"After ten hours in the water, her Rolex was still performing perfectly," Michael continued. "As for the area of shockproofing, my Rolex is still performing perfectly after - you may recall - this morning's airplane crash."
"Ah! Touche," said the flyer, with a narrow-eyed smile. He held out his wrist for Michael to see. "But my Breitling still beats your Rolex. Beats it by far."
"And why is that?"
"Because of the band. This leather band. You see it?" It was simply a brown leather band, nothing special about it that Michael could tell. "This band," said Gantt, "is made from the leather on the instrument panel of my father's Albatross fighter plane, from 1918. He died in action but he set his plane down first. A perfect landing, they said, and him shot full of holes. His wingman sent my mother a drawing of him that one of his squadron members had done. It was framed in the plane's wing fabric and panel leather. After my mother passed away I decided I wanted my father to be closer to me than a picture on the wall. I decided I wanted him to fly with me." Gantt turned his wrist before Michael's face. "And here he is."
Michael realized why Gantt feared the Dahlasiffa so much. They would certainly try to take the watch, and they would likely succeed. With it would go the band, which was actually the most valuable part of it to Gantt. And he would die knowing his father's memory was lost to the hands of the Death Stalkers. Lost, never to be found. It was time, Michael thought, to start moving once more. He sat up and rubbed his injured shoulder. The boy's hand kept shaking the dice, and occasionally he opened his fingers to see what the pips read. Gantt leaned back against the red rock, his face painted crimson by the setting sun, his eyes not on the gleaming watch but on the plain brown leather band.
Michael had never had such difficulty getting to his feet, but he made it. "I think we should - "
"Ow!" said Gantt, wincing. He had jerked his head away from the rock and grasped at the back of his neck. "Scheisse! Something stung me!"
Michael looked at the rock and saw a trace of movement in a shadow pool. Peering closer, he made out the three-inch-long black scorpion that sat there, king of its domain, its stinger coiled back and ready to deliver another strike.
"Scorpion," Michael said. The poisonous kind, he did not say. The deadly kind, he did not say.
The kind whose venom could kill a man within several hours, he did not say.
He didn't have to, because Gantt also saw the scorpion. Gantt drew the Walther and smashed its grip into the shadow pool until the scorpion was a mass of milky paste.
Then he looked at Michael with terror in his eyes.
The boy's hand stopped.
"Razor," said Michael.
Gantt pulled Michael's straight razor from his pocket and gave it to him. He leaned forward. Michael opened the razor and found the sting just to the right of Gantt's vertebrae. It was a small red puncture wound already becoming ringed with white.
Michael cut an X across the wound and squeezed the blood out of it.
"Did you get it all?" Gantt asked hoarsely, still leaning forward.
Michael didn't know. He wasn't sure how deep the stinger had pierced, or how much venom had been delivered. He got down on his knees beside the flyer. "Hold still," he said, and he sliced another X into the flesh beside the first. Gantt made no sound. Then Michael put his mouth over the wound and sucked the blood like any good vampire in a Bram Stoker horror story.
He spat blood out and repeated the indelicate task. The smell and taste of it made the animal part of him salivate. He realized that the wolf could have a feast right here on this parachute dining-cloth. A third time he sucked at the wound and then spat out the fluid, and then that was all he could do.
"Thank you," said Gantt. He put his fingers to the back of his neck and then held them, bloodstreaked, before his face. "Thank you," he repeated.
"I don't know if I got all of it."
"All right. Thank you. You tried."
"We'd better stay here awhile longer," Michael decided. He noted that the boy had begun shaking his dice again. The boy's eyes darted between Michael and Gantt. "Just be still," Michael told the flier.
"Yes. As you say. Yes." Gantt crawled away from the rock. He lay down on the parachute on his right side, trailing blood as it dripped. He curled up into a fetal position with his hands folded under his right cheek.
An hour passed, during which the sun dropped to the horizon. The light turned deeper red with blue shadows. The air cooled as night came on.
