The Atlas Mountains
Henry woke from his dream convinced he was being followed. He was a day’s ride from the ascent into the Atlas Mountains that separated the desert from the more fertile lands to the north and the city of Algiers.
Was it truly his spirit bird aswe’gaí who saw the men behind him, mounted on camels, following in his tracks perhaps a day behind him? Or had some deeper message from the depths of his sleeping mind that held all the wisdom and experience of five decades broken through to his waking consciousness? Henry no longer knew the answer with certainty; he did know that ignoring a message like this could get him captured − or killed.
It would be easy enough for Ibn Hazm’s men to overtake him. Tinitran could cover 35 to 40 miles a day, but on a long journey, Henry had to walk her 10 minutes each hour. Worse, they would know his destination − Algiers − and he had to plan a route that brought Tinitran near water each night. They would be riding meharis, capable of covering 100 miles a day and going without water for five days or more. As for following him, Ibn Hazm’s men were sure to have one or two skilled trackers, men who would spot an overturned stone and know that a horse had passed ahead of them. But for all that, Henry thought, Tinitran’s trail is easy enough to follow. The regular piles of horse shit might as well be red flags. All the better. I can still make it over the crest of the mountains ahead of them with time to spare, and on the northern slope, we enter a forest of pine, cedar and oak. If we have to fight it out, it will be on my terms.
For the long ride across the desert, Chameau had put on an Arab burnoose. He knew it would make the sun’s attack less punishing; he also knew enough of Henry’s skill with a rifle, even at long range, not to announce his presence among Ibn Hazm’s men. He also made sure he was always in the rear of the group. That caution saved his life.
Near the crest of the mountain, Henry’s trail, by now clear enough that even Chameau could follow it, led through a narrow defile ringed with loose boulders. Henry had selected a huge, precariously balanced boulder on the top and a small oak trunk for a lever. The landslide triggered by his boulder’s plummet down the steep slope struck and killed the first two of Ibn Hazm’s men and jammed the defile with tumbled stone. Henry didn’t pause to admire his efforts but was on Tinitran in minutes, galloping towards the next set of mountains, the Tell Atlas rising next to the seacoast.
Two hours hard riding brought Henry to his next ambush spot. By now the route to Algiers was a well-worn caravan trail through a wide gap in the hills rising from the plateau between the mountains.
It’s several miles either way before the nearest easy pass. They’ll follow me here, he thought. After feeding Tinitran and giving her water, he set up his firing position. They would come out of the oak woods into low scrub perhaps 400 yards away. He would hear them coming long before he saw them. As soon as they broke cover into the open, they would stop to assess the situation, confident they were out of musket, or even rifle range. Ibn Hazm’s men were doubtless experienced desert warriors. They would expect an ambush here. So when they charged, it would be in skirmish order, spread out, and moving fast. Henry didn’t intend that they get the chance to attack.
His double-barreled rifle − with percussion locks and a telescopic sight − had been hand-crafted to his specifications by a Kentucky gunsmith. His brother Peter had delivered it to him for his 50th birthday. He had debated bringing his English Baker rifle, celebrated for its range and accuracy. An impulse he couldn’t describe led him to choose the American weapon. At 300 yards he could place a shot inside the space of a man’s heart or head. At 400 yards, the new expanding French rifle balls he used would knock a man off his mount and rip up any part of his body it hit.
He figured three to four hours before Ibn Hazm’s men regrouped, made their way over the plateau and broke cover behind him. He found a good firing spot, and tested his range, the drop of the shot and the effect of the wind with four practice rounds fired into a tree so. He checked his accuracy and grouping with his spyglass. He had learned a long time ago, “the hit tells the truth.”
The Scots gamekeepers on the Mohawk Valley estate of his father Sir William Johnson had taught him how to make a Ghillie suit for camouflage. But the Mohawks had mastered the art of melting into their surroundings long before the first white men arrived. It wasn’t a matter of simply looking like you fit into the natural world around you. You had to become part of that world. After that, disguising his shape and the length of his rifle barrel was easy.
Waiting was easy, too. As a boy he had sat motionless in the forest for more than three hours at a time until the animals around him accepted him, walking or crawling over his body as if he were just another rock. Hunting was the same way. If you worried about what will happen, or anticipated it, or even wanted it, time became your enemy. If you surrendered to the shot and the moment, your mind took your body to where it needed to go.
After a period of time that Henry had stopped measuring, the forest in front of Henry became suddenly quiet. They were here.
One by one they broke into the open ground, popping out of the forest as if a genii had uncorked his bottle. There were only eight of them now. A good improvement over the twelve that had started out. They pulled their camels abruptly to a halt. Well trained. As Henry had thought, one man kicked his camel forward and began pointing towards the gap where Henry was hiding. He looked at the tall grass next to them to check the strength of the slight breeze and moved his aim just a fraction to the left. What did Lieutenant O’Bannon call it? Kentucky windage. He had slowed his breathing so much he could take his shot between heartbeats. He gave an almost imperceptible squeeze to the trigger of his right barrel.
The head of the man he had targeted exploded like a smashed melon. The ball from the left barrel knocked a second man off his camel. He watched the panic among Ibn Hazm’s men as he quickly reloaded. He would have time, if they tried to charge, for two more rapid kills to change their minds. They didn’t charge.
Ibn Hazm’s men retreated in turmoil of dust to the safety of oak woods behind them. Henry could take one last shot. For no particular reason, he picked the shorter of the last two of Ibn Hazm’s men who were whipping their camels furiously to escape. It was a hurried shot that dropped more than he wanted, knocking down the camel and spilling its rider. He lay there motionless. Henry watched the woods as he reloaded. Except for the men he’d just shot, there was now no sign of the enemy. Dusk was approaching quickly. In an hour it would be dark. There would be no pursuit. He scrambled from his shooting position, ran down the slope, quickly mounted Tinitran, and headed into the safety of nightfall.
As the rest of Ibn Hazm’s men dismounted, 100 yards into the safety of the woods, Chameau fell from the saddle when his camel knelt down. He had forgotten to lean back when the camel dropped to its front knees so he pitched forward and slid awkwardly, head first onto the ground. Doyle might have gotten me with his last shot, he thought, as he picked himself up, swatted the dirt from his burnoose, and then gave his kneeling camel a vicious kick in the side of the head. My luck, his error. He turned to the squad’s second in command, who happily knew a little French. “It seems we managed to catch up with El Habibka,” he said. “Now what?”
“We follow him to Algiers. Tomorrow.”