Circling, sweeping, silently, swiftly, with that rapid spring, that marvelous whirlwind of force, that is of Africa, and of Africa alone, the tribes had rushed down in the darkness of night, lightly as a kite rushes through the gloom of the dawn. For once the vigilance of the invader served him naught; for once the Frankish camp was surprised off its guard. While the air was still chilly with the breath of the night, while the first gleam of morning had barely broken through the mists of the east, while the picket-fires burned through the dusky gloom, and the sentinels and vedettes paced slowly to and fro, and circled round, hearing nothing worse than the stealthy tread of the jackal, or the muffled flight of a night-bird, afar in the south a great dark cloud had risen, darker than the brooding shadows of the earth and sky.
The cloud swept onward, like a mass of cirrhi, in those shadows shrouded. Fleet as though wind-driven, dense as though thunder-charged, it moved over the plains. As it grew nearer and nearer, it grew grayer, a changing mass of white and black that fused, in the obscurity, into a shadow color; a dense array of men and horses flitting noiselessly like spirits, and as though guided alone by one rein and moved alone by one breath and one will; not a bit champed, not a linen-fold loosened, not a shiver of steel was heard; as silently as the winds of the desert sweep up northward over the plains, so they rode now, host upon host of the warriors of the soil.
The outlying vedettes, the advancing sentinels, had scrutinized so long through the night every wavering shade of cloud and moving form of buffalo in the dim distance, that their sleepless eyes, strained and aching, failed to distinguish this moving mass that was so like the brown plains and starless sky that it could scarce be told from them. The night, too, was bitter; northern cold cut hardly chillier than this that parted the blaze of one hot day from the blaze of another. The sea-winds were blowing cruelly keen, and men who at noon gladly stripped to their shirts, shivered now where they lay under canvas.
Awake while his comrades slept around him, Cecil was stretched, half unharnessed. The foraging duty of the past twenty-four hours had been work harassing and heavy, inglorious and full of fatigue. The country round was bare as a table-rock; the water-courses poor, choked with dust and stones, unfed as yet by the rains or snows of the approaching winter. The horses suffered sorely, the men scarce less. The hay for the former was scant and bad; the rations for the latter often cut off by flying skirmishers of the foe. The campaign, so far as it had gone, had been fruitless, yet had cost largely in human life. The men died rapidly of dysentery, disease, and the chills of the nights, and had severe losses in countless obscure skirmishes, that served no end except to water the African soil with blood.