And chief amongst the scoffers was Nakhla, the beautiful bronze daughter of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji. Now, to Ben Saada nothing could have exceeded the humiliation of arousing the laughing scorn of this loveliest daughter of the desert, for he had been paying assiduous court to the maiden for many months; and so, scowling his displeasure, he sulked away to his tent, cursing the moment that his eyes had fallen upon the naked figure of the stranger.
When dark had fallen, and the roar of el adrea rumbled across the desert, Ben Saada came forth from his tent; and, pointing out into the night, dared the men among the laughers to go forth and see for themselves whether or not his story were true; but none ventured to take up his challenge. Instead they fired their long muskets and beat upon tom-toms to frighten the lion away from their flocks and herds.
Out across the sand, the lad and the lion crept slowly down upon the douar. The sound of the guns gave them pause for a time, but at last they resumed their stealthy approach, for by this time the youth was himself hungry, and the scent of the ruminants fell gratefully upon his savage nostrils. Then, too, he wished a nearer view of these creatures of his own kind, for he was imbued with the insatiable curiosity that belongs to all highly intelligent creatures.
Close to the tents the hunters crept, silent now, for they had learned of late that a noisy stalk frightens away the prey. Behind the rude barricade which corralled the Arab’s flocks, the two crouched waiting for the din of drum and musket to cease, for they felt a distinct menace to themselves in these hideous noises.
Finally the Arabs quieted down, cajoled into the belief that they had frightened el adrea away. It was quite dark now, and except for a few lolling about a fire the tribesmen had retired to their tents for the night. The time had come. The lad standing upon the shoulders of the lion could just see above the barrier. All was quiet. With a low word to his companion he vaulted over into the corral. Close behind him leaped the lion.
Instantly there was a mad stampede among the animals of the douar. They dashed frantically about the enclosure. Presently the bleat of a sheep and the shrill scream of a stricken horse marked where the two marauders were making their kills.
The men at the fire leaped to their feet, staring wide-eyed toward the corral. After all, el adrea had come. Raising their guns they fired into the air. One piled more wood and camel dung upon the fire—it is not pleasant to be left in the dark when el adrea as near—el adrea who knows no night.
The shots but brought answering growls from the corral. Other white robed figures came silently from their tents, long, grim muskets full cocked for any emergency. The animals within the corral were quieter. There was less mad racing about the enclosure. Occasionally a horse snorted or a camel grunted. Toward the center of the enclosure two beasts of prey stood astride their kills. The lad was the first to move. Just as the rising moon, topping the barrier’s summit, flooded the corral with light he swung the carcass of a sheep to his broad shoulder and trotted toward the wall.
The Arabs were standing now before their tents waiting for a sight of the intruders and a shot at them. They were sure that there were two lions—they had heard two growling; but Ben Saada insisted that presently they should see that one was a man.
Even as he spoke, the figure of a naked giant leaped to the top of the corral wall. The brilliant moonlight shone full upon him—there could be no mistake. Even Nakhla had to admit that she had been wrong in laughing at Ben Saada. Upon the giant’s shoulder lay the carcass of a sheep—one of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji’s sheep—yet so spellbound were the Arabs by what they saw that none thought to fire.
Scarcely had the man leaped to the open beyond the wall than a great black-maned lion sprang out of the corral directly behind him, and across the lion’s mighty shoulders rested the carcass of a black stallion. Even then the Arabs did not shoot—too full were their minds with surprise and awe—and the lad and the lion trotted off across the weird, moon-bathed desert to devour their prey at a safe distance from the douar.
Often thereafter came the two to the douar of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji. Not because they could not find prey in plenty closer to their own savage lair; but because the youth found a strange, incomprehensible pleasure in being near to creatures of his own kind. He did not, of course, understand property rights, or that he had no business stealing the goats of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji.
He was perfectly primitive. To him, might was right. He knew that the odd and fascinating white-robed horsemen would kill him could they do so. They were his enemies, as was every other living thing except the great chum of his childhood. He had learned all that he knew of men from the ancient defective. Thus, naturally, he had come to hate and fear creatures like himself. Because of this, it was incomprehensible to him that he longed to be close to them. When he was awake his thoughts were never for long upon any other subject.
