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The Lance of Kanana by  Harry W. French


 

 

THE LANCE OF KANANA

[147] THE army of the Prophet had not retreated one foot froth its original position, when night brought the third day's battle to a close.

Kahled sank upon the ground among his soldiers, while the women from the rear brought what refreshment they could to the tired warriors.

All night he lay awake beside his gray battle-horse, looking at the stars and thinking.

Flight or death would surely be the result of the coming day. Even Kahled the Invincible, had given up all hope of victory.

He was too brave a man to fly, but he was also too brave to force others to stand and be slaughtered for his pride.

It was a bitter night for him, but as the [148] eastern sky was tinged with gray, he at last resolved to make the sacrifice himself, and save such of his people as he could.

The women and children, with the wounded who could be moved, must leave at once, taking all that they could carry with them, and scatter themselves in every direction.

When they were well away, he, with such as preferred to stand and die with him, would hold the foe in check while the rest of the army retreated, with orders to march at once to Mecca and Medina, and hold those two sacred cities as long as a man remained alive.

He breathed a deep sigh when the plan was completed, and rising, mounted his fired charger, to see that it was properly executed.

It was the first time in his career that Kahled the Invincible had ordered a retreat, and his only consolation was that he was neither to lead nor join in it.

In the camp of Manuel the same dread [149] of the coming day clouded every brow. Food was entirely exhausted. Horses and camels had been devoured. They had neither the means with which to move away, nor the strength to stand their ground.

Their solid phalanx was only what the enemy saw along the front. Rank after rank had been supplied from the rear till there was nothing left to call upon.

All that remained of the eighty thousand iron-hearted fighters—the pride of the Emperor Heraclius—as they gathered about the low camp fires, confessed that they were overmatched by the sharper steel of Mohammedan zeal and Bedouin patriotism.

Manuel and his officers knew that for at least three days no relief could reach them; they knew, too, that they could not endure another day of fighting.

"If we could make them think that their men are deserting and joining us, we might frighten them," suggested an officer.

[150] "Send for the spy," said Manuel quickly, "and let it be proclaimed to the other prisoners that all who will join us shall be set free, and that those who refuse shall be slaughtered without mercy."

Haggard and worn Kanana stood before him. For fifty hours he had lain bound, in a cave at the foot of the cliff, without a drop of water or a morsel of food.

"I am about to torture thee," said the prince. "Thou hast wronged me more than thy sufferings can atone, but I shall make them as bitter as I can. Hast thou anything to say before the work begins?"

Kanana thought for a moment, then, hesitating as though still doubtful, he replied:

"When the tempest rages on the desert, cloth not the camel lay him down, and the young camel say to the drifting sand, 'Cover me; kill me, I am helpless?' But among the captives taken by the prince, I saw an old man pass my cave. He is full of years, and for him I would part my lips. [151] I hear that the prince will have the prisoners slain, but it is not the custom of my people to make the women, the old men, and the children suffer with the rest. May it please the prince to double every torture he has prepared for me, and in exchange to set that old man free?"

"Who is he?" asked the prince.

"The one with a long white beard. There are not two," replied Kanana.

"And what is he to you?"

Kanana hesitated.

"He shall die unless you tell me," said the prince, and Kanana's cold lips trembled as he whispered:

"He is my father."

"'Tis well," said Manuel. "Let him be brought."

The old man entered, but paused at the opposite side of the tent, looking reproachfully at his son. He had heard from the other captives how they had discovered Kanana, a deserter in the hour of danger, living in the tents of the enemy. Even he [152] had believed the tale, and he was enough of a patriot to be glad that they betrayed his son.

"Is this thy father?" asked the prince. "He does not look it in his eyes." Kanana simply bowed his head.

That look was piercing his heart far deeper than the threats of torture; but Manuel continued:

"You have offered to suffer every torture I can devise if I will set him free. But you have not compassed your debt to me. You gave to Kahled the information by which he conquered Jababal. You gave him information which prevented his making terms of peace with me. But for you I should be on my way to Mecca and Medina, to sweep them from the earth. But I like courage, and you have shown more of it than Kahled himself. It is a pity to throw a heart like yours under a clod of earth, and I will give you an opportunity to save both yourself and your father. Stand upon the brow of the cliff yonder, [153] as the sun comes up. There, according to the custom of your people, wave this lance above your head. Shout your own name and your father's, so that all of your people can hear, and tell them that in one hour thirty thousand Arabs will draw the sword for the cause of Heraclius. Then throw the lance, and if your aim be good, and you do kill an Arab, that moment I will set thy father free, and thou shalt be made a prince among my people. Do not refuse me, or, after I have tortured thee, with red-hot irons I will burn out thy father's eyes, lest he should still look savagely upon thy corpse!"