"I'm burning up," Gantt suddenly said. His voice sounded thick. "Burning up," he repeated. He sat up, and in the red gloom Michael saw the glistening of small beads of sweat on the man's ashen face. "Can I have some water?"
"We have none," Michael said.
"I must have water. My mouth...it's not right."
"We have no water," Michael said carefully, for Gantt's eyes were bright and wild with fever.
The ace put a hand to his forehead. "I'm burning up," he said, as if this were news.
"Rolfe? Just lie down and be - "
"I must insist on water." It had been spoken in German. "Would you deny a thirsty man?"
"Listen to me. Do you know where you are?"
"I'm...I'm...yes, I'm in the infirmary." He nodded, verifying this illusion to himself. Again, he was speaking his native tongue. "I remember...I was flying. Then...there was oil on my windscreen. I couldn't see. I knew I was going down. I jumped, and my parachute opened. What happened to my plane?"
"The lights," said Gantt. "Why are the lights so dim?"
"Lie down," Michael instructed. He decided to add, "Right there, on the bed." He heard the clicking of the dice at his back.
Gantt looked around, obviously confused. He felt for something that was not there. "I don't like it," he said, in almost a child's voice. "So dark in here."
Some of the scorpion's poison had gotten into his system, Michael knew. From what he'd read, there were thirty different varieties of scorpions in the Sahara and four of them were lethal to humans. The one that had stung Gantt was as toxic as a cobra. The venom could cause first high fever and hallucinations, then convulsions, and finally heart failure. It just depended on how much Michael had been able to get out of the wound.
"Yes," Gantt said. "I think I will lie down." He curled himself up again on his side on the parachute, and he closed his eyes.
Michael waited. He caught the boy watching him as the dice went back and forth.
A few minutes passed. Gantt appeared to be sleeping, his chest rising and falling.
He twitched suddenly, but it was a passing muscle spasm. Then he opened his eyes and sat up again, and now he glowered at Michael with an expression nearing rage.
"I said I need water. It is very uncivilized to keep water from a thirsty man. Do you hear me, sir?"
"Rolfe, there's no more water." Even as he said it, Michael knew it was hopeless.
Gantt was a wanderer in the desert beyond reason.
Gantt was silent.
And silent still, his dark-hollowed eyes fixed upon Michael Gallatin or whoever he thought Michael Gallatin to be.
"You can't treat your patients in this manner," Gantt said quietly. "These men here...they all deserve better, sir. They shouldn't be so disrespected."
Michael had no idea what situation the flyer thought he was in, or whether it had really happened in some way or was strictly fantasy. He saw Gantt's hand go to the Walther's grip.
"I want water. For all of us. Now."
Michael spoke German: "Very well, then. You'll get it. There's a jug under the bed. Right there." He pointed at nothing. "Reach under and bring it out."
Gantt stared blankly at him.
"Under the bed," Michael repeated firmly. "Right there."
The dice stopped clicking.
"Thank you, sir," said Gantt, and he leaned over to get the imaginary jug under the phantom bed.
Michael moved as fast as he could. He plucked the Walther from Gantt's waistband and when the man looked at him, puzzled, Michael hit him as lightly as possible across the back of the head with the pistol's grip. Lightly as possible, but hard enough to put him to sleep and quench his thirst.
Gantt lay on the parachute. His body began to convulse, the arms and legs twisting. For a moment it appeared as if, even unconscious, he was about to get up and go for the waterjug, but then he collapsed again and lay thrashing. Michael put the gun aside and got his sweat-stiff shirt. He knelt beside the man, and with difficulty due to the one hand forced the cloth between Gantt's teeth. It might prevent him from biting his tongue off, or not, depending on how strong the convulsions became.
Then all Michael could do was crawl away and sit with the Walther in his hand.
He watched Gantt suffer, as the last of the light faded.
The convulsions became more violent. This hideous phase lasted about fifteen minutes before Gantt suddenly became still.
Michael checked his pulse. Weak. But the man was alive.
