From Here To Timbuktu: Chapters One thru Three
Five white camels crested the bright Sahara horizon, their blue robed riders swaying in time with their rapid gait. A score of men carrying ox skinned shields, metal spears and packs of various sizes followed, keeping pace as well as they could. The desert sun spilled its heat upon them, adding its burden on their weary backs. The riders did not care. The men were eklan, slaves, every one of them worth far less that the camels the warriors rode.
El Tellak, leader of the expedition, raised his hand and the riders slowed their pace. He pointed at a towering dune before them.
“This is it!” he shouted.
The riders urged their camels to increase their speed, expanding the gap between them and their servants. By the time the beleaguered slaves reached the dune the riders had dismounted. They paced before the sand mound when the first servant reached them. He walked to them, his tall frame and broad shoulders challenging the physical presence of his masters. Tellak struck the man across the face with an open hand.
“You’re worthless, the lot of you!”
He marched away to his companions. The man he struck followed him with angry eyes.
“What are you waiting for?” he shouted. “Start digging!”
The servant dropped his weapons then took a leather bag from his back. He opened the bag then extracted a folded spade. With jerking angry movements, he assembled the spade then marched to the dune. As he stabbed the sand and tossed it aside his cohorts joined them. From the corner of his eye he watched Tellak take a device from his saddle, a square box with a brass crank protruding from its side and a brass cone extending from the top. Tellak turned the crank rapidly for a minute the pressed his ear against the cone. After a few moments a voice crackled from the cone.
“Hast du es gefunden?” the voice asked.
El Tellak lifted his head then spoke into the cone.
“Yes, yes, we are here,” Tellak answered in German. “The entrance should be clear soon. We will have the book before sunset.”
He placed his ear against the cone again then nodded to the response. He looked at the other riders then shared a thumbs up.
The servant’s eyebrows lifted when his shovel hit something hard. He dug faster; in moments a golden door handle appeared before him.
“We found it!” his fellow servants shouted.
The servant said nothing. He continued digging until the door was completely clear. As the others ran to their masters hoping to be the first to share the news, the man turned the handle, opened the door then stepped inside. The innards of the buried temple were surprisingly cool. It was a circular room; its walls decorated with images that were not quite hieroglyphics yet not exactly paintings. The man recognized them; these were the symbols of a civilization which rose and fell long before the Great Pyramids cast their magnificent shadows across the Nile Valley, a civilization he swore to protect. His eyes quickly fell on the prize; large leather-bound book resting on a marble pedestal incrusted with jewels. He hurried to the pedestal.
“What are you doing?”
The servant turned to see Tellak striding toward him, a whip in his hands.
“Worthless infidel! You’re trying to steal from us!”
Tellak cracked the whip at the man. The servant extended his arm then watched as the leather wrapped around his arm. In a sudden motion he jerked his arm toward his body as he extracted a dagger from his robes. Tellak, caught off guard, stumbled toward him then into the waiting blade. The servant wrapped his arm around Tellak, pulling him closer as he twisted the dagger then tore it from Tellak’s stomach. His former master slumped against him.
The servant dropped Tellak to the floor. He took a leather bag from under his robes then stuffed the book inside it. Securing it on his back, he made his way toward the temple entrance. The other slaves charged inside to confront him.
“This does not concern you,” he said as he gestured with the bloody knife. “Stand aside or die.”
His former cohorts quickly dispersed, hiding behind whatever they could inside the temple. When the man reached the entrance the other Ihaggaren waited on their camels, their takoubas drawn.
The riders shouted before they kicked their camels forward. The man ran toward them; when they were yards away, he snatched two throwing knives from beneath his robes. The blades spun from his hands, one finding the face of a camel rider, the other the neck of a camel. The man struck in the face fell from his saddle, dead before he met the sand. The second rider cried out as his camel keeled over. He attempted to roll free but the huge beast fell upon him, crushing him. The third rider charged between the two, swinging his takouba over his head. The spirited servant continued running toward him, undeterred by the man and beast bearing down on him. At the last second, he jumped to the left of them, a third throwing knife streaking from his hand then sinking into the head of the last Ihaggaren. The man gripped the knife as he tumbled from his camel into the hot sand.
