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- Queen Sheba's Ring - 10/54 -
"I understand," he said. "So we are not dead, after all, which perhaps is a pity after getting through the beastly preliminaries. What has happened?"
"Don't quite know," answered Orme; "ask Quick."
But the Sergeant was already engaged in lighting a little fire and setting a camp-kettle to boil, into which he poured a tin of beef extract that he had brought with other eatables from our stores on the chance that he might find us. In fifteen minutes we were drinking soup, for I forbade anything more solid as yet, and, oh! what a blessed meal was that. When it was finished, Quick fetched some blankets from the camels, which he threw over us.
"Lie down and sleep, gentlemen," he said; "Pharaoh and I will watch."
The last thing I remember was seeing the Sergeant, in his own fashion an extremely religious man, and not ashamed of it, kneeling upon the sand and apparently saying his prayers. As he explained afterwards, of course, as a fatalist, he knew well that whatever must happen would happen, but still he considered it right and proper to return thanks to the Power which had arranged that on this occasion the happenings should be good, and not ill, a sentiment with which every one of us agreed. Opposite to him, with one of his faithful eyes fixed on Orme, sat Pharaoh in grave contemplation. Doubtless, being an Eastern dog, he understood the meaning of public prayer; or perhaps he thought that he should receive some share of gratitude and thanks.
When we awoke the sun was already high, and to show us that we had dreamed no dream, there was Quick frying tinned bacon over the fire, while Pharaoh sat still and watched him--or the bacon.
"Look," said Orme to me, pointing to the mountains, "they are still miles away. It was madness to think that we could reach them."
I nodded, then turned to stare at Higgs, who was just waking up, for, indeed, he was a sight to see. His fiery red hair was full of sand, his nether garments were gone, apparently at some stage in our march he had dispensed with the remains of them because they chafed his sore limbs, and his fair skin, not excluding that of his face, was a mass of blisters, raised by the sun. In fact he was so disfigured that his worst enemy would not have known him. He yawned, stretched himself, always a good sign in man or beast, and asked for a bath.
"I am afraid you will have to wash yourself in sand here, sir, like them filthy Arabians," said Quick, saluting. "No water to spare for baths in this dry country. But I've got a tube of hazeline, also a hair-brush and a looking-glass," he added, producing these articles.
"Quite so, Sergeant," said Higgs, as he took them; "it's sacrilege to think of using water to wash. I intend never to waste it in that way again." Then he looked at himself in the glass, and let it fall upon the sand, ejaculating, "Oh! good Lord, is that me?"
"Please be careful, sir," said the Sergeant sternly; "you told me the other day that it's unlucky to break a looking-glass; also I have no other."
"Take it away," said the Professor; "I don't want it any more, and, Doctor, come and oil my face, there's a good fellow; yes, and the rest of me also, if there is enough hazeline."
So we treated each other with the ointment, which at first made us smart fearfully, and then, very gingerly sat down to breakfast.
"Now, Sergeant," said Orme, as he finished his fifth pannikin of tea, "tell us your story."
"There isn't much of a story, Captain. Those Zeu fellows came back without you, and, not knowing the lingo, I could make nothing of their tale. Well, I soon made Shadrach and Co. understand that, death-wind or no death-wind--that's what they call it--they must come with me to look for you, and at last we started, although they said that I was mad, as you were dead already. Indeed, it wasn't until I asked that fellow Shadrach if he wanted to be dead too"--and the Sergeant tapped his revolver grimly--"that he would let any one go.
"As it proved, he was right, for we couldn't find you, and after awhile the camels refused to face the storm any longer; also one of the Abati drivers was lost, and hasn't been heard of since. It was all the rest of us could do to get back to the oasis alive, nor would Shadrach go out again even after the storm had blown itself away. It was no use arguing with the pig, so, as I did not want his blood upon my hands, I took two camels and started with the dog Pharaoh for company.
"Now this was my thought, although I could not explain it to the Abati crowd, that if you lived at all, you would almost certainly head for the hills as I knew you had no compass, and you would not be able to see anything else. So I rode along the plain which stretches between the desert and the mountains, keeping on the edge of the sand-hills. I rode all day, but when night came I halted, since I could see no more. There I sat in that great place, thinking, and after an hour or two I observed Pharaoh prick his ears and look toward the west. So I also started toward the west, and presently I thought that I saw one faint streak of light which seemed to go upward, and therefore couldn't come from a falling star, but might have come from a rifle fired toward the sky.
