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CHAPTER XV

SEEKING THE MIRAGE

IMMEDIATELY after going ashore the energetic McDonald insisted upon making an inspection of the property before darkness fell; which afforded Colonel Spottiswoode a novel experience in riding over cotton fields on camel-back, with Kali, the camel-driver, to manage his beast.

Night had come when Fergus Cameron led back his straggling squad to the plantation home. The Scotchman rode with slow consideration for the American at his side, who sat awkwardly upon his enormous mehari, and was glad enough to reach home, thoroughly churned, but still hanging together. Cameron's mount dropped promptly to its knees, while Kali whacked the Colonel's camel until the big gray fellow snarled.

"Lean back, Colonel Spottiswoode—far back!" Cameron warned his guest, as Kali brought down the ungainly animal and the American stepped off.

Zack's feelings had been lacerated in the very beginning, because the white folks didn't provide him with a camel.

"I kin ride plenty o' dese little ole roan ponies at home," he grumbled. Yet, not being seasoned to horseback, his feelings kept on being chafed by the nervous, wiry Abyssinian stallion; until old Zack finally climbed down as stiffly as a man with glass legs.

"It is a revelation, sir—a revelation," remarked the Colonel. "I never saw lands lie better—nor better lands."

"Oh, the land is all right enough; it is the people," Cameron spoke wearily. "We are at a standstill for lack of labor. I could put four thousand feddan in cultivation if we had labor. Beni Yeb needs two hundred hoe men and women; fifty plowmen; and two hundred others to do the grading. I could use five hundred men to-morrow,"

Colonel Spottiswoode laughed. "Better get Zack to hustle 'em up for you. Last fall he got me two carloads of negroes in two days."

"Sho did—sho did," Zack bobbed his head, and endorsed the Colonel's eulogy.

Cameron was Scotch and serious; he gazed thoughtfully at Zack and meant to consider the matter further when he got all the statistics. Then four dusty white men stepped upon the broad paved terrace and entered the house.

"Me for a tubbing," said McDonald.

"And change the kit a bit for dinner," added Lyttleton.

After three hours in the whirling sand everybody needed a tubbing and the change of kit. Colonel Spottiswoode went straight to his room, and Zack limped upstairs behind him, as a half-crippled hound limps home from a long chase.

Naturally the British would dress for dinner—wherever two or three are gathered together in the name of Britain they always dress for dinner. With his face gritty and his eyelashes full of sand, the Colonel said, "Zack, pour some water in that basin."

Zack poured about a cupful and then stopped. "Cunnel, I ain't gwine to let you wash in dis stuff. Tain't nothin' 'cept coffee paste. Lemme fetch you some clean water right quick."

"All right. Hurry up."

"Tain't gwine to take me no time. I'll run back to dat spring, 'bout fifty yards behind de house."

The Colonel heard what Zack said—heard him distinctly, and afterwards remembered very clearly. At the moment, however, with his mind full of queer-looking people and the strange life around him, he never imagined that even a fool nigger might ramble off into the desert seeking water out of a mirage. Yet that's precisely what Zack did, grabbed his wool hat and started to find that mystic pool, where only angels drink.

The moon rode high in the heavens, big as a wagon-wheel, clear as a mirror, and so very near that if Zack had carried a step ladder, he could have tickled the old man in the face. Zack himself was not tickled; he was disgusted at the Cameron servants.

"Huh!" he snorted; "dat's jes like a nigger. Fetch a bucket o' water for Cunnel out o' de fust ditch he come acrost." He paused beside the tiny canal that wound in and out among the shrubbery; it flowed sluggishly with muddy eddies and looked like streaky brown gravy.

"Dis must be whar he got it. Cunnel wouldn't let nary one o' his mules git washed in sech water ez dat."

So Zack paid no heed to a group of servants who rose from their haunches and salaamed; he passed the stables; passed the low hovels of the fellaheen. Through an opening in the hedge went a little ditch; so did Zack.

Without difficulty he located the lone palm which he and the Colonel had observed from the boat, and figured that the spring must be some fifty yards behind it. This distance he had pledged himself to step off and measure, so as to prove the Colonel's bet. Starting from his landmark, Zack commenced stepping and measuring —twenty-five, forty, fifty paces. No spring. Seventy-five, a hundred, two hundred paces. No spring, no seven palms.

"Dar now!" he muttered; "dat spring oughter be right here. An' I'm 'bleeged to find it."

Zack kept on stepping, but lost count, in his zigzag and rapid rambles. Then he halted and mopped his brow. He couldn't see a soul. It was mighty lonesome. Everything was level and shiny in the moonlight, white wastes and no shadows—nothing but here and there a clump of Sodom apples. Zack shied skittishly around these things, for he had been warned that they would put out his eyes. The spring persisted in being absent. "Huh! dat sho is curyus."

