A long time ago in a desert stained with blood, a young lieutenant wagers his fortune at war, and on other unfair things….
It was February of 1916 in the Sinai Desert, where the Ottoman Turks and the Germans had brought, we thought, about 200,000 men for the glory and expansion of their empires in the grand enterprise of seizing the Suez Canal. Since this canal belonged to us, we objected to their glory and expansion with 60,000. The flies outnumbered everyone ten to one.
I was with a dozen salty chaps of the London Mounted Brigade – Yeoman Light Horse – squatting in a hole we had dug 4,000 meters east of the Suez, baking in the sun, and waiting either for the rail line to catch up behind us from Cairo so the war could continue eastward or for the Germans to come from that direction and push us back west. It was abysmal weather in a literal sense – I believe the Sinai is the place where our vision of biblical Hell was first formed. Sandstorms that could scour your skin off and a sun that could fry it off took turns trying. There was no food except bully beef and crackers (which suited the flies perfectly), the water was all brackish, and the sand was everywhere and in everything. The roads east of us toward Gaza and the Holy Land were all occupied by the enemy, and so was the great Sinai south of us to the sea. We knew the enemy were getting men through those blasted badlands, because they left headless corpses in rows behind our lines, and we knew they weren’t getting around from the north because that way lay the wine-red sea of Homer’s song – a view which offered our one respite. Some miles west of us, our army had set up an air base. The thunder of the airplanes on training flights was as unrelenting as the heat. We all thought the best of the pilots – their duty took a grim toll at the slightest mistake, which was often. We had hardly enough shrouds to bury them, and even fewer for the rest of us. The priests were busy.
It was the sort of rough spot my romantic book-selling father had said with glassy eye would “make a man of me.” What sort of a man he didn’t know. I, for my part, meant to see a thing or two of the world, do my duty, and make it back as any kind of man at all except a villain. This was looking grim; I’d run out of tobacco.
One morning I emerged from a dream-blighted nap in the shadow of the palisade to find I shared my shade with a child of about two or three. He had sharp grey eyes and black hair, and wore trousers whose suspenders had been tied with strings of chicken feet. The roar of an aircraft overhead did nothing to disturb his look of intense calm as he sorted spent bullet casings. I thought it might be a dream, but the vision persisted.
A contingent of the camel brigade was passing by, returning to their billet from a long night patrol. I knew a Bedouin among them who got about and had an ear for rumor, so I stopped him. “Hello!” I said. “Why the bloody blazes is there a child here?”
“It is just so, sir,” said he. “That is the son of Mad John and his wife. They leave him in the nearest camp when they think there might be blood on their patrol. Do not worry. They will be back for him.”
I thought I detected in his tone something unusual in the way he emphasized the word ‘wife,’ but elected not to ask. “Can’t you take him to a bigger camp? You’re headed to Kantara base now, aren’t you? It would be much safer for him there.”
“No sir, I will not! That is Mad John’s boy, and he should be right where they left him, or someone would have to explain why he isn’t to John’s wife, and that is not a conversation I want to have, sir. You would do well to avoid her, and leave her son alone! It is not wise to meddle in the affairs of ones such as Mad John and his wife, sir.”
“Whyever not? I’m meddling in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire, and so are you.”
“I do not fear death, sir, but I fear that woman. Do as you will, but I will not help you.” And he set off to catch up with his patrol.
I was nineteen and had already survived Gallipoli. That week I’d caught a Kurdish cavalryman alone trying to spy out our camp and succeeded in capturing the fellow, so I considered myself something of the dashing hero. I fancied I had nothing to fear from anyone. I approached the child and sat down. “Hello,” I said. “I’m Earnest Tellerhorn.”
“Hello,” replied the child with that solemn formality which certain very young children hold in common with certain very proud lords. “I am Marcus. Are you a captain, sir?”
His wide grey eyes somewhat arrested me. “I am not yet,” I replied with a wink. “But I hope to be. May I ask you a question?”
He smiled and seemed satisfied by this. “Yes.”
I said: “Where are your parents, young sir?”
“Is that your question?”
“I’ve just asked it.”
“Where are your parents? Why did you ask that?”
“Because this is no place for you.”
“It is boring. Boring question.”
“I say, it’s not polite to say I may ask a question and then insult my question.”
