They greatly outnumber us, and so our only hope must lie in our mobility. We realize that we are reducing this by taking along our women and our flocks; but we believe that so desperate will be our straits that we must conquer, since the only alternative to victory must be death—death for us and worse for our women and children.
The clans have been gathering for two days, and all are there—some fifty thousand souls; and of horses, cattle, and sheep there must be a thousand thousand, for we are rich in livestock. In the last two months, at my orders, all our swine have been slaughtered and smoked, for we could not be hampered by them on the long desert march, even if they could have survived it.
There is water in the desert this time of year and some feed, but it will be a hard, a terrible march. We shall lose a great deal of our stock, one in ten, perhaps; the Wolf thinks it may be as high as five in ten.
We shall start to-morrow an hour before sunset, making a short march of about ten miles to a place where there is a spring along the trail the ancients used. It is strange to see all across the desert evidence of the great work they accomplished. After five hundred years the location of their well graded trail, with its wide, sweeping curves, is plainly discernible. It is a narrow trail, but there are signs of another, much wider, that we discover occasionally. It follows the general line of the other, crossing it and recrossing it, without any apparent reason, time and time again. It is almost obliterated by drifting sand, or washed away by the rain of ages. Only where it is of material like stone has it endured.
The pains those ancients took with things! The time and men and effort they expended! And for what? They have disappeared, and their works with them.
As we rode that first night Rain Cloud was often at my side, and as usual he was gazing at the stars.
“Soon you will know all about them,” I said, laughing, “for you are always spying upon them. Tell me some of their secrets.”
“I am learning them,” he replied seriously.
“Only the Flag, who put them there to light our way at night knows them all,” I reminded him.
He shook his head. “They were there, I think, long before the Flag existed.”
“Hush!” I admonished him. “Speak no ill of the Flag.”
“I speak no ill of it,” he replied. “It stands for all to me. I worship it, even as you; yet still I think the stars are older than the Flag, as the earth must be older than the Flag.”
“The Flag made the earth,” I reminded him.
“Then where did it abide before it made the earth?” he asked.
I scratched my head. “It is not for us to ask,” I replied. “It is enough that our fathers told us these things. Why would you question them?”
“I would know the truth.”
“What good will it do you?” I asked.
This time it was the Rain Cloud who scratched.
“It is not well to be ignorant,” he replied at last. “Beyond the desert, wherever I have ridden, I have seen hills. I know not what lies beyond those hills. I should like to see.
“To the west is the ocean. In my day, perhaps, we shall reach it. I shall build a canoe and go forth upon the ocean and see what lies beyond.”
“You will come to the edge of the world and tumble over it, and that will be the end of your canoe and you.”
“I do not know about that,” he replied. “You think the earth is flat.”
“And who is there that does not think so? Can we not see that it is flat? Look about you—it is like a large, round, flat cake.”
“With land in the center and water all round the land?” he asked.
“What keeps the water from running off the edge?” he wanted to know.
I had never thought about that, and so I returned the only answer that I could think of at the time.
“The Flag, of course,” I said.
“Do not be a fool, my brother,” said Rain Cloud. “You are a great warrior and a mighty chief; you should be wise, and the wise man knows that nothing, not even the Flag, can keep water from running down hill if it is not confined.”
“Then it must be confined,” I argued. “There must be land to hold the water from running over the edge of the world.”
“And what is beyond that land?”
“Nothing,” I replied confidently.
“What do the hills stand on? What does the earth stand on?”
“It floats on a great ocean,” I explained.
“With hills around it to keep its water from running over its edge?”
“I suppose so.”
“And what upholds that ocean and those hills?” he went on.
“Do not be foolish,” I told him. “I suppose there must be another ocean below that one.”
“And what holds it up?”
I thought he would never stop. I do not enjoy thinking about such useless things. It is a waste of time, yet now that he had started me thinking, I saw that I should have to go on until I had satisfied him. Somehow I had an idea that dear little Rain Cloud was poking fun at me, and so I bent my mind to the thing and really thought, and when I did think I saw how foolish is the belief that we all hold.
“We know only about the land that we can see and the oceans that we know exist, because others have seen them,” I said at last. “These things, then, of, which we know, constitute the earth. What upholds the earth we do not know, but doubtless it floats about in the air as float the clouds. Are you satisfied?”
“Now I will tell you what I think,” he said. “I have been watching the sun, the moon, and the stars every night since I was old enough to have a thought beyond my mother’s breast. I have seen, as you can see, as every one with eyes can see, that the sun, the moon, and the stars are round like oranges. They move always in the same paths through the air, though all do not move upon the same path. Why should the earth be different? It probably is not. It, too, is round, and it moves upon its path. What keeps them all from falling I do not know.
I laughed at that, and called to Nallah, our sister, who rode near by. “Rain Cloud thinks that the earth is round like an orange.”
“We should slip off if that were true,” she said.
“Yes, and all the water would run off it,” I added.
“There is something about it that I do not understand,” admitted Rain Cloud, “yet still I think that I am right. There is so much that none of us knows. Nallah spoke of the water running off the earth if it were round. Did you ever think of the fact that all the water of which we know runs down forever from the higher places? How does it get back again?”