A strange sound from above signaled to the man that his dilemma was not over. He glanced up; a Prussian airship swooped down on him like an oversized raptor, its shadow rolling over the undulating sand, its droning engine usurped by the chatter of Gatling guns. Bullets peppered the sand behind him as the man sprinted for the cover of a nearby dune. He leaped for cover, the bullets ripping the sand where he once stood. Reaching into his robes once again, he extracted two more throwing knives with thick handles. He hit the handles together and sparks flew, setting off a fuse in each knife. The man whispered a short prayer then stood, throwing the knives with each hand then ducking as the automatic guns fired. Searing pain flashed through his left shoulder and he grabbed it instinctively as his knives spun toward the airship. The blades bit into the airship’s undercarriage, the fuses still burning. As the dirigible cruised over the warrior the knives exploded, setting off the flammable innards of the airship. The warrior ran for his life again, this time dodging falling bodies and flaming debris.
Once he cleared the burning deluge, he stopped to check his backpack then staggered to the nearest camel. He mounted the beast, ignoring his bleeding shoulder. The wound was painful but superficial; there would be time to bandage it later. For now, he needed to put distance between him and the hidden temple. The book was secure; his task complete. With a jerk of the reins he turned the camel and set off for Timbuktu.
Deacon Ezekiel Culpepper strummed his guitar in time with the piano, trying his best to drown out Miss Parson’s off key playing. The congregation sang as if nothing was amiss. Every year Reverend Pete promised the church he was going to replace her and every year he failed. The rumor was the Reverend was sweet on Miss Parson, but ‘Zeke’ knew different. A young girl up Atlanta way had the pastor’s attention. It was Miss Parson’s Sunday dinners that won her a seat at the ivory keys.
After the final verse of Amazing Grace Zeke placed his guitar back in the worn case then took up a collection plate then ambled to the back of the pews. He passed the brass plate to the thin, brown skinned coverall wearing man seated at the end of last pew, sharing a friendly smile and nod.
“Hey Zeke!” the man said. “Good playing as always.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jones,” Zeke replied. “I do my best.”
The man dropped a few coins into the plate then passed it down. Miss Parsons, a stout woman wearing a wide hat took the plate when it reached her and started with the next row. They repeated the process again as they worked his way toward the front of Piney Grove A.M.E. Church, collecting tithes for the latest service. The plate filled fast; Reverend Pete delivered a fine sermon full of fire and hope. Zeke lingered at one pew, staring into the pretty brown eyes of Pauline Rose.
“You lookin’ fine today, Deacon Culpepper,’ she said.
“You, too, Miss Rose,” he answered.
Miss Parsons cleared her throat, interrupting their moment of mutual admiration. Ezekiel finished the collection then passed the plate on to the other ushers. He strolled to the back of the church, nodding slightly at Miss Rose as he passed. Reverend Pete blessed the offerings then delivered a hasty benediction. With that the congregation came to their feet, socializing as they slowly made their way to the church doors.
Zeke waited at the steps, helping the ladies climb down. As usual, Pauline was the last to arrive. He held her hand as she descended then accompanied her to her wagon.
“You look like springtime in that dress, Miss Rose,” he said.
“Hush up, Zeke. I wear this same dress every Sunday.”
“Then it’s spring every Sunday.”
They stopped before Pauline’s wagon. Zeke helped her up then checked the horse’s bridle.
“I’m cooking a nice dinner today,” she said. “Roast beef, snap beans, red rice and cornbread. Sure would be nice to share it with someone.”
Zeke grimaced. Spending the day with Pauline would be the perfect way to while away the time but he had things to tend to.
“I’d love to be that someone, but not today,” he finally answered.
Pauline pouted. “Oh well. The invitation stands.”
Zeke tipped his plantation hat. “I’ll remember. You have a nice day, Pauline.”
Zeke strolled to his horse with his hands in his pocket. He waited until Pauline was a good way down the road before mounting his horse then riding to his farm. As he traveled down the dirt road leading to his farm he frowned at the unkempt fields and overgrown hedgerows. Zeke didn’t have the time or skill to tend the farm nor the money to pay someone else to do it. Until he made enough to pay off the debt his parents left him things would have to stay the way they were.
As he neared the house, he saw two familiar horses hitched to his post. He smiled; work had finally come his way. Sherriff Charley Wilson and Deputy Silas Moore waited on his porch. Sherriff Charley was a short round man with a moustache as big as his hat; Deputy Silas was a thin shifty fellow that never seemed to be completely still.
“Hey Zeke,” Charley called out.
“Hey Charley, Silas,” Zeke shouted back. “What brings y’all out this way on a Sunday?”
“I got an urgent telegram from Marshall Stevens,” Charley said. “Looks like the Bronner gang is heading this way. The Marshall wants us to keep a look out for ‘em.”
“What’s the bounty?” Zeke asked.
“Twenty silvers,” Charley replied.
Zeke dismounted then hitched his horse to the post. “That’s good pay. When he expecting them to get up this way?”
