Uncharted Desert

The instructions from Rose's parents told them to ride due north an hundred miles. They took bearings often and travelled as quickly as they could, fearing pursuit. In five days, they saw only small herds of wild camels, as they rode through unrelenting sand and heat. This was one of the dreaded sand seas of Africa, where nothing grew. They soon came to miss even the light scrub of the plains to the south.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, there was a change in the monotny of the landscape. The sand gave way to rock, and they stood on a ledge. A rocky wall dropped away before them, a cliff, perhaps twenty to thirty feet high, stretching away to their left and right.

"Well," said Beth, "this is an interesting turn of events. How far have we come? Are we almost there?"

"I would think so," said Rose. "My parents' note says, 'find Dunaga and ride due North an hundred miles. Find a depression, a cliff wall of rock of sorts. Descend and follow it to down, always down, and there at the low point is the oasis and the city. '"

"Well that's good," said Jonathan in an exasperated tone, "but which way is down? left or right? and how do we get the camels down? can any of you spot a path? do the notes say anything about it, Rose?"

As Rose looked at the notes again, Jonathan used his binoculars to scan the horizon all around them, but paid close attention to thier rear, where he feared the appearance of the villainous Colonel.

"Nothing in the notes," said Rose.

"Perhaps we should ride the length of the cliff -- or as much as we can -- on the camels and see if there is a 'fjord' that will make easier going of it," said Beth. "Any sign of pursuit, Jonathan?"

Beth noted that the ground at the foot at foot of the escarpment seemed to slope off ever so slightly as it wended in a mostly easterly direction.

"Well, now, look at that," said Beth, pointing off toward the right. "Doesn't that look like a bit of a hill downward? If we're supposed to head down, that may be a good choice."

"Sounds like a plan to me," agreed Jonathan, " and I see nothing behind us or anywhere for that matter - so shall we be off then?"

They continued easterly along the top of the escarpment, which meandered back and forth, while always tending east. After a few miles, they found a sort of gulley or cut which looked manageable. They took their camels down and rested for a moment at the bottom of the cliff.

From here it was obvious that although the slope was slight and contained many bumps, that the overall altitude was steadily dropping as they worked their way east. Since it was nearly dark, they made camp for the night and discussed their next move.

"I do feel as though we'd accomplished something today," said Elizabeth, changing her bandage and cleaning the wound, which appeared to be healing nicely. "It seems we're headed in the right direction. Once we reach the oasis, what do we expect, Rose? Do your parents' notes provide us a harbinger of things to come?"

"We should probably be on guard for the Colonel -- or any desert creatures that would like to eat us in our sleep. Shall we each take two hours' watch?"

"I'll take the first watch," agreed Jonathan

The night passed without event, and soon the party was again moving. Eagle-eyed Beth was the first to pick out the object circling high above them. The strange bird, if bird it was, had returned.

"I'm beginning to wonder if our bird there has something to do with the Colonel. You don't suppose he's trained an enormous African bird to be his pack animal, do you? Or maybe even his trusty steed?" Elizabeth sighed. "I know it's silly, but it seems if we haven't been followed by this odd bird, we've been in the company of the Colonel"

"Beth, I don't think you are being silly," replied Jonathan. "In fact, I wonder if that has anything to do with his box? I wonder if it's some kind of diabolical machine that folds up into that box?"

Jonathan tried to spot the 'creature' himself and wondered if it was within range of his hunting rifle ...

Jonathan managed to corner the whatever it was in the lens of his spyglass. It was closer than they'd ever seen it before and for the first time they were able to get a clear idea of what it actually was. A mild oath slipped his lips and he called Elizabeth to look at it again through her glass.

The "bird" was clearly a vehicle! It could not be a lighter than air craft, there was no place for the lifting gas, and it did not look like any liftwood craft either of the two had ever seen. It was cruciform, perhaps thirty feet in length, with the cross bar of the cross perhaps forty. There was a cabin of some type placed just behind the "wing." It appeared to moving at a terrific speed and was making large curves and whorls in the air above them.

"Oh, my word," said Elizabeth. "He *did* train a bird to fly! We certainly can't continue to the ghost city with that watching us from above. We've led him too far already."

Then she looked sheepish. "That is, assuming the Colonel is the rider of the flying machine."

"Sandy... Godfrey?" said Elizabeth, a little tenatatively. "Would one of you be willing to take a little target practice with me? I'd like to be better prepared for our next shooting match than I was for our last."

