UP the steep sides of Mount Hor, Kanana climbed, without waiting to look for a path. He saw nothing, heard nothing. He was all eagerness to reach the summit, in the faint hope that it might not be too late to see the departing caravan of Raschid Airikat.
Unless a camel is fresh, unusually large and strong, or constantly urged, it rarely makes more than two miles an hour. It was not over ten hours since the robber sheik had left the oasis, and some of the camels were very old and exhausted. It was a foolish hope, no doubt, and yet Kanana hoped that anything so large as a great caravan might still be distinguishable.
Up, up, up he climbed—as fast as hands and feet could carry him. He no longer felt the cool air of early morning. He no longer looked about him to see the new sights of a strange oasis.
He did not even pause to look away over the desert as he climbed. The highest point was none too high. He did not care how far he could see until he had gained the white tomb of Aaron, upon the very crest.
Had he not been too thoroughly occupied with what was above him to notice what transpired about him and down below, he would have seen five Arab horsemen reach the stream by which he slept, almost as he began to climb.
They were Mohammedan soldiers, thoroughly armed for war, and had evidently come from the northern borders of Arabia, where the victorious Mussulmans were triumphantly planting the banner of Islam.
They had been riding hard, and both men and horses were exhausted. They hurried to the water. The men hastily ate some food which they carried, and tethered their horses in Arab fashion, by a chain, one end of which is fastened about the forefoot of the animal and the other end about the master, to prevent their being stolen while the master sleeps.
The moment this was accomplished, the five men rolled themselves in their mantles, covering their faces, as well as their bodies, and lay down upon the grass to sleep.
They were skilled in the art of making long journeys in the shortest possible time, and were evidently upon important business; for an Arab is never in haste unless his mission is very important.
Before Kanana reached the temple the men were soundly sleeping, and the horses, lying down to rest themselves, were still eating the grass about them, as a camel eats.
Panting for breath, and trembling in his eager haste, Kanana reached the tomb of Aaron: an open porch, with white pillars supporting a roof of white, like a crown of eternal snow upon the summit of Mount Hor.
Between the snowy pillars Kanana paused. One quick glance at the sky gave him the points of the compass, and shading his eyes from the glowing east, he looked anxiously to the south and west.
Sand, sand, sand, in billows like great waves of an ocean, lay about him in every direction. Far away there were low hills, and a semblance of green which, to his practiced eye, meant a grove of date palms upon the banks of a stream. But nowhere, search as he would, was there the faintest speck to indicate the caravan.
He was still anxiously scanning those distant hills when the first rays of the rising sun shot from the eastern horizon, flashing a halo of glory upon the snow-white crown of old Mount Hor, before they touched the green oasis lying about its base.
Never, in all the ages, had the sun come up out of the Arabian desert to see such a tableau as his first bright beams illumined Aaron's tomb.
All absorbed in his eager search, Kanana stood upon the very edge of the white porch. One hand was extended, grasping his shepherd's staff, the other was lifted to shade his eyes.
In his eagerness to reach forward, one foot was far before the other, and the knee was bent, as though he were ready to leap down the steep declivity before him.
His turban, a large square piece of cloth, was bound about his head with a camel's-hair cord; one corner was thrown back over his forehead, and a corner fell over each shoulder, like a cloak. His coat was sheepskins stitched together. Summer and winter, rain and sunshine, the Bedouin shepherd wears that sheepskin coat, as the best protection against both sun and frost.
His bare feet rested firmly upon the white platform, and the arm that held the shepherd's staff was knotted with muscles which a strong man might have envied him.
His beardless face was dark, but not so dark as to hide the eager flush which heightened the color in his cheeks, and his chest rose and fell in deep, quick motions from his rapid climb.
His lips were parted. His dark eyes flashed, while the hand which shaded them stood out from his forehead as though trying to carry the sight a little farther, that it might pierce the defiles of those distant hills and the shadows of the date palm groves.
The sun rose higher, and its full light fell across the young Ishmaelite. It was the signal for the morning call to prayer, and from the minaret of every mosque in the realm of Islam was sounding La Illaha il Allah Mahamoud rousol il Allah. Kanana did not need to hear the call, however. He instantly forgot his mission, and, a humble and devout Mohammedan, laid aside his staff and reverently faced toward Mecca to repeat his morning prayer.
Standing erect, with his open hands beside his head, the palms turned forward, he solemnly began the Nummee Allah voulhamda. With his hands crossed upon his breast he continued. Then he placed his hands upon his knees, then sat upon the floor. Then with his open hands upon the floor he touched his forehead to the platform as he repeated the closing words of the prayer.
In this position he remained for some time, whispering a petition of his own for strength and courage to carry out the task which he had undertaken.
There was something so solemn and impressive in the death-like stillness of the early morning, upon that solitary peak, that it almost seemed to Kanana that, if he listened, he should hear the voice of Allah, answering his prayer.
Suddenly the silence was broken by a sharp cry, and another and another in quick succession mingled with savage yells.
