I had one thing to do. I had to get that camel. I devised a simple plan. One that was easily suited to me because of my deteriorating condition. I went to the corpse the camel had mourned over, dug myself a shallow hole, and lay in it with my musket by my side.”
“Wait a minute, Macky. What happened to your horse through all this?” Devon asked.
Macky hung his head. The first sign of misery in the telling of his whole story. “She ran off at the first shots from the Bedouins. Thought I had her staked, but the sand, the shots...”
Marion patted Macky's hand. “We know. Continue.”
“Well, if you think its hot sitting or standing atop the desert at full noon, you hadn't ever lay in the oven I dug for myself. I felt and thought I could hear my skin sizzling. Just when I determined I was breathing my last, I heard her. Cautious steps in the sand. I knew the old girl would come back.”
“How you know that?”
“You know camels. Stubborn as tar. If she had finished her goodbyes to her master, and I hadn't scared her off, she wouldn't have come back.”
“ I wait, because I have no choice. She slowly comes to her master's body and began that damn wailing. The whole time I'm figuring what to do. The surest thing, would be to shoot her and hope all those bags, had some food and water in them. But then, I would be afoot in the middle of nowhere and hell. So I muster up that I'm going to grab her reins for all I'm worth, and hang on this time. If she gets away, I could always shoot her.”
Marion poured another drink for Macky.
“This is the hard part.” He said as he squeezed his shot glass between his hands.
“What do you mean. It all sounds hard to me.” Marion said.
“Well, it's kinda a cross between foolish and embarrassing. The old girl starts walking around her master's body and licking it. Like she thinks there's a spot that will wake him up. She stomps down with one of her hairy hoofs right on my left shin and its all I can do to not jump and scream. Her head is too far away to grab the reins, so I got no choice.”
“You shot her? But what if...?”
“Shut up, Corporal, and let him tell about the...what if...” Marion ordered.
“I slowly lift my gun from the sand and all but place it against her neck. She senses something and looks back at me, her slobber drooling down on the dead man's face. She had sad eyes, and for a moment, my heart felt for her. If I lay dead in some god-begotten desert. I don't know that anyone would shed a tear for me.”
“I would...” Corporal offered.
Macky looked at him. “Thanks. As my heart is bleeding for her, I started to get angry. Now, it may seem I had all the time that a desert has to offer; but you got to remember, my leg is about to break under the weight of this fat camel. So my mind, sluggish as it was, took a turn towards vengeance.”
“Yea. I'm so thirsty I could drink fly piss, and here was this big stupid beast, leaking more water from her mouth than I had seen in a whole week.”
Macky took another shot then slammed the glass on the table. “I shot her!”
“Finally.” Devon muttered.
Macky looked at him sternly. “Finally? It was the stupidest, ill-thought thing I had done since signing up with you miscreants. The smelly beast wavered for a spell, leaking blood all over me, then fell.”
“Oh God. Let me guess.” Devon said.
“No, please no. Let him finish.” Marion said.
“She buckled to her knees. Then, like a fat sow rolling on her side to feed her piglets, she fell over on the better half of me.”
“You ain't lying? Is your better half the top?” Devon chided.
“Look at his face, you know its below the belt.” Corporal added.
“Well, there I lay with half a ton of camel on me. Didn't seem like I would die right away, and even if I was at full strength, I doubt I could have rolled her off me. As I'm pondering my further slide into hell, I hear something that surprises more hell out of me.”
“What could surprise you more than what's already happened?” Devon said.
“Listen to this. I hear moaning. It ain't me and it ain't the camel. The camel's master is still alive, and I hope he is pinned too, because I'm in no mood or position to fight anyone.”
“So you are laying side by side with a pyramid-robbing thief, and a camel is lying atop both of you?” Marion said.
“I hoped that was true. So I call out in the little Bedouin I know...As salamou... I hear nothing, so I turn back to my efforts to get out from under this smelly mass of animal. My rifle arm is pinned, and both my legs. But there is a little freedom from my right elbow down. I start digging little turtle digs, pushing the hot sand away from me, and soon my whole arm is free. I then realized that's the best I can do, for I am worn out and thirstier than salt. Then I have an idea. I dig with my right arm down my side to my knife and manage to pull it free. I can tell the camel is still bleeding from the neck wound, but I figured I would speed it up and lighten her by giving her a few more holes to bleed out. I stab away and find myself drinking her blood. While not as satisfying as this brandy, I drank like it was.”
“My God. Macky. I don't know whether to believe every word of this, or none at all.”
“Shut up and pour me another.” Macky gave Devon a serious stare. “I soon see she ain't lighter and I'm just going to die. Always hoped I would die atop a young clean woman. Not underneath a smelly old one.”
Everyone laughed except for Devon. “Finish the story. We know how it ends.”
“And how do you know that. Lieutenant?”
“You are here.”
“Well being here and getting here are two different concerns.”
“You're right. Sorry for my impatience, but the outcome of your story greatly concerns us all.”
“I know. I know. But don't go mustering out just yet. Dreaming of wealth, golden doorknobs and willing virgins.”