“Boring is not polite.”
He had me there. “Listen, I should like to take you to Kantara, where you will be safer. What do you think of that?”
“I should like. I like.” He pursed his lips and considered. “I should like more shells, sir. Have you got any?”
I did. I enjoyed the luxury of a backup revolver, a Colt Cavalry in .44-40 inherited from an adventurous uncle. I had kept the spent casings in the hopes of somehow reloading them, as this was not a cartridge supplied by the army. Little Marcus viewed my bounty of brass with delight. The short pistol shells fit nicely into his small palms. We debated the comparative merits of a few of the identical shells until he had selected an even dozen. I bound them up in a spare handkerchief and presented this gift to the solemn fellow.
He stood up, dusted himself off, and finally said, as if reciting something he’d heard often: “Breakfast in Kantara. Wash your hands. Loud planes. Come on, come on.”
“Ready to go then?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
I introduced the boy to my captain, a battered smirk of a bear who’d seen more action than the rest of the battalion together. He hated me. I always got the worst jobs he could think of. But he didn’t want the child getting shot any more than the next man, and sending him to Kantara was the only thing to do.
Next on the greeting line came my stallion, Poles, who was a complete devil and a racist. He would not allow himself to be touched by anyone who wasn’t British, and had almost daily kicked or bit good men. This might not seem an entirely unwelcome characteristic in a warhorse, but Poles, though stalwart, was no destrier. He had been a losing racehorse and was destined to be glue. Poles had the glint of the demon in his eye when we mounted up, but he behaved himself for the entire ride.
The boy and I quite got along. He asked about my revolvers and wanted to know which one his shells had come from. He told me that his parents had gone “petrol riding,” and that this meant they went about in the desert on their horses looking for enemies, and that it was called “petrol” riding because they brought cans of petrol to burn those enemies who could not be killed with bullets.
I thought he probably meant “patrol,” not “petrol,” but decided not to correct him – he spoke with such gravity.
At Kantara I left him at the mess, in the custody of my favorite supply officer, whom I knew and trusted well. Then I returned swiftly to my billet before I missed any excitement. I needn’t have bothered.
I thought occasionally of little Marcus, but I did not see him again until the night of the 30th of October. Rumor had it my unit would be ordered back from the front to a safe rotation in Cairo. A few of us dragged our heels, reluctant to leave the dying to others. I stopped in at the Kantara canteen, just off the airstrip. The colonel, a chap of mine from college, was often to be found there and I entertained the swashbuckling hope of encountering him off hours and impressing him with my desire to transfer to one of the Anzac units engaged in scouting the desert. I wanted action, and I didn’t expect there would be any in Cairo.
The canteen was a dusty place full of flies. The army kept it for the pilots, who sang funeral dirges there nearly every night. Drink was sparse, so as a rule, we lesser mortals left it for the pilots. I hid in a corner and made do with water and imagination. That day the officers were sullen, the water sour, and the tables empty all except for the flies, who exuberated.
Marcus sat on a couch in the corner playing at shapes and colors with a deck of tarot cards. Between rounds of defensive fire at the flies, I learned his game and then let him beat me naming the cards. Various men and officers came by to ruffle the child’s hair, which he put up with. By evening a small group had gathered around us. They were an odd bunch: scarred, rough, armed, and out of uniform. I kept my mouth shut. The officers of the cantina alternately ignored them or poured their drinks without charge. Even the pilots were wary.
At last it struck me that the ragtag gathering could only be those I’d heard called Bonepickers.
The patrols tasked with ferreting out enemy positions buried in a thousand miles of desert would, wherever possible, hire local guides who knew the area. The better of those guides were worth their weight in gold. The best were Bonepickers.
All had skin the color and texture of the desert. Most were Arabs or Egyptians who had long made their living on the dangerous end of desert activities – poachers, hunters, mercenaries and assassins. I felt I might have at last slipped into one of my father’s books. Marcus treated them all with questions, and they treated him like family.
At last a spare Arab with a long nose and gunport eyes fixed me in his sights. One by one, the others fell silent to watch me – the only interloper in their confederacy. Nobody seemed inclined to speak. The weight of their regard felt as heavy as that of any enemy. It was clear they wanted me to leave, but I’d been there first, and after all, I had a rank on my uniform and they had none. I cleared my throat. “Hello,” I said, and when this evoked no response, bulled on: “Earnest Tellerhorn, with the yeomanry.”