The night turned cooler. A group of jackals came nosing around, until Michael stood up and ran them off with a few stones. His Rolex showed the passage of almost three more hours before Gantt stirred and spat the cloth out and got slowly up on his hands and knees. He retched so hard it seemed his guts would spill out. Then Gantt moaned and cursed and said in a voice barely intelligible, "Damn, my head hurts." He had spoken in English. After that, he curled down again in a fetal position and went to sleep.
Michael also slept. His last impression was of the boy, sitting cross-legged under the starry sky, the Commonwealth soldier's dusty tam on his head and his face hidden by the keffiyeh. Whether he was asleep sitting up or not was anyone's guess, but at least for the moment his left hand was motionless and the dice were silent.
They reached the well when dawn was a thin streak of red across the horizon and the world was made of different depths of darkness.
How far they had come this night, Michael didn't know. His legs felt ragged. His left arm was a dead weight. He had left his kitbag behind, to save his energy, but he carried both guns in the parachute pack and Gantt - weak and dispirited - had not protested. Every step Michael took might end in a stumble. But he'd kept going, one of three, walking right behind the boy and following behind him the Messerschmitt ace.
The well was not pretty. It lay up under an outcropping of rock and so was shielded from the sun. Uneven stones were built up around a small pool the size of a bathtub in a cheap hotel. Dried animal dung was scattered about where the jackals and wild dogs had unsuccessfully tried to mark their territory.
Pretty or not, the well was full of gorgeous water. Gantt's cracked lips parted in a gasp of need and he flung himself forward past Michael and the boy.
He hung over the stones and pushed his face into the water. He reached in with both arms and splashed water over his head. He reached down deeper, into the cooler depths, and when his hands came back up Michael saw the entrails roped around them, and suddenly the gashed-open bloodless torso that the entrails had spilled from surfaced in front of Gantt's face, and also bursting to the surface was a decapitated human head, mouth and eyes open, that bore the purple hole of a rifle bullet.
Gantt shrieked; there was no other way to describe the sound. He fought out of the blue entrails that bound his wrists, and staggering back he nearly fell over the boy, who also retreated - but in utter silence - from the grisly mess that fouled the well. Gantt went down to the ground among the animals' leavings and clawed frantically at his own mouth until the blood ran from his lips.
Michael approached the well. He had already smelled the beginnings of putrefaction. Desert heat was not kind to a corpse. By the end of another day, the odor would even keep the animals from coming near. There was another scent in the air also: salt. He figured the water had been salted as well as fouled by human remains. He walked a few paces away and knelt down on his haunches to think.
He thought he understood the motive for this brutality. "The Dahlasiffa," he said to Gantt, who had crawled on his belly a distance away and lay with his hands to his face. "They've poisoned this well to keep other tribes from drinking." In the strengthening light, he found the camel tracks that led southward. "Their own village must not be far. They've likely got a well there. They're probably demanding tribute from other tribes." He stood up and looked over the hammada toward the south. A muscle worked in his jaw. "We need water, or we're going to die." He spoke to Gantt not harshly but firmly: "Stand up."
"I can't." The other man's voice was almost gone. "I can't."
"If you won't stand up, I'll stand you up."
"Please...let me lie here. I can't...dear God...I can't - "
Gantt was interrupted by the hand that reached down and grasped the back of his collar, pulling his face out of the sand.
"You hear me," Michael said. "Loud and clear." His eyes gleamed bright green in the dawning light. The sun was a red semicircle rising over shadowed mountains to the east. "You can handle a gun. So can I. The guns can get us some water. That means we live, at least for another day, unless the Dahlasiffa kill us first. But I'm thinking they're not going to be expecting two men with guns. I told you to stand up."
"I'm done," Gantt gasped through his bloodied lips, his eyes swollen from the horror of what he'd just seen. "You go."
"The odds are not good for one man. Not much better for two, but they are better. Now...you're a soldier and so am I. We go out fighting. Do you hear me?"
"I can't make it. Please. I'm done."
"I'll tell you when you're done or not." Michael gritted his teeth and tried to haul the man up but for all his best effort he didn't have the strength. "Rolfe," he said, "don't die on your belly." And he decided to add, "Your father didn't."
