"I do not like the idea of sitting still waiting to die. Let us make it quick." — Von Stalhein, in Biggles - Foreign Legionnaire
There was nothing to eat, nothing to do, after one of the men with what seemed an unnecessary amount of noise pulled up a bucket of water from the well. Per Biggles' order, Ginger, watched the inside doorway that one of the Kurds had come through, while Von Stalhein guarded the outer exit.
They likely would have continued that silent duty for some time, the dawn having come and gone, and relentless midday sun once more baking the flat outside the castle, if nature hadn't sent the events down an unpredictable turn.
Somewhat mesmerized by his watch of the shadows in the inside doorway, Ginger snapped to at the commotion behind him. A cut-off German exclamation. By the time he turned, Biggles was on his feet from where he'd been resting against the wall, looking at von Stalhein. The other man by the opposite wall was clutching his own arm, his handsome face a grimace of pain. A second later, he moved, finding a pen knife out of seeming nowhere, and sending it at the floor where it struck a small yellow scorpion in its attempt to scutter away.
"You were stung?" Biggles strode over to von Stalhein, who went back to clutching a small wound on his arm, just above the wrist. Biggles didn't need a confirmation, it was evidently so, for von Stalhein was never known for lack of composure, yet he still visibly struggled to overcome the pain. Scorpion stings could be agonizing, and Ginger shuddered, quickly glancing about him to spot if he was in any danger himself, but the stone floor of the castle fortress they found themselves in was empty.
Biggles was studying the scorpion that von Stalhein had pinned down with his penknife. From his watch position, Ginger could only see it was yellow and at most three inches in length. "Everything alright there?" he called.
"I don't know," Biggles answered slowly, crouching to peer at the dead scorpion. "It looks venomous. The claws aren't very large, which means it hunts by poisoning and paralyzing its victim." He turned his eyes to von Stalhein, who was still clutching at his arm, and rose from his crouch. "How do you feel?"
"Like I've been shot," von Stalhein pressed out, his mouth in a strained line. He showed the arm that had been covering the sting wound, and even from where he stood, Ginger could see the skin swollen red. The scorpion was undoubtedly venomous based on the reaction.
"Ginger, your penknife!" Biggles called. His own had been used to kill a different scorpion earlier, and wasn't clean enough to use on a wound like Ginger understood to be the intention. Ginger motioned for one of the other men to relieve him in the watch, so he could leave his post. The remaining man took over from von Stalhein, not taking his eyes off the the outer doorway that led out to the bridge.
Ginger came over with an penknife stretched handle first. With an oath under his breath, von Stalhein grabbed the clean penknife from him, opening it.
He made quick incisions around the wound in his arm, making no sound but going pale with the strain as a stream of blood rushed from the incision to the floor. Then von Stalhein brought his wrist to the mouth and sucked at it, spitting the mix of poison and blood out to the side. It was a risky procedure, but they had no other alternative and he could hardly poison himself twice. There was little else to try; their way out was cut off, and in the castle they had nothing but water and guns with them — and certainly no medical supplies.
Presently, Biggles went over and brought the bucket of water closer to where von Stalhein leaned against the wall, bent over his arm, continuing to suck on the wound and spit it out. "Wash it with water," Biggles said. The well-water had turned out to be a surprisingly clean quality, from an underground stream — much to their relief when they'd first had to drink it many hours ago. There could be little concern that it could introduce a pathogen since they've been drinking it all along.
Von Stalhein followed his direction, pulling a clean handkerchief from a breast pocket. With Biggles tilting the bucket of water to pour it on the arm, he washed and cleaned the wound. Afterward he pressed the wet handkerchief to the incision to stem the flow of blood somewhat.
"Maybe put a tourniquet on it?" Ginger suggested.
Von Stalhein shook his head, and then seemed dizzy with it. His eyes roamed quickly around the room, as if blurry and unseeing.
Biggles caught him under the elbow with a firm hand and helped to lower von Stalhein to the ground to sit. His lips pressed together in a hard line.
"Won't help," Biggles said of the tourniquet, "as the venom already spread in the nervous system." His voice seemed remarkably calm under the circumstances. "And the restricted blood-flow can make you lose a limb. Let's take off your watch in case the arm swells up," he told von Stalhein, and proceeded to do just that, unlocking the leather clasp of the watch around the wrist with steady hands, and dropping the watch itself into von Stalhein's pocket once he took it off.
"Put a cool compress on it to help with the pain," he said to von Stalhein, who nodded stiffly. Ginger went to pull up another bucket of water from the well, and poured some so von Stalhein was able to soak his handkerchief in fresh cool water, pressing it to the wound. His arm lay across his lap, below the heart level. He stayed sitting like that, breathing in and out with forced regularity.
"Remain calm," Biggles said. "We don't know yet how severe the venom is. Most scorpion stings don't lead to death in a healthy adult man."
Von Stalhein shut his eyes for a brief moment in a strangely weary gesture. "I have seen these before," he said quietly, with a touch of sardonic humour sparking and just as quickly dying in his voice. He turned to stare at the yellow scorpion pinned to the floor. "They were called Palestine yellow scorpion. Colloquially known as deathstalker." Ginger swallowed at hearing the name; it spelled nothing good.
