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Chapter Fifty-Three


The uncharted Martian wastes, 1880


"Oh, it is so hot!" thought Nagi, fanning his little face and hurriedly replacing the hat with which he had carried out this activity before he could be admonished. "If only I could have a glass of water," he thought sadly, then, as phantasy quite overcame him, he thought, "No, not water! I should like a glass of ginger ale! And a cake, one with chocolate and cream! And some ice cream too!" He sighed, his young mind saddened by the injustices of life, that could see him so very far away from such pleasant fare. He very much did not want to eat porridge, or the meat of the native sheep ever again, and was horribly afraid that Farfarello had not jested when he proposed butchering one of their dov. "I won't let them eat you," he promised, patting his great mount on the neck, and was quite sure it depended upon him for its survival. Pleasant imaginings crept into his mind of making logical arguments that would easily persuade Crawford that none of the dov, and especially not his favourite, should be killed. Crawford would be convinced, and Farfarello would have to find his fun elsewhere. After that, thought Nagi, they could train the great beasts to hunt for them, so that the temptation to do murder would be assuaged. He saw himself magnanimously foregoing eating any of the meat himself without, he thought, making any reference to the fact that he could no longer abide it. He would let the others have his share, and he would subsist only on the preserves and other more delectable provisions that Farfarello thought he had hidden from questing and hungry boys. Surely, he thought, fanning himself with his hat once more and feeling his stomach grumble, Crawford would soon say that they should stop for the night? The shadows were longer than they had been, and the day was not as hot as in the mid-afternoon, when they had sheltered from the rays of the sun. It would be very pleasant, thought Nagi, to simply sit in as much comfort as they could, rather than continue their movement across the desert. Sometimes he felt that they would never stop moving, and would never reach New London once more. "Oh, but what shall await us there?" he thought in worry. "I should not like Farfarello to be hanged! And what if Crawford and Schuldig were put into gaol?"

"And you would be put in an orphanage and fed only on gruel and treated most cruelly, just as in one of Mr Dickens' novels!" said Schuldig merrily, having silently brought his dov beside Nagi's. "Don't worry, Nagi," he continued. "We shall not let anything bad happen to any of us -- you must trust Crawford's planning."

"Of course I do!" said Nagi. "How shall he arrange it so that we can leave Mars?"

"Are you sure you want to leave?" asked Schuldig, the shadow that crossed his eyes so fleeting that Nagi was not sure he had seen it. "You won't be able to bring the dov on the ship, you know!"

"Not even mine?" asked Nagi wistfully.

"It would be lonely, don't you think, without others of its kind?" said Schuldig. He sighed, murmuring as if to himself. "We all of us -- man and beast -- want those we know about us." He grinned at Nagi suddenly, looking as young as he truly was, even though his beard made him at other times look queerly older. "We'll have such fun in Europe, you just wait and see!"

"Yes," said Nagi obediently, smiling a little up from under the brim of his hat. He waited for Schuldig to spur his dov forward to catch up with Crawford and Micah, and then frowned. No doubt Schuldig wished to spare him unhappiness by pretending that everything was all right, but Nagi could feel perfectly well that the young mind reader's cheer lay falsely over a pool of misery, in the manner that a thin sheeting of ice might lie across deep and dark cold water. He supposed he would not have been able to so correctly divine his friend's true feelings if he did not know Schuldig so well by now. "How can I shake this queer mood from him?" he thought. "Perhaps Crawford or Farfarello can help me make him gay once again."

Farfarello looked at Nagi slowly as the lad reined in his dov until the cart was trundling peacefully beside him. He indicated the seat beside him wordlessly, and Nagi stopped his dov and scrambled with boyish energy and a boyish lack of grace from his mount to it.

"Don't let Crawford see you riding with me," said Farfarello in the very mild tones he used while joking. "He is most particular that you should not become confused with the supplies. You know mixed-up I can be." He smiled at the lad, continuing, "Are you tired of riding? You may lean upon me and sleep, if you like."