Gantt didn't respond for a few seconds. Then he reached back and roughly pushed Michael's hand away
. He slowly rolled over and sat up. He pressed his hands to his face once more and rocked back and forth.
Michael heard the noise of the dice. He saw that the boy was throwing them onto the ground and then leaning forward to read the pips before they were collected and the process repeated.
"We have to try," Michael said, though he himself was unsure they could even get close enough to the Dahlasiffa village to try. "We can think of something."
"I'm too weak. I can barely walk."
"Can you crawl?" Michael asked.
Gantt lowered his hands and looked up at Michael Gallatin. His eyes were deep sunken, dull and lifeless. It was a bad sign, Michael thought. A sign of giving up. He reached into the parachute pack, got the Walther P38 and offered the weapon to its owner. "Take it," he said when Gantt hesitated. "Go ahead and blow your brains out, if you want to. I'll bury you out here or you can join Hartler for a long bath."
Gantt stared fixedly at the pistol. He frowned, searching for solid ground in this desert hell. The sun was rising quickly now, and the air was already hot. No breeze stirred a particle of dust.
At last Gantt spoke. "Why would I want to commit suicide?"
"It would be faster than dying of thirst. You still have some strength left. The village may be only a few miles away. Their well will be clean." Something Michael had read suddenly came to him. "If I have to die today, I want to die fighting to live."
"That makes not a bit of sense," said the pilot.
"I know. It's one of your quotes from your last article in Signal."
In spite of his raging thirst and deadening fatigue, Gantt summoned a weak smile. "You're a strange bastard."
"Save your insults for tomorrow. For today, take this pistol and stand up. I'm thirsty enough to kill for a drink. Are you?"
Gantt gingerly rubbed his raw mouth. Then he reached out and took the pistol. "Yes, I am," he said, and with the greatest effort he got himself to his feet.
They aimed themselves along the camel tracks, with Michael leading the way, the boy next and then Gantt. As the sun steadily rose and the heat intensified the Englisher and German stopped to put on their face and head coverings, and then they continued southward.
They passed into a surrealistic landscape. The hard-packed crust of sand was brown with streaks of yellow. Emerging from the earth were huge ridges of wind-sculpted sandstone rocks standing twenty and thirty meters tall. Michael kept to the camel tracks, which led them through winding passages in the rocks.
It was difficult for even Michael to keep moving as the heat grew, so he knew Gantt was struggling. Every so often Michael looked back at the others; the boy was all right, though moving slowly, but Gantt was losing ground. The scorpion's venom was surely still affecting him. Couple that with the shock of seeing Hartler, and it amazed Michael that the ace could put one foot in front of the other. They were helped by the find of some spindly cactus plants, which when cut open by the razor afforded a small amount of liquid squeezed from the stalks. Still, the need for water began to take over every thought for Michael, to push everything else aside, and he was fully aware that both Gantt and the boy were kindred sufferers. They did not possess the animal drive that kept Michael directed on his path to survival.
Water. One might imagine it in the mouth. One might imagine its cool flow streaming over the head and face and chest. One might imagine lying in a chill pool of it, regaining the strength that the sun had stripped away. Water. At this moment of heavy silence and scorching fire, the dream of drinking it, of getting one swallow through the cracked lips into the dry mouth, was the only thing that could possibly lead them on for endless mile after mile. Water.
At last, as the sun began to sink down again toward the blue world of another night, as the jackals that followed them came sniffing in close for the smell of impending death but did not find it yet and so retreated to wait a few hours more, the three figures crouched on a ridge of rock and surveyed what lay ahead. Michael had seen it first, and cautioned the others to be careful in their approach.
He didn't want the watchman atop the wooden tower to see them. The man, wearing the traditional robes and a keffiyeh, held a pair of binoculars. The man stood beneath an awning of tan-colored cloth that might have been the shirts of several dead soldiers stitched together, and hanging on a rope behind him was a horn he could blow into to alert the inhabitants of the village at his back. The horn, Michael noted, was a brass cornet probably once owned by some poor dead Commonwealth trooper whose commander valued the stirring music of a military march.