"Venomous?" Biggles asked tightly, watching von Stalhein's pale face.
"Highly." Von Stalhein replied, his eyes on the handkerchief he held to the wounded arm. "One of— the most venomous species of scorpions on Earth." His stumble while speaking didn't go unnoticed by Biggles, who set his jaw and said nothing.
Von Stalhein turned out to be correct, and over the next hours they observed as his condition worsened. No matter how much von Stalhein tried to keep his iron-like control, he couldn't hide the beads of perspiration that stood out on his pale forehead, nor the tiny jerks of his arm, that grew into what seemed like shivers across his body.
There was nothing they could do. As another hour ticked past, Biggles paced the room once, then stilled himself, turning to watch von Stalhein with an unreadable expression. Von Stalhein was breathing rapidly, as if he was finishing a marathon, rather than sitting on the floor, pressing a fresh cool compress to the wound.
Biggles walked over and crouched next to him. "Let's see it."
With a barely hidden wince, von Stalhein showed him the arm that was now swollen up at the wrist. After allowing a momentary examination, he set the compress back against it and turned his head away; the topic was clearly closed in his mind.
"It's getting worse, isn't it?" Ginger asked.
He received no response.
"We are all dead men anyway," Ginger answered the silence somewhat dourly. Without rescue, eventually they would die of starvation. Before that happened, Ginger thought he just might go outside and see how far he could get.
"You will likely go down in a shootout," von Stalhein's voice was steady where he sat, even if he had to pause to draw some shaky breaths before continuing. His face was pale but his eyes tracked them. "In a matter of hours, I will suffocate or my heart will give out. On the whole, I'd much rather eat a bullet."
Privately, Ginger understood the sentiment, even if he wasn't about to voice that opinion after seeing Biggles' face harden.
Meanwhile, von Stalhein suddenly seemed to come to a decision. With his uninjured left hand he went to take his Luger that had been lying at his side on the stone floor.
As if instantly reading his intention, Biggles moved to set a hand on his wrist, saying quietly, "Don't." His mouth was set in a straight line and he looked rather pale himself.
Von Stalhein stared at him, and after a moment, moved the gun in Biggles' direction, handle first. Biggles only shook his head. "I won't do it either." He glanced towards the outside doorway for a moment, to where the bridge lay. "There's still a remote chance for us to be relieved."
"Relieved? By whom?" von Stalhein spat harshly.
"Two friends of mine. You know them." Biggles stared at the gun between them, lying listless in von Stalhein's hand.
When he reached out to take it, the move startled a sharp glance from von Stalhein. Ginger was surprised himself, since he had been certain Biggles wasn't prepared to shoot the man in cold blood, even to put him out of his misery. Judging by the swiftly hidden surprise, it seemed despite himself von Stalhein had come to believe the same.
Indeed, what Biggles did instead, as he rose taking von Stalhein's Luger with him, was turn his back on von Stalhein and say in a cold voice, "I know I said you can pick your own fate, but I won't allow such a pointless end." His eyes glittered when he met Ginger's across the room. Ginger for his part nodded, in unspoken support. His mind flashed back to the ruthless way von Stalhein had thrown the body of one of their enemies from the castle to the bottom of the ravine. Von Stalhein was clearly prepared for the same fate himself, which to Ginger showed once more the difference between Biggles and the Prussian soldier.
"Then let me go out there with a weapon," von Stalhein said to Biggles' back, cool and intense. "I shall take some of them with me to Hell."
"Shut up about it," Biggles snapped without a look at him, and motioned for Ginger to come over to the other end of the room. They stayed away from the archway of the doorway so as not to draw enemy fire. The other men continued to watch the two opposing doorways of the castle, while Biggles and Ginger conferred by the wall with a small slit-like window, a couple of inches wide. The slits weren't big enough for a man to so much as pass a hand through, but they could be used to see outside.
"If Algy was in that Dragon that flew by, he would have assumed we are all dead. I know I would in his place," Biggles said. "We must rely only on ourselves."
"What can we do?" Ginger said, watching him losing himself in thought. He knew Biggles was calculating any moves they could make. "We can hardly walk across the desert. Staying here we had a chance to outlast the Kurds' interest in us, but..." He shot a glare back towards the man sitting at the other end. "Trust von Stalhein to get stung with one of the few scorpions that are lethal to humans!"
"The man does have abominable luck," Biggles muttered. He smacked the bottom of a fist against the wall and pressed his mouth to his knuckles, lost in thought as he peered out onto the endless desert. Ginger didn't see a way for any of them to survive this situation, but von Stalhein in particular had hours, not days. "Still, he's managed to survive so far," Biggles was saying, his eyes distant on the horizon, "that has to mean something."
