Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Day 140 of 240

We pushed on again for miles over perfect going, through rich country for the camels, till at Abu Sawana we found a flinty hollow, brim-full of deliciously clear rain-water in a narrow channel two feet deep, and perhaps ten feet wide, but half a mile long. This would serve as starting point for our bridge-raid. To be sure of its safety, we rode a few yards further, to the top of a stony knoll; and there found ourselves looking down upon a retreating party of Circassian horsemen, sent out by the Turks to report if the waters were occupied. They had missed us, to our mutual benefit, by five minutes.

Next morning we filled our water-skins, since we should find nothing to drink between here and the bridge; and then marched leisurely until the desert ended in a three-foot depression at the edge of a clean plain, which extended flatly to the metals of the railway some miles off. We halted for dusk to make its crossing possible. Our plan was to slip over secretly, and hide in the further foothills, below Deraa. In the spring these hills were full of grazing sheep, for the rain cloaked their low sides in new grass and flowers. With the coming of summer they dried, and became deserted save for chance travellers on obscure errands. We might fairly calculate on lying in their folds for a day undisturbed.

We made our halt another opportunity of food, for we were recklessly eating all we could as often as we had the chance. It lightened our stores, and kept us from thinking: but even with this help the day was very long. At last sunset came. The plain shivered once, as the darkness, which for an hour had been gathering among the facing hills, flowed slowly out and drowned it. We mounted. Two hours later after a quick march over gravel, Fahad and myself, out scouting ahead, came to the railway; and without difficulty found a stony place where our caravan would make no signs of passage. The Turkish rail-guards were clearly at their ease, which meant that Abd el Kader had not yet caused a panic by what news he brought.

We rode the other side of the line for half an hour, and then dipped into a very slight rocky depression full of succulent plants. This was Ghadir el Abyadh, recommended by Mifleh as our ambush. We took his surprising word that we were in cover, and lay down among or alongside our loaded beasts for a short sleep. Dawn would show us how far we were safe and hidden.

As day was breaking, Fahad led me to the edge of our pit, some fifteen feet above, and from it we looked straight across a slowly-dropping meadow to the railway, which seemed nearly within shot. It was most inconveniently close, but the Sukhur knew no better place. We had to stand-to all the day. Each time something was reported, our men ran to look at it, and the low bank would grow a serried frieze of human heads. Also, the grazing camels required many guards to keep them from straying into view. Whenever a patrol passed we had to be very gentle in controlling the beasts, since if one of them had roared or ruckled it would have drawn the enemy. Yesterday had been long: to-day was longer: we could not feed, as our water had to be husbanded with jealous care against the scarcity of to-morrow. The very knowledge made us thirsty.

Ali and I worked at the last arrangements for our ride. We were penned here until sunset; and must reach Tell el Shehab, blow up the bridge, and get back east of the railway by dawn. This meant a ride of at least eighty miles in the thirteen hours of darkness, with an elaborate demolition thrown in. Such a performance was beyond the capacity of most of the Indians. They were not good riders, and had broken up their camels in the march from Akaba. An Arab by saving his beast, could bring it home in fair condition after hard work. The Indians had done their best; but the discipline of their cavalry training had tired out them and the animals in our easy stages.

So we picked out the six best riders and put them on the six best camels, with Hassan Shah, their officer and greatest-hearted man, to lead them. He decided that this little party would be fittest armed with just one Vickers gun. It was a very serious reduction of our offensive power. The more I looked at it, the less fortunate seemed the development of this Yarmuk plan of ours.

The Beni Sakhr were fighting men; but we distrusted the Serahin. So Ali and I decided to make the Beni Sakhr, under Fahad, our storming party. We would leave some Serahin to guard the camels while the others carried the blasting gelatine in our dismounted charge upon the bridge. To suit the hurried carriage down steep hill-sides in the dark we changed the explosive loads into thirty-pound lumps, which were put, for visibility, each lump into its own white bag. Wood undertook to repack the gelatine, and shared the rare headache all got from handling it. This helped pass the time.

My bodyguard had to be carefully distributed. One good rider was told off to each of the less expert local men, whose virtue was that they knew the country: the pairs so made were attached to one or other of my foreign liabilities, with instructions to keep close to him all night. Ali ibn el Hussein took six of his servants, and the party was completed by twenty Beni Sakhr and forty Serahin. We left the lame and weak camels behind at Abyadh in charge of the balance of our men, with instructions to get back to Abu Sawana before dawn to-morrow and wait there for our news. Two of my men developed sudden illnesses, which made them feel unable to ride with us. I excused them for the night, and afterward from all duties whatsoever.

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