He had scarcely ceased speaking when the old sheik exclaimed:

"My son! My Kanana, I have wronged thee! Forgive me if thou canst, but let him burn out my eyes! Oh! not for all the eyes that watch the stars would I have a son of mine a traitor. Thou wouldst not lift a lance before. I charge thee now, by Allah, lift it not for any price that can be [154] offered thee by this dog of an infidel!"

Kanana did not look at his father. His eyes were fixed on Manuel, and when all was still, he asked:

"Will the prince allow his captive to sit alone till sunrise and consider his offer?"

"Take him out upon the cliff and let him sit alone," said Manuel; "but have the irons heated for his father's eyes."

Kanana chose a spot whence he could overlook the valley, and whatever his first intentions may have been, he changed them instantly, with his first glance. He started, strained his eyes, and looked as far as his keen sight could pierce the gray light of early morning.

Then his head sank lower and lower over his hands, lying in his lap, till the wings of his turban completely covered them. He did not move or look again.

In that one glance he had recognized the result of Kahled's last resolve. In the gray distance he saw that laden camels were moving to the south. He saw the [155] dark spots, most distant in the valley, suddenly disappear. They were folding their tents! They were moving away! Kahled the Invincible had ordered a retreat.

Kanana knew that to retreat at that moment meant death to Arabia, but he did not move again till an officer touched him on the shoulder, and warned him that in a moment more the sun would rise.

With a startled shudder he rose and entered Manuel's tent.

"Is the word of the prince unchanged?" he asked. "If I speak the words and throw the lance and kill an Arab, that moment will he set my father free?"

"I swear it by all the powers of earth and heaven!" replied the prince.

"Give me the lance," said Kanana.

His father crouched against the tent, muttering: "For such an act, Kanana, when I am set free I will find first a fire with which to heat an iron, and burn my own eyes out."

Kanana did not heed him. He took the [156] lance, tested it, and threw it scornfully upon the ground.

"Give me a heavier one!" he exclaimed. "Do you think me like your Greek boys, made of wax? Give me a lance that, when it strikes, will kill."

They gave him a heavier lance.

"The hand-rest is too small for a Bedouin," he muttered, grasping it; "but wait! I can remedy that myself. Come. Let us have it over with."

As he spoke he tore a strip from beneath his coat, and, turning sharply about, walked before them to the brink of the cliff, winding the strip firmly about the hand-rest of the lance.

Upon the very edge he stood erect and waited.

The sun rose out of the plain, and flashed with blinding force upon the Bedouin boy, clad in his sheepskin coat and desert turban, precisely as it had found him in the porch of Aaron's tomb, upon the summit of Mount Hor.

[157] His hand no longer held a shepherd's staff, but firmly grasped a Grecian lance, that gleamed and flashed as fiercely as the sun.

Upon Mount Hor he was bending forward, eagerly shading his eyes, anxiously looking away into the dim distance, searching the path of his destiny.

Now there was no eagerness. Calmly he stood there. Vainly the sun flashed in his clear, wide-open eyes. He did not even know that it was shining.

Not a muscle moved. Why was he waiting?

"Are you afraid?" muttered the prince, who had come as near as possible without being too plainly seen from below. "Remember your old father's eyes."

Kanana did not turn his head, but calmly answered:

"Do you see yonder a man upon a gray horse, moving slowly among the soldiers He is coming nearer, nearer. That man is Kahled the Invincible. If he should [158] come within range of the lance of Kanana, I suppose that Manuel would be well pleased to wait?"

"Good boy! Brave boy!" replied the prince. "When thou hast made thy mind to do a thing, thou doest it admirably. Kill him, and thou shalt be loaded down with gold till the day when thou diest of old age."

Kanana made no reply, but standing in bold relief upon the cliff, watched calmly and waited, till at last Kahled the Invincible left the line of soldiers, and alone rode nearer to the cliff.

"Now is your chance! Now! Now!" exclaimed the prince.

Slowly Kanana raised the lance. Three times he waved it above his head. Three times he shouted:

"I am Kanana, son of the Terror of the Desert!" in the manner of the Bedouin who challenges an enemy to fight, or meets a foe upon the plain.

For a moment, then, he hesitated. The [159] next sentence was hard to speak. He knew too well what the result would be. It needed now no straining of the eyes to see his destiny.

All the vast army down below was looking up at him. Thousands would hear his words. Tens of thousands would see what followed them.

"Go on! go on!" the prince ejaculated fiercely.