But for the camel trail that passed alongside the watchman's tower, the village was encircled by a waist-high barbed wire fence. It was a village of many tents, many camels in a corral and many goats wandering about. Michael had already counted thirty-five people, most of them men but a few women and children. At the center of the village a dozen palm trees stood around a waterhole the size of a small swimming pool, which was obviously very jealously guarded. On the far side of the village was a second watchman's tower. A nice secure setup, Michael thought. Especially since he knew one of those tents down there surely held an arsenal of weapons and ammunition stripped from dead soldiers.
"How the hell do we get into that?" Gantt asked.
Michael had already considered that question.
"After nightfall," he said, "one of us walks in. He allows himself to be captured. He causes some kind of disturbance while his mission team gets through the wire. It's up to them to find the tent where the guns and ammo are stored. If there are grenades, the place can be blown. Then everyone's on their own to get their water."
"Mission team," Gantt repeated.
"That's right. You and the boy."
"You are mad," said Gantt.
"You'll know the time to cross the wire." Michael kept his intense gaze fixed upon Gantt, not allowing him to look away. He gave him the parachute pack. "Take both guns. I won't need one."
"You're going in without a gun." Gantt grinned crazily. "Ah, ja! An Englisher's plan! Make sure you douse yourself with your aftershave and have a spot of tea before you go in!"
"There's no other way," said Michael, "but my way." He caught a faint aroma, drifting in with the cooling air. "Can you smell that? The scent of sweet water?"
"I can't smell anything and neither can you."
"Oh, yes." Michael nodded. "I can."
They waited behind the rock ridge as the sun went down. When the light faded and the gaudy stars emerged in their millions, torches flared in the Dahlasiffa village. Upraised voices could be heard: shouting, mixed with raucous laughter. Michael looked up over the ridge and saw a group of robed Dahlasiffa standing around what appeared to be a rectangular pit dug into the earth near the waterhole. It looked to him, from this distance at least, that two figures were balanced on some kind of beam across the pit and were grappling with each other.
"What's going on down there?" Gantt edged up beside Michael to make his own assessment.
"I'm not sure. A celebration of some kind?" It sounded so, from the noise. Though the figures were fighting - or wrestling, to be more precise - there was no anger in the voices of the onlookers. Then suddenly one of the figures fell into the pit, there was an uproar of hollering and laughter and people jumped around with joyous abandon. The man who'd fallen into the pit came out of it, scrabbling up a ladder just for the purpose, as if hellfire had scorched his bottom.
Which was exactly in line with Michael's plan.
Two more men got out on the beam and started wrestling. Again, the onlookers went a bit wild. "A sporting contest," Gantt observed. "Maybe they're gambling on who's going to win."
"Hm. Well, we're going to win," Michael said. He eased back down to where the boy sat, and Gantt followed. The boy was rolling his dice on the ground, again and again. Michael snapped his fingers in front of the boy's eyes to secure his attention. Follow him, he said, and pointed at Gantt.
It was time to go get some water.
The hollerings and laughter intensified again. Now a pair of musicians had joined the throng: a drum began to beat and a high-pitched flute began to whistle. The air was fragrant with the aroma of grilled goat. They were having a regular party down in Dahlasiffaville.
Gantt caught Michael's good wrist. "You can't be serious. About walking in there without a gun. Even you Englishers can't be that insane."
"I was born in Russia," Michael said, as if that explained it all. He pulled free. "I can promise you that I'll be attracting all the attention, but you'll have to be fast and careful getting across the wire. Find that weapons tent as quickly as you can and if you have the chance and means blow it to blazes. Take care of the boy and take care of yourself."
"They'll kill you first thing," Gantt told him. "We'll never even get down to the wire before you're dead."
"I say you will. Look for your opportunity and take it." He spoke to the boy again:
Remember. Follow him. The boy nodded, the dice gripped in his hand. Then Michael crawled up to the top of the ridge again. He stood up and started down on the other side.
