THE moment the sun sank into the billows of sand Kanana had left his perch.
From the loaded stalks about him he gathered a goat's-hair sack of grain and fastened it upon his back. There was no one to whom he need say farewell, and, armed only with his shepherd's staff, he started away upon the desert, setting his course to the north and west.
Before he had gone far he passed a lad of about his own age who had come from the encampment to hunt for desert-rats. Had Kanana seen him he would have made a wide detour, but the boy lay so still upon the sand that the first Kanana knew of his presence was when a low sarcastic voice uttered his name.
"Kanana!" it exclaimed. "Thou here? Dost thou not fear that some rat may bite thee? Whither darest thou to go, thus, all alone, and after dark, upon the sand?"
Fire flashed from Kanana's eyes. His hand clutched his shepherd's staff and involuntarily he lifted it; but the better counsel of his curious notions checked the blow. It was so dark that the boy upon the sand did not notice the effect of his taunts and knew nothing of his narrow escape. He only heard the quiet voice of Kanana as presently it meekly replied to his question:
"I go to Mount Hor."
It was an answer so absurd that the boy gave it no second thought and by the time that the foosteps of Kanana had died away the rat-hunter had as utterly forgotten him as though he had never existed.
To Mount Hor?
Kanana had only the most imperfect information to guide him. He knew that the Beni Sad caravan had been for some days upon the road southward, to Mecca, when it was captured by Raschid Airikat and turned at an angle, northward, toward Damascus.
Seen from a great distance, over the sea of sand, the solitary peak of old Mount Hor, where Aaron, the great high priest of Israel, was buried, formed a startling beacon. By day or night, it rises clear and sharp against the sky, guiding the caravans northward, from Arabia to Jerusalem and Damascus, and southward from Syria to Medina and Mecca; while the fertile oasis about it is the universal resting-place.
Kanana was not at all sure that the caravan would not have passed Mount Hor long before he could reach it; but if so, it must in time return that way, and, in any case, of all Arabia Mount Hor was the one spot where he could be sure to gather further information from passing caravans.
He hew his path upon that shifting sand as well as an Indian knew his way through the trackless forests of New England. With the sun and stars above him, any Arab would have scorned the idea of being lost in Arabia, and through the long night with strong and steady strides Kanana pressed onward toward Mount Hor.
As the harvest moon rose above the desert, behind him, the Bedouin boy was softly chanting from the second sura of Al Koran:
"God, there is no God but him;
The Living! The Eternal.
Slumber doth not overtake him,
And upholding all things,
To him is no burden.
He is the Lofty and the Great."
His long, black shadow fell over the silver sand, and, watching it, he chanted the Koran again:
"God is God. Whatever of good betideth thee cometh from him.
"Whatever of evil is thine own doing."
Suddenly a speck appeared upon the distant horizon. None but the keen eye of a shepherd would have seen it, in the night, but Kanana watched it as it quivered and wavered, disappearing as it sank into a valley in the rolling sand, appearing again, like a dory on the ocean, each time a little nearer than before.
Kanana noted the direction the speck was taking, and he made a wide path for it; he crouched among the sand-shrubs when it came too near.
First a small party of horsemen passed him, the advance guard of a moving tribe. Then came the main body of men upon camels and horses; but the only sounds were made by the feet of the animals and the clanking of the weapons. The she-camels with their young followed; then the sheep and goats driven by a few men on foot; next, the camels laden with the tents and furniture; last of all the women and children of the tribe accompanied by another armed escort.
From all that company there was not a sound but of a sand and the trappings. There was nothing but shadows, swinging, swaying shadows, moving like phantoms over the white sand, as the trailing train went gliding on, in that mysterious land of shadows and silhouettes.
There was nothing in it that was weird to Kanana, however. He hid himself simply as a precaution. He had often been a part of such a caravan, and he knew from experience, that if a solitary Arab were found upon the desert, he would very quickly be forced to help drive the sheep and goats, and kept at it until he could make his escape. Any Arab boy would have hidden himself.