Kanana drew a deep breath and shouted: "In one hour thirty thousand Arabs will draw the sword in the army of Heraclius!" Then gathering all his strength, he hurled the lance directly at the great Mohammedan general, who had not moved since he began to speak.

Throughout those two great armies one might have heard a sparrow chirp, as the gleaming, flashing blade fell like a meteor from the cliff.

The aim was accurate. The Bedouin boy cringed, and one might have imagined that it was even more accurate than he [160] meant. It pierced the gray charger. The war-horse of Kahled plunged forward and fell dead upon the plain.

A fierce howl rose from the ranks of the Ishmaelites. Men and women shrieked and yelled.

"Kanana the traitor! A curse upon the traitor Kanana!" rent the very air.

Such was the confusion which followed that, had the Greeks been ready to advance, a thousand might have put a hundred thousand Bedouins to flight. But they were not ready.

Kanana stood motionless upon the cliff. He heard the yells of "Traitor!" but he knew that they would come, and did not heed them.

Calmly he watched till Kahled gained his feet, dragged the lance from his dying horse, and with it in his hand, hurried toward the soldiers.

Only once he turned, and for an instant looked up at the solitary figure upon the cliff. He lifted his empty hand, as though [161] it were a blessing and not a malediction, he bestowed upon the Bedouin boy; then he disappeared.

With a deep, shivering sigh, Kanana pressed one hand beneath his sheepskin coat. A sharp contortion passed over him, but he turned about and stood calmly, face to face with Manuel.

"You did well," said the prince, "but you did not kill an Arab. It was for that I made my promise."

"'And if you kill an Arab,'" gasped Kanana, "'that moment I will set your father free!' Those were the prince's words! That was his promise, bound by all the powers of earth and heaven! He will keep it! He will not dare defy those powers, for I have killed an Arab!"

Clutching the sheepskin coat, Kanana tore it open, and, above a brilliant girdle, they saw a dagger buried in his bleeding breast. He tottered, reeled, stepped backward, and fell over the brink of the cliff. "You may as well go free," said Man- [162] uel, turning to the sheik. "A monstrous sacrifice has just been made to purchase your liberty."

Turning abruptly he entered his tent to consider, with his officers, the next result.

"I think they are flying," an officer reported, coming from the cliff. "The horsemen and camels are hurrying into the hills. Only foot soldiers seem remaining in the front."

"Let every soldier face them who has strength to stand!" commanded the prince. "Put everything to the front, and if they fly give them every possible encouragement."

The order was obeyed, and the fourth day of battle began; but it was spiritless and slow.

The Bedouins, with their constantly thinning ranks, stood with grim determination where their feet rested, but they made no effort to advance.

The wearied out and starving Grecian phalanx simply held its ground. The [163] prince was not there to urge his soldiers on. The voice of Kahled did not sound among the Mussulmans.

An hour went by.


[Illustration]

"I GAVE IT TO HIM," SAID KAHLED, SOLEMNLY.

Suddenly there was an uproar in the rear of the army of Heraclius. There was a wild shout, a clash of arms, and the watchword of Islam rang above the tumult, in every direction.

Ten thousand horse and twenty thousand war-camels poured in upon that defenseless rear, and, even as Kanana had declared, in just one hour there were thirty thousand Arabs wielding their savage swords in the army of Heraclius.

Another hour went by. The battle cry of Kahled ceased. The shout of victory rang from the throats of the Mussulmans. Manuel and all his officers were slain. The magnificent army of Heraclius was literally obliterated.

Treasure without limit glutted the conquered camp. Arabia was saved.

Quickly the soldiers erected a gorgeous [164] throne and summoned Kahled to sit upon it, while they feasted about him and did him honor as their victorious and invincible leader.

The veteran warrior responded to their call, but he came from his tent with his head bowed down, bearing in his arms a heavy burden. Slowly he mounted the platform, and upon the sumptuous throne he laid his burden down.

It was the bruised and lifeless body of Kanana.

With trembling hand the grim chief drew back the sheepskin coat, and all men then beheld, bound about the Bedouin boy, the sacred girdle!

"I gave it to him," said Kahled solemnly; "and upon the fragments you have returned to me, he wrote the information by which we conquered Jababal and Manuel. You saw him throw this lance at me; you called him 'traitor!' but about the hand-rest there was wound this strip. See! In blood—in his blood—these words are writ- [165] ten here: 'Do not retreat. The infidels are starving and dying. Strike them in rear.' It was his only means of reaching me. It was not the act of a traitor. No! It was the Lance of Kanana that rescued Arabia."


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