"Surely Beth," replied Jonathan.

Beth took some instruction from Jonathan as both of them kept an eye out for the flying machine -- and a viable ruse to lure the big "bird" and its driver away from the ghost city.

Looking around, she said to Jonathan, "Would it make sense to turn north for a bit? We might not end too far off course and at least we wouldn't be heading back the direction we came. I can't imagine that would fool our adversary a bit."

"Or," she said, eyeing their current path, "We could stay close to the cliff. The overhang should shield us from overhead predators -- it might be even better to go under cover of night."

"Hmm ..." pondered Jonathan, "We'll have to go slowly and watch our footing, but it will be worth it I think. Let's get down and away from this path and we can hole up until nightfall and keep a sharp eye out for that 'bird'."

Elizabeth grinned. "I always feel better when we have a plan of action."

The company finished their descent and then travelled a short distance away from the cliff-line, hoping to draw off their aerial pursuers. They made an abbreviated camp and prepared to rest until nightfall. The flying machine headed south, and was lost to view behind the cliff. Shortly before dusk, it appeared again, flying high, made a few passes over the general area and then turned south again.

"I only hope he can't fly at night -- or doesn't want to," said Elizabeth. "Onward!"

Soon after the sun went down, the intrepid band broke camp and retraced their tracks back to the cliff wall. Turning east they began to follow it down and into the interior. Travel by night was actually pleasanter than travel by day as long as the moon was out and they could see to guide their camels. The oppressive heat was less and the overhead observer was nowhere to be seen.

They stopped just before dawn and made camp as close to the cliff as possible, trying to shelter under any slight overhang they could find. Then, to bed.

From time to time during the day, one or another of the party would creep out from the wall and scan the sky for the flying machine. Rose and Johnathan saw it once and Godfrey twice, on all occassions far to the west, and they were delighted at what seemed to be the success of their ruse.

Come nightfall, they were again moving east and away. This pattern continued for several days, and then early one morning, the moon came from a behind a cloud and they saw, glittering in the middle distance an oasis! Their goal was in sight!

"At last!" exclaimed Jonathan, "What's next then Rose? what does the letter say?"

"It says that near the oasis, buried in the sands are the ruins of a city," replied Rose.

"It's going to be hard to wait out the day, knowing we're so close," said Beth, "but I am tired. When we awake tonight, we shall finally see the lost city!"

The oasis was a welcome sight; a pool of water perhaps thirty feet across and four feet deep in the middle, fed by a spring trickling from the rock wall, and surrounded by the lushest vegetation they'd seen in a long time, date trees and low bushes. The camels had drunk their fill and now slept tethered near the cliff. Rose was enjoying a bath in the canvas tub, which had been erected in one of the tents, and the rest of the party was simply enjoying the pleasure of arriving at their destination. Tomorrow, or tomorrow night, they could begin to scout around for the ruins which were supposed to be near, but tonight they simply rested.

"The camels look happy, don't they?" said Elizabeth, with a goofy grin on her face.

The next morning, Godfrey gave a cry early in the morning that had the others running to his side. "Sorry, Mum," he said to Rose, "I was startled by this." He pointed to what they all had taken as a low dune when they arrived last night, but which Godfrey had discovered to be a tent of British manufacture buried in the sand. "We are, I think, in the right place." He pointed to the Davington arms which were stitched onto the canvas near the door.

"What a sad confirmation of our journey," said Elizabeth. "Perhaps we should check to see if there is any useful information to be found in the tent. If we are to wait out the day, at least we will be sheltered from the eye of our flying follower."

"I doubt that we'll be able to fit the camels inside Beth!" replied Jonathan, "Still you're right let's have a look inside, shall we?"

The tent was collapsed under the weight of the sand, but they were able to clear the sand relatively quickly and open the tent. They found little of immediate interest, although much of sentimental value - some of Rose's parent's spare clothes, a book or two, a pair of Algernon's glasses - all items which had been left behind when they fled the oasis.

Beth helped Rose brush and shake the sand out of the items, pausing to leaf through the books, on the off chance there would be notes or information that would be of use.

There were some sketches of Romanesque architecture against sandy backdrops, or buried in dunes, but little more than that.

"Well," began Jonathan, "I suppose we should search the immediate area and see what we can find ..."

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Jeff Berry, nexus@panix.com
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