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THE ROBBER BAND AND AN OSTRICH HUNT
MEANTIME Fatimah was making friends with Nawara, the old merchant’s little granddaughter. She was a wild, shy little girl, wearing a dark blue cotton dress, a mass of tangled black hair hanging down on her shoulders. The hot sun and the wind had burnt her face almost black. She was telling Fatimah of her long journeys with her grandfather.
“Thou art a great traveller,” said Fatimah, looking at the little girl in round-eyed wonder. “Yes, my father and mother are dead,” she said, “and, as I have no little brothers or sisters, I go always with grandfather. He makes a nice seat for me on top of the big bales of goods on the camel’s back, or he holds me before him on his dromedary.”
“And art thou never afraid?” asked Fatimah.
“Oh, no! Sometimes, though, at night, when I hear the jackals howling near our tent, I pull the rug up over my head. But when we come to the ‘Black Tents’ every one is so kind. I find many little playmates; and often they want me to stay with them. Grandfather would miss me sadly if I did,” said Nawara, with an important air. “When we halt I always gather the dry thorns and make the fire, and melt the milk balls to make a cool drink while the cakes are cooking,” she went on.
“Thou art indeed quite a little woman,” said Fatimah’s mother, smiling at the little girl’s talk.
“‘Tis good to be here,” said the merchant, after his other customers had gone and the family had gathered for the evening meal in front of the tent. “We came a long, weary way to-day. I feared to stop by the road, for there was talk of robbers hiding in the hills, and a party of travellers had been attacked by them a few days ago.”
“Perhaps we will see them to-morrow, father, and then I will have a chance to use my new pistol,” spoke up Hamid, eagerly.
“The rascals give no one a chance to see them. They keep themselves safely hid behind the rocks, and fire upon the peaceful traveller before he is aware that they are there,” the merchant replied.
“It is their way,” said Al-Abukar. “I would not hasten thy going,” he continued; “but if thou wilt join our party we will ride together as far as the tents of our friends. It will be safer for thee and the little one as well as thy goods,” said the Sheik.
So it was arranged that the old merchant and Nawara should start out with them the next day.
Hamid and Rashid lay awake half the night, planning what they would do if they met the robbers; and they were up and had saddled their horses while it was yet starlight, so as to get a good start before the heat of the day came down upon them.
The camel men were ready with the camels tied together in a long line, one behind the other, so that they might not stray apart.
The old merchant seated himself cross-legged on his dromedary, which is much like a camel except that it is swifter and has two humps on its back instead of one.
“Thou hast been very kind,” said little Nawara, putting her arms around Fatimah and kissing her as they were leaving.
“Thou wilt come again some day, perhaps,” said Zubaydah, the mother. “Meantime here is something to keep thee from having to cook the midday meal,” she said, as she stuffed some fresh dates and cakes into the food-bags.
Now the men started the camels, Al-Abukar and the boys swung themselves into their saddles, and away they galloped.
Hamid looked very fine indeed, for a little Bedouin boy likes to look at his best when he is making his first visit. He had put on his long white cloak of camel’s-hair cloth, and thrown over his white cap a silk cloth like a large handkerchief with long red tassels at the corners. This was held on by a cord of brown wool wound round and round his head. In the broad silken sash at his waist was stuck a small dagger with a curved blade and of course the new pistol, and his jacket was embroidered with a silver thread.
Rashid, too, was dressed in Bedouin style; and each of the boys carried a spear, while they had polished as brightly as possible the silver buckles and ornaments on their bridles and saddles. To the boys’ great disappointment nothing happened and they reached the tents of their friends safely enough. Here they spent three happy days.
While Al-Abukar and his friend the Sheik bargained over the prices of the colts, Hamid and Rashid played with the children of the encampment, riding races on horseback and having a good time generally. Indeed they were sorry when they came to say good-bye, and turned their horses’ heads homewards.
“I don’t believe there are any robbers, after all,” said Rashid to Hamid, as they were riding back together a little ahead of the party.
“They are only men from the mountains, anyway,” said Hamid, with a toss of his head, a Bedouin’s way of saying he didn’t think much of their bravery.
