Chapter 11 Tamaransett, Ageria
“We are going after my husband,” Dihya announced, her eyes sparkling with anger Tanana, captain of a hundred, looked anxiously for help to his commander, Joba, lying on a pallet in Dihya’s tent with his left leg immobilized in a plaster cast. Joba wisely said nothing, his face an impassive mask. Tanana had faced lions in the desert. They were less frightening than the Princess when she was on fire like this. With Joba out of action, Tanana thought, I’ll be leading this expedition, anyway, so he steeled himself to ask, “Where are we going, my Lady?
“Azgar,:she snapped back, as if she were talking to a particularly brainless, irritating child. Great, thought Tanana. On the open desert, no force can stand against us, and haven’t attempted in years. Within Ibn Hazm’s mountain stronghold of Azgar, we’ll be rats in a trap.
In the sudden change of mood all of them had experienced, like sun bursting through dark clouds, Dihya became just a wife again, agonized by the loss of a husband she loved. “Joba,” she asked. “How many men should we take?”
“Two squads,” Joba replied instantly. “Twenty me, all volunteers. I’ll pick the ones who will go with you. That will be too small a party to make Ibn Hazm’s patrols fearful, but big enough to make them cautious.” He stopped, gauged her mood again, then asked, “What will you say to Ibn Hazm when you see him? If you ask for a parley, he’ll certainly meet with you.”
“I’ll guarantee we will not interfere with the passage of the gold to Algiers in return for information about Henry.”
“Is that a promise you will keep?”.
“Of course not,” said Dihya, more sharply. “We will watch them like a hawk, and when their caravan enters the open desert we will destroy it, take the gold, and use it to ransom Henry, if that’s what it takes. Ibn Hazn will be furious, of course. With luck, his anger may actually kill that horrible old man this time. But he can’t attack us successfully, and he knows it.” She looked at both men. “See that we’re ready to ride at daybreak tomorrow,” then left the tent.
“Ten days food and water, carbines, and 100 rounds per man,” Joba said to his second in command. “And meharis, not horses. You don’t know how long you’ll be out.”
Henry’s talent as a spy for thirty some years, combined with his investments with the Baccris, had made him a wealthy man. He had used that wealth to equip his Tuaregs with the most modern weapons: rifled Enfield carbines, fitted with the new percussion caps. The flintlock smooth bore muskets of their enemies were accurate to a range of 50 to 75 yards, with luck. The Enfield’s effective range was 200 yards or more, and the Tuaregs’ best shots could hit a man at 500 yards and cluster five rounds into a 1½” circle at 100 yards. The paper cartridges they used allowed men to get off three shots while their enemies were still struggling with powder flasks and ramrods to reload their cumbersome muskets.
Joba and Tanana briefly ran through the men to be selected for the mission, then Joba called for troopers to carry him on his litter back to his tent. As an afterthought he called back to Tanana, “Have the men keep their carbines in their scabbards when you enter Ibn Hazm’s territory. It’s risky, but you’re seeking a parlay, not a battle.”
By mid-morning, Dihya and the patrol had left the open desert behind and were winding their way through the tortured, dun-colored landscape of twisted rock formations and deep ravines that led up into the mountains of Azgar. An hour away from the borders of Ibn Hazm’s land, Tanana had sent out scouts to ride ahead, along the higher ground from which an ambush might come, one man a half mile on either side of the patrol and a mile ahead, out of sight, but close enough for a warning rifle shot.
Massin, the scout to the south, had been still in his teens when Henry, El Habibka to the Tuaregs, had entered their lives. Massin had gone on his first patrol under Henry’s command. Now a seasoned, tough trooper with a dozen battles behind him, his loyalty to Henry was still that of a young, impassioned boy. He had leaped at the chance to go to the rescue of a man for whom he would willingly have given up his life. The men in the patrol, as Joba had directed, still had their carbines in their scabbards; Massin carried his with a fresh charge, on half-cock. His grey eyes peered from his blue turban wrapped around his face at the high ground ahead of him. El Habibka had taught his scouts not just to look for men, but to read the desert for their presence: the startled flight of a bird – a gazelle or fox running from something unseen – a shadow where none belonged – sound where there should be silence.
As he crested a slight knoll, Massin pulled his camel up short. A man was lying face down 20 yards away, his camel grazing next to him. There appeared to be a wide blood stain on the ground by his head. Massin rode carefully up to him, alert for a trap, then satisfied they were alone, dismounted and went to roll the man over. Massin never saw the long dagger the man had hidden beneath his prone body as it sliced upward, into him, killing him instantly and silently. A few minutes later, the scout to the north met the same fate. The patrol was now riding blind.
The ambush hit them when they were 50 yards into a narrow defile in the rock escarpment. Had their attackers been more patient, they could have wiped out the entire patrol, but even so, the first fusillade of musket fire from the cliffs above them was lethal. The trooper on point was killed instantly, the camels of three other men were hit, spilling their riders onto the desert floor, two others were wounded, but stayed in their saddles, and a musket ball slammed into Dihya’s left shoulder.
“Retreat!” Tanana cried as he kicked his camel next to Dihya’s to steady her in the saddle. “Second squad – suppressing fire along the ridge up there!” The ten unharmed men of the second squad lay down rapid fire at the enemies above them as the four unhurt troopers in the first squad spurred forward to retrieve their dead and wounded. As Tanana guided a barely conscious Dihya out of the defile, the surviving men of the first squad wheeled around to cover the retreat of the second squad. Then they turned and galloped at full speed for ten minutes until they reached another narrow canyon, through which pursuers would need to pass. Tanana cried for a halt, and the patrol pulled up in an explosion of dust and noisily protesting camels.
“Second squad!” Tanana ordered. “Barrack your camels and set up defensive positions! Izil!” He yelled at the best-mounted survivor of the first squad. “Go back to the encampment and get help!” The troopers in the second squad fought their camels into a line across the entrance to the canyon, forced them to their sides, quickly tethered their legs to keep them on the ground, and then started scooping out firing pits in the open spaces between the barricade of camels. “Give them your water, spare ammunition, and food,” Tanana ordered the rest of the men, then on an impulse, “and your carbines. It will double their rate of fire!” As the first quad survivors tossed their weapons and supplies to the rear guard, Tanana turned to Assala, the subaltern commanding the second squad. “I will come back for you,” Tanana promised gravely, “but they must not get past you.” They both looked back towards the defile where they had been ambushed. The growing dust cloud told them both what was coming. “Volley fire first, Assala,” Tanana said. “Two rounds. Aim at the lead camels to break their charge. Then individual rapid fire. With the extra carbines they’ll think they’re facing the entire patrol. Sell your lives dearly,” he added. “Send as many of those sons of dogs to hell as you can before you take your own journey to heaven.” Assala met his eyes, nodded, then turned back to his men.
Tanana, Dihya and the others had gone just a mile when the first, high-pitched volleys of carbine fire and the deeper bark of muskets began echoing from the canyon behind them.