“KANANA! Our Kanana!" cried the brother, striking the camel's neck. The dingy dignity of the great white camel was ruffled by the blow received, and he expressed his disapproval in a series of grunts before he made any attempt to start.
"Kananal Kanana!" the brother called again, seeing the dromedary already merging into the shadows; but the only response he received was from the shepherd's staff, extended at arm's length pointing northward.
"My young brother shall not leave me in this way. He has no weapon of defense and only a little of the grain."
Again he struck the camel a sharp blow as the animal began very slowly to move forward. The black dromedary was hardly distinguishable from the night, and was rapidly sinking into the deepening shadows before the camel was fairly on the way.
"Go!" cried the rider savagely, striking him again, and the camel moved a little faster; but he made slow and lumbering work, for he was not at all pleased with his treatment.
The rider's eyes were fixed intently upon the dim outline sinking away from him. The last he saw of it was the hand and arm, still holding the extended shepherd's staff, pointing to the north. Then all was lost.
He kept on in that direction for an hour, but it was evident that he had begun in the wrong way with the camel, and that he was not forcing him to anything like his speed of the night before.
It was beyond his power to overtake the dromedary, and doubly chagrined he gave up the race and turned northward.
The path before Kanana was the highway between Persia and Mecca. At some seasons it was almost hourly traversed, but at midsummer only absolute necessity drove the Arabs across the very heart of the desert.
In the height of the rainy season there were even occasional pools of water in the hollows, here and there. Later there was coarse, tough grass growing, sometimes for miles along the way.
Little by little, however, they disappeared. Then the green of each oasis shrank toward the center, about the spring or well, and often before midsummer was over, they too had dried away.
The prospect of loneliness, however, was not at all disheartening to Kanana. He had no desire to meet with any one, least of all with such parties as would be apt to cross the desert at this season.
If a moving shadow appeared in the distance, he turned well to one side and had the dromedary lie down upon the sand till it passed.
The black dromedary was fresh, and the Bedouin boy knew well how to make the most of his strength while it lasted; but it was for Allah and Arabia that they crossed the desert, and Kanana felt that neither his own life nor that of the dromedary could be accounted of value compared with the demand for haste.
He paid no heed to the usual camping-grounds for caravans, except to be sure that he passed two of them every night till the dromedary's strength began to fail.
Each morning the sun was well upon its way before he halted for the day, and long before it set again he was following his shadow upon the sand.
More and more the dromedary felt the strain. When twelve nights had passed, the pride of the caliph was anything but a tempting prize, and Kanana would hardly have troubled himself to turn out for a caravan even if he had thought it a band of robbers.
The Bedouin boy, too, was thoroughly worn and exhausted. For days they had been without water, checking their thirst by chewing the prickly leaves of the little desert vine that is the last sign of life upon the drying sand. No dew fell at this season, and Kanana realized that it was only a matter of hours as to how much longer they could hold out.
Morning came without a sign of water or of life, as far as the eye could reach.
The sun rose higher, and Kanana longed for the sight of a human being as intensely as at first he had dreaded it.
Nothing but the ghastly bones of men and animals bleaching among the sand-shrubs showed him that he was still upon the highway to Bashra.
Out of the glaring silver-gray, the fiery sun sailed into the lusterless blue of the dry, hot sky, leaving the two separated by the eternal belt of leaden clouds that never rise above a desert-horizon and never disperse in rain.
Kanana halted only for his morning prayer, and, when it was finished, the petition that he added for himself was simply, "Water! Water! O Allah! Give us water."
Each day the heat had become more intense, and to-day it seemed almost to burn the very sand. As Kanana mounted again and started on, his tired eyes sought anxiously the glaring billows for some sign of life; but not a living thing, no shadow even, broke the fearful monotony.
There were gorgeous promises, but they did not deceive the eyes that had looked so often along the sand. There were great cities rising upon the distant horizon, with stately domes and graceful minarets such as were never known throughout the length and breadth of Arabia. And when the bells ceased tolling in Kanana's ears, he could hear the muezzin's call to prayer. Then the bells would toll again and he would mutter, "Water! Water! O Allah! Give us water."
He had no longer any heart to urge the tired dromedary to a faster pace. He knew that it would only be to see him fall, the sooner, upon the sand. The tired creature's head hung down till his nose touched the earth as he plodded slowly onward.
The sun rose higher. It was past the hour when they always stopped, but neither thought of stopping. Waiting would not bring the water to them, and the Bedouin boy knew well that to lie on the desert sand that day meant to lie there forever.
The dromedary knew it as well as his master, and without a word to urge him, he kept his feet slowly moving onward, like an automaton, with his nose thrust forward just above the sand, as though he too were pleading: "Water! Water! O Allah! Give us water."
His eyes were closed. His feet dragged along the sand. Kanana did not attempt to guide him, though he swayed from side to side, sometimes reeling and almost falling over low hillocks which he made no effort to avoid.
Kanana could scarcely keep his own eyes open. The glare of the desert was blind-ing; but their last hope lay in his watchfulness.
He struggled hard to keep back the treacherous drowsiness, but his head would drop upon one shoulder, then upon the other. He could have fallen from the saddle and stretched himself upon the sand to die without a struggle, had it not been for the caliph's letter in his bosom. Again and again he pressed his hand upon it to rouse himself, and muttered, "By the help of Allah, I will deliver it."
Each time that this roused him he shaded his eyes and sought again the sand before him; but glaring and gray it stretched away to the horizon, without one shadow save that of the forest of low and brittle sand-shrubs.