Nods passed around the circle. The one who’d fixed me replied: “You caught Ercis the Hamidiye?”
“I caught a Turk last week.”
Nods circulated again. “We heard,” replied my interrogator. “They have shot him. His name was Ercis the Hamidiye. He has been a devil on the desert. Pray tell, if you could spare the time, how did you catch him, and alive?”
It was not much of a story to be sure, but I told it as honestly as I was able, and they liked me for it. They liked me still more when I bought the next round. Then, with loosening tongues, they exchanged stories of the cat and mouse games they’d played with Ercis the Hamidiye over their long careers of banditry, poaching, and the alternating protection and brigandage of caravans. No man among them batted an eye at the casual mention of cold-blooded murder, yet they surprised me by raising their liquors (and I my water) first to Ercis the Hamidiye, and then to me.
At last a Tigran named Askaba, who was as big as three of me and wore thirty-six notches and a knife in his belt, spoke up in a laughing voice: “But we have spoken too long. Forgive us, friend Englishman. What brings you to our carpet this evening?”
“Why, this child,” I replied. “I would see him safely with his parents, and I meant to last week, but I fear I may have failed. Do you know them?”
All fell silent. Askaba said at last: “Ah. Semira.” He finished his drink, then added. “You will see her when the sun sets.”
This proved true. At the moment the last rays of red sunlight passed above the open flap of the cantina tent, little Marcus leapt up with a shout of: “Mother!” and ran straightaway into the arms of the most striking personage I’d ever encountered. His mother was dressed in all respects like a Bedouin cavalryman complete with curved sword and tasseled lance, but her head was uncovered and face unveiled. Her hair was a black braid so thick and long that where she wrapped it around her waist it looked like a python. Her skin and eyes were so black she might have been carved of midnight; indeed the black of her attire and aspect was broken only by the whites of her scars and her crossed bandoliers that held not ammunition, but bleached finger bones. Even among that handsome and deadly band she stood out as someone fierce and vital. I thought her a god.
She struck her spear in the dirt outside the door and scooped up the charging child with a laugh and a pirouette. When she came into the canteen, she was followed by what seemed to me a perfectly ordinary Bedouin man, except that when he spoke it was English of a Welsh slant. They sat where they pleased.
The man was the one called Mad John. The woman was Semira Ase Senay. They were married, they told me, under the covenant of the oldest bones. I did not ask what that meant until much later.
Little Marcus set about telling my story of catching Ercis the Hamidiye with great solemnity. He barely embellished at all, and everyone listened. Semira said I had done a skilled deed, and she smiled. I found myself flustered. Even when the conversation moved to other things, I could not tear my mind from her. She spoke with such confidence about hidden things. When a man said he’d seen a caravan pass into a mirage and disappear, she answered that it was the mirrored road to Lennai, and they would not return for two moons. When a scout said a bullet had missed his ear by an inch, she laughed and replied: “You’re welcome, but next time save me the chicken feet.” When we came to exchange the inevitable rumors about the oncoming assault (all soldiers always exchanged rumors about The Assault) she said that the stars would not be right for a major attack for many months, but a raid might be possible soon.
One by one, the company disbanded until there remained only John, Semira, and little Marcus asleep on his mother’s lap.
“Now lieutenant,” she said with a lazy smile. “You have entertained my child. What may we do for you?”
I answered: “I sense I might be honest with you. I would like to know all that I can of scouting in the desert, your practices, and your trade-craft, and even your landmarks and footpaths. To that end, if possible I would like nothing more than to go with you on an outing or two. I know that’s rather a lot to ask, but I’ve been an avid stalker most of my life, and I won’t slow you down.” I was hungry to be out, to try my mettle, and to put my guns to work. I was a fool.
John said: “Tonight we’re lazy. Not much to do for you. Tomorrow is Samhain, and we’ve our own mission. Come along then, and you will have an eyeful of action, and that’s what you want. Meet us here at dusk. Not a moment after, mind you, for we won’t wait. And don’t you be making deserters of us either; get you your permission of the captain, or don’t come at all.”
I set out from their company convinced I would secure that permission or commit a mutiny.