Revolt of the Camels
"Duke! Duke! Wake up!"
The Duke was lying in bed, hugging his pillow. It was Saturday morning, he didn't have any chores, and his little brother Bob was trying to get him up to play ball or do something fun when all he wanted to do was sleep. Then he felt a big thick tongue slobbering all over his face. It was his dog, Duke, also trying to rouse him. That was where he had gotten his name, his real name as far as he was concerned, from spending so much time at Glendale firehouse No. 1 with his dog that the guys had started calling them Big Duke and Little Duke and the name had stuck. It seemed so long since he'd last seen his dog, ages. The Duke rolled over to give Big Duke a hug, but when he opened his eyes he was greeted by the homely face of a camel hovering just a few inches above his own.
"You all right, Duke? I think you knocked yourself out."
It was Omar, the talking camel, or whoever was inside. "Leave me alone," the Duke said, trying to roll away from this nightmare and return to the blissful state of unconsciousness he had so recently been in. "Go away."
"Are you sure? You look like you need a friend."
"Just go away. Please."
"What if someone sees you in this condition, a colleague or a fan, lying in a besotted heap only a few doors down from what has already become the most disreputable establishment west of the Sinai? What about your tall in the saddle image?"
"Fuck my image." The Duke was shocked to hear such words coming from his mouth, but it was true. Fuck his image, he didn't care anymore, he had reached his breaking point. To hell with all the people who really thought he was John Wayne, authentic western hero, straight shooting cowboy son of a gun who never missed, never fell off a horse, always got the girl, was never wrong, always right, could outfight anybody any time anywhere no matter what the odds, to hell with those idiots, how could they be so collectively gullible, though the Duke knew how they could be so foolish because he was a movie fan himself and knew their power on impressionable minds. Hadn't he had his own movie heroes growing up, cowboy stars like Tom Mix, William S. Hart, or especially Harry Carey, who he had tried to model himself after? They were still his idols, even now and always would be, that was something that would never change. How could he be ungrateful for the opportunity he'd been given to take their place, stand in their shoes, or boots, be even bigger than they had ever dreamed of being? It was just a moment of weakness that would pass, if only this damn camel would go away and stop bothering him.
"I want to help you," said Omar.
"Then leave me alone."
The Duke buried his head in his arms prepared to wait out the beast, then suddenly felt himself being lifted off the ground. "Hey, leggo! Put me down!"
Omar complied and the Duke dropped, landing on his hands and knees. He scrambled to his feet and confronted the animal. "What the hell is your problem?"
"I like you, Mr. Wayne. I want to be your friend."
Why did he have to put up with this? Wasn't he John Wayne, movie star, Hollywood legend. "Look, buddy, I don't know who or what you are, but if you would leave me alone, I would appreciate it. Go bother someone else."
"What do you mean, you can't?"
"I need your help."
"Too bad." The Duke started walking away, giving Omar the brush-off.
"Drinkwine sent me."
The Duke stopped. There was that name again, but this time he remembered where he had heard it and who it signified, that knock on his head had cleared his wits some. "Drinkwine?"
"I'm on his team."
"The C.I.A., silly. I'm on your side."
"You're a spy?"
"Shhh! Not so loud. In more correct terminology, I'm an asset. Are you willing to help your country?"
"Of course I am."
"Are you ready to die for it?"
"If need be."
"Good qualification. Drinkwine wants us to investigate a local subversive group. They're having a meeting tonight. We're supposed to attend it and report our findings."
"How are we going to get in?" the Duke asked, determined not to be buffaloed by a camel.
"I've already infiltrated their organization. You'll be my guest, a potential new recruit for the cause. Are you up for it?"
"Why me?" objected the Duke. "I'm an actor, not a spy. That's not my line of work."
"All spies are actors, pretending to be someone or something they are not. What better background or training could you have? Besides, you are John Wayne. Who better for a delicate mission to undermine his nation's enemies?"
The Duke couldn't argue with that. "But won't they recognize me? Who's going to believe that John Wayne would go over to the Reds?"
"They're not Reds. It's a different kind of subversive group, perhaps even more dangerous than Communists. I'm sure that they'll believe you want to join them. Trust me."
The Duke shook his head. "I don't know, pal. So this is just a disguise you're wearing?"
Omar smiled, a disconcerting effect for a camel. "That would be telling. I will say this much, however: there's not much the boys at Langley can't pull off when they put their minds to it."
Omar slowly got down, folding up his front legs first, then his hindquarters. "Hop on," said Omar. "It's not every camel who makes this offer, you know. We have a well-deserved reputation for being ill-tempered."
The Duke hesitated. He didn't especially like riding horses, so what was this experience going to be like? He eyeballed the creature's hump; he was supposed to sit on that? After another moment's hesitation, the Duke climbed aboard and found his seat not as awkward as he feared it would be.
"Just one more thing, Duke," cautioned Omar. "When we get to this meeting, it would be best if you just played along with everything I say or do. I know you're John Wayne, but you're going into unfamiliar territory, so it would be better if I took the lead. 'Kay?"
"Anything you say, pardner," the Duke replied, busy looking for stitches in Omar's costume or any sign at all that it was manmade, but unable to find any.
"Good. Hold on!"