"No, I'm all right," said Nagi. "Farfarello, does Schuldig seem queer to you?"

"He's usually quite queer," said Farfarello with a little smile. "No doubt he is as tired of this travel as are the rest of us."

"No, but don't you think he is not as happy as he was on the way out?" asked Nagi.

"He complained most of the way!" laughed Farfarello. Then, relenting, he said, "He has been tired, Nagi. And he is worried about Crawford's health -- you know well that Crawford can drive himself too hard. That is all."

"Are you sure?" asked Nagi with deep suspicion. "You and he are not hiding things, are you? You have been very polite to him of late." He wondered darkly if he were judged too young to be given information that all the others might share.

Farfarello turned his single, golden eye on Nagi, letting the dov pull the cart as it would. "If he were not so tired," he said, "I would tease him as is usual. I do not wish to add to his burden -- we are friends, after all. Don't quiz him, Nagi. Let him carry out his tasks without worrying that we peer at him as if he were some exotic exhibit." He patted the lad's shoulder clumsily, adding, "It is kind of you to think of him. Let us all simply work together to get back to the city safely."

Nagi nodded, looking out to the horizon and wondering why the air shimmered so, as if there were a pool of water where he knew there could be none. "Are you afraid to go back to New London?" he asked at last. "What if the soldiers catch you?"

"Crawford won't let that happen," said Farfarello firmly. "We can trust his judgement, never fear." He winked at the lad, continuing, "I cannot say I would be pleased at the prospect of being hanged, but at least I can take comfort in knowing it would not hurt!"

"Oh, Farfarello," said Nagi, and looked away. "You are very silly," he went on in a small voice.

"I'm just joking. Besides, you'd scarce miss me, once you had Crawford's company."

"That is not funny!" said Nagi, turning about in outrage. "Aren't we all friends?"

"Yes," said Farfarello, patting his knee. "I shan't tease you about it any more, I'm sorry."

"Please do not," said Nagi with dignity. He scrambled down from the cart and remounted his dov, thinking only then that he had quite failed to enlist Farfarello's aid in cheering Schuldig up. "I hope he is happier by the time we stop," thought Nagi sadly, urging his great mount away from the cart towards Crawford and Schuldig. He paused as Crawford bowed his head and raised a hand to his brow, as if feeling suddenly faint. Schuldig reached out to steady him, and Crawford straightened once more as Micah wheeled his dov back to face him, a look of concern upon his face.

"Nagi, Farfarello!" called Crawford. "Hurry up and join us!"

Nagi at once urged his dov to speed across the short distance, while Farfarello allowed the one drawing the cart to amble on at its preferred speed. "What is it?" he cried in piercing tones, "What is going to happen, Crawford?"

"Not so loud, Nagi, if you please," said Crawford, the smile upon his lips quite taking the sting from his words. "Come, Farfarello. Now," he continued, "We must make all speed to find a place of refuge from which we may fight. We are being tracked and will be attacked by some of the natives very soon."

"Can we not withstand the native weapons?" asked Micah. "They are armed with spears and swords -- no match for modern weaponry!"

"They will have guns," said Crawford grimly. "What our erstwhile friends in Germany would no doubt see as a fine way of eroding British influence on this world will prove to be unpleasant for us, I fear. Let us make haste, the rocks about this place will give us no shelter, any warrior's dov would find them no obstacle."

"They must be from that town we circumvented almost two days ago," said Micah grimly. "How infuriating to find them properly armed this far in the wilderness! Be damned to the profiteering gun-runners that would allow such savages to become more efficient fighters!"

"We have done that ourselves, Crawford and I," murmured Schuldig, clinging tight to Crawford's hand.

"Ah, but that is different!" said Micah with the sunniest of smiles breaking out upon his face. "It is always different when the guns are to be used against one!"

Nagi looked between his older friends in some worry, seeing the lines about Schuldig's eyes and the way in which he and Crawford looked at one another as if they were deep in a silent and fervent conversation. "What is it?" he asked, "What else have you seen will happen, Crawford?"