“About three days from now.”
Zeke walked up onto the porch and shook both men hands.
“You bring the paperwork?”
Charley reached into his vest then pulled out the papers. Zeke took them and then flipped to the last sheet. There was no reason for him to read them; they looked just like any other bounty contract except the bounty was different.
“Got a pen?” he asked Charley.
“Right here.” Charley took a pen from his top shirt pocket then handed it to Zeke. Zeke signed the contract then handed the papers back to the sheriff.
“Give me a week,” he said.
“How you know it won’t take longer?” Silas spoke up. “You don’t even know where they are.”
“If Zeke says he’ll have them in a week, they’ll be in our jail in a week,” Charley said to Silas.
“Either that or dead,” Zeke said solemnly.
The sheriff shrugged. “Don’t make any difference. The pay don’t change.”
Charley and Silas tipped their hats as they headed to their horses.
“Sorry to interrupt your Sunday,” Charley said. “Have a good day now.”
“Y’all, too,” Zeke answered.
Zeke waited until both men were beyond the gate before going inside. His house was as simple affair; one big room that served as sitting room, dining room and kitchen then a smaller room that serves as his bedroom. He hung his coat on the coat rack by the door then went to the gun cabinet in his bedroom. He took out his Henry and his lever action shotgun then went back outside through the front door. With both guns under his right arm he took the reins of his horse into his left hand then sauntered around back to the dilapidated stables. After getting the horse settled in, he went to the barn. The building was filled with all types of guns, from muskets to bolt action rifles. A medium sized table occupied the center, littered with gun parts and various size bullets and shells surrounding a brass reloader. Zeke cleared a space around the reloader then pulled up a box of empty shells, shot and gunpowder. He rolled up his sleeves then picked up an empty shell.
“Lord, you know what I’m about to do. I just hope you understand.”
Zeke’s eyes narrowed as he began building bullets.
Field Marshall Dolph Erikson crumpled the report with his gloved hands then threw it across the room. He swiped a stray lock of red hair from his prominent forehead then focused his hard green eyes on the captain that delivered the report. His look was as cold as the snow falling outside his office window.
“Failure is unacceptable!” he shouted. “Unacceptable!”
The captain cleared his throat. “Unexpected circumstances impeded our plan. It seems one of Tellak’s eklans stole the book after it was found.”
Erikson eyes narrowed. “These natives are an untrustworthy lot. There should have been contingencies. We should have been present on the ground.”
“It was unavoidable, Herr Field Marshall,” the captain replied. “Tellak has not failed us before. He also will not allow our agents to travel with him. He wouldn’t reveal the location of the book until he was prepared to exchange it. He feared we would not honor our debt.”
“Who does he think we are, British?” Erikson spat. “Prussians always honor our word.”
“They are natives, sir,” the captain answered. “They don’t differentiate between white men.”
Erikson pinched his chin. “What were our losses?”
The captain cleared his voice. “One airship and the entire crew.”
“And Tellak?” Erikson inquired.
“Dead,” the captain answered. “He was the first killed.”
Erikson waved his hand. “Leave me.”
The captain saluted, turned on his heels then marched from Eriksson’s office.
Eriksson slammed his fist on his desk as he sat. He’d have to file a report with his superiors; there was no way he could hide the loss of an airship. That meant he would have to endure another humiliating discussion about the importance of this mission. The captain said the natives were ignorant but as far as Erikson was concerned, he need look no further than the Second Reich for his fill of stupidity. Before Erikson chose a military career, he was an intellectual prodigy destined for a prosperous career as a professor at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. But the family profession beckoned; that and the fact that military service in Prussia was mandatory. The man who excelled in academics also shined in warfare, becoming one of the main builders of the new German army that crushed the French so easily in the recent war. Like his family, he was a man whose bulk matched his brain; tall, broad-shouldered and thick armed.
Erikson pushed away from his desk then strode to his window to gaze on the Arc de Triomphe. Winter in Paris should have been a relaxing time, but not this year. He was part of the Prussian occupation army that had come to make sure France paid its debt after losing the war. He took the assignment so he could distance himself from the Reichstag and pursue his project in peace. But the loss of an airship would require an explanation and he didn’t have time to suffer ignorant people, not with so much at stake. He returned to his desk then took a piece of paper from his stationary. Dipping his quill into the inkwell, he composed a letter that he hoped would satisfy his superiors. Writing soothed his anger as it always did, allowing his mind to refocus on the business at hand. They would find the stolen book; of that he was sure. In the meantime, his agents had informed him there was another book hidden in plain sight. That book was located in the most unlikely of places; Freedonia.
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