Looking back, he got his bearings from the palm and moved in a direct line. Then some thing happened; two somethings happened. The Big Gray Things didn't come from anywhere; they just happened. Right up out of the ground. First he saw a clump bf Sodom apple bushes—and paid no particular mind, but felt certain they were Sodom apples. Anyhow it was something in the bushes which let out a snarl and a roar, and then began a mighty scrambling. The bushes scrambled, and so did Zack. Once he glanced back over his shoulder at two Big Gray Things, four times taller than himself, which seemed to be reaching out to get him. They reached out mighty far, but Zack wasn't there. He had departed thence. Even if that pair of camels had not been hobbled, they could never have caught old Zack in his first quarter of a mile. Not until his breath gave out and he sat down on a little ridge of sand.

"Huh!" he gasped. "What you reckin' dem things was?"

Whatever they were, the two Big Gray Things, dropped down on the sand and Zack knew that he would never disturb them. The bucket had been abandoned long ago, and forgotten.

"Dis sho is one big ole sandbar," Zack observed, and began to squint around him. In fear of the hobbled camels, Zack had dodged, like a rabbit. The lone palm had vanished. Zack's guide-post was gone. True, there was another big tree to his left, but Zack knew he had not stampeded from that direction. He looked uneasily for some road or path. There was none. Zack would have been in the middle of a bad fix if he hadn't glimpsed a light. A light is real—it gives something to travel by; a fellow knows he's going to somebody. Folks make lights. So Zack rose up and started towards this one, which he suppose to be the plantation house.

"Huh!" he grinned, "nobody can't git me lost—leastways not in open groun' like dis. I knowed de big house wuz dis way—knowed it all de time."

As he traveled, Zack kept his eye skinned for Sodom apple bushes. Then forgot, trudging along with his head down, studying an excuse to give the Colonel for losing the bucket and failing to bring fresh water. At a distance the black speck from which the light proceeded had been nothing more than a blur upon the sand. Gradually it began to disintegrate into separate specks which resembled haystacks; other black specks seemed to be moving about among them. Zack drew nearer. A pack of dogs dashed out, not exactly dogs, but ghosts of dogs, or skeleton dogs—dogs which were all legs and mouths, with tails so incredibly slender that they looked like a succession of knots tied in a plow-line. These dogs never barked, and Zack distrusted their intentions; he was scared of dogs that didn't bark and niggers that didn't brag. It gave Zack a crick in the neck trying to watch all the dogs at once. Eagerly he looked around for a brickbat. Bricks don't grow in the desert, and Zack hated to fool away his time throwing loose sand. He couldn't run from those limber-legged gallinippers, so he slapped about him with his wide brimmed hat, and yelled, and yelled, and yelled.

A black speck straightened up from in front of a ragged tent. The speck became a man who ran toward him, shouting gibberish, and Zack had a hunch that he wasn't going to be popular with this man. "Mister, oh mister," he called, "will yo' dog bite?"

The answer did not reassure Zack; it was more of an avalanche than an answer. Swarms of people came running, some with plenty of clothes, and some with none—long-legged skinny folks, blacker than Zack ever feared to be. Zack did not see all that happened. He had only two eyes. Everybody was doing things at once. Some of the folks picked up spears that glittered in the moonlight. Zack edged away from the spears, and bumped into a group of women. The women ducked and disappeared like prairie dogs. A pot-bellied black child ran out, perfectly naked, stared at Zack for an instant, then turned and fled without a sound. Zack talked mightily, but nobody paid any attention. Throughout the hullabaloo, one old man—a very old man—sat cross-legged on a mat in front of his tent. He looked up in the moonlight and Zack thought he was blind. Zack was half-right, the Sheikh Tabira being one-eyed. Tabira's face was no bigger than a cocoanut, with features squeezed together and smoothed out as if some one had tried to rub off the face when it was soft. Lifting his dime-sized countenance, old Tabira listened to much chatter. The first word he spoke was a question, but Zack would not have known what he was talking about even if he had understood their language, for Tabira asked, "Is it the Expected One?"

The jabbering broke out again—like a gabble of geese scared up at midnight. Some said "No" and some said "Yes"—everybody said something. Then a big man came striding out from a tent—a man who was born white but who had got over it—for this was Sandy McNish, ex-bushranger in Australia, ex-slave trader in Darfur, ex-ivory hunter in the Congo, now prospecting for gold in Nubia. Zack failed to relish the looks of McNish. McNish knew that Zack didn't belong in the Sudan, nor yet in Egypt. "Where did you come from?" he demanded, to Zack's great joy, in English.

"Vicksburg, Missippi, suh."

"What is your name?"

"Zack Foster, suh; but ev'ybody, white an' black, calls me 'Ole Reliable.'"

McNish made a gesture of impatience. "What are you doing here?"

"I come over to teach dese niggers——"

"I mean, what are you doing out here—near this camp?"

Then Zack told him about going for the bucket of water. McNish turned to the sheikh, who already began to inquire, "Is it the Expected One, the Great Teacher?"

Of course, Zack couldn't understand their jabbering, but it seemed like the white man was arguing with the black people, trying to get some notion out of their heads.

"Bloody fools!" McNish exclaimed. "Have it your way." He swore a lot in picturesque English, then marched back to his own tent.