It was not the voice of Allah, for which he had been waiting, and Kanana sprang to his feet and looked anxiously about him.
The mountains of Arabia are not high. Among real mountains, Mount Hor would be but a rocky hill. Looking down, for the first time, Kanana saw the stream below him, in its border of blue forget-me-nots, and could clearly distinguish the five soldiers who had so quickly fallen asleep upon its banks.
It was a fearful sight which met his eyes. The five men were still lying there, but they were no longer sleeping. They were dead or dying; slain by three Bedouin robbers, who had crept upon them for the valuable prize of their horses, and who did not dare attempt to steal the animals while the masters were alive.
It was almost the first time that Kanana's eyes had rested upon a scene of blood, common as such scenes are among his countrymen, and he stood in the porch benumbed with horror, while the robbers tore from the bodies about them such garments as pleased them; then took their weapons, mounted three of the horses, and leading two rode quickly away to the north.
There was no assistance which Kanana could render the unfortunate men. The caravan was already a night's march ahead of him and every moment that he lost must be redeemed by hurrying so much the faster under the burning sun, over the scorching sand, when, at the best, it was doubtful if flesh and blood could stand what must be required of it.
With a shudder he turned from the terrible scene and began to descend the mountain. Soon he was upon the banks of the stream and passing close to the spot where the five bodies were lying. He would not run, but he hurried on, with his eyes fixed upon the ground before him.
A faint sound caught his ear. He started, clutched his staff, and turned sharply about, thinking that the robbers had seen him and returned. It was only one of the unfortunate soldiers who had been left for dead. He had raised himself upon his elbow, and was trying to attract Kanana's attention.
"Water! water! In the name of Allah, give me water!" he gasped, and fell back unconscious.
For a moment Kanana was tempted to hurry on. He did not want to go there, any more than he wanted to delay his journey; but something whispered to him of the promises of the Koran to those who show mercy to the suffering; that Allah would reward even a cup of water given to the thirsty.
It required no little courage of the Bedouin boy, all alone under Mount Hor, but he resolutely turned back, filled with water the wooden cup which a shepherd always carries at his girdle, and poured it down the parched throat of the almost insensible man.
"Bless God for water!" he gasped. "More! Give me more!"
Kanana ran to the brook and filled the cup again, but the poor man shook his head. It was too late. He was dying.
Suddenly he roused himself. He made a desperate struggle to call back his failing senses, and, for a moment, threw off the hand of Death.
He had almost given up, forgetting something of great importance. Steadying himself upon his elbow, he looked into Kanana's face and said:
"You are a beardless youth, but you are an Arab. Listen to me. The mighty Prince Constantine, son of the Emperor Heraclius, is soon to leave Constantinople, at the head of a vast army of Turks and Greeks and Romans, like the leaves of the forest and the sand of the desert. He is coming to sweep the Arab from the face of the earth and the light of the sun. We were bearing a letter to the Caliph Omar, who is now at Mecca, telling him of the danger and asking help. If the letter does not reach him Arabia is lost and the Faithful are destroyed. Would you see that happen?"
Too frightened to speak and hardly comprehending the situation, Kanana simply shook his head.
The man made another effort to overcome the stupor that had almost mastered him. He succeeded in taking from his clothing a letter, sealed with the great seal, and gasped:
"In the name of Allah, will you fly with this to the great caliph?"
Hardly realizing what he said, Kanana solemnly repeated: "In the name of Allah, I will."
He took the letter and was hiding it in his bosom when the soldier grasped the cup of water, drank ravenously, and, with the last swallow, let the cup fall from lifeless fingers.
Minute after minute passed, but Kanana did not move a muscle. His hand still touched the letter which he had placed in his bosom. His eyes still rested upon the lips that would never speak again.
His sacred promise had been pledged to fly with that letter to the great caliph at Mecca. It had been made in the name of Allah. It had been given to the man now lying dead before him. There was no power that could retract it. It must be performed, and until it was performed no other consideration could retard his steps or occupy his thoughts.
His lips parted and he muttered, angrily: "Is this my reward for having given a cup of water to the thirsty?" Then it suddenly occurred to him that the caravan which he longed most of all to follow was also upon its way southward, and that, for the present at least, for either mission the direction was the same, and the demand for haste was great.
He caught his staff from the ground and set his face toward Mecca, pondering upon the dying statement of the soldier till word for word it was fastened in his memory, and the thought that his mission was for Allah and Arabia urged him on.
It was an easy task to follow the trail of the caravan. The Bedouin would be a disgrace to the desert who could not recognize in the sand the recent footprint of one of his own tribe or of a camel with which he was familiar, and who could not tell by a footprint whether the man or camel who made it carried a burden, often what that burden was, always whether he was fresh or exhausted, walking leisurely or hurrying.
So Kanana hurried on, daily reading the news of the caravan before him as he went, testing his strength to the utmost before he rested, and starting again as soon as he was able; over the sand and over the hills, through groves and villages and over sand again; always toward Mecca.