And among the people of the isolated douar he, in turn, was the subject of continual wonder and speculation. Ben Saada now had the laugh upon his fellows, and he made the most of it. Nakhla, though she had been the loudest and most merciless scoffer, alone escaped his chaff, for Ben Saada looked with covetous eyes upon the beauteous daughter of his sheik and so could not chance offending her by his raillery.
So profound an impression had the sight of the naked man hunting with a huge lion made upon the Arabs that even the men feared to go abroad other than in parties of several even by day. The women were kept close to the douar, and about the flocks and herds was thrown a guard sufficient even to war time.
Nakhla alone seemed untouched by the fear that possessed her father’s people. Lions had never kept her cooped up within the douar, she reasoned, so why should a single, unarmed man in company with a lion cause them such perturbation? For her part, she should go and come as she had always done. The idea! She, the daughter of the great Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji, afraid to venture out upon the desert of her birth. It was preposterous.
And so it happened that one day the spoiled daughter of the sheik rode out alone into the desert carrying word of the coming of a great caravan to her father who rode westward looking to the grazing grounds of his flocks.
It was noon when she reached a rugged little valley in the mountains not a great distance from the sea, but she had not found her sire. The sheik, after leaving the douar, had changed his plans, riding to the south instead of to the west.
Hot and thirsty from the long ride the girl welcomed the sight of the little stream winding along its rocky bed in the center of the valley. Slipping from her saddle she bent low above the water to drink, while her mount, his forefeet in the pebbly brook just below her, buried his muzzle in the clear, cold water.
Neither saw the wondering eyes of the man, or the gleaming, yellow orbs of the great lion watching them from the concealment of a dense thicket upon the flank of an opposite hill. It was the horse which first detected the nearness of danger. An eddying breeze brought down the scent to his keen nostrils, and with a sudden snort he reared backward, jerking the bridle rein from Nakhla’s hand. The girl sprang to her feet, leaping toward the animal’s head; but with terror-wide eyes the slim Arab wheeled away, his hoofs clattering upon the rocks of the drinking place, and an instant later, with high held head, was galloping back in the direction from which they had come.
Nakhla was far from terror-stricken. She was the brave daughter of a brave sire. All her short life had been spent among the dangers of the desert and the hills. But yet she knew that her position now was most precarious. There could be but one explanation of the sudden, mad fright of El Djebel; and she looked quickly about in search of the lion she knew must be near by.
Her quick, intelligent eyes scanned the surroundings with speed, yet minutely. Presently they were riveted upon a dense thicket far up the opposite side of the ravine. She had seen a slight movement there; and now, even as she looked, the mighty head of a great, black-maned lion emerged from the tangle.
There were trees near at hand which Nakhla could climb out of harm’s way; but there was the possibility that El Djebel would stop to graze after his first terror had been spent, and that by following she might overtake and catch him. That would be far better. There was also good reason to believe that the lion would not follow her, as comparatively few lions are man-eaters. It was worth putting to the test, and anyway there were numerous trees along her path to the head of the canyon and up the hillside to the point over which she must cross to regain the desert.
Quickly, yet without apparent haste, the girl walked in the direction taken by her fleeing mount. Occasionally she cast a backward glance toward the lion. Soon she saw him emerge from the thicket—slowly, majestically. She looked about to locate the nearby trees best suited to her purposes of safety. There were plenty which she could reach in time should el adrea take up the pursuit in earnest.
Again she glanced over her shoulder to discover if the beast had increased his speed. This time her heart sank, for she not only saw that the lion was really stalking her but that at the beast’s side walked the terrible human beast that had robbed her father’s flocks and filled the hearts of her people with terror.
Hope was gone. The trees might keep her from el adrea, but not from the reach of his companion. She broke into a faster walk now, hoping to overtake her horse before he again got sight or wind of the lion. She dared not run for fear that it would precipitate an immediate charge upon the part of the two that stalked her.
Every few steps she turned a backward glance toward the grim and silent figures creeping in her wake. They seemed only to be keeping pace with her. As yet, there was no appreciable diminution of the distance between them and her. Yet they were close enough for all that—far too close for comfort.