Omar lurched to his feet nearly throwing the Duke, then exploded into a full gallop. The Duke grabbed onto a couple fistfuls of hair and skin on the creature's neck and held on for dear life as they bolted at breakneck speed through several narrow, winding pathways before leaving Ghadames behind for open desert. The Duke felt strongly tempted to ask Omar to slow down, beg him, even, but how would that look? Besides, he had the feeling the camel wouldn't respond to his entreaties anyway. Where was a stuntman when you needed one?
On and on Omar galloped at his furious pace, to God knew what destination not that the Duke cared, his only hope being that they would get there soon. The night seemed to be laughing at him, enjoying his predicament, and he grabbed Omar as tightly as he could in the hope that this would make Omar slow down, but the beast was impervious to his signal. The Duke felt his grip weakening. He just couldn't take this kind of exercise anymore, he was fifty years old, for Christ's sake. What was this damn camel trying to do, kill him? Of course it wasn't Omar's fault since he was John Wayne and he was supposed to be able to ride any four-legged creature or the devil himself with ease if need be, but in reality things just weren't that way, not the first time his image had worked against him.
Just as the Duke felt his last ounce of strength draining away, Omar slowed down and came to a halt. Drooped over the creature's neck, the Duke let himself slide off and landed on his back with a good jolt that he barely noticed, so grateful was he to have stopped moving.
"Sorry for being late, my brothers. I have brought him."
The Duke wondered who Omar was talking to, then realized that they were not alone. Out of the darkness came a small herd of camels, crowding around.
"This is the one you were telling us of?" one of the camels said.
"Yes, Salman," answered Omar. "John Wayne. He could be most valuable."
Salman lowered his head and sniffed the Duke thoroughly, reminding the Duke of a vacuum cleaner. "I admit that he smells like a camel, but he is a human. He is sympathetic to our cause?"
"More than that. Go ahead, Duke, get up and show them your walk."
The Duke got to his feet, still woozy from his ride. He looked at Omar.
"Go ahead, Duke, don't be shy. Show everybody the way you walk."
Why not? At this point his resistance to any request, no matter how strange, was practically nil. The Duke walked through the camels, then walked back.
"See?" said Omar.
"I'll be damned," said Salman. "You are right, he is one of us. Only another camel could walk that way. By some strange alchemy, he has become human."
"I figure that he was a camel in a past life," Omar said excitedly, "Or he has a camel in the woodpile. Either way, once a camel, always a camel. Right?"
"He could indeed be extremely valuable to us," said Salman. "This might be the break we've been waiting for."
The Duke had heard about enough. "Who are you guys, a bunch of Commies in camel suits?"
"Not at all," said Salman. "We are camels, just like you are, though apparently you have forgotten your heritage, understandable considering the shock you must be suffering. Let me try to remind you of your past." Salman made a guttural noise, clearing his throat. "For centuries we have been beasts of burden, despised, ignored, abused, mercilessly exploited for our meat, milk, and stamina, our only reward the lash of the whip, kick of the boot, or sharp point of a stick. Have we not suffered enough? Are we not also the sacred creatures of Allah, put on this earth for his purposes? Have not our very bones been used as tablets for his words as given to the Messenger? Our oppression has lasted too long. It is time for it to end!"
There were gurgling honks of approval and foot stamping by the other camels in support of Salman's statements. "Surely it is not our destiny to be held down forever," Salman continued. "We will rise up, casting off our servitude. Our previous acts of rebellion have been insignificant, spontaneous demonstrations of general recalcitrance, biting, spitting, but that will change. Every day we are becoming more organized. With your help, John, or more to the point, with the help of your country---you are an American, I believe, according to Omar?---with the help of your country, John, we camels can finally take our place as rulers of this land, until our dominion extends to all desert areas of the world whose environments we are so ideally suited for. Is that not justice? Today Ghadames, tomorrow Arabia and beyond!"
"In other words, Duke, if you scratch our backs, we'll scratch yours," said Omar. "There's a lot of oil under these sands, and if you help us, you can have it all, every last drop, since as camels we have no use for it. Isn't that logical?
There was nothing logical about this situation at all, the Duke wanted to say, but then something caught his eye. It was his hairpiece, resting on Salman's hump. Regardless of the consequences, he stepped forward and snatched it off. "That's mine," the Duke said, brushing off the toupee and tucking it in a coat pocket. He wanted to put it back on, but not with everybody looking.
Suddenly there was a loud series of honks that sounded like an alarm. "Oh-oh," said Salman. "Either Jamal has gotten lucky, or we've got unwanted company. It's time to leave. It's been a pleasure to meet you, John Wayne, you're all camel despite your grotesque appearance. I hope we can do business together. Until we meet again."
Salman and the other camels started milling around nervously as if they wanted to leave, but weren't sure which way to bolt. "Good job," Omar said to the Duke sotto voce. "You're a natural for this kind of work. Hope I didn't alarm you by pretending to be on their side. Can I give you a lift to town?"
The Duke shook his head no, remembering his last ride.
"Suit yourself, Big Guy. Keep the faith!"
Salman bleated, then charged into the darkness, the other camels following, including Omar. The Duke watched them go, then lowered himself to the desert floor. Maybe if he just sat here for a spell, things would begin to make sense. Maybe not, but what did he have to lose?
He looked up at the stars. That was one thing about the desert, even this one, nowhere were the stars more beautiful. He almost felt as if he were back on the ol' prairie, in pioneer times when men were men, women were women, and everything was in its place, or at least seemed to be. Simpler times. The Duke closed his eyes and wondered when he would see them again.