“Some of them are courageous enough,” said one of the camel men who had just come up behind them; “and this is just the sort of a place they would choose to lurk in,” he continued, looking carefully about him as they entered a ravine between the hills.
Just as the camel man had finished speaking, Hamid looked up and saw a curl of white smoke coming out from behind a rock on the hillside above them.
“Down!” cried Hamid, pushing Rashid forward on his pony’s neck and at the same time throwing himself flat on Zuleika’s neck just as a bullet went whizzing over their heads.
“‘Tis they! the rascals! They are skulking behind the rocks, and will not come out and fight in the open like brave men,” cried Al-Abukar, galloping up furiously and sending a shot back in the direction from which they had been attacked.
“Give your horses their rein, boys, and ride on as fast as ever you can. These worthless fellows will have no horses that can overtake yours. I will teach the brigands what it means to fire on a Bedouin chief.” So saying, Al-Abukar dashed straight up the rocky side of the ravine.
“I will not flee! I will follow you, father!” cried Hamid, spurring Zuleika on close behind his father’s horse. Rashid followed, not knowing what might happen, but determined to stay by Hamid at any cost.
The horses needed no spur, for the sound of the shot had made them wild, and they bounded up the steep rocky trail like gazelles.
The band of robbers were so taken aback at this sudden return of their attack that they fled without a parting shot, but not before Al-Abukar had captured their chief.
“Aha! Thy beard is now in my grasp,” said Al-Abukar to the robber chief, as he and his men fastened their prisoner on the back of one of the camels.
“Thou didst not think any one could reach thee on that steep mountainside, but thou didst not reckon on the mettle of the horses of our tribe.”
“Look you,” said the camel man, as he rode up alongside the boys again, “it was a good thing that you sheltered yourselves behind your horses’ necks. Here, Rashid, is the hole of the bullet right through this head-kerchief of yours, and if you had not pulled your little friend down on to his horse’s neck as you were riding beside him, Hamid, the bullet would certainly have gone straight through his head.”
“Oh, Hamid, you have saved my life,” said Rashid, turning pale for the first time. He had been too much excited before to be frightened.
“He only did his duty to his friend,” Al-Abukar replied, gravely; but Hamid saw by his look that he was proud of his son. He sat up a little straighter in his saddle and felt that he had grown at least a couple of inches taller during the morning.
“Thou hast disobeyed me, child, but I cannot scold thee,” continued his father; “for you and Rashid both followed me like brave little sons of the desert.”
“But, father!” said Hamid, clutching at Zuleika’s rein, suddenly, “I forgot all about firing my new pistol!” At this they all laughed heartily.
“Never mind,” said his father; “I am sorry to say there are still many robbers left, and that you may yet have a chance to use it.”
When they rode up to the tents with their prisoner, the robber chief, every one hurrahed; and the mother and Fatimah had, of course, to hear all about the adventures at once.
“Shall we go out to-day, my young masters, and see if we can bring home some hares for our dinner, or perhaps catch a grouse or two?” asked Awad, the falconer, when Hamid and Rashid came to look at the birds on the morning after the adventure with the robbers.
“Yes, indeed! “cried both the boys in one breath; and it was not long before they were speeding over the plain beside Awad, with the two greyhounds leaping along after them.
Awad carried his falcon, and Hamid had his own bird, too, perched on his wrist. Every now and then the boys, out of sheer fun, would throw their spears up in the air and catch them again as they were riding furiously across the plain. This is quite a feat, as you may imagine, when one is riding at full speed, but Hamid could do it easily. His spear was a long bamboo cane with a brass tip on one end, and on the other an iron spear sharpened so that it could be stuck upright in the ground if need be. Next to his pony and his pistol, Hamid was more fond of his spear than of any other of his belongings; and he could not be induced to part with it at any time.
Over the rocky, sandy ground they rode, and through thickets of acacia and mimosa trees. Just as they came out into the open again there was a whirr, and up rose a bevy of birds just in front of them.