She could see the man quite plainly—that he was a young white man, superbly muscled, with head and features strong and finely moulded, and with the carriage of a proud and haughty sheik. The sight of him, even then, did not fail to move her both to admiration and to wonder. Yet she feared him, if the daughter of Sheik Ali-Es-Hadji could know fear.
A turn in the canyon presently shut the two from her view; and instantly the girl broke into a run, glancing back the while that she might at once fall into a walk again when the two came once more in sight of her, for she did not wish to invite a charge.
The youth who stalked her had been filled with curiosity at first when he had seen her. But that strange, uncanny telepathy wherewith he was wont to communicate with his savage mate he had held the lion from charging—he wished to examine this creature more minutely.
Nor had his eyes rested upon her face and figure for any considerable time before he found curiosity giving place to wonder at the beauty of the girl. His heart beat so rapidly as his eyes feasted upon her charms that he could feel its pounding against his ribs, and through his whole being surged a rhapsody of emotion that was as unique in his experience as it was pleasurable.
He had never given much thought to the ethics of man-killing, since only once had his companion killed a man, and as that had been in preservation of the youth’s life he had naturally felt only gratitude to the huge beast for its act. Something had caused him to interfere when he had found the lion devouring his human kill. He had had no idea why the thing should have seemed so repulsive to him; but it had, and even now he was determined that the lion should not devour the girl. Of course, all things were their enemies; so it was only right that they should be killed; but before killing this one he wished to observe her further.
A second turn in the canyon kept the girl still from the sight of the trailers even after they had rounded the first obstruction; and it also brought her under the eyes of a half dozen vicious looking sons of the desert—ragged, unkempt looking villains, far different in appearance from the splendid warriors of her father’s tribe.
She did not see them at first—they were just filing down a narrow trail from the ridge at her right—but they saw her, and the sight brought them to a sudden halt. Furtively they looked about in every direction as though seeking her companions; and then, far up toward the head of the canyon, they saw that which explained the presence of the girl there on foot as well as her probably defenseless condition—a riderless horse scrambling up the steep and rugged path that leads out of the canyon and across the hills to the great desert.
At sight of it the men charged down upon the girl, the rattling of the stones beneath their horses’ hoofs attracting her attention. At first she was overjoyed at this timely appearance of armed men; but a second glance brought a pallor to her face, for she saw that these were enemies to be feared a thousand times more than the two behind her. They were the lawless, vicious marauders of the desert—outlawed murderers and criminals, at whose hands there awaited her a fate worse than death—a horrid fate that would end in the harem of some brutal black sultan of the far south.
She turned and ran toward the opposite side of the canyon, hoping to scale the precipitous side, where the mounts of her pursuers could not follow, and hide among the hills until chance should permit her to make her way across the desert to her father’s douar or until the help came that she knew would be upon the way the moment El Djebel should gallop, riderless, among the tents of her people.
She almost forgot the man and the lion in the real terror she felt for the cruel and savage human beasts who pursued her; but when she did recall them it was with the hope that the sight of so many horsemen would frighten them away from further stalking her.
As she reached the canyon wall she found to her chagrin that it was too steep at that point to scale, and as she ran along its base searching for a foothold the marauders were upon her. Swinging from his mount the leader caught her in his arms, only to have the girl turn upon him with tooth and nail—defending her virtue with the savage ferocity of a lioness protecting its young.
It was upon this sight that the eyes of the youth fell as he rounded the final rocky shoulder that had hid the girl from his view. Instantly his whole being was fired with a new emotion. Having no vocabulary he could not have described it had he wished. He only knew that every fibre of his body blazed with hate for those who threatened the wonderful creature he had been stalking—that something within urged him to her rescue, a something he could not resist.
With a low growl he sprang forward; and beside him leaped his tawny companion, the youth’s fingers tangled in the black mane. The girl saw them coming and ceased her struggles—Allah was all-wise—He had furnished the means of escape from dishonor, and she was content even though it meant instant death.
“La il-ah-il-ah Allah. Mohammed ar-ra-sou-la Allah!” she breathed; and head held high, awaited her fate.