A Thing to Boast About
Private Mahomet didn’t care what was in the suitcase and no one knew the firm resolve which was in Mahomet
W. E. JOHNS
PRIVATE Mazrak Mahomet was worried. It was not the war that worried him, for the result was never in doubt. Nor was it the heat, although lately it had remained constant at a hundred and thirty-eight in the shade. But Mazrak’s childlike mind did not concern itself with measurements of heat or anything else, for that matter. No; batman Mazrak Mahomet was worried because his officer, Markham Sahib, had gone off at dawn that morning taking with him his beautiful, crocodile-hide suitcase.
Mazrak had spent most of his working hours during the last three months polishing it and his spare time admiring it. He had polished it until the imbricated leather glowed like the coat of a thoroughbred, and the chromium fastenings gleamed like moonlight on the Nile.
Why Mazrak did this no man could say. He himself did not know for his simple brain did not rise to self-analysis. It may have been that the scaly hide awakened long-forgotten instincts of the ancient crocodile cult—but this is pure surmise. He only knew that at dawn that day, Markham Sahib, without a word, had flown into the air taking with him the bag, his heart’s delight, the bag for which he would gladly have given all his deferred pay—and thrown his wife into the bargain. And his wife had not been cheap; she had cost two goats, a bottle of brilliantine, and five cartridge cases.
Thus pondered Mazrak, gazing out across the heat-distorted airdrome. It was, he knew beyond all shadow of doubt, the wall of God. There was no God but God. He was the Knower. Still, the bag was a thing to be remembered, to boast of in the menzils between Aden and Khartoum.
HE WOULD have been still more worried could he have seen his sahib at that moment, for Flying Officer Tony Markham had just collided with a haboob.
That morning he had got permission to run down from his station, the frontier post of Gazrah Wadi, to M’bayu, Kenya. The only person who knew why was the mess secretary and he told nobody. It was on the return journey that Tony had hit the haboob—or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the haboob had hit him. He was annihilating space at five thousand feet in his Gladiator at the time. He saw the haboob coming— at least, he saw the sun turn orange and knew what it portended—and tried, foolishly as it transpired, to outclimb it. But the dust devil was too quick, and before he could escape, the aircraft was rocking in a dark brown fog.
Not until he reached twelve thousand feet did the haze begin to clear, and by that time the sand, sucked into his engine through the air intake, was making its presence felt. Smoke began to swirl aft in the slip stream and, as the temperature of his scoured cylinders rose, the revolutions of his airscrew fell in sympathy.
Tony swore, softly but passionately, as he toyed with the throttle and eased the joystick forward, although this, he knew, was mere procrastination. Already the shuddering vibrations of the engine, conveyed to every member of the aircraft, made him flinch. The vibration grew worse, and he knew
that it was only a question of minutes before one of two things would happen; either the engine would catch fire, or tear itself off its bearers. Either way the prospect w-as not one to be considered with equanimity, so, reluctantly, he throttled back, at the same time surveying the terrain below. Fortunately the haboob, which was travelling in the opposite direction, had passed on and although it had left a wide belt of settling dust to mark its passage the ground was just visible.
It was not pretty to look at. As a landscape it was singularly monotonous, appearing to consist entirely of rock and sand with an occasional stunted growth of camel’s-thorn. Rock and sand, sand and rock, under a dome of burnished steel across which rolled the sun, brown, blurred, swollen, horrible.
Had the rocks all been in one place, and the sand in another, it would not have been so bad. But no;
boulders, large and small, lay everywhere, scattered about the wilderness.
Circling down in as flat a glide as he dare risk, Tony sought what was not there—a possible landing ground. Too late to use his parachute he perceived his error. However, in some places the boulders occurred less thickly than in others, so, choosing the best spot, he brought the machine down, hoping that a miracle would solve his problem and cause the machine to finish its run on even keel.