He didn't look back.
He was apprehensive about what might happen in the next few minutes, but he was not afraid. He was prepared, and he was ready.
The music and the shouting went on. Michael reached the bottom of the ridge and began walking directly toward the watchman's tower. The watchman had a small oil lamp up there, and a torch had been set beside the entrance to the village through the barbed wire. Michael strolled along as if he owned the desert and knew every scorpion by name.
Then a rifle barked and a bullet kicked up dust in front of him. The watchman hollered at him, probably a command to halt, but Michael kept walking. A second bullet hit the ground close to Michael's left boot, so this time he decided it was in his best interest to stop.
The cornet was blown several times. A very sour note. The music, laughter and shouting from the village immediately ceased.
It seemed the party was over. Or perhaps, Michael thought, it was just about to begin.
The robed watchman came down a ladder, pointing the rifle at Michael Gallatin's midsection. Now would be an auspicious time, Michael thought, for Gantt and the boy to start their journey to the wire. Who is your shade? Michael asked. He had to ask the question again, in Tuareg, before he got an expression of semi-comprehension. He got no reply, but his meaning was: Who is your leader? The chief of a tribe was always known as its 'shade', for the amount of protection he offered his people.
Within a few seconds, other Dahlasiffa came running to answer the call of the cornet. Pistols and rifles - British, German and Italian - were in evidence. Some of the robed men carried torches or oil lamps. They got around Michael to keep him from advancing or retreating. They brandished their weapons and hollered at him as if each man fancied himself the shadiest one in the village. Rifle barrels began to push at Michael's ribs and one brought a hiss of pain from him by touching his injured shoulder. But he kept the pain out of his face, and with great effort he maintained a calm half-smile.
A figure in crimson robes pushed his way through the growing crowd, though when they realized he was there they quickly moved out of his way. He got up close to Michael and stopped. The man had arranged his keffiyeh into a turban, revealing a handsome though somewhat vulpine face. A pair of black eyes under thick black brows glowered at him. He was in his mid-thirties, his flesh burnished dark brown. He had high cheekbones and a long elegant nose that any high-bred Englisher might have envied. In some other world, the man in the crimson robes could have been a Libyan film star. He was cleanly shaven and bore in his deep-set eyes a sharp and cunning intelligence. He spoke to Michael in a smooth voice that carried a quiet threat, using a language that had some elements of Tuareg but was not entirely Taureg and so was foreign to Michael.
Michael didn't respond. The man in the crimson robes reached out and plucked at their visitor's uniform.
"Brit," said the man.
"An English uniform, yes," Michael corrected.
"Brit," the man repeated, because he could. He tapped his chest. "Nuri." And he added in the King's tongue for Michael's enlightment, "Meaning fire."
"Interesting," Michael said. That spoke for the crimson robes. The Dahlasiffa's shade was a showman. A rifle barrel pushed against Michael's neck and another one pressed against his spine.
"Who is you?" His King's tongue was not altogether perfect.
"Me?" Michael kept his half-smile. "Oh, I'm the Devil and I've come to destroy you."
"Destroy...me?" asked Nuri. His eyebrows went up. His face was solemn for a few seconds. Then the mouth opened and he began to laugh. As he laughed, so laughed the others. In fact, the others laughed loudest even though they probably had no idea why they were laughing. Such was the power of the Fireman, it seemed. Nuri turned and announced in their language what Michael had said, and then the bottomless pit of laughter stretched wide. Some of the others began to dance, they were laughing so hard.
Some, it appeared, wept tears of laughter.
Michael waited for all the mirth and hilarity to die down. When Nuri ceased laughing, the others stopped too. He said something, very rapidly in his harsh language, that Michael failed to understand. "Say you Devil," said Nuri, "yet you know not my speech? How is this?"
"Everyone knows the Devil is an Englishman," said Michael, and when Nuri translated this the crowd went as crazy as any audience at a West End vaudeville show.
But this time Nuri only smiled; he did not laugh. He motioned for quiet and got it.