“Now is thy chance! Whistle off thy falcon!” cried Awad.
Quick as a flash Hamid threw off his falcon from his wrist, and like a dart it swept after the fleeing birds.
“Ho! my beauty, faster! faster! faster!” cried Hamid, and, patting his pony’s neck, he flew along, with Rashid close behind.
“She gains on them!” cried Rashid. Just then the falcon with a shrill cry came up with the poor bird it had been chasing, as it fluttered to the ground tired out; and, fixing its great talons in the feathers of its back, carried it toward Hamid.
“Well done!” cried Awad, as Hamid rode up to him, glowing with pride. “Thou art indeed an apt pupil, and some day will excel thy teacher.”
“But thou didst not throw off thy own falcon,” said Hamid.
“Nay, I wanted you to have all the glory this time,” answered Awad, with a smile. “But now comes my turn,” he exclaimed, as he sent his falcon flying after some hares which were scuttling along the ground to their holes. The greyhounds bounded after the frightened little animals; but, though they are the swiftest dogs known, the old falcon which Awad had been carrying on his wrist was faster than they. He caught up with the hares before they did and pounced upon one of them.
By this time the sun was high above the horizon; and the very air seemed quivering, it was so hot.
“We will stop now and have something to eat, this seems a likely place,” said the old falconer, as they halted under a tree. The boys declared they were quite ready, and vaulted at once from their horses; for they had eaten only a bit of dry bread before starting out.
“Thrust your spear into the ground, Rashid, as I have mine,” said Hamid; “and we will. make a tent under which to rest, by hanging Awad’s great cloak between them.”
“Look, Hamid, what a pretty round, white stone I have found here,” called out Rashid, as the end of his lance struck something hard in the sand.
“Stone!” said Hamid, brushing the sand away. “It’s an ostrich’s egg, and here is another; why, it’s an ostrich’s nest!”
“Oh, and to think that I found it!” cried Rashid. He had seen the eggs for sale in the bazaars of Medina, and knew that the ostriches bury their eggs in the hot sand, which hatches them out in time; but he had hardly hoped to be able to ever find a real ostrich’s nest himself.
“What is this?” asked Awad, as he came up from hobbling the horses. “Ostrich eggs! Then likely enough the bird itself is not far off,” he continued, looking around.
“Yes, there she is,” cried Hamid, pointing to a spot some distance away. Sure enough, there was the ostrich, with its head buried in the sand.
“Foolish bird! she thinks that as long as she hides her head in the sand, and cannot see us, that we are not able to see her, and that she is safely hidden from danger. Come, let us give chase,” said Awad, running back to the horses. So, forgetting the heat and their hunger, the boys jumped on their horses again, while the greyhounds, hot on the scent, led the chase after the big bird.
The ostrich apparently heard them coming and got her head out of the sand quickly enough. And did not the long-legged bird give them a chase, covering yards of ground at each step!
“She is throwing stones at us,” laughed Hamid, as the bird’s big feet sent a shower of small stones flying back at them.
“Oh, if I only had a stout rope with me,” said Awad.
“It is here,” said the black servant who had accompanied them, drawing a coil from his saddle-bag and throwing it to Awad as they all galloped onward.
But if the bird was swift, so were the others, too; and, as the greyhounds gained on her, the ostrich grew bewildered until finally she turned at bay and showed fight.
“Beware!” shouted Awad, as he caught Zuleika’s bridle and reined her back just as the bird lifted her great foot to strike at Hamid. “A blow from her foot would be a dangerous thing,” he continued. At the same time he threw a noose of rope and skilfully entangled the ostrich’s foot just as one of the greyhounds sprang at the bird. After many struggles, the ostrich was thrown and secured in spite of its vicious kicks.
Awad sent the servant in hot haste back to the tents to fetch help to get the ostrich home; for it is no easy matter to manage one of these great strong birds, even after you have got it well secured.
At last our little hunting-party had a chance to rest; and, while they ate their dried dates and cakes, the boys talked of nothing but their ostrich hunt. Rashid was sure that this was the most wonderfully interesting day he had ever spent.