“The rains and snows,” I replied quickly.
“Where do they come from?”
“I do not know.”
“There is so much that we do not know,” sighed Rain Cloud; “yet all that we can spare the time for is thoughts of fighting. I shall be glad when we have chased the last of the Kalkars into the sea, so that some of us may sit down in peace and think.”
“It is handed down to us that the ancients prided themselves upon their knowledge, but what did it profit them? I think we are happier. They must have had to work all their lives to do the things they did and to know all the things they knew, yet they could eat no more or sleep no more or drink no more in a lifetime than can we. And now they are gone forever from the earth and all their works with them, and all their knowledge is lost.”
“And presently we will be gone,” said Rain Cloud.
“And we will have left as much as they to benefit those who follow,” I replied.
“Perhaps you are right, Red Hawk,” said Rain Cloud; “yet I cannot help wanting to know more than I do know.”
The second march was also made at night, and was a little longer than the first. We had a good moon, and the desert night was bright. The third march was about twenty-five miles; and the fourth a short one, only ten miles. And there we left the trail of the ancients and continued in a southwesterly direction to a trail that followed a series of springs that gave us short marches the balance of the way to a lake called Bear by our slaves.
The way, of course, was all well known to us, and so we knew just what was ahead and dreaded the fifth march, which was a terrible one, by far the worst of them all. It lay across a rough and broken area of desert and crossed a range of barren mountains. For forty-five miles it wound its parched way from water hole to water hole.
For horsemen alone it would have been a hard march, but with cattle and sheep to herd across that waterless waste it became a terrific undertaking. Every beast that was strong enough carried hay, oats or barley, in sacks, for we could not depend entirely upon the sparse feed of the desert for so huge a caravan; but water we could not carry in sufficient quantities for the stock. We transported enough, however on the longer marches to insure a supply for the women and all children under sixteen, and on the short marches enough for nursing mothers and children under ten.
We rested all day before the fifth march began, setting forth about three hours before sundown. From fifty camps in fifty parallel lines we started. Every man, woman and child was mounted. The women carried all children under five; usually seated astride a blanket on the horse’s rump behind the mother. The rest rode alone. The bulk of the warriors and all the women and children set out ahead of the herds, which followed slowly behind, each bunch securely hemmed in by outriders and followed by a rear guard of warriors.
A hundred men on swift horses rode at the head of the column, and as the night wore on gradually increased their lead until they were out of sight of the remainder of the caravan. Their duty was to reach the camp site ahead of the others and fill the water tanks that slaves had been preparing for the last two months.
We took but a few slaves with us, only personal attendants for the women and such others as did not wish to be separated from their masters and had chosen to accompany us. For the most part the slaves preferred to remain in their own country, and we were willing to let them, since it made fewer mouths to feed upon the long journey, and we knew that in the Kalkar country we should find plenty to take their places, as we would take those from the Kalkars we defeated.
At the end of five hours we were strung out in a column fully ten miles long, and our outriders on either flank were often half a mile apart; but we had nothing to fear from the attacks of human enemies, the desert being our best defense against such. Only we of the desert knew the desert trails and the water holes, only we are innured to the pitiless hardships of its barrenness, its heat, and its cruelties.
But we have other enemies, and on this long march they clung tenaciously to our flanks, almost surrounding the great herds with a cordon of gleaming eyes and flashing fangs—the coyotes, the wolves, and the hellhounds. Woe betide the straggling sheep or cow that they might cut off from the protection of the rear guard or the flankers. A savage chorus; a rush, and the poor creature was literally torn to pieces upon its feet. A woman or child with his mount would have suffered a similar fate, and even a lone warrior might be in great danger. If the brutes knew their own strength, they could, I believe, exterminate us, for their numbers are appalling; there must have been as high as a thousand following us upon that long march at a single time.
But they hold us in great fear because we have waged relentless warfare against them for hundreds of years, and the fear of us must be bred in them. Only when in great numbers and goaded by starvation will they attack a full grown warrior. They kept us busy all during the long nights of this wearisome march, and they kept our shaggy hounds busy, too. The coyotes and the wolves are easy prey for the hounds, but the hellhounds are a match for them, and it is these that we fear most. Our hounds, and with the fifty clans there must have been gathered a full two thousand of them, work with tireless efficiency and a minimum of wasted effort when on the march.
In camp they are constantly fighting among themselves, but on the march, never. From the home camp they indulge in futile chases after rabbits, but on the march they consume no energy uselesssly. The dogs of each clan have their pack leader, usually an experienced dog owned by the hound-chief of the clan. The Vulture is our hound-chief, and his hound, old Lonay, is pack leader. He does his work and leads his pack with scarce a word from the Vulture. He has about fifty hounds in his pack, twenty-five of which he posts at intervals about the herd, and with the other twenty-five old Lonay brings up the rear.