For a few seconds it looked as if the miracle— assisted by Tony’s desperate use of rudder bar and joystick—might happen; but at the last moment one of the wheels struck a rock. The aircraft bounced high, wallowed for an instant like a porpoise surfacing, and then sank heavily toward the ground.
Tony knew what was about to happen, and he knew just what to do. He let go of the now useless joystick, flicked off the ignition switch, covered his face with his arms, lifted his knees to his chin to save his legs and perhaps his spine, and waited for the crash. He had not long to wait.
As the sound of tearing fabric and rending timbers died away to silence he unfolded himself .and climbed slowly to the ground. Then, after mopping the sweat from his face, he got out his map and made a simple calculation from data consisting of the duration of his flight and the airspeed of his machine. He grimaced at the result, which gave him the unwelcome information that he was two hundred miles from his base and rather more from M’bayu. If there was a water hole nearer than Gasrah Wadi, the cartographers evidently did not know of it for none was shown on the map.
Now Tony was a very fit young man. He had never felt fitter in his life than he did at that moment. But to walk two hundred miles across rough, unknown country, where a thermometer would have registered 140 degrees in the shade (had there been any shade) was not within the limits of a white man’s endurance. Even though he wore rope shoes the glittering sand would soon burn the soles off his feet.
For a little while he considered the landscape reflectively, and with disfavor. He appeared to be in the centre of a circle, colorless and without oufiine. Bars of white heat struck down on the rocks, scorching them to quivering protest. The
silence was beyond imagination ; it beat in his ears like a distant tattoo; every sound he made was magnified a hundred times.
Deciding that the prospect was not pleasant to dwell upon he did not dwell upon it, but turning to the shattered remains of the aircraft he pulled out his suitcase and stowed it under a twisted wing. He laid his revolver beside it. Then, using the suitcase as a pillow, he lay down, lit a cigarette, and waited for death or deliverance as the case might be.
WHEN at lunchtime Tony’s Gladiator had not put in an appearance, Bill Higgins, the Adjutant, sent a radio signal to M’bayu. The reply he received shortly afterward confirmed his fears. The commanding officer being away on operations (with most of the squadron), he sought Flight Lieutenant Angus Mackail, who in the absence of the C.O., was in charge of the station. He found him in the bath-hut, standing in a bucket while Mazrak Mahomet poured water over him from another bucket. When the upper receptacle was empty the position of the buckets was reversed. Water was precious even in Gazrah Wadi.
Bill wasted no time in idle greetings. “Tony’s on the carpet somewhere between here and M’bayu,” he announced.
“Losh !” answered Angus, and stepped out of the bucket.
“What are you going to do?” enquired Bill. “Find him,” returned Angus briefly.
Ten minutes later his Gladiator swept up into the
blinding heat haze, heading southward. Two hours later it came back. Angus climbed out. Bill ran to meet him. So did Mazrak Mahomet, but the officers did not notice him.
“He’s doon in that de’il’s dustbin about two hundred miles south,” announced Angus. “Crashed?”
“Aye. But he’s no hurt. The de’il of it is, there’s no place within fifty mile where it’s possible to put a machine on the floor.
“What did you do?” asked Bill anxiously.
“I dropped him a note telling him to clear a runway. The rock is mostly loose boulders. They’ll blister his hands, na doot, and it won’t be much of a place when it’s finished, but there’s no other way of getting to him. Then I came back to let ye know where 1 shall be if 1 dinna come back.”
“But just a minute,” put in Bill. “How are you going to bring him back in a single-seater?”
“I’ll take the old Moth we used to fly the political blokes into Abyssinia.”
Bill shook his head. “1 don’t like it,” he muttered. “It’s ten to one you’ll crack up getting down and then there’ll be two of you in hell’s back yard.” “I’ll take a petrol can of water. W e could walk the distance then mebbe.”
Bill scoffed. “You’re crazy. An Arab who knows the country might do it, but not you. Even if you could find your way through that rock country, which I doubt, you’d be burnt up.”