The burning sky grew black above him, and the desert became a fiery red. The dromedary did not seem like a living thing. He thought he was sitting upon his perch in the harvest field. The sun seemed cold, as its rays beat upon his head. He shivered and unconsciously drew the wings of his turban over his face. No wonder it was cold. It was the early morning under Mount Hor. Yes, there were all the blue forget-me-nots. How the stream rippled and gurgled among them!
He started. What was that shock that roused him? Was it the robbers coming down upon him? He shook himself fiercely. Was he sleeping? He struggled to spring to his feet, but they were tangled in something.
At last his blood-shot eyes slowly opened and consciousness returned. The dromedary had fallen to the ground, beside—an empty well.
Kanana struggled to his feet and looked down among the rocks. The bottom was as dry as the sand upon which he was standing.
He looked back at the dromedary. Its eyes were shut. Its neck was stretched straight out before it on the sand, its head rested upon the rocks of the well.
"Thou hast given thy life for Allah and Arabia," Kanana said, "and when the Prophet returns in his glory, he will remember thee."
He took the sack of camel's food from the saddle and emptied the whole of it where the dromedary could reach it. Then he cut the saddle-straps and dragged the saddle to one side. It was all that he could do for the dumb beast that had served him.
Suddenly he noticed that the sun was setting. All the long day he must have slept, while the poor dromedary had crept onward toward the well. It had not been a healthful sleep, but it refreshed him, and combined with the excitement of waking and working for the dromedary, he found his tongue less parched than before. Quickly he took a handful of wheat and began to chew it vigorously; a secret which has saved the life of many a Bedouin upon the great sea of sand.
For a moment he leaned upon the empty saddle chewing the wheat, watching the sun sink into the sand and thinking.
"Thirteen days" he muttered. "I said fourteen when I started, but we have done better than three days in two. If we did not turn from the way to-day, this well is but one night from Bashra. O Allah! Mahamoud rousol il Allah! Give thy servant life for this one night."
The dromedary had not moved to touch the food beside him, and there was no hope of further help from the faithful animal. Kanana stood beside it for a moment, laid his hand gratefully upon the motionless head, then took up his shepherd's staff and started on.
Sometimes waking, sometimes sleeping as he walked, sometimes thinking himself far away from the sands of Bashra, sometimes urging himself on with a realization that he must be near his journey's end, he pressed steadily on and on, hour after hour.
Sometimes he felt fresh enough to start and run. Sometimes he wondered if he had the strength to lift his foot and put it forward another time. Sometimes he felt sure that he was moving faster than a caravan, and that he should reach Bashra before morning. Sometimes it seemed as though the willing spirit must leave the lagging flesh behind as he had left the dromedary, and go on alone to Bashra.
Then he would press the sacred letter hard against his bosom and repeat, "By the help of Allah I will deliver it!" And all the time, though he did not realize it, he was moving forward with swift and steady strides, almost as though he were inspired with superhuman strength.
Far away to the east a little spark of light appeared. It grew and rose, till above the clouds there hung a thin white crescent; the narrowest line of moonlight.
Kanana gave a cry of joy, for it was an omen which no Arab could fail to understand.
Then the air grew cold. The darkest hour before the dawn approached, and the narrow moon served only to make the earth invisible.
The dread of meeting any one had long ago left Kanana's mind. First he had feared it. Then he had longed for it. Now he was totally indifferent. He looked at the sky above him to keep his course. He looked at the sand beneath his feet; but he did not once search the desert before him.
Suddenly he was roused from his lethargy. There were shadows just ahead. He paused, shaded his eyes from the sky and looked forward, long and earnestly.
"It is not sand-shrubs," he muttered. "It is too high. It is not Bashra. It is too low. It is not a caravan. It does not move. It has no beginning and no end," he added, as he looked to right and left.
"It is tents," he said a moment later, and a frown of anxiety gathered over his forehead. "Have I missed the way? No tribe so large as that would be tented near Bashra. If I turn back I shall die. If I go on—La Illaha il Allah!" he murmured, and resolutely advanced.
As he drew nearer, the indistinguishable noises of the night in a vast encampment became plainly audible, but he did not hesitate.
Following the Arab custom for every stranger in approaching a Bedouin camp, he paused at the first tent he reached, and standing before the open front repeated the Mussulman salutation.
Some one within roused quickly, and out of the darkness a deep voice sounded in reply.
Then Kanana repeated:
"I am a wanderer upon the desert. I am far from my people." And the voice replied:
"If you can lift the lance for Allah and Arabia, you are welcome in the camp of Kahled the Invincible."
"La Illaha it Allah!" cried Kanana. "Guide me quickly to the tent of Kahled. I am a messenger to him from the great Caliph Omar."
The earth reeled beneath the feet of Kanana as the soldier led the way.
The general was roused without the formality of modern military tactics or even Mohammedan courtesies. A torch was quickly lighted. Kanana prostrated himself; then rising, he handed the precious packet to the greatest general who ever led the hosts of Mohammed.
Kahled the Invincible broke the seal, but before he had read a single word, the Bedouin boy fell unconscious upon the carpet of the tent.
As the soldiers lifted him, Kanana roused for an instant and murmured:
"By the dry well, one night to the south-west, my black dromedary is dying of thirst. In Allah's name, send him water! He brought the message from Mecca in thirteen days!" Then the torch-light faded before his eyes, and Kanana's lips were sealed in unconsciousness.