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What took place during that fearful night neither of them knew, but, on Tuesday morning, under those showers of heat which the sun poured down upon them, the unfortunate men felt their limbs gradually drying up, and when Joe attempted to rise he found it impossible.
He looked around him. In the car, the doctor, completely overwhelmed, sat with his arms folded on his breast, gazing with idiotic fixedness upon some imaginary point in space. Kennedy was frightful to behold. He was rolling his head from right to left like a wild beast in a cage.
All at once, his eyes rested on the butt of his rifle, which jutted above the rim of the car.
"Ah!" he screamed, raising himself with a superhuman effort.
Desperate, mad, he snatched at the weapon, and turned the barrel toward his mouth.
"Kennedy!" shouted Joe, throwing himself upon his friend.
"Let go! hands off!" moaned the Scot, in a hoarse, grating voice--and then the two struggled desperately for the rifle.
"Let go, or I'll kill you!" repeated Kennedy. But Joe clung to him only the more fiercely, and they had been contending thus without the doctor seeing them for many seconds, when, suddenly the rifle went off. At the sound of its discharge, the doctor rose up erect, like a spectre, and glared around him.
But all at once his glance grew more animated; he extended his hand toward the horizon, and in a voice no longer human shrieked:
"There! there--off there!"
There was such fearful force in the cry that Kennedy and Joe released each other, and both looked where the doctor pointed.
The plain was agitated like the sea shaken by the fury of a tempest; billows of sand went tossing over each other amid blinding clouds of dust; an immense pillar was seen whirling toward them through the air from the southeast, with terrific velocity; the sun was disappearing behind an opaque veil of cloud whose enormous barrier extended clear to the horizon, while the grains of fine sand went gliding together with all the supple ease of liquid particles, and the rising dust-tide gained more and more with every second.
Ferguson's eyes gleamed with a ray of energetic hope.
"The simoom!" he exclaimed.
"The simoom!" repeated Joe, without exactly knowing what it meant.
"So much the better!" said Kennedy, with the bitterness of despair. "So much the better--we shall die!"
"So much the better!" echoed the doctor, "for we shall live!" and, so saying, he began rapidly to throw out the sand that encumbered the car.
At length his companions understood him, and took their places at his side.
"And now, Joe," said the doctor, "throw out some fifty pounds of your ore, there!"
Joe no longer hesitated, although he still felt a fleeting pang of regret. The balloon at once began to ascend.
"It was high time!" said the doctor.
The simoom, in fact, came rushing on like a thunderbolt, and a moment later the balloon would have been crushed, torn to atoms, annihilated. The awful whirlwind was almost upon it, and it was already pelted with showers of sand driven like hail by the storm.