Long before Kanana's next halt the sun was pouring down his furious heat. To his great good fortune he came upon a boulder rising out of the sand; there he quickly made a place for himself where the sun could not reach him and lying down slept until night.
Only one who has walked upon a desert, hour after hour, parched with thirst and utterly exhausted in the fierce glare and heat can properly appreciate the Bible picture of "the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."
Had he not found this rock Kanana would simply have dug a hole in the sand and forced himself into it.
Here and there as he pressed on, Kanana saw grim skeletons of men and animals as they lay whitening among the sand-shrubs, but he paid them little attention. Before the sun had set, upon the second day, he beheld the distant summit of Mount Hor cutting sharply into the blue sky.
The sight renewed his strength. Hour after hour he pressed onward, with his eyes fixed upon the tomb of Aaron, a white monument upon the summit of the mountain, flashing like snow as the moon rose in the clear, blue-black sky.
Kanana did not pause again until he fell upon his knees beside the stream which rises in a spring upon Mount Hor, to die in the sand, not far from its base. He plunged into the water; then, dressing him-self again, he lay down upon the bank to sleep. He awoke with the first gray lighting in the east, when the air of a desert is almost cold enough to freeze.
He had now nothing more to do till he could obtain some information from passing caravans. It would soon be sunrise, the hour for morning prayer, and, to warm himself while he waited, he walked along the banks of the stream. They were blue as the very sky, with masses of forget-me-nots.
Suddenly Kanana paused. He started back. His eyes dilated, and his hand trembled till the shepherd's staff fell, unheeded, to the ground. The next moment he dropped to the ground to examine the place more carefully.
What was it? Only some marks upon the grass where a caravan had camped. The herbage was matted here and there where the camels lay, and cropped short in little circles about each spot where they had eaten it as far as they could reach.
Caravans were continually resting for the day under the shadow of Mount Hor. There was nothing remarkable in the fact that a caravan had camped there, and had gone. They always move dat night; not so much because it is cooler as because a camel will not eat at night, no matter how hungry he may be, and must be given the daylight or he will deliberately starve.
A moment later Kanana was upon his feet again with a triumph in his eyes which clearly indicated his satisfaction.
The grass about the spot was unevenly cropped; there were straggling spears of green left standing in the center of each mouthful which the camel had taken. Upon one side the bees were clustering on the matted grass. A multitude of ants appeared upon the other side. The imprint left by the forefoot of the camel showed that it had been extended in front of him, instead of being bent at the knee and folded beneath him.
All this meant to the young Arab that the camel was old, that it was lame in the left knee, that it had lost a front tooth, that is burden on one side was honey, on the other the dust of river clay, to be used in the manufacture of stucco.
Had one of his father's camels stood before him Kanana could not have been more sure. Nothing more was needed to assure him that Raschid Airikat, with the stolen camels, had left Mount Hor the night before, upon the trail leading southward into Arabia.
His eyes flashed with excitement. "My brother and the white camel are not ten hours from here, and they are on the road to Mecca or Medina," he exclaimed as his fingers tightened about the staff.
His white teeth glistened in a smile, as he added, "They are mine, or I am a coward!"
He stood there, motionless, for a moment, his dark eyes instinctively turning southward. The magnitude of his task lay vividly before him. He recalled his father's words: "Thou wisp of flax before a fire! Thou reed before a whirlwind!" They served to strengthen him.
The first step which lay before him was enough to test the courage of a brave man, and yet it was only a step toward a grand destiny.
Suddenly starting from his revery, Kanana exclaimed:
"I will do it! Or I will consent to be known forever as the coward of the Beni Sads!" and turning he ran up the rocky sides of old Mount Hor, toward the white tomb of Aaron, whence he knew he could see far away over the great ocean of sand.
It might be there would yet appear a speck upon the distant horizon, to guide him toward the retreating caravan.