Devon leaned back in his chair. “I knew it. The treasure's gone.”
Macky laughed. “Let me finish and you be the judge of that. I'd given up for about the fifth time that day, ready to meet my maker or whoever had the gall to place me on this earth, when the caravaner took to thrashing around. I said, As salamou again and he stopped his movements.
“Oui.” he said. Most of these Bedouins traded with the Algerian French.”
“Pouvez-vous déplacer?” I asked.
“Oui.” was all he answered, then I became concerned. He wriggled about and I heard the sand falling off him. The next thing I feel is a gun barrel against my temple and the click of the hammer on his Damascus rifle.
“Bédouin?” He asked.
I shook my head, “Aucun Britannique.”
He traced his gun barrel along my cheek bone, “Vous sanglante?”
He thought I was bleeding, so it gave me pause. Maybe he would have some sympathy for me. “Oui.”
“Comment chameau être au top?” He asked.
“Now I had to pick my words carefully. There was no easy way to explain why his camel lay dead on top of me. Even if I knew the words, he would either not believe me, or shoot me. I shrugged my shoulder and raised my right hand in defeat.
“Vous êtes mort.” He pronounced my sentence.
“So after all I had been through, I was going to die by the hands of a caravaner.”
Macky slammed another drink.
“Hurry. What happened next? His gun wouldn't fire? He took pity on you and dug you out?” Corporal asked.
“Kind of a combination. Yes, he shot me, or at least pulled the trigger. But his frizen pan was empty. He just showered me with a few sparks, then slammed my head with the butt of his gun.”
“...I don't know how long...hours, days, later, I awoke. Nobody was more amazed I was still alive than me. Course there wasn't anyone around except me to notice that fact. Now there ain't much life in the desert, as you fellas know, but if you kill something and let it rot a few days, suddenly there are more flies than all the sand in your boots, and vultures...I thought it was night, there were so many of them. Now I'm not sure how much a fly can eat, but them vultures are fast eaters and by the second day, I could push what was left of old Grace off me.”
“Grace?” Devon repeated.
Macky shrugged. “Got kinda close to the old girl, had to give her name. Its an argument...if she saved my life...or not. Kind of like my first wife, Grace. She sure smelled like her at times. Well, Grace had lost enough weight to where I could push her off me and what a mess she was, hardly a scrap left for me. I was pretty woozy after spending two days under her, but felt like I now had a chance to live. I suppose her blood saved me.”
Marion waved at the barmaid and she brought another bottle. Macky was drinking more than his share. They all could tell, both the story and the brandy were taking their toll.
“Now this is where the parrot hits the fan. I was just about to do a jig, but noticed my leg that had been under the weight of the camel was not working so good. I looked around and saw a neat pile of bags lying nearby. The carvaner had taken what he needed and left the rest.
I found a couple of goatskins full of nasty water. I drank till I cried, then feasted on some festering cheese. That's when I see it. A wall of sand like I've never seen before. All the way from the north to south, and high as the sky, heading my way. I gather all the cheese and skins and seeing nowhere to lay low, decided I would dig in under the carcass of Grace. This time, of my own accord.
All afternoon, that sand needled its way into my grave and I, spending much time pushing it back out. By morning, the storm and my thankfulness at being alive, had left.”
“Whoa. Wait a minute. After all you'd been through, you weren't happy to be alive?” Nichols asked.
“My point. Every time I thought I was gonna live, something came along. So by then, I was as wary as a cat in a dog house. You got to remember I had nothing but some hot mouthfuls of blood and in the last two days. I been pinned by a camel and gun butted by her master.”
“So just another day in the British army.” Devon said.
They all laughed, even Macky managed a smile, but they could all tell, he was tired. The story getting harder to get out after every bad turn.
Macky looked slowly at Devon. “Wished you'd been with me to show me the ropes.”
They all understood the threat.
“Aww, Macky, I'm just joking.” Devon patted Macky on the arm.
“All right. So I don't completely give up just yet. I dig my way out from under Grace and the pile of sand that buried us. The desert looked new to me. I couldn't find the tall dune I'd walked down from. A few lumps here and there told me where a man or camel lay. Besides that, I was as lost as a blind crow. The sun set me straight, as it was setting in the west. I dug around under a small pile of sand, where I remembered Grace's stores lay, and luckily found the water-filled goatskin, and chow bag, and headed East.”
The first day was tough. The sand soft and the weight of my supplies pulling me down. I walked into the night as long as I could then dropped and slept until the sun to again show me the way.
Wish i hadn't' relied so much on the lieutenant here for being the navigator. I wished I had paid attention when her read the stars.
By noon I ran into bad company. The Bedouins were camped by the Oasis Shaswan, and I, out of water had planned this as an important if not life saving stop. I had not choice. I and walked into their camp like I owned the place.
“Waite a minute. You walked in to a Bedouin camp with your uniform on and no weapon?”
“Let me back up a bit. I had tossed my tunic and cut my trousers at the knees. I buried my British Calvary boots and walked in half naked and trying to remember as much French as I could.”
“French? Thought they hated the French as much as us.”
“Yes, but I had sort of a plan....”