"Nothing," said Crawford and Schuldig at the same time, a coincidence that did not allay Nagi's suspicions and fears in the slightest.

"I'll off-load the gold," said Farfarello, climbing from his seat and making for the back of the cart. "That will lighten the cart and perhaps satisfy our followers."

"Oh!" cried Nagi, quite diverted from his worry for a moment. The thought of losing the pretty things for which they had worked so hard seemed very unfair to him. "But not my collection of artefacts, Farfarello! Nor," he added quickly, lest the others think him selfish, "Those collected by Crawford either!"

"Better to lose the gold than our heads," said Farfarello. He grinned suddenly at the lad, saying, "We can always steal more!"

"We cannot spare the time!" snapped Schuldig. "Stop this dithering and let us get off, right now!"

"Perhaps word has come of our sacrilege and it is the gold they seek," said Farfarello. "They may wish to return it to its desolate resting place."

"Gentlemen," said Crawford. "We have no time for such discussion. Let us move now. I want us to find shelter." Without further word he wheeled his dov about and set a fast pace away from the group.

"Schuldig?" said Farfarello. "Is this --"

Without any reply, Schuldig jerked his dov's head about and spurred it after Crawford as fast as he might, his lips thin and his face angry.

"What were you going to say?" asked Micah.

"Nothing," said Farfarello shortly. "Let's get going." He leapt back onto his seat and whipped the dov which stood sleepily between the traces. "Move, you stupid beast!" he snarled.

"Come on, lad," said Micah to Nagi, looking after Crawford and Schuldig in worry. "Let's not dally."

Their little group made its way as fast as the dov could scurry across the sandy landscape, heading for some tall rocks that Crawford pointed out. Looking back, Nagi thought he could see sunlight glinting on lance heads or rifle barrels, though he told himself he was being very silly. Then, all at once he saw dust rising behind them, not as far behind them as he wished, as if riders on dov were coming as hard as they might after his friends. "Oh," he thought, unsure to whom his unspoken plea was directed, "Please let us reach the rocks in time!" He drummed his heels on his mount's great scaly sides, an action that did not induce it to hasten its pace until he brought the correct native command to mind. Then his dov seemed to flatten itself and, undulating its body as it rushed forward, sped Nagi along at a pace that seemed to him to suggest that the great beast had been but idling till that moment.

"Farfarello! Farfarello, hurry up!" cried Micah, looking back and stopping his dov, turning it back to face the way they had come. He pulled his rifle from its holster by his saddle and aimed carefully before firing.

Farfarello whipped the dov drawing the cart once more, but it seemed it could not increase its speed any further. The dov on which their long departed guide had ridden, now tethered to the back of the cart, tried on occasion to pass the cart by, pulling it around as it did so. In fury, Farfarello dropped the reins and leapt into the cart, clambering over their securely tied belongings until he could reach the rope by which the second beast was attached. He slashed it through with a knife he drew from his belt and the newly freed dov, unencumbered as it was by a rider, shot forwards, hastening to keep up with its stablemates. Regaining his seat, Farfarello found the cart now easier to drive, and passed Micah by as that gentleman fired once more at the approaching pursuers before himself wheeling about and fleeing for safety. An observer, if one could have been found with as light a frame as those of the natives and their skill at manoeuvring the great winged ayit through the air, might have thought to himself that surely the little group of friends could not hope to win out against those that hunted them, for such an observer - if an observer there had been! - would have noted both the fact that the young men were outnumbered and that, although weeks of necessity had given them skill in the handling of their mounts, they could not exact from their dov the same reactions and obedience that riders trained since infancy in the care of the beasts might expect as their due. Even if the little group of friends reached the rocks for which they made all haste, surely, our putative observer might think, they would waste valuable time in searching out a place wherein to make a stand, and would necessarily examine and reject some hiding places before finding a hole into which they might snugly and securely creep? That observer, however, would quite have reckoned without the uncanny foresight possessed by Crawford, for that young man had seen quite clearly the best of the cracks and crevices that might accommodate them in his vision.