Angus stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I could take one of the boys who knows the country with me. If I piled up landing he could lead us home.”
“But suppose you get down all right?” “Then I’ll fly Tony home.”
“And leave the boy there?”
“I could go back for him tomorrow.” “But that’s damn silly. It means making two landings. Suppose you crash r the second time? Tony would then
go out for you—and so it would go on until we hadn’t a machine left.”
“You always think of difficulties,” protested Angus. “Suppose we get Tony home for a start. He’ll stand it out there for a day, but not two. He’ll go mad— you know how it is. I’ll leave the boy there with the water. He’d make a petrol can last a long time. If it comes to that, we could drop food and water to him—I mean, if he had to walk home.”
“You could try it—if you can find a boy willing to go,” agreed Bill. “Even if you can persuade one to get into a machine he’ll jib when you tell him you’ll have to leave him out there.”
“I’ll offer a cow. We could buy one out of mess funds.”
“Yes, that might do the trick. Let’s see if we can find a boy.”
Mazrak Mahomet stepped forward, saluting.
“I go,” he said.
Bill frowned. “Where the devil did you spring from? Have you been listening?” “Yes, sahib, I listen,” admitted Mazrak frankly. “I know that country well,” he added.
"You’re a liar,” Bill told him.
“Yes, sahib, I’m a liar,” agreed Mazrak, always anxious to please.
“You don’t mind flying?”
Mazrak moistened his lips. “Yes, sahib, I mind, but I go.”
“You’ll have to stay out there all night. Perhaps you’ll have to walk all the way home.”
“All same, I go,” answered Mazrak. “I born in desert. I find way.”
“Then there’s nothing more to argue about,” declared Angus. “Let’s get away. Mahomet, fetch an empty can from the dump and fill it with water. I’ll get the machine out. I can just make the trip before dark.”
Continued on page 27
A Thing to Boast About ¡
Continued from page 13—Starts on page 12
FIVE minutes later the Moth, with Mazrak clinging to the sides of the spare cockpit, was in the air, and after a flight through bumps that tossed the aircraft about like a feather it arrived over the objective.
Tony was leaning against his crumpled machine, waiting. Near at hand a narrow track had been cleared of loose rock. Angus turned the nose of the Moth into it. It bounced, and swerved a little, but at the finish settled down to a steady run in.
Tony strolled over. “Nice of you to fetch me, Angus,” he greeted. “Hullo, who have you got there?” he added quickly, as a dark face, now olive green rather than brown, appeared above the 3ide of the passenger’s seat. “Good God! It’s Mahomet. What’s the idea?”
“The idea was, he’d lead us back and carry the water can if I piled up landing.”
“But that machine w-on’t get off the ground with three up. Even with two it’ll run half a mile in this thin air.”
“I know it. There will only be two. Mahomet stays.”
Tony stared. “The devil with that,” he remonstrated.
“That was the arrangement. He volunteered. He’s got plenty of
water. I’ll come back for him tomorrow.”
“Not on your life. I’ll fetch him.” Tony turned to Mahomet and confirmed that the arrangement was understood.
“What about your kit?” asked Angus.
“We’d better not put any more weight in the machine. There’s nothing worth troubling about, anyway. The Gyppies can bring my bag in next time they’re this way.”
“All right. Get aboard,” invited Angus.
Mazrak, a lonely figure in a world of desolation, stood at the salute as the machine took off.
THE following morning Tony I awoke to find a haboob raging, j He cursed, but the haboob disregarded his invective. Swirling eddies tore along the ground, twisting and writhing, piling the sand into dunes with smoking crests, like miniature vol: canoes.