A high-pitched yelp from one of his sentries is a signal of attack, and brings Lonay and his fighting dogs to the rescue. Sometimes there will be a sudden rush of coyotes, wolves and hellhounds simultaneously from two or three points, and then the discipline and intelligence of old Lonay and his pack merit the affection and regard in which we hold these great, shaggy beasts.
Whirling rapidly two or three times, Lonay emits a series of deep-throated growls and barks, and instantly the pack splits into two or three or more units, each of which races to a different point of trouble. If at any point they are outnumbered and the safety of the herd imperiled, they set up a great wailing which is the signal that they need the help of warriors, a signal that never goes unheeded. In similar cases, or in the hunt, the hounds of other packs will come to the rescue, and all will work together harmoniously, yet if one of these same hounds should wander into the others’ camp a half hour later he would be torn to pieces.
But enough of this, and of the long, tiresome march. It was over at last. The years of thought that I had given it, the two months of preparation that had immediately preceded it, the splendid condition of all our stock, the training and the temper of my people bore profitable fruit, and we came through without the loss of a man, woman or child, and with the loss of less than two in a hundred of our herds and flocks. The mountain crossing on that memorable fifth march took the heaviest toll, mostly lambs and calves falling by the trail side.
With two days out for rest we came, at the end of the tenth march and the twelfth day, to the lake called Bear and into a rich mountain country, lush with feed and game. Here deer and wild goats and wild sheep abounded, with rabbit and quail and wild chicken, and the beautiful wild cattle that the legends of our slaves tell us are descended from the domestic stock of the ancients.
It was not my plan to rest here longer than was necessary to restore in full the strength and spirits of the stock. Our horses were not jaded, as we had had sufficient to change often. In fact, we warriors had not ridden our war horses once upon the journey. Red Lightning had trotted into the last camp fat and sleek.
To have remained here long would have been to have apprised the enemy of our plans, for the Kalkars and their slaves hunt in these mountains which adjoin their land, and should a single hunter see this vast concourse of Julians our coming would have been known throughout the valleys in a single day, and our purpose guessed by all.
So, after a day of rest, I sent the Wolf and a thousand warriors westward to the main pass of the ancients with orders to make it appear that we were attempting to enter the valley there in force. For three days he would persist in this false advance, and in that time I felt that I should have drawn all the Kalkar fighting men from the valley lying southwest of the lake of the Bear. My lookouts were posted upon every eminence that gave view of the valleys and the trails between the main pass of the ancients and that through which we should pour down from the Bear out into the fields and groves of the Kalkars.
The third day was spent in preparation. The last of the arrows were finished and distributed. We looked to our saddle leathers and our bridles. We sharpened our swords and knives once more and put keener points upon our lances. Our women mixed the war paint and packed our belongings again for another march. The herds were gathered and held in close, compact bunches.
Riders reported to me at intervals from the various lookouts and from down the trail to the edge of the Kalkar farms. No enemy had seen us, but that they had seen the Wolf and his warriors we had the most reassuring evidence in the reports from our outposts that every trail from south and west was streaming with Kalkar warriors and that they were converging upon the pass of the ancients.
During the third day we moved leisurely down the mountain trails and as night fell our vanguard of a thousand warriors debouched into the groves of the Kalkars. Leaving four thousand warriors, mostly youths, to guard the women, the children, the flocks and the herds, I set out rapidly in a northwesterly direction toward the pass of the ancients at the head of full twenty thousand warriors.
Our war horses we had led all day as we came slowly out of the mountains riding other animals, and not until we were ready to start upon the twenty-five-mile march to the pass of the ancients did we saddle and mount the fleet beasts upon which the fate of the Julians might rest this night. In consequence our horses were fresh from a two weeks’ rest. Three hours of comparatively easy riding should see us upon the flanks of the enemy.
The Rock, a brave and seasoned warrior, I had left behind to guard the women, the children, and the stock. The Rattlesnake, with five thousand warriors, bore along a more westerly trail, after fifteen miles had been covered, that he might fall upon the rear of the enemy from one point while I fell upon them from another, and at the same time place himself between their main body, lying at the foot of the pass, and the source of their supplies and reenforcements.
With the Wolf, the mountains, and the desert upon one side, and the Rattlesnake and I blocking them upon the south and the southeast, the position of the Kalkars appeared to me to be hopeless.
Toward midnight I called a halt to await the report of scouts who had preceded us, and it was not long before they commenced to come in. From them I learned that the camp fires of the Kalkars were visible from an eminence less than a mile ahead. I gave the signal to advance.
Slowly the great mass of warriors moved forward. The trail dipped down into a little valley and then wound upward to the crest of a low ridge, where, a few minutes later, I reined in Red Lightning.
Before me spread a broad valley bathed in the soft light of moon and stars. Dark masses in the nearer foreground I recognized as orange groves even without the added evidence of the sweet aroma of their blossoms that was heavy on the still night air. Beyond, to the northwest, a great area was dotted with dying camp fires.
I filled my lungs with the cool, sweet air; I felt my nerves tingle; a wave of exultation surged through me; Red Lightning trembled beneath me. After nearly four hundred years a Julian stood at last upon the threshold of complete revenge!