He and Biggles both startled when von Stalhein let out a harsh cough. Biggles abandoned his brooding watch of the horizon and strode over to him, crouching nearby, but making sure all the weapons stayed out of von Stalhein's reach. At Biggles' questioning look, von Stalhein managed a weary comment. "My chest is like a balloon ready to burst under the heavy weight. It—It grows worse." Silence reigned for a time. "Bigglesworth, my death is assured. Let me at least go out in a way worthy of a soldier. I'd rather fight."
Biggles studied his face as if searching for something. Their gazes remained locked for such a prolonged moment that the silence around grew unbearably tense.
"Okay," Biggles said quietly, when whatever it was they conferred about without words seemed settled. He sighed, shook his head a little and seemed to huff a laugh at some inner joke. "Okay," Biggles repeated in a half-whisper. He lifted his voice to be heard across their room as he turned to them. "Everyone who wants to stay can still stay here, and hope to profit from waiting for the Kurds to leave, or for relief to come. Von Stalhein and I will attempt to find a way off these grounds."
Von Stalhein jerked, his free hand curled into a fist. He was staring at the side of Bigglesworth's face in silence, and if Ginger was not mistaken, with something that almost resembled wonder. Perhaps the answer had finally been revealed to him to whatever question he'd sought whenever the two confronted one another over and over again. For his part, Ginger found that he wasn't overly surprised by the decision by Biggles to accompany von Stalhein on the audacious attempt to break through the enemy lines. Any personal sentiment aside, Biggles had never been one for idleness, and for all his cool composure as they had waited in their hiding place, he must have also been aching for a chance to spring into action.
"If we surprise them, we may be able to grab some of their horses. How far we could get isn't clear, but we won't see until we try," Biggles said. "You can bet your sweet life the guards outside are losing interest in us and will be distracted. They know we have nowhere to go. They could even leave us here and go back to their camp, in which case we'll lose the opportunity to steal their horses." He glanced towards the doorway. "Sun's coming down — dusk is perhaps the best we can hope for in terms of cover."
"We won't be equipped and we don't know the terrain," von Stalhein spoke steadily, sounding strangely re-energized despite this. "I had hoped— I expected to take some of them with me." He shook his head as if to clear it, voice trailing off in sudden confusion. Biggles watched the attack silently. A spasm rolled through von Stalhein's form leaving him taking small shuddering breaths in its wake.
"Easy now," Biggles murmured. One of his hands clenched into a fist at his side. He had never been one to take others' suffering glibly, not even an enemy's.
"It passed. I'm alright," von Stalhein responded wearily, but Biggles didn't look particularly reassured.
"Ginger," Biggles looked over at him and his voice was grave. "I can't give you any orders about this. You decide on what to do next yourself."
Ginger nodded. He would, of course, follow Biggles. He said as much, making the stressed line of Biggles' mouth cant in a resemblance of a smile. The other two men voiced their decision to remain behind and cover their progress from the castle, which was a reasonable position to take.
Biggles got up to his feet, and stretched a hand out to von Stalhein to help him rise. After a moment's hesitation on his part, von Stalhein took it, and let himself be pulled up to a standing position. There, he leaned against one of the walls with a shoulder, catching his breath. Biggles allowed him to get his bearings, before stretching von Stalhein's loaded Luger back to him. The man took it with a nod of thanks.
For a moment the three of them stood in silence, knowing this for the last instance of calm. Both von Stalhein and Ginger looked to Biggles. "Alright," Biggles said eventually, voice almost preternaturally calm. "Here's what we're going to do—"
Who knows what their escape would have amounted to, for in that moment, the silence was broken, first, by wild cries on the hillside, and then, a moment or two later, by the drone of aircraft.
"It's Algy," said Ginger, striving to remain composed.
"If my eyes don't deceive me, I can see six machines," announced von Stalhein from the other side of the doorway, next to Biggles. Ginger hadn't seen it happen, he'd been too preoccupied with what was going on outside, but von Stalhein's good arm now lay across Biggles' shoulders, who was helping him keep upright with his own arm around the man's middle. Von Stalhein looked curiously uncomfortable; Biggles looked unperturbed. Ginger didn't comment on this development, knowing it would help none to point out that von Stalhein had often tried to kill them. Biggles had his own considerations when it came to von Stalhein, and presently looked satisfied to have the man cautiously leaning on him. As Ginger studied the two of them, von Stalhein's cheeks flushed slightly under his stare and the man dropped his eyes, but he didn't move away.
They watched their rescue come with the drone of Harts bombers, scattering their enemies to the hillside.
"You'd better come with us," said Biggles to the man at his side, settling von Stalhein's arm more firmly across his own shoulders. "We will take you to the hospital in Baghdad, where they surely have antivenom for the scorpion sting. Best bring the dead scorpion with, for identification." He nodded at Ginger.
Biggles helped von Stalhein along as they slowly made their way down the few stairs outside and headed for the bridge. Ginger looked forward to seeing Algy's face when they all came into view. Of all the outcomes they could have expected when they took on this job, what looked like a semi-permanent a truce with von Stalhein wasn't one of them.
As they walked and von Stalhein learned they could move more easily if he let go of his pride and leaned heavily on the other man, Biggles continued casually, "Our friends may have some cigarettes. I'm sure you can do with some. Anyway, I can."