The storm persisted, with brief j lulls, all that day, and the next, and the next. Tony, with Mazrak on his mind, sat in his quarters and sweated and fumed while sand trickled in through chinks and crannies to make little drifts inside. Sand was every-
where. The world had turned to sand. Tt grated in the teeth and rasped in the throat. The squadron’s Gladiators, swathed in fluttering dust sheets, tore and tugged at their anchor ropes, dragging the sandbags to which they were moored. Flying was out of the question.
The fourth day dawned clear. Even before the crimson ball that was the sun had topped the horizon Tony was in the air, in the Moth, heading south. He found the wrecked Gladiator half smothered with sand, but of Mazrak there was no sign. Twice he roared low over the crash, hut nothing moved—except the trickling sand. Of the runway nothing could be seen. The whole configuration of the country had altered.
Tony knew that to attempt a landing would be suicidal. He might get down, but once down the yielding sand would clutch his wheels and hold them down. Sick at heart he cruised round, scrutinizing through smoked glasses and quivering air the shimmering wilderness. Not until he was dangerously near the endurance limit of the machine did he turn for home.
Angus went out in a Gladiator. When he returned he said nothing, but merely shook his head.
Tony went again. “Not a sign,” he said grimly, when he landed.
Bill Higgins nodded. “He’s under the sand, poor devil. It’s no use burning any more petrol.”
Four days later the sentry on guard sent a message to the orderly sergeant that something, he was not sure what, was approaching from the south.
The sergeant came, bringing binoculars. “It’s a man,” he announced. “He seemed to be staggering about— unless it’s mirage. Corporal, take a couple of men and fetch him in.”
A little while later word reached Tony that Private Mazrak Mahomet had come back. He hurried out to find Bill Higgins standing beside the station Medical Officer, who was kneeling by the prostrate figure of the batman, sponging his lips with water. They were black, cracked, and shrivelled, like two strips of charred leather.
“What the . . . ” Tony took a step forward, staring unbelievingly, not at Mazrak, but at what lay beside him. It was the bag, the crocodile suitcase. Near it lay a petrol can. He picked it up. It was empty. He held it to the light, squinting into the bunghole. And as he looked the muscles of his face seemed to stiffen.
“My God,” he breathed. “Of all the empties at the dump why did he have to choose one that leaked? We left it standing on the sand. By morning it must have been empty.” He shook his head like a man faced with something beyond understanding. “Yet he humped my suitcase home. How is he, Doc?”
The M.O. glanced up over his shoulder. “Not a hope,” he whispered. “His tongue’s a cinder, poor devil. How he got here in that state, God alone knows.”
Mazrak Mahomet opened his eyes. They met Tony’s, and then rolled to the suitcase. He tried to speak, but he was too far gone.
Tony dropped on his knees beside
hin, dragging the bag nearer. “It is thine, O Mahomet,” he said loudly. “You understand? The bag is yours.”
Mazrak’s eyes softened. Inscrutable, for a fleeting instant they seemed to smile. Then, very slowly, like those of a tired child, they closed. His lips moved. Came a sound, like the rustle of dry palm fronds: “Bismillah ... la illaha . . .
The M.O. stood up. “That’s all,” he said shortly. “What made the fool drag that damn suitcase two hundred miles?”
Tony’s eyes were moist. “He had a sort of affection for it,” he sajd in a voice that sounded forced. He started, reached for the case, and as he lifted it his eyes grew round with
wonder. He held it out to the Doctor.
“Feel the weight of it.”
The M.O. took the bag. “Hell’s bells,” he gasped. “What’s in it?” “What I went to M’bayu to fetch,” answered Tony,and flung openthelid.
Packed in two neat rows were a dozen bottles of lager beer.
“And they’re still full,” said Bill Higgins in a dazed voice.
T ODAY, at Gazrah \Vadi, under the flagstaff where Askari bugles sound reveille, there is a mound of sun-scorched sand. nd on it, held down by a rock, is a suitcase. Nobody touches it, for, as Private Mazrak Mahomet once told himself, it is a thing to be remembered, to boast of in the mcnzils between Aden and Khartoum.