A VAST Mohammedan army, with its almost innumerable followers, was marching towards Syria, to meet the hosts of the Emperor Heraclius.
Like a pillar of cloud the dust rose above the mighty throng.
Armed horsemen, ten thousand strong, rode in advance.
A veteran guard of scarred and savage men came next, mounted upon huge camels, surrounding Kahled the Invincible and his chief officers, who rode upon the strongest and most beautiful of Persian horses.
A little distance behind were thousands of fierce warriors mounted on camels and dromedaries. Then came another vast detachment of camels bearing the tents, furniture, and provisions of the army; these were followed by a motley throng, comprising the families of many of the tribes represented in the front, while still another powerful guard brought up the rear.
Behind the body-guard of Kahled and before the war-camels rode a smaller guard, in the center of which were two camels, bearing a litter between them.
Upon this litter lay Kanana, shielded from the sun by a goat's-hair awning; for almost of necessity the army moved by daylight. It started an hour after sunrise, resting two hours at noon, and halting an hour before sunset. It moved more rapidly than a caravan, however, and averaged twenty-five miles a day.
Close behind Kanana's litter walked a riderless dromedary. At the start it was haggard and worn. Its dark hair was burned to a dingy brown by the fierce heat of the desert; but even Kahled received less careful attention, and every day it gathered strength and held its head a little higher.
The black dromedary was not allowed to carry any burden, but was literally covered with gay-colored cloths; decorating the pride of Omar the Great, that had brought the good news from Mecca to Bashra in less than thirteen days.
Nothing pleasanter could have been announced to that terrible army of veterans surrounding the valiant Kahled, than that it was to face the mightiest host which the Emperor Heraclius could gather in all the north.
There was not one in all that throng who doubted, for an instant, that Kahled could conquer the whole world if he chose, in the name of Allah and the Prophet.
Many of the soldiers had followed him since the day, years before, when he made his first grand plunge into Persia. They had seen him made the supreme dictator of Babylonia. They had seen him send that remarkable message to the great monarch of Persia:
"Profess the faith of Allah and his Prophet, or pay tribute to their servants. If you refuse I will come upon you with a host that loves death as much as you love life."
Once before had they seen him summoned from his triumphs in Persia, because all of the Mohammedan generals and soldiers in Syria were not able to cope with the power of Heraclius. They had seen him invested with the supreme power by the Caliph Abu-Bekr, Omar's predecessor, and watched while, single-handed, he fought and conquered the great warrior, Romanus.
Most of them had been with him before the walls of Damascus, when he besieged that magnificently fortified city upon one side, and fought and conquered an army of a hundred thousand men upon the other side, sent from Antioch, by Heraclius, for the relief of the great city. Then they witnessed the fall of Damascus, and followed Kahled as he attacked and put to flight an army outnumbering his by two to one, and equipped and drilled in the most modern methods of Roman warfare.
They had fought with him in the fiercest battles ever recorded of those desert lands, and they only knew him as Kahled the Invincible.
After Abu-Bekr had died and Omar the Great had taken his place, the proud soldiers saw their general unjustly deposed and given such minor work as tenting about the besieged cities, while others did the fighting, until he left Syria in disgust.
No wonder they were glad to see him recalled to take his proper place. They jested without end about the cowards who were frightened because Heraclius had threatened to annihilate the Mussulmans. And the march was one grand holiday, in spite of heat and hardships.
As Kanana lay in his litter and listened to these bursts of eloquence in praise of the general, he was often stirred with ardent patriotism and almost persuaded to cast his lot among the soldiers; but the same odd theories which before had prevented his taking up a lance, restrained him still.
On the fourth day he left the litter and took his seat upon the black dromedary. Kahled directed that costly garments and a sword and lance be furnished him, but Kanana prostrated himself before the general and pleaded: "My father, I never held a lance, and Allah knows me best in this sheepskin coat."
Kahled frowned, but Kanana sat upon the decorated dromedary precisely as he left the perch in the harvest-field. He expected to take his place with the camp-followers in the rear, but found that he was still to ride in state surrounded by the veteran guard. Indeed, he became a figure so celebrated and conspicuous that many a warrior in passing, after prostrating himself before the general, touched his forehead to the ground before Kanana and the black dromedary.
It might have made a pleasant dream, while sitting upon the perch in the harvest-field, but the reality disturbed him, and again he began to plan some means of escape.
He carefully computed the position of the Beni Sad encampment, and determined the day when the army would pass but a few miles to the east of it.
One who has not lived upon the desert, and seen it illustrated again and again, can scarcely credit the accuracy with which a wandering Bedouin can locate the direction and distance to any point with which he is familiar; but even then Kanana was at a loss as to how to accomplish his purpose when the whole matter was arranged for him, and he was supplied with a work which he could perform for Allah and Arabia, still holding his shepherd's staff and wearing his sheepskin coat.
The army halted for the night upon the eve of the day when it would pass near the encampment of the Beni Sads. The tent which Kanana occupied was pitched next that of Kahled.
He sat upon the ground eating his supper. All about him was the clatter and commotion of the mighty host preparing for the night, when he heard an officer reporting to the general that in three days the supply of grain would be exhausted.
"My father," he exclaimed, prostrating himself before the general, "thy servant's people, the Beni Sads, must be less than a night's journey to the north and west. They were harvesting six weeks ago, and must have five hundred camel-loads of grain to sell. Bid me go to them to-night, and, with the help of Allah, by the sunrise after to-morrow it shall be delivered to thy hand."
Kahled had formed a very good opinion of the Bedouin boy. He had noticed his uneasiness, and, suspecting that he would make an endeavor to escape, he had been searching for some occupation that should prevent it by rendering him more content to remain. He felt that a time might come when Kanana, with his sheepskin coat and shepherd's staff, might be of greater value to him than many a veteran with costly abbe and gleaming sword.
The result was an order that, one hour after sunset, Kanana should start, at the head of a hundred horsemen, with ten camels laden with treasure for the purchase of grain, with twenty camels bearing grain-sacks, and one with gifts from Kahled to the Terror of the Desert, in acknowledgment of the service rendered by his son.
When he had purchased what grain the Beni Sads would sell, he was to continue in advance of the army, securing supplies to the very border of Syria.
Kanana was no prodigy of meekness that he should not appreciate this distinction. A prouder boy has never lived, in Occident or Orient, than the Bedouin shepherd who sat upon the black dromedary and publicly received the general's blessing and command of the caravan.
In any other land there might have been rebellion among a hundred veteran horsemen, when placed under command of a boy in a sheepskin coat, armed only with a shepherd's staff, but there was no man of them who had not heard wonderful tales of Kanana's courage; and the shepherd who had left the harvest field six weeks before, known only as the coward of the Beni Sads, set his face toward home that night, followed by a hundred savage warriors who obeyed him as one of the bravest of all the Bedouins.
As the caravan moved rapidly over the plain, bearing its costly burden, it is hardly surprising that the beardless chief recalled his last interview with his angry father, when that veteran sheik refused to trust him with a single horse to start upon his mission; but he was none the less anxious to reach his father's tent and receive his father's blessing.