"I listened, but no sound reached me, only presently, some seconds afterwards, the dog again pricked his ears as though /he/ heard something. That settled me, and I mounted and rode forward through the night toward the place where I thought I had seen the flash. For two hours I rode, firing my revolver from time to time; then as no answer came, gave it up as a bad job, and stopped. But Pharaoh there wouldn't stop. He began to whine and sniff and run forward, and at last bolted into the darkness, out of which presently I heard him barking some hundreds of yards away, to call me, I suppose. So I followed and found you three gentlemen, dead, as I thought at first. That's all the story, Captain."
"One with a good end, anyway, Sergeant. We owe our lives to you."
"Beg your pardon, Captain," answered Quick modestly; "not to me at all, but to Providence first that arranged everything, before we were born perhaps, and next to Pharaoh. He's a wise dog, Pharaoh, though fierce with some, and you did a good deal when you bought him for a bottle of whisky and a sixpenny pocket-knife."
It was dawn on the following morning before we sighted the oasis, whither we could travel but slowly, since, owing to the lack of camels, two of us must walk. Of these two, as may be guessed, the Sergeant was always one and his master the other, for of all the men I ever knew I think that in such matters Orme is the most unselfish. Nothing would induce him to mount one of the camels, even for half-an- hour, so that when I walked, the brute went riderless. On the other hand, once he was on, notwithstanding the agonies he suffered from his soreness, nothing would induce Higgs to get off.
"Here I am and here I stop," he said several times, in English, French, and sundry Oriental languages. "I've tramped it enough to last me the rest of my life."
Both of us were dozing upon our saddles when suddenly I heard the Sergeant calling to the camels to halt and asked what was the matter.
"Looks like Arabians, Doctor," he said, pointing to a cloud of dust advancing toward us.
"Well, if so," I answered, "our best chance is to show no fear and go on. I don't think they will harm us."
So, having made ready such weapons as we had, we advanced, Orme and the Sergeant walking between the two camels, until presently we encountered the other caravan, and, to our astonishment, saw none other than Shadrach riding at the head of it, mounted on my dromedary, which his own mistress, the Lady of the Abati, had given to me. We came face to face, and halted, staring at each other.
"By the beard of Aaron! is it you, lords?" he asked. "We thought you were dead."
"By the hair of Moses! so I gather," I answered angrily, "seeing that you are going off with all our belongings," and I pointed to the baggage camels laden with goods.
Then followed explanations and voluble apologies, which Higgs for one accepted with a very bad grace. Indeed, as he can talk Arabic and its dialects perfectly, he made use of that tongue to pour upon the heads of Shadrach and his companions a stream of Eastern invective that must have astonished them, ably seconded as it was by Sergeant Quick in English.
Orme listened for some time, then said:
"That'll do, old fellow; if you go on, you will get up a row, and, Sergeant, be good enough to hold your tongue. We have met them, so there is no harm done. Now, friend Shadrach, turn back with us to the oasis. We are going to rest there for some days."
Shadrach looked sulky, and said something about our turning and going on with /them/, whereon I produced the ancient ring, Sheba's ring, which I had brought as a token from Mur. This I held before his eyes, saying:
"Disobey, and there will be an account to settle when you come into the presence of her who sent you forth, for even if we four should die"--and I looked at him meaningly--"think not that you will be able to hide this matter; there are too many witnesses."
Then, without more words, he saluted the sacred ring, and we all went back to Zeu.
PHARAOH MAKES TROUBLE
Another six weeks or so had gone by, and at length the character of the country began to change. At last we were passing out of the endless desert over which we had travelled for so many hundreds of miles; at least a thousand, according to our observations and reckonings, which I checked by those that I had taken upon my eastward journey. Our march, after the great adventure at the oasis, was singularly devoid of startling events. Indeed, it had been awful in its monotony, and yet, oddly enough, not without a certain charm--at any rate for Higgs and Orme, to whom the experience was new.
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