"Quickly, quickly!" cried Crawford, ushering Nagi forward as the lad's dov slid to a halt at the rocks. "Nagi, there is a cave some yards up the face of these rocks. I want you to take the dov up there."

"They can fight!" cried Nagi in excitement. "You remember the attack on the fortress, Crawford, the natives' dov fought as did the warriors!"

"Ours aren't trained for that," said Schuldig quickly, as Crawford's face darkened to be disobeyed at a time of crisis. "We can't risk losing ours in battle against dov that have been trained to fight. Besides," he went on cunningly, "You should not like to see yours wounded, should you?"

Nagi clutched at his mount's harness protectively. "I won't let you be hurt," he said to it and obediently took the reins of the other three that Schuldig held out. "Haah!" he cried out in boyish tones, urging his mount at the sloping rocks, and shrieking with excitement as it scurried straight up, the others willingly following.

"And stay up there with them!" yelled Schuldig. "Make sure they don't come down where they could be hurt!" He favoured Crawford with a weak smile, continuing, "If that does not keep him up there safely I do not know what will!" Then he dashed out to help Farfarello unhitch the beast drawing the cart, taking it and Micah's up to the cave where Nagi was marshalling the dov, telling them to lie down and behave themselves.

"I'll come down now," said Nagi, patting all his great charges a final time.

"No, no," said Schuldig quickly. "You're the only one of us who can keep these brutes up here if they take it into their heads to wander out into the midst of battle! If we don't have them to take us across the desert we'll all die, Nagi. Crawford wants you up here to keep them - and thereby us all - safe."

Nagi looked at him for a moment before saying, "You think I'm a little child and you want me out of the way. Wasn't I helpful at the fort, Schuldig?"

"Yes," said Schuldig. "You were. And you'll be useful here too. If there was room up here or in another hole for the cart, Crawford would have you lift it up and we might be in a better position than we are now. But there isn't, and we must protect our provisions in the only place of shelter big enough for them. Now, be a man and obey orders. Keep the animals up here, and keep them and you safe." He swept Nagi into his arms briefly, muttering, "Don't get killed, do you hear me? Don't." Dropping a quick kiss on the lad's brow he stepped back and leapt from the mouth of the cave, landing lightly on the sands beneath.

With a sigh, Nagi looked about the cave and with a sweeping gesture gathered together all the rocks of varying sizes he could see, forming them quickly into a low wall that gave at least the illusion of a barrier and that might thereby induce the dov to stay peaceably where they were. That he could stop them from leaving Nagi had no doubt, and he was not in the slightest alarmed by the great beasts, being quite unshaken from his childish belief that they were as friendly to him as dogs. More alarming to him by far was his conviction that Schuldig had withheld the whole truth from him and was deeply unhappy and worried, the unguarded feelings emanating from the young mind reader proving to Nagi the depths of his friend's cares. The sharp worry Nagi had felt from Schuldig when he had told him to stay with the dov was underlain with deeper and older fears and love, the likes of which Nagi had felt over the course of their journey when Schuldig was too tired or unwary enough to guard himself effectively. The mind reader was desperately afraid for Crawford, thought Nagi, and here he was, forbidden to come down and help, as if he were a naughty child sent away from adult company. It was impossible to bear, he thought, fretting over what might befall his friends in the midst of battle without his aid. He peered out over his makeshift wall and saw the natives who pursued them quite clearly, fanning out to surround the rocks wherein they had made their hiding places. "This will never do," he muttered. "Crawford will need my help." He sank down against the wall of the cave, fixing the plan of the area in his mind, and thinking with all his might how best he might aid his friends. He screwed his eyes shut, concentrating as the first shots rang out beneath him.

At last Nagi opened his eyes, an unpleasant half-smile playing about his lips. He had, he thought, the perfect idea.
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